Money Follows the Person is a cornerstone of the federal government's effort to move Medicaid beneficiaries from nursing homes into the community. But a new study commissioned by Medicaid itself shows how difficult those transitions can be. In the 30 states that have been testing the program over the past three years, only 8,500 people have used MFP to return to their communities.

That's just a tiny fraction of the nearly 1 million people who are eligible, and only about one-quarter of the 35,000 the participating states initially hoped to move. And of the 8,500 who have enrolled in the program, one-third lived in just one state--Texas. By contrast, California has signed up only 186 people since MFP began, and New York only 165, according to the study done by Mathematica Policy Research Inc.  

The concept makes great sense. Move people out of nursing homes, where most don't want to live and where the costs to Medicaid are extremely high, and help them get back to their homes or other community residences. Unfortunately, states have struggled to turn this concept into reality.     

Most troubling for the frail elderly, it turns out that while three out of every four people eligible for the program are age 65 or older, only one-quarter of participants are seniors. Money Follows the Person has been far more successful for younger adults with physical and developmental disabilities than for the frail elderly. 

Mathematica identified several reasons why so few frail elders participate. The biggest may be that they have no home to return to. In the original design, MFP participants had to have been nursing home residents for at least six months. Because many elderly people sold their homes or given up their apartments when they moved into a nursing facility, it was not possible for them to return to their communities. In addition, in many states participants were not allowed to move into assisted living facilities.

Just as troubling, many states don't have enough subsidized rental housing or funding for necessary home and community based services, such as personal aides or transportation. Unfortunately, the growing wave of state budget cuts is likely to make that problem even worse.  

Still, there is some good news. The 2010 health reform law (the Affordable Care Act) allows people to use the program after only 90 days in a nursing facility, instead of six months. That will make another 112,000 people eligible to participate. The health law also promised an additional $1.75 billion in funding, gives states new flexibility in providing community-based services, and continued MFP experiment until 2014.

Long-term care experts and top government officials have had high hopes for Money Follows the Person. They see it as key to helping both the frail elderly and younger people with disabilities receive the supports and services they need at home and not in nursing facilities. But as the Mathematica study suggests, MFP has so far fallen far short of those expectations.   

             

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Powerful Republicans are pushing the twin ideas of capping the federal contribution to Medicaid and eliminating federal regulation of the program. These changes would do profound damage to the Medicaid benefit for long-term care, whether it is provided at home or in nursing facilites.

This plan would turn Medicaid from a federal entitlement into a block grant. Over time, states would be responsible for paying a growing share of the program costs but in exchange would have broad flexibility over who to cover and what benefits they'd receive. In such an environment, chances are good that fewer aged and disabled would be eligible for benefits and they'd receive less assistance than they do today. At the same time, providers such as nursing homes and home health agencies would likely get lower Medicaid payments even though the program reimbursements are already at dangerously low levels.  

Today, the federal government pays about 57 percent of Medicaid costs (the actual amount varies from state to state and ranges from 50 percent to about 80 percent). While the elderly and disabled account for only 25 percent of the 50 million Medicaid enrollees, the program spends two out of every three of its dollars on this population. More than one-third of the total Medicaid budget, or $125 billion, went to long-term care supports and services alone in 2009, according to a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Under the current arrangement, the federal government pays its share no matter how quickly Medicaid costs rise. Thus, because Medicaid rose by 7.7 percent in 2009 (mostly because the recession drove many newly-unemployed into the program), the federal contribution increased to keep up. In fact, Washington's share actually grew even more thanks to the much-reviled 2009 stimulus law.

By contrast, under a block grant the federal share would increase only up to a cap, say equal to the growth rate of the economy plus one percent. In 2009, this would have resulted in no increase in federal payments for the program. As a result, states would have had to scale back their Medicaid programs, including their long-term care services.

Over time, the federal contribution would fall significantly, leaving the states with more and more responsibility for the program and less and less assistance to pay the bills. Governors who support a block grant insist it would drive greater efficiencies.And it might, for instance, make it easier for states to expand their home and community based long-term care programs. 

But it is also likely to generate major cuts in both benefits and reimbursements. In addition, without minimum federal standards, the differences among state long-term care benefits, already dramatic, would only grow.As a result, residents of one state may receive much better long-term care than residents of a neighboring jurisdiction.  

Despite these risks, GOP governors came to Cngress today to demand the changes. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who is mulling a presidential bid--told a congressional committee that states should not have to "kow-tow" to the federal government and insisted the program be turned into a block grant. Mississippi, as it happens, recieves a greater federal Medicaid payment than any other state.

