Unlike most states, Utah has taken prompt action to implement a program for the elderly poor, but the response has been minimal.

Only a few states have begun paying Medicare premiums for those who earn below 85 percent of poverty, as required by the recently passed Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act of 1988.The Qualified Medicare Beneficiary program, commonly referred to as the QMB, also picks up co-payments and deductibles for participants. The program will eventually be phased in across the nation to include those who live at or below the poverty line: $498 for one-person households and $668 for two persons.

Utah chose to introduce the program at the full phase-in level rather than dragging out the process for two years, and state lawmakers appropriated the necessary funds during the last session of the Legislature.

The only thing missing now are applicants. Of an estimated 15,000 elderly Utahns who qualify for the program, fewer than 500 had applied as of mid-February.

While state officials should be congratulated on the steps they have taken to meet the federal regulations in a timely manner, everything possible should be done to let poor, elderly residents know about a program for which they are both eligible and entitled.

The Office of Assistance Payments Administration has already sent out a letter to Social Security recipients, explaining the new program and plans to try outreach programs at senior citizen centers and other places where the elderly congregate.

But the message isn't being heard. While the state needs to continue its efforts to publicize the program, the final responsibility belongs to those who may qualify for the program.

If an individual doesn't apply, he can't get help. That monthly Medicare premium can represent a lot of money to those who live at or below the poverty level.