U.S. seniors missing out on $20 billion of benefits

NEW YORK Tue Feb 14, 2012 11:50am EST

A man pushes his wheelchair-bound mother along the river bank of the flooded Danube river in Budapest June 7, 2010. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

A man pushes his wheelchair-bound mother along the river bank of the flooded Danube river in Budapest June 7, 2010.

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Millions of seniors in the United States are missing out on more than $20 billion in aid that could help pay for food, medicine and heating, simply because they don't know it's there, according to a report released on Tuesday by organizations that advocate for seniors.

In response, the National Council on Aging (NCOA) and the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) have launched a campaign, "You Gave, Now Save," to help bridge the gap between the available funding and those who need it the most.

The two groups run Eldercare Locator (www.eldercare.gov), a hotline that connects older Americans to services that can provide help. The top reason people call the hotline is to find out if there is any financial support available to them. NCOA also runs a benefits screening site called BenefitsCheckup (www.benefitscheckup.org), which helps consumers find lists of government programs and see which ones they qualify for.

"It is no secret that millions and millions of Americans are struggling right now, but help is just a phone call away," said Sandy Markwood, chief executive of n4a. "This campaign is about connecting those in need with the support that is right at their fingertips."

The $20 billion was based on estimates of the collective population eligible for benefits but were not receiving them, said Brandy Bauer, a spokeswoman for NCOA. According to data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, there are 1.7 million people who are eligible for Medicare but not receiving Part D Extra Help, which has an annual average value of $4,000. People failing to file for that benefit alone leave $6.8 billion on the table, Bauer told Reuters.

Even people who screen for benefits don't always take advantage of their full eligibility for programs, Bauer said. The NCOA said eligible users who screened for benefits at its BenefitsCheckup site failed to take up an additional $1.2 billion in benefits. Those receiving one benefit often didn't realize they were eligible also for another.

THE POOREST ARE MISSING OUT

Of the 57 million Americans aged 60 and above, many struggle to pay for basic needs, such as food, healthcare, and heating. Nearly one in 10 seniors lives below the federal poverty line of an annual income of $10,890, the report said, citing Census data for 2010 and 2011.

About 8.4 million older adults and disabled younger adults live in poverty, and another 13.5 million in both groups are at risk of poverty, the report said.

Chronic conditions -- such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease or cancer -- afflict about 85 percent of older adults, raise their health-care costs, and often limit their mobility. Of these seniors, food insecurity affects 16 percent, compared with six percent of the general older population.

In addition, some older Americans did not apply for some benefits because they believed the application process would be complex, they did not understand the eligibility rules, or thought there was a stigma to receiving entitlements.

WHAT ARE THEY MISSING OUT ON?

Eligible seniors living alone could benefit from an annual $1,428 in food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Others miss out on Supplemental Security Income payments of $6,000 a year.

Programs that are also overlooked include home heating and cooling assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, as well as free or discounted services from state and local governments and the private sector that provide tax breaks, transportation, respite care, legal assistance, and in-home assistance.

SOURCE: bit.ly/yaMBRc The Senior Disconnect: Millions are Losing Billions in Benefits, online February 14, 2012.

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