By Emma Vallelunga
Theresa Cangemi holds many titles: consultant, advisor, entrepreneur, keynote speaker and educator. But for those looking to make sense of the forms, choices and processes of applying for federal health insurance, she’s known as The Medicare Lady.
Cangemi, a licensed Medicare specialist and independent agent in the Syracuse area, runs Medicare Made Simple, a business she created to help the Medicare-eligible population understand their health insurance options. Cangemi graduated from LeMoyne College with a degree in business administration and marketing and worked in the auto and property insurance industry with OneBeacon Insurance for 10 years before deciding to branch out on her own in 2008.
“As I got into it, I realized there’s a bigger picture here,” Cangemi said. “Not only did it give me the opportunity to express myself as an independent thinker and an entrepreneur, but there’s a greater good in helping people. I love what I do but also the opportunity to really navigate this system with people who are becoming eligible.
Cangemi said most people don’t understand how to get started with their Medicare and the facets that come with it. As a consultant, she takes the time to explain to each client what their insurance plan options are, how to qualify for Medicare, when to retire, how and when to apply for Medicare benefits, how their health care history can benefit their insurance and how proper Medicare education can help clients pick a plan that works best for them.
During her 13 years in business, Cangemi’s clientele has been almost exclusively referral based. The nickname ‘The Medicare Lady’ was coined by some of her first clients who received referrals from friends or family members to “call The Medicare Lady” when they were ready to retire and start thinking about Medicare. The mantra stuck, and she has used it to advertise herself and her services on her website ever since.
“A couple people started saying that to me, and I thought that that was really cute,” she said.
During her career, Cangemi estimated she has helped more than 2,000 clients enroll in a Medicare plan and fielded more than 2,700 inquiries. She consults at least 15 clients every week and sees an average of 280 clients enroll in Medicare every year.
Gary Cannerelli counts himself as one of those satisfied clients. He worked for the engineering firm O’Brien and Gere in Syracuse for 45 years before retiring in 2015. He said he didn’t know much about Medicare until he met Cangemi, who helped him navigate his choice. He appreciated the fact that Cangemi gave him all the information for his options and didn’t push him toward one plan or the other.
“As I approached my retirement, I knew I needed some help,” Cannerelli said. “I really let her handle it. I told her what my needs are and my basic general health. She gives you all the ammunition to help you decide. She’s very patient, organized, professional and efficient.”
Cannerelli said Cangemi is also extremely available when clients call to inquire or ask for help. When he realized his health insurance company made a last-minute change to his plan in December and didn’t know what to do, she was there for him.
“Even in her busiest time, she got back to me,” he said. “We worked through it to meet my needs, and it saved me some money to get me the best program.”
“I don’t pick somebody’s plan,” Cangemi said. “I tell my clients nobody should be picking your plan at all because you know what your health care needs or what your prescription drug requirements are. They could call an 800-number, they could get something in the mail and call that to get more information, but if they do that, they’re only getting that insurance company’s plan.”
To ensure clients make the best choice, she encourages them to shop the marketplace so they know what a range of plans offer. That can be confusing and overwhelming, but as a certified senior advisor, Cangemi understands the aging process of seniors and how to show empathy toward their needs. Her certification in long-term care also makes her qualified to educate clients on long-term care options beyond nursing-home care, and financial solutions to consider as they plan for their future.
In fact, educating the Medicare-eligible population is a major part of the service Cangemi offers. She has conducted private seminars for the human resources departments of companies and their employees, taught information sessions at OCM BOCES, given keynote speeches for events like the Central New York chapter Alzheimer Association Dementia Care Conference in Syracuse and sent out monthly newsletters with helpful articles about Medicare, health care and even cooking recipes just for fun.
Lyle Hassel met Cangemi when the company he worked for in 2010, Crucible Industries in Syracuse, held a health fair where Cangemi was presenting. Hassel said her personable yet professional manner impressed him as she interacted with people in front of the room. When he began looking into retirement six years later, he kept in touch with her, officially scheduled a consultation and eventually convinced his wife Julie Hassel to enlist Cangemi to help her pick a Medicare plan when she was ready. The couple now consults with Cangemi together, and Hassel said she has helped them navigate their insurance plans seamlessly.
“She always stresses, after we’ve had a conversation with her, don’t hesitate to call her,” Julie Hassel said. “If we have a question, give her a call. She’s always there for us.”
Cangemi explained that seminars differ from consultations. Seminars offer basic information to a large audience. But without the one-on-one benefit of consultations, it can be difficult to know what people are thinking, to grasp if they understand the material and to gauge how fast or slow to progress through the presentation. While seminars offer an overview, Cangemi said those who need more guidance can reach out to her for private consultations, where she provides insights about their insurance options while getting to know them and understanding their individual needs.
“People don’t really want to talk about their personal story in a group setting when I’m giving a seminar, so they might want to confide in you in a personal setting,” she said. “That’s when we dig into exactly what they’re looking for. It’s almost like they trust me like a doctor, and I enjoy that piece of it.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Cangemi said most aspects of her business model remained unchanged. She had always worked from home, set up her own systems and functioned independently. Transitioning her clients to virtual consultations became a new challenge. This sometimes required her to offer a bit of technology assistance for clients who weren’t tech-savvy or lacked a computer at home and therefore lacked access to their email or needed Zoom tutorials. Sometimes she’d ask a client to enlist a friend or family member to help them set up a virtual meeting. But Cangemi said most clients embraced going virtual, and she was more than happy to help them through it.
“People are opening up and more willing to do the virtual meetings where they would absolutely refuse to do it before, and actually, they prefer it because they can stay in their slippers, or they don’t have to get up, get dressed and drive over to sit and meet with me,” Cangemi said.
But with or without the challenges of a pandemic, Cangemi said she loves everything about what she does from the satisfaction of teaching people about Medicare to the opportunities to get to know people. Talking to the Medicare-eligible population reminds her of the conversations she had with her grandparents when she was growing up — their lives, how they first met, how they got married, how they lived on the north side of the city, the parties they threw, the kids they raised, the struggles they faced during the Depression — and getting to know her clients in a similar way made her care for them even more.
“When I’m sitting in front of somebody, at their coffee table or kitchen table, it reminds me of my grandparents,” Cangemi said. “I loved my grandparents’ stories, and when I work with my clients, it reminds me of being back with them, learning about their lives and putting the puzzle together.”