Senate Budget Eliminates Funding For Medicare Counselors

Jun 28, 2016
Originally published on June 28, 2016 2:15 pm

A program that helps seniors choose a Medicare program and save money on prescription drugs could be going away in Florida and across the country.

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee’s budget, passed in mid-June, would eliminate funding  for the national “State Health Insurance Assistance Program," or “SHIP,” which was created in 1990.

Medicare is complicated and ever-changing. That's why the SHIP program, which in Florida is called "SHINE," or Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders, helps seniors navigate the selection of various plans. Unlike insurance companies that may have Medicare Advantage plans to sell, SHINE counselors are trained to provide information, not opinions about all available plans.

And while the program is mostly staffed by volunteers, it needs federal money to help cover a few staff positions, travel, equipment and outreach.

Charlotte McHenry is the executive director of Senior Connection Center in Tampa, which administers the SHINE program in Hillsborough, Polk, Manatee, Highlands and Hardee counties.

She said the program helps seniors save thousands a year in monthly premiums and prescriptions. She recalls one senior in particular.

"Their prescription drugs were going to cost, I think, $ 7,000 a year,  and (by) working with one of our SHINE volunteers, got it reduced to around $2,000 a year,” she said.

The program's fate won't be known until at least the fall. The U.S. House still needs to write its spending bill, and the full Senate is expected to take up the recommendation later this year. 

The center's volunteers and staff have been sending letters to U.S. senators and members of the House to plead their case. McHenry said their outreach last year helped convince lawmakers to reconsider a proposed 42 percent cut to the federal program. 

In 2015, the Florida Department of Elder Affairs got $2,795,701 of a $52.1 million pot to spread among local organizations. The Senior Connection Center received about $500,000 dollars.

McHenry said without this funding, SHINE will go away, and there will be no unbiased resource to help seniors pick Medicare and drug plans.

"I cannot imagine life in Florida without SHINE or SHIP across the country,” she said.

“By chance, if that horrific thing would happen, there would be no unbiased counseling available to older adults in the area."

--Daylina Miller is a reporter with WUSF in Tampa. WUSF is part of  Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.