As inflation hits US seniors, billions of dollars in benefits go unused

Millions of seniors have a hard time making ends meet, especially during these inflationary times. Yet many do not realize that help is available and some major programs that offer financial assistance are underutilized.

Some examples: Nearly 14 million adults aged 60 and over are eligible for help from the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as meal vouchers) but have not signed up, according to recent estimates.

In addition, more than 3 million adults aged 65 and over are eligible but not enrolled in Medicare savings programs, which pay Medicare premiums and cost-sharing. And 30% to 45% of seniors could lose the help of the Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy program, which covers plan premiums and cost-sharing and reduces the cost of prescription drugs.

“Tens of billions of dollars worth of benefits are not used every year” because seniors don’t know them, find the questions too difficult to complete, or feel conflicted asking for help, said Josh Hodges, chief customer officer of the National Council on Aging. , a support group for older Americans that runs the National Center for Benefits Outreach and Enrollment.

Many programs target seniors with extremely low incomes and minimal resources. But that’s not always the case: Older Americans Act-funded programs, such as home delivery meals and legal assistance for seniors facing foreclosures or evictions, do not require economic proof, although people with low incomes often have the priority . And some local programs, such as property tax breaks for homeowners, are available to anyone over the age of 65.

Even a few hundred dollars in monthly care can make a difference for seniors living on limited incomes that make it difficult to afford basic necessities such as food, shelter, transportation and healthcare. But people often don’t know how to find out the benefits and if they qualify. And seniors are often reluctant to seek help, especially if they have never done it before.

“You’ve earned these benefits,” Hodges said, and seniors should consider them “like their Medicare, like their Social Security.”

Here’s how to get started and some information on some programs.

Get help

In each community, Area Agencies on Aging, organizations dedicated to helping the elderly, perform benefit assessments or may refer you to other organizations that conduct these assessments. (To obtain contact information for your local Aging Agency, use the Eldercare Locator, a Federal Aging Administration service, or call 800-677-1116 on weekdays during business hours. .)

The assessments identify which federal, state, and local programs can help with various needs: food, housing, transportation, health care, utility costs, and other essentials. Often, agency staff will help seniors fill out application forms and collect necessary documentation.

A common mistake is to wait for a crisis to come and for there to be no food in the refrigerator or for the power company to turn off the electricity.

“It’s a much better idea to be prepared,” said Sandy Markwood, CEO of USAging, a national organization representing area agencies on aging. “Come in, sit down with someone and put all your options on the table.”

Seniors who are comfortable online and want to do their own research can use BenefitsCheckUp, a service run by the National Council on Aging, at benefitscheckup.org. Those who prefer to use the telephone can call 800-794-6559.

Aid for food expenses

Some aging organizations are adapting to the growing demand for help from seniors by focusing on key benefits such as food stamps, which have become even more important as food inflation hovers around 10%.

The potential for helping seniors with these expenses is enormous. In a new series of reports, the AARP Public Policy Institute estimates that 71% of adults aged 60 and over who qualify for the supplemental nutrition assistance program have not subscribed to the benefits.

In some cases, seniors may think the benefits are too small to be worth the hassle. But seniors living alone received an average of $ 104 per month in food stamps in 2019. And at least 3 million adults aged 50 and over with very low incomes would receive more than $ 200 per month, AARP estimate. .

To combat the stigma that some seniors attach to food stamps, the AARP launched a marketing campaign in Atlanta and Houston explaining that “food prices are rising and we are all trying to stretch our grocery budgets,” he said. Nicole Heckman, Vice President of Benefit Access Programs at the AARP Foundation.

If the effort alters seniors’ perceptions of the program and increases enrollment, the AARP plans to make a major expansion next year, he said.

Aid for health care costs

The AARP is also working closely with community organizations in South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi that help seniors apply for Medicare savings programs and low-income grants for prescription drug plans. of Part D. He plans to expand this program to as many as 22 states next year.

The value of these health benefits, targeting low-income seniors, is substantial. At a minimum, Medicare savings programs will cover the cost of Medicare Part B premiums: $ 170 per month, or $ 2,040 per year, for most seniors. For seniors with lower incomes, the benefits are even greater, with cost-sharing also for medical services.

“Even if you think you are not eligible, you should apply because there are different rules in the states,” said Meredith Freed, senior policy analyst for the KFF Medicare policy program.

According to the Social Security Administration, low-income subsidies for Part D prescription drug plans, also known as Extra Help, are worth $ 5,100 per year. Currently, some seniors get only partial benefits, but that will change in 2024, when all seniors with an income below 150% of the federal poverty level ($ 20,385 for a single person in 2022) will qualify for all Extra Help benefits. .

Since these health care programs are complicated, getting help with your application is a good idea. Freed suggested that people start by contacting the Medicare Program in their state (contact information can be found here). Other potential sources of help are the Medicare hotline (800-633-4227) and your state’s aging department, which can direct you to community organizations that help with questions. (A list of state departments can be found here.)

Other types of assistance

Be sure to check senior property tax relief programs in your area as part of a broader “benefits check” process.

Even seniors with low incomes can get assistance with high energy bills through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Your local utility company can also provide emergency aid to seniors who cannot pay their bills. It’s worth a phone call to find out, advised Rebecca Lerfelt, the retired management assistant at a Chicago-area Aging and Disability Resource Center. These resource centers help people seeking access to long-term care services and are another potential source of care for the elderly. (You can find one in your area here.)

For veterans, “this may be the time to take a look at using VA benefits,” said Diane Slezak, president of AgeOptions, an area agency on aging in suburban Cook County, Illinois. “I come across a lot of people who are eligible for veteran benefits but are not taking advantage of them.”

Obstacles to Getting Help

Proponents of many programs note that agencies serving seniors are facing staff shortages, which are complicating efforts to provide care. Low pay is a commonly cited reason. For example, 41% of area aging agencies report vacancies of up to 15%, while a further 18% report vacancies of up to 25%, according to Markwood. Additionally, agencies lost significant numbers of volunteers during the covid-19 pandemic.

At the same time, the demand for aid has increased and customer needs have become more complex due to the pandemic and rising inflation.

“All of this is amplified by the financial strains older people feel,” Markwood said.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three main operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a gifted non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.

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