SMP Liaison Spotlight – Meet Muriel Smalheiser!

muriel smalheiser

This month’s SMP Liaison Spotlight is with Muriel Smalheiser, who, as of this month, has served for 15 years as a volunteer HICAP Counselor and 6 years as an SMP Liaison in Contra Costa County. Muriel has lived a life full of meaningful contribution, resourcefulness, wisdom, innovation, creativity, generosity, empathy and love. Through all her endeavors, she leaves her mark by changing systems, nourishing people’s hearts and confidence, speaking up for those not able to and empowering people to help themselves. She has truly made our world a better place and continues to do so.

How she came to HICAP

Muriel’s journey to HICAP began in 1992 when her mom, who lived in the suburbs of Boston, had a stroke. Muriel brought her to California, and as she and her husband were working full time, and her mom needed supervision day and night, they found a wonderful board and care place close to them in Concord. Yet, not too long after, her mom had a 2nd stroke, went into the hospital in Concord and later to a skilled nursing facility for rehab care. Three months later, when Muriel was checking her mother’s Medicare Summary Notice (MSN), she saw a charge of $37,000 for one day of hospital care! Shocked, Muriel looked a bit closer at the charge and saw it was billed from a doctor in Lancaster, about 400 miles from where they lived. 

“Hmm, that’s not right,” Muriel thought, and she called Social Security to investigate. They put her in touch with her local HICAP where she met with a volunteer counselor. In taking one look at the MSN, she said, “Well, this looks like fraud to me. We know what to do and we’ll take care of it.” And shortly after, the bill was removed, and that was that. Muriel loves this story and often uses it in her HICAP/SMP outreach and education to demonstrate why it’s so important to review your MSNs or Explanation of Benefits. 

Also, after this experience, Muriel made a promise to herself that when she retired, she would give back by volunteering with HICAP. She retired in 2006, proceeded to travel for a couple years, and when she returned, registered for HICAP training.  As of this month, Muriel has served 15 years as a HICAP volunteer counselor! 

Career and life path – always making a difference for others

With a Masters degree in psychiatric social work, Muriel worked in this field in New York and California, yet once she had her two kids, she found it was not family friendly. It wasn’t unusual to get called in the middle of the night, “Mrs. Smalheiser? One of your clients is on the roof of suchandsuch hotel. They need to talk with someone to help them down off the roof.” In wanting to be more steadily available for her kids, she decided to quit her job and devote her time to her family, her kids’ school and community. Yet after about 5-6 years, her husband said, “Well now that you’ve re-organized the school PTA, have volunteered at and gotten most all of our community organizations squared away, what do you think about doing this and getting paid again?” 

Muriel knew she had much to offer, yet in not wanting to go back into psychiatric social work, she needed to reframe her skills to do something new. This is when she found the Coro Leadership Program for Women. The original leadership program was founded by two men veterans of World War II. They observed that all these people who had gone through World War II with phenomenal leadership roles, could barely get jobs as street sweepers when they returned, as they had no degrees to go with their leadership skills gained abroad. This program taught people how to identify their skill sets and how to use them in new ways. The program was quite successful; it grew and developed an offshoot program for women. 

“With women,” Muriel said, “the first step was to stop being subservient and to use their voice.” With that in mind, one of their many tasks was public speaking and speaking to many different audiences. It was an intensive 5 days a week, 10-week program. By the end, they all had a good idea what they had to offer and how to present it to the world. 

In the internship after the program, Muriel chose to go into the corporate world of real estate – something completely different than she had ever done before. Yet, after her training, she learned how to use what she already knew and apply it in new ways. She interned with Consolidated Capital Equities Corporation and ended up developing training programs for them. They liked it and hired her, and promptly had her teaching/training their employees at their own University of Emeryville. 

At this job, Muriel said she tried to do for her fellow colleagues what her Coro Leadership Program had done for her. For her fellow corporate employees who had more “subservient skill sets” and mindsets, she helped empower them to see much more inside of themselves, what skills they had and what they could do with them. She helped them see and live possibility. 

She also, in a sense, became the onsite counselor there; if someone needed to talk, they’d come to her and not need to take time off of work to do so. They called her “the Shrink”. She made a big difference in the health and wellbeing of the company from the inside out. In sharing with Muriel what was going on in their head, and in their own lives, they could deal with it, make a plan and reshape their lives. During her time there, the company expanded from 100 to 500 employees.

Four years later when the world of real estate started collapsing, for the company’s 4th layoff, Muriel decided to put her name at the top of the list and leave that job. 

Again, just like before, she took her strong skills gained in the corporate world and put them creatively to use in a completely different context and made a positive difference in people’s lives. For the next 17 years, Muriel worked at the Girl Scouts Council in California. She was in charge of business operations and human resources. She recounted that in her first summer there, she got a call from the employment department. Someone had filed a lawsuit against them because they were paid $50 for 40 hours of work at a summer camp, nothing close to minimum wage. 

