Medicare payments

Medicare Savings Program bill will be a win for low income seniors, and Rhode Island – Herb Weiss

By Herb Weiss, contributing writer on aging issues

A few weeks ago, advocates for seniors gathered on Smith Hill, attending a Senate Committee on Health & Human Services hearing to push for passage of S. 2399.  The legislation would expand income eligibility for the Medicare Savings Program (MSP), helping many lower income seniors and disabled residents pay their $175/month Medicare Part B premium and covering co-pays and deductibles for those with very low-income.

Thousands of low-income seniors and persons with disabilities on Medicare, but not eligible to participate in the state’s Medicaid program, struggle to pay their Medicare Part B premiums and co-pay costs for services and prescription drugs causing many to forgo needed health care as they cannot afford to pay the co-payments.

S. 2399, introduced by Pawtucket Sen. Sandra Cano (D-Dist. 8, Pawtucket), would expand eligibility for the Medicare Savings Program (MSP) by increasing the income limit to 186% of the federal poverty line and eliminating the strict asset limit.  It also increases from 100% to 138% of the federal poverty line a part of the program that covers deductibles and co-payment.

S. 2399 was heard on March 12, 2024 and held for further study.  At press time, H. 7333, introduced by Pawtucket Rep. Karen Alzate (D-Dist. 60, Pawtucket, Central Falls), has been referred to the House Finance Committee for consideration. No hearing date has been scheduled.

“With health care costs rising at an alarming rate, it is imperative that we make sure that no one goes without the care they need due to unaffordability.  This bill adapts to the significant changes in our society and economy while also ensuring that our most vulnerable senior and disabled residents are able to access the care and medicine that is essential to their daily lives,” said Cano, who champions S. 2399 and in previous legislative sessions introduced legislation to expand the MSP.

“Too many of our low-income seniors and disabled residents are falling through the cracks and foregoing crucial health care services due to rising co-pays and out of pocket costs.  This is unacceptable, but thankfully, we can do something about it.  By passing this legislation, thousands or more Rhode Islanders will be able to receive the care that they desperately need while also keeping more money in their pockets that’s needed for daily living expenses,” said Alzate, who sponsored the House companion measure.

“We understand this is very important legislation. We had a very informative, thorough hearing on this bill, and I look forward to reviewing all the information we collected.” says Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Joshua Miller (D-Dist. 28, Cranston, Providence).

The Policy Problem and its Solution  

Currently, the income limit of $20,331 leaves thousands of older Rhode Islanders and disabled low-income persons on Medicare with significant gaps in coverage and hefty out of pocket costs.

If the MSP income limit is increased to $28,012, as required by the legislation, an estimated 17,000 persons would be newly eligible to have their Medicare Part B covered by being enrolled in MSP. Anyone enrolled in the MSP receives automatic enrollment in Part D “Extra Help,” a federal program which significantly lowers out-of-pocket Medicare prescription costs at no cost to the State. The federal government establishes the minimum income and asset thresholds for the MSP, and states are permitted to increase these limits and many have done so. 

Advocates of Cano’s MSP legislative proposal say it also particularly helps Rhode Island’s older woman and minorities. “Since women and people of color and persons with disabilities are disproportionately represented in low-income populations, increasing access to the MSP promotes equity,” finds an advocacy partnership’s analysis of the legislative proposals. “Poverty rates among older adult Hispanic women are two and one-half times that of older Hispanic men and persons age 18 and over with disabilities are twice as likely to live below 150% of the poverty level, said the analysis.

The advocacy partnership’s analysis also noted that significant numbers of older adults and those with disabilities enrolled in Medicare face financial challenges meeting basic needs. The number of older adults living below or near poverty has increased, housing costs have climbed dramatically, food cost have increased and many more rely on food pantries.

Covering the $175/month Medicare Part B premium for 17,000+ Rhode Islanders (at no cost to the State) and additionally covering co-pays and deductibles for thousands of very low-income adults and persons with disabilities on Medicare will give them much needed financial relief.  And enrollment in the Extra Help program to reduce drug-related costs provides significant additional financial assistance and improves access to critical medication.

Testimony At the Senate Committee Hearing

Nine organizations either testified at this hearing or submitted written testimony to urge passage of S. 2399.  AARP Rhode Island did not testify at the hearing but signed up in support in the committee room.  There was no opposition to Cano’s legislative proposal.

