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Benefits website offers help

By Jennie L. Phipps ·
Thursday, December 8, 2011
Posted: 6 pm ET

For many, retirement brings serious financial challenges. If that's true for you, here's some information to factor into your retirement planning.

More than 80 percent of people 60 and older with incomes that are less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for --  but not enrolled -- in one or more government-funded programs that might make life easier, according to research by the National Council on Aging, or NCOA.

In 2011, the federal poverty level for a single person is $10,890; for a couple, it's $14,710. Your first question might be: Are the poverty guidelines before tax or after tax?  Are they gross income or net income?  Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. It depends on what program -- state, federal or local. But in general, if you multiply the numbers above by 250 percent, you get $27,225 for a single person and $36,775 for a couple. If your income is below those numbers, you're likely eligible for services such as subsidized Medicare, including help paying Part D prescription drug coverage. You also might be eligible for food and energy assistance.

This is where NCOA's comes in. BenefitsCheckup, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, is a free, online screening service for seniors with limited income and resources. It includes almost 2,000 public and private benefits programs from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Users answer simple questions about their income and their situation and receive instant feedback on what specific benefits are available to them and what steps they need to take to apply for these benefits. In most cases, the applications are available online, and BenefitsCheckup immediately links the user to the proper forms.

NCOA estimates that of the people it screens who are not already getting these resources, 49 percent are eligible for assistance purchasing food, 39 percent are eligible for Supplemental Security Income, 23 percent qualify for Medicare Extra Help and 16 percent qualify for Medicaid.

Some people are ashamed to take advantage of these programs, but that's a mistake. Chances are you paid into them when times were better. Now you're getting what you paid for.

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