New Rule May Make It Harder for Medicare Beneficiaries to Receive Home Care

It may become harder for Medicare beneficiaries to find home health care due to a new rule from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Although the rule changes the way home health care providers are reimbursed, it could affect patient care as well.

Starting in January 2020, Medicare will reimburse home health agencies at a lower rate when they care for patients who have not been admitted to a hospital first. CMS estimates that it will pay home health agencies approximately 19 percent more for a patient who hires the home health agency directly after leaving a hospital than a patient who was never in the hospital or was only an outpatient.  (The Center for Medicare Advocacy calculates that the disparity could be as high as 25 percent.)

In part due to pressure from Medicare to reduce costly inpatient stays, hospitals often do not admit patients, but rather place them on observation status to determine whether they should be admitted. These patients, if not admitted to the hospital for at least three nights, are not eligible for Medicare reimbursement of a limited amount of skilled nursing care and typically head home instead to continue care with Medicare’s home health care benefit.

But a home health agency that cares for a patient who was in the hospital under observation will be reimbursed as if the patient had been an outpatient. This lower reimbursement rate means that home health agencies may be reluctant to provide care for patients who were under observation status or who haven’t been in a hospital at all.

If you are hospitalized, it is important to learn whether you are admitted or under observation. Hospitals are required to provide notice to patients if they are under observation for more than 24 hours.

For more information about the new rule from the Center for Medicare Advocacy, click here.

Medicare Launches App to Help Beneficiaries Find Out What’s Covered

At the doctor’s office and want to know if a procedure is covered by Medicare? There is an app for that. Medicare has launched a free app that gives beneficiaries a quick way to see whether the program covers a specific medical item or service.

The “What’s Covered” app allows you to search or browse to learn what’s covered and not covered under Medicare Parts A and B, how and when to get covered benefits, basic cost information and other eligibility details. You can also see a list of covered preventive services. The app does not give results for extra benefits that Medicare Advantage plans may cover but that Original Medicare does not, such as certain vision, hearing or dental benefits.

Examples of the types of questions the app can answer include:

  • When are mammograms covered?
  • Is home health care covered?
  • Will Medicare pay for diabetes supplies?
  • Can I get a regular cervical cancer screening?
  • Will my Medicare benefits cover a service to help me stop smoking?

Although the app provides beneficiaries with basic information, it doesn’t provide personalized information. It doesn’t ask details about each user’s specific insurance information, so it doesn’t take into account the user’s supplemental insurance, co-insurance, and deductibles. Essentially, the app provides another way for Medicare beneficiaries to get the same information that is available online and in the Medicare handbook.

The app is part of an initiative by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) focused on modernizing Medicare and empowering beneficiaries. Other initiatives include:

  • Enhanced interactive online decision support to help beneficiaries better understand and evaluate the coverage options and costs of original Medicare compared to Medicare Advantage plans.
  • New price transparency tools that let consumers compare the national average costs of certain procedures between settings, so people can see what they’ll pay for procedures done in a hospital outpatient department versus an ambulatory surgical center.
  • A new webchat option in the Medicare Plan Finder.
  • New easy-to-use surveys across Medicare.gov so consumers can tell CMS what they want.

To get the new “What’s Covered” app, go here: https://www.medicare.gov/blog/whats-covered-mobile-app.

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.

Costs of New Long-Term Care Insurance Policies Vary Considerably

We’ve all heard the advice “It pays to shop around,” but this has never been more true than with the current market for long-term care insurance.

According to the latest industry figures, the spread between the lowest and highest cost for virtually identical coverage was as high as 243 percent.  “This is the largest spread I can recall in recent years,” said Jesse Slome, director of the American Association for Long-Term Care Insurance (AALTCI), an industry group that issues an annual Long Term Care Insurance Price Index. “It’s rare to see one policy costing more than twice another policy when both are large insurers but each company gets to set their own pricing and each has their own target market.”

