Q. I just enrolled in Medicare, but it’s hard to afford $110 a month for the Part B premium when my only income is a small Social Security check. Is there any program that can help me?
A. You may qualify for help under one of the Medicare Savings Programs (MSPs) in your state. If so, the state would pay your Part B premium and you’d also automatically qualify for low-cost prescription drug coverage within the Part D program.
To be eligible for an MSP, your income and savings must be below certain limits, which vary according to the state you live in. However, the limits are generally higher than those required to qualify for Medicaid, and some states don’t take savings into account at all. So it’s well worth applying.
There are four kinds of MSP, each with a different income limit. Two of them pay Part B premiums. The MSP with the lowest income limit also pays for Part A and Part B deductibles and copayments. The fourth pays Part A (hospital insurance) premiums for people under age 65 who have disabilities and are no longer entitled to free Part A coverage because they have returned to work.
If you qualify for an MSP, you will also automatically be enrolled in Part D’s Extra Help program, as federal law now requires. This means you pay no premium or deductible for prescription drug coverage, your copays for prescriptions are low, and you receive drug coverage throughout the year—no "doughnut hole."
Another benefit of qualifying for an MSP: If you are required to pay a late penalty because you delayed enrolling in Part B beyond your deadline, the state will pay the full amount each month—the penalty as well as the Part B premium.
To find out if you’re eligible for an MSP, contact your state medical assistance office (Medicaid). You can get the phone number from the state pages in your phone book or by calling the Medicare help line at 1-800-633-4227. Or contact your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP), where you can get personal help, at no charge, from trained counselors on all Medicare and Medicaid issues. For contact information go to the SHIP website and click on “Find a State” or “Find a Counselor.”
Patricia Barry is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.