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Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning has an opportunity to help millions of older Americans in our state and throughout the nation.
As a member of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, he can play a leading role in relaxing unreasonable asset limits that restrict access to Medicare's low-income programs. These low-income program improvements would be especially helpful in states with significant rural populations like Kentucky.
More than one in four people on Medicare live in rural areas and these beneficiaries are more likely to be living on very limited incomes. In fact, almost half of rural Medicare beneficiaries have annual incomes below 150 percent of the poverty level - that's just $15,315 for individuals and $20,535 for couples.
Under current rules, millions of low-income rural Americans are denied the Part D Low-Income Subsidy that pays premiums and most cost sharing in the Medicare prescription drug program, including full coverage throughout the "doughnut hole" coverage gap. Likewise, millions are not getting help from Medicare savings programs that pay Part B premiums and, for those below the poverty line, other Medicare cost sharing.
While rural Americans are hard hit, they are far from the only ones not getting the help they need.
Nationally, almost one of every three people projected to be eligible for the Low Income Subsidy is not getting it. For the Medicare savings programs, more than two of every three eligible people are not enrolled and at least 2.6 million of these are in rural areas.
Why do so many fail to get help? Because no matter how low your income, the limits on the amount of assets you can have are rigid and unreasonable.
For the LIS, no individual with more than $11,700 in savings, or couple with more than $23,400, is eligible. For the Medicare savings programs in Kentucky, no individual with more than $4,000 or couple with more than $6,000 in savings qualifies.
We should be encouraging people to save for retirement, but current asset limits are so unrealistically low that they punish low-income people who have managed to be even modest savers. That's neither smart nor fair.
There is hope for change. Bunning and the Senate Finance Committee are about to consider Medicare legislation to improve these programs by raising the asset limits, simplifying applications and improving coordination in the programs.
You can help by calling Bunning at (888) 839-9889 to tell him to make sure these changes are included in the Medicare bill. This will close the "doughnut hole" for people least able to pay for their drugs in the Part D coverage gap.
It will provide premium and other cost sharing relief to people with limited incomes who did the right thing of by setting aside some money for retirement. And, it will help millions of low-income people in rural America - including many of our neighbors here in Kentucky - to get the affordable health care they need.
Bill Harned, President