2019 Will Bring Social Security Beneficiaries the Biggest Increase in Eight Years

The Social Security Administration has announced a 2.8 percent increase in benefits in 2019, the largest increase since 2012.

Cost of living increases are tied to the consumer price index, and an upturn in inflation rates and gas prices means recipients get a boost in 2019. The 2.8 percent increase is higher than last year’s 2 percent rise and the .3 percent increase in 2017. The cost of living change also affects the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax, which will grow from $128,700 to $132,900.

And there is more good news: Unlike last year’s increase, the additional income should not be entirely eaten up by higher Medicare Part B premiums. The standard monthly premium for Medicare Part B enrollees will increase only $1.50 to $135.50.

For 2019, the monthly federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payment standard will be $771 for an individual and $1,157 for a couple.

Most beneficiaries will be able to find out their cost of living adjustment online by logging on to my Social Security in December 2018. While you will still receive your increase notice by mail, in the future you will be able to choose whether to receive your notice online instead of on paper.

For more on the 2019 Social Security benefit levels, click here.

Medicare Premium to Edge Up in 2019

After staying the same last year, Medicare’s Part B premium will increase slightly in 2019. The premium will increase $1.50 from $134 a month to $135.50.

Some Medicare recipients have been paying a lower premium because they are protected by something called the “hold harmless” rule from any increase in premiums when Social Security benefits don’t rise. Due to increases in Social Security in 2018 and 2019, recipients who were previously shielded by this provision and paying lower premiums may see their premiums increase to the full $135.50 amount. In 2019, only an estimated 2 million Medicare beneficiaries (about 3.5 percent) will pay less than the full Part B standard monthly premium amount.

The Part B deductible will increase from $183 to $185 in 2019, while the Part A deductible will go up by $24, to $1,364. For beneficiaries receiving skilled care in a nursing home, Medicare’s coinsurance for days 21-100 will inch up from $167.50 to $170.50. Medicare coverage ends after day 100. (For more on Medicare’s nursing home coverage, click here.)

Here are all the new Medicare payment figures:

  • Part B premium: $135.50 (was $134)
  • Part B deductible: $185 (was $183)
  • Part A deductible: $1,364 (was $1,340)
  • Co-payment for hospital stay days 61-90: $341/day (was $335)
  • Co-payment for hospital stay days 91 and beyond: $682/day (was $670)
  • Skilled nursing facility co-payment, days 21-100: $170.50/day (was $167.50)

So-called “Medigap” policies can cover some of these costs. For more on these policies, click here.

Premiums for higher-income beneficiaries ($85,000 and above) are as follows:

  • Individuals with annual incomes between $85,000 and $107,000 and married couples with annual incomes between $170,000 and $214,000 will pay a monthly premium of $189.60.
  • Individuals with annual incomes between $107,000 and $133,500 and married couples with annual incomes between $214,000 and $267,000 will pay a monthly premium of $270.90.
  • Individuals with annual incomes between $133,500 and $160,000 and married couples with annual incomes between $267,000 and $320,000 will pay a monthly premium of $352.20.
  • Individuals with annual incomes above $160,000 and less than $500,000 and married couples with annual incomes above $320,000 and less than $750,000 will pay a monthly premium of $433.40.
  • Individuals with annual incomes above $500,000 and married couples with annual incomes above $750,000 will pay a monthly premium of $460.50

Rates differ for beneficiaries who are married but file a separate tax return from their spouse. Those with incomes greater than $85,000 and less than $415,000 will pay a monthly premium of $433.40. Those with incomes greater than $415,000 will pay a monthly premium of $460.50.

The Social Security Administration uses the income reported two years ago to determine a Part B beneficiary’s premiums. So the income reported on a beneficiary’s 2016 tax return is used to determine whether the beneficiary must pay a higher monthly Part B premium in 2018. Income is calculated by taking a beneficiary’s adjusted gross income and adding back in some normally excluded income, such as tax-exempt interest, U.S. savings bond interest used to pay tuition, and certain income from foreign sources. This is called modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). If a beneficiary’s MAGI decreased significantly in the past two years, she may request that information from more recent years be used to calculate the premium. You can also request to reverse a surcharge if your income changes.

Those who enroll in Medicare Advantage plans may have different cost-sharing arrangements. CMS estimates that the Medicare Advantage average monthly premium will decrease by 6 percent in 2019, from an average of $30 in 2018 to $28 in 2019.

For Medicare’s press release announcing the new premium and deductible amounts, click here.

For more about Medicare, click here.

