Pandemic Complicates Some Medicare 'Plan B' Applications

Office closures, technical hurdles and a complex application process could lead to anxiety for seniors.

Pandemic Complicates Some Medicare 'Plan B' Applications
Rick Bowmer / AP

The closing of Social Security offices due to the coronavirus pandemic is increasing anxiety among seniors applying for Medicare “Part B” coverage for lab tests, advocates say.

Those applications go through Social Security, whose local offices have been closed since March 17. Without that in-person option, Social Security is getting a glut of phone calls, leading to hold times of 90 minutes or more. So it's directing people to go online instead.

2017 Pew Research Center study said adults aged 65 and older are “more digitally connected than ever,” but there’s still “a notable digital divide” between them and their younger counterparts.

Between the office closures, the technical hurdles and the sheer complexity of the application process — advocates fear an increased risk of older Americans falling into coverage gaps or owing penalty payments.

The tricky part is, the outpatient coverage under Part B requires a separate application. Those who worked past age 65 and kept their workplace coverage have to provide documentation of the health plan they had. If not, they can be hit with late-enrollment penalties that add 10 percent of their premium for each 12-month period they waited to sign up.

The president of the advocacy group Medicare Rights Center said, "People who are eligible will go without coverage due to unnecessary administrative barriers and the lack of information from federal agencies. The problem is serious."

Social Security said it has worked with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to waive some signature requirements during the pandemic.