Thousands Miss Out on Medicare Benefits

Despite new Medicare preventive treatment benefits that took effect in January, many low income senior citizens still aren't taking advantage of the services, mostly because they don't know about them. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is on a nationwide tour, including a stop here, to spread the word about the new benefits.

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At the North East Community Center near Little York and the East Tex Freeway, Lilly Willeford is sitting down to her weekly game of dominos, just a few feet from an exercise class that's winding down for the day. She takes full advantage of her Medicare benefits, but has friends who don't.

"They're not aware of some help that they can get for the additional, just with Medicare, not even going into Medicaid. They're not aware of it. I think a lot of people need to be made aware that there is some financial assistance if they just know what the sources are."

Those sources can be hard to track down and confusing, which means many low income Harris County residents either go without preventive health care or pay for procedures now covered by Medicare out of their own pockets. On a 48-state bus tour to spread the word about new benefits, Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Aging Josefina Carbonell is hoping to change that.

"It's not just the prescription drugs, but it's very critical life-saving preventive services and screenings that are available, particularly to detect, prevent and delay the onset of chronic conditions and disability for many of our seniors that were never paid before under Medicare."

Carbonell says preventive cardiovascular, cancer and diabetes screenings are now part of the Medicare coverage. She says slowing the onset of chronic diseases will create a healthier senior population.

"The community can do this. We can help our seniors not only avail themselves of the benefits that they have, but to lead healthier lives and to focus really on those areas where we know that we have the highest incidences of disparities."

Still, the message has been slow to spread. Ron Cookson is the executive director of benefits clearinghouse Gateway to Care and says many local residents still aren't taking advantage of prescription benefits that kicked-in last year.

"At this point in time we estimate that there are 60,000 low income persons in Harris County who are on Medicare who are having difficulties paying for their medications and through the low income subsidy, through the My Medicare Matters campaign that Gateway to Care is running, we hope to find those folks and help them get set-up so they have access to the assistance that they need."

You can find more information about the new preventive benefits through a link on our website, KUHF.org.

Bio photo of Jack Williams

Jack Williams

Director of News Programming

News Director Jack Williams has been with Houston Public Radio since August of 2000. He's also a reporter and anchor for Houston Public Radio's local All Things Considered segments...