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Eliminate SHIP? This is Important, My Friends

At lunch last week with a friend who turns 65 early next year, we spent a great deal of time discussing Medicare choices. It's not an easy program to sort out, particularly when you are first signing up.

Serendipity is an amazing thing - when I got home from that lunch, there was an email from The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) notifying me that

”The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee has approved a Fiscal Year 2017 budget appropriations bill that completely eliminates the $52.1 million in funding for the Medicare State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP).

This is just another attempt by mostly Republicans in Congress to chip away at Medicare any way they can. Yes, it IS a Medicare cut – if passed, it will take away your one way to get free, informed help with sorting out your Medicare questions.

Do you know what SHIP is and why it is needed? Here is how the press release [pdf] from the NCPSSM and three other Medicare rights organizations explains it:

”Today’s Medicare beneficiary must choose among more than 20 prescription drug plans, an average of 19 Medicare Advantage plans, as well as various Medigap supplemental insurance policies — all with different premiums, cost sharing, provider networks, and coverage rules.”

I remember my own confusion 10 years ago when I faced signing up for Medicare, and the weeks it took me to sort out my choices worrying all the way that I was making mistakes that would cost me later either in money or healthcare because I misunderstood something.

New to Medicare then, I did not know about SHIP and how it could have helped me. Here's how SHIP works:

”For more than 24 years, SHIPs have advised, educated, and empowered individuals to navigate their state-specific Medicare choices. In addition, SHIPs help beneficiaries resolve fraud and abuse issues, billing problems, appeals, and enrollment in low income health assistance programs,” explains the release.

“In 2015, SHIPs provided assistance to more than seven million individuals with Medicare.”

Medicare is complicated but there is a network of 3,300 local SHIPs serving each of the 50 states plus Puerto Rico, Guam, Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands with a total of 15,000 counselors.

The service is free. You can find your local SHIP here (which stands for State Health Insurance Assistance Program and find out more about the services they offer.

Eliminating funding for SHIP - as the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee proposed budget does - will kill the service leaving Medicare beneficiaries with nowhere to go for help.

A friend in Washington who knows a thing or two about how Congress works tells me that some Republicans have said that the Medicare 800 number and online plan choosers make SHIP unnecessary when, in fact, those services often refer people to their local SHIP.

I know from personal experience that the 800 Medicare number is so busy sometimes your cell phone battery can die before it's your turn to speak with someone.

And your need for help doesn't end once you've signed on to Medicare. Questions will come up for the rest of your life. Not to mention that baby boomers are becoming eligible for Medicare at the rate of 10,000 a day. Does anyone think an 800 number is enough to help all them?

Kaiser Health News reports that

”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.”

It's worth knowing too, that the $52.1 million allocation for SHIP in last year's budget amounts to a miniscule .23% of the FY2017 budget cost of $22.4 billion. That's less than one-quarter of one percent.

WHAT YOU AND YOUR FRIENDS CAN DO
It is interesting that the Senate Appropriations Committee, on their page with highlights from their budget, does not list killing SHIP funding.

Maybe they don't want us, the public, the people who need this service, to know what they are doing.

You can call or email your Senators and Congressional representative and let them know how you feel about doing away with SHIP. Maybe one of your senators is on the committee. You can find out here and click the link to their “official website” where you can send an email.

Otherwise, democracy.io is the easiest way I've found to email Congress people. Just enter your street address, city and Zip Code and you'll get a page listing all three of your reps. You can send them all the same message or write to each one individually.

PLEASE DO THIS. Aides to senators and representatives keep a count of constituent opinions on legislation and do take those totals into consideration. Get your friends to do that too.

The press release quoted above is sponsored, in addition to the NCPSSM, by three other organizations working hard to stop the defunding of SHIP. They are the Center for Medicare Advocacy, the Medicare Rights Center and the National Council on Aging.

Follow those links to read more about what they do individually and what is happening with this budget bill.

Comments

Okay, I emailed one of my senators who is on the appropriations committee.

The Democracy.io site did not open for me to use it. It could be my aging computer system causing that problem.

Do you think their theme song is:
"One way or another, we're gonna gitcha, gitcha, gitcha, gitcha."