Conservator Owed Duty to Nursing Home to Timely Apply for Medicaid

Reversing a lower court, a Connecticut appeals court holds that a nursing home resident’s conservator owed a duty of care to the nursing home to timely apply for Medicaid on behalf of the resident. Bloomfield Health Care Center of Connecticut, LLC v. Doyon (Conn. App. Ct., No. AC 40281, Oct. 9, 2018).

A nursing home petitioned the court to appoint a conservator for one of its residents, Samuel Johnson, to assist him with his Medicaid application. The court appointed Jason Doyon as conservator in April 2014. Mr. Doyon waited nine months to file a Medicaid application on Mr. Johnson’s behalf. The state denied Mr. Johnson’s first Medicaid application due to lack of information. Mr. Doyon filed a second application, which the state approved, but Mr. Johnson did not receive any Medicaid benefits before May 2015.

The nursing home sued Mr. Doyon for negligence in failing to apply for and obtain Medicaid benefits on behalf of Mr. Johnson in a timely manner. Mr. Doyon asked for summary judgment, arguing that he did not owe a duty of care to the nursing home. The trial court granted Mr. Doyon summary judgment, and the nursing home appealed.

The Connecticut Court of Appeals reverses, holding that Mr. Doyon owed the nursing home a duty of care. The court rules that it was “readily foreseeable that, if [Mr. Doyon] failed to timely obtain Medicaid benefits for [Mr.] Johnson, the [nursing home] would suffer harm as a result because it would not be reimbursed for the cost of [Mr.] Johnson’s care.” The court also concludes that “the benefits of encouraging conservators to carry out their duties with care and preventing financial harm outweigh any corresponding minimal increase in litigation.”

For the full text of this decision, go to: https://www.jud.ct.gov//external/supapp/Cases/AROap/AP185/185AP462.pdf

More States Asking to Eliminate Retroactive Medicaid Benefits

Arizona and Florida are the latest states to request a waiver from the requirement that states provide three months of retroactive Medicaid coverage to eligible Medicaid recipients.

Medicaid law allows a Medicaid applicant to be eligible for benefits for up to three months before the month of the application if the applicant met eligibility requirements at the earlier time. This helps people who are unexpectedly admitted to a nursing home and can’t file — or are unaware that they should file — a Medicaid application right away. Preparing an application for Medicaid nursing home coverage may take many weeks; the retroactive coverage gives families a window of opportunity to apply and get coverage dating back to when their loved one first entered the nursing home.  “Retroactive coverage is one of the long-standing safeguards built into the program for low-income Medicaid beneficiaries and their healthcare providers,” says the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Now Arizona and Florida are joining a growing list of states that are asking the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to eliminate the retroactive benefits. CMS has already approved similar requests by Iowa, Kentucky, Indiana, and New Hampshire to waive retroactive coverage. A lawsuit is challenging Kentucky’s waiver, which also imposes work requirements for Medicaid recipients.

Advocates argue that if Medicaid applicants cannot get coverage before the month of application, they may be saddled with uncovered medical bills or fail to receive needed health care because they cannot afford it. According to Justice in Aging, which filed a brief in the Kentucky lawsuit, Medicaid applicants often do not file an application right away because of the complexity of the Medicaid application process or a false belief that Medicare would cover nursing home care.

For more information about the implications of the elimination of retroactive benefits, click here.

If you need to file a Medicaid application, contact your attorney.

When Can an Adult Child Be Liable for a Parent’s Nursing Home Bill?

Although a nursing home cannot require a child to be personally liable for their parent’s nursing home bill, there are circumstances in which children can end up having to pay. This is a major reason why it is important to read any admission agreements carefully before signing.

Federal regulations prevent a nursing home from requiring a third party to be personally liable as a condition of admission. However, children of nursing home residents often sign the nursing home admission agreement as the “responsible party.” This is a confusing term and it isn’t always clear from the contract what it means.

Typically, the responsible party is agreeing to do everything in his or her power to make sure that the resident pays the nursing home from the resident’s funds. If the resident runs out of funds, the responsible party may be required to apply for Medicaid on the resident’s behalf. If the responsible party doesn’t follow through on applying for Medicaid or provide the state with all the information needed to determine Medicaid eligibility, the nursing home may sue the responsible party for breach of contract. In addition, if a responsible party misuses a resident’s funds instead of paying the resident’s bill, the nursing home may also sue the responsible party. In both these circumstances, the responsible party may end up having to pay the nursing home out of his or her own funds.

