Medicare open enrollment, which runs now to Dec. 7, can pose intimidating and complicated choices. That’s one reason why Congress spends nearly $45 million each year on State Health Insurance Assistance Programs (SHIPs). The advisory programs train volunteers to help seniors navigate the Medicare maze.

Last year, most in-person counseling and workshops were canceled because of COVID-19. This year, the surge of cases from the delta variant has prompted many counseling sessions to go online again.

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Seniors can still call insurance hotlines staffed by volunteers trained in the ins and outs of Medicare. They can also schedule online video-conference meetings with volunteers and insurance brokers using Zoom, Skype or FaceTime. Independent insurance brokers typically sell more than one carrier’s plans.

What to gather before seeking help:

MyMedicare.gov login information, if you have an account

∙ Pharmacy name and address

∙ List of all prescription drugs, strengths and dosages

∙ A list of medical issues or concerns you’d like to cover

Where to find help

Online

∙ Visit Medicare.gov and its Plan Finder. The federal government’s site remains the most authoritative guide around. It allows you to compare costs for a wide range of health services across multiple drug and Medicare Advantage plans available in your area. It also has ratings on each plan’s performance and quality. Most important, it allows you to enter your prescription drugs to find out which plans cover them and at what cost.

Advertising

∙ Medicare recently expanded its Medigap search engine on the Plan Finder to include cost ranges depending on age, gender and smoking status. Access it via bit.ly/MedigapPlanSearch.

∙ Check Medicare Rights Center’s Medicare Interactive site  to help find answers about Medicare benefits.

By phone

∙ Call Medicare itself at 800-633-4227.

∙ Call the nonprofit Medicare Rights Center’s national helpline at 800-333-4114, Monday through Friday.

∙ Locate a SHIP office near you by calling 877-839-2675 or visiting www.shiphelp.org.

∙ In Washington state, call the Statewide Health Insurance Benefits Advisors at 800-562-6900 or visit bit.ly/wa_shiba.

Other resources

∙ Health insurance brokers are often knowledgeable about choices and can help you choose and purchase a plan. It’s probably best to deal with licensed independent brokers. They cover plans from several insurance companies, receive training each year on the plans and are overseen by state and federal regulators. Consumers don’t pay directly for this help. Instead, brokers earn sales commissions directly from the plans.

∙ Insurance carrier websites and customer-service phone lines can be good places to verify coverage details, but only for their plans.