Summer has been brutally hot with high-temperature records broken around the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates more than 650 people die from heat-related illnesses each year in the U.S., although actual numbers are likely higher and climbing. Older adults are more vulnerable to temperature extremes and make up a higher percentage of those affected, but insurance benefits and community resources may help you battle the heat.
Why are older people more prone to heat-related illnesses?
Older adults are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke, because:
- They can’t adjust their body temperatures as quickly.
- Certain medications interfere with the body’s temperature control.
- Some chronic illnesses impair body temperature regulation.
Along with these factors, your heart works harder, you tend to become dehydrated (and risk injury to your kidneys), and asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may be worse with hot weather.
Special supplemental benefits for the chronically ill
“Starting in 2019, Medicare Advantage plans have been able to provide supplemental benefits in their plans that address social determinants of health,” said Mallory Freitag Hejja, administrator of the Medicare Benefits Program at the Houston-Galveston Area Council. “This includes assistance with things like respite care, meal delivery, pest control and transportation.”
Air conditioning units and dehumidifiers may also be covered under these supplemental plans, called Special Supplemental Benefits for the Chronically Ill. By federal regulation, supplemental benefits “must have a reasonable expectation of improving or maintaining the health or overall function of the chronically ill enrollee.”
In addition, private insurance companies have the flexibility to offer a variety of nonclinical benefits aimed at improving health and function in chronically ill policyholders at risk for hospitalization and higher levels of care. Benefits are in addition to those covered in Medicare Advantage and range from grocery delivery to help with service dogs.
Cigna offers free rides to cooling centers
This summer, Cigna Medicare Advantage beneficiaries can call the number on the back of their customer ID card for a ride to a cooling center or an air-conditioned public place.
The ride is free for those enrolled in the transportation benefit, which includes year-round transportation to health care facilities, doctors’ offices and pharmacies.
“Cigna is committed to helping older adults stay safe and healthy, and free rides to cooling centers is one important way to avoid preventable heat-related illnesses this summer,” said Dr. Joseph B. Sobel, MD, chief medical officer of Cigna Medicare.
Help with utility bills
Wellcare has chosen another way to help battle the heat. Through its Special Supplemental Benefits for the Chronically Ill, Wellcare provides preloaded $50 to $125 Visa debit cards, called “Flex Cards.” Eligible beneficiaries may use these cards to pay qualifying utility bills or telecommunications.
Advice from Medicare experts
“We have seen supplemental benefits like this one (transportation) be of great help to the beneficiaries we work with,” Freitag Hejja said. “However, we always advise beneficiaries not to select a plan based solely on the supplemental benefits it provides. It is most important to make sure that the providers the beneficiary sees are in-network with the plan and that their prescriptions are covered.”
For unbiased help sorting out Medicare plans, you can contact your local State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP), Freitag Hejja said. Counselors help Medicare-eligible individuals, their families and their caregivers navigate the many Medicare insurance options and offer unbiased advice.
Freitag Hejja also recommends people contact their local Aging & Disability Resource Center to locate a cooling center or to receive a portable air conditioning unit. Some people may qualify for energy bill assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
Preventing heat-related illnesses
TRICARE – the health care program for uniformed service members, retirees and their families – took to Twitter this summer to educate and battle heat-related illnesses. TRICARE urges enrollees to check in with older family members, neighbors and community members during hot and humid weather. A quick assessment can save a life:
- Is the air conditioner working and the home cool enough?
- Is the person drinking enough water?
- Is the person showing any signs of heat-related illness, such as nausea, headache, cramps, dizziness, confusion, cold clammy skin or hot dry skin, rapid heartbeat?
Ways to beat the heat
- Stay indoors whenever possible.
- Use air conditioning or go to air-conditioned places like cooling centers, the library or senior centers.
- Wear loose, breathable, light-colored clothing.
- Drink plenty of water (don’t wait to get thirsty).
- Avoid alcohol.
- Pace yourself and avoid strenuous activities.
- Wear a hat or stay in the shade if you need to go outside.
- Check in with family and friends and ask them to do the same for you.