Even more troubling, these Medicaid cuts would come on top of what are likely to be freezes or cuts in non-Medicaid benefits for the frail elderly, such as nutrition, energy assistance,and housing.  

My guess is that much of this call for a Medicaid block grant is political posturing. It is hard to believe that many governors would turn their backs on hundreds of billions of dollars in federal aid at a time when they are struggling to balance thier budgets. I suspect what Barbour and his colleagues really want is the money with less regulation. But given federal budget pressures, their GOP friends on Capitol Hill may give them both.        

 

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As Medicaid budget pressures grow, more states are turning long-term care over to private managed care companies. USA Today reports that six states now require both frail elderly and younger adults with disabilities to enroll in insurance-run Medicaid managed care plans. Another 10 states are planning to either create or expand these programs, according to the story.

The reason, of course: money. States pay the insurance plans a fixed amount to care for these patients. And the private insurers say they can provide quality care for less cost through their use of care coordinators and by keeping many people at home. 

Tennessee, for instance, pays private insurers an average of $4,400 per patient per month to provide Medicaid long-term care services. Under this system, if the insurer can provide care for less, it makes a profit. If its costs are higher, the insurer is at risk for the difference. This is a big incentive to create a care plan built around home care, which for many beneficiaries can be far less costly than a skilled nursing facility.

USA Today reported that one Tennessee insurer, Amerigroup, spent about $3,000 per month to care for one patient at home. The cost for this patient in a nursing facility would have been almost $4,600 per month and a money-loser for the insurer.     

Medicaid managed care isn't new. States have been using it for acute care beneficiaires (mostly low income mothers and kids) for years. But long-term care patients are a very different challenge.

One one hand, more than any other population, the frail elderly need to have their care coordinated. They have complex medical needs, often suffer from multiple chronic diseases, and frequently take many medications. If a mix of care managers, personal assistance, nursing, and other services and supports can help them get the care they need at home for less money, that is great.

This flat fee, or capitated, payment model works well with programs such as hospice and PACE, for instance.   

On the other hand, many insurance companies badly damaged their reputations in the 1980s and '90s with managed care plans that seemed more intent on maximizing profits than care. It will be important to put protections in place to be sure that the frail elderly, who are often unable to advocate for themselves, are getting the care they require.

The other problem with Medicaid managed care is that these beneficiaries often receive their physician and hospital care through Medicare, not Medicaid. Because these two programs are so poorly coordinated, seniors who transition from, say, home to hospital to rehab and back to home may not get proper care as they cross settings.

This lack of coordination between Medicare and Medicaid also creates some perverse and dangerous incentives. If, for instance, a Mediciad managed care patient winds up in the hospital as a result of poor care, neither Medicaid nor the managed care firm is on the hook. The bill, instead, is paid by Medicare.

If managed care is going to work well, there will have to be much closer delivery and financial relationships between these two payers, as there is with successful programs such as PACE or through provider-based managed care mechanisms such as Accountable Care Organizations.           

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President Obama's 2012 budget is the latest indication of the growing pressures government-provided aging services will face in coming years.  And as tight as his budget is, spending on assistance for poor and frail seniors is likely to end up much lower than Obama proposed. With congressional Republicans vowing to cut $100 billion from domestic spending over the remaining seven months of the current budget year, and even more from Obama's proposals for next year, the future for federal funding for aging services is grim.

There is some good news for seniors in Obama's fiscal plan. For instance, he has asked for a modest increase in home and community-based supportive services. However, the budgets for many other key programs, including Meals on Wheels and other nutrition programs, would be frozen. Respite care remains grossly underfunded, even though it received a modest budget increase.

On the other hand, Obama proposed cutting the major subsidized senior housing program (called Section 202) by $68 million from the 2010 budget and low-income energy assistance for those living at home by $2.5 billion. The community services block grant program would be funded at $350 million, just half its 2010 level. These are grants for local non-profits that provide housing, nutrition, and other supportive services for very low-income people, including seniors. Overall, Obama would cut the Administration on Aging budget by almost $181 million, or about 8 percent, from 2010 levels.

Keep in mind, though, that once Obama and Congress agree to a final compromise budget (probably sometime next fall) cuts will be deeper than Obama has proposed. Also remember that these cuts so far largely exclude changes in Medicare and Medicaid, which are exempt from the annual budget process but face enormous financial and political pressures of their own. 

Worse, as federal budget pressures grow, these cuts are likely to be only one step in a long and painful process of scaling back government assistance for the elderly. As I have suggested in the past, in such an environment, it will be critically important for state and local governments, senior service providers, non-profits, and advocacy groups to rethink their own future roles in caing for our parents.    

