Don’t File For Medicaid Too Soon!

Most people assume that they will age in place at home and never need long-term care, but statistics show that that is not the case.  Medicare may be available to pay for a limited period of care under limited circumstances, but if an individual does not have long-term care insurance, nursing home care can cost more than $12,000 per month in New Jersey.  And that is only the average monthly cost of care; many facilities charge a higher rate.  That translates to at least $144,000, which is an awful lot of money to pay out-of-pocket.  That is why many seniors who can no longer remain at home turn to Medicaid, which is a joint federal and state public benefits program, to help fund their care in a nursing home or an assisted living facility.

As part of the process of transitioning from hospital care to long-term care, you will probably be asked whether you have filed a Medicaid application. This is a routine part of the long-term care admissions process.  It is very important to avoid filing for Medicaid before it is needed, for at least two reasons. 

You cannot give away your assets and go directly on Medicaid.  Generally, any gifts made during the lookback period and not fully repaid, will be penalized. while there are a few exceptions, most uncompensated gifts made during the five year Medicaid lookback period will likely result in a Medicaid penalty period, which is the denial of payment through Medicaid for care in a nursing home or an assisted living facility for a period of time corresponding to the total of all the gifts made during the five year Medicaid lookback period.  However, Medicaid generally cannot take into account gifts made before the lookback period began. So if there is going to be gifting in large amounts, it is best for the gifts to be made before the beginning of the Medicaid lookback period. 

How do you know when the five year Medicaid lookback period is?  Actually, the term “five year” Medicaid lookback can be misleading.  Filing the first Medicaid application triggers the Medicaid lookback, which is a period of time running retroactively from the date of filing of the first Medicaid application.  For example, if Eric Early files a Medicaid application on June 1, 2021, and this is his first Medicaid application, then the lookback period will be from June 1, 2016 to June 1, 2021 (five years) and potentially continuing into the future. 

However, there are circumstances when the Medicaid lookback period can extend beyond five years.  In Eric’s case, if he withdraws his first Medicaid application and does not file another Medicaid application until January 1, 2022, the lookback period for his second Medicaid application will still run from June 1, 2016 through to June 1, 2021, but will continue thereafter until the date of filing of the second Medicaid application on January 1, 2022.  So if Eric (or his wife, if he is married) made large gifts in 2016, those gifts will be considered on his 2022 Medicaid application and will probably result in a gifting penalty which Eric could have avoided had he simply waited to file the Medicaid application.

If Eric is married, the first Medicaid application sets the “snapshot.” Medicaid looks at the assets of the husband, the wife and the assets in their joint names, totals the assets and that total is the snapshot.  The amount of the snapshot limits the amount the healthy spouse can keep.  You only get one Medicaid snapshot, so it is very important to get the highest snapshot possible.  Here is an example showing what can happen if you don’t do proper planning before filing a Medicaid application.  

For instance, if Jim was hospitalized in 2017, and the hospital social worker filed a Medicaid application for Jim thinking Jim might have to go into a nursing home, but it turns out that Jim was actually able to return to the home after all.  Jim’s Medicaid snapshot is permanently set in 2017.  His snapshot is set in stone and it is never going to change.  Suppose in 2017, Jim and his wife own a home and a joint checking account with $100,000 in 2017, the home is exempt, but the checking account is not. Jim’s snapshot is $100,000 based on the checking account balance. Jim can keep no more than $2,000 and his wife can keep $50,000 without additional planning or legal advocacy and representation. 

Suppose Jim never completed his Medicaid application in 2017 and his wife cares for him at home for another year and in 2018, re-files for Medicaid for Jim.  In 2018, she also sells the house which was jointly owned with Jim, for the sum of $150,000. If the deed to the house was left in Jim’s name, in 2018, Jim will be disqualified for Medicaid due to being over the $2,000 Medicaid resource limit, because he is entitled to half the house sale proceeds. Now Jim has to spend down an additional $75,000 that could have been saved, had the 2017 Medicaid application not been filed and had Jim and his wife consulted with an elder care attorney.  If you have questions about a Medicaid application, please feel free to contact me to discuss your unique situation.  

Questions? Let Jane know.

