Medicare can be complex and difficult to navigate. To help Medicare beneficiaries and their families, the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1990 established State Health Insurance Assistance Programs (SHIPs). This law authorized the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to make grants to states to establish and maintain health insurance advisory service programs.
There are 54 SHIP grantees (one in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). In 1914, SHIP management was transferred from CMS to the Administration for Community Living (ACL), an operating division of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. SHIP is funded through federal and state partnerships, and services are provided at no cost to you.
This article explains the benefits you gain from SHIP and how you can find a SHIP advisor in your community.
What Are Medicare SHIP Advisors and What Do They Do?
Medicare SHIP advisors are specially trained, community-based staff and volunteers who provide unbiased counseling, education, and practical help to:
- Medicare beneficiaries, their families, and caregivers
- Beneficiaries with limited incomes to apply for programs designed to help pay for or reduce health care costs
- Medicare beneficiaries under the age of 65 with disabilities
- Individuals who are dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid
SHIP advisors are also involved in community education and outreach endeavors reaching groups of Medicare enrollees and the general public.
Who are SHIP advisors?
SHIP advisors are paid staff and volunteers who want to serve their communities. SHIP recruits and trains volunteers to provide counseling to individuals and outreach to their community. Staff and volunteers are screened, trained, and certified to provide expert Medicare advice and education.
You may choose to be a SHIP volunteer. There are many opportunities available to you if you want to give back to your community and build your skill set. You don’t need a background in health care or insurance. You may be a professional wanting to provide in-kind service at your local SHIP center. You may also want to volunteer to provide office or administrative support. There are plenty of ways to engage with SHIP, whether you are receiving or providing services.
How Do Medicare SHIP Advisors Help Seniors?
There are several ways SHIP advisors help seniors and their families. Counseling services are one-on-one, so can be personalized to your particular situation. SHIP advisors also make group presentations and use a variety of media sources to educate people about Medicare.
SHIP services are delivered by state units on aging (SUAs) or state departments of insurance in partnerships with their local Area Agencies on Aging (AAA) and other community-based partners. In addition to SHIP services, many grantees provide Senior Medicare Patrol (SMP) program services, which help Medicare beneficiaries protect, detect, and report health care fraud, errors, and abuse.
According to ACL, the SHIP mission is to empower, educate, and assist Medicare-eligible individuals through objective outreach, counseling, and training.
The SHIP vision is to be the known and trusted community resource for Medicare information.
What services does SHIP provide?
SHIP isn’t just for people who are new to Medicare. If you are already a Medicare beneficiary, you have opportunities throughout the year to review your current health and prescription drug plans and make a change. SHIP advisors can provide you with information and one-on-one counseling so you can make an informed choice about plans that are available to you.
SHIP provides the following confidential, one-on-one (in person or virtual) services:
- Counseling regarding your health and prescription drug plan options
- Practical help with comparing plans available in your area
- Information about financial assistance programs you may qualify for
- Education about Medicare’s eligibility criteria
- Help with enrollment
- Facilitation of communication between you and your health and drug plan, whether you have Original Medicare, Medicare Supplement Health Insurance (Medigap), Medicare Advantage, or a stand-alone prescription drug plan
- Specific information about what Medicare does and doesn’t cover
- Education about how Medicare works with other insurance, supplemental policies, and Medicaid
- Information about your rights under Medicare
- Referrals to other agencies and programs
- Troubleshooting help with billing issues
- Help with submitting appeals
- Collection and reporting of possible Medicare fraud complaints
SHIP also provides community outreach and education through its website, including:
- Links to Medicare resources
- Access to recorded training on what you need to know if you are new to Medicare
- Virtual blog posts covering topics, such as:
- Medicare coverage of preventive services
- Making Medicare enrollment decisions when you have other coverage
- What’s new for Medicare in 2022
- Medicare coverage of durable medical equipment
- Medicare coverage of vaccines
- Medigap policies
- Medicare’s open enrollment period that runs annually from October 15 through December 7
SHIP is actively involved in a partnership with the national resource center for the Senior Medicare Patrol (SMP) program, which the Northeast Iowa AAA operates. The Medicare Rights Center is the SMPs primary partner in the provision of direct services to SHIPs. The Medicare Rights Center has been helping people understand their rights and benefits and promoting access to quality care since 1989.
The SHIP National Technical Assistance Center (SHIP TA Center) website serves as a central source of information for and about the national SHIP. The SHIP TA Center website helps members of the general public by:
- Providing a SHIP locator to help people understand, locate, and access SHIP services in their state, territory, or commonwealth
- Posting video testimonials from SHIP volunteers and clients
- Providing general Medicare news and information
The TA Center provides services to SHIPs through:
- A password-protected portion of the website with online counselor training and certification
- A resource library of materials produced by and for SHIPs
- Provision of volunteer training and management materials
- Publication of webinars and online calendar of events
Get local help navigating Medicare offerings in your area
Your local SHIP is here to help. SHIP provides unbiased, knowledgeable, confidential one-on-one help. You can meet in person with a SHIP advisor or ask for a virtual meeting. The guidance you receive from SHIP is free and based on your individual needs and circumstances. You will have the opportunity to go as in-depth as you need to ensure you understand your options.
Nationwide, SHIP has a network of more than 2,200 local sites and over 12,500 advisors. The chances are good that you can find a local SHIP office in or near your county of residence. If your local office is not in a convenient location for you, request a virtual meeting.
How Do You Get Help From SHIP?
SHIP is a national program with offices across the country. Depending on your area, your SHIP may go by another name, such as your AAA or your state department of insurance, but the support and services it provides are the same.
The best place to start for individual help is to search for your state by clicking the “Find Local Medicare Help” button on the SHIP home page. You will see a list of the 54 SHIP grantees (the 50 states, plus Puerto Rico, Guam, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). Click on your state or location to find your SHIP’s phone number, website address, and social media address. Your area SHIP website will include links to agencies in your area that offer SHIP counseling, including the best way to contact them.
The best place to start if you want general education and information about how to navigate Medicare is the SHIP home page. You will have the opportunity to click on links for Medicare resources, blogs, and recorded training on many topics. All of the virtual information is easily accessible and free.
Medicare SHIP Expert Tips
- SHIP provides a wealth of information to Medicare-eligible people and their families and partners with community agencies geared toward helping seniors. Take advantage of the free counseling and resources SHIP has to offer. Education and help navigating the complexities of Medicare is empowering and could lead to cost savings for you. You can choose a plan that best suits your needs and budget constraints.
- Accessing SHIP is important when you are newly eligible and ongoing as your needs and circumstances change. A 2021 Kaiser Family Foundation report conducted after a recent Medicare annual enrollment period indicated that seven out of 10 Medicare beneficiaries did not take the opportunity to compare their coverage options. SHIP advisors can help you compare plans and find ways to reduce health care expenses. Free SHIP services come at no risk to you with a high potential for gain.
- Prepare ahead of time to meet with a SHIP advisor. Take stock of your health care needs, including managing current conditions and a list of medications. Review your health care expenditures and budget and how you feel about the ease of access and quality of care you get when you need it.
Learn More From Our Sources
- ACL | Administration for Community Living: State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) | Last accessed June 2023
- ACL | Senior Medicare Patrol (SMP) | Last accessed June 2023
- SHIP |ˌHome Page | Last accessed June 2023
- SHIP | Links to Medicare Resources | Last accessed June 2023
- SHIP |ˌTraining Staff | Last accessed June 2023
- SHIP |ˌVolunteers | Last accessed June 2023