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President Obama's 2012 budget is the latest indication of the growing pressures government-provided aging services will face in coming years.  And as tight as his budget is, spending on assistance for poor and frail seniors is likely to end up much lower than Obama proposed. With congressional Republicans vowing to cut $100 billion from domestic spending over the remaining seven months of the current budget year, and even more from Obama's proposals for next year, the future for federal funding for aging services is grim.

There is some good news for seniors in Obama's fiscal plan. For instance, he has asked for a modest increase in home and community-based supportive services. However, the budgets for many other key programs, including Meals on Wheels and other nutrition programs, would be frozen. Respite care remains grossly underfunded, even though it received a modest budget increase.

On the other hand, Obama proposed cutting the major subsidized senior housing program (called Section 202) by $68 million from the 2010 budget and low-income energy assistance for those living at home by $2.5 billion. The community services block grant program would be funded at $350 million, just half its 2010 level. These are grants for local non-profits that provide housing, nutrition, and other supportive services for very low-income people, including seniors. Overall, Obama would cut the Administration on Aging budget by almost $181 million, or about 8 percent, from 2010 levels.

Keep in mind, though, that once Obama and Congress agree to a final compromise budget (probably sometime next fall) cuts will be deeper than Obama has proposed. Also remember that these cuts so far largely exclude changes in Medicare and Medicaid, which are exempt from the annual budget process but face enormous financial and political pressures of their own. 

Worse, as federal budget pressures grow, these cuts are likely to be only one step in a long and painful process of scaling back government assistance for the elderly. As I have suggested in the past, in such an environment, it will be critically important for state and local governments, senior service providers, non-profits, and advocacy groups to rethink their own future roles in caing for our parents.    

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In an important speech for those interested in the future of the CLASS Act, federal Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said today that the program must be self-supporting but conceded that, as designed, it may not meet that goal. 

"The program must be able to pay for benefits over the long-term with the premiums it takes in,' she told the Kaiser Family Foundation. "No taxpayer dollars will be used to pay for CLASS benefits.This is non-negotiable."

At the same time, however, Sebelius said she was open to major changes to the program and acknowledged that the national, voluntary long-term care insurance system that was included in the 2010 health reform law "is not perfect." And, in an apparent nod to critics, said "it would be irresponsible to ignore the concerns about the CLASS program's long-term sustainability in its current form."

To respond to those fears, she suggested that HHS has broad authority to restructure key provisions of the law. Sebelius said that, besides sustainability, CLASS contains only two other "key principles." The first is that consumers must have the ability to direct their own services--a reference to CLASS' cash benefit. The other is that there should be no traditional underwriting for health status such as is included in private long-term care policies.

However, she explicitly opened the door to other highly controversial changes to the law. These include tightening its "at work" requirement, changing its premium structure, and assisting employers who offer CLASS benefits to their workers. 

The biggest change would make it tougher for some people with disabilities to enroll in the program. The law allows anyone 18 and older to sign up for CLASS as long as they earn just $1,100 a year, which makes it possible for many working people with disabilities to buy coverage. This is an extremely important change for them, but such a flexible standard has been sharply criticized by industry actuaries.

The problem is that this design may mean that those buying CLASS insurance will be more likely than average to claim benefits under the program. If that happens, the government will have to increase premiums to pay those claims which in turn will discourage healthy consumers from buying coverage. This will eventually lead to a "death spiral" that will destroy the program.

Sebelius said her office is reviewing that at-work requirement, although it is unclear how much flexibility she has to change it without an amendment to the law.

Other changes she is considering include:

Replacing a flat premium with one that increases annually with inflation. This postive change would allow for relatively low initial premiums, especially for young buyers.

Imposing anti-gaming rules. These would prevent consumers from going in-and-out of coverage during their lives without paying penalties.

Easing the burden on employers that offer CLASS insurance. This could be another key change. The law automatically enrolls workers in CLASS, but only if they get coverage through their job. Currently, however, the law includes no incentives for employers to participate.

Creating an aggressive marketing campaign for long-term care insurance. This change could attract broad insurance industry support. But coming up with the funding will be a huge challenge, especially given severe budget pressures and the strong opposition to CLASS from congressional Republicans.

Tailoring benefits to individual needs. The law appears to require Sebelius to approve only a single policy. But today she suggsted she might have the flexibility to approve multiple coverage options. This could be another key change.

