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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand hosting the show this week while Melissa Block is out West reporting.

As lawmakers and policy wonks debate health care mandates, public options, taxes and multibillion dollar price tags, we're hearing about average people's experiences with health insurance. It's our new series, Are You Covered? And today, NPR's Julie Rovner is going to dive into the complicated world of Medicare.

Hi, Julie.

JULIE ROVNER: Hi, Madeleine. You know, for all the complications about Medicare - and, boy, there are a lot of complicated things about it - it's really a very simple paradox. The people who have it, there's 45 million of them, really, really love it. The problem is that what they really, really love about it makes it really, really expensive. And so it's really not fiscally sustainable. But I went to New York to talk to one of those people who really, really, really love it. Her name is Audrey Bernfield. And we took a little walk around her neighborhood in Chelsea on Manhattan's West Side.

Ms. AUDREY BERNFIELD (Former Director of Undergraduate Advising, Stanford University): There are a lot of little shops. There's a very nice jewelry store, and a very funny fabric store and a wonderful paella restaurant.

ROVNER: Bernfield is from Chicago by way of Maryland, California and Boston. She says New York is by far the easiest to get around.

Ms. BERNFIELD: I do a lot of walking. And I think that that's what I like about New York is it's a wonderful walking city. And it's a healthy place to live. I read somewhere that we live five years longer.

ROVNER: To see the 71-year-old Bernfield charging up and down the street, you'd never know she's actually a two-time cancer survivor. But back upstairs in her cozy, new condo, she's as upbeat about her medical situation as she is about her new hometown.

Ms. BERNFIELD: In 1994, I had breast cancer, and then I was free and clear until about three years ago when I got a recurrence on the same side. And then it metastasized to bones, but it's very much under control. I feel I have the kind of physicians who said this is a chronic disease and we're dealing with it, and if one thing doesn't work, another does. And I feel very confident that they're going to take care of me.

ROVNER: Another thing Bernfield says works for her is her Medicare insurance coverage. Sometimes, it even provides more coverage than she realized.

Ms. BERNFIELD: I had a prescription to get a new prosthesis because I had a mastectomy. And the woman said, but you're also entitled to six bras. I said excuse me? She said, you're entitled to six bras with this. But I said, who needs six bras? So now I have a brown one and a red one and white one.

ROVNER: Bernfield's life hasn't been without its challenges. After she married her high school sweetheart and moved to Maryland, she wanted to study international affairs at a local university.

Ms. BERNFIELD: But they told me that I wouldn't get accepted as a full-time graduate student because that place was saved for men.

ROVNER: Bernfield left the admissions office in tears but she didn't give up. She eventually rose to become the head of undergraduate advising at Stanford University, and later helped students at Harvard Medical School design research projects. After her husband died in 2002, she waited a year before deciding to move to New York. That's where her grandchildren live. One thing that made her moving decision easier is the fact that her Medicare coverage follows her, no matter where in the country she goes. But now that she's in New York, family is not the only thing in Bernfield's life. She spends a lot of time volunteering for a women's group. Among other things, she counsels women about their own health care.

Ms. BERNFIELD: I like to talk to people about how to talk to their doctor. And especially with Medicare, sometimes, doctors don't take it. That's when the problem comes.

ROVNER: Bernfield found her own doctors the old-fashioned way. She called a friend.

Ms. BERNFIELD: Then she referred me to somebody who was fabulous, who then referred me to the next doctor. You know, so all of the people that I go to know each other and collaborate and take care of me. And unfortunately, I've needed a lot of different services and it's worked perfectly.

ROVNER: Well, not always perfectly. Bernfield has Medicare and a supplemental policy from Harvard, where she last worked, for which she pays about $200 a month. And she's been treated by a couple of doctors in New York who don't accept Medicare, so she had to pay upfront and wait for Medicare to reimburse her.

Ms. BERNFIELD: I walked out of one experience like that and said what if I couldn't pay? Then would I have to go home and find another doctor who would take my Medicare? And by this time, the problem that I have is going to grow, and it's really a significant problem.

ROVNER: Bernfield says she's not at all worried about claims that the bills now under consideration in Congress might cut back on her Medicare benefits. She says she hates it when other people complain about all the things government can't do well.

Ms. BERNFIELD: In fact, public libraries are government, too, as are schools. And we're very proud that we have them.

ROVNER: Meanwhile, Bernfield says she's happy with the way things are. She has good medical care, satisfying work to do and time to spend with her children and grandchildren, whose pictures cover the top of a bureau in her bedroom.

Ms. BERNFIELD: This is my daughter-in-law and my grandson who's 4, and my sons. So there's Jim, Camilla(ph) and Julian(ph).

ROVNER: She says she's loving watching her grandchildren grow.

Ms. BERNFIELD: And you never realize how kids look growing. I mean, you miss six months, and you've missed a whole part of their lives. So I hope Medicare stays healthy for a long, long time, because I'm planning to take advantage of it.

BRAND: That was 71-year-old Audrey Bernfield.

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