Medicare extra help: New twist on low-income prescription payments

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by Cora Christian

(NNPA)—January 1 brought more than the New Year. It also brought a new law making it easier for low-income beneficiaries to qualify for Medicare’s Extra Help program. The program offers significant savings on prescription drugs to enrollees in Medicare Part D.

Grammy Award winning legend Chubby Checker is helping the government to get the word out. An ad campaign features the veteran singer in several radio and television spots singing and dancing to “The Twist.” With the chart-topping hit as a backdrop, Checker tells older Americans and people with disabilities about the new twist in the law—the extra help they might be eligible to receive when they apply.

Of the 32 million men and women currently enrolled in Part D, just over 9 million benefit from the Extra Help program. They receive, on average, an additional $3,900 in annual assistance to help offset monthly premiums, copayments and deductibles. For some, prescription co-pays may be as low as $1.10 for generics and $3.30 for brand name medications.

The additional assistance will make a big difference for older Blacks who may now qualify for the program or who meet eligibility requirements but never applied. Too many people have split pills, skipped doses or never bothered filling prescriptions because they couldn’t afford to pick them up. According to a recent AARP Closer Look survey, nearly one in five African-Americans age 65 or older resorted to one or more of these hardship measures last fall. It’s our hope that with the revisions to Medicare’s Extra Help program, those choices won’t be necessary.

While income requirements remain at $16,245 for individuals and $21,855 for married couples, life insurance policies and financial assistance from friends and family members—including money to help cover food, utilities, rent, mortgage payments or other necessities – are no longer counted toward a beneficiary’s total income or resources. Additionally, the value of a home or car is no longer counted toward financial assets, which cannot exceed $12,510 for an individual or $25,010 for married couples. The bottom line is that more people can now qualify for Medicare’s Extra Help.

There’s another plus to applying. Under the new law, the Social Security Administration will share the information with state-run Medicare Savings Programs. Based on this information, states may cover Part B premiums and other expenses for some people with limited incomes. Others may even be eligible for state coverage of Part A premiums and expenses.

Take time to find out if you’re eligible for extra help under the new law and through the state Medicare Savings Programs.  If you applied before 2010 and were denied, apply again. Updates to the income and asset guidelines may help you qualify now. If you’re already participating in the program, you don’t need to reapply. SSA will automatically re-examine the income and assets of current participants to determine whether their benefits should be increased based on the new law, and whether they qualify for state Medicare savings.

At AARP, we know older Americans are facing increasingly tough times. It’s especially hard for people with little to fall back on besides Social Security and Medicare. So if you, a family member, friend or neighbor could benefit from this new twist on Medicare’s Extra Help, simply contact SSA today at 1-800-772-1213 or go online at http://www.ssa.gov.

(Cora Christian is a MD, MPH, and is on the AARP Board of Directors.)

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