One of the most beleaguered of government agencies, the Social Security Administration (SSA), is struggling in the pandemic to help seniors attempting to enroll in Medicare coverage. That in turn puts seniors' healthcare coverage in jeopardy at absolutely the worst time, and Congress is going to need to help fix it.
The issue is primarily for people applying for Medicare "Part B," the outpatient care coverage. The coverage that covers things like the novel coronavirus tests. The Social Security Administration is responsible for making Medicare determinations. After years of cuts to its administrative budget, it was already stretched thin when attempting to provide assistance to applicants and enrollees. It has been forced to close 10% of its field offices in the past two decades, including all of the more than 500 "contact sites," the locations that assisted remote and rural populations. Then coronavirus hit, and the SSA had to close all offices.
In-person help isn't possible. The loss of thousands of staff members over the last decade means that anyone who can't resolve their application online has to wait on the national SSA 800 number for 90 minutes or longer just to get their call answered. "We are concerned that people who are eligible will go without coverage due to unnecessary administrative barriers and the lack of information from federal agencies," said Fred Riccardi, president of the advocacy group Medicare Rights Center. "The problem is serious."
At the same time, SSA told the AP in written responses to its questions that it has "seen an increase in requests for Part B enrollment because of older workers losing job-based coverage." For the people who worked past age 65 and kept their workplace coverage, signing up for Part B means having to provide documentation that they were covered by their employers. Without that documentation, they could have to pay hefty penalties for enrolling in Medicare late. There are also applications that require signatures, some of which SSA says it has waived and for others—get this—they've set up dedicated fax lines. Which is better than nothing, Leslie Fried of the National Council on Aging told AP, but "I don't know anyone who has a fax machine anymore." Social Security does, because they haven't been able to afford better for the past two decades!
Congress can make an easy fix of this one: get rid of the penalties for the workers who are coming into the system late and make sure that their care is covered one way or another—Medicaid, Medicare, cash payments, whatever it takes. It will still be a hassle for applicants to get enrolled, but facing fines and risking going uninsured are the last things this group needs to contend with during this crisis.