Seniors & Aging

SHIBA counselors help people understand federal health program

Where can you go if you’re recently widowed and have no idea how to navigate the maze of Medicare A, B, C and D?

Who can help you understand the complexities of Medicare if English is your second language?

What can you do if you’re approaching 65 and struggling to discern the Medicare choices facing you?

You can call the local advisers at SHIBA — short for State Health Insurance Benefits advisers, and pronounced like the Queen of Sheba.

SHIBA is a free service tied to the state Office of the Insurance Commissioner. In Whatcom County, SHIBA is dedicated to helping people understand Medicare, and operates under the management of the Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement, a nonprofit outfit commonly referred to as WAHA.

Understandably, some people become confused by the acronyms, says Australia Cosby, the SHIBA coordinator in Whatcom County.

“They think SHIBA is a person,” she says, “or they believe we sell health insurance.”

Instead, volunteer SHIBA advisers provide unbiased information about Medicare so consumers can make their own decisions. The trained volunteers offer “Medicare 101,” a comprehensive look at the federal health program’s various components and choices.

For people who don’t know where to begin, an hour-long meeting with an adviser can provide invaluable help. As one client told Cosby, “You’re making me feel like I can ask the right questions.”

From September 2013 to September 2014, the local SHIBA program fielded 2,564 phone calls and held meetings with 478 people. Such outreach is especially helpful given the complexity of Medicare and other health insurance systems.

For example, a small number of people over 65 don’t qualify for Medicare or must pay high premiums. That situation can arise for people who have worked less than 40 three-month periods, or about 10 years. Also affected are some immigrants, depending on the length of time they have lived in the United States. For seniors in those circumstances, there’s a possibility they can get help through Washington’s health insurance exchange set up through the federal Affordable Care Act.

Cosby says people who have questions about eligibility should make an appointment with a SHIBA adviser as well as the Social Security Administration. The advisers also can determine if there are other needs in the consumer’s family and can provide referrals for those issues.

In other Washington counties, SHIBA volunteers provide information about health insurance to people of all ages. But in Whatcom County, WAHA staffers meet with people who are interested in understanding health insurance options related to the Affordable Care Act. WAHA has hired extra counselors for the current health insurance enrollment period, which lasts until Feb. 15.

Collaboration and community focus are top priorities for the dozen or more programs at WAHA, says Tiffany Go, a health care access counselor. Not only does WAHA manage the local SHIBA and provide health-access counselors, it also runs workshops on “end of life choices” and collaborates with other local agencies to address systemic health care problems.

“The organization is full of compassionate people who know the health care system is complex,” Go says. “We are looking out for each other.”

Since WAHA began in 2002, its free programs have directly served about 20 percent of Whatcom County’s population.

“Even if you don’t need us,” Cosby says, “you may have a friend, relative, or client who needs help.”