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Milestone Birthday: Medicare Turns 50 This Week

More than 600,000 Oregonians rely on Medicare for their health coverage, and the Senior Health Insurance Benefits Assistance (SHIBA) program helps thousands of them navigate a complex system. Credit: AlexRaths/iStockphoto.com.
More than 600,000 Oregonians rely on Medicare for their health coverage, and the Senior Health Insurance Benefits Assistance (SHIBA) program helps thousands of them navigate a complex system. Credit: AlexRaths/iStockphoto.com.
July 29, 2015

PORTLAND, Ore. - Medicare has a big birthday this week. The federal health insurance program for older Americans is turning 50.

Before the program was created, about half of all seniors in the United States were uninsured. Today, the system has more than 55 million enrollees, including more than 600,000 in Oregon. It isn't always easy to navigate the different types of Medicare coverage, and Oregon's Senior Health Insurance Benefits Assistance (SHIBA) program gets up to 2,500 calls a month.

SHIBA program coordinator Lisa Emerson said it's rewarding work.

"I'm very proud to work with Medicare, and it's there to help people who have worked very hard over the years, to pay into a program to assist them with their insurance," she said. "I see it help people in many ways, every day. I hope it's around for many years to come."

The Medicare alphabet includes Part A for hospitalization, Part B for outpatient services and doctor visits, Part C for so-called "Medicare Advantage" plans that substitute for original Medicare, and Part D for prescription drug coverage. There have been efforts in Congress in recent years to replace Medicare and let people purchase private insurance, but they haven't gotten far.

Emerson said people approaching the Medicare coverage age of 65 ought to be doing research now about how it works. For anyone on the program, she added, it helps to round up all the necessary information before visiting with a SHIBA counselor. Prescription coverage questions are a good example.

"To help make informed comparisons," she said, "we have to have a prescription drug list, the most current - the name of the prescription drug, generic or name brand; we need to know the quantity per month and the dosage."

Her advice to Medicare enrollees is to not be complacent about coverage. The plans from third-party providers change a little every year, and it's worth comparing plans to make sure yours is the best fit for your needs. The open-enrollment period to make changes starts in mid-October.

The SHIBA Hotline is 800-722-4134; the website is here. General Medicare information is at medicare.gov.

A rally will be held to commemorate 50 years of the Medicare program at noon Thursday, at Terry Shrunk Plaza, Third and Madison streets, in Portland.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR