Alice Ierley, SHIP and SMP Program Director,

What a difference 20 years makes! Colorado SHIP (State Health Insurance Assistance Program) has been assisting Medicare beneficiaries, their families, and caregivers, since the first federal grant was awarded 20 years ago. From a small program, we now have 18 sites around the state that assist consumers. 

Over 100 counselors, many of them volunteers, donate 100’s of hours of time to navigate the complexities of Medicare. In just the last 8 years, they have assisted more than 110,000 individuals and conducted more than 4,500 outreach activities. The role of the counselors is to educate, counsel, and advocate on behalf of Medicare consumers. When people are getting started with Medicare, SHIP is there to help them understand and navigate to fully access their health benefits. When things don’t go as planned, SHIP is there to help consumers work with Medicare, Medicaid, plans, and providers, to sort out the puzzle pieces.

Medicare, the public health insurance available for people over 65 and people determined disabled by Social Security, has gone through many changes since 1992. Back then, Medicare was just Part A (hospital) and Part B (outpatient), and Medigap plans were just becoming standardized. Medicare Advantage plans were authorized under the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 and have expanded greatly in that time. Special Needs Plans, a subset of Advantage plans, serving targeted populations, have emerged as well. And perhaps the biggest change of all, the Part D prescription drug benefit, was created under the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003. In 2013 there will be 31 Part D plans to choose from, offered by 15 companies, numerous Advantage plans being offered by 11  companies, and 5 companies offering 11 Special Needs Plans in 2013.

Today’s SHIP counselor has to be computer literate to assist consumers with plan choices and benefits decisions. They have to have familiarity with the doorway to Medicare –  Social Security, and they have to understand Medicaid to assist consumers who have coverage in both programs. Continual changes to policy and guidance require constant learning.  Many dedicated individuals have contributed to the success of SHIP over the years, and many more will in the years to come. With 50,000 people in Colorado turning 65 every year, the challenges SHIPs face will be many, as will the opportunities to make a difference.

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