Each day, about 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 in this country, making them eligible for Medicare. Riffling through the sign-up forms, many fear they’ve already lost their marbles.
“People come in saying, ‘I feel so stupid,’ or, ‘I feel so lost,’ ” said Linda Walker, a social worker in Minneapolis who has worked with senior populations for years. “It just made me mad that the process makes people feel incompetent.
“A big part of my job is to empower people to make decisions. I thought, ‘Somebody’s got to step up and figure this out.’ ”
Several years ago, Walker decided to boldly go where most fear to tread. She dove into the thick reams of regulations, determined to make sense of Part D’s and networks and IRMAs (that’s an income-related monthly adjustment). Now she helps about 400 people a year find their way through the bureaucratic thicket that is Medicare.
While there are volunteers staffing health insurance counseling sites throughout the state, as well as online resources, Walker’s personal mission to empower consumers is unusual, said Jeff Smith, communications director for Volunteers of America-Minnesota.
And the need will only grow.
Walker, 62, is a pint-size dynamo with a no-nonsense manner of speaking that still manages to convey camaraderie — and confidence. She never tells a client what to do, but lays out several best options for their situation. “You get to decide,” she said.
It’s not that such regulations are meant to confuse, she said. People who come up with things like IRMAs are well-intentioned. But having to choose from among dozens of different plans, hit deadlines and avoid penalties, all conveyed in a language that at times may as well be foreign, can throw even savvy people into tailspins. And all while they’re facing the reality of a 65th birthday.
Walker has been a social worker for almost 40 years, graduating from what’s now St. Catherine University. “I’ve been working with seniors the whole time,” she said. “It’s the only population I ever considered working with and the one I love the best.”
The Medicare questions change as the regulations change, requiring her to stay constantly updated. She’s also teaching a class on Feb. 23 through Minneapolis Community Education called “Medicare ABC’s & D.”
“Nobody’s got a crystal ball,” she said. “But I try to help people look ahead.”
Volunteers of America was founded in 1896, initially to care for people in poverty. It’s now among the country’s largest and most comprehensive human services organizations. The Southwest Senior Center at 3612 Bryant Av. S., where Walker works, receives funds from the United Way and the Schulze Family Foundation, which enables her to offer her services at no cost.
While Walker has Medicare expertise, she also helps people who come in with other issues. “This isn’t my only game,” she said, laughing.
“I just want to empower people to make the best decisions they can.”