A program that helps thousands of Florida seniors sign up for Medicare could lose all of its funding by the end of the month if Congress doesn't act.
Florida received $2.8 million last year from the national State Health Insurance Program. In Florida, the program is known as Serving the Health Insurance Needs of Elders, or SHINE.
The program’s funding has been threatened before – last year, funding was cut by 10 percent, said Kyrie-Leigh Chambliss, with SHINE in Hillsborough County.
This year, President Trump and the House eliminated all funding for the national program. The Senate budget keeps the program's current funding of $47 million in place.
“We are at a whole new level of concern this year,” Chambliss said. “It's looking like a very realistic possibility that the program is in serious danger so we are definitely taking this threat very seriously, more so now than ever.”
SHINE coordinates with hundreds of volunteers in 11 regions around the state to help seniors navigate the more than 14,000 combinations of Medicare plan choices.
They serve older adults who don’t have access to computers or those who need help navigating the websites. Many are on fixed incomes or live in rural areas.
“Having SHINE is vitally important so that these older adults can get the information they need to make the best choices for themselves,” Chambliss said. “It can make a huge impact on their quality of life and how they are able to navigate their day-to-day activities.”
Without SHINE, seniors could be on their own to make decisions that could affect the doctors they can access or the cost of their medications.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has a call center and provides some information, but Chambliss said many of SHINE’s clients are referred to the program by those very call centers.
“If you contact Medicare with a complex issue, 90 percent of the time they are turning around and telling them to contact their local SHINE program for one-on-one assistance,” she said.
Private insurance companies also provide information about Medicare, but they may not have the best interests of seniors in mind, Chambliss said.
“It can result in thousands upon thousands of dollars out of pocket for that older adult if they don’t sign up for a plan that covers their needs,” she said.
Chambliss and others are urging people who depend on the program to contact their representatives in Washington.