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.

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.

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.

What to Do If You Are Appointed Guardian of an Older Adult

Being appointed guardian of a loved one is a serious responsibility. As guardian, you are in charge of your loved one’s well-being and you have a duty to act in his or her best interest.

If an adult becomes mentally incapacitated and is incapable of making responsible decisions, the court will appoint a substitute decision maker, often called a “guardian,” but in some states called a “conservator” or other term. Guardianship is a legal relationship between a competent adult (the “guardian”) and a person who because of incapacity is no longer able to take care of his or her own affairs (the “ward”).

If you have been appointed guardian, the following are things you need to know:

  • Read the court order. The court appoints the guardian and sets up your powers and duties. You can be authorized to make legal, financial, and health care decisions for the ward. Depending on the terms of the guardianship and state practices, you may or may not have to seek court approval for various decisions. If you aren’t sure what you are allowed to do, consult with a lawyer in your state.
  • Fiduciary duty. You have what’s called a “fiduciary duty” to your ward, which is an extremely high standard. You are legally required to act in the best interest of your ward at all times and manage your ward’s money and property carefully. With that in mind, it is imperative that you keep your finances separate from your ward’s finances. In addition, you should never use the ward’s money to give (or lend) money to someone else or for someone else’s benefit (or your own benefit) without approval of the court. Finally, as part of your fiduciary duty you must maintain good records of everything you receive or spend. Keep all your receipts and a detailed list of what the ward’s money was spent on.
  • File reports on time. The court order should specify what reports you are required to file. The first report is usually an inventory of the ward’s property. You then may have to file yearly accountings with the court detailing what you spent and received on behalf of the ward. Finally, after the ward dies or the guardianship ends, you will need to file a final accounting.
  • Consult the ward. As much as possible you should include the ward in your decision-making. Communicate what you are doing and try to determine what your ward would like done.
  • Don’t limit social interaction. Guardians should not limit a ward’s interaction with family and friends unless it would cause the ward substantial harm. Some states have laws in place requiring the guardian to allow the ward to communicate with loved ones. Social interaction is usually beneficial to an individual’s well-being and sense of self-worth. If the ward has to move, try to keep the ward near loved ones.

Don’t Let Medicare Open Enrollment Go By Without Reassessing Your Options

Medicare’s Open Enrollment Period, during which you can freely enroll in or switch plans, runs from October 15 to December 7. Don’t let this period slip by without shopping around to see whether your current choices are the best ones for you.

During this period you may enroll in a Medicare Part D (prescription drug) plan or, if you currently have a plan, you may change plans. In addition, during the seven-week period you can return to traditional Medicare (Parts A and B) from a Medicare Advantage (Part C, managed care) plan, enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan, or change Advantage plans. Beneficiaries can go to www.medicare.gov or call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) to make changes in their Medicare prescription drug and health plan coverage.

According to the New York Times, few Medicare beneficiaries take advantage of open enrollment, but of those that do, nearly half cut their premiums by at least 5 percent. Even beneficiaries who have been satisfied with their plans in 2019 should review their choices for 2020, as both premiums and plan coverage can fluctuate from year to year. Are the doctors you use still part of your Medicare Advantage plan’s provider network? Have any of the prescriptions you take been dropped from your prescription plan’s list of covered drugs (the “formulary”)? Could you save money with the same coverage by switching to a different plan?

For answers to questions like these, carefully look over the plan’s “Annual Notice of Change” letter to you. Prescription drug plans can change their premiums, deductibles, the list of drugs they cover, and their plan rules for covered drugs, exceptions, and appeals. Medicare Advantage plans can change their benefit packages, as well as their provider networks.

Remember that fraud perpetrators will inevitably use the Open Enrollment Period to try to gain access to individuals’ personal financial information. Medicare beneficiaries should never give their personal information out to anyone making unsolicited phone calls selling Medicare-related products or services or showing up on their doorstep uninvited. If you think you’ve been a victim of fraud or identity theft, contact Medicare.

Here are more resources for navigating the Open Enrollment Period:

  • Medicare Plan Finder, which helps you find a plan to match your needs: www.medicare.gov/find-a-plan
  • Medicare coverage options: https://www.medicare.gov/medicarecoverageoptions/
  • The 2020 Medicare & You handbook, which all Medicare beneficiaries should have received. The handbook can also be downloaded online at:  medicare.gov/forms-help-resources/medicare-you-handbook/download-medicare-you-in-different-formats
  • The Medicare Rights Center: www.medicareinteractive.org
  • Your State Health Insurance Assistance Program, which offers independent counseling: https://www.shiptacenter.org

Maximizing Social Security Survivor’s Benefits

Social Security survivor’s benefits provide a safety net to widows and widowers. But to get the most out of the benefit, you need to know the right time to claim.

