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Medicare and Medicaid Basics

This post was written by Parag Patel, Attorney on February 4, 2010
Posted Under: Elder Law,Special Needs Planning

Medicare
Medicare Part A covers up to 100 days of “skilled nursing” care per spell of illness. However, the definition of “skilled nursing” and the other conditions for obtaining this coverage are quite stringent, meaning that few nursing home residents receive the full 100 days of coverage. As a result, Medicare pays for only about 9 percent of nursing home care in the United States.

Medicaid
For all practical purposes, in the United States the only “insurance” plan for long-term institutional care is Medicaid. Lacking access to alternatives such as paying privately or being covered by a long-term care insurance policy, most people pay out of their own pockets for long-term care until they become eligible for Medicaid. Although their names are confusingly alike, Medicaid and Medicare are quite different programs. For one thing, all retirees who receive Social Security benefits also receive Medicare as their health insurance. Medicare is an “entitlement” program. Medicaid, on the other hand, is a form of welfare — or at least that’s how it began. So to be eligible for Medicaid, you must become “impoverished” under the program’s guidelines.

Also, unlike Medicare, which is totally federal, Medicaid is a joint federal-state program. Each state operates its own Medicaid system, but this system must conform to federal guidelines in order for the state to receive federal money, which pays for about half the state’s Medicaid costs. (The state picks up the rest of the tab.)

This complicates matters, since the Medicaid eligibility rules are somewhat different from state to state, and they keep changing. (The states also sometimes have their own names for the program, such as “MediCal” in California and “MassHealth” in Massachusetts.) Both the federal government and most state governments seem to be continually tinkering with the eligibility requirements and restrictions. This has most recently occurred with the passage of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (the DRA) which significantly changed rules governing the treatment of asset transfers and homes of nursing home residents. The implementation of these changes will proceed state-by-state over the next few years. The rules for gaining eligibility to the program are explained in detail in this Blog. But to be certain of your rights, consult an expert. He or she can guide you through the complicated rules of the different programs and help you plan ahead.

Those who are not in immediate need of long-term care may have the luxury of distributing or protecting their assets in advance. This way, when they do need long-term care, they will quickly qualify for Medicaid benefits. Giving general rules for so-called “Medicaid planning” is difficult because every client’s case is different. Some have more savings or income than others. Some are married, others are single. Some have family support, others do not. Some own their own homes, some rent. Still, a number of basic strategies and tools are typically used in Medicaid planning.

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