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.