Dr. Wayne is on bi-weekly rounds at the Greenacres Retirement Home. He picks up the chart for Mr. Hooper, a 75-year old man with dementia and congestive heart failure who was admitted almost 5 months ago. The nursing staff had specifically asked for Mr. Hooper to be seen because he has developed a pressure ulcer on his sacrum that has not been responding to standard treatment.
Dr. Wayne reviews the information in the chart: Mr. Hooper was living at home prior to suffering a heart attack 6 months ago, after which his congestive heart failure became markedly worse. Mr. Hooper then went through a few weeks of cardiac rehab with minimal results before being sent to Greenacres, where he has had 2 months of physical therapy, again with marginal results. Dr. Wayne looks over his physical therapy notes. Based on a review of the chart it seems that Mr. Hooper is getting worse. Although he is on Aricept and Haldol, Mr. Hooper's dementia often makes him combative. Now a pressure ulcer has developed, possibly complicating the care plan.
Two nurses accompany Dr. Wayne and help to position Mr. Hooper so the ulcer can be examined. It's extensive but doesn't appear to extend to the bone or need much debridement. After examining the wound Dr. Wayne begins discussing a treatment plan with the nursing staff. During the discussion Mr. Hooper's wife and son enter the room.
"Dr. Wayne, we're glad you're here. We wanted to discuss my husband's skin breakdown," Mrs. Hooper says.
Dr. Wayne explains that the skin breakdown is significant, but he believes it can be handled by the wound care team at Greenacres. It is in a sensitive area, however, and if it seems to be going into the bone or developing a lot of necrosis, he probably will need to be hospitalized.
"Well, Dr. Wayne, that's something we wanted to talk to you about too," Mr. Hooper's son begins. "Dad has Medicare, but it doesn't cover the nursing home costs now, and we've been paying for his care out of his savings. We're working on getting Mom and him on Medicaid, but right now they don't qualify. We don't think we're going to be able to afford to keep him here much longer if we don't have some kind of help, and mom can't manage him at home."
Dr. Wayne agrees that it would be difficult for Mrs. Hooper to care for her husband at home.
"What I'm saying, I guess, is could you admit him to the hospital for this now? If he's in the hospital Medicare will pay for it and then will pay for another 90 days in the nursing home for rehab. By that time we should have Mom and Dad's Medicaid application sorted out. Besides, you said you think he's probably going to be hospitalized for this anyway."
Dr. Wayne's plan to allow the wound care team to treat Mr. Hooper's skin breakdown at the nursing home is based on his clinical judgment after examining the patient. Despite the family's request for hospitalization, Dr. Wayne should not modify the treatment plan unless a change in Mr. Hooper's condition warrants it or the only treatment options are home care versus hospital care.
Arranging for a "qualifying hospital stay" (as requested by the Hooper family) so that Mr. Hooper can become eligible for Medicare coverage in a skilled nursing facility is unethical if it is done solely for the financial benefit of the family. One of the physician's responsibilities to the health care system is to be an honest gatekeeper, giving access to government insurance programs only when the patient legitimately meets the eligibility criteria.
It is unclear from this case whether the Hooper family has already applied for long-term care Medicaid. If they have, the process usually takes 45 days, during which time the family must document financial eligibility for the program. Most notably, if the applicant has savings or assets, he or she must "spend down" until no more than $2000 in countable assets remains.
If the applicant is already in a skilled nursing facility, then coverage could be retroactive to the day he or she met the "spend-down" requirement. So, in this case, the Hooper family could use their existing funds to pay current long-term care expenses while aiming for that $2000 asset limit. If they truly have no more money to pay long-term care expenses, then they should qualify for Medicaid.
