Turning 50… and Already On Medicare For Six Years

I turned 50 years old today.  I can’t figure out where the time went !  I certainly don’t feel ‘old’, and think that 50 is the new 30, even with the physical limitations I’ve had for years.  I’ve never been one to get all depressed or stressed by ‘big’ birthdays- 21, 30, 40…. but I’m not so sure I like this one.  I started falling apart physically quite a while ago.  It makes me a bit nervous that things could slide downhill more quickly now.  😦   Mortality gets much more real.

I’ve heard (and said) that a lot of how old someone ‘really’ is depends a lot on how old they feel mentally, and how old they ‘think’.  My head still feels like I’m in my late 20s.  My body has felt older than dirt since the mid-90s, before I turned 40.  But I don’t ‘think’ old.  I’ve had to deal with chronic health issues and Medicare since my early 40s (and it takes TWO YEARS after being approved for Social Security Disability before Medicare is an option- medically disabled, with no medical care for 2 years). The list of medical issues still hasn’t changed how old I ‘think’.  I have started thinking more about how I’ll manage if my body falls ‘more’ apart.  But my mental outlook is still pretty youngish.

My dad and I went out for lunch the other day (I rarely go out to eat because of the thermostats at most restaurants being set too high for me to be able to stay conscious, even with the ice vest).  I was really excited, as we went to a favorite Swedish restaurant that I’ve been quite fond of since I was a kid.  I mentioned to the waitress that it was the first stop in my 50th birthday celebration, and she was surprised that I was going to be 50… said I looked MUCH younger (quite nice of her).  I don’t have any wrinkles, and my hair is kept short on purpose to avoid being overheated, so the gray at my temples isn’t all that noticeable (though it is definitely there !).  That felt good- at least I don’t look ‘older’.

I’ve already gone through several life-threatening events/diseases (6-hour rape and beating when I was 23, leukemia and 19 months of chemo at 46, etc, blood clots in my right lung – all three lobes and right pulmonary artery), and have chronic illnesses that have required life adjustments or are disabling: diabetes at 31, dysautonomia diagnosed at age 32, epilepsy diagnosed at age 22, degenerative joint disease at 43, chronic pain/fibromyalgia at 32, chronic headaches since I was in high school, osteoarthritis at age 43,  degenerative disc disease at 43, yadda, yadda, yadda.  I’ve been disabled since early 2004. The chemo for the leukemia has made several of the pre-cancer disorders worse.  It sometimes gets a bit scary to think that I could become more of a train wreck with ‘normal’ aging.  I’ve recently been diagnosed with neuropathy in my legs (they’re literally losing muscle mass that is now visible).  They have been getting progressively weaker for a couple of years- since/during the chemo.  If I don’t have a shopping cart at the grocery store, I can’t  get through the building on my own.  Standing in line means increasing leg pain, and feeling like they’re turning to jello in terms of strength.

I’ve been on Medicare since I was nearly 44.  Though I’d dealt with Medicare as a nurse before becoming disabled, being ON Medicare is a totally different kind of circus.

Medicare costs a LOT to have.  People get the idea that it’s a free government program.  That is wrong.  First, working people pay into Medicare every paycheck in the form of Medicare taxes. For some people, it does cost to get Medicare part A  ($441/month in 2013) if specific situations apply. Those who paid into ‘the system’ while working don’t have to pay a part A premium.  Part A pays for a large portion of hospitalization charges  and rehab in a skilled nursing facility, home health care,  hospice, and inpatient care in a religious non medical health care institution.  If someone is admitted to a  hospital for ‘observation’, that doesn’t count as a hospital ‘admission’, so the charges come out of pocket !  In either case, Medicare doesn’t cover %100 of the costs.

Then there is a part B premium (around $110 per month), and covers outpatient doctor visits, various health screenings, ambulance charges, ambulatory surgical centers, diabetes education and blood sugar testing supplies, some chiropractor services, durable medical equipment (like walkers, wheelchairs, prosthetic items), emergency department visits, flu shots, and several other services- generally at %80 coverage.  That leaves %20 to be covered by the patient.  That can add up quickly.

The part D (prescription drug plan, or PDP) can cost a varying amounts. Because of my cancer history and extensive medication list, I get the highest level of benefit plan I can- so about $80/month.  It really pays to shop around.  One of my chemo drugs for the leukemia (that had no alternate option) was about $10,000 per MONTH.  With the PDP I had at the time, my co-pay was over $450 per month.  I’m on many, many other medications including insulin which doesn’t have a generic option.  When the social worker at the oncologist’s office helped me find a different PDP company, all generics- including that $10K drug- had a $0 copay when ordered through the mail-order pharmacy. But I couldn’t change to the new plan until open enrollment that begins in October… I left the hospital in May. Fortunately, a pharmacy agreed to help me after the Lymphoma and Leukemia Society agreed to help (which they later reneged on).  That pharmacy ended up ‘eating’ the cost, as I had no way to pay for it.

