I’m turning 65 this April. The time has come to apply for Medicare. Especially after a recent scare—when our COBRA plan failed to contact our insurance that we’d renewed our coverage for 2019 and we had no active health insurance for about a week—I don’t want to take a chance on missing any deadlines.
Back in December, Al and I met with a benefits counselor at our local council on aging to find out next steps. Since I have not yet applied for Social Security benefits, and don’t intend to until I’m 70, I did not receive a Medicare card automatically in the mail in January. The counselor advised, if that happened, to apply for Medicare in March. However, I recently read an excellent article in the New York Times that explained the rules in greater detail and found that I could enroll up to three months in advance.
Especially given the threat of yet another government shutdown this coming weekend, I figured I should take care of it this week. So down I went to the local Social Security office on Monday morning to apply. Al had warned me to get there early. I thought I was doing pretty well, arriving around 10:15 (I am so NOT a morning person).
What a mistake. The first sign that I had totally misjudged the situation was the parking lot. Every space in the upper lot next to the office’s front doors was taken. As I looked for a parking spot below, I noticed a steady trickle of people walking to the upper lot, and just a few coming back down.
Even with those hints, I was not prepared for what I found when I stepped inside. The place looked like a crowded airport terminal, with bland, beige walls and rows of people packed into every black vinyl seat. They were all waiting patiently, as if they had been through this many times before, facing a large video screen that streamed information about Social Security benefits and what number was next. I asked the guard who checked my bag how to get a number, and he pointed me to two kiosks. When I typed in my SSN, I got a receipt. My number was 74. On the board, the number was 23.
Within a few minutes, I was lucky enough to secure a seat. I was surrounded by families with screaming kids, a lot of adults chatting with friends or partners, and an atmosphere of pure drudgery. There were three staff members seated at desks only visible beyond glass windows in the wall that separated us from them. I started reading the news on my phone.
At least, when you go to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, there are usually a dozen staffers, and you can pretty quickly judge how long the wait will be by how often someone is called up to a window. Here, it quickly became obvious that numbers didn’t get called in sequence (we went from 24 to 27 to 4), and the wait between numbers was at least ten minutes. I did a little math in my head. At that rate, it would take me at least three and maybe four hours to have my turn.
Now, when you are in a waiting game like this, you have to decide early on whether you’re going to invest in sticking it out. Any longer than about 15 minutes, and you begin to feel you’ve invested so much time already, you might as well go the whole way. I left.
When I got home after running a couple of errands (so the time spent wasn’t a total waste), I went online to find out how to make an appointment for my next venture to Social Security. Lo and behold, I discovered that I could apply for Medicare benefits online. Of course. I hadn’t even thought to look in the first place. I guess that’s because I’m almost 65 and still think in terms of doing important business in person.
The whole process took about 15 minutes. I can check status of my application online through my Social Security account. I assume I filled everything out correctly. We shall see. At least I applied with enough time (I hope) to correct any errors. And if I do have to get back down to Social Security in person, I will make sure to force myself out of bed early, get there when the doors open—and bring a book.