At the time, the mindset of the Girl Scouts Council was that this was an honorarium, a “thank you” for them donating time and energy to the girl scouts. Muriel saw that this was “great if operating with middle to upper class families, but low-income families who were giving their time need money and a salary.” Muriel had to explain to 70 employees that “slave labor went out many years ago, and perpetuating slave labor using people from low income areas was against the law.” She shared that she helped bring the Council into the 21st century. She loved her time with the Girl Scouts and is a lifetime member.

At the helm of her own life

One thing that became clear in my interview with Muriel, is that she has always been at the helm of her own life. When reflecting this back to her, she laughed and said, “Exactly! And, I got into trouble because little black girls are not supposed to be at the helm of their own life.” She had a lot of confidence and attributes some of that to how her parents raised her. They helped her trust herself, her inner knowing and that she “knows best for herself”. She was also nurtured in the philosophy and practice that “we are all each other’s keeper.” In addition, she shared that her parents didn’t spank or punish her, which she feels really has helped her see the world differently – that most people are out to help in their own way. When a child does something that may be labeled as “bad”, she instead “looks at the situation through the kid’s eyes.” Throughout her life, with her family, in her career and in her volunteer work at HICAP and SMP, she uses empathy. It’s a strong tool for building connection, understanding and allowing a natural, creative transformation for opening possibilities and a new way forward.

How Muriel came to SMP

In July 2017 when at one of Muriel’s HICAP counselor trainings with Contra Costa County’s  HICAP Program Manager, a fellow HICAP volunteer who had been serving as their county’s SMP liaison announced his plans to leave the area, and hence his volunteer duties. Ruth, the then HICAP PM asked Muriel that day if she’d like to be the county’s new SMP liaison. She accepted and has been doing a fabulous, innovative and creative job ever since.

What Muriel enjoys most about her work as an SMP Liaison

One thing Muriel enjoys is being a local, in-person, human contact for people to go to with Medicare fraud issues and questions. Medicare is a huge federal program and one thing she thinks about when giving public presentations is how Medicare is a gigantic national government entity with “zero local presence.” She feels that through her work with HICAP and SMP, she gets to be that local, human presence, and sees the joy and relief that brings to people with questions and concerns. 

“So many people on Medicare are in over their heads. They don’t know who to turn to, and have no idea what fraud is until it’s too late,” said Muriel. By going out there, giving presentations, “I help make people aware.” Muriel tells them, “I know you are a good person, and were taught to do what people in authority say. But if the person is not your doctor or from your doctor’s office, they don’t need your Medicare info. Part of your power is to hold onto your information. Don’t be subservient. Use your brain and trust your instincts.”

She also enjoys tuning people into other helpful resources. “Such as AARP,” Muriel explained. “Membership is inexpensive. They can ask their grandkids for an AARP subscription. They do a lot of things on fraud prevention and awareness too.” She encourages people to search on the internet, find places/resources to learn. She loves to help people help themselves.

Tips to share on fraud prevention

Some things Muriel has learned from years “out in the field” is how to reach the “hard to reach” populations. She goes where they are. She makes sure to get HICAP and SMP materials out to all corners and unnoticed pockets of Contra Costa County. For example, there is only one road out to Bethel Island, and on that road is a Valero gas station and convenience store. Muriel regularly takes HICAP and SMP material there. Once when she was in the office, a HICAP staff member received a call from the Valero gas station asking for more materials. The receptionist, in disbelief, called out the the staff and volunteers present, asking, “Is this a prank?!” Luckily Muriel was there and laughed, exclaiming it was indeed no prank and that she would bring out more HICAP/SMP materials soon. She also frequents beauty shops, barber shops, laundromats, district supervisors offices, shelters, mobile home parks – places where the people are. 

One thing Muriel sees as essential for HICAP and SMP moving forward is needing more bilingual AND bicultural volunteers. “Translators are wonderful,” Muriel said, “but they don’t speak ‘Medicare’. It’s hard enough for people who are English-speaking to understand Medicare. If you then try to use another language and speak of ‘Part A’ and ‘Part B’, you lose them.” She explained that we need people who speak those languages as their languages. “I speak Spanish,” she said,  “but not ‘Medicare’ in Spanish.” That takes someone who is both bilingual and bicultural. They are the real web weavers for getting this important information and services to non-English speaking communities. 

We are honored to have Muriel Smalheiser as one of our state’s HICAP Counselors and Contra Costa’s SMP Liaison. Thank you, Muriel for the bright gem of who you are, your service to many and for making our world a much better place!

Karen Joy Fletcher

Our blogger Karen Joy Fletcher is CHA’s Communications Director. With a Masters in Public Health from UC Berkeley, she is the online “public face” of the organization, provides technical expertise, writing and research on Medicare and other health care issues. She is responsible for digital content creation, management of CHA’s editorial calendar, and managing all aspects of CHA’s social media presence. She loves being a “communicator” and enjoys networking and collaborating with the passionate people and agencies in the health advocacy field. See her current articles.