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Insurance Guidance Program For The Elderly Could Be Cut Without Congressional Action

Joan Cole went to the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center on Tuesday morning not as a patient but as a consumer.

“I’m going to be retiring in a few months and I need to sign up for Medicare,” she said. “It's very complicated, so I thought I’d get some help."

Cole met with a volunteer from SHINE (Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders), an organization that helps elderly people with their health insurance needs. They provide free and unbiased assistance for selecting Medicare health care plans.

Time is running out for Medicare beneficiaries like Cole who need the help of SHINE.

Unless Congress acts by Friday on a spending bill that includes funding for State Health Insurance Assistance Programs, which in Florida is better known as SHINE, the Medicare assistance program will no longer operate.

Nick Ross is a SHINE volunteer who met with Cole on Tuesday about finding a Medicare plan that best suits her.

"We're basically the honest broker in the process so that people can feel like they one: understand the process and two: make good, solid choices based on what their needs are," Ross said.

Florida received $2.8 million of last year’s $47.1 million nationwide budget for the program. Of the money Florida received, $260,000 funded 16 counties in north central Florida, from Hernando up to Hamilton.

Federal budget proposals by the U.S. Senate for Fiscal Year 2018 keep the program at its current funding, but the House and Trump Administration propose to cut funding entirely. That would mean no more free help to the thousands of people in the North Central Florida area that SHINE helps each year.

"We have about 80 to 85 volunteers that we use that are throughout our 16 counties,” said Kristen Griffis, executive director of Elder Options, the organization that runs the local SHINE division. She said SHINE volunteers met with more than 10,200 Medicare beneficiaries in North Central Florida last year.

“So, [no funding] means no more volunteers," Griffis said.

Cole said she wants politicians in Congress to consider the people SHINE helps.

"I think that you need to think about the people that are actually working with these programs,” she said. “I know you have to look at the big picture with funding, but I think these things that help the individual person are very beneficial."

As of Tuesday night, WUFT News could not reach Gainesville-area Congressman Ted Yoho for comment.

Ramsey is a reporter for WUFT who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.