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Will a Second COVID-19 Relief Bill Make Medicare More Accessible to Seniors in Need?

By Maurie Backman – Jul 14, 2020 at 7:22AM

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Many seniors missed their chance to sign up for Medicare in the course of the pandemic. Lawmakers are trying to help ensure that they don't lose out because of it.

Having the right health coverage in place is important at all times. During a pandemic, it's an absolute necessity. And that's why lawmakers are advocating to make Medicare more accessible at a time when the country is operating in crisis mode.

How the HEROES Act is looking out for seniors

Older Americans are said to be the most vulnerable to severe impacts from COVID-19, which means it's dangerous for them to be without health coverage. That's why the Democrat-proposed HEROES Act calls for an immediate enrollment period for older Americans who are eligible for Medicare but have yet to sign up.

Normally, seniors get a seven-month window to enroll in Medicare that begins three months before the month in which they turn 65, and ends three months after that month. Seniors who don't enroll during that initial period must then hold off until Medicare's general enrollment period, which runs from Jan. 1 to March 31 each year, to sign up for coverage. But in that case, that coverage doesn't begin until July 1. That delay could leave countless seniors uninsured for many months and also subject them to lifelong penalties with regard to Medicare Part B.

Though Medicare Part A, which covers hospital care, is generally free for enrollees, Part B, which covers outpatient care, costs money. (The standard premium changes from year to year; this year, it's $144.60 a month.) Those who wait too long to enroll in Medicare risk a 10% surcharge on their Part B premiums for each 12-month period they were eligible to sign up, but didn't.

Helping seniors get the health coverage they need

Many seniors didn't realize they were eligible to sign up for Medicare during the pandemic, while others may have been deterred due to Social Security offices being closed. Normally, seniors can enroll in Medicare in person, over the phone, or online, and while the latter two options never went away during the pandemic, they may have fallen outside of some seniors' comfort zones. (Long wait times on the phone may have also impacted older Americans' ability to sign up.) By calling for an immediate enrollment period, lawmakers are trying to help seniors access Medicare coverage right away rather than face the risks associated with waiting.

Unfortunately, the HEROES Act is unlikely to survive a Senate vote, but that doesn't mean all is lost for seniors. Though Republicans have criticized different aspects of the HEROES Act (namely, its call to provide a second stimulus check and extend boosted unemployment benefits), Medicare accessibility has not been a known sticking point. As such, it's quite possible that lawmakers will come to terms on a follow-up relief package that makes it easier for seniors to enroll in Medicare, especially at a time when COVID-19 cases are surging. Of course, it's too soon to know what a second relief package will actually look like, but as the country grapples with not just a pandemic, but also, a recession, many Americans are holding out hope that it will indeed be as generous as the president promised late last month.

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