Have Medical Bills, Game Plan Needed

Unpaid Medical BillsIt’s important to have a game plan for medical bills, and the game plan should probably not involve suing the hospital as a preemptive strike. That is precisely what occurred in Pitell v. King County Public Hospital, No. 767720-8-1 (Court of Appeals of Washington, Div., 1, August 13, 2018).

Steven Pittell had over $50,000 in his bank account but was uninsured and ineligible for Medicare and Medicaid, when he was admitted to the hospital.  He signed a consent form that stated in part:

I agree, whether I sign as a representative or as a patient, that in consideration of the service to be rendered to the patient, I agree to be personally responsible for the balance due after any applicable insurance payments. 

After Mr. Pittell was discharged, he was billed over $32,000 for the medical services provided to him. His application for charity care was denied due to his bank balances. The hospital did reduce the charge by 20% to approximately $25,800, because Pittell was uninsured. A majority of the five largest commercial insurers would have paid a higher rate on the patient’s bill.

Rather than paying the bill, Pittell sued the hospital on behalf of a class of similiarly situated patients, claiming that the consent form was unenforceable because the hospital failed to disclose its chargemaster (i.e., the hospital’s standard price list for hospital services) at the time of treatment.

The trial court rejected this argument, dismissing Pittell’s case and issuing a judgment requiring him to pay the amount of the discounted bill, plus attorney’s fees and costs.  The Court of Appeals of Washington affirmed.

Had Mr. Pittell purchased insurance on the exchange, he would have had coverage. Even if he did not, an attorney could advise him of important options, such as filing for bankruptcy, whether any federal benefits he was receiving (such as Social Security, the Veteran’s Improved pension) or a military or civil service pension or salary are protected against garnishment under federal law. The attorney could also have negotiated a reasonable payment plan.  If for some reason, the bill was already covered to some extent by Medicare, Medicaid or other health insurance, an attorney could help obtain evidence of other payments from the medical provider, review the bill, determine whether the amounts paid were accurate, and require the hospital to reduce the amount outstanding by the amount of any prior payments. If there is some insurance coverage, an attorney can also advise whether your state prohibit balance billing.

For more information about the circumstances under which federal benefits are protected, see my blog, When Are My Federal Benefits Protected?

Questions? Let Jane know.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.

Medicaid Planning In Incapacity: Brennan and Dale’s Excellent Adventures

Medicaid Planning In Incapacity

Medicaid is a joint federal and state program that provides funding for medical and long-term care to individuals with very low income and assets. Generally, a single individual cannot qualify for Medicaid unless her assets are less than $2,000 and she has gross monthly income below the sum of $2,313 (or if she does not, she uses a Miller Trust or a Qualified Income Trust correctly).  Where only one member of a married couple is applying for Medicaid, the healthy spouse may be able to retain up to the sum of $126,420 in 2019. Greater savings may be feasible with Medicaid planning.

Certain strategies can help you legally avoid unnecessary tax liability, avoid Medicaid liens and protect your assets, while facilitating eligibility for Medicaid and other means-tested public benefits.  Asset protection planning can preserve funds to pay for the “extras” that Medicaid cannot pay for, ensuring your loved one a measure of dignity and comfort. It can also protect the family home and even preserve a legacy for the children.

Planning strategies can include deeds, outright gifts, gifts in trust, and the purchase of Medicaid compliant annuities.  If the individual is able to enter into a legal and binding contract, execute a legal document and make decisions, public benefits planning can be done by the individual.  If this is no longer possible, the next option would be to plan through an existing general durable power of attorney.

But what if there is no power of attorney, or the existing power of attorney cannot be used?  Suppose step-brothers Brennan and Dale cannot get along but their parents, Nancy and Robert, named them as their decision-makers on their respective general durable powers of attorney, and the documents require Brennan and Dale to act jointly?  If Nancy and Robert are now incapacitated, using the power of attorney is not a viable option.  Nor will it be, if both Brennan and Dale refuse to serve and there is no other agent.  In this situation, Nancy and Robert could still benefit from Medicaid and tax planning through a guardianship.