While you can claim survivor’s benefits as early as age 60, if you claim benefits before your full retirement age, your benefits will be permanently reduced. If you claim benefits at your full retirement age, you will receive 100 percent of your spouse’s benefit or, if your spouse died before collecting benefits, 100 percent of what your spouse’s benefit would have been at full retirement age. Unlike with retirement benefits, delaying survivor’s benefits longer than your full retirement age will not increase the benefit. If you delay taking retirement benefits past your full retirement age, depending on when you were born your benefit will increase by 6 to 8 percent for every year that you delay up to age 70, in addition to any cost of living increases.

You cannot take both retirement benefits and survivor’s benefits at the same time. When deciding which one to take, you need to compare the two benefits to see which is higher. In some cases, the decision is easy—one benefit is clearly much higher than the other. In other situations, the decision can be a little more complicated and you may want to take your survivor’s benefit before switching to your retirement benefit.

To determine the best strategy, you will need to look at your retirement benefit at your full retirement age as well as at age 70 and compare that to your survivor’s benefit. If your retirement benefit at age 70 will be larger than your survivor’s benefit, it may make sense to claim your survivor’s benefit at your full retirement age. You can then let your retirement benefit continue to grow and switch to the retirement benefit at age 70.

Example: A widow has the option of taking full retirement benefits of $2,000/month or survivor’s benefits of $2,100/month. She can take the survivor’s benefits and let her retirement benefits continue to grow. When she reaches age 70, her retirement benefit will be approximately $2,480/month, and she can switch to retirement benefits. Depending on the widow’s life expectancy, this strategy may make sense even if the survivor’s benefit is smaller than the retirement benefit to begin with.

Keep in mind that divorced spouses are also entitled to survivor’s benefits if they were married for at least 10 years. If you remarry before age 60, you are not entitled to survivor’s benefits, but remarriage after age 60 does not affect benefits. In the case of remarriage, you may need to factor in the new spouse’s spousal benefit when figuring out the best way to maximize benefits.

How to Fight a Nursing Home Discharge

Once a resident is settled in a nursing home, being told to leave can be very traumatic. Nursing homes are required to follow certain procedures before discharging a resident, but family members often accept the discharge without questioning it. Residents can fight back and challenge an unlawful discharge.

According to federal law, a nursing home can discharge a resident only for the following reasons:

  • The resident’s health has improved
  • The resident’s needs cannot be met by the facility
  • The health and safety of other residents is endangered
  • The resident has not paid after receiving notice
  • The facility stops operating

Unfortunately, sometimes nursing homes want to get rid of a resident for another reason–perhaps the resident is difficult, the resident’s family is difficult, or the resident is a Medicaid recipient. In such cases, the nursing home may not follow the proper procedure or it may attempt to “dump” the resident by transferring the resident to a hospital and then refusing to let the him or her back in.

If the nursing home transfers a resident to a hospital, state law may require that the nursing home hold the resident’s bed for a certain number of days (usually about a week). Before transferring a resident, the facility must inform the resident about its bed-hold policy. If the resident pays privately, he or she may have to pay to hold the bed, but if the resident receives Medicaid, Medicaid will pay for the bed hold. In addition, if the resident is a Medicaid recipient the nursing home has to readmit the resident to the first available bed if the bed-hold period has passed.

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. Even if a patient is sent to a hospital, the nursing home may still have to do proper discharge planning if it plans on not readmitting the resident. 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.

If the nursing home refuses to readmit a patient or insists on discharging a resident, residents can appeal or file a complaint with the state long-term care ombudsman. The resident should appeal as soon as possible after receiving a discharge notice or after being refused readmittance to the nursing home. You can also require the resident’s doctor to sign off on the discharge. Contact your attorney to find out the best steps to take.

For more on protecting the rights of nursing home residents, see the guide 20 Common Nursing Home Problems–and How to Resolve Them by Justice in Aging.

What’s a Health Care Proxy and Why Do I Need One?

If you become incapacitated, who will make your medical decisions? A health care proxy allows you to appoint someone else to act as your agent for medical decisions. It will ensure that your medical treatment instructions are carried out, and it is especially important to have a health care proxy if you and your family may disagree about treatment. Without a health care proxy, your doctor may be required to provide you with medical treatment that you would have refused if you were able to do so.

In general, a health care proxy takes effect only when you require medical treatment and a physician determines that you are unable to communicate your wishes concerning treatment. How this works exactly can depend on the laws of the particular state and the terms of the health care proxy itself. If you later become able to express your own wishes, you will be listened to and the health care proxy will have no effect.

If you are interested in drawing up a health care proxy document, contact your attorney.

Medicare Beneficiaries Need to Know the Difference Between a Wellness Visit and a Physical

Medicare covers preventative care services, including an annual wellness visit. But confusing a wellness visit with a physical could be very costly.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, Medicare beneficiaries receive a free annual wellness visit. At this visit, your doctor, nurse practitioner or physician assistant will generally do the following:

  • Ask you to fill out a health risk assessment questionnaire
  • Update your medical history and current prescriptions
  • Measure your height, weight, blood pressure and body mass index
  • Provide personalized health advice
  • Create a screening schedule for the next 5 to 10 years
  • Screen for cognitive issues

You do not have to pay a deductible for this visit. You may also receive other free preventative services, such as a flu shot.

