By Judith Graham Kaiser Health News
Millions of older adults are having trouble making ends meet, especially during these inflationary times. Yet many don’t realize help is available, and some notable programs that offer financial assistance are underused.
A few examples: Nearly 14 million adults age 60 or older qualify for aid from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps) but haven’t signed up, according to recent estimates. Also, more than 3 million adults 65 or older are eligible but not enrolled in Medicare Savings Programs, which pay for Medicare premiums and cost sharing. And 30% to 45% of seniors may be missing out on help from the Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy program, which covers plan premiums and cost sharing and lowers the cost of prescription drugs.
“Tens of billions of dollars of benefits are going unused every year” because seniors don’t know about them, find applications too difficult to complete, or feel conflicted about asking for help, said Josh Hodges, chief customer officer at the National Council on Aging, an advocacy group for older Americans that runs the National Center for Benefits Outreach and Enrollment.
Many programs target seniors with extremely low incomes and minimal assets. But that isn’t always the case: Programs funded by the Older Americans Act, such as home-delivered meals and legal assistance for seniors facing home foreclosures or eviction, don’t require a means test, although people with low incomes are often prioritized. And some local programs, such as property tax breaks for homeowners, are available to anyone 65 or older.
Even a few hundred dollars in assistance monthly can make a world of difference to older adults living on limited incomes that make it difficult to afford basics such as food, housing, transportation, and health care. But people often don’t know how to find out about benefits and whether they qualify. And older adults are often reluctant to seek help, especially if they’ve never done so before.
“You’ve earned these benefits,” Hodges said, and seniors should think of them “like their Medicare, like their Social Security.”
Here’s how to get started and some information about a few programs.
In every community, Area Agencies on Aging, organizations devoted to aiding seniors, perform benefits assessments or can refer you to other organizations that conduct these evaluations. (To get contact information for your local Area Agency on Aging, use the Eldercare Locator, a service of the federal Administration on Aging, or call 800-677-1116 on weekdays during business hours.)
Assessments identify which federal, state, and local programs can assist with various needs — food, housing, transportation, health care, utility costs, and other essential items. Often, staffers at the agency will help seniors fill out application forms and gather necessary documentation.
A common mistake is waiting until a crisis hits and there’s no food in the refrigerator or the power company is about to turn off the electricity.
“It’s a much better idea to be prepared,” said Sandy Markwood, chief executive officer of USAging, a national organization that represents Area Agencies on Aging. “Come in, sit down with somebody, and put all your options on the table.”
Older adults who are comfortable online and want to do their own research can use BenefitsCheckUp, a service operated by the National Council on Aging, at benefitscheckup.org. Those who prefer using the phone can call 800-794-6559.
Aid with food expenses
Some aging organizations are adapting to heightened demand for help from seniors by focusing attention on core benefits such as food stamps, which have become even more important as food inflation runs around 10%.
The potential to help seniors with these expenses is enormous. In a new series of reports, the AARP Public Policy Institute estimates that 71% of adults age 60 and above who qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program haven’t signed up for benefits.
In some cases, older adults may think benefits are too small to be worth the hassle. But seniors who lived alone received an average of $104 in food stamps per month in 2019. And at least 3 million adults 50 and above with very low incomes would receive more than $200 a month, AARP estimates.
To combat the stigma that some older adults attach to food stamps, AARP has launched a marketing campaign in Atlanta and Houston explaining that “food prices are rising and we’re all trying to stretch our grocery budgets,” said Nicole Heckman, vice president of benefit access programs at the AARP Foundation.
If the effort alters seniors’ perception of the program and increases enrollment, AARP plans to do a major expansion next year, she said.
Aid with health care expenses
AARP is also working closely with community organizations in South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi that help older adults apply for Medicare Savings Programs and low-income subsidies for Part D prescription drug plans. It plans to expand this program next year to as many as 22 states.
The value of these health care benefits, targeted at low-income seniors, is substantial. At a minimum, Medicare Savings Programs will cover the cost of Medicare’s Part B premiums: $170 a month, or $2,040 annually, for most seniors. For older adults with the lowest incomes, benefits are even broader, with cost sharing for medical services also covered.
“Even if you think you might not qualify, you should apply because there are different rules across states,” said Meredith Freed, a senior policy analyst for KFF’s Program on Medicare Policy.
Low-income subsidies for Part D prescription drug plans, also known as Extra Help, are worth $5,100 annually, according to the Social Security Administration. Currently, some seniors get only partial benefits, but that will change in 2024, when all older adults with incomes below 150% of the federal poverty level ($20,385 for a single person in 2022) will qualify for full Extra Help benefits.
Because these health care programs are complicated, getting help with your application is a good idea. Freed suggested that people start by contacting the State Health Insurance Assistance 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 department of aging, which can direct you to community organizations that help with applications. A list of the state departments can be found here.
Other kinds of assistance
Be sure to check out property tax relief programs for seniors in your area as part of a broader “benefits checkup” process.
Older adults with low incomes also can get assistance with high energy bills through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Your local utility company may also provide emergency relief to seniors who can’t pay their bills. It’s worth making a call to find out, advised Rebecca Lerfelt, the retired assistant director of 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 assistance for older adults. You can find one in your area here.
For veterans, “this may be the time to take a look at using your VA benefits,” said Diane Slezak, president of AgeOptions, an Area Agency on Aging in suburban Cook County, Illinois. “I run into a lot of people who are eligible for veterans benefits but not taking advantage of them.”
Barriers to getting help
Advocates for many programs note that agencies serving older adults are facing staff shortages, which are complicating the efforts to provide assistance. Low pay is a commonly cited reason. For example, 41% of Area Agencies on Aging report staff vacancies of up to 15%, while an additional 18% report vacancies up to 25%, according to Markwood. Also, agencies have lost significant numbers of volunteers during the covid-19 pandemic.
At the same time, demand for help has risen, and clients’ needs have become more complex because of the pandemic and growing inflation.
“All of this is being amplified by the financial strains older adults are feeling,” Markwood said.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.
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