In a case in New York, a son signed an admission agreement for his mother as the responsible party. After the mother died, the nursing home sued the son for breach of contract, arguing that he failed to apply for Medicaid or use his mother’s money to pay the nursing home and that he fraudulently transferred her money to himself. The court ruled that the son could be liable for breach of contract even though the admission agreement did not require the son to use his own funds to pay the nursing home. (Jewish Home Lifecare v. Ast, N.Y. Sup. Ct., New York Cty., No. 161001/14, July 17,2015).

Although it is against the law to require a child to sign an admission agreement as the person who guarantees payment, it is important to read the contract carefully because some nursing homes still have language in their contracts that violates the regulations. If possible, consult with your attorney before signing an admission agreement.

Another way children may be liable for a nursing home bill is through filial responsibility laws. These laws obligate adult children to provide necessities like food, clothing, housing, and medical attention for their indigent parents. Filial responsibility laws have been rarely enforced, but as it has become more difficult to qualify for Medicaid, states are more likely to use them. Pennsylvania is one state that has used filial responsibility laws aggressively.

Fear of Losing Home to Medicaid Contributed to Elder Abuse Case

A California daughter and granddaughter’s fear of losing their home to Medicaid may have contributed to a severe case of elder abuse. If the pair had consulted with an elder law attorney, they might have figured out a way to get their mother the care she needed and also protect their house.

Amanda Havens was sentenced to 17 years in prison for elder abuse after her grandmother, Dorothy Havens, was found neglected, with bedsores and open wounds, in the home they shared.  The grandmother died the day after being discovered by authorities.  Amanda’s mother, Kathryn Havens, who also lived with Dorothy, is awaiting trial for second-degree murder. According to an article in the Record Searchlight, a local publication, Amanda and Kathryn knew Dorothy needed full-time care, but they did not apply for Medicaid on her behalf due to a fear that Medicaid would “take” the house.

It is a common misconception that the state will immediately take a Medicaid recipient’s home. Nursing home residents do not automatically have to sell their homes in order to qualify for Medicaid. In some states, the home will not be considered a countable asset for Medicaid eligibility purposes as long as the nursing home resident intends to return home; in other states, the nursing home resident must prove a likelihood of returning home. The state may place a lien on the home, which means that if the home is sold, the Medicaid recipient would have to pay back the state for the amount of the lien.

After a Medicaid recipient dies, the state may attempt to recover Medicaid payments from the recipient’s estate, which means the house would likely need to be sold. But there are things Medicaid recipients and their families can do to protect the home.

A Medicaid applicant can transfer the house to the following individuals and still be eligible for Medicaid:

  • The applicant’s spouse
  • A child who is under age 21 or who is blind or disabled
  • Into a trust for the sole benefit of a disabled individual under age 65 (even if the trust is for the benefit of the Medicaid applicant, under certain circumstances)
  • A sibling who has lived in the home during the year preceding the applicant’s institutionalization and who already holds an equity interest in the home
  • A “caretaker child,” who is defined as a child of the applicant who lived in the house for at least two years prior to the applicant’s institutionalization and who during that period provided care that allowed the applicant to avoid a nursing home stay.

In addition, with a little advance planning, there are other ways to protect a house. A life estate can let a Medicaid applicant continue to live in the home, but allows the property to pass outside of probate to the applicant’s beneficiaries. Certain trusts can also protect a house from estate recovery.

The moral is: Don’t let a fear of Medicaid prevent you from getting your loved one the care they need. While the thought of losing a home is scary, there are things you can do to protect the house. To find out the best solution for you, consult with your attorney. 

To read the Record Searchlight article about the case, click here.

Don’t Wait Too Long to Purchase Long-Term Care Insurance

The older you get, the harder it is to qualify for long-term care insurance. If you are interested in buying this insurance, it is better to act sooner rather than later.

Many people put off purchasing long-term care insurance until they need it, but by then, it may be too late. Not only do premiums increase as you age, you also may not even qualify for insurance due to your health. The older you are, the more likely you are to have a pre-existing health condition that will disqualify you from getting long-term care insurance.

According to a recent study by the American Association for Long-Term Care Insurance, 44 percent of applicants who were age 70 or older had their applications denied due to health reasons. And those are the applicants who completed applications. Insurance agents frequently discourage unhealthy applicants from applying in the first place.

In contrast to older applicants, only 22 percent of applicants who are between 50 and 59 years old and 30 percent of applicants between 60 and 69 years old had their applications declined. Generally, the best (and cheapest) time to buy long-term care insurance is when you are in your 50s.

Long-term care insurance is not the best option for everyone, but if you are thinking about it, don’t put off the purchase until it is too late. To find out if a long-term care insurance policy fits into your long-term care plan, consult with your elder law attorney.

