Around three-quarters of American adults want to stay in their own homes as they age, but many have concerns about how they would access help in the case of a fall or emergency. This is why medical alert systems are so popular. Also known as Personal Emergency Response Systems (PERS), these systems allow seniors to call for assistance when they can’t reach a phone. The best medical alert systems have easy-to-use, wearable technology that connects to a response center or preprogrammed phone numbers, so seniors can reach help when it’s needed.
However, the costs involved in a medical alert system may make them seem out of reach for seniors on a limited budget. Thankfully, free and low-cost systems are available. This guide has information about medical alert system pricing and how seniors may be able to access a system without blowing their budget.
Medical alert systems have both an upfront cost and ongoing costs. Initially, seniors must pay an upfront cost for the equipment, as well as a monthly monitoring fee. The monitoring fee covers the cost of emergency response operators who answer calls and assess the situation when the alarm is activated.
Some companies provide equipment for free or at a low cost, although these plans often have higher monthly monitoring fees. Other companies only charge for equipment, but have no monthly fees. These systems may not connect to a call center. Instead, the system calls prearranged numbers, such as a neighbor or family member, when activated. The system can also contact 9-1-1 if needed. Usually the initial outlay is higher, but this may be an option for seniors who can access a grant or have family members willing to help pay for the cost of equipment.
Medicaid programs are run by individual states, so the benefits can differ widely. However, many Medicaid waiver programs have a personal emergency response system among the benefits. This is especially true of waivers designed to encourage seniors to remain living independently at home, as a medical alert system can help many seniors feel safer and more comfortable. In most cases these programs offer services based on an individual’s needs, so even if it’s a benefit, it may not be available for all participants. Seniors can check the details of their state’s Medicaid plan to discover if they can obtain a PERS through the program.
If Medicaid doesn’t cover a medical alert system, it may still count as a medically necessary cost. This can be important for people who don’t meet the financial eligibility requirements to qualify for Medicaid. Many states have a medically needy pathway, where medical expenses are deducted from their income and eligibility is based on this new, lower income. Although seniors have to pay for the medical alert system in this scenario, the costs may lower their income enough to enroll in Medicaid and access the other services available for the system.
Some health insurance plans do cover the cost of a medical alert system, but it can vary widely depending on the provider, the type of coverage and a senior’s location and income. Often, systems aren’t clearly outlined as a benefit, so it’s important to check with individual providers. Emergency response systems are eligible medical expenses for people with a Health Savings Account (HSA) or Flexible Spending Account (FSA).
Medicare Parts A and B don’t cover the cost of an alert system. Part A is designed to cover the cost of major care, such as hospitalizations, while Part B is for short-term treatments, such as doctor’s visits. However, seniors who are enrolled in Medicare Part C, also known as Medicare Advantage, may be able to claim a PERS through their plan.
Medicare Advantage plans are offered by private insurance companies. These plans must cover everything included in Part A and Part B, however, many programs also have additional benefits. Medically necessary devices are a common additional benefit, although it’s up to the provider to determine exactly what is medically necessary. In most cases, providers don’t relate the term “medically necessary” to any particular condition. Instead, they look at the needs of individual applicants to determine if a PERS can assist their health. For example, if a senior is transitioning from living in a nursing home back to the community, a medical alert system will often be deemed medically necessary.
Seniors who have served in the military may be eligible for a medical alert system through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA has a number of approved providers that offer complimentary medical alert systems to qualifying veterans. These systems tend to have fewer features compared to well-known brands, but can still be a suitable option for seniors. Veterans who have health care coverage through TRICARE may also be able to claim a medical alert system through their insurance, but it isn’t guaranteed.
Each state has Area Agencies on Aging, which administer programs to benefit seniors in the area. These agencies may have programs that offer free medical alert systems, or know of resources in the state that can help seniors access low-cost systems. Most states also have assistive technology programs funded through the Assistive Technology Act of 2004. Although it’s rare for these programs to offer free equipment, they often have reuse programs that may allow seniors to obtain medical alert system equipment at a low cost.
Finally, PERS providers understand the cost barriers that many seniors have to overcome to access their services. They often partner with programs and organizations that offer discounts. Seniors can contact their preferred provider to see if there are any programs that may be of benefit. Be sure to ask about other costs, such as delivery, installation and ongoing subscription fees, to understand the potential expenses involved in any program.
High fees can make seniors hesitate to get a medical alert system, despite the numerous benefits they can bring. Seniors looking for the freedom and peace of mind that comes from knowing they can access help can explore options for free or discounted systems.