From Management to Mentorship

Female hand filling medical record

Helping community members navigate the complexities of Medicare

by Gail Allyn Short

Before her retirement, Deborah Wagner, of Grosse Pointe, enjoyed a successful career as a partner in a consulting firm. There, she helped large companies manage their employee health costs and other benefits. When she heard about the opportunity to volunteer for Michigan Medicare Assistance Program, she decided to apply.

A selfie of Deborah Wagner
Deborah Wagner,
Michigan Medicare
Assistance Program

“I had taken early retirement and wanted to do something that would be intellectually challenging, and this seemed to fit the bill. It was a perfect segue from what I had been doing the past 25 or 30 years,” Wagner says.

Wagner has been a volunteer MMAP counselor for more than a decade, serving residents in Harper Woods and the affluent Grosse Pointes that encompass five municipalities in eastern Wayne County.

She is based at a senior center in Grosse Pointe, one of many MMAP partner sites around the state. But she often meets with clients remotely on the phone or virtually since she spends the winter in Arizona and half the summer living on a sailboat. Whenever Medicare beneficiaries call MMAP with questions, MMAP counselors retrieve the messages and return the calls to provide answers.

“Deborah is exceptional…She’s a wonderful volunteer, and I’m happy to have her on the team.”

Donna Shellman, MMAP region 1A coordinator

Many of her clients are first-time Medicare enrollees seeking assistance in navigating their insurance coverage options. Another group consists of individuals who approach her during the annual enrollment period to verify if their existing plans, such as drug plans, remain the best choice for the upcoming year. Additionally, she helps clients throughout the year with specific issues, such as appealing a hospital discharge they believe is premature or seeking coverage for a newly prescribed medication not included in their current prescription drug plan.

Wagner assisted a particularly overwhelmed client who was trying to select appropriate coverage on her own, navigating a large number of Medicare Advantage, supplement, and prescription drug plan options. Understanding the financial and nonfinancial pros and cons of these options and conveying them to someone unfamiliar with this process requires a significant amount of knowledge, which MMAP provides.

Photo of Donna Shellman
Donna Shellman,
Region 1A Coordinator

Region 1A coordinator Donna Shellman says volunteers like Wagner are essential to the MMAP program, “We wouldn’t be able to function without them. They freely donate their time, and most of our MMAP volunteers are either people who’ve received service from the MMAP program themselves or a family member.”

Anyone interested in volunteering with MMAP starts with a “mini-interview” with Shellman. She uses that time to learn if candidates are licensed brokers, financial planners or have affiliations with insurance companies, which MMAP prohibits. “That’s because we have to remain unbiased and those would be conflicts of interest,” she says.

Afterward, each candidate fills out an application and undergoes a background check. Then they complete a set of online learning modules followed by a training course that takes place over six days. During the training, candidates read and discuss case studies and learn, for example, how Medicare works, how to compare drug plans, and how to apply to a drug assistance program.

Candidates are also required to spend 20 hours shadowing either Shellman, her site coordinator, or a seasoned MMAP volunteer to help them learn the ropes. Lastly, certified volunteer counselors attend monthly classes to stay abreast of any updates to Medicare plans.

And, whenever volunteer counselors have questions, they can consult with Shellman’s office. “Volunteers are never on their own. They have my cell phone number. If volunteers can’t reach me, they can reach my site coordinator or other trained MMAP staff,” Shellman says.

Wagner says Shellman is a valuable resource for her, “She is terrific to work with. She’s very knowledgeable and extremely responsive. She has a particular knowledge of programs that benefit lower income people, so I’m in touch with her several times a month.”

Shellman and Wagner frequently exchange emails, collaborating on cases, discussing issues, and offering technical support to each other. “Deborah is exceptional,” says Shellman who credits Wagner for mentoring eight volunteers at the senior center.

“She’s a wonderful volunteer, and I’m happy to have her on the team,” she says.

Wagner encourages others to consider becoming volunteer MMAP counselors. She often meets individuals at the senior center who have backgrounds or specialized knowledge that would make them excellent counselors, and she invites them to volunteer. “Some will say it’s too complex, but others will say, ‘This is great. I’ve been looking for something like this,'” she explains. “It all depends on what you’re looking for.”

For more information on volunteering with the Michigan Medicare Assistance Program, visit their volunteer information page.