Senate Panel Kills Medicare Program That Offers Help On Enrollment, Billing Issues

A program that has helped seniors understand the many intricacies of Medicare as well as save them millions of dollars would be eliminated by a budget bill overwhelmingly approved last week by the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

The State Health Insurance Assistance Program, or “SHIP,” is among more than a dozen programs left out of the bill by the committee. Cutting these “unnecessary federal programs” helped provide needed funding for other efforts, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., chairman of the appropriations committee’s health and labor subcommittee, said in a statement last week.

Ending SHIP saves $52 million, which will help pay for a $2 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health, restore year-round Pell Grants, and increase resources to prevent and treat opioid abuse, among other things.

SHIP counselors are in every state, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories offering free advice on how to choose from an array of drug and health insurance plans, challenge coverage denials, and receive financial subsidies for premiums, co-payments and deductibles. They provide one-on-one counseling as well as host enrollment clinics, informational meetings, special “Welcome to Medicare” events for new beneficiaries and answer questions over toll-free telephone help lines.

“Medicare is very complicated,” said Howard Bedlin, vice president for public policy and advocacy at the National Council on Aging, a nonprofit service organization. “Last year SHIPs helped 7 million people navigate this program and without those services, people will not be able to make well-informed choices. That’s going to cost them money.”

On Thursday, the council along with the Center for Medicare Advocacy, Medicare Rights Center and National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, called on Senate leaders to restore SHIP.

“Seniors should absolutely have access to high-quality, personal customer service as they seek Medicare benefits,” said an aide to Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and the senior Democrat on the labor and health subcommittee. “Senator Murray is disappointed that within the tight budget constraints, we were unable to do more to ensure that is the case.” The aide said Murray is hopeful she can restore funding.

The full Senate is expected to vote on the budget bill in the fall, and then it would have to be reconciled with a version from the House, which has not yet drafted its bill.

In April, more than 43 groups urged congressional leaders to increase SHIP funding to keep pace with inflation and the growing Medicare population, which adds 10,000 baby boomers each day.

Ohio’s SHIP program saved seniors $20.8 million in 2015 and was ranked first in the nation by the Department of Health and Human Services, the state’s lieutenant governor announced in February. It received $1.84 million in federal funding for the 12-month period ending March 31.

California’s SHIP program, known as the Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program (HICAP), has also helped beneficiaries save money. In Orange County, alone, 1,247 beneficiaries saved an estimated $1.17 million last year when SHIP counselors showed them, among other things, how to switch to drugs plans that covered their medications, said Linda Walton, the county’s HICAP program manager.

“We have this huge influx of people turning 65 and they are cutting the program that helps this population find benefits they need?” said Bonnie Burns, a training and policy specialist with California Health Advocates who trains HICAP counselors. “That makes absolutely no sense.”

KHN’s coverage of aging and long term care issues is supported in part by a grant from The SCAN Foundation.

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