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Spotlight on Wisconsin elder benefit program

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The Elder Benefit Specialist Program is a legal assistance program unique to Wisconsin. The program, funded primarily through funds from the Older Americans Act, the State of Wisconsin and the State Health Insurance Assistance Program, focuses on providing locally-based counseling to adults age 60 and older. In 2013 EBSs handled more than 67,000 cases in Wisconsin serving clients in areas including Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, health insurance, and consumer protection and housing issues. EBS services are provided free to people age 60 and older.

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The EBS program began in 1977 as a pilot program in a handful of counties but expanded to serve the entire state by 1988. Because the EBS program was intended to serve older clients, the Disability Benefit Specialist (DBS) Program was created to serve people aged 18-59. The DBS program began in 2000 and expanded to serve the entire state by 2013. There is at least one EBS in each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties and 11 Native American tribes.

Because the state legislatures also observed and supported the need for the EBS program, a law passed that codified the program in 1987. This law states “Benefit specialists shall offer information, advice and assistance to older individuals related to individual eligibility for and problems with public benefits and services and to health care financing, insurance, housing and other financial and consumer concerns.”

The Wisconsin Department of Human Services designed the program and elderly benefit specialists are employed by local aging units in every county of the state. The local office where the EBS works may vary by county — it may be at the aging and disability resource center (ADRC), the county, a tribe, or through a contract with a nonprofit organization.

Because EBS’ assist clients with legal issues, they work closely with program attorneys on cases and receive ongoing training from program attorneys bi-monthly to stay abreast of changes in the law and to learn new skills. When hired, the specialists also undergo an intensive, in-person training with program attorneys.

The policies of the EBS program have priority areas. No. 1 is a focus on assisting with the basic needs of their clients, which may be income, health care, long-term care, housing, food and working to reduce debt or financial exploitation. The EBS may do this with a client by providing accurate information on benefits or helping to identify what benefits a client may be eligible for, suggesting alternative actions to secure benefits including appealing a denial, advocating on a client’s behalf, or even through a referral to a private attorney.

To contact the EBS for Douglas County, call Brenda Kohel at Senior Connections at 715-394-3611 or visit www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/aging/ebs/counties.htm.

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