Medicare decisions can be complicated, and if you miss key deadlines or make mistakes, you could end up with gaps in coverage, lifetime penalties or extra expenses. If you need help enrolling in Medicare or making decisions about your coverage, several national and state resources can provide assistance.
State Health Insurance Assistance Programs
These centers, known by the acronym SHIP, are available in every state plus the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
About 16,000 SHIP counselors throughout the country provide free one-on-one counseling, seminars and outreach programs, especially during the Oct. 15–Dec. 7 annual open enrollment season, when you can choose a Medicare Advantage plan or Part D prescription drug coverage each year. They can answer questions over the phone, in person or online.
States use different names for these programs, such as the Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program (HICAP) in California and Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders (SHINE) in Florida. To find a SHIP in your area, visit shiphelp.org or call 877-839-2675.
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services
This federal agency, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, runs the Medicare program. Its website offers information about how Medicare works, what it covers, when to enroll and how to buy private insurance policies that can fill in coverage gaps.
If you have questions about Medicare rules, coverage and claims, call Medicare’s help line at 800-633-4227 or use the Live Chat function available by clicking Talk to Someone | Chat Now. Information is available in dozens of languages, including English and Spanish. If you speak a language that is not available, ask for an interpreter.
The Medicare & You handbook, updated annually, explains what Medicare covers, how it works, when you need to sign up and any changes to the rules.
Social Security Administration
This independent federal agency handles Medicare enrollment. It can be a helpful source of information about signing up, applying for the Part D prescription drug Extra Help program and understanding Medicare’s high-income premium surcharges.
Its national toll-free phone number is 800-772-1213, and you can also look up the address and phone number of your local Social Security office.
Medicare Rights Center
This nonprofit has been helping people navigate Medicare for more than 30 years.
Counselors can answer questions about Medicare rules, deadlines, enrollment, choices and claims. They are available through the organization’s national helpline at 800-333-4114.
Visit MedicareInteractive.org for more information about Medicare.
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State insurance departments
Individual states’ insurance departments can give you information about supplemental Medigap policies in your area. Visit the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and look for your state in the Insurance Departments drop-down menu.
A web page will open in a new tab that gives information about the leader of the state’s department. At the bottom of the listing is a button that links to a list of state insurance officials. In the right column is a Visit Website button.
The state websites can tell you which insurers offer Medigap policies and any special rules they might have. Most state insurance departments list the premiums for each insurer’s Medigap policies and update them annually.
Images: State Health Insurance Assistance Program; Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services; Social Security Administration; National Association of Insurance Commissioners
Kimberly Lankford is a contributing writer who covers personal finance and Medicare. She previously wrote for Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine, and her articles have also appeared in U.S. News & World Report, The Washington Post, and the Boston Globe. She received the personal finance Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.