Medicare can be confusing. It is the government sponsored health care program for those 65 and older or disabled. When I turned 65, I started getting menacing letters from Medicare. If I didn’t sign up, I would be subject to penalties, have no coverage, etc. So I signed up and unwittingly started paying fat quarterly premiums that I didn’t owe since I am still working and covered by my employer’s Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan. Money down the drain, lesson learned. Here’s a way you can avoid a similar fate during the open enrollment period coming up.

What is Medicare “open enrollment” and why does it matter? Every year, Medicare’s open enrollment period is Oct. 15 through Dec. 7. Those who receive Medicare can make changes to their health and drug plans during this window of opportunity. They can compare cost, coverage details, and which providers and pharmacies are in their networks. This is the time to secure the best coverage for the year ahead. Like many of my patients, I sometimes feel bombarded with offers for secondary health care coverage. Plan descriptions can be confusing and, frankly, it isn’t always possible to sort through the details and fine print. Sometimes it’s tough to know which coverage best meets an individual patient’s needs. There’s information available online at or you can phone 800-MEDICARE with your questions.

However, if you want to speak to someone in person who can provide unbiased, accurate information, you can turn to our local Area Agency on Aging (AAA). The federal government funds AAAs to provide community outreach with classes, public education, and even one-on-one counseling sessions to help guide folks through the maze of choices they encounter during this open enrollment. The Houston/Galveston Area Agency on Aging brings their expertise to Galveston this year with a free Open Enrollment Workshop and free individual consultations in September and again in October.

Mallory Freitag and Alex Rishcan, experienced benefits counselors, will offer a free open enrollment workshop to anyone eligible for Medicare from 10 a.m. to noon Sept. 25 at the Galveston Island Community Center, Suite B101, 4700 Broadway, in Galveston. There is no charge — but you must register in advance by phoning OLLI at UTMB Health, 409-763-5604 at least one week in advance.

You’ll learn Medicare basics, assistance programs that might be available for you, details about open enrollment, and you’ll also get an overview of services that our AAA provides.

Whether you attend the workshop or not, you can schedule a personal, individual consultation on the same day, from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Again, there is no charge — but you must phone OLLI in advance to secure a private 30-minute session. Individuals are encouraged to take their Medicare card and a complete and current prescription drug list for a benefits checkup and expert, unbiased advice.

Finally, there will be three AAA experts at OLLI from 10 a.m. to noon and 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Oct. 12 for free one-on-one open enrollment consultations. Here’s your chance to get the latest information about the Medicare plans available for 2018 from experts. Remember, though, to take advantage of any of these valuable opportunities, you must phone in advance to guarantee availability. To RSVP, call 409-763-5604.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.