Senior PharmAssist counselor Marilyn Disco checks a client's medications. Photo credit: Jim Colman, Senior PharmAssist
Senior PharmAssist counselor Marilyn Disco checks a client's medications. Photo credit: Jim Colman, Senior PharmAssist

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A federal proposal would gut a program that helps tens of thousands of North Carolina seniors.

By Thomas Goldsmith

North Carolinians who turn 65 and sign up for Medicare face scores of choices on prescription drug plans, hospitalization plans and, in some cases, private Medicare plans.

Making the wrong choice can cost consumers hundreds or thousands of dollars.

So North Carolina advocacy groups are urging opposition to U.S. Senate budget writers’ proposal to cut all federal funding for a program that helps recipients navigate the complicated paths of Medicare. Each state has a program to give older people free advice on the confusing world of health insurance.

“Cutting this funding would have a devastating impact on the ongoing viability of the NC Seniors’ Health Insurance Information Program (SHIIP) and its ability to serve Medicare beneficiaries in our state,” said Mary Bethel, president of the state Coalition on Aging.

The SHIIP program nationally would fall to the budget axe under the proposed 2017 Labor-Health and Human Services bill.

The relatively small appropriation of $52 million was cut as lawmakers moved money around in order to boost spending on National Institutes of Health research by $2 billion. The spending measure would also restore and expand Pell Grants and increase spending on treatment and prevention and treatment of opioid abuse.

“The fiscal year 2017 Labor-HHS bill eliminates more than a dozen duplicitous or unnecessary federal programs in addition to the 18 from last year’s bill, and is $270 million less than last year,” said U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee.

In North Carolina the cut would amount to roughly half of North Carolina SHIIP’s budget, with the rest coming from state coffers. The cut would cripple the program’s work across the state, said state insurance department Deputy Director Carla Obiol.

Supporters of the program are urging U.S. representatives from North Carolina to make sure the money appears in the 2017 U.S. House budget, with the hopes that congressional conferees will preserve it. Department of Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin is sending letters to each member of North Carolina’s congressional delegation Monday showing the number of clients and the money saved by consumers in each county.

“We’re covering every base that we can,” Obiol said at a recent meeting of the state Coalition on Aging, a group representing more than 40 groups across North Carolina. “It would devastate our program.”

NC SHIIP coordinates the services of more than 1,000 trained volunteers who work in every county to give Medicare recipients information about which plans will benefit them most at the most attractive cost. Plans differ from state to state, county to county and from year to year.

“We know what’s in our marketplace in North Carolina,” Obiol said.

National nonprofit groups including the Center for Medicare Advocacy, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare and the National Council on Aging are speaking out against the proposed cut.

In a joint statement, the groups said ending SHIP programs would leave 55 million Medicare recipients without “the only program that provides free, personalized, unbiased counseling” on Medicare coverage choices.

Click on the map to find out how much the SHIIP program saved seniors in 2015.

Data courtesy SHIIP, NC Office of State Budget and Management

UPDATE: A U.S. House of Representatives committee on Wednesday recommended full funding for the national Seniors Health Insurance Information Program, or SHIIP, in response to a Senate budget bill that had cut the program entirely.

The word came online in a House appropriations committee draft report on the Labor, Health and Human Services funding bill. Under the House proposal, SHIIP would receive level funding, or $52 million, for the 2017 budget year.

“Overall, we are pleased to see that the House did not include significant cuts to programs that were reduced in the Senate version,” said Damon Terzaghi, Senior Director for the National Association of States United of Aging and Disabilities, an advocacy group.

The funding measure will either go through conference to determine its fate, or Congress will go to a continuation budget under which it would still be funded. The Senate had made several cuts in programs that leadership called unnecessary and duplicative.

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Thomas Goldsmith

Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...