40,000 Mass. seniors badly need health care help

Proposed legislation would close coverage

MASSACHUSETTS IS AT the vanguard of nearly every measure of health care excellence, from medical research to patient care.

But the Commonwealth has turned its back on an important demographic whose out-of-pocket health care costs skyrocket just as they face fixed-incomes insufficient to cover them. Until now, Massachusetts has left low-income seniors behind.

Five years ago, a group of determined Massachusetts Senior Action Council members met around a kitchen table to strategize how to get rid of the health care “cliff” many seniors face when they turn 65 and lose coverage through subsidized Connector Care.

Now, after thousands of hours of grassroots advocacy, the council has secured Gov. Charlie Baker’s support – through his newly-released budget – for key reforms expanding eligibility for the federal Medicare Savings Program. Our proposal, first filed by legislative allies in 2015, would prevent 40,000 seniors from staring down hard choices between medicine and other necessities.

Here’s the problem: Connector Care subsidizes coverage for the under-65 population up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. But the federal Medicare Savings Plan for low-income seniors limits eligibility to those under 135 percent of the poverty level.

Those seniors with incomes in between—too poor to afford their health care costs, but too rich to get subsidies—fall into a crevice in our patchwork of state and federal health reform laws.

This coverage gap threatens not only seniors’ finances, but also their lives. State leaders have to change that.

Enacting this budget provision would have a tremendous impact on seniors like 70-year-old John Robinson. The retired railroad worker would see his out-of-pocket health care costs drop to 16 percent of his monthly income, down from 26 percent. But it’s just a first step.

The Senior Action Council’s full proposal—a three-year ramp further closing the eligibility gap between Connector Care and the Medicare Savings Program—would do much more. It would reduce his healthcare expenses to 4 percent of his income in line with what the Massachusetts Health Connector has determined as affordable.

This is a crucial economic justice issue for low-income seniors. It also speaks volumes about our values as a community. Fourteen other states have already made this necessary policy change to protect tens of thousands of seniors. The need is especially urgent here, where the high cost of living, including health care costs, means 60 percent of elders living alone and 40 percent of elder couples do not have the income to meet basic needs. In fact, we are second only to Mississippi in the percentage of our seniors who live in poverty.

We were the first state to enact health care reform. We should be leading, not lagging, on urgent health care access issues.

Governor Baker’s budget shows that top state leaders now recognize that the current state of health care access for seniors is unacceptable in Massachusetts. This is an important first step towards reducing the excessive and disproportionate health care cost burden on our low-income seniors.

It’s time to do right by our seniors. Massachusetts Senior Action Council is urging lawmakers to make sure our proposal remains in the budget that they eventually send to the governor. Lawmakers can be sure that our members will continue to bring their passion and their energy to this fight, as they have done for five years as part of a “marathon-like” campaign including hundreds of hours of education and advocacy on Beacon Hill.

In the words of the Senior Action Council’s president, 84-year-old Mattapan resident Edna Pruce: “We’ll fill the State House with our blue shirts again and again until these potentially life-saving reforms are implemented. Our voices, our votes, and our health care access ought to matter to every lawmaker in that building. We’re very proud that our campaign has led the governor to take action and we are calling on the Legislature to do the same.”

Seniors like Edna are energized to keep this issue top of mind as the budget winds its way through the legislative process. Their efforts start immediately. Mass Senior Action Council will hold its first advocacy day for the year on the 29th at the State House.

Meet the Author

Carolyn Villers

Executive director, Massachusetts Senior Action Council
So be ready, lawmakers. Seniors will be knocking on your doors on Tuesday.

Carolyn Villers is executive director of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council.