Feds: Virus frauds spread, preying on Medicare recipients

April 17, 2020

courtesy of NAELAeBulletin:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Scam artists are preying on older people’s fears by peddling fake tests for the coronavirus to Medicare recipients, a federal law enforcement agency warned on Monday.

And moving separately on another law enforcement priority, President Donald Trump signed an order directing a crackdown on large-scale hoarding that’s intended to create shortages of critical goods and drive prices up.

Alerting seniors to fraud, the Health and Human Services inspector general’s office said it has seen marketing schemes rapidly pivot to offering tests for COVID-19 and “Senior Care Packages” with hand sanitizer or even tout a vaccine, which doesn’t exist. Some marketers falsely claim that Trump has ordered that seniors get tested.

It’s all a trick to get personal information that can be used to bill federal and state health programs, said Christian Schrank, assistant inspector general for investigations.

“It’s a straight-up ruse to get your Medicare number or your Social Security number under the guise of having a test kit or a sanitary kit sent to you,” Schrank said. Often the caller will hang up as soon as that number is provided.

Low-income Medicaid recipients also are being targeted.

The sales pitches are coming via telemarketing calls, robocalls, social media posts, emails and door-to-door visits, Schrank explained.

As legitimate businesses close their doors and send workers home to comply with social distancing measures, fraud operators have ramped up recruiting for their call centers, Schrank said.

For seniors, the consequences can be long term. Health care fraud is one of the most prevalent forms of identity theft.

Once a person’s Medicare information is in the hands of fraudsters, it can be used repeatedly to bill for unwanted goods and services. That can create problems if a Medicare enrollee ever does need them.

Among the schemes reported to authorities:

— In Florida, seniors have been contacted by fraudsters claiming that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have mandated they get tested and that their Medicare number is required.

— A scheme in the Midwest offers a “Senior Care Package” that includes hand sanitizer. “As we know, it’s very difficult for beneficiaries to get out to the store,” Schrank said. “At this time when seniors are searching for answers, these individuals are preying on their desire to speak with somebody.”

— Several online operations are offering coronavirus vaccines, when none has been developed and approved. At the White House press conference Monday, Trump said federal authorities had already shut down a website selling “a totally fake vaccine.” Schrank said, “The first time you hear about a vaccine, it’s not going to be through an email or a telemarketing call.”

Federal and state law enforcement officials have set up a working group to share information on the quickly evolving scams and route leads to the agencies best equipped to investigate. The phone number for the HHS inspector general’s hotline is 800-HHS-TIPS, and the National Center for Disaster Fraud hotline is at 866-720-5721.

Anti-fraud experts say seniors should just hang up on unsolicited sales calls.

Following Trump to the White House briefing room podium, Attorney General William Barr said the crackdown on hoarding will target excessive stockpiling of personal protective equipment that is needed by medical personnel.

“If you have a big supply of toilet paper in your house, this is not something you have to worry about,” said Barr.

The Justice Department has already launched investigations into people who are hoarding supplies and price gouging, said Barr. Investigators will go after people who are “hoarding these goods on an industrial scale for the purpose of manipulating the market.”

Barr says the executive order allowed the president to designate some items as “scarce” and prohibits people from stockpiling the much-needed supplies.

“If you are sitting on a warehouse with surgical masks, you will be hearing a knock on your door,” Barr said.

Barr said no specific items have been identified yet and the Justice Department will work with Health and Human Services to enforce the president’s order.

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. Worldwide, more than 375,000 cases have been reported, and while most people recover in weeks, more than 16,000 people have died.

Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.

As Life Moves Online, an Older Generation Faces a Digital Divide

April 17, 2020

courtesy of NAELAeBulletin:

By Kate Conger and Erin Griffith
Published March 27, 2020
Updated March 28, 2020

For more than a week, Linda Quinn, 81, has isolated herself inside her Bellevue, Wash., home to keep away from the coronavirus. Her only companion has been her goldendoodle, Lucy.

To blunt the solitude, Ms. Quinn’s daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons wanted to hold video chats with her through Zoom, a videoconferencing app. So they made plans to call and talk her through installing the app on her computer.

But five minutes before the scheduled chat last week, Ms. Quinn realized there was a problem: She had not used her computer in about four months and could not remember the password. “My mind just went totally blank,” she said.

Panicked, Ms. Quinn called a grandson, Ben Gode, 20, who had set up the computer for her. Mr. Gode remembered the password, allowing the call and the Zoom tutorial to take place — but not until Ms. Quinn got him to promise not to tell the rest of the family about her tech stumble.

