Senate committee-approved spending bill would eliminate Medicare assistance program

SHIPs are "critical" to Medicare beneficiaries, Stein says
SHIPs are "critical" to Medicare beneficiaries, Stein says

A federal program that provides seniors with advice for the Medicare program is one of 18 groups on the chopping block under a spending bill approved by a Senate committee last week.

The Senate Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee approved the $161.9 billion spending bill for fiscal year 2017, which includes funding boosts for health, labor and education-related initiatives.

But to offset the costs of more funding for “efficient, cost-effective” programs, the committee recommended 18 federal programs that could be eliminated. This would create $1 billion in spending reductions.

One of the programs is the State Health Insurance Assistance Program, or SHIP, a program that places counselors in every state to give Medicare beneficiaries advice on enrolling in the program, choosing insurance plans and appealing coverage denials. The counselors also advise beneficiaries on how to receive subsidies for premiums, co-payments and deductibles.

Cutting SHIP will save the federal government $52 million, which would help fund the spending bill's other focuses, including easing the Medicare appeals backlog and addressing the opioid epidemic.

But senior advocacy groups say eliminating the program could reduce the quality of customer service Medicare beneficiaries receive as they enter the program, and could cause widespread confusion.

“Medicare is very complicated,” Howard Bedlin, vice president for public policy and advocacy at the National Council on Aging, told NPR. Last year SHIPs helped 7 million people navigate this program and without those services, people will not be able to make well-informed choices. That's going to cost them money."

Bedlin's group, along with the Center for Medicare Advocacy, Medicare Rights Center and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare urged Senate leaders to keep SHIP as it is in a letter sent Thursday.

“The SHIP network provides critical information upon which people with Medicare rely to make informed decisions about their coverage options and enrollment decisions,” said Judith Stein, executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy. “The SHIPs are critical to providing assistance with these increasingly complicated choices.”

The groups' letter said the move to cut the program was “penny-wise, pound-foolish lawmaking” that could threaten beneficiaries' well being.

The bill is expected to receive full Senate consideration this fall, and would require reconciliation with a yet-undrafted House version of the bill.