Officials with the state Aging and Long-Term Services Department are urging New Mexico seniors who want to participate in the federal Medicare program in 2021 to begin making appointments for consultations as the annual enrollment period approaches.

Cabinet Secretary Katrina Hotrum-Lopez and Joseph Tschanz, head of the Aging and Disability Resource Center, said in a virtual news conference Wednesday they have concerns about reaching seniors, especially rural residents, during the coronavirus pandemic to ensure they are on the right plan for their medical and financial needs.

About 450,000 New Mexicans over the age of 65 or with a disability are forecast to enroll in Medicare for coverage of their health care expenses.

In most years, agency workers are able to meet with Medicare patients at senior centers or other community venues to ensure they are enrolled in the right plan for the coming year. Otherwise, they could find themselves unable to obtain critical prescription drugs or could miss out on a chance to save money, officials said.

But the pandemic makes such forums impossible.

“This year, it’s even more critical that we connect with Medicare recipients via COVID-safe outreach efforts,” Tschanz said.

Open Medicare enrollment runs from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7, but Hotrum-Lopez said New Mexico residents can begin calling the resource center at 800-432-2080 Thursday to set up appointments.

Making plan changes “can save time, money and headaches,” she said.

“Medicare is extremely critical,” Hotrum-Lopez said.

“We do not want our seniors to have to worry about their health care,” she added. “… It’s important for us to get ahead of it. It’s really a matter of life and death.”

Tschanz said each phone consultation with a counselor generally lasts an hour. Callers should have a list of medications on hand but do not need to present their Medicare card number during the call.

He warned about the possibility of scammers calling to obtain that information and cautioned Medicare recipients not to give their number over the phone.

Many people wait until the last days of the enrollment period to make consultation appointments, Tschanz said, which is “problematic because we have a limited number of benefit counselors.”

About 61.2 million people nationwide are enrolled in Medicare. Hotrum-Lopez said 425,000 New Mexicans enrolled last year and more are expected to join every year.

New Mexico is expected to have the fourth-highest rate of seniors in the nation by 2030, she said.

“A lot of our seniors live in poverty,” she said, “and Medicare is really important because we hear horrific stories about people having to decide between buying medication or paying for rent or heat.”

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

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