Medicare Offers More Open Enrollment Time for Seniors Who Call Today
Only for seniors who contact any of several sources of assistance before close
of business Wednesday and leave messages
By Susan Jaffe, KHN
Dec. 7, 2011 - Federal officials are extending the Dec. 7 deadline for three days for some people who have had trouble
enrolling in a Medicare prescription drug or private health plan because of the crush of last-minute sign-ups.
A spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid said the "increased flexibility" is limited only to seniors who
contact any of several sources of assistance on or before the close of business Wednesday and leave messages because they are unable to get
through to sign up.
Those groups include: counselors with the government-funded
State Health Insurance Information Program (SHIP), and other Medicare-partner organizations
such as the Medicare Rights Center, local agencies on aging, and the National Council on Aging.
Calls to Medicare's toll-free information line, 800-633-4227 can be made until midnight tonight.
If seniors leave messages, then starting on Thursday, those beneficiaries will be called back and will receive
assistance. All "call-back enrollments" must be completed by 12:01 a.m. Sunday, the spokesman said.
Seniors can only get extra time if they get on a call-back list. If they reach a live person, today's deadline applies
and they should be prepared to make a decision.
"It is critical that people with Medicare who want to make a change in their coverage act today," said Marilyn Tavenner,
Medicare's acting administrator. "We are being as flexible as possible but time is of the essence."
But there was some confusion today. Several people who called the Medicare information number on Wednesday for details
about the extension said they were told there would be none.
As recently as 1 p.m., a recorded message simply reminded callers about
Wednesday's deadline: "We are currently experiencing longer than normal wait times as callers decide about their plan choices before the end
of the open enrollment period on Dec. 7. If your call is not related to open enrollment, you may wish to call back next week."
A puzzled SHIP counselor in Massachusetts didn't receive instructions on how the extension would work until the early
"We are committed to providing Medicare beneficiaries with the information and time they need to make these important
decisions about their care," said Brian Cook, a Medicare spokesman.
Gina Upchurch, executive director of Senior PharmAssist, which helps seniors in Durham, N.C., choose drug plans and
Medicare Advantage health plans, said many seniors have been seeking help in recent days. "Our phones have been ringing off the hook," she
Some SHIP counselors said the late rush has been complicated by sporadic problems with the government's "plan finder"
website and call center. The website allows a user to type in a Zip code, drugs, and preferred pharmacy, and the plan finder produces a list
of plans available in the area that cover those drugs.
But Medicare officials denied that any technical glitches affected the decision to extend the enrollment period. However,
officials assured SHIP counselors in e-mails on Monday and Tuesday that website problems would be resolved.
More people enrolled on Monday than on any other day since enrollment for 2012 plans began Oct. 15, according to Medicare
Upchurch said that in the past few days, about two dozen appointments at Senior PharmAssist were canceled when counselors
couldn't use the plan finder because it was slow or not functional at times.
In Arlington, Va., SHIP counselor John Glowacky encountered similar problems when he tried to help his clients.
"Yesterday the website was absolutely worthless," he said Tuesday evening. "You couldn't do your job. Today was smooth
sailing, and we'll see what tomorrow brings."
But some seniors' advocates said all beneficiaries should be entitled to the extra enrollment time.
"There ought to be recourse across the board, not just for those who were fortunate enough to find assistance from SHIPs,"
said Judith Stein, executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, a consumer group based in Conn.
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