As life has increasingly moved online during the pandemic, an older generation that grew up in an analog era is facing a digital divide. Often unfamiliar or uncomfortable with apps, gadgets and the internet, many are struggling to keep up with friends and family through digital tools when some of them are craving those connections the most.

While teenagers are celebrating birthdays over Zoom with one another, children are chatting with friends over online games and young adults are ordering food via delivery apps, some older people are intimidated by such technology. According to a 2017 Pew Research study, three-quarters of those older than 65 said they needed someone else to set up their electronic devices. A third also said they were only a little or not at all confident in their ability to use electronics and to navigate the web.

That is problematic now when many people 65 and older, who are regarded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as most at risk of severe illness related to the coronavirus, are shutting themselves in. Many nursing homes have closed off to visitors entirely. Yet people are seeking human interaction and communication through the web or their devices to stave off loneliness and to stay positive.

For many seniors, “the only social life they had is with book clubs and a walk in a park,” said Stephanie Cacioppo, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago. “When they look at their calendar, it’s all canceled. So how do we as a society help them regain a sense of tomorrow?”

To bridge that digital gap, families are finding new apps and gadgets that are easy for older relatives to use. Companies and community members are setting up phone calls and, in areas where lockdowns are not yet in place, in-person workshops to help those uncomfortable with tech walk through the basics.

Officials are also calling for people to pitch in to close the divide. Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, urged people this month to help the elderly set up technology to talk to medical providers.

“If you have an elderly neighbor or family member who might have trouble with their laptop or their phone for this purpose, make yourself available to help,” Ms. Verma said in a news conference.

In nursing homes that have stopped visitors from coming in to limit the spread of the virus, workers are leaning on tech to help residents stay connected with their families.

At 23 senior living communities in North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia run by Spring Arbor Senior Living, workers have been triaging family calls — sometimes multiple ones a day per resident — over Apple’s FaceTime, Skype and a software system operated by K4Connect, a tech provider, said Rich Williams, a senior vice president at HHHunt, which owns the centers.

“That line of communication is essential to the resident’s well-being,” he said.

Mr. Williams added that workers had also used virtual activities like Nintendo’s Wii bowling and SingFit, a music singalong program, to help Spring Arbor’s 1,450 residents — whose average age is 88 — pass the time and stay active.

Candoo, a New York company that helps older people navigate technology, has recently taught its customers how to use Zoom and other video calling apps with downloadable guides and phone calls and, in some cases, by taking over their screens and showing them where to click. Candoo charges $30 for a one-hour lesson and $40 for support.

“People are literally relying on technology, not only to keep them healthy and safe and alive, but also to keep them occupied,” said Liz Hamburg, founder of Candoo.

Jane Cohn, 84, who lives alone in New York, has paid for Candoo’s services to help her get connected. Typically active, she has been staying inside because of the virus outbreak. Her doctor’s check-in went virtual, while her therapy session and New York University class on architecture and urbanism moved to Zoom.

Ms. Cohn said she called Candoo twice in one day last week to help her get on Zoom. She had never used the software before, and when she tried to join her N.Y.U. class through the videoconferencing app, she saw only a video of herself and wasn’t able to hear anything.

A Candoo representative walked her through Zoom over the phone. Ms. Cohn, already worried about the virus, said struggling with technology “adds another level of stress.”.

Some people are finding easy-to-use tech to connect generations. Medbh Hillyard recently introduced an electronic speaker called a Toniebox to connect her parents, Margaret Ward and Paddy Hillyard, to her sons, Rory and Finn, ages 3 and 18 months, during quarantine.

While they all live in the same neighborhood in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and frequently saw each other before the outbreak, they have now stopped close contact. Each evening, Ms. Ward, 69, and Mr. Hillyard, 76, instead use an app on their smartphone to record bedtime stories. The app then transmits the stories to the Toniebox so Rory and Finn can listen, Ms. Hillyard said.

“It’s been a really, really good way of having contact each evening and them still being able to do bedtime stories for us, which is really lovely,” Ms. Hillyard said.

Tech-savvy older people have found themselves in great demand, fielding calls from friends and neighbors who need digital help.

Chuck Kissner, 72, a technology executive in Los Altos, Calif., who administers a computer network for his extended family and maintains their 40 or so devices with security updates and software licenses, said he recently had a deluge of requests for tech assistance from his neighbors.