The New Tax Law Means It’s Time Review Your Estate Plan

While the new tax law doubles the federal estate tax exemption, meaning the vast majority of estates will not have to pay any federal estate tax, it doesn’t mean you should ignore its impact on your estate plan.

In December 2017, Republicans in Congress and President Trump doubled the federal estate tax exemption to $11.18 million for individuals and $22.36 million for couples, indexed for inflation. The tax rate for those few estates subject to taxation is 40 percent.

While most estates won’t be subject to the federal estate tax, you should review your estate plan to make sure the changes won’t have other negative consequences or to see if there is a better way to pass on your assets. For example, one common estate planning technique when the estate tax exemption was smaller was to leave everything that could pass free of the estate tax to the decedent’s children and the rest to the spouse. If you still have that provision in your will, your kids could inherit your entire estate while your spouse would be disinherited.

For example, as recently as 2001 the federal estate tax exemption was a mere $675,000. Someone with, say, an $800,000 estate who hasn’t changed their estate plan since then could see the entire estate go to their children and none to their spouse.

Another consideration is how the new tax law might affect capital gains taxes. When someone inherits property, such as a house or stocks, the property is usually worth more than it was when the original owner purchased it. If the beneficiary were to sell the property, there could be huge capital gains taxes. Fortunately, when someone inherits property, the property’s tax basis is “stepped up,” which means the tax basis would be the current value of the property. If the same property is gifted, there is no “step up” in basis, so the gift recipient would have to pay capital gains taxes. Previously, in order to avoid the estate tax you might have given property to your children or to a trust, even though there would be capital gains consequences. Now, it might be better for your beneficiaries to inherit the property.

In addition, many states have their own estate tax laws with much lower exemptions, so it is important to consult with your attorney to make sure your estate plan still works for you. 

It’s Now Harder for Veterans to Qualify for Long-Term Care Benefits

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has finalized new rules that make it more difficult to qualify for long-term care benefits.  The rules establish an asset limit, a look-back period, and asset transfer penalties for claimants applying for VA pension benefits that require a showing of financial need. The principal such benefit for those needing long-term care is Aid and Attendance.

The VA offers Aid and Attendance to low-income veterans (or their spouses) who are in nursing homes or who need help at home with everyday tasks like dressing or bathing. Aid and Attendance provides money to those who need assistance.

Currently, to be eligible for Aid and Attendance a veteran (or the veteran’s surviving spouse) must meet certain income and asset limits. The asset limits aren’t specified, but $80,000 is the amount usually used. However, unlike with the Medicaid program, there historically have been no penalties if an applicant divests him- or herself of assets before applying. That is, before now you could transfer assets over the VA’s limit before applying for benefits and the transfers would not affect eligibility.

Not so anymore. The new regulations set a net worth limit of $123,600, which is the current maximum amount of assets (in 2018) that a Medicaid applicant’s spouse is allowed to retain. But in the case of the VA, this number will include both the applicant’s assets and income. It will be indexed to inflation in the same way that Social Security increases. An applicant’s house (up to a two-acre lot) will not count as an asset even if the applicant is currently living in a nursing home. Applicants will also be able to deduct medical expenses — now including payments to assisted living facilities, as a result of the new rules — from their income.

The regulations also establish a three-year look-back provision. Applicants will have to disclose all financial transactions they were involved in for three years before the application. Applicants who transferred assets to put themselves below the net worth limit within three years of applying for benefits will be subject to a penalty period that can last as long as five years. This penalty is a period of time during which the person who transferred assets is not eligible for VA benefits. There are exceptions to the penalty period for fraudulent transfers and for transfers to a trust for a child who is unable to “self-support.”

Under the new rules, the VA will determine a penalty period in months by dividing the amount transferred that would have put the applicant over the net worth limit by the maximum annual pension rate (MAPR) for a veteran with one dependent in need of aid and attendance. For example, assume the net worth limit is $123,600 and an applicant has a net worth of $115,000. The applicant transferred $30,000 to a friend during the look-back period. If the applicant had not transferred the $30,000, his net worth would have been $145,000, which exceeds the net worth limit by $21,400. The penalty period will be calculated based on $21,400, the amount the applicant transferred that put his assets over the net worth limit (145,000-123,600).

The new rules go into effect on October 18, 2018. The VA will disregard asset transfers made before that date. Applicants may still have time to get through the process before the rules are in place.

Veterans or their spouses who think they may be affected by the new rules should contact their attorney immediately.

To read the new regulations, click here.

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.