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The federal government continues to deduct an estimated $800 million in Medicare premiums annually from some 2 million elderly poor exempt from the charges, an advocacy group said yesterday. Families USA Foundation charged in a report that $29.90 in monthly charges, or $380 annually, are "wrongfully" deducted from the Social Security checks of an estimated 2 million elderly people living below the poverty line, despite a change in budget rules last fall that protected them from the charges.

The foundation said last year's budget agreement exempted older Americans living below the poverty line from paying out-of-pocket expenses for Medicare, the federally funded health-care program for the elderly.

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Four million people qualify for protection from out-of-pocket Medicare expenses, but fewer than half receive the benefit, the foundation said in its report, "The Secret Benefit."

The primary problem is that eligible recipients must apply for the exemption and the foundation charges that the federal government has "neglected to notify people of their new rights."

To be eligible, single seniors must have annual incomes below $6,620 and assets totaling less than $4,000. Elderly couples qualify with annual incomes below $8,880 and assets totaling less than $6,000.

The foundation says the government should inform the elderly of their rights by inserting a note explaining the benefits in the next round of Social Security checks.

Families USA Foundation describes itself as a nonprofit advocacy group working for economically vulnerable seniors and their families.

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