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"Stay On the Line for Further Options?"

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Monday, March 10, 2008   

Portland, OR – Senior citizens have until the end of March to sign up for Medicare's "Part B" health insurance, but many in Oregon say they're unable to get their questions answered on the 1-800-MEDICARE hotline.

Senator Gordon Smith has sent a letter demanding better customer service from Medicare after his staffers found wait times averaging 16 minutes, with some more than half an hour; as well as confusing or inaccurate information when they finally got through in test calls.

Mark Noonan, a program specialist for the group "Elders in Action," often calls Medicare on behalf of his senior clients, and isn't surprised by the results of the test calls.

"[The complex phone tree]is just incredibly frustrating for me, but for a senior, it just really takes everything out of 'em, and they end up giving up. It causes them lots of problems as far as their medical bills, and it just adds some exasperation to their lives."

Noonan suggests people with Medicare questions contact their local senior center for an appointment with an advocate from Oregon's "Senior Health Insurance Benefit Assistance" program (SHIBA). Pat Rieke is a SHIBA volunteer. She explains that Medicare options often are easier to explain in person, but those who decide to brave the federal hotline should be prepared.

"If you need to call Medicare, just be patient and realize that, just like you, there are thousands and thousands of other people that have questions that need to be answered. So, get a cup of coffee or tea and a good book!"

SHIBA also has a hotline: 1-800-722-4134.

Medicare officials have responded to Sen. Smith's queries by explaining the 1-800-MEDICARE hotline is getting 15 percent more calls, but has not received the funding increase it needs in order reduce call waiting times. Answers to some Medicare questions may be found on the agency's Web site: www.medicare.gov.




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