Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on The Penny Hoarder.
Contrary to popular belief, Medicare is not free.
Monthly premiums, copayments and annual deductibles add up quickly, not to mention out-of-pocket expenses for prescription drugs.
Navigating the complex Medicare system alone can be overwhelming. It’s easier to stick with your current plan and hope for the best.
But staying put can mean losing huge savings – potentially thousands of dollars a year.
If you want to explore your health insurance options but don’t know where to start, a network of free federally funded programs can help. Here’s how.
What is the State Health Insurance Assistance Program?
The State Health Insurance Assistance Program, or SHIP, is a nationwide network of trained volunteers who provide one-on-one assistance, counseling, and education to Medicare beneficiaries, their families, and caregivers.
SHIP was created more than 30 years ago under the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990. Each state uses federal grant money to administer its own SHIP.
Your state’s program may have a slightly different name, such as SHINE (Serving Health Insurance Needs of Everyone) in Massachusetts or SHIBA (Statewide Health Insurance Benefits Advisors) in Washington and Idaho.
SHIP in numbers
- Nearly 2.7 million Medicare beneficiaries, their families and caregivers received individual health insurance counseling in 2018, including 330,737 adults under age 65 with disabilities.
- SHIP reached over 4.2 million people through public presentations, registration events, health fairs and other community events in 2018.
- There are over 2,200 local SHIP locations nationwide and over 12,500 team members.
- SHIP received $65.1 million in federal funding in fiscal year 2020 to carry out its mission.
SHIP counselors are certified to provide free, in-depth, personalized health insurance counseling to Medicare beneficiaries.
And because advisors don’t work for an insurance company, their advice is truly unbiased.
A SHIP volunteer will never try to sell you anything. There are also no income or wealth restrictions. Anyone can use the program, for free.
How can SHIP advisors help me?
SHIP counselors can help with many Medicare-related needs, including:
- Review your health insurance coverage and drug plan options
- Low-income assistance programs
- Open registration questions
- Billing issues
- Navigating Late Registration Penalties
- Filing an appeal or a complaint
- Supplemental Medicare (Medigap) insurance, long-term care insurance, and managed care options
New and existing Medicare beneficiaries can use SHIP. Counselors also help adults under age 65 who are eligible for Medicare due to a disability, as well as dual-eligible beneficiaries enrolled in both Medicare and Medicaid.
Reviewing Your Medicare Coverage Can Save You Thousands
Beneficiaries have an annual opportunity to review and change their Medicare coverage during open enrollment, which runs from October 15 through December 7 each year.
This is a great time to compare plans and make sure you’re not paying too much for health care.
Yet 7 in 10 Medicare beneficiaries did not compare plans during the 2018 open enrollment period, according to a recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The rate was even higher among black and Hispanic recipients, those 85 and older, and those with low incomes.
Not shopping at least once a year can mean overspending on Medicare, experts say.
“In addition to better meeting their health care needs, reviewing plans annually can help save money, as plan costs fluctuate regularly,” said Rebecca Kinney, director of the Office of the health care information and consulting for the US Department of Health and Human Services Administration. for community life.
How much can you really save by using SHIP?
Kinney told The Penny Hoarder about a married couple in Ohio who hadn’t compared their Part D plans in nine years.
“They will save nearly $4,000 in 2022 by changing their plans after researching their options with the Ohio SHIP,” Kinney said. “The woman was almost in tears, she was so happy.”
What else does SHIP do?
A SHIP advisor can help you in many ways, from helping you compare drug plans, screening you for economic benefits, or answering enrollment questions.
They can also offer advice on navigating unique situations, like how Medicare interacts with Medicaid or what happens to your TRICARE coverage when you turn 65.
SHIPs typically offer a combination of in-person and telephone support.
Many SHIPs also host webinars and education fairs, such as SHIP in Indiana, which hosted four virtual Medicare events on its Facebook page in September. Members of the public could interact with experts and get their Medicare questions answered in real time.
SHIPs rely heavily on the Medicare Plan Finder tool and other information on the Medicare website to sort through the options available to beneficiaries.
Or, with your permission, an advisor can log into your MyMedicare.gov account, review your recent drug claims, and determine your most affordable Part D plan option.
Get extra help paying Medicare with savings programs
SHIP counselors can also help low-income beneficiaries navigate Medicare savings programs, which may cover Part B premiums, deductibles, and copayments.
There is also the Extra Help program, which helps to significantly reduce prescription drug costs. In 2022, Extra Help registrants spend no more than $3.95 for each generic prescription and $9.85 for each covered brand name drug.
These savings programs are available to beneficiaries who may not be eligible for full Medicaid benefits, but who still meet certain income limits and struggle to cover healthcare costs.
Medicare savings programs are administered by states, so SHIP counselors can provide you with eligibility and enrollment requirements specific to your region.
They can even help you with the application process.
These small adjustments to your health insurance can add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars in savings every year, experts say.
How to find your local VESSEL
You can find your SHIP using the online SHIP Regional Locator tool. Or you can call the national network hotline at 1-877-839-2675.
You can speak to a representative and make an appointment with an advisor.
Some states may offer in-person counseling while others only offer telephone or online counseling, so check to see what’s available in your state.
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