Cutting this funding is an appalling and ridiculous idea, and I just sent off my letter via Democracy. Last year when I turned 65, I thought I would lose my mind trying to wade through all the letters from various insurance companies, not to mention the aggravation of the endless phone calls as well. I thought at first that this was a process I could handle on my own, having worked in social services for decades, during which time I helped countless numbers of people navigate all sorts of programs. In addition to that torture, I was also subjected to making a choice about the affordable care act for the months of that year when I was without health insurance before I qualified for Medicare. This relies heavily on using the internet and 800 numbers for signing up, and before I completed that process I thought I might throw my computer through a window.

And why Congress would eliminate such a low cost program that also helps ferret out Medicare fraud and abuse is beyond me. This is where I become suspicious of who stands to profit from cutting SHIP. Follow the money and it seems to me that those who, like the governor of my state of Illinois which goes a little further down the toilet each day, have made fortunes off nursing homes and other health care for seniors, is one very feasible answer. Why wouldn't you reduce threats and aggravations to your very profitable enterprise by eliminating watchdogs at every opportunity? Maybe this is something John Oliver should explore.

Thanks for the heads up. Sometimes I just can't believe some of the things the Republican party does!

OK, I've written my Senators and Congressman, and reposted your entire blog on my Facebook page! Time to take action, and keep it up. The SHIP program helped me so much when I first signed up for Medicare, and it continued to do so when every year my needs changed and I was looking it all up on line with my head going in circles. Thanks for bringing this to my attention!

Thanks so much for telling us about the democracy.io site, and thanks for the alert about this latest Republican swipe at Medicare.

Thanks for the info. Can't say enough to thank you. Will promptly deal with this. Dee

Thank you so much for the links. As a matter of fact, I'm attending a meeting tomorrow night for those who will turn 65 this year; it is presented by SHIP, in order to sort out all the information for those new to medicare. I will turn 65 in December, and I've not had decent health care insurance since my husband died. Right now, I pay $700.00 a month with a $2,800.00 deductible. At least I CAN get coverage, due to the health care act and removing "pre-existing conditions." But frankly, I don't use it except for a yearly checkup and to get BP medication. I've been putting off back, knee and feet issues that I'm hoping to address with medicare coverage and a good medigap policy.

At any rate, I have just started researching and trying to figure out medicare, and quickly realized it's very complex and I'm going to need help in sorting it all out. That is where the SHIP representatives will help, so I'll definitely email one of my senators on the appropriations committee.

I just don't understand why medicare has to be this complex. And if it doesn't get any better as time passes, how does one keep up as they age and become incapable of navigating such a vast complicated system? Worrisome.

Cara...
"...how does one keep up as they age and become incapable of navigating such a vast complicated system?"

That's exactly why we need to stop the defunding of SHIP.

I used to be a SHIP counselor. I never ran out of work. SHIP is a very important program. I had a lot of training, and some parts were still confusing to me; I know that for people new to the program it can be very difficult to understand. For those like Cara who are switching from the ACA, Medicareis simpler, really. I now do ACA assistance, and I miss those Medicare days.

I think eliminating SHIP is probably another way that the Republicans can make "smaller government."

Sent to all three Congressional reps (Bay Area California), who are all likely in favor of SHIP funding, but it doesn't hurt to underscore the point and provide data for them to reference. I really appreciate you for putting out the word on this!

Done. Thanks for the heads up.

Ronni-you are such an important advocate for all of us-I appreciate the excellent info in this blog post and, as I have an ongoing email relationship with my senators I dashed off an email to both of them.

Elle, in the garden in Beaveerton

I am a current HICAP (SHIP in California) Program Manager. Thank all of you who have contacted your representatives. We need your help to get this funding restored to assist seniors with the ever more complex and complicated Medicare systems. We give folks unbiased free Medicare advice from trained counselors. In our fairly rural northern California area we served over 3300 seniors this past year and we saved them over $1,611,962. This is a much needed program that provides services to Medicare recipients that no other agency that I know of provides.

Nancy

Sometimes it taxes my better self when I read of yet another good program that the Republicans want to axe. The outright lie that it's necessary to balance the budget just doesn't wash. They seem to find plenty of money for the Pentagon's horrendously expensive toys or to insert more loopholes for more tax cuts for the already obscenely wealthy.

Is my blood pressure soaring when I think how they might cut the funding for SHIIP? Is my tolerance level vanishing for those craven Congress people who would cut funding for a program that helps elders? You betcha !!!

Letters sent. I was just thinking today that when my partner retires, we might need help moving from her employer's insurance to Medicare ...

