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Scarce funds will no longer prohibit Utah's low-income elderly from seeing a doctor.

The Utah Medical Association, in conjunction with agencies for the aging, Wednesday announced "PLUS 65" - a new program involving more than 800 Utah physicians statewide who have agreed to voluntarily accept Medicare assignments for needy eligible patients.For the low-income elderly, this means easier access to medical care.

"Affordable health care is a goal beyond the means of many low-income people in Utah, including the elderly. Medicare does not cover all health-care costs; elderly patients often incur considerable out-of-pocket expenses. The Utah Medical Association is committed to ensuring that no person should forgo needed medical care for financial reasons," said Brent Rufener, a spokesman for the Utah Medical Association.

The association's leaders announced the program Wednesday during a press conference at Sen. Orrin Hatch's Senior Conference at Little America. The conference, attended by more than 2,000 participants, featured a speech by former White House-aide Oliver North, a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal. Government and health care officials also spoke.

Leaders of the Utah Medical Association said that despite cutbacks in the Medicare and Medicaid programs resulting in shrinking physician reimbursements, more than 95 percent of Utah doctors are treating Medicare patients. Approximately 70 percent of the providers are still taking Medicare assignments - meaning they accept the reimbursement and, for the most part, absorb the losses.

According to the association, the new program goes one step further both to assist the needy and help them maintain their dignity.

"PLUS 65" gives the elderly poor a list of doctors to whom they can go for care - doctors who will ask no embarrassing questions about the patient's financial status.

Patients accepted into the program will merely be issued a "PLUS 65 Medical Courtesy Care" that can be presented to any participating physician. The physician will accept the Medicare assignment amount as payment in full - no questions asked. Medicare regulations mandate, however, that patients retain responsibility for the normal 20 percent co-payment.

Providing medical care to Utah's homeless and low-income has been a major goal of Dr. John C. Nelson, association president, who hailed the new program.

"Easy access can be a matter of life and death to some patients. If needy patients can't find a doctor who accepts Medicare assignment, they may forgo the care they need because they are embarrassed or perhaps too proud to ask for financial help," Nelson said.

According to Rufener, "PLUS 65" is really a "win-win" program.

"Not only does it help our elderly patients who may be in financial straits, it also helps doctors avoid having to delve into a person's financial status to see if he or she needs a break on the cost of care." To participate in the program, persons must fill out a simple, one-page form.

Forms will be available from agencies such as Utah Legal Services, county aging agencies, the Utah Medical Association, the Utah Aging-Adult Services Division and from participating physicians' offices.


(Additional information)

`PLUS 65' - here's how to qualify

-Must be 65 years of age or older

-Must make an annual income of no more than $11,000 (or $15,000 for couples)

-Can have an income as much as 200 percent of federal poverty level