Chiricahua Community Health Centers, Inc. now offers free Medicare counseling to Cochise County


Published in the Sierra Vista Herald

SIERRA VISTA, AZ (July 11, 2017) – Through a partnership with Southeastern Arizona Government’s Organization (SEAGO), all 8 of Chiricahua Community Health Centers, Inc.’s certified application counselors are now additionally certified to provide Medicare counseling throughout Cochise County. Chiricahua’s enrollment specialists were already licensed through the Arizona Department of Insurance to application assist for all Department of Economic Security applications, AHCCCS and KidsCare, Federal Marketplace, and are HIPAA and CMS certified. Application assistance has always been offered to the public free of charge to patients of Chiricahua and non patients alike.

SEAGO is the area agency on aging for Cochise, Graham, Greenlee and Santa Cruz counties. They had reached out to Chiricahua for help in Cochise County in order to better use SEAGO’s resources to meet the need for Medicare counseling in all 4 counties. Chiricahua was well-situation to answer the call with certified application assisters in clinics throughout the county in Sierra Vista, Douglas, Bisbee, Elfrida, Benson and Willcox.

Laura Villa, the program manager for the Southeastern Arizona Government’s Organization and Area agency on Aging Southeastern Region VI said, “This will make such a difference in Cochise County. With all of the Chiricahua staff trained and certified by our SHIP/SMP coordinator, they are ready to cover Cochise County. This allows us to devote our resources to the other three counties that were not being reached previously. I am very grateful for Chiricahua’s assistance and appreciate all they do in our communities.”

Chiricahua began offering application assistance in 2011 after finding a need to help patients understand and navigate the Federal Health Insurance Marketplace. Jonathan Melk, MD chief executive officer for Chiricahua said, “Changes in the health insurance marketplace have been rapid, and confusing to nearly everyone. Bringing onboard certified application counselors has allowed us to provide the level of service that people really need to make informed decisions regarding their insurer.” Outreach and Enrollment Supervisor Leslie Robles said, “When someone has an employer sponsored health insurance, there is many times a benefit counselor on staff for larger companies that helps employees to navigate their own health benefits provided by the employer. However, when people are on government provided insurance, they are expected to navigate and understand their benefits on their own, even though they are usually much more complicated to sign up for and navigate than private plans. That is why this service to the community is so important.”

Chiricahua does not receive commission for signing people up for any government program or for Medicare counseling. The services offered is counseling only, as a nonprofit entity Chiricahua does not sell Medicare plans. However, the patient population of Chiricahua used to be 50 percent uninsured. Five years after employing fulltime application counselors at every clinic, Chiricahua’s insured patient population was down to 33 percent of the patient base. This reduction not only makes Chiricahua more viable and help cover the cost of filling these positions, but patients who have chronic illnesses or specialized needs can seek care beyond the primary care services Chiricahua provides.

Chiricahua’s application counselors now can also assist seniors in navigating though the Social Security system. The need for education on both Medicare and Social Security systems have been clear to Chiricahua staff as they have worked with patients throughout the county.

A senior eligible for Medicare must sign up in their window, three months before their 65th birthday and three months after that birthday to sign up for Medicare parts A&B. If they miss that window they will be charged a $10 penalty for every month until they are signed up. This penalty will be removed from their Social Security check for life. It cannot be stressed enough the importance of signing up for Medicare parts A & B within the window.

Robles said, “Many people don’t realize until after they have been penalized that the penalty does not go away. That is why it’s so important to sign up in your 6 month Medicare window. Our mission is to help educate the population of Cochise County so they can avoid penalties and have access to the health care coverage they are entitled to.”

Chiricahua Community Health Centers, Inc. is a mission-driven Federally Qualified Health Center and is a tax exempt not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization. It was founded as a grassroots community effort in 1996 as a makeshift clinic in Elfrida’s small community center and has since grown to be the largest primary care organization in southeastern Arizona. Chiricahua Community Health Centers currently has seven clinics in Bisbee, Douglas, Elfrida and Sierra Vista and four mobile medical and dental units that serve rural Cochise County.
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