Free service that helps people navigate Medicare plans could vanish

By Gabriella Dunn, June 21, 2016

A free service that helps older residents navigate the complexities of Medicare – and that helped save Sedgwick County residents more than $1.7 million last year – could disappear.

The program is called Senior Health Insurance Counseling for Kansas, or SHICK. When Kansans turn 65 they can choose among dozens of plans for prescription drug coverage and supplemental health care insurance. And many of the plans and the benefits change each year.

The counseling program offers people one-on-one help in finding Medicare plans that cover their medications and health needs. It also helps people challenge denied claims.

Medicare is the government-run health insurance program for people 65 and older. Some people with disabilities also qualify for the program. The supplemental programs are sold by private insurance companies to help pay costs not covered by Medicare.

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee voted 29-1 to eliminate the service, along with more than a dozen other programs. The vote was last week, but the state aging department only found out about the vote Tuesday.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., voted to eliminate the program. Moran did not respond to requests for comment.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., chairman of the Senate Labor and Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee referred to the eliminated programs as “duplicitous or unnecessary federal programs.”

The change is not finalized yet, because the full Senate and House have to vote on the bill.

Kansas health officials disagree with the decision to defund it.

“It’s a working, functioning, very valuable program for the state of Kansas that’s going to be completely eliminated if they don’t change their minds,” said Angela de Rocha, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services.

It’s a working, functioning, very valuable program for the state of Kansas that’s going to be completely eliminated if they (Congress) don’t change their minds.

Angela de Rocha, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services

The insurance counseling program costs $565,000 in Kansas and $52.1 million nationally. de Rocha said last year the program served 39,000 Kansans.

de Rocha said she doesn’t understand the need to cut the program when the government spends “trillions of dollars on things that are less effective.”

“It helps Kansans who are thrown into these very confusing decisions,” she said.

And with an aging baby boomer population, local health leaders say the program’s need is growing. Nationally, roughly 10,000 baby boomers per day enroll in Medicare.

“There’s always more demand, more interest and more need than we have available,” said Annette Graham, executive director of the Sedgwick County Department on Aging, about the first-come first-serve counseling spots.

Local benefit

Teresa Hatfield, adult development and aging agent for the Sedgwick County Extension Office, described the Medicare system as cumbersome and confusing.

Sites around the state offer the Medicare counseling.

Two sites in Sedgwick County offer it. Hatfield said the Sedgwick County Extension Center alone saved residents $1.7 million last year and $2.1 million the year prior during open enrollment, primarily through savings on prescription drugs and health care costs. The Sedgwick County Department on Aging also offers help comparing plans, but could not provide an estimate on savings.

The counselors undergo extensive training about Medicare. Most volunteer their time and all work independently from insurance companies.

It’s not an easy system to navigate.

Annette Graham, Sedgwick County Department on Aging, on Medicare

“It’s not an easy system to navigate,” said Graham, of Sedgwick County.

For example, she said, when someone turns 65, they receive extensive marketing materials and are faced with confusing decisions about the future of their medical coverage – most of which occurs online.

Graham said the program is crucial for helping people “feel more empowered in making those decisions.”

Gabriella Dunn: 316-268-6400, @gabriella_dunn

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