Q&A: Stan Cohen pens 500th ‘Nugget’

Stan Cohen

Stan Cohen

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

As a finance officer at a prestigious educational Academy, Stan Cohen thought he was well-versed regarding planning for his upcoming retirement.

He wasn’t.

Cohen discovered how complex and confusing various Medicare programs are, and if not correctly addressed, one could face either higher premiums or penalties.

He would ultimately make it his mission to help others understand Medicare. For the past 10 years, Cohen has served as a Medicare Volunteer Counselor and has writtenn a weekly “Medicare Nugget” for The News. This week, he penned his 500th nugget, which is included in this conversation:

BN: How did you decide to become a Medicare volunteer counselor?

Stan Cohen: In 2000 when I retired from Bridgton Academy (I was a chief finance officer there), I was 70 years old and on Medicare, but I hadn't taken Medicare Part B because I already had the equivalent of that by virtue of being in the Bridgton Academy healthcare program. When I retired, I had the opportunity to continue with the group plan, but it was expensive. It seemed it was commensurate with Part B so for a couple of years, I kept paying the premium. It kept going up. I got a call from Sue Cole at BA, the premium was going up significantly the following year. So, I figured it was time to drop it and go fully with Medicare — Part B and maybe a supplemental plan. That's what I did. I received a notice from Social Security that I would have to pay a 20% surcharge on the premium because I didn't take Part B when I should have — which is eight months from retirement. Nobody told me that. I should have known it since I was the business manager. It would have been my responsibility of telling others. I guess I was one of those well-kept secrets. I finally was able to get Social Security to admit to a mistake, they reduced the surcharge to 10%, which I have been paying ever since.

My wife and I were having a conversation about this terrible tragedy of having to pay 10% more. How could this happen when I was an administrator? She said to me I should figure out how this works and let others know so it doesn’t happen to them. The next day, your newspaper had an advertisement from the Southern Maine Area on Aging looking for people to help with Medicare advocacy. So, I made the phone call. I went for two full days of training.

BN: What was the biggest eye opener?

Stan Cohen: The revelation for me was that it is more complicated than folks understand. Before Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part B (prescription assistance), the only thing people had to be concerned about was knowing what Part A and Part B were. Statements they would get from Medicare about service provided, and what you might have to pay.

It became too complicated, I had people with Ph.Ds coming to me for help. It’s not about whether you are intelligent or not, it’s about the fact it (Medicare) is a complex system. I don’t think it needs to be that complex, but it is. Part of the reason it is so complex is because people in Washington, who make the laws, are so fixated on privatization — it’s important that private companies offer programs so that there is competition to keep prices down.

The one important piece was how to read the summary notice — what’s been paid. How much your supplement has paid, and what you might have to pay. Date of service. A lot of people throw those statements away. They are very important. For one, they can help identify possible abuse, fraud or mistakes — a physician you never saw or a date you never had an appointment for. It also helps you keep track of payments you might have to make and whether the supplement insurance will cover some of those costs. I made it my swick to learn what those pages said and how they worked, and what the footnotes meant so I could explain it to other people.

That was the basis of my going to the hospital in 2004, and suggesting to John Carlson, the CEO at that time, that it might be a good idea if the hospital would allow me to go there periodically and talk to people about their Medicare issues, in particular on how to read the summary notices. The board agreed to it (they could hardly refuse me since I have been a board member), and I was there for 10 years.

BN: Did you ever expect to be a counselor for so long?

Stan Cohen: I never expected to be doing it for 10 years — maybe a three- or four-year stint. It has been so challenging and so rewarding. The best part for me is helping so many people. I’ve seen 1,640 individuals since I’ve started. Along with repeats, I’ve had 3,300 to 3,400 sessions.

Most of my activity at the hospital was that people knew I was going to be there and they would drop in. I just saw people, first come, first served, no appointments, and it seemed to work out. Just recently, I stopped the appointments at the hospital because I am starting to wind down. I’m getting on in age, and at some point, I am not going to be able to do this. I felt bad about it because I had a good relationship with the hospital. It worked out well, and I think it was good for the hospital, as well for me and for my clients. Now, it’s by appointment.

BN: Can you offer a few examples as to why counseling has been a rewarding experience?

Stan Cohen: In the early days of Part B (the prescription drug program), which started in 2006, when it started, people didn't understand it. It was going to be offered by private insurance companies. There were a lot of them. In the first year, there were 25 or 26 plans available in Maine, now there are 30. People didn’t know what to do or how to take advantage of them. There were no programs. There were some Medicare supplement plans that had some drug coverage. This was a brand new thing. Dave Diller asked me to come into his drug store, which was on Main Street, and help some of his customers who were looking for some help finding a plan. I set up a little computer in his store. My very first client was a frail fellow, who came in almost in tears because he didn't know what to do, didn't know how to do it, but knew it was something he was supposed to do. I helped him get through it. When we finished, he had a piece of paper that verified that he had a plan, he stood up and came around the little table and gave me a hug. He was so relieved that it had been taken care of. There are a number of examples like that.

