With the difficulties involved, a suburban Illinois Medicare and benefits watchdog group plans to reach out to more disabled persons, limited English speakers, mentally ill patients, hearing- and vision-impaired individuals, welfare recipients and those new to Medicare, three health insurance and benefits information leaders said at a conference on the aging.

The Make Medicare Work Coalition, a suburban Illinois-based coalition of more than 300 nonprofits, faith-based initiatives, federal, state, county and city agencies and academic, policy and research groups — impacting 800-plus individuals throughout the state — pledges to provide higher quality information about Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and other benefits to clients, respond to changes in policy or client circumstances, assist clients with challenging problems and give them more confidence in their future life prospects.

Built in 2005 to address a then-newly-created Medicare Part D’s impact on state residents and funded and supported by the Chicago Community Trust, Michael Reese Health Trust, Retirement Research Foundation and the National Council on Aging, the MMW coalition thus far touts its greatest policy accomplishments as pushing legislation to revise the Illinois Cares Rx program, the first bill in the nation to convert persons in Disabilities Advocacy Program (DAP) to Illinois Cares Rx, expansion of the health benefits to workers with disabilities and patient assistance programs.

Three leaders in the coalition made the promise during their panel, “Coalition Building to Reach Underserved Populations with Accessible Information and Outreach,” during the American Society on Aging’s annual conference titled “Aging in America” at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Chicago.

The MMW coalition’s promise is in response to an annual member feedback survey to measure client satisfaction and Medicare information communication efforts outcomes.

During her own panel titled “Aging and Disability Partnerships: Aging and Disability Partnerships: Reaching Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Consumers,” Georgia Gerdes, a healthcare choices specialist with AgeOptions, an entity formed to inform senior customers about their lifestyle and benefit choices and headquartered in Oak Park, a western suburb of Chicago, and a member of the MMW coalition, said that 81 percent of their clients received the surveys and other materials by e-mail, reaching 10,500 people in the process.

Of the thousands who responded to the survey, 94 percent wanted more quality information about Medicare and other benefits; 76 percent wanted greater responses to changes in policy or in their own living circumstances and newer information; 73 percent wanted assistance with difficult problems; 73 percent wanted more people reached; and 69 percent wanted MMW

coalition staff to provide them with greater confidence and re-assurance that their problems will be resolved and their quality of life improved, Gerdes said.

“[We serve] older adults and people with disabilities,” she said. “Our people at one point were under fire [to justify our programs in the midst of budget cuts]. We brought client stories and advocacy on their behalf [during government agency meetings and hearings]. [For our surveys and other correspondence], we had 850 people on our e-mail list to organizations statewide. Many of us are team agencies and members of the disabled [community]. [Our members are] across the board. We are a very diverse group.”

In nearly 10 years, the coalition has forged partnerships with the Area Agencies on Aging (AAA) for suburban Cook County in the areas north and west of Chicago proper in Illinois, the state agencies of the Senior Health Insurance Program (SHIP), the Illinois Department of Aging (IDOA) and Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services (IHFS) and the federal agencies of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Pivotal topics in their hearings and meetings included the new rules of the Affordable Care Act, she said.

“We take information, translate it and [give it] back to [the] community,” Gerdes said. “We try to reach people who will be on Medicare soon. We help seniors on Social Security benefits. We advocate for laws and policies. We target and assist underserved groups.”

Most of the coalition’s materials and services appear on the AgeOptions website at http://www.ageoptions.org/whatwedo/MMW.cfm and http://www.makemedicarework.org. These include Medicare Part D open enrollment period charts and resources, toolkits for Medicare and employer coverage, resources for the uninsured or underinsured and the hearing-impaired, webinar recordings and coalition bulletins and topical briefs.

“They want to be informed — free communications, bulletins and alerts, topical briefs, toolkits and fact sheets,” Gerdes said of the coalition’s clients. “[We] make it easy. We provide monthly conference calls. Each agency works with us. Issues on healthcare for seniors tend to be the same. Our materials are used by these groups.”

She added that many coalition nonprofit or agency members are pleased with the campaign information and use it to inform their own work with the disadvantaged and disabled.

“We ask members to tell us how we are doing,” Gerdes said. “[About] 95 percent allow [us] to provide [them] information. Our materials allow them to [work with their stakeholding clients] with confidence.”

Part 2: Serving Hard of Hearing/Deaf Communities

This article was originally published Feb. 8, 2014 on the website of PharmPsych.com, one of seven websites that comprise The Pharm Psych Network, a medical communications and education company.