Millions of older adults are having trouble making ends meet, especially in these inflationary times. Yet many do not realize that help is available, and some significant programs that provide financial assistance are underutilized.
A few examples: About 14 million adults age 60 and older qualify for assistance from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps) but haven’t signed up, according to recent estimates. In addition, more than 3 million adults age 65 and older are eligible but not enrolled in the Medicare Savings Program, which pays for Medicare premiums and cost-sharing. And 30% to 45% of seniors may be without help from the Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy Program, which lowers plan premiums and cost-sharing and prescription drug costs.
“Billions of dollars in benefits go unused every year” because seniors don’t know about them, find applications too difficult to complete or feel conflicted about seeking help, said Josh Hodges, chief consumer officer at the National Council on Aging, an advocacy group for older Americans. The group 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 Older Americans Act, such as home-delivered meals and legal assistance for seniors facing home foreclosure or eviction, don’t require a means test, although low-income people are often given priority. And some local programs, such as property tax breaks for homeowners, are available to anyone 65 or older.
Even a few hundred dollars a month in assistance can make a difference for older adults living on limited incomes that make it difficult to afford basics like food, housing, transportation and health care. But people often don’t know how to find benefits and whether they’re eligible. And older adults 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 think of them “like their Medicare, like their Social Security.”
Here’s how to get started and some information about some of the programs.
Getting help. In each community, area agencies on aging, organizations dedicated to helping seniors, can perform benefit evaluations or refer you to other organizations that administer these evaluations. (To find 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 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 essential items. Often, agency staff help seniors fill out applications and gather necessary documentation.
A common mistake is waiting until there is a crisis and there is no food in the refrigerator or the power company is about to cut the power.
“It’s a great 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.”
Older adults who feel 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 to use the phone may call 800-794-6559.
Help with food expenses. Some aging organizations are adapting to the growing demand for help from seniors by focusing on core benefits like food stamps, which have become more important as food inflation runs around 10%.
The potential to help seniors with these expenses is plentiful. In a new series of reports, the AARP Public Policy Institute estimates that 71% of adults age 60 and older who are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program have not signed up for benefits.
In some cases, older adults may feel that the benefits are too little to be worth the trouble. But seniors who lived alone received an average of $104 per month in food stamps in 2019. And at least 3 million very low-income adults age 50 and older will receive more than $200 a month, AARP estimates.
To combat the stigma some older adults attach to food stamps, AARP launched a marketing campaign in Atlanta and Houston that explains that “food prices are rising and we’re all trying to stretch our grocery budgets,” said Nicole Heckman, vice president. Facility Access Program at AARP Foundation.
If the effort changes seniors’ perceptions of the program and increases enrollment, AARP plans a major expansion next year, he said.
Assistance with healthcare costs. AARP is also working closely with community organizations in South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi to help older adults apply for low-income subsidies for the Medicare Savings Program and Part D prescription drug plans. It plans to expand the program to 22 states next year.
The cost of these health care facilities targeting low-income seniors is considerable. At a minimum, Medicare savings programs will cover the cost of Medicare Part B premiums: $170 a month for most seniors or $2,040 a year. For the lowest-income older adults, benefits are more extensive, including cost-sharing for medical services.
“Even if you think you don’t 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 Supplemental Assistance, are worth $5,100 annually, according to the Social Security Administration. Currently, some older adults receive 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 Additional Assistance benefits.
Because these healthcare programs are complex, it’s a good idea to get help with your application. Freed suggests that people start by contacting the State Health Insurance Assistance Program in their state (contact information can be found here). Other possible 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 assist with applications. A list of state departments can be found here.
Other types of assistance. Check out property tax relief programs for seniors in your area as part of a comprehensive “benefits checkup” process.
Low-income older adults can also get help with high energy bills through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Your local utility company can provide emergency relief to seniors who can’t pay their bills. It’s worth a call to find out, suggests Rebecca Lerfelt, retired assistant director of the 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 support for older adults. You can find one in your area here.
For veterans, “it may be time to look at using your VA benefits,” says 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 veterans benefits but aren’t taking them.”
Barriers to getting help. Many program advocates note that agencies serving older adults are facing staffing shortages, complicating efforts to provide support. Low pay is a commonly cited reason. For example, 41% of area agencies report staffing vacancies of up to 15%, while an additional 18% report vacancies of up to 25%, according to Markwood. Also, organizations have lost a significant number of volunteers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
At the same time, demand for aid has increased, and consumer needs have become more complex due to the pandemic and rising inflation.
“All of this is amplified by the financial pressures that older adults are feeling,” Markwood said.
We’d love to hear from readers about questions you want answered, concerns you have about your care, and advice you need to deal with the health care system. Visit khn.org/columnists to submit your requests or tips.
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