Dear Savvy Senior,
I am the caregiver for my 81-year-old mother, who recently fell and broke her hip, and have a lot of questions about how original Medicare works and what it covers. Where can I get some help understanding this program? — Overwhelmed Caregiver
Excellent question! Having a working knowledge of Medicare can help you take full advantage of the coverage and services it provides to ensure your mom receives the best care possible. Here’s what you should know.
A good starting point to get familiar with Medicare is the official “Medicare & You” handbook, which overviews the program. It’s mailed to all beneficiaries every fall and provides an up-to-date description of all services and benefits. You can also see it online at Medicare.gov/medicare-and-you.
If you have a particular question, you can call and visit with a Medicare customer service representative at 800-633-4227. Medicare also works closely with State Health Insurance Assistance Programs to provide free health insurance counseling. To find a SHIP counselor in your area, visit ShiptaCenter.org or call 877-839-2675.
Caregivers also find Medicare’s secure website — MyMedicare.gov — especially useful. After setting up a personal account for your mom, you can view the details of her coverage, track recent health care claims and keep up to date on the preventive services she qualifies for.
Medicare can also help you locate the right health care providers for your mother. At Medicare.gov/care-compare you can find and compare doctors, hospitals, home health agencies, dialysis facilities, inpatient rehab facilities, long-term care hospitals and nursing homes in her area.
What Medicare covers
Medicare can reduce many out-of-pocket medical expenses your mom incurs, but it doesn’t cover everything. Understanding what Medicare does and doesn’t cover can save you time and spare you frustration when navigating the caregiving maze. Here are some key points for caregivers:
Besides basic hospital and physician services (which includes telehealth services) and optional prescription drug benefits, Medicare covers home health care, too. To qualify, your mom must be homebound, under a physician’s care and in need of part-time skilled nursing care or rehabilitative services like physical therapy.
Medicare also helps pay for oxygen, catheters and other medical supplies that a doctor prescribes for home use. The same is true for medically necessary equipment like oxygen machines, wheelchairs and walkers.
In addition, Medicare covers skilled care in a nursing home for limited periods — up to 100 days — following hospital stays. But it doesn’t cover long-term stays. Patients who need custodial care (room and board) must pay out of pocket unless they’re eligible for Medicaid or have private long-term care insurance.
Medicare pays for hospice care, too, for someone with a terminal illness whose doctor expects to live six months or less. The hospice benefit also includes brief periods of respite care at a hospice facility, hospital or nursing home to give the patient’s caregivers an occasional rest.
Besides long-term nursing home stays, original Medicare typically doesn’t cover regular dental care or dentures, regular eye exams or eyeglasses, and hearing exams and hearing aids. Likewise, it won’t pay for nonemergency ambulance trips unless a doctor certifies they’re medically necessary.
To find out what Medicare covers, visit Medicare.gov/coverage and type in the test, item or service you have questions about, or download the Medicare “What’s covered” app in either the App Store or Google Play.
If your mom lives on a limited income, you should check whether she qualifies for help with prescription drug costs or with other Medicare-related premiums, deductibles and copayments.
For help with drug costs, visit SSA.gov/prescriptionhelp or contact Social Security at 800-772-1213 and ask about the “Extra Help Program.” For help with other Medicare costs, go to Medicare.gov or call 800-633-4227 and ask about the “Medicare Savings Programs.”
Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.