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North Bay health advocates tackle wide range of wellness obstacles

Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties offer a number of health care services for older residents and for those who want to volunteer.|

In Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties, there are a number of nonprofits and agencies providing valuable wellness services, but it can be difficult to know where to look. Below are a number of agencies that are tackling different health-related challenges in the community and updates from some of their leaders on what kinds of problems they're seeing facing the older populations they serve in the North Bay.

Sonoma County

Not enough caregivers and costly care: Senior Advocacy Services

According to Crista Barnett Nelson, executive director of Sonoma County's Senior Advocacy Services, one of the challenges facing senior care facilities that's worsened over the last few years is a shortage of caregivers. While it's a very important job, it's not very well-paid, she said.

"We just don't have people to do it," she said.

The agency she leads offers ombudsman services, which is a resident advocacy program for people in long-term care. They receive reports about elder abuse from mandated reporters and work to resolve problems before they head to court, working with residents to help them solve problems with their care. One of the largest problems they see is that there are just not enough caregivers, which can lead to residents being left unattended for lengthy periods of time, which can become dangerous.

She added, another thing everyone should be aware of is how much elder care costs. In Sonoma County, fewer than eight facilities out of more than 100 cost less than $5,000 per month. It's not uncommon for the base cost to be $6,500 or $7,500 a month before additional care costs are added, she said.

"You're going to have a really hard time if you don't have a lot of money to put into assisted living," she said.

Information on accessing ombudsman services is posted in every licensed care facility, but people can also call their 24-hour crisis line any time at 800-231-4024. For more information on Senior Advocacy Services, go to https://senioradvocacyservices.org.

No insurance: Providence Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital Mobile Health Clinic

The mobile health clinic operated by Providence Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital works to bring health care to people who otherwise wouldn't be able to access it in Santa Rosa, Windsor, Cloverdale and Sonoma. It serves people who may be undocumented, experiencing homelessness or have transportation limitations, according to clinic manager Jennifer Eid-Ammons. She also said they saw over 200 older patients over the age 65 so far in 2022. Some of the patients they serve are facing delays accessing their bivalent COVID-19 vaccine boosters while others battle seasonal sicknesses.

"Right now there's a lot of flu going around," she said.

Their clinic is in the process of getting a new vehicle to provide health services directly to farmworkers in nearby vineyards, but its delivery has been delayed.

One piece of exciting news is that this year, undocumented patients who are 50 and older are eligible for Medi-Cal health insurance, which means that patients with complex medical challenges in this age group are now able to more easily access specialist care, she said.

For more information on locations and hours, go to https://www.providence.org/locations/norcal/santa-rosa-memorial-hospital/community-support/mobile-health-clinic or 707-547-4612.

Mendocino County

Wildfire threats: Mendocino County Fire Safety Council

The Ukiah-based Mendocino County Fire Safety Council works to educate the community about wildfire safety, evaluate homes, help neighborhoods reduce fuels, clear roads and chip wood, train fire departments and network with local, regional and state fire prevention organizations.

The organization now offers Defensible Space Assistance Program, launched in 2020, that helps low-income seniors and disabled residents who are physically and financially unable to clear defensible space on their own to do so and make their homes safer from wildfires. A specially-trained crew of workers from the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians provide the service to income-eligible residents, offering services like trimming or thinning trees and brush, cleaning gutters or roofs, raking or chipping vegetation.

Funding comes from Mendocino County and PG&E disaster-relief settlement funds.

More information can be found at firesafemendocino.org or 707-462-3662.

Isolation: Anderson Valley Village

The Anderson Valley Village organization is engaged in efforts to help older adults stay active, connected and independent while staying in their homes. Based in Boonville, the organization connects seniors in need with volunteers who can offer friendly visits, transportation to appointments and stores, support with household maintenance or tech devices or assistance with pets. The organization also maintains a list of vetted people for hire to provide services from roofing to caregiving.

More information is available at andersonvalleyvillage.org or 707-684-9829.

All counties

Medicare plan changes: Health Insurance Counseling & Advocacy Program (Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, Napa and Solano counties)

The annual open enrollment period for insurance selection ends Dec. 15, which means that the countdown is on for people who receive Medicare, the federal health insurance program for people 65 and over and others with long-term disabilities, to review their plans and make sure that they're accessing the best plan for them — which can change dramatically from year to year, says Frank Nelson, manager of the Health Insurance Counseling & Advocacy Program for six Northern California counties. The nationwide and publicly funded program offers seminars and one-on-one counseling with unbiased and timely information to help people make informed health insurance decisions.

"Every year, everything changes when it comes to Medicare," Nelson said.

People who are part of the original Medicare coverage system will have 26 separate drug and prescription plans to choose from for next year, which range in price from $4.50 to $172 per month, he says. But the best plan to pick depends on each person's prescriptions and preferred pharmacies. Each pill has a different negotiated price with each plan, not every plan covers every pill, and each plan has negotiated a different copay with each pharmacy, he says. In other words, Nelson explains, two people could be on the same plan and have the same prescription, but if they go to different pharmacies, their costs could still be different by hundreds of dollars each month. He's worked with people who paid $130 per month for their plan until they were able to find a $13 monthly plan that provided the same coverage, he says.

"In many instances, the person was angry and happy at the same time," he said. "They were happy because the $13 per month covered all their medication, and angry because they were effectively lighting $1,000 on fire for nothing."

Each year, Medicare publishes an update spelling out all of the new changes for the drug plans. One of the positive changes for the upcoming year is that, starting in 2023, insulin will be capped at a price of $35 per month. Previously, insulin came with copays that would often cost people with diabetes more than $100 per month to have their prescriptions filled, Nelson says.

People can also access Medicare through a managed care or Advantage plan, the private plan alternative to traditional Medicare. These plans change from year to year too, as contracts are updated to reflect which clinics and doctors are part of each plan's accepted network. In Sonoma County, there are 25 Advantage plans to choose from, while across the six counties the HICAP office serves, there are about 116 plans, Nelson says. It's also important for Medicare recipients on Advantage plans to check each year to ensure that their plan will continue to allow them to see their preferred doctors and clinics before the open enrollment period ends, Nelson adds.

People interested in getting Medicare counseling from HICAP can go to senioradvocacyservices.org/hicap to set up an appointment or call 800-434-0222.

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