How to Ask for Help: A Guide to SHIPs

July 6, 2015

by: Margie Johnson Ware, Aging and Health Specialist

Part two of our new “How to Ask for Help” series, which explores the best and most trustworthy Medicare assistance tools.

View part one »

View part three »

In our first post in this series, we talked about the importance of doing your Medicare research. More specifically, we emphasized the importance of doing the “right” research from trustworthy sources. We also mentioned SHIPs, Aon Retiree Health Exchange, and a host of other Medicare resources.

So, where to begin with your research? Let’s review what we know already. The National Council on Aging has created a tool that helps you to begin the process of knowing what questions you need to ask, and what aspects of your situation are relevant to choosing the right Medicare plan. The tool, known as the Medicare Questionnaire, asks you some basic questions about your employment status and personal situation, and then guides you to resources that can be helpful. For example, depending on your employment or disability status, you may need very different kinds of assistance from other older adults you know.

One of the resources that the Medicare Mini-Check tool might guide you towards is the SHIP program. No, it’s not a way to take a cruise to South America and forget about Medicare (unfortunately). SHIP stands for State Health Assistance Insurance Program, a requirement of the Medicare law that each state and territory offer neutral, unbiased counseling to Medicare beneficiaries about their choices. These programs are adept at answering questions about Medicare enrollment, supplemental insurance, prescription drug coverage and Medicare Advantage (Part C) programs. They can also guide low-income beneficiaries to programs that can help them afford Medicare coverage.

SHIPs also provide a vital public service by assisting beneficiaries in making the best use of their Medicare benefits. They can alert people to potential scams, explain complex billing issues and help troubleshoot in areas where the average person feels at a loss to know where to begin.

So how do you find your local SHIP program? You can call the SHIP toll-free hotline at 1-877-839-2675 and ask that they to direct you to a local SHIP counselor in your area. You can also familiarize yourself with the Aging Services Access Point (ASAP) and Area Agency on Aging (AAA) in your area (sometimes these are the same organization). These state and federally-funded organizations are responsible for a variety of programs for Medicare beneficiaries and anyone over the age of 60.

While these programs are some of the best examples of “your tax dollars working for you,” it is also important to note that they are sometimes staffed almost wholly by volunteers. This presents some opportunities and challenges. SHIP counselors, paid and volunteer, are incredibly well-trained and undergo certification and training programs—these are professionals, no matter what their compensation consists of. But because of their volunteer status, the system is dependent on volunteer availability and can be overwhelmed at critical times (such as the Open Enrollment period from October 15 to December 7 each year). So how can you make the best use of the SHIP program?

In our last post we emphasized the importance of starting research early. Consumers who can contact their local SHIP program before the start of Open Enrollment (October 15) will often have the ability to speak at length to a counselor about the variety of choices available for new and experienced beneficiaries. They will be able to hear about anticipated changes that may affect the marketplace. And they will be educated about the right Medicare plan for their needs well before the busy Open Enrollment period.

In our next post, we’ll introduce you to our partners at Aon Retiree Health Exchange. They abide by the National Council on Aging’s Standards of Excellence and offer no-cost comprehensive professional Medicare advice in a way that provides maximum confidence and minimal hassle.