Updated January 17, 2019
Many people who are elderly or have disabilities have trouble paying the portion of medical bills left unpaid by Medicare and cannot afford private medigap insurance or a Medicare Advantage plan, but do not qualify for Medicaid. If this is your situation, you might be able to get help paying Medicare premiums and portions of Medicare-covered costs that Medicare does not pay. Three cost-reduction programs—called Qualified Medicare Beneficiary (QMB), Specified Low-Income Medicare Beneficiary (SLMB), and Qualifying Individual (QI)—are administered by each state’s Medicaid program. (In addition, you may also qualify for "Extra Help" paying for the Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Program.)
If you are eligible for Medicare and meet the income and asset eligibility requirements for the QMB program, your state's QMB program will pay all of your Medicare Part A and Part B premiums, deductibles, and coinsurance. Depending on how much you use Medicare-covered services in a year, this could mean a savings of up to several thousand dollars.
To be eligible as a Qualified Medicare Beneficiary (QMB), your income must be no more than slightly above the Federal Poverty Guidelines (FPG), or Federal Poverty Level (FPL). This figure is established each year by the federal government; in 2019, the poverty level is $12,490 per year for an individual and $16,910 per year for a married couple. These figures are somewhat higher in Alaska and Hawaii.
It’s important to know, however, that certain amounts of income are not counted in determining QMB eligibility. Particularly if you are still working and most of your income comes from your earnings, you may be able to qualify as a QMB even if your total income is almost twice the FPG. QMB follows the SSI guidelines on what income that should be counted, which means roughly half of your income from work is not counted. If, after applying these rules, the figure you arrive at is anywhere close to the QMB qualifying limit (in 2019, $1,061 in monthly countable income for an individual, $1,429 for a couple), it is worth applying for it. (The limits are somewhat higher in Alaska and Hawaii.)
There is a limit on the value of the assets you can own and still qualify as a QMB. While the limit is $7,730 for an individual and $11,600 for a married couple, many assets, such as your house, your car, and certain personal and household goods, are not part of the resources that are counted. QMB follows the SSI guidelines for which assets are countable.
If your income is slightly too high for you to qualify for QMB benefits, you may still be eligible for one of two other state medical assistance programs: Specified Low-Income Medicare Beneficiary (SLMB) or Qualifying Individual (QI). The resource limits for eligibility are the same as for a QMB, but the income limits are 20%–80% higher, depending on the program.
If your counted monthly income—after the adjustments made in calculating income for SSI purposes—is under $1,269 for an individual, or $1,711 for a couple (in 2019), you are likely to qualify for SLMB support. (These figures go up slightly each year.)
If your counted monthly income is under $1,425 for an individual, or $1,922 for a couple (in 2019), you are likely to qualify for QI support.
The asset limits are the same as for the QMB program: $7,730 for an individual and $11,600 for a married couple.
Because the SLMB and QI programs are for people with higher incomes, they have fewer benefits than the QMB program. The SLMB and QI programs pay all or part of the Medicare Part B monthly premium, but do not pay any Medicare deductibles or coinsurance amounts. Nonetheless, this means potential savings of more than a thousand dollars per year.
Before you can get coverage by the QMB, SLMB, or QI programs, you must file a written application separate from your Medicare application. If you are found ineligible for one program, you may still be found eligible for one of the others.
To qualify for the QMB, SLMB, or QI programs, you must file a written application with the agency that handles Medicaid in your state—usually your county’s Department of Social Services or Social Welfare Department.
Because eligibility for the QMB, SLMB, or QI programs depends on your financial situation, many of the documents you must bring to the Medicaid office are those that will verify your income and assets.
Although a Medicaid eligibility worker might require additional specific information from you, you will at least be able to get the application process started if you bring:
Anyone who qualifies for one of the above Medicare Savings Programs will also qualify for the Part D Extra Help program, which pays Part D premiums and deductibles for the prescription drug program.
If you are denied eligibility for QMB, SLMB, or QI, you have a right to appeal. If you believe you should be eligible for one of he programs, go to the office where you applied. Ask about the procedure in your state for getting a hearing to appeal that decision.
At an appeal hearing, you will be able to present any documents or other papers—proof of income, assets, medical bills—that you think support your claim. You will also be allowed to explain why the Medicaid decision was wrong.
The hearing itself is usually held at or near the welfare or social service office. You are permitted to have a friend, relative, social worker, lawyer, or other representative appear with you to help at the hearing. Although the exact procedure for obtaining this hearing, and the hearing itself, may be slightly different from state to state, they all resemble very closely the hearings given to applicants for Social Security benefits. For more information, see Nolo’s articles on Medicaid appeals.
If you are denied QMB, SLMB, or QI, you may want to consult with someone experienced in the subject to help you prepare your appeal. One place you can find quality free assistance with these matters is the nearest office of the State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP).
If there is no SHIP office near you, you may be able to find other assistance through your local senior center or by calling the Senior Information line listed in the white pages of your telephone directory. You can also hire a Medicaid lawyer or disability lawyer to help.