Legislature restores cuts to Medicare that would have hurt seniors, disabled

In a Medicare reprieve for a couple of hundred Ridgefield seniors and disabled citizens, the state legislature tinkered with its budget and found another $53 million for Connecticut’s Medicare Savings Program, which should keep it solvent at least through June.

The action in Hartford headed off reductions of eligibility levels that had been projected to knock as many as 113,000 people statewide off programs that help them pay Medicare-related expenses that may include premiums, deductibles, coinsurance, and copayments.

In December, more than 100 Ridgefield seniors and disabled people and their caretakers had packed a meeting of the town Commission on Aging to express outrage at the budget cut.

The plan restoring $53 million for the Medicare Savings Program (MSP) was approved Monday in the legislature by bipartisan “veto-proof majorities” — 130-3 in the state House of Representatives, and 32-1 in the state Senate — so Gov. Dannel Malloy’s criticism that financing was found through “budget gimmickry” seems unlikely to halt the legislature’s action to preserve the support people currently receive from the Medicare Savings Program, at least through the end of the fiscal year.

“About 280 Ridgefielders rely on assistance from MSP, so today we are doing what is right for seniors in Ridgefield and across Connecticut,” said state Rep. John Frey, who serves  Ridgefield’s 111th District. “It simply wasn’t acceptable not to address the harm that abruptly losing all or part of their health care coverage would cause low-income seniors and people with disabilities. After today, these vulnerable populations will have funding for their health coverage restored. However, the state cannot let something like this happen again. We have to continue to address our persistent budget deficit and pass policies that will stabilize and grow our economy.”

State Sen. Toni Boucher, whose 26th District includes Ridgefield, Redding, Wilton, Weston, Westport, New Canaan, and Bethel, also supported the bipartisan fix.

“I am proud that, once again, legislators on both sides of the political aisle were able to come together to take action that is in the best interest of Connecticut residents,” Boucher said. “Ensuring health care access to seniors and the disabled is a priority, and we were able to provide this funding without tax increases. I look forward to more cooperative efforts like this.”  

Eligibility levels

The Medicare Savings Program helps seniors and the disabled pay for Medicare co-insurance, deductibles and premiums. Connecticut had been one of five states with income eligibility limits that exceeded the federal minimum level. But in adopting a bipartisan budget last fall, legislators cut funds and reduced the eligibility to the federal minimum — consequently reducing or eliminating coverage for many of the program’s thousands of participants.

The program offers benefits at three levels. For “qualified Medicare beneficiaries” (QMB), eligibility was to be reduced to annual income of below $12,300 for a single person and $16,488 for a couple but will now remain $25,440 for a single person and $34,248 for a couple.

At the next level, “specified low-income Medicare beneficiaries” (SLMB) qualifying levels were to be reduced to annual income of $14,712 for a single and $19,728 for a couple, but the legislature restored the former cutoff levels of $27,852 annual income for a single and $37,500 for a couple.

For “additional low-income Medicare beneficiaries” (ALMB), eligibility levels were to be lowered to income of $16,524 a year for a single and $22,164 for a couple, but the legislature restored eligibility levels to last year’s $29,664 for a single and $39,936 for a couple.

The state’s Department of Social Services in December announced it would delay implementation of the eligibility reduction by two months, postponing an unexpected jump in health care costs for many seniors and disabled residents, as lawmakers worked to find $54 million to fund the program through the 2017-18 fiscal year’s end in June.

Frey said in December that the legislature had a “moral obligation” to reconvene and restore funding for the program in order to stop the harm that this provision of the budget would have on seniors and disabled populations.

Where’d it come from?

The extra $53 million to restore the Medicare program was found by legislators through:

  • Canceling a planned transfer of more than $17 million from the current fiscal year to the 2018-19 year —  which was forecast in November to fall short of revenue projections by about $150 milion.
  • Reducing the state’s contribution to the teachers’ pension fund by over $19 million this year.
  • Cutting some $17 million for executive appointments, other expenses and funding for the Department of Administrative Services — a reduction the governor has questioned could be achieved in the remaining six months of the fiscal year.

According to Boucher’s office, another $130 million will have to be found in order to restore the Medicare Savings Program cuts for the 2018-19 fiscal year.

‘Most vulnerable’

Town Social Services Director Tony Phillips estimated that the number of Ridgefielders affected ranges from 210 to 379.

“I am thankful that our legislators heard, understood and responded to the incredible voices of our seniors and people with disabilities throughout the state,” Phillips said. “Our most vulnerable citizens rely heavily on programs to help with food, housing, heat, medical care, and more. Life for many of our neighbors is a complicated and fragile balance. To remove any one of the foundation blocks for our seniors would be devastating. …

“I am hopeful our legislators will continue to work toward finding both cuts and revenue sources to help balance the budget that do not rely on defunding social service programs,” he said.

“All too often, budget cuts affect our most vulnerable and marginalized people who are least likely to be able to speak up for themselves and be heard.”