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Why we need more Medicare agents

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Upon receiving an associate’s degree in accounting from Davenport University in 1983, Elizabeth Challa started her first job, working with an actuary and doing accounting work for pension plans. It’s a position she held for 15 years before transitioning to a new career in the field of adoption.

Three decades later, Challa’s career has come full-circle. She now works as an insurance agent for Legacy Financial Network, serving as a Medicare advisor in its West Michigan office.

“I started on one end of the spectrum, helping people prepare for retirement in their early years, and now I work with Medicare and write final expense life insurance, helping with the other end of retirement,” she says. “Both positions involve helping people, and that’s what I have always felt I wanted to do with my life.”

Take the 14 years in between these retirement planning roles, when she served as an administrative assistant for Adoption Associates, Inc., a job where she could interact with pregnant teens, prospective parents, and birth mothers who were facing difficult decisions in their lives.

Challa admits she took the job after first having her children, because she wanted to work in a place that was closer to home and didn’t require as much mental stress on a daily basis as working in accounting did. She never imagined she would get the personal fulfillment that the job delivered.

“I have always liked to help people, and I really got into that part at the adoption agency,” she says. “I counseled as much as the law would allow me and had really important talks with people that I feel were valuable to all involved. It was very fulfilling.”

Upon leaving Adoption Associates in 2013, Challa found herself looking for a new job for the first time in 30 years. Her sister, Carol, had found success as an insurance agent at Legacy and suggested that she follow in her footsteps.

“She knew that I enjoyed helping people so she thought that this was something I might enjoy,” Challa says. “So, I tried it and I really like it. I’ll be here two years come August.”

At Legacy, her clients are retirees or near-retirees who she advises on everything from Medicare Advantage Plans to retirement income solutions. Challa loves helping people at a time in their life when they have many questions and uncertainties about the future.

Her biggest success with the agency to date may not have been very financially rewarding, but for Challa, it was her most important.

“I helped a gentleman who thought he was only eligible for a drug plan through Medicare. He had been on disability and lived in this dingy little apartment and didn’t have much and he was struggling along to make ends meet,” she says. “He was turning 65, so I called him. He invited me over and I told him all about Advantage plans and he now has complete health insurance that covers pretty much everything he needs with a small co-pay.”

Challa was also able to help him save on his Part B premium, so he doesn’t have to pay that anymore, saving $104.90 a month. For somebody who only makes about $900 a month, that’s a pretty big deal.

“That’s been the best thing that I have done in my short time at this career,” Challa says. “Knowing that I have made his life a little easier and a little happier. You can’t ask for anything better than that.”

 

Building a career

Just like any new agent, Challa has spent the early part of her career at Legacy cold calling clients and trying to stay busy.

“I try to prospect any way I can; I bring business cards with me any place I go and I always try to keep my eyes and ears open,” she says. “It’s important early on to build referrals and establish a client list, but that takes time and effort. I was very used to getting regular paychecks and now I can go whole months without a paycheck. There’s definitely income uncertainty in the job. The first few months were hard.”

A lifelong resident of West Michigan, Challa currently resides in Jenison with her husband, John, and has two grown children — a daughter in college and a 20-something son.  

“I am almost 52 and my husband and I aren’t ready to retire yet. We’re also not ready to start downsizing,” she says. “That’s the biggest struggle. Thankfully, my husband has been at his job for over 30 years and has a good income. While we need my income to run our household, it doesn’t have to be as big as what it was before I started this job.”

Challa mostly works with people who are 64 and above to educate them about Medicare and other insurance products that will allow them to live out the rest of their lives comfortably. She understands cold calling is part of the job, but looks forward to when there’s less of that and more referrals and appointments to be had.

“I don’t do well when I don’t have enough to do; I like to stay busy,” she says. “Typically, I have 2–3 appointments with someone. There’s an introduction, I’ll write the Medicare policy and follow up, and the third is usually to deliver the policy. After I do that, I check to see if there’s any need for Final Expense life insurance or any asset planning.”

In the first two years of her career as an agent, her greatest challenge has been staying up-to-date on regulatory and product changes in a rapidly evolving industry. Challa takes classes every year to keep up on the latest Medicare changes, and also gets help from two managers at her agency.

Understanding the lengthy list of Medicare rules is difficult for insurance agents and experts, let alone seniors who have no background in the product at all. That’s why Challa says its vital for everyone she calls to at least listen to what she has to say. The problem is that, thanks to shows like The Today Show, this has proven to be difficult.

“There are people who think that I am trying to take advantage of them. That’s something that’s hard to overcome on the phone,” she says. “The problem is that you hear about scams on the news, or the Today Show did a segment on what to do when people call the home, telling seniors to make noise into the phone. I’m trying to help people and I know a lot of people won’t ever learn this important information if I don’t call and teach them, but national television is telling them not to speak to me!”

However, if she can get her foot in the door, Challa feels she can assuage any misconceptions and has a pretty good chance of helping someone with Medicare and the insurance solutions she offers.

Looking ahead, Challa envisions a time when she will work only when she wants to.

“When I become a grandparent, I would like to participate in my grandchildren’s lives, not having definite demands on my time,” she says. “That was a big appeal to doing this job. At my age, I want some flexibility. Right now, I can work as much as I want. My kids are independent and grandchildren aren’t here yet. In the future, I want to have time to do what I want and have a regular referral source to help me in my career.”

Still, she feels fulfilled in her current role.

“The clients that I have, I feel a responsibility to them and I like that. They have put a lot of trust in me and I am helping them to ensure they have the coverage they need if something goes wrong. I’m making a difference in these people’s lives,” she says. “I have had the opportunity to meet people I would have never had the chance to meet. That’s a gift. It helps me grow as a person, and it helps me have a chance to share my gifts with other people and it’s a great career.”