By Andrew M. Lamkin, Esq.
On February 8, 2006, President Bush signed into law the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (DRA). The Act reduces federal entitlement spending for Medicaid, among other federal programs. The Medicaid program pays for services for disabled seniors who meet the eligibility requirements. Most commonly, Medicaid pays for the cost of home health aides and nursing home care.
The effects of the Deficit Reduction Act on Medicaid are significant, especially when applying for nursing home benefits. First, the look back period on asset transfers has been increased from three to five years. When an uncompensated transfer, or gift, is made during this look back period, Medicaid will impose a “penalty period.” The “penalty period” is the length of time during which Medicaid will not pay for the cost of nursing care, during which time the family of the applicant is responsible. At the end of the penalty period, Medicaid will pick up the cost of care. Due to this change in the law, the goal when establishing an estate plan is to protect assets five years before having to apply for Medicaid. Unfortunately, it is difficult to anticipate when a family member may be forced to enter a nursing home. To ensure you are eligible for Medicaid should the need arise; it is advisable to plan well ahead of time.
The second major change as a result of the DRA, is in regard to the start of the penalty period. Under the old law, the penalty period began on the date when the assets were transferred. Depending on the fair market value of the transfer, the penalty period may have expired by the time the application was filed. Therefore, an applicant who transferred assets within the three year look back may have qualified for Medicaid before the time they apply.
Under DRA, however, the penalty period begins when the applicant applies for nursing home benefits. Therefore, any transfer made within the 5 year look-back period will certainly result in a penalty period. This is a drastic change and many applicants will be ineligible for a longer period of time. This will require applicants to pay for the cost of the nursing home with their savings, and perhaps require the sale of the family home.
A common misconception is that if proper planning has not occurred by the time a person enters a nursing home; there is no option other than to exhaust his savings. In reality, this is not the case. The opportunity to protect all of the assets may be lost, but by utilizing a strategy known as “Reverse Rule of Halves,” it is possible to protect up to one-half of the applicant’s assets. In order for this strategy to work, it is vital to transfer assets as soon as the person enters the nursing home.
It is also important to note that there are a few exceptions to transfers made during the look-back period. Transfers made within the look back period to a spouse or disabled child do not result in a penalty period. Furthermore, an applicant can transfer his home to a “caretaker” child. This exception applies only in a situation where a child of the applicant has been residing with the applicant in the applicant’s home for at least two years. In this situation, the applicant can transfer the home to the “caretaker” child while, retaining a life estate.
Fortunately, the eligibility requirements for Community-based Medicaid, where a home health aide is provided, are more lenient than nursing home based applications. Most importantly, there is not a look-back period on assets transfers. Hence, an applicant for Community Medicaid may transfer assets for the purposes of qualifying without the imposition of a penalty period. Therefore, an applicant can transfer assets to anyone in March and be eligible for Community Medicaid in April.
A big concern with community based applications is the “spenddown” requirement imposed on income over $767.00 per month. Any income over this amount must be “spent down” on the cost of care and Medicaid will pay for the remaining cost. For example, if an applicant receives Social Security benefits and a pension totaling $2,500 per month, he is allowed to keep only $767.00 per month. He is required to contribute the difference of $1,733 per month to the cost of the home care aide. If the aide costs more than $1,733 per month, Medicaid will pick up the difference. However, with proper planning and the use of a Pooled Income Trust, it is possible to protect 100% of the applicant’s income and he will not have to contribute to the cost of the home care aide. Therefore, by utilizing a Pooled Income Trust, Medicaid will pay for the entire cost of the home care aide.
Overall, the Deficit Reduction Act makes it more difficult for those in need to qualify for Medicaid benefits. The new provisions are complex and can be difficult to navigate. With these changes, it is even more important for the protection of your family to have a plan in place.
Taking time to speak with an Elder Law attorney can help to devise a plan that will insure that your loved ones receive the necessary care they need, while at the same time protecting their income and assets for their use.