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Recently I was accepted into the Medicare family. At least I think I was. At least I was issued a Medicare number and a Medicare card and told I could sign up, with a starting date of Jan. 1, 2014. In the meantime, though, there would be some formalities.

So I got this letter in the mail from CMS (and that turns out to mean Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which runs Medicare out of Iowa City) and the letter said I could sign onto (or on to, or into, or in to) something called and then I could set up my username and my password, and soon enough I’d be using this “secure and personalized portal” for important chitchat with Uncle Sam.

So I did. Or at least I tried. I typed a brief message in the appropriate box and clicked “send,” or whatever, but then I got a red warning that I hadn’t done something properly, or whatever. Turns out that I had used improper symbols! Turns out that among the many symbols you’re not allowed to use when addressing Uncle Sam in this way are hyphens and dashes and slashes and % and $ and @ (heaven forbid you should want to give them your email address) and commas and more-thans (^) and all kinds of stuff people use all the time (people who aren’t trying to talk to Medicare online, that is) so I deleted all the bad symbols and tried again. Here’s how far I got:

“Medicare Live Chat is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“ Live Chat Transcript

“Live Chat date: 10/1/2013

“Start time: 3:09:58 pm

“End time: 3:15:24 pm

“[3:09:58 pm] Thank you for contacting Live Chat.

“[3:09:59 pm] GLENN: I just completed my IEQ online but would like to clarify two points. However, there is no way to add comments on the online IEQ form.

“[3:10:07 pm] Please wait while you are connected to an agent.

“[3:10:51 pm] Please wait while you are connected to an agent.

“[3:11:42 pm] Please wait while you are connected to an agent.

“[3:12:10 pm] You are now connected with Live Chat. Thank you for contacting Live Chat. My name is Dani. Can you please verify your first and last name?

“[3:12:24 pm] GLENN: Glenn Richter.

“[3:14:07 pm] DANI: Thank you, Mr. Richter. I understand you would like to know how you can update your Initial Enrollment Questionnaire (IEQ) online.

“[3:14:46 pm] GLENN: Not update – I would like to clarify two points. However, there’s no way to add a comment on the IEQ form.

“[3:15:24 pm] DANI: Live Chat is currently unavailable. We apologize for any inconvenience. Please try again later or you may contact our Support Hotline at 1-877-607-9663. For general Medicare questions, please call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227). TTY users should call 1-877-486-2048

“Due to the government shutdown, information on this website may not be up to date. For information about available government services, visit”

Clearly, I should have tried this before Oct. 1 – which was Doomsday, as far as the looming government shutdown was concerned. My bad. Then again, I’m not sure any website that forbids you to use hyphens and dashes and slashes and % and $ would work well even if there weren’t a government shutdown, even on a sunny day in May.

As they say: “We apologize for any inconvenience. Please try again later.”

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