Kerry Weems had been a longtime employee at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) when his wife, Jean, became a caregiver to her parents. For eight years, until 2007, Jean Weems and her sister cared for their mother, who had Alzheimer's, helping out their father, her primary caregiver, until his death.
Kerry Weems says that his wife experienced the usual difficulties of a working mom and long-distance caregiver. He particularly recalls her problems being far away when her mother fell and was injured, and when it was time to find a nursing home for her.
"I have to sort of channel my wife, but I'd say she mostly wishes she had known about the local resources available to support her father, and later her mother," he says. "She didn't know about them because she was long-distance. Also, there's a strong streak of self-reliance that sometimes keeps us from reaching beyond ourselves."
Kerry Weems' mother-in-law died shortly before he became the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services last fall, but the experience left a mark on him.
"You know, when you're in a leadership position, you draw on a number of things," he says. "Obviously, this was on my mind. I had also found in my experience on this job and other jobs I've had in HHS that Medicare beneficiaries, and by extension the people who are caring for them, just don't understand the Medicare system."
In September, under Weems's leadership, the agency launched Ask Medicare, its first online tool designed to educate family members and other caregivers about Medicare coverage -- and about other services and resources not covered by Medicare. Weems calls the service, which provides access to information on local resources such as doctors, hospitals, and nursing homes, a "single, go-to place for help and information."
This month, for the first time, Medicare will also launch an online and e-mail newsletter aimed at beneficiaries and their caregivers that will answer common benefits questions. Weems envisions the newsletter including features such as a quick primer on how to navigate Medicare's 1-800 telephone services.
"So if you have a question about a hospital bill, it will tell you to ask for a Part A claims representative, and you'll get through the system a lot faster," he says. "Tricks and tips like that can turn a ten-minute phone call into a three-minute phone call, and those seven minutes mean a lot for a caregiver."