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Nursing Homes Are Evicting Residents to Make Room for Coronavirus Patients

Illegal evictions of Medicaid nursing home residents are nothing new, but the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating the problem, according to an investigation by the New York Times.

Some states have asked nursing homes to accept coronavirus patients in order to ease the burden on hospitals. Even as the virus has devastated nursing homes, some have been welcoming these patients, who earn facilities far more than do Medicaid patients. To make room for these more lucrative coronavirus patients, the Times found that thousands of Medicaid recipients have been “dumped” by nursing homes. Many of the residents were sent to homeless shelters.

Nursing homes make far more money from short-term Medicare residents than from Medicaid residents, especially since the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services changed the reimbursement formula last fall. Now, writes the Times, a nursing home can get at least $600 more a day from a Covid-19 patient than from other, longer-term residents. In other cases, it wasn’t about the money but simply pressure from states to accept Covid patients.

According to federal law, a nursing home can discharge a resident only if the resident’s health has improved, the facility cannot meet the resident’s needs, the health and safety of other residents is endangered, the resident has not paid after receiving notice, or the facility stops operating. In addition, a nursing home cannot discharge a resident without proper notice and planning. In general, the nursing home must provide written notice 30 days before discharge, though shorter notice is allowed in emergency situations. A discharge plan must ensure the resident has a safe place to go, preferably near family, and outline the care the resident will receive after discharge.

According to the New York Times, nursing homes have been discharging residents without proper notice or planning. Because long-term care ombudsmen have not been allowed into nursing homes, there has been less oversight of the process. Old and disabled residents have been sent to homeless shelters, rundown motels, and other unsafe facilities. The Times heard from 26 ombudsmen, from 18 states, who reported a total of more than 6,400 discharges during the pandemic, but this is likely an undercount. In New Mexico, all the residents of one nursing home were evicted to make room for coronavirus patients.

If you or a loved one are facing eviction, you have the right to fight the discharge. Contact your attorney to find out the steps to take.

Four Ways the Coronavirus Pandemic May Affect Long-Term Care Insurance

The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on the elderly, particularly those in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. This has raised questions about how the virus has influenced the costs and provision of long-term care insurance, which covers care in facilities and sometimes at home as well.

If you have a long-term care insurance policy, you may wonder how it is affected by the pandemic. If you don’t have a policy, you may wonder if the pandemic will make it more difficult to get one. An article by US News and World Report, examines issues with long-term care insurance that have arisen in the last few months, including the following:

  • Qualifying for insurance. It is already more difficult to qualify for long-term care insurance the older you get. Because older individuals are at a higher risk for coronavirus, this can affect your long-term care application as well. Some insurers have been limiting applicants’ ages or putting additional restrictions on applicants who have been in contact with the virus. If you had a positive COVID-19 test, you may have to wait for three to six months before qualifying for insurance. These policies vary by company.
  • Premiums. Insurers can’t raise rates for customers due to individual circumstances. To raise rates, insurers must obtain approval from the state and raise them for the entire group. However, if you are considered high risk due to exposure to coronavirus, you may not qualify for the best rates when you first apply for long-term care insurance.
  • Moving out of a nursing home. If you have a policy and want to move out of a nursing home, you will need to check what your policy will pay for. Some policies pay for long-term care in a variety of settings, including home care, but others are more restrictive. On the plus side, you may be able to use your policy to reserve your bed, allowing you to keep your nursing home spot.
  • Home care. If you have a policy that was paying for home care, there may also be changes. Some home care workers are charging more for work during the pandemic, which could exceed your policy coverage. Another change may be to the number of people entering your home. You may want family to provide care, rather than an outside home health care worker. Unfortunately, most long-term care policies don’t pay for family members to provide care. However, if you aren’t using the insurance to pay for care, your coverage may last longer–depending on the policy.

There are lots of uncertainties regarding long-term care, insurance, and coronavirus.

When Buying a Medigap Policy, It Really Pays to Shop Around

Medigap policies that supplement Medicare’s basic coverage can cost vastly different amounts, depending on the company selling the policy, according to a new study. The findings highlight the importance of shopping around before purchasing a policy.

