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Assistance with Medicare is Closer Than You Might Think
Kansas Ag Connection - 11/10/2017

More than two-dozen K-State Research and Extension agents at county and district offices are trained and ready to help senior citizens explore all the options available to them through their Medicare plans.

Through a statewide program called Senior Health Insurance Counseling for Kansas (SHICK), trained extension agents can help older adults choose their best plan -- especially when it comes to prescription drug plans, better know as Medicare Part D. Of the 350 SHICK counselors assisting Kansas citizens, 31 of those are also K-State Research and Extension agents.

"We're just here to provide guidance, to help consumers make informed choices," said Susie Latta, a family and consumer sciences agent with K-State Research and Extension's Marshall County office. "We're not selling anything, we're not paid to point people in a certain direction."

The SHICK program falls under the nationwide State Health Insurance Assistance Programs (SHIPs), which were set up by Congress. The goal is to help seniors who may be overwhelmed or confused by what can seem like a mountain of paperwork and fine-print rules among different prescription drug plans.

People eligible for free SHICK counseling include everyone over age 65 with a valid Medicare card, as well as disabled people of any age with a Medicare card, as long as they are past their 25th month of Social Security disability. People with renal issues are commonly eligible, as well.

"It's free, it's unbiased, it's confidential and it's available to anyone with questions about Medicare," said Jennifer Schroeder, a family and consumer science agent for Reno County.

Insurance agents and people who may work for health care or prescription drug companies are not allowed to become SHICK counselors. "That's to help ensure that counselors are objective," Schroeder said. "We get additional training every year -- there's a minimum number of training hours that are required."

To ensure accurate advice is given, clients should bring to the meeting everything they have pertaining to their health-care situation. This could include health-care bills and statements, information related to current health care and prescription drug plans, as well as brochures, mail and publications concerning current plan options.

Schroeder said it's also helpful for adult children to accompany their parents on these visits.

"I've seen parents and their children in here, working through the drug plan," she said. "It's a little bit of a learning curve at first for their child to understand, but we can help them get a grasp on what they need to know, in advance of the time when they will have to step in and make decisions for their parents."

Drug plans are a significant aspect of health care, and Latta says it's a good idea to consider one's options.

"Even if they already have a retirement that includes a prescription drug plan, it's a good idea to shop around. You won't know what savings might be out there unless you ask," Latta said.

"Last year during open enrollment in Marshall County," Latta continued, "I saw more than 700 people as a SHICK counselor, and helped save them about $215,000. That's money they can use on other critical expenses. It's really about helping people save money."

And there's more: Because personal health is one of K-State Research and Extension's Five Grand Challenges, a K-State Research and Extension SHICK counselor can offer assistance and guidance on many other things.

"We can talk with people about nutrition and health, tell them where the food banks are in their community," said Latta. "We can help them with radon test kits or staying prepared for a disaster. Programs like Stay Strong, Stay Healthy or Walk Kansas. We can serve as a one-stop shopping resource for a lot of issues they may be dealing with."

To find your nearest SHICK counselor, call 800-860-5260 or visit the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services' SHICK website and click on "Locating Help."

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