Last week, he spent several hours using remote access to the devices of his homeowner association board to help members, who range in age from about 65 to 85, figure out how to attend a virtual meeting.

One neighbor and board member sanitized his iPad and left it at Mr. Kissner’s front door. The neighbor was having trouble logging into his Apple iCloud account because he could not remember the password. Mr. Kissner could not get into the account, and the neighbor eventually sought support from Apple.

“Everyone got into the meeting,” Mr. Kissner said. “It’s great to see the reaction when it works and it seems so simple.”

After Ms. Quinn’s family helped her get on Zoom, she told her book club about the videoconferences. While some were excited about keeping the club going online during the outbreak, others didn’t want to try it, she said.

“I’m thinking that we won’t do it this month, but when they get tired of not getting together, we’ll probably do it,” said Ms. Quinn, who was also trying to get her bridge club to go virtual.

Her family has certainly embraced the Zoom calls. Jackson Gode, 23, one of Ms. Quinn’s grandsons, lives across the country in Washington, D.C., and used to text her a few times a month. Now they video chat more frequently, he said.

“We’re in this time of great uncertainty,” he said, adding he was “just wanting to make sure that every moment we have counts.”

Medicare Now Covers Outpatient Treatment for Opioid Addiction

February 28, 2020

Recognizing the huge problems caused by opioid addiction in the United States, Medicare is adding a new outpatient opioid treatment benefit, paying for methadone and related treatment in certain facilities.

Under a new rule taking effect in January 2020, Medicare will now provide payment to opioid treatment programs (OTPs), also known as methadone clinics, as part of Medicare Part B. OTPs are the only locations where people addicted to opioids can receive methadone as part of their treatment.

Under the new OTP benefit, Medicare covers:

  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved opioid treatment medications (such as methadone)
  • Dispensing and administration of the treatment medications (if applicable)
  • Substance use counseling
  • Individual and group therapy
  • Toxicology testing
  • Intake activities
  • Periodic assessments

For beneficiaries who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid, Medicaid paid for methadone treatment. Now, once the OTP is enrolled in Medicare, Medicare will become the primary payer for these beneficiaries. Medicaid should continue to cover the service during the transition. Medicare Advantage plans should also allow coverage of OTPs that are not in their network while they assist beneficiaries in transitioning to an in-network OTP.

For a fact sheet from Justice in Aging, click here.

Medicaid Protections for the Healthy Spouse

February 28, 2020

Medicaid law provides special protections for the spouses of Medicaid applicants to make sure he spouses have the minimum support needed to continue to live in the community while their husband or wife is receiving long-term care benefits, usually in a nursing home.

The so-called “spousal protections” work this way: if the Medicaid applicant is married, the countable assets of both the community spouse and the institutionalized spouse are totaled as of the date of “institutionalization,” the day on which the ill spouse enters either a hospital or a long-term care facility in which he or she then stays for at least 30 days. (This is sometimes called the “snapshot” date because Medicaid is taking a picture of the couple’s assets as of this date.)

In order to be eligible for Medicaid benefits a nursing home resident may have no more than $2,000 in assets (an amount may be somewhat higher in some states). In general, the community spouse may keep one-half of the couple’s total “countable” assets up to a maximum of $128,640 (in 2020). Called the “community spouse resource allowance,” this is the most that a state may allow a community spouse to retain without a hearing or a court order. The least that a state may allow a community spouse to retain is $25,728 (in 2020).

Example: If a couple has $100,000 in countable assets on the date the applicant enters a nursing home, he or she will be eligible for Medicaid once the couple’s assets have been reduced to a combined figure of $52,000 — $2,000 for the applicant and $50,000 for the community spouse.

Some states, however, are more generous toward the community spouse. In these states, the community spouse may keep up to $128,640 (in 2020), regardless of whether or not this represents half the couple’s assets. For example, if the couple had $100,000 in countable assets on the “snapshot” date, the community spouse could keep the entire amount, instead of being limited to half.

The income of the community spouse is not counted in determining the Medicaid applicant’s eligibility. Only income in the applicant’s name is counted. Thus, even if the community spouse is still working and earning, say, $5,000 a month, she will not have to contribute to the cost of caring for her spouse in a nursing home if he is covered by Medicaid. In some states, however, if the community spouse’s income exceeds certain levels, he or she does have to make a monetary contribution towards the cost of the institutionalized spouse’s care. The community spouse’s income is not considered in determining eligibility, but there is a subsequent contribution requirement.

