Seniors seek expansion of Medicare savings program

Group wants new plan to be part of FY 2021 budget

JOHN ROBINSON is very stringent about keeping track of his bills, especially when it comes to health care expenses. The 71-year-old retired Amtrak porter knows exactly how his $1,832 a month in income is divvied up. There’s the $144.50 automatically deducted from his Social Security check every month for Medicare Part B, which pays for outpatient care, medical supplies, and preventative health services. 

Then there’s the supplemental insurance from Blue Cross, Blue Shield of Massachusetts that he spends $209 a month on. Dental insurance is another $61. His medications cost about $20 a month, along with another $35 for a prescription drug plan. And he spends about $300 on rent in Somerville disabled housing.  

He was at the State House on Wednesday to lobby for what members of the advocacy group Mass Senior Action are calling “the 20/20 Vision,” an effort to expand the reach of the Medicare savings program beyond what it was raised to last year. 

The Medicare savings program is a 54-year-old federal initiative that assists low-income seniors over 65 with copays, premiums, deductibles, and prescription coverage. It’s a patchwork of programs that covers the Medicare Part B Premium (at $144.50 per month) and automatically enrolls members in the federal Extra Help program, which provides about $4,900 annually to help cover deductibles, medications, and additional expenses. 

Some of the programs within Medicare savings are fully reimbursed by the federal government, and while others reimburse half of what each state puts in.
Eligibility, which had been restricted to those with incomes equal to or below 135 percent of the federal poverty level and assets less than $7,560, was expanded in September to those with incomes of 165 percent of the federal poverty level  and assets less than $15,460. That increase allowed an additional 40,000 seniors with incomes at or below $1,738 a month to lower their health care costs. 

Bostonian Rosemary Williams, 69, is hoping the new expansion will mean her health costs are reduced. She applied for the program last week, and hopes it can save her the $144.60 taken out of her social security check. “It could really benefit me when they approve me,” she said. Williams pays over $450 a month in health care expenses. The 32 percent she would save would be a big help.  

Robinson and other seniors are pressing to raise the income level to 200 percent of the federal level and eliminate the asset restriction entirely, which would provide coverage for an additional 55,000 people.   

Carolyn Villers, executive director of Mass Senior Action, said the expansion of the Medicare savings program would cost the state an additional $12 million a yearand save seniors $100 million. 

Mass Senior Action Executive Director Carolyn Villers holds up a new Medicare savings plan application, which has been shortened from 39 pages to two. (Photo by Sarah Betancourt)

Robinson, who is legally blind in one eye and had reduced sight in his other eye, is only $94 above the current income threshold. He said he thinks about his health issues constantly. “Let me give you an example of something I’ve denied myself because money’s so tight,” he said. “I recently didn’t get a shingles shot because it wasn’t covered and cost $170 out of pocket.” 

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

A Nov. 2019 report from UMass Boston details that Massachusetts seniors have the highest rate of economic insecurity in the country, with 62 percent of them unable to meet basic needs.  

“Low income seniors are spending more than 20 percent of their income on health care,” said Sen. Brendan Crighton of Lynn on Wednesday. Crighton is in favor of expanding eligibility.