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About 5,000 poor, elderly Utahns pay their own Medicare costs, although the state has the money - and a legal obligation - to cover those costs.

Under the Qualified Medicare Beneficiary program, which is part of the Catastrophic Coverage Act of 1988, the state's Medicaid program pays the monthly $29.90 Medicare premium for people who live at or below the federal poverty line. It also pays co-payments and deductibles, which can amount to over $1,000."We estimated there were about 7,000 Utahns who were eligible to have Medicaid pay those premiums," said Rod Betit, director of the Division of Health Care Financing. The division administers Utah's low-income medical programs, including Medicaid. "We're only paying for about 1,500. We don't know where the others are."

In an effort to attract people who may qualify for the QMB program, mailings were sent out to people on the Social Security list. The state also visited senior centers to discuss the program and engaged in some advertising. Local media also ran stories, but about 5,500 people have failed to take advantage of the program.

Poverty is defined as $552 a month for one person or $740 a month for a couple. To qualify as a QMB, the senior citizen must meet the income guidelines and have liquid assets of less than $4,000 an individual or $6,000 a couple. Things like houses are not considered.

In 1993 the coverage will be extended to those with incomes up to 110 percent of poverty and in 1995 it will reach those at 120 percent of poverty.

Applications are taken through the Department of Human Services' local offices. Betit said anyone who thinks he or she might qualify should apply.

A nonprofit advocacy group released a report earlier this week that said more than 2 million poor, elderly Americans could receive the assistance but haven't applied. Less than half of those who could qualify are receiving it, according to the Families USA Foundation.

The foundation criticized the government for not doing a better job of advertising the benefit. Betit disputes that.

"We don't know where the people are. But we have done just about everything we can think of to let them know the money is available for this program."