December is full of important dates. There's Hanukkah and Christmas, Pearl Harbor Day and New Year's Eve.
And, for people eligible for Medicare health insurance, there is Decision Day — Dec. 7, the final day they can pick their plans.
So many choices, so little time.
It's not easy to do, but volunteers at SHINE (Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders), a free program offered by the Florida Department of Elder Affairs and your local Area Agency on Aging, are there to provide detailed assessment and advice.
You can call them or set up a face-to-face meeting. "Our volunteers are a great crew," said Susan Samson, SHINE liaison for the past seven years. "They served over 13,000 consumers last year."
Each client's needs and issues are unique, Samson says. Each telephone counseling session averages just under an hour.
"It takes a special person to be a SHINE volunteer," Samson said. "We request a two-year commitment."
Volunteers go through three days of training, learning how to find information online and taking a intensive course on Medicare, Medicaid, supplemental insurance plans and long-term care plans. They learn about billings and appeals.
Just as important, volunteers are taught how to listen to clients and how to be patient with a frustrated caller. They learn how to be mentors and how to decipher what a client is really saying.
Because SHINE volunteers must ask personal questions, such as a person's Social Security number, they must pass an FBI background check, Samson said.
The Pinellas-Pasco SHINE district has about 40 volunteers actively counseling at least one day a week.
What qualities make for an effective SHINE volunteer?
"Commitment," Jan Rauer, project manager and SHINE trainer, said.
"You want a person who has an inquiring mind," she said. "They have to like learning. This is an ongoing learning process. Today, Medicare says one thing, then tomorrow, they tweak it."
Rauer speaks from experience. At 72, she is a full-time volunteer, working at least 40 hours a week and coordinating training programs throughout Florida.
SHINE counselors are taught to be objective. "We're not here to sell a particular plan," explained Charles Franckle, 67, a local volunteer coordinator and St. Petersburg native.
He agrees that a good volunteer for SHINE is someone who is a good listener. No particular career or background is necessary to be a volunteer counselor, he said, although Spanish-speaking counselors are always welcome.
"We do have some volunteers who are working," Franckle said, "but the majority are retired."
Fred W. Wright Jr. is a freelance writer who lives in Seminole. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.