Originally created 06/07/01

Help for elderly in finding out about benefits

The National Council on the Aging is launching a free Web site called Benefits Check-Up that can calculate what state and federal benefits people over 60 are eligible for. All that's required is answering some basic questions about medical background and monthly expenses.

The Web site is at http://benefitscheckup.org.

AOL Time Warner and several other companies, including Merck Pharmaceuticals and New York Life, are sponsoring the site. In response to privacy concerns, it's all anonymous - no names or Social Security numbers are required.

The benefits are calculated from a database of more than 1,000 programs. Once a customized list is prepared, there are instructions and contact numbers that allow people to apply for the programs.

"It's the most comprehensive source that I've ever seen for benefits," said Phyllis Marchitelli, a case manager for Mount Sinai-N.Y.U. Health System in New York. She's been in the health-care business for 20 years.

Marchitelli, 38, went to a test version of the Web site and entered information on her 70-year-old mother. She found out about tax benefits that she had not known about before.

"She might be eligible for some tax benefits that we never even considered," Marchitelli said. "Even the best hospitals and the best community resources aren't going to know everything that's out there."

The best thing about the Web site, she said, is it's user-friendly. The print is big and easy to read; it's free; and it doesn't contain a "hidden agenda," such as advertisements for products.

There are dozens of programs that elude seniors simply because they don't know the programs exist, said Jim Firman, president of the National Council on the Aging in Washington.

Consider the most well-known programs:

- An estimated 1.2 million seniors are eligible for Supplemental Security Income, but do not sign up to receive the monthly checks of $300 or more.

- About 3 million people who qualify are not receiving Medicaid, which can help pay their hospital, doctor, prescription drug and other expenses.

- More than 3.7 million seniors can get food stamps for grocery purchases, but don't.

Ten of the 30 seniors in Boulder County, Colo., who tried the Web site during the test period embraced it, said Rosemary Williams, a caseworker with Boulder County Community Services in Boulder.

"Initially, people were hesitant," she said. With all the publicity about fraud against seniors, she said, "we've done a very good job at convincing seniors not to give out any information to people."

But they were more trusting after caseworkers whom seniors knew through their local senior center helped them through the process, Williams said.

"A real key to making this program work is going to be the personal touch," she said.

That's why the National Council on the Aging has asked 2,000 community groups around the country to help local seniors use the Web site, and help them apply to the programs they might be eligible for, Firman said.

"Just telling a low-income senior he's eligible for a benefit is not enough for them to get the benefit," Firman said.

By next year, Web site organizers hope to add the capability of applying for programs directly online, he said.

The site was 15 years in the making since the idea was sparked, Firman said. And caseworkers attest to how difficult the process of navigating benefits has been in the absence of it.

"In many parts of the country, there's really no one available to talk to people about that," Williams said.

There are community resource centers, and hospitals offer phone numbers to call, said Marchitelli at N.Y.U. But with Benefits Check-Up, she said, "you don't have to make numerous phone calls and you don't have to do a lot of leg work."

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