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What Are State Health Insurance Assistance Programs (SHIPs)?

What Is the State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) 

The State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) is a national program in the United States that provides free, one-on-one counseling and assistance to Medicare beneficiaries and their families. SHIP programs are available in every state, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Unlike financial aid programs like Medicaid and CHIP, SHIPs are unique in that they explicitly offer face-to-face informational guidance and support. Common services include:

  • One-on-one assistance and counseling 
  • Group presentations
  • Application guidance for other assistive programs like Medicaid or Extra Help
  • Insurance education through various media forms
  • Objective outreach 
  • Senior Medicare Patrol (SMP) services 

You can receive SHIP counseling at any of their 2,200 national sites. While each state and multiple U.S. territories have SHIP grantees, access will vary depending on your location relative to the closest affiliated office.

How Does SHIP Work? 

SHIP specifically provides in-person and over-the-phone counseling to low-income or disabled Medicare beneficiaries.

Who Can Access SHIP? 

The following populations can access SHIP services:

  • Limited-income older adults with Medicare coverage
  • Medicare beneficiaries under 65 with disabilities
  • Individuals dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid
  • Family members and caregivers of Medicare beneficiaries

While it helps to live near one of the nationally dispersed SHIP offices, Medicare members in remote regions can still receive expert counseling over the phone. Families and caregivers can also access SHIP to advocate for their loved one’s health and make informed medical decisions on their behalf. 

What Assistance Does SHIP Provide? 

SHIP provides many valuable tools and services that help Medicare recipients navigate the complicated ins and outs of the health insurance industry. These include:

  • Assistance, education, and counseling that empowers beneficiaries and their families to make informed decisions about their Medicare coverage and benefits.
  • Objective outreach and distribution of information. 
  • Senior Medicare Patrol (SMP) services that protect members from healthcare fraud, detect errors, and report abuse.
  • Help applying for financial assistance through Medicaid, Extra Help, or Medicare Savings Programs.
  • Advice on how to keep prescription and general insurance costs down through Medicare Advantage, Medicare Part D, or Medigap.

What Assistance Does SHIP Not Provide? 

While SHIP provides invaluable insight and guidance on the workings of Medicare and the healthcare system, it has specific limitations:

  • SHIP counselors are not allowed to tell you what choices to make. They can only advise you and give you the information necessary to act independently.
  • SHIP does not provide direct financial assistance.
  • Unlike health insurance agents or brokers, SHIP insurance advisors cannot make policy changes or submit applications on your behalf.

How Much Does SHIP Differ By State? 

The federal Administration for Community Living (ACL) manages SHIP and works with state offices, local agencies, and grantees to establish community-based counseling services according to national guidelines. However, SHIPs may go by different names in certain states and receive varying levels of funding based on population size.

For example, California and New York both have relatively well-funded SHIPs known distinctly as Health Insurance Information Counseling and Assistance Programs (HIICAP).

You can access your state’s program by calling the national toll-free number (877-839-2675) or utilizing the online SHIP locator. Availability of in-person services will depend on where you live in your state relative to the nearest office. People in remote locations may have to settle for SHIP counseling via phone or email.

How Much Does It Cost to Utilize Ship? 

Aside from the gas or bus fare it takes to get to and from your local SHIP site, Medicare beneficiaries do not have to spend any money out of pocket on counseling or education. Each state receives federal funding to operate its SHIP on a cost-free basis and often contracts the services of highly trained, unpaid volunteers.

Should You Utilize SHIP? 

If you have any questions or concerns regarding your Medicare coverage, you should consider utilizing SHIP. To access these cost-free services, you must meet the following eligibility requirements:

  • You hold U.S. citizenship.
  • You receive Medicare coverage due to age or disability.
  • You have a limited income or Medicaid dual eligibility.

Health advocates and caregivers for individuals who meet these criteria can also use SHIPs to make informed healthcare and coverage decisions on their behalf. Likewise, SHIP counselors can help struggling families apply for financial assistance through adjacent government programs like Medicaid and CHIP. 

Ultimately, SHIP-eligible individuals have nothing to lose by utilizing these services, allowing them to navigate a complex healthcare industry with confidence.


SHIP offers numerous advantages, including:

  • Available in all 50 states, Washington DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S Virgin Islands.
  • SHIP health insurance experts provide face-to-face counseling and guidance on various Medicare coverages and affiliated benefits.
  • SHIP counselors and advisers provide their services for free.
  • Some state grantees provide SMP services that help Medicare members detect and report fraud or abuse.
  • Informs beneficiaries on how to minimize prescription and general insurance costs.
  • Helps members secure financial benefits from Medicaid, Extra Help, CHIP, and Medicare Savings Programs.
  • Guides beneficiaries through the Medicare appeals process.
  • The ACL has strict SHIP Volunteer Risk and Program Management policies and conflict of interest procedures that enhance the service quality and mitigate risk.


While SHIPs offer many valuable services, they have specific restrictions that may not suit everybody:

  • SHIP does not provide direct financial assistance.
  • People in remote regions may not have access to in-person counseling services.
  • SHIP experts can only advise beneficiaries. They cannot tell them precisely what to do or make coverage changes on their behalf.
  • Scheduling a SHIP appointment can prove challenging during the high-volume Medicare Annual Enrollment Period (AEP)” data-wpil-keyword-link=”linked”>Annual Enrollment Period (AEP).

All in All 

Many Americans find they need help navigating the health insurance industry. Luckily, eligible Medicare recipients can access federally funded SHIPs to educate themselves on available coverages, healthcare advocacy, and the Medicare appeals process. Likewise, trained SHIP volunteers can help beneficiaries secure financial assistance through adjacent services like Medicaid, CHIP, Extra Help, and Medicare Savings Programs.

SHIP Medicare services cost nothing out-of-pocket, and eligible beneficiaries can access them in person, online, or over the phone. If you or your loved one have questions about your Medicare coverage, call 1-877-839-2675 or use the online SHIP locater to access free health counseling in your area.  

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