Critics: Medicare Helpline Not So Helpful

When Naomi Sullivan accidentally signed up for the wrong Medicare plan last year and inadvertently racked up thousands of dollars in medical expenses, she went to the government's Medicare helpline.

But each time she dialed 1-800-Medicare, she found frustration, not help, and got nowhere.

"They would put me on hold, sometimes 45 minutes or more. Transfer me to someone, I'd be disconnected. By the time I'd call them back two or three times in one day, my blood pressure would be so high, I'd have to say,'I can't do this again today,'" Sullivan said.

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Now Sullivan, along with health care advocate Tatiana Fassieux, is taking her grievance about 1-800-Medicare to Congress. The two plan to tell a Senate committee that the line's hold times are way too long.

And that's not the only problem. Often the information patients are given is incorrect.

"When the beneficiary calls... they're not getting the level of trained employee or service rep that we expect," Fassieux said.

The Senate already has conducted its own investigation in which it called the helpline more than 500 times. In 90 percent of the calls during the last year, Medicare service representatives couldn't answer the questions or gave out the wrong information. "This can be life-and-death and more than just money to seniors. We gotta get it right," said Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.

But Medicare said the congressional findings are outdated.

"Those criticisms have helped us improve — wait times are down and beneficiary satisfaction rates remain high," said Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services acting administrator Kerry Weems.

But for patients like Sullivan, that's little consolation. With an income of $700 a month, she is struggling to pay off $20,000 in medical bills -- bills that won't wait on hold.

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