When you first become eligible for Medicare, you may purchase a Medigap policy from a private insurer to supplement Medicare’s coverage and plug some or virtually all of Medicare’s coverage gaps. You can currently choose one of eight Medigap plans that are identified by letters A, B, D, G, K, L, M, and N (If you were eligible for Medicare before January 1, 2020, but not enrolled, you may also be able to purchase Plans C and F, but those plans  are no longer available to people who are newly eligible for Medicare). Each plan package offers a different menu of benefits, allowing purchasers to choose the combination that is right for them.

While federal law requires that insurers must offer the same benefits for each lettered plan–each plan G offered by one insurer must cover the same benefits as plan G offered by another insurer–insurers set their own prices for each plan. This means that the price of each plan varies considerably depending on the insurance company.

The American Association for Medicare Supplement Insurance compared costs of plans in the top 10 metro areas and found huge cost differences. Using the most popular plan–Plan G–for comparison, the association found that in Dallas the lowest price for a 65-year-old woman to purchase a plan was $99 a month while the highest price was $381 a month. This is a yearly difference of more than $3,000 for the exact same plan.

The association also found that no one company consistently offered the lowest or highest price. In their study, investigators discovered that 13 different companies had either the lowest or highest price. This means you can’t rely on just one company to always have the better price.

When looking for a Medigap policy, make sure to get quotes from several insurance companies. In addition, if you are going through a broker, check with two or more brokers because one broker might not represent every insurer. It can be hard work to shop around, but the price savings can be worth it.

Transferring Assets to Qualify for Medicaid

Transferring assets to qualify for Medicaid can make you ineligible for benefits for a period of time. Before making any transfers, you need to be aware of the consequences.

Congress has established a period of ineligibility for Medicaid for those who transfer assets. The so-called “look-back” period for all transfers is 60 months, which means state Medicaid officials look at transfers made within the 60 months prior to the Medicaid application.

While the look-back period determines what transfers will be penalized, the length of the penalty depends on the amount transferred. The penalty period is determined by dividing the amount transferred by the average monthly cost of nursing home care in the state. For instance, if the nursing home resident transferred $100,000 in a state where the average monthly cost of care was $5,000, the penalty period would be 20 months ($100,000/$5,000 = 20). The 20-month period will not begin until (1) the transferor has moved to a nursing home, (2) he has spent down to the asset limit for Medicaid eligibility, (3) has applied for Medicaid coverage, and (4) has been approved for coverage but for the transfer. Therefore, if an individual transfers $100,000 on April 1, 2017, moves to a nursing home on April 1, 2018 and spends down to Medicaid eligibility on April 1, 2019, that is when the 20-month penalty period will begin, and it will not end until December 1, 2020.

Transfers should be made carefully, with an understanding of all the consequences. People who make transfers must be careful not to apply for Medicaid before the five-year look-back period elapses without first consulting with an elder law attorney. This is because the penalty could ultimately extend even longer than five years, depending on the size of the transfer.

Be very, very careful before making transfers. Any transfer strategy must take into account the nursing home resident’s income and all of his or her expenses, including the cost of the nursing home. Bear in mind that if you give money to your children, it belongs to them and you should not rely on them to hold the money for your benefit. However well-intentioned they may be, your children could lose the funds due to bankruptcy, divorce, or lawsuit. Any of these occurrences would jeopardize the savings you spent a lifetime accumulating. Do not give away your savings unless you are ready for these risks.

In addition, be aware that the fact that your children are holding your funds in their names could jeopardize your grandchildren’s eligibility for financial aid in college. Transfers can also have bad tax consequences for your children. This is especially true of assets that have appreciated in value, such as real estate and stocks. If you give these to your children, they will not get the tax advantages they would get if they were to receive them through your estate. The result is that when they sell the property they will have to pay a much higher tax on capital gains than they would have if they had inherited it.

