This article originally appeared in the September 2020 edition of Senior Scope. Article by Seth Thomas.
Nearly two dozen people spent a large part of this summer navigating the complex world of Medicare coverage. The group was learning the ins and outs of health insurance to become SHINE counselors, who act as guides for those becoming Medicare-eligible.
SHINE (or “Serving the Health Insurance Needs of Everyone”) provides free health insurance information, counseling and assistance to Massachusetts residents. The program, which is administered by the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, is operated by a mix of volunteers and employees stationed at various agencies, such as councils on aging and Coastline. And this summer, 23 people took part in an extensive training program to become counselors from the South Coast to Cape Cod.
“Our counselors go through a lot of training,” said Regional SHINE Director Christie Rexford, who’s based in Middleborough. “We’re unbiased, and we can give you an idea of all of your options so you make the best choice for you. And it’s free.”
The program, which typically revolves around in-person meetings, was forced to switch to a remote model because of COVID-19, which Rexford said was particularly challenging considering how much copying, printing and faxing is involved. Even this year’s SHINE counselor training had to take place exclusively over the video conferencing platform Zoom.
Still, SHINE pressed forward with training, ensuring the new crop of counselors would be ready ahead of the busy Medicare open enrollment period, which takes place every year from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7.
One of the new recruits, Ginny DeSilva, who works as a health access director at the New Bedford-based nonprofit PACE, printed reams of information to prepare for the final exam scheduled in late August.
“I have a new, great respect for SHINE counselors,” said DeSilva. “It’s a long training, and there’s tons and tons of material to study.”
She said that, for people who are accustom to receiving health coverage through an employer, it can be easy to coast along, not thinking much about the intricacies of health insurance. But, three months before the month you turn 65 – when you can first sign up for Medicare – she recommends seeking help as soon as possible.
“When it comes to Medicare programs, they’re very complicated, and you definitely need someone who knows what they’re talking about to assist you,” she said.
During open enrollment, those on Medicare can make changes to their health plans and prescription drug coverage to better meet their needs. This year, meeting with a SHINE counselor will likely happen remotely.
“We do have some outreach workers who have started to see people outside,” said Rexford.
The bulk of appointments, though, will happen over the phone or across email. For those who feel more confident with a computer, Medicare’s official website has a tool called the Medicare Plan Finder, which can help you compare coverage options and shop for plans. Rexford said SHINE counselors can answer questions about the Plan Finder if you need help using the service.
Before DeSilva had joined the training program, she said that she had benefited from the service back when it was time for her to sign up for Medicare. At the time, she scheduled a meeting with her coworker at PACE, who helped her through the process.
“I think it’s a program that’s definitely needed and helpful to a lot of people,” she said. “They need more SHINE counselors.”