Slome was referencing the results of AALTCI’s 2019 price index, which found that a married couple who are both 55 years old would pay an average of $3,050 a year combined for a total of $386,500 each of long-term care insurance coverage when they reach age 85. But the percentage difference between the lowest-priced and highest-priced policies for such a couple is 243 percent, meaning that a consumer could wind up paying more than triple what they might have paid for similar coverage. Slome said that the quoted premiums ranged from $2,898 to $9,932.

The price differences between policies for single people were lower but still significant, according to the index.  A single 55-year-old man can expect to pay an average of $2,050 a year (up from $1,870 in 2018) for $164,000 worth of coverage. But there is a 123 percent difference between the lowest-priced and highest-priced policies.  The same policy for a single woman averages $2,700 a year, down from $2,965 in 2018, although again the spread between the least and most expensive policies tops 100 percent.

For the first time, the index suggests ways for couples to save on their premium by electing less coverage or a “shared care” option.  Couples purchase 65 percent of policies, according to the AALTCI.  But clearly one of the best ways to save is to review the offerings of a number of different insurance companies.  “We really recommend the importance of talking to a specialist who is ‘appointed’ with multiple insurers,” Slome said.

For the association’s 2019 index showing average prices for common scenarios, go here: http://www.aaltci.org/news/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/2019-Price-Index-LTC.pdf

Medicaid Home Care

Traditionally, Medicaid has paid for long-term care in a nursing home, but because most individuals would rather be cared for at home and home care is cheaper, all 50 states now have Medicaid programs that offer at least some home care. In some states, even family members can get paid for providing care at home.

Medicaid is a joint federal-state program that provides health insurance coverage to low-income children, seniors, and people with disabilities. In addition, it covers care in a nursing home for those who qualify. Medicaid home care services are typically provided through home- and community-based services “waiver” programs to individuals who need a high level of care, but who would like to remain at home.

Medicaid’s home care programs are state-run, and each state has different rules about how to qualify. Because Medicaid is available only to low-income individuals, each state sets its own asset and income limits. For example, in 2019, in New York an applicant must have income that is lower than $845 a month and fewer than $15,150 in assets to qualify. But Minnesota’s income limit is $2,250 and its asset limit is $3,000, while Connecticut’s income limit is also $2,250 but its asset limit is just $1,600.

States also vary widely in what services they provide. Some services that Medicaid may pay for include the following:

  • In-home health care
  • Personal care services, such as help bathing, eating, and moving
  • Home care services, including help with household chores like shopping or laundry
  • Caregiver support
  • Minor modifications to the home to make it accessible
  • Medical equipment

In most states it is possible for family members to get paid for providing care to a Medicaid recipient. The Medicaid applicant must apply for Medicaid and select a program that allows the recipient to choose his or her own caregiver, often called “consumer directed care.” Most states that allow paid family caregivers do not allow legal guardians and spouses to be paid by Medicaid, but a few states do. Some states will pay caregivers only if they do not live in the same house as the Medicaid recipient.

To find out your Medicaid home care options, you should check with your elder law attorney.

Understanding Medicare’s Hospice Benefit

Medicare’s hospice benefit covers any care that is reasonable and necessary for easing the course of a terminal illness. It is one of Medicare’s most comprehensive benefits and can be extremely helpful to both the terminally ill individual and his or her family, but it is little understood and underutilized. Understanding what is offered ahead of time may help Medicare beneficiaries and their families make the difficult decision to choose hospice if the time comes.

The focus of hospice is palliative care, which means helping people who are terminally ill and their families maintain their quality of life. Palliative care addresses physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual needs while also supporting the terminally ill individual’s independence, access to information, and ability to make choices about health care.

To qualify for Medicare’s hospice benefit, a beneficiary must be entitled to Medicare Part A, and a doctor must certify that the beneficiary has a life expectancy of six months or less. If the beneficiary lives longer than six months, the doctor can continue to certify the patient for hospice care indefinitely. The beneficiary must also agree to give up any treatment to cure his or her illness and elect to receive only palliative care. This can seem overwhelming, but beneficiaries can also change their minds at any time. It’s possible to revoke the benefit and reelect it later, and to do this as often as needed.

