“I was all excited when I saw this ad.”
That’s what Edla Fortin, age 82, said about a press release that ran in the Beacon at the beginning of December. The release called for volunteers to help prevent Medicare fraud in Rhode Island.
Fortin saw it as a great opportunity to help other seniors in the state, so she picked up the phone and signed up.
Fortin’s background is in bookkeeping and accounting, so she’s no stranger to numbers. But she admits that even with 65 years of experience under her belt, Medicare statements can still be confusing.
“I was scrutinized when I was sick,” she said. “It’s very difficult to understand.”
The RI Department of Human Services, Division of Elderly Affairs, takes part in a national program called the Senior Medicare Patrol (SMP), which is funded in large part by the Administration on Aging. The RISMP works with six agencies throughout the state to protect beneficiaries from fraud or Medicare billing mistakes.
“There are 54 SMPs across the U.S.,” said Aleatha Dickerson, the RISMP director. “We educate beneficiaries to be more mindful to protect their card and their personal identities. We advise them to detect problems and review their statements. It’s also a means for them to report suspected fraud.”
Although Dickerson said Medicare fraud is currently “not a big problem” in Rhode Island, a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) fact sheet reported $5.6 billion in fraudulent payments were recovered nationally in FY 2011.
The CMS also reports that since the SMP’s inception in 1997, the program has educated nearly 4 million beneficiaries and reached out to 25 million people.
Fortin hopes she’ll be able to help raise that number, and looks forward to putting her years of bookkeeping and math skills to good use.
Today, Fortin works as a controller and accountant at Columbus Door, where she’s been employed for 23 years. But her career began 65 years ago when she took her first job in 1946 after graduating from Central High School in Providence.
“In order to be a bookkeeper, we’d have to have Economics 101 and Commercial Law,” she explained. Fortin never went to college.
“I was offered three jobs right out of high school because I had good marks,” she explained.
Fortin learned most of what she needed to know from her high school curriculum.
“There’s laws I learned then I’m still applying,” she said.
At her first job at Rhode Island Dental Supply, Fortin teamed up with another young woman named Ina, who showed her the ropes of bookkeeping. When her boss was gone, Fortin would ask Ina to teach her about accounting.
“Ina, Mr. Silverman’s gone, how do I do this entry?” she would ask, adding, “She was a peach.”
Fortin said gender was never a factor when it came to math proficiency and crunching numbers. She thinks that young girls today should feel empowered to learn math and science, just like their male counterparts.
“I’m never embarrassed to say, ‘Well, I don’t know that answer.’ I figure if somebody else can do it, there’s no reason I can’t do it,” she said. “I love math.”
When Fortin saw the call for volunteers, she thought her mathematical skills could lend nicely to the cause.
She called Westbay Community Action, one of six organizations in the state that partners with the SMP program, and spoke with Chris Murphy.
Murphy, the Elder and Family Services Director at Westbay, said the program at Westbay has been going on for several years, but the number of volunteers is small. Currently, they have three fully trained volunteers, and another four undergoing training sessions. Fortin is one of those four.
Volunteers have different tasks that range from checking billing statements, answering questions at senior centers, data entry and spreading Medicare fraud awareness through presentations.
Although volunteers can be any age, Murphy said it’s nice when other seniors help their fellow beneficiaries.
“I started thinking how much older people can give back to their community,” said Fortin, who is no stranger to volunteer work.
In 1967, Fortin trained to become a hairdresser, and started volunteering at a local hospital, giving haircuts to young girls with multiple sclerosis.
“Even though they were sick they still wanted to look nice,” she said. “They were so excited just to get a haircut. We felt good that we were able to help someone.”
Years later she teamed up with AARP to do income taxes for low-income and elderly clients.
“You get more out of something like that than you’re actually giving,” she said. “Even though I love my job, I want to give back to my community.”
Fortin has been to a handful of training sessions for the SMP program, but won’t be ready to field questions and give presentations until March. She’s excited at the prospect of helping other people, especially seniors.
In addition to her new volunteer endeavors, Fortin will stay at Columbus Door; she has no plans to retire in the near future.
Instead, she’ll continue putting her energy into doing what she does best, while using her skills to help others. She said she’s always followed a key piece of advice her mother gave her:
“You give 110 percent to everything and that will carry out through your life,” she recited. “My mother was a smart woman.”
To learn more about volunteering for SMP programs at Westbay Community Action, call 732-4660 or visit www.smpresource.org for general information about SMP.