Last week, I headed to the State House to once again testify on bills that could plug some holes in the MassHealth nursing home payment system and make things a bit easier for families caring for frail elders.
The shorthand for this bill is the “transfer of assets” bill. It comes down to this: As you probably know, should you need nursing home some day, and if you need MassHealth to pay for it, MassHealth understandably looks through five years of bank statements to see if you’ve given any large sums away in the last five years. After all, it would not be fair if we could just give our money away and then ask our fellow taxpayers to foot our nursing home bills.
But the problem lies in abiding by this principle too strictly. The MassHealth regulations (based on federal law) actually state that you cannot transfer assets within the last five years with the intent of qualifying for MassHealth. The MassHealth regulations indicate that applications should be approved where the assets “were transferred exclusively for a purpose other than to qualify for MassHealth.” The problem is, MassHealth is not following its own regulations.
Quite frequently, nursing home placement is the result of a sudden decline, or an unexpected illness. It is fairly common for a healthy, active elder to do what she has always done – birthday gifts to family, donations to her church, help out a child divorcing or at risk of foreclosure – and a few years later be faced with a sudden turn of events and need to move to the nursing home. These elders should not be punished for not only not knowing about the five-year “look-back” rule, but worse – for being healthy and loving their families.
What happens to you if you are one of these unlucky people? Let’s say you were in good health, your child’s home was in foreclosure, you paid off her debt, and then let’s say four years later, out of the blue, your health fails and you need nursing home care. Well, you might pay down most of your remaining assets to the nursing home, and once you run out of money, you apply for MassHealth assistance. If you run out of money before you get to the five-year mark from making that gift, things are going to be difficult.
Imagine this: You are in the nursing home, you have spent all your savings, and you have no choice but to ask for MassHealth to pay your nursing home bill. It is only at this point – when you have no more money – that they impose the disqualification period that resulted from the gift. Let’s say you gave your kid $33,000 – that amounts to four months of disqualification. So you are in the nursing home, you have no money, and MassHealth won’t start paying for another four months. The nursing home isn’t paid to care for you, so now what? Is it fair that the nursing home should provide 24/7 room, board, and medical attention without being paid? They can’t operate that way. They try to evict you for nonpayment. And then things get ugly. You might bounce from hospital to hospital, or you might end up in your last choice of nursing homes. Not pretty.
The “transfer of assets bill” would make it clear to MassHealth caseworkers (the folks that review and then approve or deny your nursing home application) that transfers in the last five years shall not result in denials if the transfers were made for certain various reasons. These are reasons that you might categorize under “living my life” or “taking care of my family,” such as a pattern of small gifts (monthly donations to church or annual birthday checks); helping a relative in financial crisis, foreclosure, or with medical care; or, whatever the reason for the transfer, at the time of the transfer, there was no reason to think you would need MassHealth in the next five years.
The “transfer of assets” bill is actually two identical bills – one filed in the House by Representative John Fernandes (H1021) and one filed in the Senate by Senator Katherine Clark (S503). Please call your state representative and senator and ask them to support these bills. To find your rep and senator and their contact information, click here. And thank you.