Once again I am so happy that I slipped in before my employer closed the loophole that allowed me to opt for basic health insurance rather than Medicare. It has made my life so much easier. But I am fully aware of the importance of Medicare to many of my friends and relatives as well as to most TGB members, so I always support Medicare whenever there is a threat to it. My Senator, Dianne Feinstein (a fine representative from Democratic California), is on the Appropriations Committee so I emailed my support for SHIP to her.

Although I'm not directly affected--we're covered by a self-insured HMO under a Medicare Advantage plan--I emailed my Senators and Representative anyway. They are all Democrats and opposed to defunding SHIP, I'm sure. The government websites are not easy to navigate and often have long wait times. I just tried to access my Social Security account to get a current statement. After 30 minutes, I was still waiting and gave up. Maybe I'll try again around 3:00 AM!

Both this blog post and many of the comments that follow it are full of errors. There is no proposal to eliminate SHIP, simply a proposal to eliminate trivial Federal funding that contributes to a local and state volunteer program that is almost totally “funded” locally and helps a small percentage of Medicare beneficiaries. The S in SHIP refers to State; most of the funding is in-kind and local.

I understand this is just a yada yada lefty-Kool-aid-drinker blog where you all reinforce each other with your lack of facts but correcting some of the errors, in order of appearance:
-- The biggest error throughout this thread seems to relate to partisanship. Did NCPSS not tell you that 12 out of 13 Democrats on the responsible Senate Appropriations subcommittee voted for these cuts? Did it not even tell you that this does not even involve the entire committee?
-- You can get all kinds of free informed help about Medicare at many places other than SHIP; only about 5% of the people on Medicare use SHIP (which I agree is basically a good program where it has not also been politicized)
-- SHIP has become less necessary (but not unneeded) because of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s Navigator program and because new people joining Medicare today – unlike with our parents and grandparents – have been making healthcare insurance choices for 30-40 years
-- I think there are 25,000 volunteers in the program – not 15,000 as stated – but why quibble. The point is that SHIP is run by volunteers and most of the “funding” is in-kind (e.g., the already turned on heat and lights in the senior center). These volunteers do not go away and SHIP is not killed if the $51,000,000 is spent on curing cancer at NIH instead of a useless web site called SHIPTalk National Performance System.
-- Do not depend on 1-800-Medicare. Everything you need is in the Medicare and You booklet or on medicare.gov
-- The Senate Appropriations Committee web site does not list any of the programs it cut to fight cancer at the NIH -- and to put more money into the opioid abuse issue. The way it was presented is unrelated to SHIP (but I too would like to know what else was cut)
-- Anyone having problems with PPACA – as opposed to Medicare – as one person here commented can find a PPACA Navigator
-- SHIP has nothing to do with Medicare fraud and abuse. That’s the Medicare Savings Patrol. I believe the same budget proposal increased its funding.
-- Medicare has nothing to do with funding nursing homes; that is Medicaid
-- I feel sorry for the person with PPACA insurance that is putting off back, knee and feet issues until he or she joins Medicare. What a surprise he or she is going to get
-- The person thinking that when his or her partner retires, “we” might move to Medicare, does not understand Medicare. No family plan in Medicare, Folks

Oh and by the say, this happens every year. Don’t sweat it. The mailing you received is just a way for the NCPSS to fund itself.

One way Medicare could cut some expense would be to check addresses and to send one booklet per household rather than sending one to each Medicare recipient -- but, in a huge government bureaucracy, to whom would someone make such a suggestion? And, I suppose, there is probably some requirement that each Medicare recipient must have their own booklet...

I did contact each of my government representatives with a request that SHIP be retained.

However, according to commenter Dennis Byron, we've all wasted our time and effort and that of our representatives by doing anything at all. Perhaps it's only my exasperation, but his comment seems snippy and condescending that all of us overreacted to the situation and that we were all misinformed regarding the importance of SHIP in the first place. And how would we know this, Mr. Byron? Your all-knowing attitude and lack of empathy represent the Republican attitude today that we stupid women are not smart enough to deserve Social Security and Medicare and that we should all be put away into privatized nursing homes where people with more sense than we have would take care of everything if we'd just sign over power of attorney and leave the details to people of intelligence like yourself. Obviously you are too bright to read this column and somehow stumbled onto the site, but you decided to favor us with a little of your enlightenment prior to your leave taking.

Is it just me or is Mr. Byron right? I don't want to come off as a troll...

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