MEDICARE COSTS: Underutilized Federal Programs Offset Costs
Los Angeles Times health writer Bob Rosenblatt reveals what he terms "one of the best-kept secrets of government" -- three aid programs designed to help seniors pay for Medicare premiums, co-pays and deductibles. The programs are available to people who earn too much to qualify for Medi-Cal, but too little to shoulder their own medical costs. The decades-old Qualified Medicare Beneficiary (QMB) program provides free Medicare coverage to people with individual incomes below $691 per month and couples with monthly incomes below $925. The second program, the six-year-old Specified Low Income Medicare Beneficiary (SLMB), offsets the costs of the entire Part B monthly premium for individuals earning up to $825 per month and couples with less than $1,105 per month. The two-year-old Qualifying Individuals (QI) program, which pays the entire Part B premium, is open to individuals earning up to $926 per month and couples with incomes up to $1,241 per month. In addition to meeting low-income requirements, individuals qualifying for any of the three programs may not have assets -- savings accounts, stocks or bonds -- exceeding $4,000, or $6,000 for couples.
Only a Fraction
Although about 8 million people nationwide are eligible for QMB and SLMB, between 3.3 million and 3.9 million are not enrolled, according to Families USA. In 1997, Congress allocated $1.6 billion over five years for the QI program, aiming to offset costs for 500,000 eligible people. However "there hasn't even been a trickle" of enrollees; as of Sept. 1998, only 16,000 people were enrolled in QI. Further, California is not among the 14 states that have disbursed funds from the new benefit. While California counties have been accepting applications, in their haste to reprogram their "computers to avoid Y2K problems ... benefits weren't disbursed." Stan Rosenstein, assistant deputy director for medical care services for the California Department of Health, said that eligible applicants "will get retroactive credit for the benefits" (Rosenblatt, 2/8).