But what if most of the couple’s income is in the name of the institutionalized spouse and the community spouse’s income is not enough to live on? In such cases, the community spouse is entitled to some or all of the monthly income of the institutionalized spouse. How much the community spouse is entitled to depends on what the Medicaid agency determines to be a minimum income level for the community spouse. This figure, known as the minimum monthly maintenance needs allowance or MMMNA, is calculated for each community spouse according to a complicated formula based on his or her housing costs. The MMMNA may range from a low of $2,113.75 to a high of $3,216 a month (in 2020). If the community spouse’s own income falls below his or her MMMNA, the shortfall is made up from the nursing home spouse’s income.

Example: Joe Smith and his wife Sally Brown have a joint income of $3,000 a month, $1,700 of which is in Mr. Smith’s name and $700 is in Ms. Brown’s name. Mr. Smith enters a nursing home and applies for Medicaid. The Medicaid agency determines that Ms. Brown’s MMMNA is $2,200 (based on her housing costs). Since Ms. Brown’s own income is only $700 a month, the Medicaid agency allocates $1,500 of Mr. Smith’s income to her support. Since Mr. Smith also may keep a $60-a-month personal needs allowance, his obligation to pay the nursing home is only $140 a month ($1,700 – $1,500 – $60 = $140).

In exceptional circumstances, community spouses may seek an increase in their MMMNAs either by appealing to the state Medicaid agency or by obtaining a court order of spousal support.

Contact your attorney to find out what you can do to make sure your spouse has enough income to live on.

Experts split sharply over experimental Alzheimer’s drug

February 28, 2020

courtesy of NAELAeBulletin:

SAN DIEGO (AP) — A company that claims to have the first drug to slow mental decline from Alzheimer’s disease made its case to scientists Thursday but left them sharply divided over whether there’s enough evidence of effectiveness for the medicine to warrant federal approval.

Excitement and skepticism have surrounded aducanumab since its developers stopped two studies earlier this year because it didn’t seem to be working, then did a stunning about-face in October and said new results suggest it was effective at a high dose.

During Thursday’s presentation at an Alzheimer’s conference in San Diego, the developers convinced some experts that the drug deserves serious consideration. But others were dubious.

Changes made during the study and unusual analyses of the data made the results hard to interpret. And the newly released results showed the drug made only a very small difference in thinking skills in one study and none in the other.

Alzheimer’s patients and families are desperate for any help, no matter how small, adding pressure on the Food and Drug Administration to approve something.

But with conflicting results, “I don’t see how you can conclude anything other than that another trial needs to be done,” said the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. David Knopman, who was involved in one of the studies.

Laurie Ryan, a dementia scientist at the National Institute on Aging, agreed: “We need more evidence.”

Other doctors who consult for the drug’s developers cheered the results. Dr. Paul Aisen, a dementia specialist at the University of Southern California, said they were “consistent and positive” in showing a benefit at a high dose — “a truly major advance.”

Aducanumab aims to help the body clear harmful plaques, or protein clumps, from the brain. Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Biogen is developing it with Japan’s Eisai Co.

In afternoon trading, the companies’ stocks were up roughly 4%.

The stakes are high for approval or denial.

More than 5 million people in the U.S. and millions more worldwide have Alzheimer’s. Current drugs only temporarily ease symptoms and do not slow the loss of memory and thinking skills.

But approving a drug that isn’t truly effective could expose patients to financial and medical risks and give other drugmakers less incentive to develop better treatments.

The makers of aducanumab undertook two studies, each enrolling about 1,650 people with mild cognitive impairment or mild dementia from Alzheimer’s.

Those with a gene that raises their risk of the disease were started on a lower dose because they are more likely to suffer inflammation in the brain from medicines that target plaque.

But as the studies went on and concern about this side effect eased, the rules were changed to let such patients get a higher dose.

A Biogen vice president, Samantha Budd Haeberlein, said more people got the higher dose in one study, and that helps explain why it succeeded and the other one failed.

But the new analyses were done on partial results, and with methods not agreed upon at the outset, which makes any conclusions unreliable, independent experts said.

Also, the drug’s benefits may have looked more impressive than they really were because patients in the placebo group worsened more in the positive study than in the one that failed.

“It’s hard to know exactly what happened here,” said Dr. Howard Fillit, chief science officer of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation. “I don’t see how the FDA could approve it.”

