Long-Term Care Medicaid Changes for 2012 (Part I)

Most seniors who spend significant time (months or years) in a long-term care facility end up relying on Medicaid at some point during their stay. Nursing home costs can be a crushing burden, one that most seniors can’t shoulder alone for long.

Medicaid qualification has always been tough.  But seniors have usually been able to protect a few assets for their spouse or children, or to supplement their own care, on their way to getting Medicaid assistance.

Now, though, Illinois has implemented harsh new rules required by the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (DRA), a federal law that governs the state Medicaid programs.  These new rules apply to any Medicaid long-term care applications filed in Illinois after January 1, 2012.

If you’re close to retirement age, or have a parent or loved-one close to retirement age, knowing how these new rules work is critically important.

The changes are so big that we’ll need to cover them in several parts.  This first part deals with two concepts that our clients usually encounter first when researching Medicaid — “look back” and “penalty periods“.  The rules for both have changed dramatically.  And the changes could cost unprepared Illinois seniors tens of thousands of dollars in lost Medicaid long-term care benefits.

5-Year Disclosure Period (“Look Back”)

The old Medicaid rules required applications to be filed with three years of the applicant’s financial history, including bank records, tax returns, and information about sales or gifts of assets.  Anything that occurred more than three years prior to filing did not have to be disclosed for the most part.

Applications filed on January 1, 2012 or later must include five years of financial history.  That’s a big change (66% more), and when combined with the penalty period changes below, it makes planning for Medicaid much more complicated than under the old rules.

Penalty Periods

The primary purpose behind reviewing five years of financial history is to determine whether the applicant made any disallowed transfers.   Gifts, of course, are considered transfers.  But so are many other things that people often do, such as reimbursing family members for groceries or paying them for helping around the house.

When disallowed transfers are found, a penalty period is imposed.  While under a penalty, a senior is denied Medicaid benefits — even though they might otherwise qualify.  The senior must find another way to pay for the care until the penalty is over.  That can be difficult when the assets gifted or transfered can’t be recovered.

The new Medicaid rules made significant changes to the way penalty periods are calculated and applied.

Transfers Accumulated

The old rules treated every month with a disallowed transfer independently.  So the penalty for a $6,000 transfer in January was separate from the penalty for a $500 transfer in February.  This generally worked out in favor of the senior because of how the other penalty rules worked.  Small transfers spread among many months often didn’t even create a penalty at all.

Under the new rules, all disallowed transfers from the past five years are added together to calculate the penalty.  So very small transfers (even just a few hundred dollars) — if they are made regularly — can result in a huge penalty when added together.

No Rounding of Penalties

The length of the penalty period for a disallowed transfer is equal to the value of the transfer divided by the monthly private pay rate for the nursing home the senior resides in at the time of the application.  For example, a $9,000 transfer with a private pay rate of $5,000 results in a 1.8 month penalty.

The one month penalty is pretty easy to understand.  But happens to that fractional 0.8 months?

Penalties under the old Medicaid rules were calculated in whole months.  And fractional months weren’t rounded using the rules we were all taught in grammar school (round up 0.5 and above and round down anything lower).  Instead, fractions were simply dropped.  So a 1.8 month (or 1.9 month) penalty was applied as a 1.0 month penalty.

This obviously left open up all sorts of doors for creative asset protection.  But those doors have now been closed.

Fractions are no longer rounded down.  Penalties are calculated and applied to the half of a day.  A penalty of 1.8 months will be applied as a 1 month and 24 day penalty.

Penalty Periods Applied After Qualification

Applications under the old rules were often simplified by the fact that penalties were applied in the month of the transfer.

Imagine that a $15,000 transfer was made 24 months before applying and that the nursing home private pay rate is $5,000 per month.

  • Under the old rules, a three month penalty would have been applied beginning in the month of the transfer.  That means the penalty ended 21 months ago — in other words, long before Medicaid coverage was actually needed!
  • Under the new rules, the penalty starts only after the senior applies for Medicaid and meets all of the other qualification requirements.

As you can see, even fairly large transfers made many months (or years) before applying weren’t likely to cause problems under the old Medicaid rules.

Combining the Penalty Period Rules — An Example

Taken individually, the changes to penalty periods sound quite harsh.  But you really need to see an example to fully understand just how much the new rules will affect seniors.

Mary has been in good health and financially secure for years.  And she has been generous with her money.  Every year at Christmas, Mary gives $100 to each of her seven grandchildren.  A couple of years ago, Mary also gave $4,500 to her daughter, Susan, to help Susan through a period of prolonged unemployment.

Recently, though, Mary’s health has declined and she is now residing in a nursing home that costs $5,000 per month.  The rest of Mary’s assets have been spent, and she is now looking to Medicaid for her long-term care needs.

Everything Mary did is what many other grandparents would do — and have done — in the same situations.  But the Department of Healthcare and Family Services won’t look at what Mary did in the same light.

Under the new Medicaid rules, Mary made $700 worth of disallowed transfers each year (the Christmas gifts) plus a single disallowed transfer of $4,500 (the gift to Susan).  Adding up five years worth of transfers (remember, there is now a five year look back period) brings the total to $8,000.

The Department of Healthcare and Family Services will apply a 1.6 month penalty to Mary ($8,000 in transfers divided by the $5,000 private pay rate).  Mary’s nursing home will be looking to someone else to pay for Mary’s care during the penalty period.

What it All Means for Your Family

The new Medicaid rules have been described by some as “harsh”.  But that may be an understatement.  Completely ordinary behavior will now be penalized.  As a result, it is imperative that Illinois seniors suffering from declining health get counsel from an elder law attorney to make sure that they aren’t damaging their Medicaid eligibility.

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One Response to Long-Term Care Medicaid Changes for 2012 (Part I)

  1. Janice Kostka April 5, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    I really appreciate the help you have given to me. I feel more secure now that I have taken your advice.

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