Last fall, I attended a family funeral with my cousins and Aunt. She lives just down the street from my mother in Millinocket, Maine. My Uncle and my father both worked at the paper mill there, which was owned by Georgia Pacific at the time of their retirements. Their respective unions negotiated healthcare benefits and they sacrificed other benefits to get great insurance coverage. When they retired, they and their surviving spouses were promised those benefits for life. In 2005, Koch Industries bought GP. My aunt told me that their insurance was changing, and that the enrollment had to be completed in the next several weeks. So much for the excellent comprehensive lifetime benefit. I’m confidant that this decision puts more $$$$$$ in the Koch brothers pockets. But, how does this affect seniors in my mother’s and Aunt’s neighborhood.
Many of these seniors are sick, disabled, and/or they have hearing, cognitive and other problems that makes this change difficult or impossible for them. They needed assistance getting through the insurance exchange process, and some of them have no one to help. Because many of these surviving wives, including my mother, had never dealt with insurance, and because it is so complex, I handled this new insurance enrollment for my mother who is 87 years old. I am her Power of Attorney. The letters and instructions, booklets, and rules, and so called choices, and all the other ‘stuff’ of insurance started to roll in. Their old plan through GP was simple, never changed, required no filling in of forms, and offered a $2 copay for any and all prescriptions. They had this great coverage for almost 30 years. The people who are affected by this insurance change are all in their 80s and 90s.
Herbie Clark, the long time former State Representative for the Millinocket region started hearing about problems that these seniors were having with enrollment. Then some colleagues at the Area Agency on Aging in Bangor told me that they had received many calls from concerned and confused seniors about this issue. They tried to get some general information from GP so they could help the seniors. They were basically told to butt out and nobody would tell them anything unless they were a retiree or the survivor/beneficiary of one. Herbie started going to people’s home’s to help them through this exhausting, complex and lengthy process of enrolling. My mother’s enrollment took me 4.5 hours…and entire afternoon, and it was riddled with errors. So far, Herbie has helped over 60 seniors get through this process. There was so much angst and confusion about this insurance business that I suggested community meetings about it. Herbie and the AAA arranged the first meetings and I attended (I live 70 miles away). One was held in Millinocket and one in East Millinocket just 8 miles away. About 40 seniors showed up. The AAA gave some great advice about medicare benefits and how their new insurance would work with it and Herbie gave what information he had, but those seniors had questions about Why?? How come a benefit that they had negotiated in good faith and worked and sacrificed for, could just be changed out of the blue like this?? They were angry…so am I! Rep Mike Michaud’s aide attended this meeting also. Mike is running for governor this year.
Susan from Mike’s office arranged for a GP rep and and Extend Care (the contracted insurance exchange company) rep to come to Millinocket for two more meetings in the two communities, to answer some questions and address problems. Everyone on the list of beneficiaries was sent a letter about the meeting, but they were told to attend ONLY if they had not yet enrolled. In other words, “don’t come to complain”. So, attendance was not what it could have been. There were probably 30 people at the Millinocket meeting and fewer at the East Millinocket meeting. We asked the tough questions, but nobody answered the question “Why would you change this insurance now, at our age?” Their weak response was “We wanted to offer you more choices!” These seniors made their choice about 30 years ago and they had been perfectly happy with that choice. Nobody in the room wanted any new choices. We were told that about 30% of the affected and eligable seniors had not enrolled yet, and this was just a few weeks before the enrollment deadline. We worried that these seniors would fall through the cracks and asked for a list of those people. We were denied a list because of HIPAA privacy laws. I wondered how worried those people would be about HIPAA when their insurance is gone. 30% of 600 is 180 people with a benefit worth between $3500 and $4000 per year…that is around $720,000 that GP/Koch can keep if the benefit is not claimed. I really do wonder how much HIPAA has to do with this decision to not give us names so we could help find and enroll these seniors.
When my father died 5 years ago, he went with the comfort of knowing that my mother had great insurance coverage, a comfortable savings account, and a solid nice home that she owned outright. He would be livid about this change. My mother’s first visit to the drug store after her insurance changed shocked her. Her cortisone nasal spray went from $2 to $95! She left it on the counter, and the concerned pharmacist called me at home. I was sold a policy that did not cover her medicine, even though they had a list of all her medicines. Because I got such a run around from Blue Cross about this, the only option was to call her doc and ask for a comparable medicine. That one cost $11. My friend Herbie has told me many similar and worse stories. Many of the seniors who are affected by this change are living on the edge financially. They are now required to pay a higher copay, or full price for their medicines and they must pay the insurance premiums up front, to be reimbursed down the line. This may mean financial ruin for these elderly people, or that they will be forced to choose between rent/food/heat and medicine.
This corporate decision and action by Georgia Pacific, owned by Koch, borders on elder abuse. This is an unforgivable burden placed on elderly people in my hometown and region ……by all appearances, to make rich people richer. Unforgivable.
ADDENDUM: I wrote this blog in early 2014. Since then, my mother has had numerous incidents at the Pharmacy including reaching the “donut hole” which I was told would not happen with the plan chose. An inhaler she uses to keep her from having asthma attacks was not covered and would cost her $150 until her new plan year started. She didn’t buy it and left it on the counter. This lead to the pharmacist calling her doctor. Her doctor then called me concerned about my mother’s memory, which is not good, but she does incredibly well with help from neighbors and my family. People with dementia need routine and consistency, and this new Koch insurance plan changed everything about her medicines, and did not meet my mother’s needs. Because of that, her doctor questioned whether my mother should even be driving? My mothers driving is excellent, as witnessed by me and her neighbors, and she never leaves her tiny community. All of this discomfort and confusion is just part of the snowball effect of complex, tricky, expensive and NON comprehensive insurance that was forced onto my mother and 599 other northern Maine elders by a remote, detached, cold hearted and greedy corporation. Again…Unforgivable.