Trick or treat? The bipartisan budget signed into law by Gov. Dannel Malloy on Halloween contained one hidden surprise for elderly and disabled residents who rely on the state’s Medicare Savings Programs (MSP).

Tucked in the more than 900 pages of budget legislation was a provision that rolled back income eligibility levels for the programs, which use Medicaid funding to help offset the costs of Medicare expenses.

That rollback was the subject of debate at Monday afternoon’s Commission on Aging meeting, where more than 100 residents showed up to voice their disapproval of the state budget cut.

“This is absolutely a disgrace,” said Maree Macpherson. “I’m so angry about this — it’s insulting, it’s degrading, and it’s demeaning.”

Audience members applauded.

Macpherson said that after calculating how much she would pay with the eligibility cuts, she discovered that she would be left to live on about $4,000 per year.

“How can you expect anyone to live on that?” she asked.

“No one can live on that,” said state Rep. John Frey, who spoke at the meeting.

In Ridgefield, about 200 people rely on MSP, Frey explained.

“It’s difficult to describe how bad the times are today for balancing the budget,” he said. “We are in such deep, bad shape right now that it’s unfathomable, [and] it’s unfortunate that we’re balancing it on the backs of those who can ill afford it the most.”

Eligibility gap

Currently, an individual who qualifies for Medicare making $29,664 per year would be eligible for the Additional Low Income Medicare Beneficiaries program, the most basic Medicare Savings Program. It helps cover Medicare Part B premiums, though recipients cannot also receive Medicaid.

Under the new state budget, that eligibility would shrink down to individuals with a yearly income of $16,524 — essentially the same level of income the federal government uses to determine eligibility.

Time to review

On Dec. 6, the state Department of Social Services announced it would delay the implementation of the eligibility reductions through the end of February, in order to review the changes.

“Over the coming weeks, we will be exploring possible coverage alternatives to MSP for current beneficiaries,” said Department of Social Services Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby. “While most are not likely to qualify for other coverage, we hope this effort will alleviate the financial loss for some.”

Fix

State Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26) said that she and other legislators had petitioned the governor to allow them to discuss refunding the programs. She said they would try to find a solution on Tuesday, Dec. 26.

Frey noted that Connecticut has the second highest eligibility rates for the Medicare Savings Programs, after the District of Columbia. Holding that against the state is unfair, he said, as the cost of living in Connecticut is simply higher than in other parts of the country.

Ridgefield’s state representative also brought up the possibility that the legislature could add an asset limit to the MSP eligibility, as it was the state’s Pharmaceutical Assistance Program for the Elderly, or ConnPACE, which was essentially a precursor to the MSP.

Someone living on $18,000 a year from Social Security — “and that’s absolutely all they have,” Frey said — is in a different financial situation than someone who receives the same amount but just sold their home for $500,000, he said.

“How would you test for that?” asked resident Mark Breckenridge.

Frey acknowledged that in many cases, someone with a $500,000 home might not be as well off as they appear, due to the high cost of living in the state.

One person anticipated losing $15 a month.

“You know, for some people, $15 is a lot,” Frey said. “For other people, it’s what they spend at Starbucks in a day.”

Other approaches

Resident John Burke pointed out that many other social programs include an asset test. Folding the Medicare Savings Programs into those tests shouldn’t be too difficult, he argued.

Breckenridge suggested a different approach.

“Why doesn’t the state of Connecticut stand up and say, ‘We’ll buy drugs from Canada’ or anyplace else in the world?” he asked.

The suggestion was met with applause from the audience.

“You bring up a very important point — Americans pay much more than other countries for their medications,” Boucher said. But, she noted, often those medications are not the latest and greatest drugs on the market. “So the argument that pharmaceuticals will say is that ‘we put in billions of dollars in research, and that funds that loss of money,’ because a lot of those drugs don’t make it to market, so there’s a lot of sunk cost.”

“So the point is,” Boucher added, “what is the point to which you allow the free market to determine [pricing]? … or big government buyers and programs, which certainly have a lot of sway.”

State

Statewide, the eligibility reduction is expected to affect “up to 113,000 seniors and citizens with disabilities,” the press release from the Department of Social Services said.

The release also noted that delaying the eligibility reduction would adversely affect the projected state budget deficit — something that would have to be addressed in Malloy’s deficit mitigation plan, which the governor is legally required to submit to the state legislature as a recommendation in the event of a projected deficit.

In his recommendation, which was submitted to the legislature on Dec. 13, Malloy devoted a paragraph to lawmakers’ concerns about the budget cuts to the MSP.

While Malloy did not go as far as outlining a way to actually stave off the eligibility reductions, he noted that his deficit mitigation plan left the budget with some $92 million left over — “meaning that you now have the tools at your disposal to both address the Medicare Savings Program and also close the current deficit,” Malloy wrote.

Who to call

“This budget is very similar to what the governor proposed last year,” said Frey. “And I have to tell you, only one person spoke against it. And it wasn’t AARP.” He said he hoped AARP would get its priorities straightened out.

Frey encouraged those concerned about the eligibility reductions to continue writing to their state representatives.

“Add the governor to your rotation list,” he said. “Email is always good, because it’s a permanent record.”

“Well, we’re going to have a lot more protesting now,” said Commission on Aging Chairwoman Chris Robertson.