Millions of Americans have had Medicare since President Johnson signed the bill into law 55 years ago. Most of them have had questions.

If you want to ask a question to be answered in this column, or if you want to make an appointment with a trained counselor, see the end of this column.

Meanwhile, here are the answers to questions people often ask during counseling sessions.

How many insurance plans are available to local residents?

If you are a resident of Marion or Polk county, the answer is dozens. But choosing one may not be as difficult as that sounds. First, the numbers: Eighteen Medicare Advantage plans that include prescription drug coverage are available. Thirty companies offer some or all of the nine different types of currently available Medigap “supplemental” policies.

Most people find they can quickly narrow their choices by answering three questions:

-How much of a monthly premium am I willing or able to pay?

-Will my doctor accept that insurance?

-Does the insurance cover my prescription drugs?

Based on the answers, Medicare beneficiaries can usually identify the plans that best meet their needs.

I understand the normal Medicare Part B premium is approximately $145 a month. Our premiums increased a lot this year because, being in our 70s, my spouse and I are taking our required minimum distributions from retirement accounts. How can we reduce the Part B premium?

One way is to have all or part of your required minimum distribution go to charity. This is called a qualified charitable distribution. Making charitable contributions this way can’t be declared on your tax return, but you aren’t taxed on the money you send to the charity. That donation reduces the income on which Medicare figures your Part B premium.

Most investment companies’ websites will tell how to do this, or you can call the company to ask someone to walk you through it. To see a table of how Part B premiums are computed, go online to, click on Your Medicare Costs, then on Part B Costs.

My aunt is turning 65 soon, and I’m helping her navigate her Medicare. She has very little income. Are any benefits based on income levels?

Yes. It would be worth asking about these three benefits:

-Medicare Extra Help, also known as low income subsidy, significantly reduces the cost of prescription drugs.

-A second benefit has the state of Oregon pay the Medicare Part B premium of $145 a month while also lowering prescription drugs costs.

-A third eliminates all doctor and hospital co-pays and adds the other two benefits.

Qualifying for any of these benefits depends on income. Qualifying for Extra Help also includes an assets test. To ask whether your aunt qualifies for any of these, call the SHIBA helpline (800-722-4134), Oregon Medicare Savings Connect (855-447-0155) or make an appointment with a SHIBA Medicare counselor.

I’m turning 70 soon and will begin taking my Social Security benefit. But I’m still working and have health insurance through my employer. Am I required to start my Medicare too?

No, you are not required to enroll in Medicare if you have health insurance that Medicare defines as a “creditable.” If you have that, you will not be subject to late-enrollment penalties when you do enroll in Medicare.

Jim Sellers of Salem is a certified Medicare counselor with the Senior Health Insurance Benefits Assistance program (SHIBA). To ask a question to be answered in this column e-mail [email protected] To schedule a free SHIBA phone appointment with a volunteer Medicare counselor, call 800-722-4134.