National Asian-Language ‘Helpline’ Aids Elders to Use U.S. Health System

National Asian-Language ‘Helpline’ Aids Elders to Use U.S. Health System

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Photo: Young Ko is a Korean Helpline representative for NAPCA. (Nelson Tang/NAPCA)

SEATTLE, Wash.--Since the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging (NAPCA) established its multi-language Helpline in 2004, it has received more than 100,000 calls from all 50 U.S. states.

Navigating the health care system can be daunting for anyone, but for seniors with limited English-speaking capability, understanding health care information, benefits and services is particularly challenging. NAPCA offers the only national toll-free Asian language Helpline serving this population.

A NAPCA report explains, “Helpline staff assisted over 7,000 elders to evaluate their Medicare prescription drug plans and assisted more than 1,500 seniors to apply and enroll in Medicare’s Low-Income Subsidy (LIS).”

Four Asian Languages

The Helpline is available to callers seven days a week in Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese and English. During nonbusiness hours, callers can leave a voicemail message and expect a call back within 24 hours.

“Folks in our community, especially those limited in English-speaking, are starved for a place to call and get information about important topics,” said Angelo Locsin, special projects manager at NAPCA.

Launched in 2005, the program is a crucial resource for a growing population. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) population age 65 and older is projected to grow by 286 percent by 2030.

According to NAPCA, the majority of callers have been low-income Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese seniors, about half from California and one-in-10 from Washington State and the rest from all over the country.

One Helpline user is Jean Marumoto, a retiree living in Virginia. Even though she speaks English, she praised the line as a “wonderful time-saver” when she was deciding on a prescription plan.

“In order to pick a plan, it would take days to go through the information, but NAPCA can do it for you,” said Marumoto. “They have access to all this information that I may not have at my fingertips.”

The NAPCA Helpline can answer questions on a range of topics, from Medicare to Medicaid, to Social Security, economic stimulus payments and tax rebates.

Helps Cut Costs to Elders

About 45 percent of callers are Medicaid beneficiaries and 67 percent benefit from Medicare’s LIS assistance. To qualify for the subsidy, one must fall below certain income and asset limits. According to Locsin, Medicare and Medicaid are two distinct programs that frequently overlap and “complement each other” for low-income callers.

“I would recommend NAPCA to any senior citizen,” said Marumoto. “If someone is not English-speaking, this would be an absolute gold mine.”

NAPCA found that when a Helpline staff member assisted a senior in enrolling in or switching Medicare prescription drug plans, the elder saved $838 on average in 2011. In 2012, seniors saved an average of $1,082 in total out-of-pocket prescription drug and related costs.

According to NAPCA’s Helpline report, the Helpline saved seniors almost $299,000 in 2011, and $178,500 in 2012 during the open enrollment periods for signing up for the Medicare Part D prescription drug program. Open enrollment is the period of time from October 15 to December 7 when all seniors who have Medicare can sign up for Part D, which subsidizes the cost of prescription drugs without having any special requirements.

Of AAPIs 65 years and older in the U.S., 31 percent are linguistically isolated, meaning all members of the household ages14 or older speak English less than “very well,” based on self-assessment.

The American Community Survey, a major federal database, of Asian seniors in the United States, 52 percent of Koreans, 47 percent of Vietnamese and 33 percent of Chinese are linguistically isolated.

Even if beneficiaries do speak proficient English, navigating health care benefits can require further translation and guidance.

“We have folks from all over the country who had perfectly fine English-speaking skills and referrals from agencies like Medicaid offices,” said Locsin. “There are not many places who can address the problem from start to finish.”

Growing Demand for More Languages

Locsin also mentioned the growing demand for assistance in other languages such as Tagalog, Hindi and Japanese.

“Pretty much every language is in demand,” said Locsin, who mentioned that funding was the major barrier to expansion at the current time. “There is definitely an unmet need out there for information.”

NAPCA National Multilingual Toll-Free Helpline Numbers: Chinese:1-800-582-4218 Korean:1-800-582-4259 Vietnamese:1-800-582-4336; English: 1-800-336-2722.

This article is adapted from the International Examiner, a Seattle-based nonprofit pan-Asian newspaper. NAPCA partnered with the paper to produce a special issue dedicated to National Minority Health Month, which takes place in April.