SHIIP volunteers will help seniors navigate Medicare

Southeast Iowa Union, Andy Hallman. Publisher  

Enrolling in Medicare and its prescription drug program can be a headache and a daunting task given all of the supplemental insurance programs available to seniors.

But seniors don’t have to face that problem alone. There is a team of volunteers eager to help them understand their Medicare paperwork and the insurance options available to them.

The state of Iowa runs the Senior Health Insurance Information Program (SHIIP), with a full-time staff of eight and an additional 380 volunteers, dedicated to educating seniors about Medicare.

Jefferson County has four volunteers who are trained in navigating the Medicare application process. One of them is Marcia Holsinger, a former employee of the Jefferson County Health Center who now devotes a portion of her free time to guiding seniors through Medicare. The fall is a particularly busy time for Holsinger and the other SHIIP volunteers because they are meeting with clients about Medicare’s prescription drug open enrollment period, which runs from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7.

They help clients compare prescription drug plans, whose premiums can vary widely from as little as $7.30 per month to more than $100. Twenty-eight insurance companies sell prescription drug plans to Medicare beneficiaries, and the SHIIP volunteers help clients sort through them all. Holsinger said SHIIP has saved Iowans $36 million on their prescription drugs.

“We don’t tell clients what to do,” Holsinger said. “We are a confidential service, and we’re objective, not trying to sell or even recommend any insurance product or company. We just provide our clients information.”

During this open enrollment period, Holsinger said she devotes about three full days a week to helping clients. Due to the coronavirus, she helps them over the phone, over email and through snail mail, instead of meeting with them in person.

The rest of the year is not as busy. Holsinger estimates she spends a little less than one full day per week helping clients during the “slow” months, April through July, when most of their clients are people who just became eligible for Medicare by turning 65.

There are three ways to qualify for Medicare. The most common is simply to age into it by turning 65. Another group that can qualify are those people who are on Social Security disability and who have been disabled for more than 24 months. A third group that qualifies are those with end stage renal disease (kidney failure).

Holsinger noted that not everyone over 65 chooses to be on Medicare. Some people continue working over 65 and prefer to remain on their employer’s plan. A SHIIP volunteer can help them decide if that makes sense in their circumstance. SHIIP helps people who believe they’ve been the victims of fraud. For instance, some people sign up for multiple supplemental Medicare programs that are incompatible, but don’t realize that.

Sometimes a scammer will claim to be from the federal government and ask the victim for their Medicare number. Holsinger said that’s a giveaway that it’s a scam because the federal government would already have the person’s Medicare number.

“Don’t give out your Medicare number to someone you don’t know,” said Holsinger.

One recent scam is to defraud people into purchasing fake pills or a fake vaccine that will protect them from the coronavirus. Holsinger advises clients to keep close tabs on their quarterly Medicare notices that show the services they’ve used.

Holsinger has been a SHIIP volunteer for 15 years, but she still goes through training every year with the state. New volunteers go through three weeks of training on the computer, with webinars and then a further three full days being trained by SHIIP staff in Des Moines. After that, they are mentored by an existing volunteer who conducts a certain number of client visits with them before the new volunteer can fly solo. Each year, the volunteers do three online trainings including a daylong meeting at a regional site such as Coralville.

For SHIIP assistance, call 641-469-4308 and leave a message. One of the volunteers will return your call as soon as they are able. Residents also may call Medicare by dialing 1-800-633-4227 (which spells 1-800-MEDICARE).