Few Utahns are taking advantage of a program that will pay Medicare premiums, hospital deductibles and co-payments for the elderly who have very low incomes.

State Medicaid funds must pay the $31.90 premiums for those who meet eligibility guidelines, as federally mandated by the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act of 1988. To be eligible, a one-person household must have a monthly income of $498 or less; two people must have $668 or less.An estimated 15,000 Utahns are eligible for the Qualified Medicare Beneficiary program, which began Jan. 1, but by mid-February fewer than 500 had applied, said Robin Arnold-Williams, Division of Aging and Adult Services. Individuals must apply to participate and the payments are not retroactive.

Arnold-Williams cited two reasons why application numbers may be low.

"I don't think they (potential beneficiaries) really understand what the benefit to them is. The increased Medicare premiums coincided with a cost-of-living adjustment, so I think many people thought they'd just gotten a little less of a raise than they expected. And, because the money is automatically deducted (from Social Security checks) each month, they've never seen it. But for people with very low incomes, that's a lot of money."

People must apply at local Office of Community Operations locations, and she said that may be another problem. "The elderly may not want to go into what they think of as `that welfare office' to apply. They see this as a government handout, even though they're entitled to it and the money's there, so they don't apply."

Applying has advantages, said Jennifer Lee of the Office of Assistance Payments Administration. Many of the elderly who apply for the Medicare assistance find out that they are eligible for Medicaid, which will also pay for pharmaceutical supplies.

The state sent out an explanation of the new program to all Medicare recipients in mid-January, using mailing lists provided by Blue Cross/Blue Shield, because the Social Security Administration will not include such mailings with the monthly checks.