I get cards from people, after I have seen them, thanking me so much for helping them out. It’s an anxiety-provoking problem when there is something important in your life and you don’t know how to handle it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there that need help, but don’t seek it. It’s too bad because help is out there, they just don’t take advantage of it and miss out. The first thing I talk about when they sit in front of me is that the fact you have to ask these me these questions is no reflection on you or your intelligence. I have a brother-in-law who is a scientist, who came to me for help. He has a Ph.D, twice. So don’t feel badly about asking those questions.

Another reward, as a counselor, is the fact that I have been able to help, financially, very, very low-income people. Because I know about programs that are available to help them and how to apply for them, saves them a lot of money. A client who applies and successfully enters the program no longer has to pay the Part B premium, which is $105 — $105 a month, which is a big deal for some people. It saves in other ways too. To be able to help someone who are down and out, is very, very rewarding — it really makes me feel good.

I've been very fortunate in my life. Born into a modest, low-income family in Cambridge, Mass., education was a big deal in my house. Because I went into the Armed Services, I was able to get the G.I. Bill, and went to college. So, it is giving something back to the community.

BN: Do you think your financial background helped you?

Stan Cohen: I think my background in finance really helped a lot. I was in marketing at Polaroid Corp. for 19 years, and I’ve been an administrator. Paperwork is not a big deal for me. I learned how to use a computer back in 1983–84. I became fairly proficient with spreadsheets, which enabled me to do a better job. That background has helped.

I was named to the Board of Directors of SMAA that same year, Sept. 2004. They have been very helpful to me and very supportive. They have been a source of a wealth of information and materials I use. I still go in to Scarborough occasionally for training to be sure that I am up on things.

It is critical in rural communities, like ours, to have organizations like SMAA, one of five agencies in the state that runs a number of different programs such as Meals on Wheels, Matter of Balance and caregiving support to name just a few, that are valuable to people in rural areas. These organizations cannot survive without help from communities.

BN: I understand you have been recognized for your counseling work?

Stan Cohen: Being humble, initially Stan did not feel it was necessary to publish the awards, but we pressed and he gave in — Met Life Older Volunteers Enrich America honor, 2008; Maine Governor’s Volunteer Recognition, 2009; Molina Community Champions award, 2013.

BN: How do you go about writing the weekly ‘nugget?’

Stan Cohen: I have a number of resources. I get e-mails each day from some of these organizations that I subscribe to. The Kaiser Foundation is an important one. They list all of the articles published the previous 24 hours related to either Medicare or health insurance or Affordable Care Act. I can click on them and get more information that I might need.

I read all that stuff — skim the articles that may not interest me as much. Often times, there will be a piece that I think would make for a good nugget. So, I take that information and expand a little on it. Sometimes, I think it might be time for a piece with a little dialogue — Mr. Cohen and someone talking about some aspect of Medicare. Some come out of sessions I have had. If I get a question that isn’t an ordinary one, and I realize other people should know the answer to that, then I’ll make it into a Medicare Nugget. Sometimes, I might repeat a nugget that I wrote a year ago simply because it might be the time to refresh people’s memory about a certain topic.

If it is too long, people will stop reading. My theory is keep it short and interesting, it will get read. If it is too long, it won’t get read.

People will read a nugget, and then come to me asking to elaborate more on what I had published in the paper. It happens a lot. I’ve received some good feedback.

BN: When you feel its time to give up counseling and writing the nugget, will someone take your place?

Stan Cohen: There is someone in the wings who might be interested in taking over for me. I try to continually encourage her.

With the exception of Phil Ohman, who really doesn’t do counseling until the open enrollment period (October-November), there is no one else in the northern end of Cumberland County except me. There is no one close to Fryeburg. I get a lot of clients from Fryeburg, Lovell and Brownfield —which is Oxford County — the Agency on Aging that covers that area is Seniors Plus out of Lewiston, but it is much more convenient for them to come see me in Bridgton than go there.

BN: What do you do in your spare time?

Stan Cohen: I read a lot. We like to spend more time with our grandchildren, who are all over the place. I like to work with my hands. I have a little shop in the barn. I like to travel, a little.

NUGGET #500

By Stan Cohen

Medicare Volunteer Counselor

According to a new report by the Partnership for the New American Economy (printed in the Washington Post), U.S. immigrants’ net contribution to Medicare’s Trust Fund, was $183 billion between 1996 and 2011.

U.S.-born Americans? Negative $69 billion.

That means that immigrants have been pumping a lot more money in than they take out, while the rest of the population has been doing just the opposite. On a per person basis, immigrants contributed $62 more per person to the Medicare trust fund than the U.S.-born, and claim $172 less in benefits.

“Our analysis indicates that noncitizen immigrants, a group that includes both authorized and unauthorized immigrants, played a particularly large role subsidizing the care of the U.S.-born population…”

A special note to my readers: This is my 500th “Nugget.” About 10 year’s worth. Reader feedback has been positive (thank you) and the Nuggets also serve to remind seniors that I am still available for one-on-one consultations. So I’ll continue to submit these snippets – at least for now. Until next week…

Stan Cohen, a Medicare volunteer counselor, is available for free, one-on-one consultations by appointment only. Call 647-3116 to arrange for an appointment.

 

 

 

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