• Medicare SHIP (State Health Insurance Assistance Program) is a free, one-on-one counseling service to help answer your questions about Medicare coverage and plan options.
  • The service is available to anyone who is eligible for Medicare.
  • SHIP counselors are trained, local advisors who do not work for insurance companies.
  • You can access SHIP services over the phone or at in-person events in your community.

Despite its name, this program has nothing to do with medical assistance you might need on a cruise. The phrase “assistance program” is also somewhat misleading, since it’s also not a program to help pay for healthcare costs. So, what exactly does SHIP do?

Medicare’s State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) is a free counseling service for all your Medicare questions. SHIP provides you or your caretaker with access to one-on-one, unbiased advice from a trained volunteer well-versed in Medicare.

Let’s learn more about what this program offers and how it can help you throughout your healthcare journey.

Background and mission

SHIP is a government-funded, free Medicare counseling program that started in 1990 as part of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. SHIPs provide local, unbiased advice to Medicare-eligible individuals and their families.

In addition to one-on-one meetings, SHIPs hold in-person and online workshops and enrollment events. These include “Medicare Mondays,” which provide information to help you select coverage plans. Check with your local SHIP for a schedule of upcoming events.

Locations and other names

There are SHIPs in all 50 states, as well as in the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Some SHIPs go by different names. For example, Missouri’s SHIP is known as CLAIM (Community Leaders Assisting the Insured of Missouri). In New York, SHIP is known as HIICAP (Health Insurance Information, Counseling and Assistance).

SHIP counselors are highly trained volunteers who live in your local community.

SHIP counselors are unbiased. They don’t work for insurance companies, and they don’t profit from your enrollment decision. Their goal is to provide you with personalized advice and up-to-date information about all aspects of Medicare.

It’s no secret that Medicare can be confusing. Your healthcare needs can also change over time, and you may wonder if you can or should make changes to your coverage. SHIP counselors can advise you on many topics, including:

  • how and when to enroll in Medicare
  • the different parts of Medicare, and what each covers
  • differences between Part D prescription drug plans and Medicare Advantage (Part C) plans and how to choose the right one for you
  • deciding if you need a Medigap (supplemental) plan
  • how to join or leave a plan
  • what to do if you choose a plan you don’t like
  • what out-of-pocket costs you might have with your current or future plan
  • your eligibility for additional low-income benefits such as Medicare Savings Programs and Extra Help (Part D low-income subsidy)
  • the process for filing an appeal or a complaint for denial of coverage
  • Medicare coverage questions like length of stay at a skilled nursing facility or certain medical equipment you may need
  • information on how to detect and avoid Medicare scams

SHIP is available to all Medicare-eligible Americans and their caregivers. You’re eligible for Medicare if:

  • you are 65 or older, and are a U.S. citizen or legal resident who has lived in the United States for at least five years
  • you are younger than 65, but have a disability or end stage renal disease

On each state’s SHIP website, you can learn about local meetings and workshops, such as Medicare Monday.

Workshops often take place before the open enrollment period for Medicare. Open enrollment takes place annually from Oct. 15 through Dec. 7.

All SHIP services are free.

How to contact ship

Here are a few ways to discover information about your local SHIP:

  • A directory of SHIP offices by state can be found here.
  • You can use the Find Local Medicare Help tool on the SHIP website.
  • Call the SHIP Locator toll-free at (877) 839-2675 to find your local SHIP’s information.
  • Search for your SHIPs on social media – some have Facebook pages where you can leave a message and ask to be contacted.

Additional tips

Before your SHIP appointment, you or your caregiver should research Medicare and what it does and doesn’t cover.

It will also help to learn about the different parts of Medicare. For example, Medicare parts A and B are known as original Medicare. Part C is also known as Medicare Advantage, while Part D is prescription drug coverage.

To best prepare for your appointment, have the following information handy:

  • your doctors’ names and if they currently accept Medicare
  • your current prescriptions
  • your medical conditions
  • any upcoming procedures
  • any needed medical equipment (including eyeglasses)
  • the type of dental care and services you’ll need during a year
  • your monthly and annual budget for healthcare spending
Using SHIP during the covid-19 pandemic

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you may not be able to see your SHIP counselor in person. There may also be a longer-than-usual wait time before you can get an appointment for phone counseling. However, all SHIPS are open and taking appointments with Medicare-eligible individuals or their caregivers.

Medicare SHIP is a free counseling service for Medicare-eligible people and their caregivers. You can access SHIP at any time, including the months before you enroll in Medicare.

SHIP counselors are trained, compassionate volunteers from the local community. They know the ins and outs of Medicare, and provide unbiased, personalized advice.