Part C refers to Medicare advantage plans. They’re great if you never get sick and have no chronic health issues.  Medicare contracts with private insurance companies to deal with the paperwork.  They are often very reasonable in terms of premiums, and often include the PDPs.  I’ve been on advantage plans, and while they look great on paper, with a 6 week hospital stay for the beginning of the leukemia treatment, the copays added up in a hurry.  I’m still paying off one hospital bill, 3 1/2 years later.  The cost for that inpatient stay was over $300K.  The plan paid a LOT.  But it still left a lot of out of pocket expenses… nobody plans on having something bad happening.   I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to plan for the worst and hope for the best.  I’ve had to file bankruptcy in the past (before the leukemia)  because of medical bills.  No credit card shopping sprees, no trips to wonderful places…. ‘just’ medical bills.  Getting extra disability insurance is also a huge help when it’s needed.  I have always insured myself to the hilt when I was working, and until my last job, never needed it.  But it’s literally keeping me living on my own at this point; disability from Social Security isn’t enough to live on with medical expenses.

Then there is the Medicare supplement plan (or Medigap) to cover the costs Medicare doesn’t pay for.  The first few days of any inpatient hospitalization generally cost the patient at least $200 per day (and there may be a several thousand dollar deductible).  There are also portions of physician charges, lab/x-ray/test costs, pharmacy costs, etc.  The supplement helps pay some or all of those charges, depending on what  level of  benefits someone decides to get in a supplement.  I go all out with my supplement plan (Plan F- all companies have the same coverage for each level of supplement insurance, so it comes down to premium cost and deductibles). I have NO co-pays for any inpatient or outpatient medical situation.  That will cost $325/month this coming year (2014)…and my insulin is about $50/month (not including syringes/supplies).  The MONTHLY total to be on Medicare (for me) is over $515.  On disability income. But, I know that I’m not going to have ‘extra’ medical costs.  That’s a sort of peace of mind that really doesn’t have a price tag.

Plan as if you will someday lose your job for medical reasons (and pray you won’t !).  If the time comes (and nobody ever knows if a car wreck, disease, or other medical problem will creep up on them), you will NOT regret having paid the premiums for all of those years.  And shop around with Medicare supplements and drug plans.  It makes a huge difference as well.

What NOT To Say To Someone Who Is Disabled or Dealing With a Serious Illness

I think most people are trying to be helpful or supportive when they make comments to someone about their health and/or treatments, but there are some things that  those who have not experienced the situation should just stay quiet about.  Some things are just not helpful, and some are ‘enough’ to ruin a relationship.  These are some of my ‘just don’t say it’ things:

1.  “You look OK.”… to me, that means “there must not be anything wrong with her- she’s just a wimp and making a big deal out of nothing”.  You spend a day in my body, and get back to me.  Diabetes, seizures, neuropathy, chronic pain, migraines, degenerative joint and disc disease, and a multitude of other disorders have no outward symptoms that scream out their identity.  There is a fine line between “You look OK.” and “You look good”.  When “You look good” is said following a long fight with an illness or its treatments, and someone is ‘coming back’ to their ‘usual’ self, I never found that offensive.  It’s a totally different situation.  But “You look OK” = “buck up and get with the program, you sloth.”   Trust me.  I’ve tried the best I can, and managed to get 8 years more to work with the initial medications (once the right ones were figured out). Going on disability was NOT my idea.  My employer at the time told me they couldn’t have me around (go figure, I was passing out all the time).

2. “Your doctors sound like idiots.” (opinion usually based on the online ‘research’ that is mostly from sites that are trying to sell a product– and have an 800 number at the bottom of the page, and/or ‘proven’ by someone with a plumbing or agriculture background).   Many times, this is ‘pushing’ some sort of Eastern or alternative medicine instead of the treatments that have been researched and gone through trials, with proven success rates that are better than not having that particular medication or treatment for that specific problem.  I have no issue with alternative medications, and use homeopathic headache medication as well as herbs and supplements for headache prevention/ minimization … but I have run those past my doctors before taking them. I also use Western medications for the same problem.  While I was on chemo, I took NOTHING that my oncologist didn’t approve.  There were very specific things I couldn’t have because of the type of chemo I was on.  There was  a massage/aromatherapy person who came by every day I was in the hospital, so some alternative things were offered.  I’ve been offered various products/ideas to replace medications by well-meaning friends.  Here’s the thing- it’s my body.  I trust who I trust, and it’s not someone online I’ve never met.  It’s not someone who has never seen me or my test results.  It’s not someone who has no interest in me if I don’t buy their products. When I have decided to switch doctors, it was MY decision based on how I felt about the care I was getting.  And, I never trust anybody who has credit card acceptance comments and images at the bottom of their ‘professional’ page.

