You know, I wish I could say it surprised me how often people give me the wrong information but it no longer does. Some people think they know what they’re talking about but really don’t. Some are simply too lazy to verify information but too insecure to simply tell you they don’t know the answer to something. And I don’t know which type of person I have been running into lately, but it has made me more and more concerned for all of you. Because I’m talking to people who work for the government agencies who run the programs I’m asking questions about and the people who work there are giving me wrong information! And not simply wrong information, they are telling me that a person can only qualify for benefits if they have x number of assets and it’s wrong! If one of you called by yourself, you’d probably be discouraged from even applying because you would think you didn’t qualify!
So what can we do about it? The first step is always taking a very close look at everything yourself. If you can understand it yourself, great. Something like a credit card bill. Most of you probably glance at that credit card bill every month and make sure you remember making all those purchases. And if something looks shy, you call them up.
But this world of ours has gotten so darn complicated most of us probably don’t understand half of our lives. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t really question my electric meter reading or my water bill. Now if I had a really unusual month I might take a second look. But otherwise, I just pay it and move on with my life.
Now let’s take it one step farther, how about medical bills? How complicated are those? You get an explanation of benefits which you don’t understand; you’ve got your co-pay, your deductible, your coinsurance. If you’ve got more than one insurance it’s even worse. And you’d be amazed how many times medical bills are wrong. But most of us probably just pay it.
Now let’s talk about some of the government programs I help people obtain eligibility for. I went to school for 12 years. Then college for 4. Then law school for another 3. I take continuing education on all this stuff for at least 12 hours every year (usually more). And I have an entire bookshelf full of books and binders to consult. And frankly, I would never presume to say I know everything. So how on earth are you expected to be a savvy consumer and know the right questions to ask or know if something doesn’t sound right? You can’t. So what can you do?
Obviously the best choice is to be able to hire or at least consult with someone like me to either do it for you or at least make sure you were told all the right things. But I understand that’s not always possible.
Use The Internet
So what’s the next best thing? As inept as I find a lot of government employees (although there are many excellent ones), the government websites are often chock full of the exact information you need. The problem, is that the websites are often poorly designed and hard to navigate and also that they are often written by people who understand what they are talking about and therefore incomprehensible to the rest of us. But you may be able to ask the employee at the government agency to point you to the part of the website (or law, regulation, handbook, etc.) that confirms whatever information they are conveying to you. If they cannot do this, I’m not sure I’d trust what they are saying. When in doubt, ask to speak to their supervisor—supervisors often know a lot more.
Keep a Log
Another good practice, get the full name of whoever is giving you this information and where they are located (if it’s the main office or a local branch). Sometimes, even if they tell you the wrong thing, this will help you make a case later if you need to. Keep a log book handy by the phone, don’t just write the note down on the back of a receipt or envelope, chances are you’ll never see that again (I’m guilty of that too, sometimes).
Call for Reinforcements
And don’t discount the professionals that may already be a part of your life. You may not already have an elder law attorney in your corner, but maybe you have an accountant, or a financial advisor, or even a bank manager who often know enough to either help you, or know who to call who can. I work with a lot of these professionals and as a professional courtesy to them, I’m often happy to help them work through a few questions for a client for no charge. That might be all it takes. Just because it’s not strictly about your taxes or your finances, doesn’t mean they don’t know who to ask—so don’t be afraid to give them a call.
There are some non-prot advocacy groups out there for different groups depending on what you’re dealing with, whether it’s for Veterans, Medicare, people with disabilities. They are too numerous to mention but a web hunt would help or just call our office and we can give you a point in the right direction.
Most important, never feel like you have to somehow struggle through this alone. Like you have to somehow just accept whatever answer someone gives you without understanding it. Never ever settle for that. As I always tell my clients: you have the right to make a FULLY INFORMED decision for yourself. My job is always to help you be fully informed, never to make the decision for you.