National Caregiver’s Day: A Look at Elder Care in the Age of COVID-19

It’s National Caregiver’s Day, and another year filled with countless and unimaginable changes has passed. This year especially, my heart goes out to caregivers and their loved ones everywhere! Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, caregiving was no bed of roses. But this year, caregivers are facing an onslaught of new challenges, not the least of which are combatting senior isolation and reduced access to face-to-face therapies and delayed medical examinations. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed care options?  Adult medical day care centers are not providing in person care at their customary location but may deliver services via telehealth and in person visits in the home. This leaves care in the home and care in a long-term care facility as the remaining options for senior care.  

The long-term care industry has been hard hit by the pandemic. From a medical standpoint, until the pandemic subsides, full-time care in the home is probably the safest option. A good option for private care in the home would be hiring a home health aide through an agency.  Benefits of a full-time caregiver (whether hired or by a loved one) include stronger protection of the vulnerable senior, since the caregiver is not moving from home to home (or from home to a nursing home) caring for multiple patients in multiple settings. It can also give the family members or friends who are overseeing the care an opportunity to recharge, which is important to prevent burn out. The right caregiver can provide social companionship to the senior.  

Families considering this option will want to keep in mind that the cost of private, hired live in care will include the cost of groceries for the home health aide, as well as worker’s compensation insurance if the caregiver is providing only companion and housekeeping care. . In such cases, the homeowner’s carrier should be put on notice of the arrangement and the family should work with an accountant to ensure that an accountant or payroll company to ensure compliance with withholding and state insurance requirements. The home’s layout should include a private area with a door that closes for the caregiver, who will need to rest and recharge while the senior is sleeping.  An employment agreement with the caregiver can protect the homeowner and the employer’s rights and ensure that minimum wage and hour requirements are met. If the senior needs care from a certified home health aide, keep in mind that such care can only be provided through a licensed home health care agency with a nurse supervising the implementation of the doctor’s plan of care. Hiring a caregiver to provide such comprehensive care outside of an agency is illegal and potentially places the senior’s well-being at risk.  Agencies do screen their prospective employees, and may be able to identify unsuitable caregivers.  If the caregiver is willing to break state law, how amenable will the caregiver be to calling 9-1-1 if the senior needs emergency medical care of doing so means the caregiver is risking getting caught breaking the law?  The family may expect to save money with an unlicensed, under the table caregiver arrangement, but in addition to being illegal, the fallout from such arrangements tends to be extremely expensive and can take a terrible toll on the senior’s health.  

Another option is care in the home financed through the Veteran’s Special Improved pension/Aid and Attendance, which is a government benefits program for eligible United States military veterans or their surviving spouses to help defray the cost of care.  In cases where the senior qualifies for Medicaid, and is able to remain in the home, programs such as the Personal Preferences Program (PPP), “can provide a source of funding for the senior to choose and hire their preferred caregivers, which can include relatives and friends.” Under the PPP program, the senior chooses the services and schedule they desire. 

The remaining option is care in a long term facility. This may be the best option where the care recipient is a two person assist, has behavioral quirks, or requires a team of trained medical professionals to stabilize and maintain their condition.  In some situations, Medicare dollars can be used for limited periods of time as “key” money to admit the senior to the best facility possible, with the goal of later transitioning to payment for the best care through the   Medicaid program and the senior’s income. 

These are just a few important considerations. For help sorting through your options, consultation with an elder law attorney is recommended.  

For more information about elder care in the age of COVID-19, please feel free to reach out.

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.

Getting the Most out of your ABLE Account Based on the SSA’s New Guidance

ABLE Program in New Jersey

The Social Security Administration released a new update to its Procedure Operations Manual System, (POMS), effective March 13, 2020.  This is a very important development because the POMS is the manual used by employees of the Social Security Administration in processing claims.  The new provision gives additional information about the types of expenses an ABLE account’s proceeds can be spent on, for a qualified, disabled beneficiary, while still retaining that beneficiary’s eligibility for Medicaid and other means-tested public benefits, like Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Section 8 housing benefit. Heating assistance (LIHEAP), and food stamps (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP)).  In particular, the new guidance clarifies that food purchased with an ABLE account’s proceeds can be a qualified disability expense.

What is an ABLE account?  It’s a special, federal income tax qualified disability savings account, the balance of which is disregarded in computing eligibility for public benefits, so long as it remains below set levels.

