By Betty Berry, Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010  Q: I know that I must pay a Medicare Part B deductible each year, but I never know which doctor I should pay. Can you give me some guidelines so I am prepared for the start of the new year?

A: I would be glad to give it a try. Your Medical Summary Notice, known as an MSN, is the key.

The Medicare Part B deductible, which is currently $155 per year, is applied on a first-come, first-paid basis. This means that at the start of each year Medicare will apply your deductible to the first claim or claims it receives until the full deductible has been met.

The MSN will show you which provider’s services Medicare applied the deductible to; the amount paid to that provider, if any; the amount you are responsible for; and the amount of the deductible that has not yet been met.

Once the deductible has been satisfied, subsequent MSNs will state that your deductible for the current year has been met.

Your provider has the option of billing you for the deductible at the time of your visit. However, because the status of your deductible might not be known at that time, it is strongly suggested that you wait before making any payment.

If you do make a payment and it is more than Medicare applied toward your deductible, you are entitled to a refund.

If you are refused a refund without a satisfactory explanation, contact Medicare’s customer service department. The number is shown on your MSN.

Q: I have heard some horrible accounts of unscrupulous contractors taking advantage of senior homeowners. What can we do to avoid becoming victims?

A: In most day-to-day dealings the majority of contractors do an honest job. But there are rip-off artists who offer cut-rate or impossible-to-refuse deals.

Home improvement projects and repairs are expensive. Thought and time should go into selecting a contractor. The contractor should not seek you out; instead, you should seek out the contractor.

When a contractor goes door-to-door telling you that he’s working in the neighborhood, consider his approach a red flag.

Interview several contractors. Ask for and check references. If possible, inspect a previous job. Make sure the contractor is licensed, bonded and insured. Check with the Better Business Bureau, state Attorney General’s office or licensing bureau to find if any complaints have been filed. More than one recent complaint should put you on notice.

Before deciding on a specific contractor, get estimates from several professionals. A legitimate contractor will provide a free job estimate that is easy to understand and specific about materials and labor.

When you decide on a contractor, request a contract. It should include the services to be performed, cost, guarantees, warranties, and start and end dates.

Ask to see copies of professional licenses, insurance documents and some form of personal identification. Make sure the contractor pulls the proper city permits and secures a performance bond.

Never pay up front. Provide only a small down payment and pay the remainder gradually. Final payment shouldn’t be made until the job is completed to your satisfaction or, if inspection is required, after the inspector has completed a review.

Always request a “release of lien” from the contractor when the project is completed.

Don’t hesitate to ask questions. An honest contractor will be willing to provide information. If the contractor you selected won’t provide answers, look for one who will.

— Betty Berry is a senior advocate for Senior Concerns. The advocates are at the Goebel Senior Adult Center, 1385 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks, CA 91362; call 495-6250 or e-mail (please include your telephone number). You are invited to submit questions on senior issues.

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