The advertisement promised something for nothing, and several savvy readers were suspicious.
This time, the offer was legitimate.
Several readers have called in to ask about an advertisement they saw on television that offered people on government assistance a free wireless phone and 50 free minutes per month. The program, offered by Nexus Communications phone service is for recipients of Medicaid, SSI, food stamps, and other types of assistance. When one reader called the 800 number, however, it was learned proof must be supplied they were on a government program.
“I don’t want to give out my Medicaid card number,” one caller said. “Is this a scam?”
Calls to the Missouri Public Service Commission (PSC) and Nexus Communications revealed that “Reach Out Wireless” is a legitimate program. In fact, other wireless companies have similar offers.
The phone program is part of an underused Lifeline discount program started by the federal government in the mid-1980s.
“Lifeline offers a discount up to $13.50 on your local phone bill,” explained John Van Eschen, manager of the PSC’s telecommunications department. “Some wireless carriers now participate, and in doing so, they give the phone away.”
Lifeline is designed to help lower-income citizens who otherwise might not be able to afford a phone stay connected with family and friends, contact emergency services, or reach government and community agencies. A related program, Link-Up, provides federal funds to provide discounts for installation of land-line phones. Funding comes from the Federal Universal Fund and the Missouri Universal Fund and goes to the companies to offset revenue losses from offering the discounts.
The program is similar to discount programs offered by other utilities for lower-income customers, said Steve Fenker, president of Nexus Communications.
Eligible participants must be in one of several assistance programs, or may be eligible for assistance if they or a member of their household participates in any of these programs: Food Stamps, MOHealthnet (or Medicaid), Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Program (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Federal Public Housing Assistance, National School Lunch Program’s free lunch program and certain disability benefits.
The Reach Out Wireless program automatically loads 50 free minutes to an eligible customer’s phone each month. If the customer does not use the minutes, the minutes roll over to the next month. If the person wants additional minutes, they buy them in $5 increments from Nexus Communications. There is no activation fee, nor are there monthly fees, Fenker said.
Customers must renew annually with up-to-date proof of government assistance.
TracFone Wireless offers a similar program called SafeLink Wireless that provides a free cell phone and 68 free minutes per month.
“Some ask why a cell phone?” spokesman Sonia Villar said. “Whether stranded on the side of the road, needing access to your children’s school or vice versa, or ensuring potential employers have access to those seeking employment, having a cell phone is critical in today’s mobile society.”
However, the need for proof of government assistance is an issue in Missouri, Fenker said.
In some states, customers list the government assistance they receive, then the phone companies can contact a centralized database to verify the information. That ability is not available in Missouri.
“We’re talking to Social Service about the process of getting access a list, in part for an independent audit,” Van Eschen said. “We haven’t thoroughly invested that (database) yet.”
In the meantime, customers do not have to provide their Medicaid number, Fenker said. A letter from the caseworker, a monthly statement from the assistance program or similar proof is acceptable.
Proof is needed in order to maintain the integrity of the program, Van Eschen said. Eligible Missourians may apply for the program by filling out an application for the company whose program they choose. They will need to provide Social Security numbers and proof of participation in a government assistance program.
Paula Barr is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-431-2010, ext. 172 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.