Franckly speaking: When you turn 65 you get a big chunk of homework

By From page A6 | July 02, 2012

A friend asked me what it was like to turn 65. “It’s such a big date in our culture,” she said.

She was giving me a chance to express sadness about aging, but I hadn’t had time to feel sad; I was too busy signing up for Medicare.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, you haven’t signed up yet.

Early on, I looked up from the paperwork and moaned to my (younger) husband, “People need a college degree to understand this.” By the time I was done, I had decided a graduate degree would be preferable — a doctorate in math.

I started off as most people do, assuming that I simply needed to tell the government that I was turning 65. Maybe that’s true if you’ve got an employer-sponsored plan that continues into retirement. It’s also true if you have no money to spend on health care. You sign up for Part A and you’re done; everything else costs money.

But Part A only covers catastrophe — hospitalization, hospice and some forms of rehabilitation. I wanted more.

Of course, as soon as money is involved, vultures fly in. It turns out that insurance companies are intimately involved with all the other parts of Medicare (B, C and D) and, although they’re not allowed to call you, they write.

It’s enough to make you feel young again: you receive piles of seductive mail every day, although this time it’s not from prospective colleges. You don’t feel as popular as a bouncy co-ed — but close.

Upon reflection, however, the letters made me wary. I felt that if I threw these companies a bone (for example, if I returned a post card) they would pester me by phone.

So I tried to make sense of the mail on my own. With the exception of one well-written 10-page brochure from Anthem Blue Cross, everything seemed biased.

Fortunately, I remembered that the Davis Senior Center sponsors the HICAP (Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy) Program where intelligent, well-trained and sainted volunteers help newbies figure things out. The same service exists in other counties (

I met with a lovely woman, perhaps 10 years older than I, who told me she does this work to keep her brain sharp and proved it.

The government booklet she gave me uses asterisks, boldface, and blue highlights, and includes a 200-item index, 22 pages of detailed charts, and a glossary with 27 terms, including several that require whole paragraphs of explanation, like “life time reserve days” and  “creditable prescription drug coverage.”

What a delight that all this material has been condensed into a mere 148 pages.

The charts, specific to Northern California, have 12 columns and hundreds of numbers, some expressed as percentages, some as dollars.

My job was to make comparisons (B versus C, for example) and then choose an insurance company. This sounded do-able until the government booklet warned, “Different insurance companies may charge different premiums for the same exact policy.”

There’s more. The government booklet also warns that if I don’t choose Part D within a few months, I incur the following penalty:

“Currently, the late enrollment penalty is calculated by multiplying 1 percent of the ‘national base beneficiary premium’ ($32.34 in 2011) times the number of full, uncovered months that you were eligible but didn’t join a Medicare drug plan and went without other creditable prescription drug coverage. The final amount is rounded to the nearest $.10 and added to your monthly premium. Since the ‘national base beneficiary premium’ may increase each year, the penalty amount may also increase each year.”

Come again?

Another mystifying phenomenon is called the “doughnut hole,” which would take me at least 300 words to explain — if I understood it.

“How do people make these choices?” I asked my HICAP advisor. “It’s so hard.”

“Most people sign up for what their friends sign up for,” she told me and sighed.

Eventually, I made my decisions and received my Medicare card. I’m happy to have it, but I must tell you that it offers incontrovertible proof that no matter how dumb I am about Medicare, the government is dumber.

Here’s why.

The card has on it my official identification number. What is that number? It’s my Social Security number (the whole thing) followed by one letter.

This means that the piece of information you’re supposed to keep more private than prayer is printed right on your card. Every frail and/or elderly person who carries his or her Medicare card in a wallet or purse is at risk of identity theft at all times.


Still, despite this flaw, and despite all the reading, studying and review it took me to sign up, I’m grateful to Medicare for providing better insurance than I’ve had in years.

Do I get an honorary doctorate with that?

Marion Franck is a columnist for the Davis Enterprise. She is a part-time resident of El Dorado County.

Marion Franck

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