Questions also arose about the size of any benefit.

The drug did not reverse decline, only slowed the rate of it compared to the placebo group by 22% in one study. Yet that meant a difference of only 0.39 on an 18-point score of thinking skills.

“It’s a very small amount,” Fillit said.

Still, Maria Carrillo, chief science officer at the Alzheimer’s Association, said it was “the largest reduction that we’ve seen to date,” adding: “It may mean that they remember their loved ones a little longer.”

The drug “is worthy of significant, rigorous exploration” and review by the FDA, she said. “This is an important moment for the Alzheimer’s community.”

Some doctors and patients who helped test the drug are convinced it helped.

One was Charles Flagg, 78, a retired minister from Jamestown, Rhode Island, who received aducanumab until the studies were halted in March. Since he was taken off the medicine, “his cognition, his alertness, his interactions have definitely diminished,” said his wife, Cynthia Flagg.

Biogen stressed the need for an effective treatment and suggested that delaying access to a drug that may work could deprive many people of help while further study is done.

Dr. John Ioannidis, a Stanford University expert on research methods, said patients’ need should not drive the FDA’s decision.

“If we go down that path, we’re likely to introduce a lot of ineffective treatments for diseases that are really common,” he said. “It would be a complete mess.”

Free Braille and Talking Book Program for Veterans

February 28, 2020

courtesy of NAELAeBulletin:

The Braille and Talking Book Program offers Veterans who have difficulty with regular print materials the return of the gift of reading.

Whether escaping into a great novel or staying current with popular magazines, the freedom and independence of reading are only a few steps away. This program, from the National Library Service (NLS) and the Library of Congress, provides talking books, audio magazines, and digital talking-book players free of charge.

Any honorably discharged Veteran who is blind, has low vision, or a disability preventing the reading of traditional materials is eligible. Participants choose whether their selected reading materials are delivered by mail, downloaded from the web-based service BARD (Braille and Audio Reading Download) or through the BARD mobile app for smartphones and tablets. NLS maintains a vast catalog of titles and publications from the latest best-sellers to timeless classics. Plus, Veterans have preferential status in the lending of materials and equipment.

The Braille and Talking Books Program is accomplished through a nationwide network of libraries to serve citizens and Veterans living inside the U.S. or abroad.  Applying for this service is easy. Call the National Library Service at 1-888-NLS-READ (1-888-657-7323) or visit them on the web at www.loc.gov/ThatAllMayRead

Veterans served to protect freedom. Now let National Library Service provide the freedom for all to read.

Update: The Library of Congress published a Resources for Disabled Veterans guide.

Significant underreporting in safety data found on Nursing Home Compare website

February 28, 2020

courtesy of NAELAeBulletin:

Research finds that that data used by a popular website for researching the safety of nursing homes may be highly inaccurate

UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO
The website Nursing Home Compare, sponsored by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, is a go-to resource for many families researching nursing home options for their loved ones. The number of falls that lead to injury are a critical category of concern for nursing home residents, however, a University of Chicago researcher has found that the data used by Nursing Home Compare to report patient safety related to falls may be highly inaccurate.

Prachi Sanghavi, PhD, an assistant professor in public health sciences at UChicago, uncovered significant discrepancies between the falls calculations used for Nursing Home Compare’s ratings and actual Medicare claims for falls by nursing home residents from 2011-2015. She found that only 57.5% of falls were accounted for in the Nursing Home Compare’s Minimum Data Set (MDS), which is self-reported by nursing homes. Reporting rates were higher for white residents (59%) than non-white residents (46%) and for long-term stays (62.9%) than short-term stays (47.1%). The findings were published December 29, 2019 in the journal Health Services Research.

“This is a substantial amount of underreporting and is deeply concerning because without good measurement, we cannot identify nursing homes that may be less safe and in need of improvement,” Sanghavi said.

A significant, yet preventable, risk

Falls are a leading cause of death among the over-65 population, and they can lead to other serious injuries. Patients become fearful of walking again for fear of reinjury, yet falls are considered widely preventable. They are a discrete event that is easy to identify and record, compared to other clinical conditions on Nursing Home Compare such as pressure ulcers or infections, so there should be a wealth of reliable data.

“That’s why falls are a patient safety measure on Nursing Home Compare,” Sanghavi said. “They reflect how well a nursing home does at preventing these injuries.”

