Senior citizens will have less reason to worry about being wiped out financially by costs incurred during a catastrophic illness. But the changes in Medicare coverage that make this possible have not been adequately explained to the nation's senior citizens.

Terry Lange, director of reimbursement at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, said that though the change is the first significant shuffle in senior citizens' benefits for several years, "the biggest problem we've got is most seniors don't understand their present coverage under Medicare, let alone new coverage standards they will soon be faced with."The Catastrophic Illness Bill recently passed by Congress takes effect Jan. 1. The government is mailing a handbook explaining the changes to all 32 million Medicare recipients; handbooks are expected to reached beneficiaries before the end of the year.

Private organizations, such as the American Association of Retired Persons and Intermountain Health Care's Senior Life Club, also are working to educate seniors about the coverage changes.

"I'm here to help any seniors who need help in figuring out how they are covered by Medicare as well as by their medigap insurance (private policies that pick up costs not covered by Medicare)," Lange said.

Medicare coverage is divided into two parts; changes effective Jan. 1 fall under Part A of that coverage, which includes all inpatient hospital care, some psychiatric services, skilled nursing services and hospice care.

The deductible for Part A services rises from $540 to $564 on Jan. 1, but will cover a one-year period rather than a 60-day benefit period. As a result, a person who is in and out of the hospital several times during the year will have to pay only one deductible. In addition, in the past Medicaid no longer paid the full costs if a person stayed in the hospital longer than 60 days. This is no longer the case.

Currently, seniors have to be hospitalized for three days before Medicare will authorize placement in a skilled nursing facility. Under the new Medicare coverage, no hospitalization is required prior to placement in such a facility.

"This is another significant change," Lange said. "The average length of stay at UVRMC is only 3.7 days, and many seniors are ready to be released to the care of a skilled nursing facility after one or two days."

Changes in Part B of Medicare coverage take effect in 1990-91. Part B includes home health services, prescription drugs and outpatient hospital services.

Lange is available to present seminars on the changes to interested groups. Call 373-7850, ext. 4205.