Mushing Medicare Mavens Bring Benefits to Alaska Natives
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Mushing Medicare Mavens Bring Benefits to Alaska Natives

May 25, 2011

Among the 2.4 million American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) living in the United States, nearly 200,000 are over the age of 65. One in five AI/AN seniors lives at or below the Federal poverty level—more than double the rate for seniors of all races as a whole. Linguistic, geographic, and cultural isolation mean that many states find it hard to enroll eligible AI/AN seniors into benefits programs. In Alaska, strong community partnerships and a comprehensive strategy of engaging tribes has allowed the state to overcome these barriers—and can provide a model for effective benefits outreach and enrollment to other states with significant AI/AN populations.    

What are they doing?

Benefits outreach, screening, and application assistance is carried out through a collaborative effort between the Medicare Information Office and many community and tribal partners. Alaska’s Medicare Information Office houses the State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP), Senior Medicare Patrol (SMP) and Medicare Improvements for Patients and Providers Act (MIPPA) grantee. Located within Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services, the office collaborates with many other agencies serving senior and those with disabilities, such as Medicaid, the Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC), and long-term care coordinator. In addition, two community-based organizations—the Older Persons’ Action Group and Anchorage Senior Activities Center—assist with Medicare counseling.

“Alaska Natives are very aware of services and supports such as Medicaid, Head Start, and Denali KidCare, the state’s Children’s Health Insurance Program,” Judith Bendersky notes. “There are knowledgeable resource people in rural and Alaska Native communities.” Bendersky and her colleagues—who jokingly refer to themselves as the “Mushing Medicare Mavens”—draw upon this knowledge when employing their approach to outreach with Alaska Natives:

  • Find out who’s who and inspire them. Establishing trusting relationships with Alaska Native leaders is instrumental to helping access services for families and the community. But Bendersky notes that it’s not only elders who need to be engaged. Bendersky’s team has found that identifying alternative health resources, admissions, registration or benefits counselors, or IHS intake staff with enthusiasm for the cause helps to make inroads into a tribe. As she says, “Elders don’t want an outsider to come in and tell them what to do. But if you share good information about bringing better health care to AI/AN communities through young people, you can develop the capacity within the tribe to enroll people and bring additional resources to the hospitals and clinics.”
  • Highlight the benefits of benefits. One publication that Bendersky has found useful in conducting outreach to Alaska Natives is the brochure Bringing Better Health Care to Native Communities developed by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The publication explains how specific benefit programs can help people to stay healthy and save money on their medical services. Additionally, in messages developed in collaboration with Alaskan Native communities, the Medicare Information Office stresses the idea that benefits allow tribes to preserve their limited funds and focus those funds on their priorities.
  • Allow for adaptation. Bendersky’s team developed a simple one-page flyer, Extra Help Paying for Medicare, and trained tribal staff on the programs. The staff and local volunteers are given flexibility to translate and adapt the flyer to make the messages work with the tribes. “When you engage a local person to translate, they’re much more likely to disseminate it and be enthusiastic about sharing it with their communities.”

What is the result thus far?

Many Alaskan Natives are accessing services thanks to the strategy described above.

As of March 2011, Alaska’s MIPPA grantee has submitted nearly 1,000 applications for the Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy and Medicare Savings Program, exceeding their initial goal by 300% and connecting low-income Alaskans to over $2.5 million in benefits. Bendersky credits this success in part to her office’s partnerships with “those who really want what’s best for seniors.”

Moreover, the state’s person-centered approach to benefits access has meant that clients are connected to benefits beyond LIS and MSP. Counselors ask anyone they come into contact with whether they are warm enough or need food, and in that way direct them to other benefits that can support their health and economic well-being.

For more information

Judith Bendersky, MPH
Medicare Information Office
Alaska Department of Health & Social Services
550 W. 8th Avenue
Anchorage, AK 99501
(907) 269-3669


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