Sebelius' speech today was a major acknowledgement that CLASS as currently designed is in deep trouble--both politically and as an insurance program. By recognizing the flaws that some of us have been noting for more than a year, she has taken the first steps towards making CLASS successful. The question now is whether it is not too late given the broad opposition to the program that has been building for months on Capitol Hill. 

        

 

         

 

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A new study by the highly respected Center for Retirement Research at Boston College concludes that premiums for coverage under the CLASS Act--the new voluntary national long-term care insurance program included in the 2010 health reform law--are likely to be unaffordable for many middle class families.

The analysis, by center director Alicia Munnell and co-author Josh Hurwitz, projects an average monthly CLASS premium of $194--a rate that falls within the wide range of earlier estimates by both government and private analysts. For instance, the Congressional Budget Office projected monthly premiums for a CLASS-like policy would cost an average of $123, while the office of the Medicare actuary projected a premium twice as high.

To estimate premiums, Munnell and Hurwitz built a basic economic model to project premiums for both CLASS and several variations of the insurance program. The authors conclude that premiums could be cut significantly with some major changes to the basic CLASS framework. However, they found that the deepest premium cuts would only come if the insurance were made mandatory--an outcome favored by many economists but quite unlikely in the current political climate. 

They concluded that only a mandatory program could drive premiums below $100 per month.      

As I have noted at Caring for Our Parents in the past, the big problem with the CLASS design is that coverage is available to all, including working people who already have disabilities. This is good for them, but their high level of likely claims threatens to make premiums unaffordable for healthy buyers.

To ease that problem, Munnell and Hurwitz propose a couple of changes to the CLASS design that would mimic the medical underwriting that private insurers use to hold down premiums. They'd require both a tougher work requirement for buyers and a 10-15 year waiting period before they can collect benefits. The current waiting period is five years. 

Unfotunately, while these changes may make good actuarial sense, they'd drive a wedge between the political coalition of aging and disabilities groups that backed CLASS in the first place.

The authors also suggest a more practical change that I have also proposed. They'd index premiums for inflation instead of setting them at a fixed level for life. This one adjustment could cut average premiums by one-third to about $120, Munnell and Hurwitz estimate.

Finally, they urge a major marketing campaign to teach prospective buyers the importance of planning for long-term care needs. As they note, however, such an effort will be costly for the government. While some private foundations and advocacy groups have commited to help fund such a campaign, it is hard to imagine the current Congress allocating any new funds for the effort. 

The Munnell and Hurwitz paper is more evidence that while CLASS is based on a good idea, it faces huge challneges if it is going to succeed in the real world. 

  

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Prepare yourself for big new cuts in government support for elder care.  

In his State of the Union address last evening, President Obama called for a five-year freeze on a narrow slice of the federal budget. Unfortunately, programs subject to the freeze would include many that are critically important to the frail elderly and younger people with disabilities--especially those living in the community.

This is only the beginning of what will be a very difficult period. Yet it is an opportunity for communities to pull together to provide services that government may no longer offer.

The freeze would not include Medicare or Medicaid, although Medicaid long-term care benefits are already being cut at the state level. However, it is very likely that programs such as meals-on-wheels, adult day care, transportation, housing, aging and disability resource centers, and Area Agencies on Aging would all be hit by this freeze.

It is not clear exactly how the freeze would work. It could be an across-the-board cut in all so-called domestic discetionary programs. These are programs that are subject to annual congressional review, but exclude entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Alternatively, Congress could pick and choose which programs to cut, as long as the total amount of all domestic non-entitlement spending did not rise from year to year.

Either way, a freeze will inevitably result in fewer services since demand for this assistance is growing as the population ages and the cost of services rises.

Congressional Republicans are already criticizing Obama's plan as too weak and vow to cut even more deeply into these programs. Some would return spending to 2008 levels, others to 2006 funding. However it finally works out, there is little doubt that many of the long-term care supports and services that seniors now rely upon are in line for major cuts.

With a national debt of $14 trillion and annual deficits of more than $1 trillion, there is no doubt that government spending is going to be trimmed--perhaps quite substantially.It is also likely that sooner or later, federal payments for Medicaid services will also be slashed. One can hope that an eventual budget deal will eventually include tax increases as well, which would help soften the spending blow. But in the current political environment, that is not likely--at least until after the next presidential election.

So what do families and advocates do? I believe we need to begin to look for community, non-government solutions. If transportation services are cut, we should pull together to create volunteer ride programs. Senior villages are one way to build such an infrastructure. So are more informal groups organized around neighborhoods, churches, synagogues, or fraternal organizations.

If budgets for government-funded resource centers are slashed, we should support private non-profits that pick up the slack.(Full disclosure: I serve on the board of one of these--the Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington--and as an adviser to another--Caring from a Distance). 

