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Breaking a Language Barrier to Enroll in Medicare

Copyright © 2014 AARP. All rights reserved.

Most people whose first language isn't English don't realize that they have the right to ask for an interpreter when calling the Social Security Administration (SSA) 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 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778), 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 some people 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 provided earlier 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's something the SSA can 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 it 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, 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 Assistance 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.

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