The courts of New Jersey and many other states recognize that as incapacitated individuals, people like Nancy and Robert still have the right to restructure their finances through lawful tax and Medicaid planning as if they were able to act independently.  Once certain factors are established, a court is authorized to approve tax and Medicaid planning in the best interests of the incapacitated individual.  In these situations, asset protection planning may be accomplished through a guardianship.

An experienced and knowledgeable elder law attorney can help you determine whether your loved one needs tax or asset protection planning, and if so, when that planning can be authorized and carried out through a guardianship.

Questions? Let Jane know.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.

Medicaid Estate Recovery and the Home

Jane Fearn-Zimmer explains Medicaid Estate Recovery and the Home

MLTSS Medicaid pays for long term care for individuals with low income (below $2,313 gross monthly in 2019) and low assets.

Post-mortem (after death) Medicaid liens protect the fiscal integrity of the MLTSS Medicaid program by attaching to property held by a Medicaid enrollee at death. In most cases, such Medicaid liens are imposed upon property held by a former Medicaid enrollee to recoup the cost of care and services provided to the enrollee after reaching the age of 55. After the death of the Medicaid beneficiary, the Medicaid estate recovery program collects on the Medicaid liens, with the lien proceeds being paid to the government.

In most cases, Medicaid liens attach only to property in which the Medicaid enrollee held an interest at the moment immediately before death. If the Medicaid enrollee retained no interest just before death, there is nothing subject to a Medicaid lien.

An important planning strategy is to remove the name of the future MLTSS Medicaid recipient from the title to valuable property, such as a home. If the future Medicaid recipient is married, often this property can be transferred to the healthy spouse without any Medicaid penalty period, even during the five year Medicaid look back period.

If the future Medicaid enrollee’s name is not removed from the property at the correct time, a Medicaid lien on real property can cloud title, accelerate a mortgage, and potentially place the property in foreclosure.  Even if the mortgage is not accelerated, the Medicaid lien must be paid before the real property can be sold, given away or refinanced.  Consequently, that is one reason why you should only trust your Medicaid application to an experienced Medicaid attorney, who can determine the best strategy to avoid a Medicaid lien.

Every case is different.  Irrevocable trusts will be suitable for some clients; others may be able to transfer the home without incurring a Medicaid penalty period, where there is a blind or disabled child, a sibling with an equity interest in the home, or, less frequently, to a caregiver child.  There are also some limited exceptions to Medicaid estate recovery.

The good news is that an experienced and knowledgeable elder law attorney can explain how to protect your home and your life savings, even if your loved one is already in long-term care.

Questions? Let Jane know.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.

Can I Keep My Small Business and Still Go on Medicaid?

small business.jpg

Medicaid, the largest payment source for nursing home care in the United States, is a government health insurance program for low-income, low asset individuals. In New Jersey, a single individual generally cannot become financially eligible for Medicaid during any month in which her assets exceed the sum of $2,000 by even one cent on the first date of that month.  The $2,000 limited for Medicaid eligibility is referred to as the resource eligibility limit.

Certain assets are disregard in determining whether an individual is in excess of the Medicaid eligibility resource limit. The income producing property exemption may protect certain business property, including the land and buildings from which the small business is operated (and the machines, tools, trucks and equipment and even cash held in bank and investment accounts) where that business property is income producing property essential to self-support.  See 42 U.S.C. § 1382b(a)(3).

Suppose Kylie is age 65, has had a stroke, and now needs Medicaid to pay for her long-term care.  If Kylie owned and operated a profitable business selling her own line of cosmetics for several years before her entry into skilled care, the business, its inventory and the business’s operating accounts may be excluded from consideration in determining whether Kylie is eligible for Medicaid.

If you’re faced with a similar situation, it is important to seek counsel from a seasoned elder law attorney to ensure that you find the best care, and that you will qualify for Medicaid in order to pay for that care with public benefits. This can help you and your family protect the family home and your life savings, as well as ensure the best care is given to you or a loved on.