“I first became aware of the need to expand the income eligibility for MSP quite a few years ago when an older man in my neighborhood contacted me to tell me he lost out on the program because he was just a few dollars over the income limit. As a result, the Senior Agenda Coalition of RI (SACRI) has advocated for several years to increase the income cap,” says Maureen Maigret, SACRI’s policy Advisor.

It’s a win-win for both older Rhode Islanders  and for the Rhode Island General Assembly, says Maigret. “S. 2399 would help Medicare beneficiaries to access care along with putting money back in their pockets to pay for food, rent and their basic needs.  By increasing the Medicaid income to $28,012, the federal  government will pay the full cost of the newly eligible Medicare beneficiaries,” she told the lawmakers.  

Strongly supporting S2399, Karen Malcolm, of Protect Our Healthcare Coalition, noted that the legislative proposal is modeled on the MSP changes enacted in New York last year and approved by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “Rhode Island should take advantage of the opportunity to expand access to affordable coverage for seniors and people with disabilities and bring new [federal] revenue to our state.”

H. Phillip West, Jr. lobbyist for the Village Common of Rhode Island, states MSP already makes an enormous difference for many beneficiaries. But, “Rhode Island’s low threshold for eligibility and low allowable assets leaves thousands of our needy neighbors out. The good news is that Senator Cano’s legislation address these defects,” he said.

In submitted written testimony, Heather Smith, MD, president of the Rhode Island Medical Society stated From our perspective as physicians, we witness firsthand the adverse effects of financial barriers on patient health outcomes. Too often, individuals are forced to forgo or ration medications, delay necessary treatments, or skip preventative care due to concerns of affordability. These delays can exacerbate health conditions, lead to complications, and ultimately result in higher healthcare costs down the road.”

Alex Moore, political director of SEIU 1199NE, stressed the many benefits of passing S. 2399, specifically enhancing access to care, providing needed financial  relief, leveraging federal funds, and strengthening the health care workforce. By supporting the legislative proposal, “we demonstrate our commitment to health and well-being of our state’s most vulnerable populations,” he stated in written testimony.

Even with the strong support of the aging community, the state’s Office of Healthy Aging has not yet taken an official position on S. 2399.  “As with any other bills at this stage of the session, we are reviewing the impact of H 7333 and S 2399 on Rhode Islanders. We will continue to follow these bills as they make their way through the legislative process,” says  Director Maria Cimini.

Samuel Salganik, JD, executive director of RIPIN, which offered testimony in support for S.2399, said, “This is one of the best investments available right now for our state government.  At a cost of just over $5 million, the State can draw down more than $40 million in federal support to assist low-income seniors in Rhode Island,” says Salganik. “It’s a great deal for the state. I think that’s a deal that most of us would happily take,” adds Salganik.

Gov. Dan McKee’s recently released FY 2024 Budget does not include funding for to expand the state’s MSP.  Now the ball is in House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi’s (D-Dist. 23, Warwick) court as his chamber collaborates with the Senate to hammer out budget resolution to be approved by the Rhode Island General Assembly to be sent for the Governor’s signature. Hopefully, Shekarchi will see the expansion of the state’s MPM as a win-win for lower-income and disabled persons on Medicare and the state.  As supporters of  S 2399 and H 7333 say, “it’s a no brainer.”

The Advocacy Partners for MSP Expansion was established to push for the passage of S 2399 and H 7333 during this legislative session. They are: the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island, Rhode Island Organizing Project, RIPIN, the Economic Progress Institute, the Protect Our Healthcare Coalition and the Ocean State Center for Independent Living.

To access the bills under consideration:

Expanding the income eligibility for the Medicare Savings Program (MSP) is one of the legislative priorities of the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island. These policy issues will be discussed at its upcoming  Legislative Leaders Forum scheduled on Wednesday, March 27, 2024, from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 601 Greenwich Ave,, Warwick, RI. 

The Senior Agenda Coalition of RI’s Annual Legislative Leaders Forum is this week:

To access all of Herb’s articles published by RINewstoday on aging issues, go to

Herb Weiss

Herb Weiss, LRI -12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who has covered aging, health care and medical issues for over 43 years. To purchase his books, Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly and a sequel, compiling weekly published articles, go to

Herb Weiss 2-volume book set, Taking Charge

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