Connecting Older Adults to Benefits Programs

This blog was written by Anne Paprocki of Social Policy Research Associates.

By providing support for healthcare expenses and food, public benefits programs like the Medicare Savings Program (MSP) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can help low-income older adults stay healthy, self-sufficient, and in their homes. But multiple studies have found that eligible older adults under-enroll in these programs due to stigma, belief that others are more deserving, the perceived burden of applying, or difficulty following complex application and eligibility processes.

The National Council on Aging provides support to 60 organizations across the country that tackle this challenge directly.  The organizations, which range from senior centers to health clinics to food banks, run Benefits Enrollment Centers (BECs) that use innovative outreach, screening, and application assistance strategies to connect their clients, older adults 65 and over and adults with disabilities, to benefits programs. Each BEC assists with the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), the Low Income Subsidy (LIS), Medicaid, MSP, and SNAP.

As part of SPR’s evaluation of NCOA’s BEC work, we visited eight BECs to identify some of their most promising outreach, screening, and application assistance strategies. In this blog, we focus specifically on several creative partnerships BECs have developed to conduct outreach and expand their potential client base. While most BECs also draw on well-established outreach methods, such as distributing flyers at senior centers, producing radio public service announcements, and hanging posters to advertise the BEC, they are also trying more creative ways to reach and help potential clients.

  • “Prescribing” benefits checkups. In the Lexington, Kentucky area, doctors are “prescribing” their patients with a visit to the local BEC. Legal Aid of the Bluegrass designed prescription pads with information about their services that medical staff can give to those who might be eligible and would benefit from a screening. Staff at the BEC reported that hospitals have been more interested in partnering now that the Affordable Care Act includes hospital accountability requirements. Using a prescription pad rather than a flyer emphasizes the importance of the services.
  • Creating BEC satellites to reach new clients. In Hoboken, New Jersey, HOPES Community Action Partnership partners with the local housing authority, which has provided a dedicated unit in a public housing building for a satellite BEC. The housing authority reportedly has little funding to provide its own support services, so its staff members are eager to refer residents to this on-site BEC for assistance with benefits. This satellite has provided the BEC staff with an easy way to meet clients where they are likely to feel most comfortable.
  • Advertising the BEC to individuals already screened as income-eligible for another program. In Missouri, one Area Agency on Aging from the state’s network puts flyers about the BEC into 900 Commodity and Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) boxes each month. To be eligible for this program, which is administered by a food bank there, individuals must be under 130 percent of the federal poverty line. This means they are also likely to be eligible for the core BEC benefits.
  • Connecting with partners that speak multiple languages. Limited English Proficiency is a major barrier for many eligible older adults in accessing core benefits. Information provided by the agencies that administer benefits is sometimes only available in English. In addition to hiring BEC staff members who speak multiple languages themselves, many BECs also partner with other organizations in their communities who can serve speakers of Korean, Russian, Spanish, or Bosnian, for example.
  • Using NCOA Funding to Enhance Outreach Partnerships. While many BECs partner informally with other organizations to conduct outreach, AgeOptions in Chicago and the Chinese Information and Service Center in Seattle have both chosen to use some of their BEC funding to strengthen their referral relationships with community-based organizations that they think can expand their reach. By paying these partners and giving them specific outreach goals, BEC staff members believe the partners are more engaged and committed to making referrals to support the BEC.

Using these outreach strategies in combination with screening and application assistance techniques, BECs have helped thousands of individuals receive the benefits for which they are eligible. Our analysis of the outcomes data BECs report to NCOA found that together, BECs currently submit about 10,000 benefits applications a month. BECs have also increased their reach over time—in January 2014, they combined to submit about 2,000 applications a month. This growth is due to both a larger number of BECs and an increase in the number of applications each BEC submits.

As the population continues to age, BECs’ potential client base will also expand. But these “new,” younger seniors may respond differently to outreach about benefits. As a next step, NCOA is currently exploring how BECs and other organizations can best use social media, such as Facebook advertising, to reach this group. We are currently evaluating the success of these new efforts.

In the meantime, for more details about current promising outreach, screening, and application support strategies to connect older adults and those with disabilities to public benefits, download our full report from the NCOA website here. It includes tips and case studies from each of the eight BECs we visited.