As a rule, never transfer assets for Medicaid planning unless you keep enough funds in your name to (1) pay for any care needs you may have during the resulting period of ineligibility for Medicaid and (2) feel comfortable and have sufficient resources to maintain your present lifestyle.

Remember: You do not have to save your estate for your children. The bumper sticker that reads “I’m spending my children’s inheritance” is a perfectly appropriate approach to estate and Medicaid planning.

Even though a nursing home resident may receive Medicaid while owning a home, if the resident is married he or she should transfer the home to the community spouse (assuming the nursing home resident is both willing and competent). This gives the community spouse control over the asset and allows the spouse to sell it after the nursing home spouse becomes eligible for Medicaid. In addition, the community spouse should change his or her will to bypass the nursing home spouse. Otherwise, at the community spouse’s death, the home and other assets of the community spouse will go to the nursing home spouse and have to be spent down.

Permitted transfers

While most transfers are penalized with a period of Medicaid ineligibility of up to five years, certain transfers are exempt from this penalty. Even after entering a nursing home, you may transfer any asset to the following individuals without having to wait out a period of Medicaid ineligibility:

  • Your spouse (but this may not help you become eligible since the same limit on both spouse’s assets will apply)
  • A trust for the sole benefit of your child who is blind or permanently disabled.
  • Into trust for the sole benefit of anyone under age 65 and permanently disabled.

In addition, you may transfer your home to the following individuals (as well as to those listed above):

  • A child who is under age 21
  • A child who is blind or disabled (the house does not have to be in a trust)
  • A sibling who has lived in the home during the year preceding the applicant’s institutionalization and who already holds an equity interest in the home
  • A “caretaker child,” who is defined as a child of the applicant who lived in the house for at least two years prior to the applicant’s institutionalization and who during that period provided care that allowed the applicant to avoid a nursing home stay.

Make Sure Your Power of Attorney Complies with Federal Privacy Law

A power of attorney (POA) and a health care proxy are two of the most important estate planning documents you can have, but in some instances they may be useless if they don’t comply with the federal privacy law.

A POA allows someone you designate (your “agent” or “attorney-in-fact”) to make decisions for you if you become incapacitated. A health care proxy specifies who will make medical decisions for you. For these documents to be effective, your agents may need to be able to access your medical information. However, medical information is private. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protects health care privacy and prevents disclosure of health care information to unauthorized people. HIPAA authorizes the release of medical information only to a patient’s “personal representative.”

HIPAA can be a problem especially if you have a “springing” power of attorney. A springing POA doesn’t go into effect until you become incapacitated. This means your agent doesn’t have any authority until you are declared incompetent, but, under HIPAA, the agent won’t be able to get the medical information necessary to determine incompetence until the agent has authority.

To make sure your agent doesn’t get caught in this “Catch-22,” your POA and health care proxy should contain a HIPAA clause that explains that the agent is also the personal representative for the purposes of health care disclosures under HIPAA. You should also sign separate HIPAA release forms that explain what medical information can be disclosed, who can make the disclosure, and to whom the disclosure can be made.

Contact your attorney to make sure your POA and health care proxy do not conflict with HIPAA.

Staying Connected to Family Members in a Nursing Home When Visits are Banned

The spread of the coronavirus to nursing home residents has caused the federal government to direct nursing homes to restrict visitor access, and many assisted livingfacilities have done the same. While the move helps the residents stay healthy, it can also lead to social isolation and depression. Families are having to find new ways to stay in touch.

Nursing homes have been hit hard by the coronavirus. The Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington near Seattle was one of the first clusters of coronavirus in the United States and is one of the deadliest, with at least 35 deaths associated with the facility. In response, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued guidance to all nursing homes, restricting all visitors, except for compassionate care in end-of-life situations; restricting all volunteers and nonessential personnel; and cancelling all group activities and communal dining. While these actions are necessary to prevent the spread of the virus, they can leave families worried and upset and residents feeling isolated and confused.

