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Paying medical bills a steep challenge for senior citizens on Medicare

June 28, 2011 |  1:19 pm

Doctor Picture As politicians in Washington haggle over the future of Medicare, many senior citizens covered by the massive federal health insurance program say they can’t afford their medical bills even with the government’s help.

That’s what researchers from the California-based Kaiser Family Foundation discovered when they interviewed more than a dozen individuals and couples across the country to provide a snapshot of how older Americans are faring under Medicare.

The findings: Many seniors are depleting their life savings or running up massive credit card debt to pay for doctors, hospitals and other services. Others are skipping medical care altogether because it’s too expensive.

Some are turning to adult children for financial help while worrying about paying for services not covered by Medicare, including long-term care.

“At a time when policymakers are considering changes to Medicare that would shift costs onto beneficiaries, this report underscores the financial realities that face this population,” the authors wrote in “Living Close to the Edge, Financial Challenges and Tradeoffs for People on Medicare.”

The researchers interviewed Medicare recipients in Los Angeles, Detroit and Washington, D.C., who, by their own admission, were worried about making ends meet. They had annual incomes from $10,890 to $88,260.

Half of those profiled in the report had incomes below twice the federal poverty level – under $22,000 for an individual. That’s the same percentage as in the total Medicare population, now at about 47 million people.

Still, the authors said the findings were not intended to be representative of all those on Medicare but instead meant to provide a portrait of financial situations.

Consider, for example, the plight of a Los Angeles retiree named Carl, one of those profiled in the study and referred to only by first name.

Carl and his wife earn $36,600 a year from Social Security payments, a pension and income from his wife, who works full time. The study did not specify her job.

The couple’s typical monthly income is $3,059 but expenses are $2,905, leaving little extra money for medical needs. Carl has diabetes and high blood pressure. He recently had cataract surgery, and was diagnosed last year with early-stage Parkinson’s disease.

The couple spend about $100 out of pocket each month on doctor’s visits and prescription drugs. When they can’t afford a medical bill, they often charge it. They now owe credit card companies about $20,000.

“I keep going further in debt,” Carl said, “because I can’t afford to pay for everything.”

-- Duke Helfand

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