Many older Americans who have Affordable Care Act insurance policies are going to miss a Sept. 30 deadline to enroll in Medicare, and they need more time to make the change, advocates say.
A lifetime of late enrollment penalties typically await people who don't sign up for Medicare Part B -- which covers doctor visits and other outpatient services -- when they first become eligible. That includes people who mistakenly thought that because they had insurance through the ACA marketplaces, they didn't need to enroll in Medicare.
On Wednesday, more than 40 groups, including consumer health advocacy organizations and insurers, asked Medicare chief Seema Verma to extend the waiver deadline through at least Dec. 31, because they are worried that many people who could be helped still don't know about it.
They also say more time is needed because of application delays at some Social Security Administration (SSA) local offices, where beneficiaries request the waiver.
"We know there are people who can still benefit from it," said Stacy Sanders, the federal policy director at the Medicare Rights Center, a Washington-based advocacy group that coordinated the request to Medicare. "We know there have been delays, and those are good reasons to extend it."
Counselors at the Medicare Rights Center have helped seniors apply for the waiver in Arizona, California, Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey and New York, she said.
Since the marketplaces opened in 2014, the focus has been on getting people enrolled, Sanders added. "There's no reason to expect that people would understand how to move out of the marketplace into Medicare."
The waiver offer applies not only to people over 65 who have kept their marketplace plans, but also to younger people who qualify for Medicare through a disability and chose to use marketplace plans.
The waiver also allows Medicare beneficiaries who earlier realized their mistake in keeping a marketplace plan and have switched to ask for a reduction or elimination of the penalty.
In all cases, people had to be eligible for Medicare after April 1, 2013.
Officials at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid, which runs Medicare, would not provide details about the number of waivers granted or pending applications. Nor would they comment on the likelihood of an extension.
Barbara Davis said that when she initially applied, a Social Security representative didn't know about the waiver. She eventually contacted the Medicare Rights Center, where a counselor interceded on her behalf in June. A day later, a Social Security representative told her she would not have a penalty.
"My advice would be, find out your rights before you apply," said Davis, 68, who lives with her husband in rural western New York. "Because they don't seem to want to give you information to help you, you have to know this on your own."
A Social Security spokeswoman said the agency is processing waiver applications from "across the country" but does not keep track of the number. She declined to comment on whether SSA employees know about the waiver.
Sanders suggested that people applying for the waiver ask Social Security officials for it by using its official name: "time-limited equitable relief."
Since Medicare's Part A hospitalization benefit is usually free, some seniors who liked their marketplace coverage thought -- incorrectly -- that they had nothing to lose by signing up for Part A and keeping their marketplace plan.
Some people receiving Social Security retirement or disability benefits opted to keep their marketplace plan and drop Part B after the Social Security Administration enrolled them automatically in Medicare when they became eligible.
If the temporary waiver expires, the only other way for beneficiaries to get an exemption is by proving they declined Part B because a government employee misinformed them.
The groups writing Verma argue that keeping the waiver in place past Sept. 30 could also help many beneficiaries who may be surprised by a little-known rule that will affect 2018 marketplace policies.
For the first time, insurers will be prohibited from issuing a marketplace plan if they know the member is eligible for Medicare and the 2018 policy is significantly different.
Those who find themselves without a marketplace plan could be in for another surprise: They won't have insurance for outpatient care until July 1 because Medicare imposes a waiting period before Part B coverage kicks in for latecomers.
Extending the deadline "would lessen a significant hardship for many people ... [who] are unaware of the repercussions that could result from keeping their marketplace coverage," said Cathryn Donaldson, a spokeswoman for America's Health Insurance Plans, an industry group.
For information on how to apply for the time-limited equitable relief waiver, go to the Medicare Rights Center's Medicare Interactive webpage or call the center's helpline at 1-800-333-4114.