Who can benefit from an ABLE account? Only a qualified disabled beneficiary can benefit from an ABLE account. A qualified disabled beneficiary is an individual who is eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on the basis of blindness or a disability, where the individual’s blindness or disability was incurred prior to the age of 26.  Another route to qualified disabled beneficiary status is entitlement to disability insurance benefits, childhood disability benefits, or a disabled widow or widower’s benefit on the basis of a serious, disabling condition that began prior to age 26.

Are there other exceptions to qualify for an ABLE account? An individual may be eligible for an ABLE account on the basis of a certification that the individual has a medically determinable impairment meeting the statutory criteria for a disability determination (i.e., marked and severe functional limitations) or is blind, and the blindness or disability was incurred prior to age 26.

Distributions can be made out of the account for certain qualified disability expenses. To the extent that the balance in the ABLE account:

  • Does not exceed the $100,000 SSI limit, and
  • Distributions are made in the same calendar year as they are used to purchase qualified disability expenses for the disabled beneficiary, the income from the qualified distributions may be offset by deductions for the qualified disability expenditures paid in that same calendar year.

It is important to note that if the qualified disabled beneficiary does not receive SSI, then he or she is not subject to the $100,000 SSI threshold, but the qualified disabled beneficiary must ensure that the funds in the ABLE account remain less than the 529 contribution amount for his or her state of residence.

What are the benefits of an ABLE account? The benefits of an ABLE account come with the quid pro quo that the funds on deposit in the ABLE account after the death of the disabled beneficiary and after the payment of all outstanding qualified disabled expenses will be subject to a Medicaid payback for all expenses incurred by the state (or states’) Medicaid agency on behalf of the disabled beneficiary after the date of establishment of the ABLE account.

* Please note that during the period of uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there may be delays in communications and services from ABLE PLAN providers, due to remote work arrangement and contingency work plans. However, basic services and information should be available through online access.

What are qualified disability expenses? These may include:

  • Education
  • Housing
  • Transportation
  • Employment training
  • Assistive technology
  • Personal support services
  • Health, prevention and wellness
  • Financial management and administrative services
  • Legal fees
  • Expenses for oversight and monitoring
  • Funeral and burial expenses
  • NEW: the purchase of food is now considered a non-house related expense

Why is the new guidance important? While much of the new guidance reiterates settled rules, the new guidance is important because it clarifies that food may be purchased with funds from an ABLE account and such purchases will be treated as a non-shelter related qualified disability expense and disregarded for purposes of determining eligibility for the SSI (and other means-tested federal benefits).  The distribution from the ABLE account, to the extent used to purchase food, will not be considered in kind support and maintenance and therefore, will not place the individual in excess of the SSI income limit.  The ABLE account beneficiary will not be disqualified for the SSI benefit and will not suffer a reduction of the SSI benefit amount due to in kind support and maintenance.

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.

New PACE Program Regulations: Six Important Changes You Need to Know

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On June 3rd, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released a final rule that updates the program requirements for the PACE program (Program for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly), a cost-effective program that helps keep frail, elderly individuals over the age of 55 in the home using Medicare or Medicaid dollars.  PACE organizations, also referred to as Living Independence for the Elderly (LIFE) organizations, are government or nonprofit entities delivering comprehensive care and services via an interdisciplinary team (IDT) to elderly and frail individuals ages 55 and over who are clinically assessed as needing nursing home care.

The new rule reflects 21st century service-delivery practices, communications and technology.

Here are six of the most impactful changes:

