There When You Need Them

by Nicole Bruce

CJE’s Consumer Assistance team responds to the growing needs of seniors and people with disabilities by helping them navigate the maze—face-to-face.

     Rachel Levinstein from the Consumer Assistance team helps a senior with a benefits check-up during and appointment at the Bernard Horwich Center.     
For older adults living on fixed incomes, a single unanticipated expense can create serious financial hardship. Even when they think they have planned sufficiently for retirement, seniors can be faced with having to choose between rent, food and medication.

With the Internet’s vast resources at our fingertips, it’s still not always easy to find relevant information when our inquiries are complex and very personal, such as:

How can I continue to afford life-sustaining medications on a limited income?
My house is going into foreclosure. Howcan I find an affordable place to live?
Why have my benefits been significantly reduced without warning?
What’s the best Medicare plan for my budget?
Help... I’m about to retire. What are my next steps?
These are difficult questions requiring real answers from real people. That is why CJE has been making a personal connection withseniors, people with disabilities and their families for more than 40 years. CJE’s main number—773.508.1000—receives more than 12,000 calls a year from people in the Chicago area and around the country who need some information about local services and options available to them. In addition, more than 1,400 individuals a year come to various service sites for free one-on-one consultations—amounting to almost 2,500 hours of service provided.

CJE’s Consumer Assistance (CA) resource team provides free guidance and advocacy for community older adults (ages 55+) who are striving to live healthy, stable and independent lives. Located at the Bernard Horwich Center in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, the team has outposts in the north suburbs at libraries, senior centers and houses of worship.

The seniors and families who reach out to CA come from all walks of life—economically ranging from the chronically poor to those who have suffered recent and sometimes catastrophic financial reversals. In recent years, the team has seen a 40 percent increase in middle class people who were once financially solid but are now struggling to survive on Social Security and reduced income from pensions and investments. This cohort has just enough income to exceed eligibility for benefits, but not enough to meet basic expenses—especially healthcare expenses. They are losing homes, downsizing apartments, and desperately seeking to reduce other expenses so they can afford housing, medical bills, medications and food.

Many people don’t know who to turn to, or even what questions they should be asking to get back on track. CA’s Resource Specialists take a proactive “options counseling” approach – conducting a broad “benefits check-up” for people who may come in with a more specific concern, and help seniors plan for a more stable future. Check-up topics include healthcare, prescriptions, food, utilities and housing; more than 63 percent of CA service hours involve healthcare related issues. The team helps seniors apply for benefits that meet immediate needs, and also identify resources and benefits that address issues that may arise in the long term.

Paying for medical expenses is one of the biggest concerns for older adults on a limited income. Many people struggle to pay supplemental insurance premiums, deductibles and co-pays on medical care and prescription drugs, which is why CJE’s trained Illinois Senior Health Insurance Program (SHIP) counselors encourage seniors to take a look at their Medicare plans each year during the open enrollment period in the fall. From October 15 to December 7, all people with Medicare can change their 2015 health plans  and prescription drug coverage by joining a new Medicare Advantage plan or a new stand-alone prescription drug plan (PDP).

The team can walk seniors through the best prescription drug and supplemental plans for their needs in the complex system of health insurance. They can also help communicate with government agencies, doctors, hospitals and insurance companies to untangle medical insurance issues, apply for patient assistance and find scholarships for medications that Medicare Part D does not cover or are at the highest cost tier and too expensive for the average senior. This can often make the difference to seniors considering not taking critical medications in order to afford food or rent.

CA Resource Specialists truly understand and advocate for the unique needs of an older adult population as well as their family caregivers and people with disabilities. With every interaction, they are sensitive and respectful of cultural, generational and age/disability related differences. The  services and information provided by the team have saved approximately $1.6 million for individuals served each year by connecting them with community resources and government benefits, such as Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP/Food Stamps), the RTA Ride Free program, Safe Link Phone subsidies, Medicare, Medicaid, pharmaceutical assistance programs, as well as subsidized housing, utility assistance and tax assistance.

CJE’s Consumer Assistance team often goes the extra mile to facilitate transitions to appropriate services at CJE or other local organizations, guaranteeing that the chosen resources are affordable, accessible and geographically convenient. In a fairly tumultuous and shifting health care environment, our team of passionate problem solvers not only provides incredible information and support, but dignity, respect and hope to those who need it most.

For more information on these CJE services, please call 773.508.1000.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of LIFE, CJE SeniorLife's quarterly magazine.