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Medicaid - Medicare Coverage

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The Medicare program provides basic health coverage to most persons age 65 and older, regardless of income, assuring them access to the health system and protection from financial catastrophe when illness strikes. Medicare consists of two parts: Hospital Insurance (Part A), which covers inpatient hospital care, limited skilled nursing facility care, and home health and hospice services, and Supplementary Medical Insurance (Part B), which covers physician and outpatient hospital services, as well as some other screening, laboratory, and home health services. However, the program does not cover all medical services that elderly people need (most notably, prescription drugs and nursing home care) and requires beneficiaries to pay monthly premiums and some portion of the cost of services at the point of care. For example, in 2002 the deductible for Part A was $812 and beneficiaries had to pay some portion of the charge for extended hospital stays. Medicare also requires a monthly ($100 in 2002) premium for Part B coverage ($54 in 2002) and 20 percent co-insurance after the Part B deductible ($100 in 2002) is met.

While many Medicare recipients purchase supplemental insurance to help with these cost-sharing obligations, these requirements can impose a substantial financial burden on the more than eleven million elderly Medicare beneficiaries (36 percent) who are poor or near-poor (see Figure 1). Not only do many Medicare beneficiaries live on modest incomes, but most rely on Social Security benefits as their main source of income. Social Security benefits are often quite modest—the average in 2001 was about $800 per month. However, these benefits are the major source of income for nearly two-thirds of beneficiaries. Living on fixed incomes with little potential for additional earnings leaves these beneficiaries with minimal cushion to absorb additional medical costs.

The potential burden of medical costs is particularly important to low-income elderly people because they are more likely to need medical services than higher-income beneficiaries. Poor elderly Medicare beneficiaries are nearly twice as likely as higher-income beneficiaries to report their health status as fair or poor, and they are more likely to live with multiple chronic conditions and functional limitations than elderly people with higher incomes. Poor health status and chronic medical conditions translate into higher costs due to the increased need for medication and physician supervision, as well as the need for nonmedical support services such as transportation and personal care assistance with daily tasks such as bathing and cooking.

Figure 1 SOURCE: Urban Institute estimates based on 2000 Current Population Survey. Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured.

NOTE: In 1999, the federal poverty level was $8,240 for individuals, $11,060 for couples.

To provide assistance in covering the cost of uncovered Medicare services and Medicare cost-sharing, many elderly persons have supplemental coverage in addition to Medicare. There are different types of supplemental coverage, and the cost and scope of benefits vary. Thirty-six percent of Medicare beneficiaries have employer-sponsored retiree coverage. This type of coverage is typically very generous, covering a wide range of benefits and limiting beneficiaries' out-of-pocket costs. Another source of supplemental coverage is individually purchased Medigap policies, which about a quarter of Medicare beneficiaries hold. Beneficiaries pay monthly premiums for Medigap coverage—on average $100 per month, though policies range in cost from about $1,400 to $4,700 per year, depending on where a person lives, the level of coverage they obtain, and their age.

Supplemental coverage of Medicare beneficiaries varies significantly by income (see Figure 2). Higher-income beneficiaries are more likely to have worked in jobs that offer retiree coverage, and higher- and moderate-income beneficiaries are also more likely to purchase Medigap policies. Lower-income beneficiaries, in contrast, are more likely to rely solely on Medicare. This difference in coverage exists because low-income elderly people are less likely to have worked in jobs that offer private supplemental coverage after retirement. In addition, though many purchase Medigap policies, the high cost of such coverage is unaffordable for some.

Ultimately, poor Medicare beneficiaries bear a disproportionate burden in out-of-pocket health care costs, spending more than a third of their income on health care, compared to 10 percent for higher-income beneficiaries. These costs may lead some elderly people into impoverishment or force them to choose between covering their health care costs and paying for other basic necessities.

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