Sanghavi started her research with a data set of nearly 88.7 million Medicare admissions claims from 2011 to 2015. She narrowed the sample set in stages, zeroing in on nursing home residents who met several criteria. First, their fall occurred during their time in the nursing home. Second, they were discharged from the nursing home to go to a hospital. Third, the patient’s Medicare claim was filed under the code for a major injury fall. Finally, they returned to the same nursing home after treatment for the fall.

“We wanted to be as conservative as possible in our calculations so there would be little argument about whether a fall should have been reported,” Sanghavi said. “Our primary outcome measure was based on whether a fall with the appropriate code was reported or not.”

Using these criteria, Sanghavi identified 150,828 major injury falls in Medicare claims filed by nursing home residents. The data used by Nursing Home Compare accounted for only 57.5% of these falls, with far fewer falls being reported for black, Asian, and Hispanic patients relative to whites.

Accounting for discrepancies

Nursing Home Compare has faced prior scrutiny for using self-reported data. Sanghavi’s own research was sparked by a 2014 New York Times investigation into serious deficiencies found in nursing homes rated five stars by Nursing Home Compare.

“I found it odd that Nursing Home Compare would use self-reported data,” she said. “Having worked with Medicare claims data, I thought I could use it to study MDS reporting. The Medicare claims we used are hospital bills. They want to get paid and should not have an interest in nursing home public reporting. That’s why they are a more objective source than the self-reported data from nursing homes.”

Sanghavi has two theories on why the reporting rate is nearly 15 points higher for long-term stays than short-term stays. “It could be that the nursing homes are more familiar with long-stay patients,” she said. “Plus, the falls measure on Nursing Home Compare is specifically for long stays. It could be that nursing homes are taking that measure more seriously.”

Sanghavi was especially surprised by the 13-point difference in falls reporting between white and non-white residents. “I didn’t expect it to be that different by race,” she said, “but it is consistent with other modes of racial disparities in long-term care.”

Based on her results, Sanghavi suggests that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services change their evaluation criteria for falls on Nursing Home Compare.

“They should use an objective source, like claims data,” she said. “It should be relatively easy for them to do, since they already have the data. There are other claims-based measures already used on Nursing Home Compare.”

Warning Issued About New Social Security Scam

February 27, 2020

courtesy of NAELAeBulletin:

The Social Security Inspector General (IG) recently sounded the alarm about a new scam in which thieves are emailing fake documents purporting to come from the Social Security Administration in an effort to get the victims to comply with their demands.

The Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has received reports of victims who received emails with attached letters and reports that appeared to be from Social Security or Social Security OIG.

The letters may use official letterhead and government “jargon” to convince victims they are legitimate, however, they may also contain misspellings and grammar mistakes which can be a tip off that they are fake.

The IG says that this is the latest variation on what is a widespread and long-running scam involving Social Security.

Scammers make phone calls that are either live calls or robocalls in which the caller claims to be a federal employee who says there is identity theft or another problem with one’s Social Security number, account, or benefits. The fake calls may threaten arrest or other legal action, or may offer to increase benefits, protect assets, or resolve identity theft. They often demand payment via retail gift card, cash, wire transfer, internet currency such as Bitcoin, or pre-paid debit card.

Tips for Staying Vigilant to Scams

The Social Security Administration is reminding everyone that the agency will never do any of the following:

  • threaten you with arrest or other legal action unless you immediately pay a fine or fee;
  • promise a benefit increase or other assistance in exchange for payment;
  • require payment by retail gift card, cash, wire transfer, internet currency, or prepaid debit card; or
  • send official letters or reports containing personally identifiable information via email.

If there is ever a problem with your Social Security number or record, in most cases Social Security will mail you a letter. If you do need to submit payments to Social Security, the agency will send a letter with instructions and payment options.

You should never pay a government fee or fine using retail gift cards, cash, internet currency, wire transfers, or pre-paid debit cards. Scammers ask for payment this way because it is very difficult to trace and recover.

What Should You Do?

If you receive a call or email that you believe to be suspicious that claims to be about a problem with your Social Security number or account, hang up or do not respond.

You should also report Social Security scams using SSA’s dedicated online form.

Additional information about how to stay protected from scams and the latest warnings from SSA about recent scams is available at https://oig.ssa.gov/scam.

