House Panel Extends Funding for Medicare Program to Help Consumers

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By Susan Jaffe | Kaiser Health News

A House subcommittee voted on Thursday to continue $52 million in funding for a program that helps seniors understand the complexities of their Medicare coverage. Two weeks ago, a Senate committee voted to eliminate it.

The measure preserving the State Health Insurance Assistance Program, known as SHIP, is part of a massive spending bill for federal health, education and labor programs, approved by the Republican majority of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees those departments. Democrats opposed the bill, which would cut money for the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and the Social Security Administration. It would also bar the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from research into gun violence.

“If the House had cut SHIP, we would have been in trouble, but the fact that funding levels are maintained gives us optimism,” said Howard Bedlin, vice president for public policy and advocacy at the National Council on Aging, a nonprofit service organization.

Earlier this week, 62 groups representing seniors’ and patient advocates, health care unions, elder law attorneys, social workers, visiting nurses and other organizations sent a letter to House leaders urging them to retain SHIP’s funding.

SHIP counselors in every state and the District of Columbia advised more than 7 million Medicare beneficiaries and their caregivers last year, answering questions about billing problems, drug plan options, appeals, subsidies and other issues. The California SHIP program, also known as the Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program, received $5 million in federal support in 2015 and helped more than a half-million beneficiaries save $23.67 million, during the 12 months ending June 30, 2015. Ohio’s SHIP received federal funding of $1.84 million for the year ending March 31 and saved seniors $20.8 million in 2015.

The provision on SHIP was not discussed in the subcommittee’s deliberations Thursday. The House appropriations committee is expected to approve the spending bill next week. Eventually, after the full House of Representatives and the full Senate vote on their bills, negotiations will begin to reconcile differences.

After talking to congressional sources, Bedlin said he is confident the Senate Democrats will support the House proposal to maintain SHIP’s current funding. Only three months ago, Bedlin and other seniors’ advocates were trying to convince congressional leaders to increase support.

“Given the political realities, we now support maintaining current funding levels in the final House-Senate agreement,” he said.

KHN’s coverage of aging and long term care issues is supported in part by a grant from The SCAN Foundation.

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