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Helping seniors live at home longer

The new Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act aims to provide at-home alternatives to nursing home care.

June 19, 2011|By Tammy Worth, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • United HomeCare Services home health aide Wendy Cerrato hugs Olga Socarras as she helps her during a visit in Miami.
United HomeCare Services home health aide Wendy Cerrato hugs Olga Socarras… (Joe Raedle, Getty Images )

Patricia McGinnis has six brothers and sisters who help her take care of their 89-year-old mother. Though their mother is alert and able to live on her own, she is blind and has balance problems that have led to several falls, for which she has received care.

It takes all of the siblings working together to help their mother stay at home. But every day, as president of the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, McGinnis deals with people who don't have that choice and must live in nursing homes because they lack the financial resources or social support to remain at home as they age.

Home-based care is increasingly seen as a legitimate and less costly alternative to nursing home care. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, signed into law by President Obama in March 2010, includes provisions to assist people who want to stay in their homes longer.

"I think it's probably one of the most important reforms to long-term care since Medicare and Medicaid went into effect in 1965," McGinnis said. "This is imperative, so I am really excited about it."

About 1.5 million people live in nursing homes in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And more than 10 million Americans — mostly people 65 or older — need long-term services and support to help them with daily activities, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Elinor Ginzler, senior vice president for livable communities at AARP, said the organization is always fighting for more funding to help people stay in their homes longer.

"Nursing homes are not a first choice," she said. "People like where they are living. We surveyed the 50-plus population and found that 86% of them want to stay in their homes."

One of the main reasons is financial.

The cost of staying at a nursing home ranges from about $40,000 to $85,000 a year, according to a recent report by John Hancock Financial Services Inc., an insurance and financial services company. The average cost of a home health aide, on the other hand, is about $37,000 a year.

A long-term care insurance policy McGinnis purchased some time ago pays for most of her mother's healthcare at home. But not everyone has that kind of insurance. "If you look at the baby boomers coming up, I wonder how we are going to pay for all of this," she said. "The average retirement savings of people 55 or older is $29,000 a year."

New provisions of the Affordable Care Act should help. The most ambitious part of the act to do with long-term care is the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act, or CLASS — a voluntary, consumer-financed insurance plan to cover long-term care expenses.

"It is a really different and new way of looking at the delivery and financing of long-term care in the U.S.," said Dee Mahan, deputy director of health policy at FamiliesUSA, a nonprofit healthcare advocacy organization. "I think the program is really, really important."

The insurance plan is similar to those currently available in the private market, but there are a few major distinctions. First, the program will be administered by the government. Second, any working adult age 18 or older will be able to enroll, regardless of any preexisting medical condition, and benefits will be good for as long as someone needs long-term care.

And unlike most private long-term care insurance plans, which restrict how money can be used, the government plan will offer benefits that could be used for a wide variety of expenses including hiring a home care provider and doing home modifications.

Before receiving daily cash benefits through the government program, people will have to pay premiums for at least five years and work for a minimum of three of those years. The benefits will be calculated based on the degree of disability or cognitive impairment. Although the average daily benefit won't be defined until October 2012, the law states that it must be no less than $50, and it is expected to be about $75, according to a Congressional Budget Office report.

Employers that take part in the program will automatically enroll their employees, who will be able to opt out. Others will be able to enroll individually.

The cost of premiums has yet to be determined, but it will depend on age and will be cheaper for younger people. The cost for low-income individuals and full-time students will start at $5 a month. The plan will be funded entirely through premiums — one of its only flaws, Ginzler said.

"CLASS runs the risk of not being implemented optimally," she said. "For it to work, you have to have a large pool of people paying into the system. And the reality is that most people don't want to think about their need for long-term care; they would rather plan for their funeral than their disability."

Other provisions in the Affordable Care Act will also help individuals stay in their homes longer if they choose.

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