State program helping with Medicare questions adapts to pandemic

Medicare, with all its plans and parts, can be daunting for people in search of

Medicare, with all its plans and parts, can be daunting for people in search of health insurance. But there’s help available across Florida and Tampa Bay.

SHINE, which stands for Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders, has more than 500 volunteers throughout the state who are ready to answer questions as open enrollment begins Oct. 15. People 65 and older as well as those with disabilities have until Dec. 7 to make a choice.

Because of the coronavirus, SHINE’s in-person information sessions and consulting appointments have moved online and over the phone. The program has built a robust schedule of virtual events enrollees can access to learn about their options and ask questions about coverage, said Tampa-based SHINE manager Amy Hagel.

She spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about SHINE’s work, and shared specifics about how the state program plans to assist seniors in a way that keeps them safe from COVID-19. Here’s what she said:

When was SHINE created and what is its mission?

SHINE, a program within the Florida Department of Elder Affairs, has been helping seniors with Medicare enrollment since 1992. It is the only Medicare-sponsored source of one-on-one counseling in the state and aims to help beneficiaries make informed choices to maximize their health care benefits.

Who are SHINE volunteers and where are they located?

There are 11 SHINE offices across Florida and together they serve all 67 counties in the state. SHINE volunteers “come from all walks of life,” Hagel said. Most are retirees from all sorts of careers who “want to find a meaningful way they can really give back” to the community.

Their help is free and confidential. The volunteers are not affiliated with any insurance provider, so the guidance they give is unbiased and only in the interest of beneficiaries, Hagel said. “The best advice people can get is from a SHINE counselor, because they do not gain anything but the satisfaction of assisting you.”

What services do SHINE counselors offer?

Volunteers will look at a beneficiary’s existing benefits and coverage and evaluate whether it is the still best option for the coming year. They will go through the client’s medications to ensure their prescriptions will continue to be covered. If not, they will help them find another Medicare plan that does cover them.

Counselors also will check whether a beneficiary’s doctors will continue to take their insurance. And they can help people apply for assistance programs.

How is the coronavirus pandemic changing how SHINE helps seniors?

Usually, SHINE offers in-person events and counseling for Medicare beneficiaries. But those have been canceled to prevent spread of COVID-19. The services will continue, but they will be done over the phone and computer.

Volunteers have been trained on the new processes to ensure there are no gaps in service. One-on-one counseling sessions last about an hour and a half.

How many people does SHINE help each year?

In 2019, SHINE helped about 55,000 Floridians enroll in Medicare plans.

How do people get in touch with SHINE?

Medicare beneficiaries can reach SHINE by calling the state office at 1-800-963-5337 or emailing [email protected].

How do people find SHINE’s online sessions?

A complete schedule of SHINE’s virtual events is updated weekly at There are various presentations on the basics of Medicare, specific parts of Medicare and more. Reservations are required for some of the events and contact information for each can be found on the schedule.

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