Medicare will cover any care that is reasonable and necessary for easing the course of a terminal illness. Hospice nurses and doctors are on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to give beneficiaries support and care when needed. Services are usually provided in the home. The Medicare hospice benefit provides for:

  • Physician and nurse practitioner services
  • Nursing care
  • Medical appliances and supplies
  • Drugs for symptom management and pain relief
  • Short-term inpatient and respite care
  • Homemaker and home health aide services
  • Counseling
  • Social work service
  • Spiritual care
  • Volunteer participation
  • Bereavement services

Services are considered appropriate if they are aimed at improving the beneficiary’s life and making him or her more comfortable.

Because the beneficiary is electing palliative care over treatment, there are things the hospice benefit will not cover:

  • Treatment to cure the beneficiary’s illness.
  • Prescription drugs other than for symptom control or pain relief.
  • Care from a provider that wasn’t set up by the hospice team, although the beneficiary can choose to have his or her regular doctor be the attending medical professional.
  • Room and board. If the beneficiary is in a nursing home, hospice will not pay for room and board costs. However, if the hospice team determines that the beneficiary needs short-term inpatient care or respite care services, Medicare will cover a stay in a facility.
  • Care from a hospital, either inpatient or outpatient, or ambulance transportation unless it arranged by the hospice team. The beneficiary can use regular Medicare to pay for any treatment not related to the beneficiary’s terminal illness.

To download Medicare’s booklet on the hospice benefit, click here.

Have Private Insurance and Are Turning 65? You Need Sign Up for Medicare Part B

If you are paying for your own insurance, you may think you do not need to sign up for Medicare when you turn 65. However, not signing up for Medicare Part B right away can cost you down the road.

You can first sign up for Medicare during your Initial Enrollment Period, which is the seven-month period that includes the three months before the month you become eligible (usually age 65), the month you are eligible and three months after the month you become eligible. If you do not sign up for Part B right away, you will be subject to a penalty. Your Medicare Part B premium may go up 10 percent for each 12-month period that you could have had Medicare Part B, but did not take it. In addition, you will have to wait for the general enrollment period to enroll. The general enrollment period usually runs between January 1 and March 31 of each year.

There are exceptions to the penalty if you have insurance through an employer or through your spouse’s employer, but there is no exception for private insurance. The health insurance must be from an employer where you or your spouse actively works, and even then, if the employer has fewer than 20 employees, you will likely have to sign up for Part B.

If you don’t have an employer or union group health insurance plan, or that plan is secondary to Medicare, it is extremely important to sign up for Medicare Part B during your initial enrollment period. Note that COBRA coverage does not count as a health insurance plan for Medicare purposes. Neither does retiree coverage or VA benefits.

For a New York Times column about a man with private insurance who didn’t realize he needed to sign up for Part B, click here.

Don’t Make the Mistake of Not Signing up for Medicare Supplemental Coverage

You are turning 65 and enrolling in Medicare, but as a healthy senior do you really need to also sign up for Medicare’s supplemental coverage? Not signing up initially can be very costly down the road.

Medicare pays for only about half of all medical costs. To augment Medicare’s coverage, you can purchase a supplemental or “Medigap” insurance policy from a private insurer. There are 10 Medigap plans that each offers a different combination of benefits, allowing purchasers to choose the combination that is right for them. In addition, Medicare offers a federally subsidized prescription drug program, in which private health insurers provide limited insurance coverage of prescription drugs to elderly and disabled Medicare recipients.

Purchasing the supplemental coverage means paying more premiums. If you don’t go to the doctor very often or have any regular prescriptions, you may not want to sign up for the additional coverage. However, if you get sick, what Medicare doesn’t cover can be a lot more costly than the extra premiums. And buying coverage after you get sick can be difficult and expensive.

