Possible cut to state Medicare assistance program pushed back past Jan. 1

Changes to a state program that helps seniors and disabled Connecticut residents pay for their health coverage through Medicare no longer will go into effect Jan. 1, the state Department of Social Services said Wednesday.

The announcement comes as senior services departments across the region are scrambling to hold and schedule meetings to explain the changes to the Medicare recipients, mostly low-income elderly and disabled people.

The Medicare Savings Program's income eligibility limits were scheduled to change Jan. 1, and would cut individuals earning above $1,025 a month and couples earning more than $1,374 a month out of the program, which pays for their Medicare Part A and B premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

The income eligibility limit for those benefits, which take the form of a subsidy on recipients' Social Security checks, is currently $2,120 each month for an individual and $2,854 a month for a couple.

Others are eligible for only a part of the Medicare Savings Program that covers the cost of their premiums, and some would become ineligible for those benefits under the approved changes.

The Department of Social Services sent a letter in November warning people whose Medicare coverage would be affected that the changes, which first were proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and passed as part of the state budget the legislature voted on in October, might start affecting the size of their Social Security checks in January.

Up to 113,000 Medicare recipients may be affected, according to a state Department of Social Services news release.

The proposal saw opposition from medical groups and seniors' advocates before the legislature passed the state budget, but the letter sent to Medicare recipients in November touched off a statewide opposition effort from senior center directors, advocacy groups and patients who say the changes, meant to save the state money, could prevent people from getting crucial medical care.

"We've had people say, 'Well, I won't go to the doctor,' or 'I won't get my prescriptions,'" said Lee-Ann Gomes, director of Norwich Human Services Department. "It's just too brutal."

In a news release Wednesday, the state Department of Social Services, which administers the program, said it would delay the implementation of the cuts until after Jan. 1 "in response to concerns raised by beneficiaries, advocates and legislators."

"Since the passage of the budget in October, we have heard from many seniors and family members with questions and concerns about these changes," Department of Social Services Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby wrote in the release. "Members of the General Assembly and health care advocates have also expressed concerns about this part of the budget legislation. We want them to know that we are listening. Over the coming weeks, we will be exploring possible coverage alternatives to MSP for current beneficiaries. While most are not likely to qualify for other coverage, we hope this effort will alleviate the financial loss for some."

The department will review the changes to eligibility, a process that could take more than two months, "at which time the reduced income limits will go into effect."

Meanwhile senior centers and social services departments across the state and region have scheduled meetings to inform those affected by the cuts and have invited state legislators to talk about the proposal and hear from Medicare recipients who would lose coverage.

Some members of senior centers also have participated in a campaign to mail their prescription bags stamped with labels protesting the change to Malloy's office and to the offices of state legislators.

The Rose City Senior Center in Norwich will host a free forum at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 20, to discuss the changes to the eligibility guidelines. Laura Crews, the director of benefits access at Senior Resources, will review the changes and discuss the impact of the cuts to those affected.

Gomes said she has received a deluge of calls from low-income seniors asking questions about the changes, which she has struggled to answer.

"Everyone can think of other programs and other things they should have (cut) before they did this one," she said. "I don't think they understand the financial impact on people."

New London's senior center will host a meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 13. State Rep. Chris Soto, D-New London, and state Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, have said they will attend that meeting, New London Senior Citizens Coordinator Marina Vracevic said.

"We want people to come in and share with officials how it's going to affect them," Vracevic said.

If the legislature schedules a special session to address the issue and a growing budget deficit, she said, there could be more conclusive answers before that meeting.

"Hopefully they'll have good news for us," she said.

m.shanahan@theday.com

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