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Intern Stories: Increasing health insurance literacy, one senior at a time

It’s “Fish-Fry Friday” at the Lincoln County Council on Aging (LCCOA). There is a large group gathered in the cafeteria for a morning fitness class, good food, and good conversation, but fish and friends aren’t the only perks offered by LCCOA. Lincoln County seniors come to LCCOA for expert advice on Medicare.

My cousin, Sandy Ashurst is the Medicare counselor at LCCOA.  She meets one-on-one with the seniors of Lincoln County to discuss their Medicare needs free of charge.

Sandy began volunteering with LCCOA by delivering meals to residents who are not able to leave their homes. She was later appointed as a board member, where she noticed the need for a Medicare counselor in the area.

In her three years as a Medicare consultant, Sandy has helped countless Lincoln County seniors enroll in the Medicare system. Sandy’s work is important, especially if you consider that we have one of the most complex health care systems. In fact, a recent survey showed that seniors with low incomes, limited education, and poor health, are unaware of when to enroll and need help choosing a plan. This ability to understand, get and use health insurance is known as health insurance literacy.

Sandy finds that the Medicare language used in doctors’ offices can often be confusing for seniors. During an appointment, Sandy can answer any questions they may have in a comfortable setting. Seniors can make an appointment with Sandy at any time to discuss medical bills, prescription costs, or their coverage plans.

To help clients understand Medicare terms Sandy says she relates the information to something familiar: “For example, everyone has to have car insurance. They understand “out of pocket costs” for car insurance. It’s no different for health insurance,” said Sandy.

Sandy uses health literacy tricks she’s learned to simplify Medicare plans and improve understanding. For example, to explain different coverage choices in the Medicare handout, she keeps clients focused on one option at a time. She numbers each plan option to separate them and makes notes on the handout.

The client can then go over their health care needs with Sandy and, together, they can choose the best plan and enroll. Sandy also suggests to all of her clients to write down questions they might have as the think of them, so they remember to ask her at their next meeting.

Sandy’s advice to those new to Medicare is to know their choices and options: “It is critical to evaluate your choices and utilized them. Seriously review your information. Think about it, talk about it with family,” she said.

About the Author: Stephanie Behlmann is an intern at HLM and an MPH student at Benedictine University in Illinois.

Learn more

  • Older Adults: Why is Health Literacy Important (CDC)

  • Improving Health Literacy for Older Adults


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