Families are taking varying tacks to keep in contact with their loved ones, many of whom don’t fully understand why their family is no longer visiting. Nursing homes are also helping to facilitate contact. Some options for keeping in touch, include the following:

  • Phone calls. Phone calls are still an option to be able to talk to your loved one.
  • Window visits. Families who are able to visit their loved one’s window can use that to have in-person visits. You can hold up signs and blow kisses. Talking on a cell phone or typing messages on it and holding them up to the window may be a way to have a conversation.
  • Facetime and Skype. Many nursing homes are facilitating video calls with families using platforms like Facetime or Skype. Some nursing homes have purchased additional iPads, while others have staff members going between rooms with a dedicated iPad to help residents make calls.
  • Cards and letters. Sending cards and letters to your loved ones is another way to show them that you are thinking of them. Some nursing homes have also set up Facebook pages, where people can send messages to residents.

In this unprecedented time, families will need to get creative to stay in touch with their loved ones. For more articles about how families and nursing homes around the country are coping with the new restrictions, click here, here, and here.

Medicare and Medicaid Will Cover Coronavirus Testing

With coronavirus dominating news coverage and creating alarm, it is important to know that Medicare and Medicaid will cover tests for the virus.

The department of Health and Human Services has designated the test for the new strain of coronavirus (officially called COVID-19) an essential health benefit. This designation means that Medicare and Medicaid will cover testing of beneficiaries who are suspected of having the virus. In order to be covered, a doctor or other health care provider must order the test. All tests on or after February 4, 2020 are covered, although your provider will need to wait until after April 1, 2020, to be able to submit a claim to Medicare for the test.

Congress has also passed an $8.3 billion emergency funding bill to help federal agencies respond to the outbreak. The funding will provide federal agencies with money to develop tests and treatment options as well as help local governments deal with outbreaks.

As always, to prevent the spread of this illness or other illnesses, including the flu, take the following precautions:
•    Wash your hands often with soap and water
•    Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze
•    Stay home when you’re sick
•    See your doctor if you think you’re ill

For Medicare’s notice about coverage for the coronavirus, click here.

Social Security Shutters ‘Petri Dish’ Offices in Response to Coronavirus Outbreak

To protect its workers and the public during the coronavirus pandemic, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has suspended face-to-face service to at its field offices and hearings offices nationwide until further notice. Payments to the nearly 70 million Social Security beneficiaries will not be affected.

While in-person appointments will still be made for certain critical services (see below), the SSA is encouraging beneficiaries to transact as much business as possible online using the agency’s website. (If you don’t have an online account yet, click here.)

Certain services also will continue to be available via the agency’s toll-free line, (800) 772-1213 or from local offices’ General Inquiry lines. (For the local office locator, click here.)

Why the Closure?

Budget cuts to Social Security over the years have led to crowded offices and long wait times.  With the advent of the coronavirus outbreak, this went from being an inconvenience to a public health threat.  The union representing the SSA’s 61,000 workers was deeply concerned about the health of the agency’s workforce as well as the danger to the public.

“The offices are petri dishes,” Richard Couture, a spokesman for the union, told The New York Times.  “People are sitting there for a long time, magnifying and multiplying the risk of infection for everyone there, and to people on the outside.”

How to Get in Touch During the Shutdown

Examples of tasks or inquiries that can be accomplished online include:

  • Applying for retirement, disability, and Medicare benefits;
  • Checking the status of an application or appeal;
  • Requesting a replacement Social Security card (in most areas); or
  • Requesting a replacement Medicare card.

(For a complete list, click here.)

Phone services will also be available, although the SSA says it is “focusing on providing specific critical services to people in dire need.” Examples of how the SSA can help by phone include:

  • If you did not receive your monthly payment;
  • If you are currently homeless or at risk of becoming homeless; or
  • If your benefits were suspended and can now be reinstated.

Expect long wait times if calling, however.

In-Person Appointments

In-person help will still be available for a limited list of critical services, including:

  • Reinstatement of benefits in dire circumstances;
  • Assistance to people with severe disabilities, blindness or terminal illnesses; or
  • Help for those in urgent need of eligibility decisions for Supplemental Security Income or Medicaid eligibility related to work status.

If you require such services, you must call in advance; there are no walk-ins at the field offices.

