Illinois Senior Medicare Patrol at AgeOptions is celebrating 25 years of empowering consumers throughout the state to prevent, detect and report health care fraud. We work with 15 statewide agencies that help carry out our message through outreach and one on one counseling.
Over the summer, Illinois SMP's Marina Silva had a chance to speak with Jason Echols, former SMP Director. Jason is still at AgeOptions in a different role as Manager of Special Initiatives. Jason held the Director role for several years before Travis Trumitch, the current Director, took over. Jason is well regarded in the field of aging both in Chicago and nationally, as he is the 2018 recipient of the Barbara McGinity Award, which is given to the SMP Director who has the done the most outstanding work with their program in United States.
Without advocates and leaders like Jason, the SMP program would not be where it is today with all of our success. Please enjoy their interview!
Marina Silva (MS): What is your personal history with SMP?
Jason Echols (JE): I joined AgeOptions and SMP in November 2010 and started in my role. It was a really serious/sad topic and the mission was to empower, which gave the ability to be positive. Meeting and training the volunteers was fun, and in 2010 there was a roll out of new volunteer materials. I transitioned from a volunteer specialist to the coordinator to the manager.
MS: What were some of your greatest successes during your tenure as SMP Director?
JE: When I think back over my time as Illinois SMP Director and program successes, I think about some memorable clients we had call. In particular, I think about the first call we had to our hotline from a Spanish-speaking beneficiary. At the time, we had been trying multiple ways to reach the Spanish-speaking community, but we weren’t sure if the efforts were working. So, we celebrated that call coming in, but even better than that, the same beneficiary called us back about a month or two later to tell us that someone had just come to their door to offer free equipment or home health services. The caller said they told the person no because of what our SMP staff told them to look out for. That was incredible! We rarely hear back from people that we helped prevent fraud, so this was wonderful news to hear and made the team feel like we had been doing the right thing.
I also remember the calls about particularly egregious fraud, like one company that did some pretty awful things to people on hospice. Years late, we found out that there was a multi-million dollar judgment in that case. That was amazing! But so often that isn’t how the story ends for people. So, the stories of prevention (like the Spanish-speaking caller who knew to say no) were even more meaningful.
I also think about our volunteers and the amazing things they did. Near the end of my time in the role, we hosted an SMP volunteer conference in Peoria. It was the first time I had met some of our volunteers after 7 years of working with them, and each of the SMP staff got to have a part in the conference. It was so wonderful to have so many longtime SMP volunteers and partners in one room and see their passion for this program.
The hope is that you reach someone and help them out. You don’t always know if you make a difference, but sometimes you got those hints that you’re on the right track.
MS: Could you tell us about winning the 2018 Barbara McGinity Award at the National Conference SMP/SHIP Conference here in Chicago?
JE: It was an honor. I was inspired by Barbara McGinity, and they created this award in 2016 after she passed away. It is an award where you are chosen by your peers, and it was truly an honor to be the 3rd person chosen for this award. It was Travis’ first week at AgeOptions, and we were at the conference. This was a big goal because we touched other SMPs, and this showed that we did. It was a team win, and Barbara was such a phenomenal woman.
MS: How does the SMP Program empower Medicare Beneficiaires?
JE:This has always felt like the heart of SMP – empowerment. The government should quickly pay for services and equipment that are medically necessary because most of the claims Medicare gets are legitimate and needed. As a result, the government cannot tell what is real and what is fraud. But YOU can. So, the best person to know and report fraud is the beneficiary. SMP takes something that’s bad and scary and offers people a way to make it better – either by reporting fraud or volunteering to spread the word. The SMP Team of staff, partners and volunteers also helps normalize fraud (saying “it’s not your fault” or “this happened to me too”) and sometimes even give people a way to find positivity (some people call us afraid and end the call calm or laughing). We couldn’t do our work without the people who call us or go to our presentations and learn to spread the word to their friends. That’s empowerment to make something bad into something good.
MS: What do you think the future holds for the Illinois SMP?
JE: We are at the turning point due to the pandemic, and we have to always think about new ways to share. Medicare beneficiaries are a large/diverse group and we’ll have to think of different ways to interact and how to reach everyone. There will be more specific types of outreach and different generations to relate to more people. The volunteers continue to come in and are innovative. The twist is always something – scams happen at any age and scammers just go after anyone.
On behalf of the Illinois SMP Program, I would also like to personally thank Jason for creating a foundation for our SMP Program. He personifies what it means to carry out the mission of Detect, Protect and Report for the past 25 years. Without the hard work and dedication of our past directors would not have nearly the success that we have now.