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Assistance Programs Go Unused Despite Need

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Older adults and people with disabilities may face barriers to programs that could help them pay for Medicare and other basic needs, like food, housing, and utilities. These challenges range from confusing or restrictive application and eligibility rules to simply not knowing about a program’s existence. As costs continue to rise, it is increasingly important to ensure that people who need help get it.

For example, Medicare Savings Programs (MSPs) pay Medicare premiums for eligible enrollees and, in some cases, cover cost-sharing like copayments and coinsurance. But MSP enrollment is consistently low, despite widespread efforts to increase use and outreach. This is likely from a combination of people not knowing about or understanding the program and administrative inefficiencies like complex enrollment or asset documentation processes. Medicare Rights continues to suggest ways states could address these problems and increase MSP uptake, like making better use of existing technology and data, implementing automatic renewals, increasing income eligibility thresholds, and removing asset limits.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is another critical but under-enrolled program. Food insecurity is widespread among older adults with an estimated 9.5 million people 50 or older and 5 million people 60 or older facing limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Despite this need, SNAP participation rates for the older adult population are low, with an estimated 29% of those eligible participating. In a series of reports earlier this year, AARP explored the reasons for this and identified several policy changes that could bolster older adult participation: higher eligibility limits, outreach to eligible people, streamlined application processes, and increased minimum benefits.

Other benefit programs are also underused by older adults, leaving many struggling to afford basic needs. Medicare Rights recommends contacting your local Area Agency on Aging and State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP), as well as using online tools like Benefits Checkup, to see if you or a loved one are eligible for assistance programs in your area. Eligibility rules and access vary by state and community, so we advise people to check even if they feel certain they do not qualify.

Read more about access to MSPs.

Read AARP’s reports about SNAP and older adults.

Read more about other underutilized programs.

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