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Answers for seniors about health insurance Posted: June 3rd, 2010

By Meredith Ledford

Understanding your Medicare and Medigap health insurance plans can be confusing. The good news is every state has a state health insurance program (SHIP) that provides personalized guidance and counseling to seniors and their caregivers to help them navigate the complicated Medicare waters.

What are SHIPs?

State Health Insurance Assistance Programs (SHIPs) have over 12,000 trained staff members and volunteers who provide personalized assistance to 45 million Medicare beneficiaries that need help navigating the increasingly complex health care system. SHIP counselors provide accurate and understandable information and assistance on a wide range of health insurance issues, including Medicare, Medicaid, Medigap, long term care, and prescription drugs.

SHIP counselors can help either in-person or by phone. Additionally, counselors conduct community outreach, and public presentations to better educate the public and the media. The best news is the program provides these services to seniors for free.

Where are SHIPs?

SHIPS are located in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Sometimes SHIPS are located in the state's Department of Insurance, but many SHIP offices are located in Area Agencies on Aging.

Additionally, SHIPS may not always be named "SHIP." Some states have different names for the program, such as HICAP in California, SHINE in Florida, and SHIBA in Oregon. SHIP staff and counselors are also located in other community-based organizations, such as senior centers and hospitals.

Why Are SHIPs Important?

As you grow older, your need for health care is likely to increase. In general, the needs of the 45 million seniors, who depend on Medicare for medical coverage, are multifaceted and diverse. According to the Health Assistance Partnership, a nonprofit that provides technical assistance to SHIP programs across the country, more than 11 million beneficiaries have cognitive impairments; almost 15 million have limitations in activities of daily living such as eating and dressing; almost 16 million have not graduated from high school; and more than 4.5 million are over 85 years of age.

Yet, if you are a senior, you must traverse a complicated health insurance system. Recent changes to the health insurance industry caused by the recent enactment of the health reform legislation in March -- including changes to Medicare -- and the inter-relationship of these programs are particularly mystifying for seniors and those with disabilities.