The coronavirus pandemic has been devastating for senior citizens. Nationwide, 8 out of 10 people who died after contracting the virus have been age 65 or older. Meanwhile, strict social distancing requirements and stay-at-home orders have coupled with limits on nursing home visits and the shuttering of senior centers and churches to leave many older Americans essentially closed off from friends and family.
Before the pandemic, according to a report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, about a quarter of people 65 and older reported they were suffering feelings of isolation and loneliness. That number has only gotten worse since March.
“We already had a crisis of loneliness; this pandemic has blown it wide open,” Alicia Arbaje, an internist, geriatric medicine specialist and researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in an interview with the AARP.
Unfortunately, this intense blend of anxiety and isolation has left many seniors vulnerable to those looking to profit off the pandemic.
Under one scheme outlined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, scammers offer “free,” unsolicited COVID-19 tests to Medicare recipients. Once the unsuspecting seniors turn over their personal information, however, scammers use the information to drain their bank accounts or file fraudulent Medicare claims with the government. Other times, the scammers will try to pass themselves off as contact tracers looking to chart the path of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Essentially, the scammers are committing medical identity theft. And when Medicare or Medicaid denies the claim for a fake test, the victimized seniors can be held responsible for the cost.
A bipartisan group of 44 state attorneys general, including Maura Healey of Massachusetts and Gordon MacDonald of New Hampshire, are urging Congress to include a provision for senior fraud victims in the next coronavirus relief package. The proposal would make elderly victims of COVID-19 fraud eligible for reimbursement through the federal Crime Victims Fund, which is administered by the states.
It’s a fine idea -- one that Congress should certainly adopt. It is far better, however, to help seniors fend off scammers in the first place. There’s never been a better time than now to check in on an elderly friend or relative.
To report suspected elder abuse, call the statewide 24-hour hotline at 1-800-922-2275.