Now’s the time to switch or ditch your Medicare Advantage Plan if you don’t like it

February 27, 2020

courtesy of NAELAeBulletin:

by Sarah O’Brien

KEY POINTS
  • You can only make one change during the current three-month window, which makes it important to be aware of any potential snags or restrictions you may encounter.
  • Of Medicare’s 61 million or so beneficiaries, roughly 38% (23 million) choose to get their coverage through an Advantage Plan.
  • Separately, if you missed your initial Medicare enrollment period and don’t qualify for an exclusion, you can sign up through March 31.

If your 2020 Medicare coverage includes an Advantage Plan that’s not a great match, you might be able to part ways with it.

During an enrollment window that opened Jan. 1 and closes March 31, you can swap your plan for another or drop it and return to basic Medicare (Part A hospital coverage and Part B outpatient coverage). Yet, before you make a change, be sure you’re aware of potential snags and any restrictions involved.

“Do your due diligence before you switch, because if you make another mistake in your choice, you’ll be stuck with it for the rest of the year,” said Danielle Roberts, co-founder of insurance firm Boomer Benefits in Fort Worth, Texas.

Also possible through March 31: If you missed your initial Medicare enrollment period and don’t qualify for an exception, you can sign up now. If this is your situation, coverage won’t start until July 1, said Elizabeth Gavino, founder of Lewin & Gavino in New York and an independent broker and general agent for Medicare plans.

Of Medicare’s 61 million or so beneficiaries, more than a third choose to go with an Advantage Plan, which delivers Parts A and B and usually Part D prescription drug coverage, along with extras such as dental and vision. While most recipients tend not to change their plan, experts generally agree that evaluating whether there’s a more cost-effective option should be a yearly process.

The current three-month opportunity to change or drop your Advantage Plan comes just a few weeks after the close of Medicare’s annual fall open enrollment, when a variety of options were available for those who wanted to make changes to their coverage.

For this current period, however, there are restrictions.

For starters, you can only switch once. This means that once you move to a different Advantage Plan or drop it for basic Medicare, the change is locked in for 2020 (unless you meet an exclusion that qualifies you for a special enrollment period).

Additionally, this three-month window does not allow you to switch from one stand-alone Part D prescription drug plan to another.

If you picked a Part D plan in the fall open enrollment period based on faulty or misleading information, you can call 1-800-Medicare at any point during the year to see if your situation would allow you to make a change.

Meanwhile, dropping an Advantage Plan in favor of basic Medicare typically means losing prescription drug coverage — which means you would have to enroll in a stand-alone Part D plan. This matters, because if you go 63 days without the coverage, you could face a lifelong penalty that gets tacked on to your premiums.

Also, if you switch back to original Medicare and want to get a supplemental policy (also called Medigap), you may not get guaranteed coverage, depending on various factors that include where you live and exactly how long you’ve had your Advantage Plan. These policies either fully or partially cover cost-sharing of some aspects of parts A and B, including deductibles, copays and coinsurance.

“You might have to go through medical underwriting and answer health questions from the insurer and you might not get coverage,” said Gavino, of Lewin & Gavino.

If you’ll be subject to a health check, be sure to apply for the supplement before you drop your Advantage Plan.

“The worst-case scenario is that you go back to original Medicare and then no company takes you for Medigap, and you’re stuck for the rest of the year,” said Roberts, of Boomer Benefits. “So the order of events is really important.”

If you want to switch to a different Advantage Plan, your options largely depend on where you live.

The average Medicare beneficiary has 28 plans available to them this year, up from 24 in 2019, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. However, 77 counties — generally in rural areas — have no Advantage Plan available.

If you want to switch to a different Advantage Plan, remember to make sure your doctors and other providers are in-network, Roberts said. And, assuming the plan includes Part D prescription drug coverage (most do), be sure that any medications you take are covered.

 

Our body systems age at different rates, study finds, pointing to personalized care to extend healthy life

February 27, 2020

courtesy of NAELAeBulletin:

One 50-year-old has the nimble metabolism of a teenager, while another’s is so creaky he developed type 2 diabetes — though his immune system is that of a man 25 years his junior. Or one 70-year-old has the immune system of a Gen Xer while another’s is so decrepit she can’t gin up an antibody response to flu vaccines — but her high-performing liver clears out alcohol so fast she can sip Negronis all night without getting tipsy.

Anyone over 30 knows that aging afflicts different body parts to different degrees. Yet most molecular theories of aging — telomere shortening, epigenome dysregulation, senescence-associated secreted proteins, take your pick — don’t distinguish among physiological systems and organs, instead viewing aging as systemic.

