Medicaid in the United States is a joint federal and state program that helps with medical costs for some people with limited income and resources. Medicaid also offers benefits not normally covered by Medicare, like nursing home care and personal care services. The Health Insurance Association of America describes Medicaid as “a government insurance program for persons of all ages whose income and resources are insufficient to pay for health care.” Medicaid is the largest source of funding for medical and health-related services for people with low income in the United States, providing free health insurance to 74 million low-income and disabled people (23% of Americans) as of 2017. It is a means-tested program that is jointly funded by the state and federal governments and managed by the states, with each state currently having broad leeway to determine who is eligible for its implementation of the program. States are not required to participate in the program, although all have since 1982. Medicaid recipients must be U.S. citizens or qualified non-citizens and may include low-income adults, their children, and people with certain disabilities. Poverty alone does not necessarily qualify someone for Medicaid.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act significantly expanded both eligibility for and federal funding of Medicaid. Under the law as written, all U.S. citizens and qualified non-citizens with income up to 133% of the poverty line, including adults without dependent children, would qualify for coverage in any state that participated in the Medicaid program. However, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius that states do not have to agree to this expansion in order to continue to receive previously established levels of Medicaid funding, and many states have chosen to continue with pre-ACA funding levels and eligibility standards.
Research suggests that Medicaid improves recipients’ financial security. However, the evidence is mixed regarding whether Medicaid actually improves health outcomes, although “the best existing evidence says [having health insurance] improves health”.
Medicaid and Medicare are the two government-sponsored medical insurance programs in the United States and are administered by the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Baltimore, Maryland.
Eligibility and Benefits
As of 2013, Medicaid is a program intended for those with low income, but a low income is not the only requirement to enroll in the program. Eligibility is categorical—that is, to enroll one must be a member of a category defined by statute; some of these categories include low-income children below a certain wage, pregnant women, parents of Medicaid-eligible children who meet certain income requirements, low-income disabled people who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and/or Social Security Disability (SSD), and low-income seniors 65 and older. The details of how each category is defined vary from state to state.
Some states operate a program known as the Health Insurance Premium Payment Program (HIPP). This program allows a Medicaid recipient to have private health insurance paid for by Medicaid. As of 2008, relatively few states had premium assistance programs and enrollment was relatively low. Interest in this approach remained high, however.
Included in the Social Security program under Medicaid are dental services. These dental services are optional for adults above the age of 21; however, this service is a requirement for those eligible for Medicaid and below the age of 21. Minimum services include pain relief, restoration of teeth, and maintenance for dental health. Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnostic and Treatment (EPSDT) is a mandatory Medicaid program for children that aims to focus on prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. Oral screenings are not required for EPSDT recipients, and they do not suffice as a direct dental referral. If a condition requiring treatment is discovered during an oral screening, the state is responsible for taking care of this service, regardless of whether or not it is covered on that particular Medicaid plan.
Both the federal government and state governments have made changes to the eligibility requirements and restrictions over the years. The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (DRA) significantly changed the rules governing the treatment of asset transfers and homes of nursing home residents. The implementation of these changes proceeded state-by-state over the next few years and has now been substantially completed.
Five Year “Look-Back”
The DRA created a five-year “look-back period.” That means that any transfers without fair market value (gifts of any kind) made by the Medicaid applicant during the preceding five years are penalizable.
The penalty is determined by dividing the average monthly cost of nursing home care in the area or State into the amount of assets gifted. Therefore, if a person gifted $60,000 and the average monthly cost of a nursing home was $6,000, one would divide $6000 into $60,000 and come up with 10. 10 represents the number of months the applicant would not be eligible for medicaid.
All transfers made during the five-year look-back period are totaled, and the applicant is penalized based on that amount after having already dropped below the Medicaid asset limit. This means that after dropping below the asset level ($2,000 limit in most states), the Medicaid applicant will be ineligible for a period of time. The penalty period does not begin until the person is eligible for medicaid but for the gift.
Elders who gift or transfer assets can be caught in the situation of having no money but still not being eligible for Medicaid.