Senior Spotlight By John Toscano
Local lawmakers and senior citizen advocates last week called for the reopening of the Medicare Rights Center, the only walk-in center in the metropolitan area, declaring that it provides a vital service to seniors and the disabled, especially at a time when seniors are applying for the Part D program for 2007.
According to Congressmember Carolyn Maloney, the center in Manhattan served 5,000 to 7,000 people every year from all five boroughs, and since 40 percent of the state's seniors live in New York City, it's important that a center should be operating here for seniors to get questions answered.
Besides Maloney (D-Queens/Manhattan), others who appealed for the reopening of the center included U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Congressmembers Joseph Crowley and Anthony Weiner, Borough President Helen Marshall state Senator George Onorato, Assemblymembers Michael Gianaris, Margaret Markey and Catherine Nolan and City Councilmembers Peter Vallone Jr. and Eric Gioia.
The center had been operated by Empire Medicare under a contract from the federal Center for Medicare and Medicard Services (CMS). But CMS cut off funding for Empire Medicare, forcing it to close the center. CMS directed seniors to use the Internet or a 1-800 number to resolve their Medicare-related problems instead.
Maloney stated, "The Internet is no substitute for face-to-face answers from a Medicare expert. New York seniors are already confused about the dozens of Medicare plans available to them. If the walk-in center remains closed, I fear that seniors won't be able to get the answers they need about one of the most important issues in their lives."
Clinton, noting that many New York City seniors were served by the walk-in center, declared, "With all the problems that have plagued the 1- 800-Medicare number and Medicare's prescription drug Web site, this is no time to add to the confusion by closing a reliable and trusted option that has worked."
Maloney, Clinton and about three dozen other lawmakers and advocates signed letters to CMS Administrator Leslie Norwalk urging the reopening of the center, saying its closing undermines the services it provides for many seniors throughout New York City.
Robert M. Hayes, president of Medicare Rights Center, a New York City-based national consumer service organization, stated: "During an era when the Bush Administration persists in making Medicare benefits more difficult to access, more not less consumer counseling is necessary."
ANOTHER VA COMPUTER STOLEN: A computer containing personal medical data of former military servicemembers was stolen from the VA hospital on East 23rd Street in Manhattan two months ago, a VA spokesman confirmed last week.
Congressmember Maloney criticized the Veterans Administration for taking so long to notify the affected service members.
A VA spokesman said the laptop computer in question, which was used to measure pulmonary function, was stolen from a locked room in a locked hallway in the hospital, according to the Newsday of November 3.
Although the theft occurred September 6, VA officials only sent letters out to the affected veterans in the past two weeks. The incident is under investigation, the spokesman said.
This was the third theft from the VA of computers which contained personal data on veterans in less than a year. The first was last May, when a laptop was reported stolen from a VA employee's Maryland home.