Medicare hot line fails government test

The Medicare help line, 1-800-MEDICARE, was intended to help seniors navigate one of the most confusing government programs ever created. After the new Medicare prescription drug law was enacted last year, the line was flooded with millions of calls. Federal officials were so confident the line would clear up any confusion they even advertised it on a blimp.

But a new report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, concludes that only 61 percent of callers to the help line get accurate answers, a whopping 29 percent get inaccurate answers and 10 percent get no answer at all because the calls are transferred to phones that don't answer or are disconnected.

“[It's] one thing to get bad info from a phone company, but it's a matter of life and death for consumers who depend on Medicare information,” says Robert Hayes, president and general counsel of the Medicare Rights Center.

One big problem, according to the report, is insufficient training of the customer service representatives who answer the questions.

For example, one factor in determining whether Medicare covers electric wheelchairs is “trunk strength,” meaning upper body strength. But one customer service representative thought trunk strength referred to the size of a car's trunk and told a caller that Medicare would cover a power wheelchair only if the caller’s trunk was big enough.

“I think the General Accounting Office report shows that there is not adequate training and that we need more training,” says Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.

The federal center for Medicare and Medicaid services, which oversees the Medicare help line, questions the accuracy of the GAO report, noting that its own surveys show that 85 to 90 percent of callers to the Medicare help line are satisfied with the answers.

But they do agree more training is needed to ensure that the Medicare help line helps.