John McDonough, 81, this June will celebrate his 20th year as a volunteer for UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital’s “Senior Health Insurance Information Program” (SHIIP) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Through SHIIP, he and other volunteers have helped thousands of area seniors sort through information on Medicare and related health insurance issues so they can make informed decisions about their health care coverage.

After retiring as an engineer at the Cedar Rapids-based Rockwell Collins aerospace company, McDonough started volunteering at St. Luke’s Hospital. “I had never volunteered a day in my life,” says McDonough, who is one of 30 SHIIP volunteers – all seniors counseling other seniors about health insurance. “After a couple of weeks of retirement, I found that I needed some activity so I signed up for SHIIP. I haven’t slowed down since I started here.”

He says the most common question asked SHIIP’s counselors is how to save money on prescription drugs. The hospital’s SHIIP team saved 2,365 Iowans $590,358 last year on their prescription drugs.

“That’s an incredible impact these volunteers are making for the seniors in our community,” says Angela Berns, who manages volunteer services at the hospital.

McDonough and the rest of St. Luke’s Hospital’s SHIIP volunteers last year received an AHA Hospital Award for Volunteer Excellence (HAVE) at the AHA’s Annual Membership Meeting in Washington, D.C. The program was recognized in the award category of community outreach and collaboration.

Every year the AHA HAVE Awards honor exceptional volunteer programs and their contribution to patients, hospitals and the communities they serve. The association will recognize the 2016 AHA HAVE Award recipients at its annual meeting next month in Washington, D.C. 

John McDonoughThe Iowa Insurance Division created SHIIP in 1990 to provide free, confidential and objective counseling to Medicare patients about Medicare, Medicare prescription drug plans, billing and claims issues and long-term care insurance. St. Luke’s Hospital has participated in SHIIP since the program’s inception and is its largest sponsor in Iowa. Volunteers must pass a training program conducted by the state’s insurance division before they can become SHIIP counselors.

“Helping people, making them smile and giving them someone to talk to is important for our clients and for our volunteers,” Berns says. As Medicare beneficiaries, the volunteers can “relate to many of their clients’ questions and are a comforting presence for patients” concerned about their care and coverage, she says.

“Volunteers are the best hospital ambassador,” Berns adds. “They understand what goes on in the hospital and see how everyone who is a part of the hospital is working to advance our mission. Then, they are out in the community answering questions and describing our patients’ experience. They send a positive message.”

Volunteers staff the hospital’s SHIIP office Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. McDonough says the volunteers are especially busy in the fall, during Medicare’s open enrollment period. He volunteers up to four days a week and even occasionally does paperwork at home on Saturdays.  

“I like interfacing with the folks,” McDonough says. “The people I see absolutely need our help. We help them out and they help me out by keeping me active.”

The hospital’s longest-serving SHIIP counselor has been in the program for 24 years and many have volunteered for more than a decade.   

An awards ceremony hosted by the governor celebrates service anniversaries for the counselors, as part of a program honoring volunteers for Iowa’s non-profit, charitable and government programs. McDonough will be among those receiving a “Governors Volunteers Award” from Gov. Terry Branstad in June for his 20 years of service as a SHIIP volunteer.

Asked how much longer he’ll volunteer at the hospital, McDonough replies: “I guess I’ll be doing this until I can’t do it anymore. I’m 81 and I’m still raring to go.”