July 21, 2016

Protect SHIBA Funding

Did you know that our state may have been the first one to offer free, unbiased, one on one counseling on Medicare? That’s what I learned from Carolyn Smith, the Field Supervisor for the SHIBA program administered under the Office of the Insurance Commissioner. She presented a program on Medicare fraud at the South King County chapter of the Alliance at their July 14th monthly meeting.

The State Health Insurance Benefits Advisors or SHIBA program, begun in WA State around 1979, saves seniors and others with insurance benefit questions a lot of money. “If seniors enroll in the wrong plan for them, it costs them money” said Smith. If they don’t get coverage they need, then the out of pocket expense can be costly to those on a fixed income.  She explained that the over 400 trained volunteers don’t work for Medicare or any insurance program so they can provide unbiased information on them.

Here is a list from the SHIBA information posted at www. Insurance.wa.gov on things they can help you with:

  • Assess health care coverage needs
  • Determine general eligibility for health care coverage programs
  • Evaluate and compare health insurance plans and programs
  • Provide enrollment help with Medicare
  • Speak with 1-800 Medicare on your behalf
  • Make referrals to other agencies and programs
  • Collect and report possible fraud complaints

But recently the SHIBA program has come under attack. It is funded by Congress under the Medicare State Health Insurance Assistance Program  or SHIP. In early June, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill that cut all of SHIP’s $52.1 million in funding, effectively eliminating the program. The Alliance for Retired Americans, along with other members of the National Council of Aging Organizations, signed onto a joint letter to the House Appropriations leadership urging at least level funding for SHIP.

On July 1st, WSARA-EF posted the Medicare Rights Center action alert on our Facebook page to urge everyone to send their member of Congress a message to restore SHIP funding. Due to public outcry such as this, later Senate action calls for slashing State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) current funding by $22 million (from $52 to $30 million), which is a 42% cut. So, the final budget battle to fund SHIP is not over yet.

Steve Kofahl, a Western Regional Executive Board member of the ARA as on our WSARA-EF Board, provided additional insight on this issue. He told me that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services contracted-out call centers established with the Medicare Modernization Act are no substitute for SHIBA.  A study done shortly after it was established revealed that callers had a better-than-even chance of getting a wrong answer when calling, so he tested it himself.  He called, said he knew what Medicare Parts A, B, and D were, and asked what Part C was.  The agent took some time to check references and found nothing. He then asked a supervisor who checked his references and told them both that there was no Part C!  Ironically, Part C is Medicare Advantage.

Steve added “Without SHIP, retirees will have only insurance companies and HMOs to advise them, more will be steered from traditional Medicare into Advantage plans, and many will pay too much and/or receive too little.  It’s no wonder that Republicans want to wipe out SHIP, as part of their campaign to accelerate the privatization of Medicare”

As 10,000 Baby Boomers age into Medicare each day, rather than defund SHIP’s, Congress needs to increase SHIP funding. If you haven’t yet done it, write to your elected officials about why investing in unbiased, personalized Medicare counseling is important to you and your community.

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