As inflation takes its toll on seniors, billions of dollars in benefits go unused

Millions of older people are struggling to make ends meet, especially in these times of inflation. Yet many don’t realize that help is available, and some notable programs that offer financial assistance are underutilized.

Some examples: Nearly 14 million adults aged 60 or over are eligible for assistance from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps) but have not enrolled, according to estimates. recent. In addition, more than 3 million adults age 65 or older are eligible but not enrolled in Medicare savings programs, which pay Medicare premiums and cost sharing. And 30% to 45% of seniors may not qualify for assistance from 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 in benefits go unused every year’ because seniors don’t know about them, find the applications too difficult to complete, or feel conflicted about asking for help, says Josh Hodges , director of clientele at the National Council on Aging, an advocacy group for older Americans that operates the National Center for Benefits Outreach and Enrollment.

Many programs target seniors with extremely low incomes and minimal assets. But that’s not always the case: Programs funded by the Seniors Act, such as meals on wheels and legal assistance for seniors facing foreclosures or eviction, do not require means testing, although people with low incomes are often given priority. . And some local programs, such as tax relief for homeowners, are available to anyone age 65 or older.

Even a few hundred dollars in monthly assistance can make all the difference for seniors living on limited incomes that make it difficult to access basic services such as food, shelter, transportation and health care. But people often don’t know how to find out about benefits and whether they qualify. And older people are often reluctant to ask for help, especially if they’ve never done it before.

“You’ve earned these benefits,” Hodges said, and seniors should consider them “like their health insurance, like their social security.”

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

Acquire help. In each community, regional agencies on aging, organizations dedicated to helping the elderly, do benefit evaluations or can refer you to other organizations that do these evaluations. (For contact information for your local aging agency, use Eldercare Locator, a service of the Federal Aging Administration, or call 800-677-1116 weekdays during business hours.)

The assessments identify federal, state, and local programs that can meet various needs — food, shelter, transportation, health care, utility costs, and other essentials. Often, agency staff members will help seniors fill out application forms and gather the necessary documents.

A common mistake is to wait until a crisis occurs and there is no more food in the fridge or the power company is about to shut off the electricity.

“It’s a much better idea to be prepared,” said Sandy Markwood, chief executive of USAging, a national organization that represents regional 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 Those who prefer to use the phone can call 800-794-6559.

Assistance with food expenses. Some aging organizations are adapting to the increased demand for help from seniors by focusing their attention on basic benefits such as food stamps, which have become even more important as food inflation hovers around 10%.

The potential for helping seniors meet these expenses is enormous. In a new series of reports, the AARP Public Policy Institute estimates that 71% of adults age 60 and older who qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program did not sign up for benefits.

In some cases, seniors may think the benefits are too small to be worth it. But seniors who lived alone received an average of $104 in food stamps per month in 2019. And at least 3 million very low-income adults 50 and older would receive more than $200 per month, AARP estimates. .

To combat the stigma that some seniors attach to food stamps, AARP 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 for the AARP Foundation.

If the effort changes seniors’ perception of the program and increases enrollment, AARP plans to do a major expansion next year, she says.

Assistance with health costs. AARP also works closely with community organizations in South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi that help seniors apply for health savings programs and low-income health insurance plan subsidies. Part D prescription drugs. He plans to expand this program next year to as many as 22 states.

The value of these health care benefits, aimed at 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 older people on the lowest incomes, benefits are even broader, with cost-sharing of medical services also covered.

“Even if you think you don’t qualify, you should apply because there are different rules from state to state,” said Meredith Freed, senior policy analyst for KFF’s policy program. Health Insurance.

According to the Social Security Administration, low-income subsidies for Part D prescription drug plans, also called supplemental assistance, are worth $5,100 per year. Currently, some seniors only receive partial benefits, but this 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 be eligible for full benefits of additional assistance.

Because these healthcare programs are complicated, getting help with your application is a good idea. Freed suggested 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 will help you with claims. A list of state departments can be found here.

Other types of help. Be sure to check out property tax relief programs for seniors in your area as part of a larger “benefits check” process.

Low-income seniors can also get help with high energy bills through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Your local utility company can also provide emergency assistance for seniors who cannot pay their bills. It’s worth phoning to find out, advised Rebecca Lerfelt, retired assistant director of a Chicago-area aging and disability resource center. These resource centers help people looking to access long-term care services and are another potential source of help for older people. You can find one in your area here.

For veterans, “this might be the time to consider using your VA benefits,” said Diane Slezak, president of AgeOptions, a regional aging agency in suburban Cook County, NY. Illinois. “I meet a lot of people who are eligible for veterans benefits but don’t take advantage of them.”

Barriers to getting help. Advocates for many programs note that agencies serving seniors face staffing shortages, complicating assistance efforts. Low wages are an often cited reason. For example, 41% of regional aging agencies report vacancies of up to 15%, while an additional 18% report vacancies of up to 25%, according to Markwood. Additionally, agencies have lost significant numbers of volunteers during the covid-19 pandemic.

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

“All of this is amplified by the financial hardship that seniors feel,” Markwood said.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polls, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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