What to Know About State Health Insurance Assistance Programs (SHIP Programs)

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on June 26, 2022
3 min read

More than 60 million Americans are Medicare beneficiaries, including most Americans age 65 and older. While Medicare has led to near-universal health care coverage among older Americans, it can be challenging to navigate for many beneficiaries and their families. 

However, state health insurance assistance programs, or SHIP programs, can help you understand Medicare.

SHIP programs are federally funded state programs that help Medicare-eligible individuals, their families, and their caregivers navigate Medicare. SHIP programs can help you make informed decisions about your benefits and care. 

SHIP programs utilize state offices, local agencies, community providers, community-based counselors, and volunteers to educate people about Medicare and offer one-on-one assistance in person or by phone. In 2018, SHIP programs provided one-on-one counseling to more than 2.5 million individuals and group outreach to more than 4 million individuals. 

The Administration for Community Living's (ACL) Office of Healthcare Information and Counseling (OHIC) manages SHIP programs on the federal level. 

When you contact your local SHIP program, you'll be able to connect with a certified counselor who can provide unbiased help navigating Medicare. SHIP counselors help you understand your options and make informed decisions about your benefits and care. 

These counselors are trained and certified to help you with questions about Medicare, Medicare advantage plans, Medicare prescription coverage, Medigap coverage, and long-term care insurance.

SHIP can help Medicare-eligible individuals with: 

  • understanding Medicare basics, such as how to enroll
  • understanding your Medicare rights
  • comparing Medicare plans 
  • finding financial assistance programs
  • troubleshooting billing issues
  • submitting appeals
  • referrals to other resources 

In addition to one-on-one counseling, SHIP provides community education and services through group presentations, Medicare enrollment events, health fairs, senior fairs, and other community events.

SHIP programs were created in 1990 as part of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) were authorized to make grants to states and territories to establish and maintain SHIP programs. The states created these programs to provide unbiased information and advice to Medicare recipients.

When the Consolidated Appropriations Act was passed in 2014, SHIP was transferred from the CMS to the ACL.

How much does SHIP cost?

All SHIP services, including one-on-one counseling, are provided completely free of charge. No one associated with your local SHIP will ever ask you for payment.

Do SHIP counselors sell Medigap plans?

SHIP counselors must provide unbiased information. They are not selling anything, including insurance plans or enrollment services. SHIP counselors are not allowed to have personal, philosophical, or financial conflicts of interest. Counselors cannot promote private or business interests while providing information to Medicare recipients, families, or care providers.

Is there a SHIP program near me?

SHIP programs are available in all 50 of the United States, Puerto Rico, Guam, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In some states, SHIP programs have different names, such as HICAP in California, SHINE in Florida, or SHIBA in Idaho.

Is there a SHIP program application?

There is no SHIP application — you don't need to apply to receive assistance from SHIP. You can simply contact your local SHIP to connect with a certified counselor.

If you would like to serve as a SHIP volunteer counselor, your local SHIP office can provide you with an application and information on training.

Is SHIP counseling private?

Yes, SHIP counselors are trained to keep your information private. Most in-person counseling takes place at a SHIP office. If you cannot travel to a SHIP office, your SHIP counselor and their supervisor will discuss alternative meeting arrangements that will maintain your privacy.

Is SHIP counseling available for non-English speakers?

Suppose you're not a native English speaker. In that case, your local SHIP program will arrange for an interpreter or refer you to a community program that provides similar counseling in your preferred language. Interpreters are provided at no cost to you.

How is SHIP funded?

SHIP programs are federally funded by the ACL. How much funding each state or territory receives for its SHIP program is determined by many factors, including how many Medicare beneficiaries reside in the state.