COVID-19: Expanding Medicare and Medigap to those under 65
Seniors were forgotten in earlier rounds of COVID-19 funding, namely the CARES Act signed into law on March 27, with emergency funding directed to small businesses and corporations, especially those hit the hardest, like travel and hospitality industries. Not much changed with the nearly $500 billion supplemental stimulus package President Trump signed on April 24, which shored up the depleted Paycheck Protection Program, among other things.
Beyond stimulus checks, nothing has targeted seniors directly. For instance, seniors without Medigap insurance will be impacted by this period because they don’t have a supplemental policy to close the gap, while the uninsured are dealing with state laws, which are not entirely straightforward. As it has become clear, COVID-19 testing is hard to find to begin with and no preferential treatment is being given to seniors — an extremely vulnerable sector of the population. Finally, the toll that loneliness plays is a big issue, as seniors spend many hours alone — even more so now that new social distancing restrictions bar families from visiting — and they aren’t getting the exercise and movement they need.
While seniors are among those to qualify for stimulus checks, the only special consideration they’ve received is through the expansion of telehealth services for those on Medicare, which used to cover telehealth for rural areas only. As of March 6, telehealth is now covered under all circumstances regardless of location. Additionally, methods of remote monitoring are being put into use to support those with COVID-19. The bad news is that it’s a temporary measure when in fact it should be permanent.
If nothing else, this period is teaching us the importance of virtual meetings, including with health practitioners. Coverage for telehealth should be a given; demand is on the rise and in situations like this, it’s the safest option. It’s important to keep in mind that for those uninsured, any telehealth appointments will be paid for out of pocket (27.5 million Americans were uninsured in 2018, according to the U.S. Census).
Let’s take a look at the facts and how we can address them:
Expand Medicare and Medigap
According to the National Council on Aging, more than 25 million Americans 60 and older are economically insecure. Even for the seniors who are secure, many lived on a fixed income, making any unexpected health care costs potentially devastating. That’s where Medigap coverage comes in, though coverage varies widely from state to state; on average, one in four seniors aged 65 and older with Medicare also has Medigap.
In the time of COVID-19, we need to look at expanding Medicare and Medigap coverage to those 55 and up, as most seniors become eligible for Medicare at age 65, and typically, job loss is equated with loss of health insurance.
Increase monthly social security benefits
Nine out of 10 seniors depend on social security, according to the Social Security Administration, which is planning to distribute over one trillion dollars this year. How can we make sure it goes as far as it should? On the one hand, because payroll taxes will be so much lower than expected, social security is now projected to run out two years earlier (2033 instead of 2035, according to MarketWatch). Many retirement savings were wiped out by the chaotic stock market in response to COVID-19, so seniors are depending more heavily on social security, especially if they lost their jobs.
What if we considered temporarily increasing monthly benefits during this difficult period? Perhaps contributions to social security could increase depending on age.
Prioritize testing for seniors
While COVID-19 can put anyone at risk, seniors are the most vulnerable population, with the CDC reporting that 8 out of 10 deaths in the U.S. have been among adults 65 plus. This is yet another reason testing needs to be ramped up and made available to all seniors. Not only is COVID-19 a grave concern — especially among those with chronic conditions — but even for those who never become ill, loneliness can spike and mobility can become a serious issue. This period of quarantine may be prematurely aging our senior population and we need to see what we can do to prevent that, or at the very least, face the inevitable impact.
Next time Congress goes to bat for the future of the American economy, it’s going to be important to keep seniors in mind, not just to respond to this particular period of COVID-19 but also in preparation for any viruses that could strike in the future.
Jeannette McClennan is the CEO and co-founder of McClennan Masson, an innovation firm focused on building human-centered digital products for leading enterprise brands.