Fran Seeley, 82, stands to gain about $115 per month from the Medicare Savings Program reforms, which will help her have a stable income in her retirement. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Fran Seeley keeps meticulous records on monthly income and expenses.

The 82-year-old widow lives in Portland on a limited fixed income, so is careful to stick to a tight household budget. And even then, Seeley, a former nun and Catholic school teacher, has had to draw down on her savings every month.

Starting next year, however, Seeley will likely receive an extra $115 in monthly income thanks to a bill passed by Maine lawmakers and signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills that expands eligibility for the Medicare Savings Program. The program offsets the cost of Medicare insurance premiums, which otherwise are subtracted from Social Security benefits. The expansion, which would begin next March, still needs approval from federal regulators.

About 19,000 Maine residents over 65, many of them low-income women living alone, will be made eligible for the program under the new law, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The program is one of several ways that the Legislature and Mills administration moved this year to expand the social safety net, including establishing a paid family and medical leave benefit and increasing child care subsidies.

“It will ease the worry that’s always in the back of my mind. Will I run out of money before I die?” said Seeley, who moved to Portland in 1999 with her late husband, Jim.

Seeley said at the rate she’s going – she’s tapping into her savings and retirement accounts for everyday expenses – she would likely run out of money in about a decade. And that’s not accounting for large, unexpected expenses.


Before the new law passed, she said, it was as if she was being penalized for being a good saver.

The Medicare Savings Program helps boost Social Security payments for low-income retirees by reducing or eliminating Medicare insurance premiums that are automatically deducted from their monthly checks. The program is actually funded through Medicaid, a federal program operated by states using a blend of federal and state tax dollars.

Maine’s plan will expand eligibility for the program from those earning up to 185% of the federal poverty level to those earning 250% of the poverty level, or $33,975 for a single person.

The reforms will also eliminate an asset test instituted in 2013 under former Gov. Paul LePage, which reduced eligibility for people with assets such as savings, retirement accounts, second vehicles, boats, snowmobiles, ATVs and other items. Seeley said her savings account of $45,000 and retirement account of $50,000 disqualified her for the Medicare Savings Program starting in 2013.


But with the asset test eliminated, Seeley said, her Social Security checks should increase from $840 per month to $955 per month.


“Removal of the asset test and changing income levels will allow greater participation by older participants in the Medicare Savings Program,” Maine DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell said in a statement.

Farwell said premium relief for older low-income residents can be up to $508 per month for Medicare Part A hospital insurance, and averages about $165 per month for Medicare Part B medical insurance. Some will also get help paying co-insurance and deductibles.

Jessica Maurer, executive director of the Maine Council on Aging, said the current eligibility rules are stacked against people who were excluded from the workplace decades ago, such as women who had children and stopped working to care for them, and minorities excluded from certain professions. Social Security payments are based in part on how much income a person paid into the program, Maurer said, but unpaid labor, such as taking care of children or caregiving for an older relative, are not counted.

“Getting this passed is a really, really big deal,” Maurer said. “The current eligibility limits are significantly under a livable wage.”

Fran Seeley, 82, stands to gain about $115 per month from the Medicare Savings Program reforms, which will help her maintain a stable income in her retirement. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The reforms will cost an estimated $18.4 million starting in 2024-25, including $10.4 million in federal money and $8 million in state dollars.

Seeley said she and her husband didn’t earn much but were good at saving money, and were able to purchase a house in Portland after moving here from California. Her husband died of cancer in 2001 when he was 62.

Seeley volunteers as a foster grandparent at Talbot Elementary School in Portland and with a senior companions program. She’s been relatively healthy, but at 82 is worried about her future health and the expenses that come along with serious medical issues.

“I’m not an anxious person, but it will help to have a little bit more of a cushion,” Seeley said. “I don’t want to be spending myself down into poverty.”

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