  1. Thirty (30) day deadline to complete the interdisciplinary plan of care. In rare circumstances, it may not be possible to make a timely assessment and care plan. In such cases, the PACE organization must document the specific circumstances why the initial assessment cannot be completed within the thirty-day period, and must detail the steps taken to provide immediate care as needed and to complete the assessment process and the plan-of-care as soon as feasible.
  2. Care delivery by non-physician primary care providers. Primary care and care management may now be provided by a nurse practitioner, physician assistant or a community physician duly licensed in accordance with state law, without having to obtain a waiver.
  3. Interactive remote technologies may be used to perform unscheduled reassessments. Video conferencing, live instant messaging, chat software and other media may be used by IDT members to perform an unscheduled reassessment in response to a request for a change in PACE services, where clinically appropriate and necessary to improve or maintain the patient’s overall health status. In order for the remote technology to be used, the patient or her representative must consent to its use.  In-person follow up may be warranted. Using remote technologies to perform reassessments may not be appropriate for medically complex patients.
  4. Mandatory attendance of the semi-annual reassessment meeting by the primary care provider, a registered nurse, and a Master’s-level social worker, with team members from other disciplines participating as needed in the professional judgment of the primary care provider, the registered nurse, and the Master’s-level social worker.
  5. Disenrollment for “disruptive behavior” on the part of either the participant or caregiver. In order to justify involuntary disenrollment, the disruptive behavior must jeopardize the patient’s health or safety or the safety of others. For instance, if a PACE participant who is able to make her own medical decisions repeatedly refuses to follow her plan of care, or if her caregiver exhibits threatening behavior which jeopardizes the participant’s health or safety, or the safety of the caregiver or others, involuntary disenrollment may be an option, after the PACE organization has ruled out alternative arrangements.
  6. PACE organizations offering qualified prescription drug coverage must comply with Medicare Part D prescription drug program requirements.

There are other major changes to the PACE program rules that may not directly impact the elderly and disabled. For more information, contact Jane at 856.661.2283 or by emailing jane.zimmer@flastergreenberg.com.

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.

Top Tips For A Successful Medicaid Spend Down

Finding the best long-term care, and a way to pay for that care with public benefits, is of critical importance to the elderly, the disabled and their families.  The national median cost of long term care in a private room in a skilled nursing facility is over $9,000 per month, with the average statewide median cost ranging from over $10,000 to well more than $12,000 in other states, including New Jersey, New York, and as high as $24,000 monthly for a private room in Alaska.

Many seniors do not realize that Medicare will cover limited skilled care for a short period of time, and will not be an option to pay for the care they may need for the rest of their lives.  Fortunately, Medicaid and the Veteran’s Administration Improved Pension (or the Dependency Indemnity Compensation benefit for a surviving spouse), combined with the applicant’s income, are means-tested public benefits programs that can often pay for a lifetime of long term care facility and other medical care costs.

Benefit through these programs are limited to applicants with low assets and low income.  The rules for Medicaid eligibility are quite complex and vary somewhat from state to state based on the provisions of each state’s Medicaid plan.  For instance, in my home state of New Jersey, in order for a single individual to qualify for Medicaid, that individual’s countable assets must not be even one penny over the sum of $2,000.  In general, one cannot give away one’s money and receive institutional or waiver service Medicaid benefits within five years of the date of the gift without incurring a Medicaid penalty period.  (A Medicaid penalty period is the period of time during which Medicaid benefits will not be available to pay for custodial care. The length of the penalty period corresponds to the value of the total uncompensated gifts made during the five year Medicaid look back period. The Medicaid penalty period will not begin to run until the last of the following events to occur: there is a filed Medicaid application for the applicant, the applicant is clinically eligible for Medicaid, and the application is either already in a long-term care facility or other care setting permitted under any Medicaid waiver program in his or her state, such as the home or an adult medical day care facility.)

Elder lawyers refer to the process of legally reducing assets to a level below the Medicaid threshold as “spend down and conversion.”  Where one member of a married couple will apply for Medicaid, the spend down and conversion process must be carefully timed and for best results, should be started only after the prospective Medicaid applicant has entered into a nursing home or has a filed application for a Medicaid waiver program and has already been determined clinically eligible for Medicaid.  In order to avoid a Medicaid penalty period as a result of the spend down process, all payments should be for fair market value for the Medicaid applicant or his spouse.  A typical Medicaid spend down may include the repayment of debt for the Medicaid applicant or his or her spouse (but not for another adult, which would be an uncompensated transfer), the payment of legal fees for crisis Medicaid planning and a Medicaid application, payments for other services to the Medicaid applicant and his spouse, the payment of real estate taxes and other costs of home ownership, the purchase of irrevocable prepaid burial arrangements for the Medicaid applicant and his spouse, the payment of “key money” to facilitate the admission of the Medicaid applicant to the best long-term care facility available. (This can frequently require private payment for several months of long term care).  Where the applicant owns a home, he may consider repairs and deferred maintenance to the home, especially where there is a healthy spouse who will remain at home or if the home needs repairs and maintenance to facilitate its sale.  Many seniors may also consider buying a new car, or new household furnishing or personal goods.