As needs grow and government services shrink, we all face a huge challenge. But it is also an opportunity to rethink our obligations to, not only our own parents, but to our neighbors and friends. I hope we will be creative enough to take up this challenge.    

 

    

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The news for critical long-term care services and supports provided by the states--either through Medicaid or other funding--keeps getting worse. The toxic combination of a still-slow economy, huge structural budget pressures on all levels of government, and growing demands for aging and disability services is leading to ongoing cuts in both critical benefits to individuals and payments to providers.

The latest evidence comes from two new reports. Following an extensive survey of state officials, AARP reports that 31 states cut their non-Medicaid long-term care services programs in Fiscal Year 2010 and at least 28 expect to slash them in the coming budget year. These essential programs include home-delivered meals, transportation, adult day care, housing, and foster care.

At the same time, a report by the American Health Care Association--which represents mostly for-profit nursing homes-- concludes that skilled nursing facilites are losing increasing amounts of money on their Medicaid long-term care beds. It concludes that nursing facilities are paid $17 per day less for long-term care than it costs them to provide these services. It is easy to criticize these results as self-serving, but the general trend is hard to dispute. And it could result in dramatic cuts in these long-term care resources. While this may not be a short-term problem in communities with an oversupply of nursing homes, this trend may already be curbing services in low-income areas. 

The AARP study reported that only a handful of states cut Medicaid benefits last year, but that was because the federal government, as part of its stimulus effort, increased its share of program payments. In addition, states that took the extra federal money were barred from cutting Medicaid benefits--although they could trim or freeze provider payments. Normally, the federal government pays about 60 percent of the cost of Medicaid while the states pay the rest (the amount varies from state to state).

However, this additional federal Medicaid funding is already winding down, and will disappear completely on July 1. Even more troubling, AARP found many states built the higher federal payments into this year's budgets, a decison that will force even deeper cuts in state programs as those dollars dry up. Just this week, lawmakers in Texas and Ohio proposed major cuts in Medicaid.  

AARP also asked state officials whether they intended to pursue additional federal funding for home and community based services that's been promised under the 2010 health reform law. Despite their serious financial shortfalls and the growing interest among policy analysts and advocates in expanding community services, state officials were remarkably cautious about whether they'd embrace these initiatives.

I'll have more to say about these studies soon, but they are both worth reading.       

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In the decade between 1999 and 2008, almost 3,000 nursing homes closed while the number of skilled nursing facility beds shrunk by nearly 100,000, or about 5 percent, according to a new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine. In a nation with more nursing homes than McDonald's, and at a time when long-term care can be provided in other settings, that may not be a bad thing. These days, many frail elderly receive care at home or in assisted living facilities, settings they often prefer to skilled nursing facilities.

But the Archives study by Zhanlian Feng and coauthors also raised some serious concerns. The report concluded that many of these closures occured in minority and low-income communities, the same areas where other care alternatives may be unavailable.

Other studies have shown that relatively few assisted living facilities--which are overwhelmingly private pay--are located in these neighborhoods. In addition, while data are scarce, it appears that many low-income and minority serniors may have limited access to high-quality home care. In other words, for one segment of the population, good care may increasingly be unavailable. 

A study published last year in Health Affairs, David Stevenson and David Grabowski of the Harvard Medical School found that larger assisted living facilities (those with 25 beds or more) were far more likely to be located in higher income counties than in poor jurisdictions. 

As a result, low-income seniors who are unable to live at home--perhaps because there may be no one to care for them or because their home may not be suitable for someone with disabilities--have very few options. Many may move to small board-and-care homes--often a room they rent in a local home where assistance is provided by an unlicensed caregiver. Others may get no care at all.  

From the perspctive of the long-term care industry, the Archives paper reflects another troubling trend. Most long-term care in SNFs is paid by Medicaid, and reimbursements for these patients are often lower than the cost of providing care. By contrast, Medicare, which pays for post-acute and rehabilitation services, is far more generous. Medicare typically pays $500 or more per day for these services while Medicaid may pay just $125 for a long-term care bed (these payments vary by state and Medicare payments are adjusted to reflect patient needs).

The result: Growing industry consolidation and an increasing shift away from long-term care and towards more lucrative post-acute services. These choices make perfect economic sense. And they are often praised by advocates for the elderly, who argue that aging services should be provided in the community. However, for some seniors, including some with dementia or those with no family members to help provide care, nursing homes or assisted living facilities may be their only alternatives. Sadly, for many, those options are increasingly unavailable.           

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