Healthy Aging
Building the Capacity of Health Advocates Leads to Better Information for Seniors

igh-profile changes to the Medicare program, such as the new prescription drug discount card, receive lots of attention. But many other policy changes to this complex federal program are implemented throughout the year—with little fanfare— that address benefits and coverage, Medicare HMOs and supplemental programs. Since each change impacts communities in diverse ways, TCWF Grantee California Health Advocates (CHA) works to ensure that timely and accurate information is readily available.

In March 2003, TCWF awarded CHA a three-year grant of $150,000 to establish a centralized office in Sacramento to sustain the provision of Medicare education and advocacy services to its statewide network of agencies. These local agencies, called HICAPs (Health Insurance and Counseling Advocacy Programs), are staffed by volunteers who respond to telephone inquiries and offer face-to-face counseling about the Medicare program for beneficiaries and their families.

“With our new office, CHA is better equipped to provide our training and support,” said Clare Smith, CHA president and CEO. “We have hired an office manager and are improving our computer and telephone systems. We are also working to standardize our training materials and are looking at setting up some web-based resources for HICAP volunteers to access.”

Bonnie Burns, CHA’s training and policy specialist, is an expert on the program. She has developed training modules on a variety of topics and regularly updates them when policy changes are announced. She leads training sessions around the state that translate complicated bureaucratic policy language into understandable, practical information to help HICAP volunteers provide accurate local information to seniors in their communities.

“I am so impressed with the HICAP volunteers, many of whom are retirees,” Smith said. “They become students of insurance and are very conscientious about having the right information available. When the government announces changes with no advance notice, they go way beyond the call to get up-to-speed on developments.”

The HICAP volunteers are a valuable asset for California seniors. Although the Medicare program operates a toll-free telephone information line to answer questions, it’s primarily an automated system with complicated menu options, presenting obstacles for many seniors. The HICAP volunteers, on the other hand, can answer specific questions about which zip codes are served by different Medicare HMOs or about local pharmacies.

“For seniors and their families who are concerned with navigating the health care system and making good health care choices, CHA’s education and advocacy services are critical,” said Pauline Daniels, TCWF program director. “Building this organization’s capacity to provide information and training will lead to better health outcomes for California’s seniors.”

Looking to the future, CHA hopes to be better able to serve all Medicare beneficiaries by providing training materials in languages other than English and by helping HICAPs improve their capacity to respond to these inquiries. CHA also hopes to build a broader coalition of organizations that serve Medicare beneficiaries to help overcome what is currently a fragmented system of information and support.

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Winter 2005

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