PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — When an elderly Aroostook County couple found themselves sharing a medication they were both prescribed because they could not afford to fill their individual prescriptions, they were able to turn to staff at the Presque Isle Social Security Administration field office to get additional benefits.
If preliminary plans to close or consolidate some of those Social Security field offices are ever implemented, people who work with Maine’s rural senior citizens are concerned about what will happen if they no longer have that direct help.
On Wednesday Tammy DeLong, Medicare specialist with the Aroostook Area Agency on Aging, will testify at a hearing before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging on “Reduction in Face-to-Face Services at the Social Security Administration.”
DeLong is appearing at the invitation of Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the ranking member of the committee.
At issue, according to information from Collins’ office, are efforts by the Social Security Administration to close and consolidate several field offices throughout the nation while encouraging current and future retirees to use the SSA website or the 1-800 phone number more frequently.
Information is readily available online or over the phone, but DeLong said those are not always viable options for many of the 2,500 clients she saw over the past year.
“This is a population that does not like to use the phone or the Internet,” she said Monday afternoon. “It can be hard for them to navigate complicated websites, and sometimes they can’t hear the person on the other end of the phone. They don’t care if they have to drive or get a ride to the Presque Isle office — they like that contact.”
In addition, many of the senior citizens who seek her out are living at or below the poverty level and are unable to afford computers or monthly Internet fees.
DeLong said she has a very good rapport with the 11 employees at the Presque Isle SSA field office, and they know to send seniors with Medicaid issues to her.
“A lot of it is trying to get the Medicare process finished for them,” DeLong said. “There is a lot of coordination between our two offices.”
Without the presence of a Social Security Administration field office in northern Maine, DeLong believes much of northern Maine’s aging population will go without benefits that are rightfully theirs.
“We can help them deal with any problems,” she said.
About 18 percent of those served by the Presque Isle SSA field office are non-native English speakers, DeLong said, noting that some office staffers are able to communicate effectively with those residents who speak a very regional French dialect.
There are other issues specific to northern Maine as well, such as when residents have worked in Canada and are eligible for U.S. Social Security benefits.
“There are really some specialized issues up here,” she said.
In the case of the couple sharing the medication they were both prescribed to take, DeLong was able to direct them to the local SSA field office where they applied for and received low income subsidies for their medications.
“They went from paying a huge amount of money to two or three dollars for their prescriptions,” DeLong said. “That really helped them.”
In another case, DeLong remembered a woman coming into her office and telling her she just had to leave her groceries at the checkout counter because she could not afford them and her medications.
“The field office was able to tell me she had a low-income subsidy application on file, but it needed to be finished up,” she said. “When they were able to do that for her, she had the subsidy and got cash back right then so she could buy her groceries.”
According to the release from Collins’ office, DeLong was asked to testify because “she has worked with thousands of seniors to help them deal with the complexities of Medicare, and she works with the local SSA to help ensure that her clients receive the benefits to which they are entitled.”
DeLong will testify before the Senate Committee on Wednesday afternoon.