What if you already had a standing appointment or disability hearing scheduled?  If this is the case, the SSA will call you to reschedule or to take care of the issue by phone. Unfortunately, this call may come from a private phone number rather than from a government phone because employees are working remotely and do not necessarily have government-issued phones. Identity theft phone scams where callers impersonate SSA workers were already on the rise, and this will likely only add to beneficiaries’ confusion. Be aware that agency employees will never inform you that your Social Security number has been suspended, demand payment, or seek credit card information.  (Scams taking advantage of the situation have already started.)

For full details on changes to SSA services brought on by the response to the coronavirus, go to the SSA’s Social Security & Coronavirus page, https://www.ssa.gov/coronavirus/

If you are enrolling in Medicare, you can get free counseling from your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP).  To find your state program, click here.

Medicare is Expanding Telehealth Services During Coronavirus Pandemic

As part of its response to the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government is broadly expanding coverage of Medicare telehealth services to beneficiaries and relaxing HIPAA enforcement. This will give doctors the ability to provide more services to patients remotely.

Medicare covers telehealth services that include office visits, psychotherapy, and consultations provided by an eligible provider who isn’t at your location using an interactive two-way telecommunications system (like real-time audio and video). Normally, these services are available only in rural areas, under certain conditions, and only if you’re located at one of these places:

  • A doctor’s office
  • A hospital
  • A critical access hospital (CAH)
  • A rural health clinic
  • A federally qualified health center
  • A hospital-based dialysis facility
  • A skilled nursing facility
  • A community mental health center

Under the new expansion, Medicare will now pay for office, hospital, and other visits provided via telehealth in the patient’s home. Doctors, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists, and licensed clinical social workers will all be able to offer a variety of telehealth services to their patients, including evaluation and management visits, mental health counseling, and preventive health screenings. In addition, relaxed HIPAA enforcement (the law governing patient privacy) means doctors may use technologies like Skype and Facetime to talk to patients as well as using the phone.

In addition to Medicare’s expansion, states are also allowing doctors to provide telehealth services to Medicaid beneficiaries. For example, New York will now cover telephone-based evaluations when an in-person visit is not medically recommended. Many other states are following suit.

This expansion of telehealth services will allow older adults who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 to stay home and still get medical advice. If you need to see a medical provider during this health emergency, check to see whether they are employing telehealth services. To use telehealth services, you need to verbally consent and your doctor must document that consent in your medical record. For information from AARP on what you might expect during a virtual doctor’s visit, click here.

Resolving Conflicts Between Co-Agents on a Power of Attorney

Having power of attorney over a family member is a big responsibility and sometimes it makes sense to share that responsibility with someone else. But when two people are named co-agents under a power of attorney, conflicts can arise. Unfortunately, if the conflict can’t be resolved, it may be necessary to get a court involved.

A power of attorney allows a person to appoint someone called an “agent” or “attorney-in-fact” to act in his or her place for financial purposes when and if the person ever becomes incapacitated. A power of attorney can name one agent or it can require two or more agents to act together.

If you are acting as a co-agent under a power of attorney, but you and your fellow agent disagree on a course of action or one party has stopped participating in decision making, what can you do? The first thing is to check the wording of the power of attorney document to see if it sets up a procedure for resolving disputes. If the power of attorney itself doesn’t help, you should contact an attorney. The attorney can tell you if your state’s power of attorney laws offer any guidance. There may be a state statute that deals with disputes.

If the dispute still cannot be resolved, the final step may be to file a petition in probate court to let the court decide it. Or if the court finds that one of the agents is not acting according to the incapacitated person’s best interests, it can revoke the agent’s authority. Unfortunately, taking the matter to court takes time and money.

If you are creating a power of attorney and want more than one agent to share responsibility, but want to minimize conflict, you can name two agents and let the agents act separately. Naming more than two agents can get cumbersome and make communication difficult. An alternative to naming co-agents is for the power of attorney document to name agents in sequence. The first-named agent acts alone, but if he or she cannot serve for some reason, the next person on the list will serve.

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