This post is the first in a series that I’m calling “Elder Law Basics.” The idea is to give a brief introduction to the essential elements of a law practice focused on serving the needs of the elders in our community, and to help readers understand what is meant by the term “elder law.” Elder law encompasses many things because the practice is focused on a population not on a distinct set of laws. But because the practice spans so many disciplines that we usually think of as separate — like estate planning and landlord-tenant and healthcare — it can be confusing to understand what an elder law attorney actually “does.” (By the way, “agriculture law” suffers from the same form of confusion. It too is interdisciplinary in scope and focuses on a population — farmers — rather than a particular legal discipline. What can I say, I like to wear a lot of different hats!)
I’d like to start out this first post by focusing on a health-law aspect of my elder law practice, and a topic that generates a lot of confusion and misinformation in the broader community. I’m talking about Medicare and Medicaid.
A lot of people confuse Medicare and Medicaid, but they are two separate healthcare insurance programs that originate with the federal government and involve some administration at the state level as well. Medicare is a health insurance program primarily for people over 65, although people who are permanently disabled or have certain diseases may also qualify for insurance coverage through Medicare. Medicare has four parts: Part A, which is known as “hospital insurance,” Part B, which is known as the “health insurance” part and covers some preventive care; Part C, which is “Medicare Advantage,” a sort of hybrid of Parts A and B; and finally, Part D, which is prescription coverage. Medicaid is also a health insurance program, but it pays for healthcare when a person can no longer afford to do so. A person may qualify for Medicaid if their income is too low, or if they’re over 65 or disabled and require long term care but cannot afford to pay for it. There are income and asset limits to qualify for Medicaid, and I’ll discuss those in a later post.
For now, I want to highlight some things about Medicare that most people aren’t aware of. First, you might not know that if you’re 65 and receiving Social Security, you’ll be automatically enrolled in Medicare Parts A & B. But what about people who are still working at 65? Do they need to enroll? The answer is that it depends. If you’re actively working and receiving health insurance through your employer (or your spouse’s employer), and if the company has more than 20 employees, you do not need to enroll in Medicare. But, if the employer has fewer than 20 employees, Medicare will still be considered the primary payer, and you should enroll to avoid a penalty. If you’re 65 and not collecting Social Security yet, it’s a good idea to talk with a professional about whether you should be enrolling or not so that you don’t lose coverage or have to pay a penalty.
In addition, Medicare Part A pays for hospital stays (up to 150 days), and skilled nursing facility stays that follow at least a 3-day inpatient hospital stay (up to 100 days). When it comes to skilled nursing care, many people are told by their healthcare provider that Medicare will stop paying for skilled nursing care if the patient does not show improvement. That is not true. According to a recent settlement agreement with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, there is no legal requirement that a patient demonstrate improvement for Medicare to continuing paying for care. Medicare must continue to pay for care so long as it is medically necessary for up to a maximum of 100 days.
Many people also need home health care due to age-related illnesses or after a hospital stay. Many people and care providers don’t realize, however, that Medicare Part A also pays for in-home care. So long as the care is ordered by a physician and the patient is “homebound,” which simply means they need assistance with moving (for example, a cane, walker, or wheelchair), Medicare will pay for up to 28 to 35 hours of in-home care per week, and there is no limit on how long the person can continue receiving care at home.
One big issue that has come up in Medicare cases over the years is something called “observational status.” In order to qualify for Part A coverage for a hospital stay or for skilled nursing care following a hospital stay, the patient must be considered in in-patient (not out-patient) care. Many hospitals are categorizing patients as out-patient by putting them on “observational status.” Hospitals may be afraid that they will lose money on Medicare patients, so they avoid this by making the patient’s hospital stay not qualify for Medicare coverage. Since most patients have no way of knowing whether they’ve been admitted as in-patient or whether they are on observational status, all patients are entitled to a “Medicare Outpatient Observation Notice” (MOON) within 36 hours of hospitalization. Patients on observational status can and should dispute their status with their care provider.