A major winter ice storm, followed by snow and below zero wind chills, has put many areas of the state at a standstill. Winter weather emergencies can be an extremely difficult time for many older Kentuckians who have sought shelter with family and friends or are stranded in their homes. There are safety concerns, including falling, hypothermia and frost bite, that senior citizens need to consider before venturing out into bad weather. Many of them also have medical conditions that require treatment, and they may be running low on medicine or have no way to get to their family doctor.

President Obama declared a federal emergency for 93 Kentucky counties. Medicare patients should know that this declaration gives them special rights to get out-of-network care for the length of the federal emergency.

As senior citizens sought shelter elsewhere during the storm, some of them may have left their prescriptions at home while others may have lost or damaged their medication. Due to the hazardous road conditions, some may not be able to get to their regular pharmacy to pick up an emergency supply or refills. Those who are having trouble getting to their normal pharmacy can go to the nearest pharmacy in the Medicare network to get their medications. Medicare patients can find the nearest network pharmacy by contacting their insurance plan.

Pharmacies can transfer most prescriptions to other pharmacies, and prescriptions can be transferred back once the emergency has ended. The new pharmacy will need to know the name of the patient's regular pharmacy and the names of the medications that need to be refilled.

Those who cannot get to a pharmacy in the Medicare network may go to an out-of-network pharmacy. Medicare has rules for getting medicine from an out-of-network pharmacy, but patients may have to pay more at these locations than at a network pharmacy. If so, individuals should save the receipts of the prescription because they may be reimbursed by their prescription drug plan. To get a refund, they will need to submit a paper claim to their insurance.

During a federally-declared emergency, Medicare patients that need care from a physician but are unable to get to their doctor, can go to any doctor that accepts Medicare. This applies whether their health concerns are emergency or routine. If they can only reach an out-of-network doctor, they do not have to meet their plan's prior authorization rules and only have to pay the in-network rate. But they should be aware that some out-of-network physicians could make them pay at the time of service. If this happens, they can ask their insurance plan for a refund.

Older adults that go out in the next several days should practice extreme caution. Roads, sidewalks and steps could be slick and hazardous. They should not walk on icy or snow covered sidewalks. Wearing boots with non-skid soles can help prevent falls. Individuals should carefully shovel sidewalks and steps at their residence. Those with a heart condition, osteoporosis or balance problems may want to hire someone to shovel for them as these conditions can be aggravated by overexertion.

Extremely cold temperatures increase the chances of hypothermia and frost bite. It is best for older adults to stay indoors, but if they must go outside, they should wear several layers of thin clothing along with a hat, gloves, coat, boots and scarf. While outside, if they start to shiver or notice their skin turning red or dark or if it starts hurting, they need to go inside immediately as these are warning signs of hypothermia and frost bite. Others who believe someone is experiencing either of these conditions should seek medical attention immediately.

Winter weather can be extremely hazardous and trying for older adults. Community members, neighbors and loved ones should be sensitive to their needs, especially if their area is still without electricity. More information on handling winter weather emergencies is available at your county office for the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.

Amy Hosier, UK Extension Specialist for Family Life Education 
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services 
The AGS Foundation for Health in Aging