The confusion arises when a Medicare beneficiary requests an “annual physical” instead of an “annual wellness visit.” During a physical, a doctor may do other tests that are outside of an annual wellness visit, such as check vital signs, perform lung or abdominal exams, test your reflexes, or order urine and blood samples. These services are not offered for free and Medicare beneficiaries will have to pay co-pays and deductibles when they receive a physical. Kaiser Health News recently related the story of a Medicare recipient who had what she assumed was a free physical only to get a $400 bill from her doctor’s office.

Adding to the confusion is that when you first enroll, Medicare covers a “welcome to Medicare” visit with your doctor. To avoid co-pays and deductibles, you need to schedule it within the first 12 months of enrolling in Medicare Part B. The visit covers the same things as the annual wellness visit, but it also covers screenings and flu shots, a vision test, review of risk for depression, the option of creating advance directives, and a written plan, letting you know which screenings, shots, and other preventative services you should get.

To avoid receiving a bill for an annual visit, when you contact your doctor’s office to schedule the appointment, be sure to request an “annual wellness visit” instead of asking for a “physical.” The difference in wording can save you hundreds of dollars. In addition, some Medicare Advantage plans offer a free annual physical, so check with your plan if you are enrolled in one before scheduling.

What a Good Long-Term Care Insurance Policy Should Include

Nursing home and long-term care costs continue to rise and it is difficult to qualify for Medicaid to pay for nursing home costs. Long-term care insurance can help cover expenses, but long term care insurance contracts are notoriously confusing. How do you figure out what is right for you? The following are some tips to help you sort through all the different options.

Find a strong insurance company

The first step is to choose a solid insurance company. Because it is likely you won’t be using the policy for many years, you want to make sure the company will still be around when you need it. Make certain that the insurer is rated in the top two categories by one of the services that rates insurance companies, such as A.M. BestMoodysStandard & Poor’s, or Weiss.

What is covered

Policies may cover nursing home care, home health care, assisted living, hospice care, or adult day care, or some combination of these. The more comprehensive the policy, the better. A policy that covers multiple types of care will give you more flexibility in choosing the care that is right for you.

Waiting period

Most long-term care insurance policies have a waiting period before benefits begin to kick in. This waiting period can be between 0 and 90 days, or even longer. You will have to cover all expenses during the waiting period, so choose a time period that you think you can afford to cover. A longer waiting period can mean lower premiums, but you need to be careful if you are getting home care. Look for a policy that bases the waiting period on calendar days. For some insurance companies, the waiting period is not based on calendar days, but on days of reimbursable service, which can be very complicated. Some policies may have different waiting periods for home health care and nursing home care, and some companies waive the waiting period for home health care altogether.

Daily benefit

The daily benefit is the amount the insurance pays per day toward long-term care expenses. If your daily benefit doesn’t cover your expenses, you will have to cover any additional costs. Purchasing the maximum daily benefit will assure you have the most coverage available. If you want to lower your premiums, you may consider covering a portion of the care yourself. You can then insure for the maximum daily benefit minus the amount you are covering. The lower daily benefit will mean a lower premium.

It is important to determine how the daily benefit is calculated. It can be each day’s actual charges (called daily reimbursement) or the daily average, calculated each month (called monthly reimbursement). The latter is better for home health care because a home care worker might come for a full day, one day, and then only part of the day, the next day.

Benefit period

When you purchase a policy, you need to choose how long you want your coverage to last. In general, you do not need to purchase a lifetime policy three to five years’ worth of coverage should be enough. In fact a new study from the American Association of Long-term Care Insurance shows that a three-year benefit policy is sufficient for most people. According to the study of in-force long-term care policies, only 8 percent of people needed coverage for more than three years. So, unless you have a family history of a chronic illness, you aren’t likely to need more coverage. If you are buying insurance as part of a Medicaid planning strategy, however, you will need to purchase at least enough insurance to cover the five-year lookback period. That way you can transfer assets to your children or grandchildren before you enter the nursing home, use the long-term care coverage to wait out Medicaid’s new five-year look-back period, and after those five years have passed apply for Medicaid to pay your nursing home costs (provided the assets remaining in your name do not exceed Medicaid’s limits).

If you do have a history of a chronic disease in your family, you may want to purchase more coverage. Coverage for 10 years may be enough and would still be less expensive than purchasing a lifetime policy.

Inflation protection

As nursing home costs continue to rise, your daily benefit will cover less and less of your expenses. Most insurance policies offer inflation protection of 5 percent a year, which is designed to increase your daily benefit along with the long-term care inflation rate of 5.6 percent a year. Although inflation protection can significantly increase your premium, it is strongly recommended. There are two main types of inflation protection: compound interest increases or simple interest increases. If you are purchasing a long-term care policy and are younger than age 62 or 63, you will need to purchase compound inflation protection. This can, however, more than double your premium. If you purchase a policy after age 62 or 63, some experts believe that simple inflation increases should be enough, and you will save on premium costs.