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The search and harpooning of Medicare’s White Whale

My attempt to cut free from my wife’s health insurance on Sept. 30 and purchase my own plan by Oct. 1 began last winter. I’d already signed up for Medicare Part A, the easy part.

“Hello, I want Medicare Part A.” “How old are you?” “65.” “Okay.”

Now, five years later, I needed Medicare Part B and, simultaneously, a private insurance plan, so last February I started deconstructing texts and charts with more diligence than Robert Langdon deciphering arcane Cathedral relics. Medigap, Supplemental, Advantage, and half the alphabet, each letter stocked with prescription drug coverage to prostate checks.

In June, four months till lift-off, I boarded the SHIP, anagram for Stuff Hilariously and Infinitely Perplexing. Just kidding. It’s Senior Health Insurance Program. Its volunteer guided me through a miasma of systems murkier than the Paris Sewers Tour. Apply to Elgin’s Social Security office for Medicare Part B, and call a private insurance company to buy coverage. Simple.

Finding I could apply for Part B three months in advance of my start date, Oct. 1, I phoned Elgin in late spring. They told me not to apply until Sept. 1, “Or we’ll lose it.”

Huh?! LOSE it? You lose pocket change between couch pillows. How do you lose a Medicare application? Shred it along with Dunkin Donuts receipts?

I called over the summer. “You need to bring in the forms,” they said. “You can mail in the forms,” they said another time. But they always insisted, DON’T APPLY UNTIL THIRTY DAYS FROM WHEN NEEDED.

Meanwhile, I compared insurance companies’ offerings. But by the end of August I settled on OuttaPocket Insurance Co., and mailed Elgin my Part B application. Cool.

Talking OuttaPocket, I ordered their Advantage plan.

“What’s your Medicare Part B I.D. number?”

“I don’t have it yet,” I admitted.

He said I needed Part B before he could sell me a plan.

WHAT!? Sweat cascading down my forehead, I called Elgin to ask if my Part B had been processed.

“When did you send in your forms?”

“The beginning of this month, when told to.”

“We process applications in the order they come in.”

Desperate and bewildered, unable to get OuttaPocket coverage until these losers (literally) worked their way down their “In” box to me, I called every few days. On Sept. 17, I explained I had a medical appointment on Oct. 1 for which I’d need insurance, but OuttaPocket wouldn’t cover me without Part B.

They said I could have sent in my application three months ago.

“I was told not to send it in before September!”

I don’t remember their response; I was too disbelieving to care.

By Sept. 21, still no Part B. I again stressed OuttaPocket wouldn’t sell me insurance without Part B.

“Tell them you’ll take your business elsewhere. They’ll come around.”

“This is insane!” I wanted to scream, but instead asked, “There’s no law I have to have Part B before they cover me?”

“No. I don’t know why they say that.”

I bluffed OuttaPocket. “Social Security assured Part B coverage.” The agent bought it and sold me his Advantage. Then Elgin called to confirm Part B.

I relaxed—until the morning of Sept. 30; no hard copy documents had arrived. Panicking, I called OuttaPocket; they gave me an I.D. number. I called Elgin; they explained Part B’s I.D. number was the same as Part A.

That afternoon, OuttaPocket’s card and Part B’s verification arrived—a whole half-day before needed.

No one needs to change a thing.

• Rick Holinger lives in Geneva, teaches at high school English, and facilitates Geneva library’s writing workshop. A collection of his columns, “Kangaroo Rabbits and Galvanized Fences,” is forthcoming. Contact him at

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