Questions? Let Jane know.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.

Is My Memory Loss Normal Aging or Something More?

Sad senior woman after quarrel

Garden variety memory lapses, like misplacing car keys, are normal, but where do you draw the line? A good rule of thumb is that if you notice that your loved one has repeated episodes of memory loss, and/or troubling personality changes or difficulty performing everyday tasks, like driving or financial management, it could be time for a crisis elder care plan. Here are some red flags to watch for:

  • Asking the same questions over and over again;
  • Repeating the same stories;
  • Difficulty paying bills, balancing the check book or reading a bank or credit card statement;
  • Difficulty adding and subtracting;
  • Late notices and missed payments, unopened mail accumulating;
  • Paying the same bill multiple times in the same month;
  • Difficulty performing everyday tasks (getting lost and being unable to find your way home, forgetting how to operate a home appliance);
  • Decline in personal hygiene (not bathing or brushing teeth, wearing the same clothing day after day);
  • Inappropriate attire, behavior, statements and/or language;
  • Confusion or word-finding difficulty (ex. asking where the “bread-thingy” is instead of where the toaster is;
  • Inability to retain new information; and/or
  • Irritability or foul language, behavior consistent with depression, apathy, anxiety, agitation, delusions and hallucinations, wandering, aggression

If you notice one or more of these signs, it may be a good idea to contact an elder lawyer without delay. An elder lawyer can help you find the best care and a way to pay for that care with public benefits, while protecting your life savings and the family home.

Questions? Let Jane know.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.

Support for New Jersey’s Unpaid Caregivers

Support for New Jersey’s Unpaid Caregivers

Caregiving, done well, can be the ultimate act of service and potentially a game-changer, enabling an elderly or functionally disabled individual to remain at home surrounded by their family, friends and happy memories.

However noble and important, caregiving often imposes a heavy financial, physical and emotional toll on unpaid caregivers, who statistically face a higher incidence of missed time from work, loss of employment, and of developing adverse emotional conditions such as anxiety, depression, and burn out, adverse health conditions and even physical injury.

The value of self-care on the part of the caregiver is essential. At a minimum, caregivers should take regular breaks, get physical exercise, maintain good nutrition and get plenty of rest, which is often easier said than done. With the number of elderly and disabled individuals reliant on care from unpaid caregivers projected to double by 2020, unpaid caregivers will face unprecedented challenges.

The state of New Jersey has taken up the challenge of supporting caregivers with recently enacted Public Law 2018, c166. Passed by the New Jersey legislature and signed by Acting Governor Sheila Oliver on December 28, 2018, the new law establishes the New Jersey Caregiver Task Force. The purpose of the task force is to evaluate existing supports for New Jersey caregivers and to develop recommendations for the improvement and expansion of caregiver support services within our state. The task force will take testimony from caregivers regarding the care duties performed, the sufficiency of caregiver training programs, the costs which caregivers face and their own personal caregiving experiences.  The task force will prepare a report with recommendations for new laws and regulatory or program changes to improve, expand and supplement existing caregiver support programs and systems within the state.

New Jersey’s new focus on caregivers is not unprecedented. In 2017, the state of Hawaii passed the Kapuna Care Act, which established the Kapuna Caregivers Assistance program to provide family caregivers who work with resources to help pay for care services for elderly individuals over age sixty residing in the community and requiring assistance with at least two activities of daily living or having substantial cognitive impairment.  Under the Hawaiian model, cash payments are available to help working caregivers defray some care-related costs.

At the federal level, the RAISE Family Caregivers Act was signed into law on January 8, 2018, and directs the Department of Health and Human Services to develop, maintain and update a National Family Caregiving Strategy and to convene a Family Caregiving Advisory Council. The Act defines family caregivers as adult family members or other individual having a “… significant relationship with” and providing “a broad range of assistance to an individual with a chronic or other health condition, disability or functional limitation.” The bill is designed to specify recommended actions which can be undertaken by federal, state, and local governments, communities, health care providers, and long term services and supports to assist family caregivers.

