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Billions of Dollars in Everyday Aid Goes Unused

From health care to groceries, there’s free money older adults aren’t tapping

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Older adults leave billions of dollars in government aid on the table each year and don’t even realize it. That money could go to cover utilities, rent, health care, prescription drugs and groceries at a time when inflation remains stubbornly high. 

Consumers are paying more for everything from eggs to prescription medicines. Several federally funded programs can prove effective in defraying some of those increases, yet they go unused year after year. 

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“Many older adults qualify for benefits they don’t know can help them with everyday expenses,” says Josh Hodges, chief customer officer at the National Council on Aging (NCOA). “Nationally, they are leaving billions of dollars on the table.” 

SNAP woefully underused

Take the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Formerly known as food stamps, this program provides eligible individuals with monthly benefits to purchase groceries at participating supermarkets and farmers markets. 

While nearly 26 million adults 50 and older were eligible for SNAP in 2018, AARP found that 63 percent (or 16 million) did not take advantage of this benefit. The numbers haven’t improved much since then. 

“A lot of people think SNAP is for children or other folks,” so they don’t bother to apply, Hodges says. “The gap for older adults is valued at over $6 billion a year.” Those are benefits they qualify for but aren’t receiving.

Health care help 

Rising health care costs are adding more pressure to budget-conscious consumers. To help older adults cover health care expenses, the federal government operates the Medicare Savings Program, which helps pay eligible older adults’ Part A and Part B deductibles, coinsurance and copayments. Older adults can save more than $2,000 per year through this program, yet more than 3 million eligible adults 65 and older are not enrolled, leaving $2.5 billion to $6 billion in benefits unused each year, Hodges says.

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The Low Income Subsidy for Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage, popularly known as Extra Help, is also underutilized. This program can cover monthly premiums, annual deductibles and copayments for Medicare prescription drug coverage.

According to the Social Security Administration, Extra Help is worth around $5,100 per year for eligible participants, yet Hodges’ group found that about $7.6 billion a year goes unused. “These are not dollars that will be used elsewhere,” he says. “They are specifically targeted programs. You are not taking benefits away from people by using these services.” 

Help in paying your utility bills

Winter is around the corner, and with oil and natural gas prices still elevated, some older adults could be without heat during the colder months. As it stands, tens of millions of Americans are at risk of getting their utilities shut off because of big summer electricity bills — and potentially bigger winter heating costs. Yet the government’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is underutilized by older adults across the country. 

With this program, recipients get a onetime payment to help defray winter heating costs. The payment can be as high as $1,400, although the average payment is $500, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA). Of the people eligible for this program, only about 17 percent get assistance, says Mark Wolfe, executive director at NEADA. 

The LIHEAP Clearinghouse website has a search feature to find state programs and apply for assistance. There’s also a referral hotline: 866-674-6327.

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What should be done?

With tens of billions of dollars in benefits left on the table each year, more outreach is needed from federal, state and local governments, nonprofits and community groups to ensure the money gets to all who need it. They need to do more to get the word out to older Americans, says Hodges.

Then, too, applying for the various programs can be daunting. To ensure that applicants meet eligibility requirements, many programs require that they complete application forms and submit certain documents. Without access to the internet or a printer, and/or the ability to travel, completing these forms can be difficult. 

But the programs do make a difference. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found older adults living alone received an average of $104 in SNAP benefits per month. Those with lower incomes received more. 

What benefits are you missing out on?

Finding out what benefits you are eligible for has gotten easier in recent years, with the government and nonprofits like the NCOA and AARP stepping up outreach. The NCOA runs BenefitsCheckUp, an online database of federal and local benefits available to older adults. People who prefer to talk to a human can call the NCOA’s help line at 800-794-6559 to find out what benefits they are eligible for. 

Most communities also have Area Agencies on Aging, which are funded by the federal government and help older adults perform assessments of their benefits or refer them to outside groups that can help. You can find an Area Agency on Aging via the Eldercare Locator or by calling 800-677-1116. 

Meanwhile, AARP is working with community groups in South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi to assist older adults in applying for the Medicare Savings Program and Extra Help. It plans to expand the program to more states during the next year. “A lot of people don’t know these things exist, and when they do, there’s analysis paralysis,” Hodges says. “ ‘What do I do with this information?’ ”