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THE FINE PRINT

Here’s how to deal with Social Security and Medicare amid the coronavirus crisis

People waited in line at a Social Security Administration office in New York last Monday.
People waited in line at a Social Security Administration office in New York last Monday.Joshua Bright/The New York Times

With Social Security offices closed nationwide and more than 60,000 workers sidelined, this can he a stressful time for older folks who need to apply for Social Security and Medicare benefits. Some answers to your questions:

Q. Will I continue to receive my Social Security or Supplemental Security Income check?

A. Yes, the Social Security Administration says there will be no interruptions for nearly 70 million beneficiaries. Keep in mind that the federal government right now is desperately trying to stave off a recession by keeping money flowing in the economy.

Q. So, no problems, right?

A. There may be a logistical problem for those who receive a paper check in their mailboxes: getting it deposited at your bank. One of my banks has closed its lobbies and urged customers to use the drive-through window or one of its ATMs. (For those with a smartphone, there is another alternative: using your bank’s app to do a “mobile deposit” by photographing the check’s front and back.) Finally, here’s my best suggestion: Switch to direct deposit by using this link.

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Q. Are Social Security offices open for business?

A. No, they closed last week until further notice. The SSA said it’s trying to protect the older Americans and people with underlying medical conditions who make up most of its clientele, and to protect its tens of thousands of employees.

Q. How can I get help while its offices are closed?

A. The SSA website says you can apply for retirement, disability, and Medicare benefits online, check the status of an application or appeal, and print a benefit verification letter.

Q. Do I need an online account for most transactions?

A. Yes. Here’s a link on how to set it up your personal SSA account. You need a Social Security number, an e-mail address, a mailing address, and other personal information such as date of birth. There is no cost. If you don’t use e-mail, maybe the time has come. If you have a cellphone, you probably have access to an e-mail account from AT&T, Verizon, or another provider.

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Q. How does the SSA know it’s really me?

A. When you are setting up your account, you will be asked questions for identity verification. The SSA says you may find the answers to some questions on your tax forms, including your W-2. Have those forms handy.

Q. Do I need to wait until I apply for benefits before opening a personal account?

A. No, I opened an account a few years ago, even though I’m not yet eligible for full Social Security benefits (mine come at age 66 years, 4 months). I check in periodically to see my estimated monthly benefit. The maximum benefit comes to those who wait until age 70 to collect.

Q. Once I have my personal account set up, what do I do to apply for benefits?

A. Start here and follow the prompts.

Q. Can I apply online in a language other than English?

A. No, the online application is only in English. But when you begin the application, you will get the option to schedule an appointment to apply in person in a different language. Ordinarily, SSA pays benefits retroactively on late-filings up to six months after eligibility began. It remains to be seen if SSA will adjust this rule in light of the COVID-19 crisis.

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Q. What happens after I file my application online?

A. An SSA employee may call to follow up. Keep in mind that most employees are working from home and probably using a private mobile phone, not a government one. Be cautious about giving personal information. And you can check your status online.

Q. How long does it take to fill out and submit an online application?

A. The SSA says between 10 and 30 minutes.

Q. Can I apply for Social Security benefits by phone?

A. Yes, use this toll-free line, 800-772-1213. But keep in mind the SSA says phone service will focus on "providing specific critical services to people in dire need,” for example those who did not receive a monthly payment; the homeless or those at risk of becoming homeless; and those seeking reinstatement of suspended benefits. SSA says callers may experience long wait times but gives no specifics.

Q. Are in-person appointments possible at all?

A. Yes, for reinstatement of benefits in dire circumstances; assistance to people with severe disabilities, blindness, or terminal illnesses; and people in dire need of eligibility decisions for Supplemental Security Income or Medicaid eligibility related to work status. You must call in advance. I looked up the telephone number for my local office on Google, called, and (within minutes) spoke to an SSA employee who said she was working from home. She said it was up to management to decide which cases were so dire that they required immediate, in-person attention.

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Q. I am about to turn 65, and I want to sign up for Medicare. How do I do that?

A. Once you are within three months of turning 65, you need to apply for Medicare. The link for applying for Social Security is the same one for Medicare, even if you don’t plan on applying for Social Security at this time. Follow the prompts.

Q. I signed up for Medicare Part B (doctors/medical) believing I had to or face a penalty down the road. But then I learned that I did not need to since I am still working and covered by my employer’s group health insurance. I was told I need to cancel in person. What do I do?

A. SSA may ask you to do so in person, although probably not immediately. If you already have an appointment set up for any reason, wait for a call from SSA to confirm it. But keep in mind that if you are working and covered under your employer’s plan when you turn 65, you can delay enrollment in Medicare Part B (doctors/medical) without penalty, so long as your employer has at least 20 employees. But everyone should sign up at age 65 for Medicare Part A (hospital).


Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.