Millions overlook the benefits owed them by Social Security


New York--Millions of people aren't getting their due out of Social Security. They either haven't heard about or don't understand, a benefit they're owed.

Here are two recent cases in point -- one of special interest to women and one for the low-income elderly:

An Alabama widow writes that she struggled along on a pittance until retiring on Social Security when she reached age 62. Then she discovered that she could have retired at age 60.

She's livid. "When I spoke to Social Security, no one told me I could get benefits at 60," she writes. "It seems to me they owe me for the years I missed."

At this late date, it's impossible to know what was said during her crucial conversation with the Social Security office. Maybe she assumed that benefits started at age 62. Maybe Social Security fouled up. Social Security's Frank Battistelli says that back benefits aren't paid unless there's evidence that you started making a valid claim but never carried through.

Here's what every widow should know. Your benefits can start at:

(1) Age 60, on the account of your late spouse.

(2) Age 62, on your own Social Security account, provided you worked long enough to have one. You can start at age 60 on your spouse's account and later switch to your own account, if the switch will bring you a higher payment. The later you retire, the larger your check.

(3) Age 50, if you're totally and permanently disabled.

(4) Any age, as long as you make a home for a child under age or a child who was totally disabled prior to age 22.

If you're divorced, you can get widow's payments on your ex-spouse's account, as long as you were married at least 10 years.

If the long-established rules on widow's benefits still aren't universally understood, imagine the task of getting out the word on a benefit newly introduced.

As an example, take the new program that finances health insurance for the elderly poor.

Ever since 1989, the elderly poor are supposed to have paid less for Medicare. Their state Medicaid programs cover the $29.90 owed each month for Medicare Part B; the $628 in hospital deductibles; the $100-a-year deductible on doctor bills; the 20 percent owed on each allowable doctor bill; and Medicare Part A (hospitalization), for people who aren't normally eligible.

But to get this help, you have to apply at your local Medicaid office and bring proof of income. Last week, the Families USA Foundation, a Washington advocacy group for the low-income elderly, let fly an angry paper, charging that only about half of the estimated 4 million eligible seniors are now in the program. It blasted Social Security for not trying hard enough to find the missing 2 million.

The foundation's complaint will help. Many newspapers are re-explaining this benefit, which they may not have mentioned since 1989. Some low-income seniors will read these stories and apply.

Some people with elderly friends and relatives who might qualify (do you have any?) will make an effort to help them sign up.

Individual seniors are eligible if they're (1) 65 and over, (2) have an income under $6,620 this year or (3) own less than $4,000 in assets, not counting a home, car and burial plot.

Couples with incomes under $8,880 and assets under $6,000 are eligible.

Incidentally, don't check the written material from Medicare for details.

Congress fine-tuned the law last November, but Medicare's handbook still reflects the outdated rules. This is a case where Social Security could give you a mistaken answer.

Families USA is pressing Social Security to find those eligible for help.

One proposal: Mail out notices to all low-income beneficiaries. No way, replies Gail Wilensky, head of the agency which runs both Medicare and Medicaid. Back in 1989, the government sent 14 million letters to people who might qualify for the benefit -- only to find that most weren't eligible. "We confused them and were flooded with calls," Wilensky says.

Early next month, she will meet with groups that work with the elderly to talk about better ways of getting out the word. Moral: It pays to make a fuss. The Families USA Foundation has put this poverty issue back on the table where it belongs.

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