You cannot be denied a Medigap policy for pre-existing conditions if you apply within six months of enrolling in Medicare Part B. If you don’t buy a policy right away, the plan can use medical underwriting to decide whether to accept your application. The plan will look at your age, gender, and pre-existing conditions and can charge you higher premiums, restrict coverage, or even reject your application.

Beneficiaries who enroll in Medicare Advantage plans can’t also buy a Medigap policy. But if they chose Medicare Advantage as their first form of insurance and later decide to return to original Medicare, they must select a Medigap policy within the first year of their initial Medicare enrollment or risk being shut out of a policy.

Medicare beneficiaries are also subject to significant financial penalties for late enrollment in the Medicare drug benefit (Medicare Part D). For every month you delay enrollment past the Initial Enrollment Period, the Medicare Part D premium will increase at least 1 percent. For example, if the premium is $40 a month, and you delay enrollment for 15 months, your premium penalty would be $6 (1 percent x 15 x $40 = $6), meaning that you would pay $46 a month, not $40, for coverage that year and an extra $6 a month each succeeding year.

There are some exceptions built in to both Medigap and Medicare Part D if you did not enroll right away because you had other coverage. But if you choose not to enroll because you think you won’t need the plan, it is not easy to change your mind later on.

It’s Important to Shop Around for Your Medigap Policy

Medigap premiums can vary widely depending on the insurance company, according to a new study, so be sure to shop around before choosing 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 10 Medigap plans that are identified by letters A, B, C, D, F, G, K, L, M, and N. Each plan package offers a different combination of benefits, allowing purchasers to choose the combination that is right for them. Federal law requires that insurers must offer the same benefits for each lettered plan, so each plan C offered by one insurer must cover the same benefits as plan C offered by another insurer.

When choosing a plan, you need to take into account the different benefits each plan offers as well as the price for each plan. To make things more difficult, the premiums for a particular plan can vary widely, according to an analysis by Weiss Ratings, Inc., consumer-oriented company that assesses insurance companies’ financial stability, and recently reported by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

Weiss Ratings compared Medigap premiums in each zip code nationwide and found huge disparities. For example, a 65-year-old man who lives in Hartford, Connecticut, can buy a Plan F policy for anywhere between $2,900 and $7,400 annually. A 65-year-old woman in Houston can pay $5,300 a year for Medigap’s Plan C policy from one insurance company or she can buy exactly the same policy from another insurer for $1,700 a year.

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

Seniors Often Must Fight for Medicare Home Health Benefits

Medicare is mandated to cover your home health benefits with no limit on the time you  are covered. Unfortunately, few Medicare beneficiaries get the level of service they are entitled to, and many find their services cut off prematurely. Getting these benefits can be critically important as Medicare home health care benefits can mean the difference between being able to stay at home with a difficult medical problem or ending up in the hospital or a nursing home.

As a Medicare recipient, you are entitled to full home health benefits if you meet the following requirements:

  • You must be confined to your home (i.e., leaving your home to receive services would be a “considerable and taxing effort”);
  • Your doctor must have ordered home health services for you;
  • At least some element of the services must be skilled, skilled nursing care, physical therapy, or speech therapy (which will also entitle you to Medicare coverage of social services and home health aide services); and
  • You must receive the services from a certified home health agency.

Under the law, you are entitled to 35 hours of service a week, but few Medicare beneficiaries who meet the home health care criteria actually get this level of service. If your services are terminated prematurely, you will need to appeal.

If you can, you should continue to pay privately for care during the appeals process. Remember, the issue you are appealing is not the termination of service, but the denial of Medicare payment for the service.

In order to mount a successful campaign to get your services back, you should:

  • Ask your home health agency to explain the cutback and write the information down;
  • Ask your physician to call the agency urging them not to cut back the services and have the physician send a letter detailing the level of care you need; and
  • Immediately consult with your attorney to determine the likelihood of a successful appeal.