Sunday, December 4, 2022

Many Older Virginia Residents Struggle, Even as Government Benefits Go Unused

Experts say the gap between Social Security benefits and the cost of living leaves many older Americans struggling to pay the bills. (Andrii Iemelianenko/Adobe Stock)

RICHMOND — Many older, low-income adults in Virginia struggle to pay for medicine, food, and rent, and they may be unaware of the many programs available to help them.

The National Council on Aging has a free online tool at BenefitsCheckup.org, which screens people for 2,000 programs, and a national helpline they can also use.

Heather Fortune, director of support services and engagement with Senior Connections in Richmond, part of the Capitol Area Agency on Aging, said every year, billions of dollars in benefits go unclaimed by older adults.

“Most older adults are not applying for the benefits because they don’t know that they qualify, or they don’t know how to apply at all,” Fortune explained.

According to the Elder Index, it takes more than $2,500 a month to survive as a single older adult with health problems in Virginia. And yet, the average Social Security benefit is only about $1,600 dollars a month.

Erin Kee, director of programs for the Center for Benefits Access at the National Council on Aging, said the gap is a major stressor for many.

“About one in four older adults depends on Social Security for 90% of their income,” Kee pointed out. “And about half of them depend on it for 50% of their income.”

Lots of people know about Medicaid and SNAP, but other, lesser-known programs can provide significant savings. They include the New Eyes program for eyeglasses, and the Affordable Connectivity Program, with big discounts on internet service, laptops, desktop computers, and tablets.

Mary Bontly, benefits enrollment specialist at Senior Connections, uses the Benefits Checkup tool to make sure each of her clients knows if they are eligible for the various programs. She said a lot of people are surprised to hear there’s a Medicare Savings Plan which can waive their monthly $170 contribution.

“You’re getting a Medicare savings, it’s going to allow you to not have to pay the $170,” Bontly stated. “But the way you get it is by submitting a Medicaid application, and we help them with that.”

And the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program can help with air conditioning and heating costs.

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