It’s a mad, mad, mad, Medicare system

Part 1: our protagonist gets Mad (the magazine)

  • By
  • Contributor
  • April 11, 2011

The following is the first in a series of regular reports from Guest Contributor Glenn Tornell, who will be posting his observations about Medicare as he navigates the system as a prospective enrollee and then – with any luck – a beneficiary. Names have not been changed to protect the innocent.


All I know about Medicare is what I read in the papers. And it all seems very depressing.

To quote Alfred E. Neuman, MAD Magazine’s coverboy and my generation’s voice of uncommon sense: “Medical insurance is what allows people to be ill at ease!”

Approaching the dark side of 64, I’m beginning to slouch towards Medicare myself, and I’m a bit squeamish about the whole thing. Aging and Medicare.

After a lifetime of ignoring just about everything surrounding Medicare except puzzling over those mysterious FICA taxes that came out of my regular paychecks, I’ve started to take a peek into what some cynics might call the heart of that darkness: Federalized Medicine.

Okay, that’s a bit dramatic. But so are the circumstances.

For example, according to the news, Medicare is massively under-funded – some estimate by $23 TRILLION, a figure only a politician could explain. That’s 23 followed by 12 zeros.

Medicare fraud, meanwhile – estimated to total more than $60 billion a year – has become one of the most profitable crimes in America, topping illegal drugs and setting oil prices.

Another heart stopper: the first of the “Baby Boomers,” the 77 million Americans born from 1946 through 1964, started turning 65 this year. That parade will continue for the next 19 years until the number of people eligible for Medicare will nearly double, from 47 million to 80 million.That’s more than the population of Germany.

“What, me worry?” (To the uninitiated, that’s another Alfred E. Neumanism.)

Help from above (above age 65) …

I can’t enter this abyss on my own, so I corner two of my “seasoned citizen” friends who’ve already signed up for Medicare. They should know.

“How difficult is it, signing up?” I ask each of them on separate occasions.

Like androids, both reply to my question using the exact same words “It’s easier than signing up for Social Security. You do it online. It takes just 10 minutes.”

That’s comforting, but their echoes sound too rehearsed. Is this some kind of conspiracy? A plot to lure me into a bureaucratic healthcare spiderweb? These guys, my so-called friends, are even wearing uniforms: black socks, sandals, baggy Bermuda shorts. And they don’t look that healthy.

Okay, that’s ridiculous. But I’ve got to get some more detailed information. So I take my first step by Googling the Medicare web site.

… and beyond

Looks pretty clean and simple. And what a surprise. Right there in black and white: It’s easy. You do it online. It takes just 10 minutes.

I shrug and download the basic self-help booklet “Medicare & You.”

Whoa. It’s 136 pages, in color, with lots of multicultural photos.  With a recession, inflation and a pensioner’s income, I can’t afford to print that many pages, especially from the public library’s computer, where they charge 10 cents a page.  That’s $13.60. Besides, I don’t want to read this stuff online. At my age, it might lead to cataracts, a common bane of geezers.

So I call the toll-free telephone number (1-800-MEDICARE) listed on the Web site to request a dead-tree version of the booklet. After listening to a short pitch for flu shots, and something I didn’t understand in Spanish, a pleasant automated voice asks me for my Medicare number.

Well, I don’t have one. I’m not on Medicare yet. That’s why I’m calling. So I don’t respond. Again, the calm, digital voice asks me for my Medicare number. Again I’m mum. (Wondering, how long will this go on)

Finally, the automated system kicks me into its main menu, where the voice prompts to me to select a topic from a list of choices. I pick publications.

“Do you want to chose from our 10 most popular publications?”

I say yes.

The #1 most popular publication, the voice says, is “Choosing A Medigap Policy: A Guide To Health Insurance For People With Medicare.” Do you want to order it? I say yes again.

Sorry, the voice says, this item is currently unavailable.

You’ve got to be kidding.

The voice then asks if I would like to order the second most popular item, “Medicare & You.”

Yes! And finally, I’m put through to a representative who will take my order.

After a short wait, a recording announces: “All representatives are currently busy. The wait will be approximately … 10 minutes.”

Off to the federal building

Forget it. I’ll go downtown Fargo and pick up a copy at the Social Security Office in the Federal Building.

It’s a short 10-minute drive on a lazy weekday afternoon and I find a parking spot in front of the staid old monument, just a block south of the Salvation Army.  For a geographic reference point, the building is just down the street from the Quentin N. Burdick U.S. Courthouse where in 1977 American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier received two consecutive life terms in federal prison for the murders of two FBI special agents following occupation of Wounded Knee. It was in all the newspapers.

I, however, just want a Medicare booklet. Nevertheless, three unformed armed guards inside the federal building check my ID then order me to empty my pockets. I pass through a metal detector without incident, then take the elevator to the third floor.

There it is, the Social Security office, my shield against the vulnerabilities of time. The door is wallpapered with warnings about threatening federal workers and carrying guns in a federal facility. No welcome mat. The room inside, about the size of a single car garage, is painted institutional white, flooded by a harsh florescent glare.

It’s empty but for a single uniformed armed guard sitting behind a government surplus desk. No inspirational depictions here of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or FDR. Very Kafkaesque, very cold, very federal.

The guard says: “Take a number.”

Take a number? I’m the only guy in the room.

I explain I’m just looking for some information. I notice a magazine rack in the corner. It’s mostly empty, except for a few information sheets dated 2009. At the bottom of the rack, however, are two copies of “Medicare & You,” one of them upside down. I take the upside down one, finally getting my prize.

The guard is polite, and tells me to have a nice day.

I leave wondering if I’ve just left the Twilight Zone.

If you can’t beat ’em, enroll

But as the fresh air hits me while I cross the streets, the scent of spring and a couple kids playing catch on the tree-lined sidewalk triggers a flashback: me and a handful of neighborhood kids playing sandlot baseball in the empty park behind my house. None of us had a care in the world then. Doesn’t seem that long ago.

Later that day, I see this little item in the news: “Two in seven Medicare patients, almost 30 percent, are at risk of leaving the hospital dead or, at the very least, worse than when they went in, according to a government study.”

That brings to mind a bumper sticker I once saw on the rear window of an old pickup truck: “Quit worrying about your health! It will go away.”

Trying to revive my juvenile confidence, I head to a drugstore to see if MAD is still on the magazine stands. Yes, there’s Alfred E. Neuman on the cover, sporting that familiar half-witted, gap-toothed grin.

What, me worry?

I decide not to resist the inevitable. I’ll just jump aboard with the 47 million other old-timers on the Medicare Express, change my attitude and hope for the best. Hey, maybe I’ll get one of those free scooters!


Check out Part 2 of the series:
Medicare: a good deal for seniors, politicians and crooks