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Free Help Navigating the Medicare Maze

Table: the FactsHICAP, SHIP, SHINE – whatever your state calls the program, the mission is an urgent one.

With some 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, these programs help new enrollees grapple with their Medicare options and make decisions, especially during open enrollment, which begins on Thursday and ends Dec. 7.

Medicare is “confusing” to boomers, because they “have more than one option, and most of us, when we were working, had only the PPO or the HMO” to choose between, said Christina Dimas-Kahn, program manager and a telephone counselor in San Mateo County, California’s Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program (HICAP).

The top requests for assistance coming into her office are from new enrollees to Medicare, followed by the elderly who can’t afford their medications, messy billing problems between Medicare and health providers, and questions about long-term care and how to pay for it, she said.

The primary goal is “education and empowering you to enroll yourself,” said Joshua Hodges, who oversees the programs for the U.S. Administration for Community Living (ACL), which funds them. Their “beneficiary focus” has become even more crucial, he said, since the advent of Advantage managed-care plans, which complicate the choices faced by Medicare beneficiaries.

Click here or here for a state-by-state directory of State Health Insurance Assistance Programs (or SHIPs) – their official name. SHIPs are also available to residents of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and Washington DC.

SHIPS aren’t always popular with insurance agents, who feel they can do a better job, particularly in states that rely heavily on volunteers. But agents receive commissions for selling a policy, while SHIPS bill themselves as “unbiased.” Hodges also noted that many program volunteers are former healthcare professionals – doctors, nurses, lawyers – or are over age 65 and have personal experience with Medicare. Every state also employs some professional counselors on staff, he said. I know two recent enrollees who found their SHIP programs in Massachusetts and Florida to be very helpful.

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