5 Tips for Better Health Care for Seniors

Posted at 12:00 AM, Aug 20, 2012
and last updated 2012-08-06 17:19:06-04

by Jeanne Faulkner, Contributor –

Many seniors are blindsided by the price of health care. Doctors are jumping ship on Medicare, leaving patients wondering where to turn. What’s the problem? Many doctors simply can’t afford to treat Medicare patients. Others are electing not to specialize in treating the elderly at all.

Currently, there’s only one geriatrician for every 2,500 seniors. Preston Peterson, MD, Geriatric Specialist at the Legacy Clinic in Portland, Ore. put it this way: “The paperwork Medicare requires for reimbursement and the small amount they’ll pay, combined with the more complicated, time-consuming care seniors need, means doctors lose money. Virtually all geriatricians take Medicare, but we don’t plan on making the same income other specialists do. Few medical students go into geriatrics.”

A lack of geriatric specialists is only one of the many problems facing seniors today. Here are five things seniors can do to protect their health and prepare for a long, healthy retirement.

1. It’s never too late to get healthy
It’s easier to prevent an illness or injury than to recover from it. Protect your health by eating right, exercising regularly, controlling stress, limiting alcohol intake and not smoking. Experts agree: No matter what age you are when you start exercising and quit bad habits, your health will improve significantly. The National Institute of Health provides resources and guidelines for senior fitness and smoking cessation. And be sure to check out our Healthy Living Programs–there’s one for senior health and for quitting smoking, too.

2. Establish care with a primary care physician before you turn 65
Look for an internal medicine or family practice physicians with a geriatric specialty. Many doctors won’t take new patients with Medicare insurance. If you’re already an established patient before Medicare kicks in, you have a better chance of remaining in their care.

When looking for a new provider, use our Provider Search tool, visit the Medicare site, ask for referrals from friends, and call state medical associations and local hospitals.

If you’d like more information about Medicare plans, find an informational event near you. Here’s a listing of plan-specific events–there may be one coming up near you.

3. Start early and prepare for long-term
A report by Fidelity Insurance speculates that seniors should have saved at least $240,000 for out-of-pocket and long-term health care expenses even if they have medical insurance. While that’s an unrealistic goal for many Americans, long-term care insurance, especially if purchased during your early 50’s, might be a good investment.

AARP puts it this way: “Long-term care refers to the many services beyond medical care and nursing care people with disabilities or chronic illnesses require. Long-term care insurance helps pay for these services. A policy also ensures you can make your own choices about what long-term care services you receive and where you receive them.” What’s covered? Policies vary, but you can expect:

  • Help in your home with daily activities like bathing, dressing, eating and cleaning
  • Community programs, such as adult day care
  • Assisted living services–e.g., meals, health monitoring, and help with daily activities–provided in a special residential setting other than your own home
  • Visiting nurses
  • Care in a nursing home

Dr. Peterson says: “These policies aren’t cheap, but today’s current costs for assisted living facilities range from $2000-$5000 per month, not including medical care. That’s unaffordable for many people.”

4. Support government policies that support seniors
Encourage government representatives to support legislation that improves senior healthcare. For example, Democratic senators introduced an important piece of legislation in the House and Senate in January 2009. The “Retooling the Healthcare Workforce for an Aging America Act” addresses the growing, nationwide shortage of physicians, nurses, healthcare professionals, and direct care workers to meet seniors’ unique healthcare needs. It also better prepares family and caregivers who provide care to millions of older Americans.

Dr. Peterson says, “It’s going to require a total overhaul of the healthcare system to solve the problem of providing for the huge number of seniors who will need care.”

5. Negotiate for services
If your doctor no longer accepts Medicare, it may be possible to find a price for services that you’ll both be happy with. Some doctors may be willing to tailor prices to what patients can afford, especially for a patient of long standing who doesn’t require insurance claims.

It’ll take time to work out all the details on how to care for our aging population. But a proactive approach can help you prepare for your golden years. And remember, seniors with immediate medical needs can find care at urgent care facilities and emergency rooms–most accept Medicare.