The purchase of a life estate in a child’s home may be a suitable spend down strategy for an elderly parent who is presently independent but may need Medicaid in the next few years, the parent wishes to reside in the child’s home and the child is amenable.  A life estate is an undivided ownership interest in the real property and gives the holder the right to reside in the home during his lifetime as well as favorable capital gains income tax consequences and responsibilities for the home’s financial upkeep.  If the parent reside in the child’s home for a period of at least one year and the value of the life estate is properly computed and both parent and child execute a deed memorializing the life estate purchase, the parent’s payment to the child for the life estate will not result in a Medicaid penalty period.

One of the most powerful spend down strategies is the purchase of a Medicaid compliant annuity. This is an annuity which meets strict criteria in the federal Medicaid statute.  The annuity can be funded with either non-qualified or qualified retirement funds. If the annuity is non-qualified, the annuity contract must provide for equal monthly payments (with no balloon payments), be irrevocable, non-assignable and the annuity term must be for a period longer than the actuarial life expectancy of the annuitant, as calculated according to actuarial life expectancy tables promulgated by the Social Security Administration or the state of residence of the Medicaid applicant. The annuity contract must name the state from which Medicaid benefits are sought as either the first remainder beneficiary to the extent of any Medicaid lien, or the state is named in the second position after the community spouse. If these requirements are satisfied, and assuming that the Medicaid applicant is otherwise eligible for Medicaid, the annuity contract cannot be treated as a countable asset and the annuity purchase cannot result in the imposition of any Medicaid penalty period.  See 42 U.S.C. 1396p(c)(1)(G); Carlini v. Velez, 947 F.Supp.2d 842 (D.N.J. 2013).

Similar rules apply for a qualified Medicaid-compliant annuity contract.

Here is an illustration of why the Medicaid compliant annuity purchase can be a powerful strategy to retitle a couple’s assets and preserve funds for the healthy spouse to remain for years in the family home.

Example.  Mary and James are ages 80 and 85, respectively. James needs nursing home care and Mary needs assisted living care. Mary’s only income is an estimated $600 monthly from her Social Security benefit. James’ income is comprised of $1,200 from Social Security, and he is not a veteran.  After their home is sold, the couple has $438,000 in liquid assets and James is ineligible for Medicaid due to the couple’s excess funds.  Without Medicaid planning, due to their home states’ maximum community spouse reserve allowance, Mary would have to spend down approximately $310,000, in order for James to become eligible for Medicaid.  Fortunately, she can spend the sum of $310,000 on a Medicaid annuity, which will enable James to become eligible for Medicaid in the following month and will provide her with sufficient monthly income to pay for her assisted living.  If the term of the annuity is for three years and for 36 equal monthly payments to Mary in the sum of over $8,600.  Mary is now able to pay for at least four years of assisted living care and can remain comfortably in the community. After the annuity term expires, Mary will likely be financially eligible for Medicaid herself.

Spend down is also important for United States military veterans and their spouses who are seeking the Veteran’s improved pension or the Dependency Indemnity Compensation for a surviving spouse or child.  In computing the applicant’s net worth for this means-tested benefit, federal law allows a deduction for unreimbursed medical expenses.

Medical expenses can include costs paid for services from health care providers, custodial care and must constitute a payment for an item or service that is medically necessary; improves the disabled individual’s functioning; or prevents, slows, or eases an individual’s functional decline.

Medical expenses may include care by a health care provider, i.e., someone who can only be an individual appropriately licensed by the state or country in which the service is provided to provide health care in that state or country.  In-home care providers are not always subject to licensure.

The definition of “health care provider” in the final rule incorporates a licensure requirement and the term may include, but is not limited to, a doctor, physician’s assistant, psychologist, chiropractor, registered nurse, licensed vocational nurse, and a physical or occupational therapist. Other categories of deductible medical expenses (to the extent not reimbursed) include medications, medical supplies, medical equipment and medical food, vitamins, and supplements if prescribed or directed by a health care provider authorized to write prescriptions, adaptive equipment, or service animals, including the cost of any veterinary care, used to assist a person with an ongoing disability; the cost of transportation for medical purposes, i.e., to and from a health care provider’s office, health insurance premiums, smoking cessation products; and institutional forms of care and in home care, including hospitals, nursing homes, medical foster homes, and inpatient treatment centers.

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.