Many State Health Insurance Assistance Programs (SHIPs) rely on volunteers to assist with counseling clients about their drug and health plan choices. In Tennessee and Alabama, partnerships with pharmacy schools at several universities has provided a significant increase in the number of highly qualified, trained individuals able to help clients with their decision-making.

How it got started

In 2010, a TN SHIP staff member who knew a professor at the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) approached the school about a partnership. Knowing that all 3rd year pharmacy students were required to do a community service project, the SHIP representative worked with the school to offer the SHIP as a service venue, especially to help out with the Medicare Part D Annual Enrollment Period (AEP) in the fall.

In the first year, 10 of the 60 ETSU pharmacy students chose to do their community service with the TN SHIP, but by the following year, recognizing its value for their future careers, all of the students volunteered for the SHIP. The students wore their white pharmacy coats, held events on-site at their computer lab so they could walk clients through the Medicare.gov Plan Finder, and also conducted counseling sessions in the local Walgreens and at senior centers. As a result, ETSU now makes volunteering for the SHIP a requirement for all its 3rd year pharmacy students.

The Alabama SHIP has initiated similar efforts with the Auburn University (AU) Harrison School of Pharmacy (HSOP). This AL SHIP – AU Medicare Outreach Program is a model for integrating teaching activities and community outreach. Pharmacy students at HSOP have applied what they have learned in classroom about Medicare and the use of the Plan Finder Tool with real patients. They must pass the training and became certified SHIP counselors prior to volunteering with SHIP. The university created a SHIP Medicare webpage, and approximately 215 students participated in counseling in 9 counties in 2014. The AL SHIP provides $10,000 to the school to assist the university with program logistics, program evaluation, and reimbursing students with traveling to the counseling venues.

Replicating the effort

The success with ETSU has been replicated with two other pharmacy schools at TN universities. The state has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Belmont University’s College of Pharmacy in Nashville, where four students participated in AEP events last year, and training for new students took place last month (August 2015).

After hearing about Belmont University’s experience, the pharmacy school at Lipscomb University also sought to utilize its students to volunteer for the SHIP. In 2015, an anticipated 70 students will receive training to do AEP counseling. Lipscomb pharmacy students have also developed a plan for community outreach outside of the AEP, including during their “Fluapalooza” event that offers free flu shots for the public.

What were the results?

Having additional counselors available, especially during the busy Open Enrollment season, provides a big boost in manpower for the SHIPs. This volunteer source is continually replenished with new pharmacy students.

Additionally, pharmacy students gain in-depth knowledge about Part D, and the benefits that can help low-income clients afford their medications. And, “the students become better pharmacists,” noted Robyn James, former SHIP Director in Alabama.

Any SHIP interested in replicating this strategy should be aware of the following lessons from Alabama and Tennessee:

  • Prepare for a commitment of time needed to establish connections, outline an MOU, and train the pharmacy students.
  • Know that the effort requires logistical planning, such as ensuring the students are available at sites that have clients for them to see.
  • Advertise consistently to create traffic to events.
  • Triage AEP event responsibilities.
  • Evaluate activities at the end of each AEP and adjust accordingly.

For more information

Shannon Jones
TN SHIP Director

Robyn James
AL Department of Senior Services Public Relations Manager