Questions? Let Jane know.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.

Returning From a Nursing Home to the Home

Senior woman sitting on the wheelchair aloneWhat are the options available to a long-term care resident who wants to return home? Consider using the Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) centered planning rules to help the resident transition back into the community. The care plan can be written in a manner to facilitate the resident’s discharge to the community.  If the individual experiences delay on the part of the Managed Care Organization (MCO) in updating the planning, the individual has a right to a service plan at her request and then annually, or upon a change in condition. Should the individual encounter delays by the MCO’s or if the individuals requested by the resident fail or decline to attend important meetings, one solution may be to involve an Omsbudsman and/or the Managed Long Term Services and Supports (MLTSS) offices, which can enforce a service plan. Generally, the initial meeting should be used to generate a list of action items, including the identification of the Medicare cutoff date and the filing of a MLTSS Medicaid application, obtaining therapies to strengthen the individual for her return to the community. A second meeting may be necessary to draft the plan. Any plan adopted must differentiate between paid and unpaid services to the individual. For instance, if a grandchild is not willing to provide free care and services on a Saturday evening, this should be stated in the plan.

Under the HCBS person-centered planning rules, the MCO must hold a care conference at the time and place selected by the resident.  A care conference is a meeting held by social worker, nurse and other long term care professionals to discuss the best care plan for the resident. The care needs and preferences of the resident are discussed and a written plan of care is documented. The care plan must reflect the goals and objectives for care. For instance, if the resident who is unable to move without assistance, needs to be provided with an air mattress and needs to be turned every two hours to prevent bedsores, this should be stated in the care plan. The cultural affinities of the resident may also be stated in the care plan.

The resident is entitled to have a representative in the care planning process. This can, but does not need to be, his or her financial power of attorney. The resident should not wait for the providers to initiate the process. The MCO must provide the resident with enough information so that he or she can make an informed decision.  If the resident is being discharged back into the community, and will require care 24/7, the post-discharge plan of care must provide whether any unpaid services is going to be performed on a volunteer versus paid basis. The MCO cannot require family members or friends who are not willing to commit to providing free care on a continuing basis to provide the care without compensation.  If various therapies will be needed to strengthen the individual so that she may return to the community, a physician’s order for skilled therapy should be incorporated into the care plan.

The written service plan prepared and implemented through the MCO must spell out how the individual will transition from care in a facility to care in the community and should identify specific goals and services. What funding is available to facilitate an individual’s transition back to the community?  Under the post-eligibility treatment of income rules found at 42 C.F.R. § 435.72, the individual may keep all of her income up to a limit of $2,005.00 per month for up to six months, which can be used to pay rent for an apartment in the community.

The discharge service plan should be prepared taking into consideration the unique abilities and preferences of the disabled and whatever decision –making capacity the soon-to-be discharged resident has retained.  Where the resident is unable to make and implement care-related decisions independently, one possibility is to empower the resident by involving him or her in a collaborative, or supportive decision making (SDM), process.  In this model, the resident awaiting discharge helps define the post-charge plan of care through the assistance of “supporters,” who can help the resident plan the he or she will receive in the community. The SDM decision-making model works best when the “supporters” remain available and cooperative in assisting with the implementation of the decision selected by the disabled or incompetent individual. SDM can be incorporated into the in the discharge planning process for an individual with limited or diminishing capacity. If this is not feasible, where there is not already a power of attorney, alternatives may include obtaining a limited guardianship order (as opposed to a plenary guardianship order) and using the limited guardianship process to define and constrain the authority of the facility’s representative in the discharge process, so that the discharge plan optimally furthers the best interests of the resident returning to the community. Finally, the resident department from a nursing home has a right to seek a Fair Hearing upon transfer or discharge and the service plan itself should incorporate appeal/Fair Hearing rights incorporate within the plan.

Questions? Let Jane know.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.