Nonsense, say scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine. In a study published on Monday in Nature Medicine, they conclude that just as people have an individual genotype, so too do they have an “ageotype,” a combination of molecular and other changes that are specific to one physiological system. These changes can be measured when the individual is healthy and relatively young, the researchers report, perhaps helping physicians to pinpoint the most important thing to target to extend healthy life.

“This really presents a new framework to think about aging,” said epidemiologist Norrina Bai Allen of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, an expert in the biology of aging who was not involved in the Stanford study. “It’s an important first step toward showing how different parts of a body in different people can age at different rates.”

Call it personalized medicine for aging. “Individuals are aging at different rates as well as potentially through different biological mechanisms,” or ageotypes, the Stanford scientists wrote.

“Of course the whole body ages,” said biologist Michael Snyder, who led the study. “But in a given individual, some systems age faster or slower than others. One person is a cardio-ager, another is a metabolic ager, another is an immune ager,” as shown by changes over time in nearly 100 key molecules that play a role in those systems. “There is quite a bit of difference in how individuals experience aging on a molecular level.”

Crucially, the molecular markers of aging do not necessarily cause clinical symptoms. The study’s “immune” agers had no immune dysfunction; “liver agers” did not have liver disease. Everyone was basically healthy.

If aging is truly personal, understanding an individual’s ageotype could lead to individualized, targeted intervention. “We think [ageotypes] can show what’s going off track the most so you can focus on that if you want to affect your aging,” Snyder said.

Cardio-agers, for instance, might benefit from tight cholesterol control, periodic ECGs, and screening for atrial fibrillation. Immune agers might benefit from diets and exercise to reduce inflammation.

Then again, they might not. The study did not follow people long enough to tell whether their aging biomarkers did them any harm, or were even harbingers of harm, let alone killed them, Feinberg’s Allen pointed out. “There needs to be a lot more work, and replication of the results,” before they can be the basis for anti-aging interventions, she said.

The short follow-up and small sample size — 106 people — gave other experts pause. One said he “will not comment on it in any way” and declined to elaborate.

One concern revolved around what might otherwise be the study’s strength: the dizzying number of measurements the scientists made on their volunteers, ages 29 to 75, over two to four years. Through blood and saliva and urine tests, genetic analyses, microbiome inspections of their nose and gut, and more, the scientists measured 10,343 genes, 306 blood proteins, 722 metabolites, and 6,909 microbes, among other things, and found they clustered into four ageotypes: liver, kidney, metabolic, and immune.

Different people had different “personal aging molecules” and “distinct aging pathways,” Snyder said. But just as every dish on a menu is unique but can be grouped into “meat” or “fish” or “vegan” or other category, so the molecules fell into the liver, kidney, metabolic, or immune ageotypes. (There is probably a cardio-ageotype and a neuro-ageotype, too, Snyder said, but they didn’t have enough data to characterize those.)

“That we don’t all age identically is well-established,” said biologist Judy Campisi of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, who has helped develop an “atlas” of aging biomarkers. But the new study “furthers our understanding of why.”

All told, the study generated 18 million data points. While that sounds impressive, it raises the risk that some markers seem to be part of one or another ageotype just by chance.

But Snyder said he is “quite confident” the biomarkers are not statistical artifacts. For one thing, the researchers initially found 184 of them. But using stricter statistics, they narrowed that to 87.

One surprise was that some measurements that increased with age when the participants were averaged decreased in some individuals, while some that fell with age in most people rose in a few. For instance, hemoglobin A1C (a marker of how well cells metabolize glucose) usually rises, and so is part of the metabolic ageotype. But in dozens of people it fell — another hint that different systems age at different rates in different people.

In many of those opposites, the reason might be healthy lifestyle changes. People whose A1C fell significantly, for example, either started eating a healthier diet or lost weight, both of which can improve glucose metabolism. “Lifestyle changes, and perhaps medications, can improve some markers of aging and alter an individual’s aging pattern,” said Snyder (who is 64 and has a metabolic ageotype). In fact, 15 people got biologically younger during the study.

That healthy habits can increase both lifespan and healthspan is not exactly news. But the ageotype approach might let people target their dominant aging pathway.

“The hope is that once you identify the main cause of an individual’s aging, it opens the door to interventions — exercise or diet or intermittent fasting or medications,” said Campisi. “Ideally, a 50-year-old could get a blood test and learn that his kidney is 60 but his heart is 40, and do something about [kidney aging]. This is a step in that direction.”