The long-term care Medicaid program exists to aid people who do not have sufficient funds to pay for a skilled nursing facility. Although there is still some stigma attached to younger Americans receiving "welfare," our government has allowed for legal long-term care planning as a way for the elderly to protect savings while still becoming eligible for long-term Medicaid benefits. Medicaid is both a state and federal government program, but eligibility rules differ depending on the state in which one resides. Generally, in addition to the asset criteria, the monthly income of the applicant must be less than the monthly cost of care in the facility at the Medicaid rate. This obviously presents a problem for a married couple when 1 spouse requires care in a long-term care facility.
In the past, some couples facing this financial predicament divorced in order to meet the financial needs of both the ill and well partners. The law now allows that, in qualifying for Medicaid, the couple's assets can be divided to protect a portion for the at-home or "community spouse," while still meeting Medicaid requirements for the ill spouse. According to the North Carolina Division of Medical Assistance:
- The community spouse may keep half of the couple's assets (up to a maximum of $95 100).
- The couple's home is not counted in determining assets.
- The institutionalized spouse's income may be apportioned to the community spouse.
- The personal possessions of the community spouse are excluded from countable assets.
- One car is excluded from countable assets.
So, once Mr. and Mrs. Hooper have applied for Medicaid, their assets would be divided, and Mr. Hooper would have to spend down his portion. Each state has allowable ways to spend down assets in preparation for Medicaid eligibility. A pre-paid burial plan, for example, might be an acceptable way to achieve the $2000 asset limit.
Another facet of Medicaid law pertains to the transfer of assets. Giving away assets (eg, to a child or grandchild) for the sole purpose of qualifying for Medicaid is not allowed. Generally, the state will look back 3 years from the time of the Medicaid application to ensure that no such transfers have occurred. The penalty for such actions is ineligibility for Medicaid for a given period of time which is determined by how much money was transferred.1
Whether this legal practice of long-term care planning is ethical or not becomes Dr. Wayne's professional dilemma when the Hoopers ask him to collude with them in manipulating the system. If Dr. Wayne hospitalizes Mr. Hooper, the "qualifying hospital stay" will then open access to Medicare coverage for up to 100 days of nursing home care when Mr. Hooper returns there.2 This allows the family time to qualify for the Medicaid program and preserves the money they are currently spending from their savings. Although Dr. Wayne might sympathize with their financial plight, I believe it is simply unethical to exploit the Medicare program in this way.
The social work profession, like the medical profession, is rooted in core values that undergird its ethical principles and standards. These entail responsibilities not just to patients but also to colleagues, our practice settings, and the broader society.3
As stewards of the resources that our government has set aside for the Medicare and Medicaid programs, we must be honest gatekeepers in providing access to these funds. Sometimes it is easier to grant a patient's request for access rather than to confront one's plan to circumvent the rules. This is true about all kinds of requests, eg, for unnecessary medication, superfluous assistive devices, inappropriate referrals, and the wrong level of care designation. Dr. Wayne appears to have cultivated a positive patient-doctor relationship, and he is not eager to jeopardize this by denying the family's request.
It is not enough to know the ethical thing to do when dealing with patients—a physician must also have the emotional strength and resilience to confront situations that challenge the integrity of their gatekeeping role. Families who want to preserve assets for inheritance or other personal reasons may be motivated to shift the financial burden of their loved one's care onto the public and misuse funds reserved for those who are truly indigent.
Social workers are available to partner with physicians to assist in managing these issues. Together the health care team must understand the treatment that each patient's situation necessitates, and we must hold firm to the ethical standards of our respective professions in granting access to health care and to the government insurance programs which pay for such care.
For a summary of rules regarding Long Term Care Medicaid Eligibility, see Financial Rules for Long Term Care Recipients. North Carolina Division of Medical Assistance. Available at: http://www.dhhs.state.nc.us/dma/ltcfactsheet.htm. Accessed June 23, 2005.
For further information regarding Medicare coverage of long term care, see http://www.medicare.gov/Publications/Pubs/pdf/choosingltc.pdf. Accessed June 21, 2005.
National Association of Social Workers. Code of Ethics. Available at www.naswdc.org/CODE.htm. Accessed May 20, 2005.