I must admit, I have been annoyed by doctors I’ve heard about and gone off the rails with my responses- but once discussing the situation with the person- and I more fully understood what was going on, all was well- and bottom line, I respected their gut feeling about what was going on.  🙂 But, nobody needs to hear that their doctors are idiots… they’re depending on those doctors to be sure they’re still going to have a normal lifespan.

3.  “You should/shouldn’t eat X, Y, or Z.”  During chemo, it could have been lethal to eat fresh fruits and vegetables that someone else didn’t peel, because of the microbes that can still be on them even after washing. Because of the immune system ‘attacks’ from chemo (and in the case of the leukemia I had, the cancer itself long before the chemo kicked in), there are times when an otherwise harmless ‘bug’ could cause a fatal infection. Produce is covered in ‘normal’ bacteria, fungi, spores, and viruses- a normal immune system handles them with no problem (they can’t all be washed off).   And when my absolute neutrophil count (ANC) was below a specific number, I couldn’t have any fresh unpeeled produce around (and wasn’t given permission to peel them myself even with a mask and gloves– the risk was just too great).  I’d already had a couple of nasty infections from otherwise puny things that caused delays in chemo and/or the need for extremely potent IV antibiotics for 5 straight weeks, or antivirals for 3 weeks (BAD ear/neck infection,  and shingles during the first year).  Normally, fresh produce is felt to help prevent certain cancers… but with chemo and the effects on the immune system, it is critical to not violate the food rules !  It’s all temporary.  Better to go with what is likely not to cause more problems !  When it’s not potentially lethal, then of course- fresh foods are the way to go 🙂  There was also a very strict ‘don’t eat’ on things with a lot of Vitamin A, since one of my primary chemo medications (ATRA) was essentially a form of Vitamin A in mega form.  Vitamin A is fat soluble, and can become toxic in the body since it builds up (so can E, D, and K).   I had very specific instructions about not eating Vitamin A ‘heavy’ foods (carrots were a particular ‘loss’).

4. “Oh, disability must be just like an early retirement!”  Seriously?  People think this is some sort of ‘perk’ ?  My life was taken from me in terms of everything I knew to be my normal life.  I still grieve the loss of being a  working RN.  I’m having to make 2/3 of my income ‘work’.  I can’t leave home without medical equipment.  I have 32 pills to take on a ‘good day’ when I don’t have to take anything for an ‘as needed’ situation.  I’ve had to deal with Medicaid (a joke- they don’t help much at all, and it’s humiliating to need it), Medicare (very expensive to be on), the Part D prescription plan (which limits my access to the best insulins due to cost), the legal system, with bankruptcy prior to Medicare (extremely shameful to have to do that), etc.  It’s been hell.  Yes, I have many things to be thankful for- but this is no picnic.  I’d much rather be doing 40 hours a week and being useful. Now, it hurts to make a sandwich or empty the dishwasher.

5.  “Well, when you finally feel like it, we can ______.”  Don’t hold your breath, sister !   “Chronic” and “disability” don’t mean this will run its course, and I’ll be fine.  How I wish !   “Degenerative” means I’m going to decline.  I’m the one who should be having more trouble accepting that- why is it that others just can’t grasp the concept that some things can’t be fixed?   Don’t make it sound like it’s somehow up to me for this to all go away.  Don’t make it sound like I’m just not trying hard enough. Don’t make it feel like this is my CHOICE !  When someone says ‘finally’ it implies that there’s something voluntary about all of this.  If there were, I’d be in a way different place, working, and living a ‘normal’ life.

I’m doing the best I can.  If I were physically able to do more than I can, I’d be doing it.  I feel fortunate to be able to take out the trash and not need 2 hours to recover.  I’m always glad when I get home from the grocery store, and didn’t have to stop unloading the car because I felt like I was going to pass out.   I’m adjusting the best way I know how, which is to try and be thankful for what I have left that I enjoy, and am glad that no matter what happens to me, I still have God.  Some people don’t understand that.  For me, He’s a lifeline. ❤