Senate Committee Tries To Kill Free Medicare Counseling

Senate Committee Tries To Kill Free Medicare Counseling

By Mary Johnson, editor

What do flea treatments for dogs, duck eggs, home made pickles, and a pair of overalls have to do with Medicare?  These were gifts from friends and neighbors who insisted on giving me something as a thank-you for guiding them through the intricacies of choosing and enrolling in Medicare health and prescription drug plans, and saving them money through informed choices.

Medicare and Medicaid can trigger mental meltdowns when trying to figure out what you are supposed to do, and how you are going to afford it all.  I can’t stand to watch it.  The average Medicare beneficiary must choose among more than 20 prescription drug plans, and about 19 Medicare Advantage plans.  There are also 10 types of Medigap supplement policies from dozens of insurers.  All come with different premiums, costs, provider network considerations and different coverage rules.  Low-income older adults, and people with disabilities are particularly in need of guidance.

The system is enormously complicated, yet making the right choices is crucial to one’s long-term financial security and health in retirement.  For the past decade I’ve acted as a volunteer Medicare “navigator” for family and friends.  Most have saved hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars a year.  When I get stuck I turn to our State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) counselors for help.

Every state has these highly trained people who can help with your Medicare questions and problems.  SHIP Medicare counselors offer free one-on-one advice on how to choose Medicare health and drug plans and apply for financial assistance, and they can help you challenge coverage denials.  In addition to counseling, they host enrollment clinics and events for new beneficiaries, and answer toll - free telephone help lines.  In 2015 SHIPs helped 7 million people.  About 57% of the nation’s 14,500 SHIP counselors are highly trained volunteers like me, who donate almost 2 million hours of assistance annually.  Counselors can be found through many local area agencies on aging, or senior services departments.

With 10,000 Baby Boomers signing up for Medicare daily, the need for knowledgeable help and clarity is at an all time high, yet recently the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to kill the SHIP program by stripping its very modest $52 million in funding from a budget bill, calling it an “unnecessary federal program.”

TSCL was relieved to see the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee approve funding at the current level.  The full House of Representative and the full Senate will vote on the budget bills this fall.  Please join me and help save this program for fiscal 2017.  Write to your Members of Congress urging them to vote to protect SHIP funding and provide the support and assistance that older adults, people with disabilities, and their families need. Call your lawmakers toll free at 1-844-455-0045 or send an email to your Members of Congress.