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Breaking a Language Barrier to Enroll in Medicare

If you're not fluent in English, ask for translation services—Medicare issues are difficult enough for even native English-speakers to comprehend.

Q. My friend is a U.S. citizen but not fluent in English. She spoke to four Social Security officials about enrolling in Medicare, but didn’t understand there was a deadline. Now she’s told she must pay a late penalty. Can she ask Social Security to reconsider, given she’s in this fix because of a language problem?

A. Most people whose first language is not English don’t realize that they have the right to ask for an interpreter when calling the Social Security Administration or visiting their local SSA office. Interpreters are available at no charge in more than 150 languages. But when calling the main SSA number at 1-800-772-1213, it isn’t immediately obvious how you can request interpreter services.

Here’s what to do. When your call is answered, an automated voice tells you to press 1 for English or 2 for Spanish. If Spanish is the language you need, press 2. For any other language, press 1. Then, when the voice invites you to say what kind of service you need, say “operator.” When you’re connected to a customer representative, say: “I need an interpreter in [language].” (Of course, a friend or family member can do this for you, as long as you allow that person to use your Social Security number.)

At this point the SSA representative will ask you to stay on the line while someone who speaks your language is contacted. The interpreter comes on the phone to translate what you and the representative say to each other. You can request the same service if you make an appointment to visit your local Social Security office.

What happens when people don’t know about this service? Social Security representatives are supposed to offer interpreters in situations where they think interpreters are needed. But clearly some people—such as the applicant referred to in this question—fall through the cracks.

If you miss your deadline for enrolling in Medicare because of language difficulties, what can you do? You can call the number above to request that the SSA reconsider your case—without the need to make a formal appeal—on the basis of receiving wrong information. Whether you were actually given wrong information or misunderstood because no translation service was offered is a fine point. But that is something the SSA could establish during an investigation.

The SSA will investigate only if you can provide the name of the SSA representative you spoke with, the address of the SSA office you contacted (if this was a local office and not the national help line number) and the approximate date on which you had the conversation. Officials say that without the name of the representative you talked to, they have no basis to start an investigation.

Otherwise, you always have the right to appeal any SSA decision that you don’t agree with—for example, in circumstances like those faced by the questioner’s friend, if you eventually sign up for Part B, and you’re told you must pay a late penalty because you missed your original deadline. If you need to appeal, it would help to contact your State Health Insurance Counseling Program (SHIP), which provides expert advice from trained counselors on all Medicare issues at no charge. To find contact information, go to the main SHIP website. Every SHIP also offers translator services in more than 150 languages—just tell them the one you need.

Bottom line: If your English is less than fluent, be aware that Medicare and Social Security issues are difficult enough for even native English-speakers to comprehend. So don’t hesitate to ask for translation services to be sure that you fully understand what you’re being told. Read more about services that help non-native English speakers with Medicare information.

Patricia Barry is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.

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