LONG-TERM HEALTH CARE COVERAGE ISN'T FOR EVERYONE
Finances, age, health need assessment

By Jim DeBrosse

Dayton Daily News (OH) - Tuesday, December 7, 1999

(C) 1999 Dayton Daily News 

When most people plan for their retirement, it's with visions of care-free travel or taking up that hobby they never had time for in their working life. 

But while many of those who reach age 65 can count on living another 20 years, one in four will spend a year or more of their retirement in a nursing home - at an average cost of $46,000 a year. 

Medicaid may pay for that care, but not until you have depleted nearly all your nest egg, including most of your lifetime assets and your children's inheritance. And even after meeting the `spend-down' requirement, the federal-state program for the poor in Ohio doesn't offer many care options. The choices are either a nursing home or, if you have family back-up and meet other criteria, a home health program. 

A somewhat pricey solution for some people may be long-term care insurance - policies that will pay for your personal care, whether it's in a nursing home of your choice, a more home -like assisted living facility, adult day-care center or your own home . 

As the insurance industry itself admits, long-term care coverage isn't for everyone. The cost alone makes it prohibitive for 80 to 90 percent of seniors. The average premium for good policies is around $2,600 a year when purchased at age 65, and about $8,500 if purchased at age 79, according to the American Association of Retired Persons. 

On the other hand, "if you pay $4,000 per year for premiums, this may not be much if, two years later, the insurance company is paying you $40,000 per year" for your long-term care, says Michael J. Millonig, a Centerville attorney specializing in elder law. 

The time to buy, of course, is when you are younger and a better risk for insurers - a 40-year-old can buy coverage for around $600 a year. But at that age, many people have other, more pressing financial needs, like putting their children through college. 

WHO SHOULD BUY 

The need for long-term care insurance depends on your age, health status, overall retirement goals, income and assets. It also depends on how much choice you want in your long-term care. 

Assisted living facilities, which offer a more home -like alternative to nursing homes , charge anywhere from $2,500 to $4,000 a month. Home care can cost anywhere from $55 to $200 a visit. Adult day care runs $30 to $150 a day. While most good insurance policies will pay for these options and more, Medicaid will pay only for home care, and in limited cases. 

According to Consumer Reports , you don't need the insurance if you can set aside roughly $160,000 at compound interest solely to pay for long-term care. That's enough for about four years of nursing home care. 

Some analysts also say you should have at least $40,000 to $60,000 in assets to pay for potential premium increases and out-of-pocket expenses not covered by long-term care insurance. 

On the other hand, if you expect your income and assets to be low enough in retirement that you would quickly `spend down' those funds to become eligible for Medicaid, then buying insurance to protect your wealth makes no sense. 

To be eligible for Medicaid, individuals are limited, in general, to $1,500 in assets such as savings and stocks. The spouse can remain in the home and also is entitled to a car of any value and 50 percent of their combined assets free of spend-down requirements, with a minimum allowance of $16,392 and a maximum of $81,960. However, couples in a nursing home are limited to $2,250 in assets. 

Leading long-term care insurance companies will generally sell policies to people between the ages of 40 and 80. As long as you are not in failing health and can take care of yourself, you can probably purchase coverage. Most policies exclude coverage of pre-existing conditions for the first six months of the policy. 

For more details on whether you need long-term care insurance, both the AARP and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (see listings below) provide financial worksheets to help you make that decision. 

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A POLICY 

How much you pay in premiums depends on the amount of daily coverage and the benefit period of the policy. Consumer Reports recommends buying at least as much daily coverage as the average cost of nursing home care in your state. In Ohio, that's about $115 a day. 

Companies offer a choice of benefit periods, anywhere from one up to six years of coverage. Nearly 90 percent of seniors who enter a nursing home stay less than four years. Women, however, are more than twice as likely as men to stay five years or longer - 11 percent of women 65 and over versus 4 percent of men. 

Analysts say you should not consider any policy that fails to provide adequate protection against inflation. Consumer Reports says to buy only a policy with at least 5 percent inflation protection. Why? If nursing home prices escalate at an 8 percent rate, a home that costs $113 per day (the current Medicaid average) will cost $527 a day 20 years from now. 

Make sure the policy allows coverage for any facility that provides personal care. Beware policies that restrict coverage to `skilled facilities' or `Medicare-certified facility,' Millonig says. In fact, policies that provide significantly more coverage for skilled nursing care than for lower levels of care are illegal under the Ohio Long-Term Care Insurance Act of 1992. 

Millonig also recommends that the terms cover Alzheimer's disease or cognitive impairment and require only a physician's diagnosis in those cases. Language requiring `demonstrable organic-based disease' is unacceptable, since Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia often can not be demonstrated by any lab test or scanning device. 

Benefits are usually triggered when a person loses the ability to function independently in the community - that is, the inability to perform Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) such as bathing, eating and walking without help. 

Buy a policy with the least restrictive `benefit triggers' - usually the loss of two or three ADLs. Cognitive impairment alone should be a sufficient reason for benefits to kick in. Policies that require `medically necessary care' are unacceptable, Millonig says. 

Policies usually specify that coverage begins a certain number of days after the first day of nursing home care. Millonig recommends a 90- to 100-day waiting period since a lower number will increase premiums. 

Under Ohio law, a policy cannot require that a person be hospitalized first in order to receive benefits, or that they must stay in a skilled nursing home before they qualify for personal or custodial care. 

Nor is it legal to cancel or deny renewal of a policy because you got older or have new health problems. However, the insurer does have the right to raise your premiums if this is done for all policyholders in the state. 

Good features also include a waiver of premium - meaning premiums no longer have to be paid once you enter a nursing home , Millonig notes. 

Don't buy home -care coverage if it seems unlikely you will have the family or volunteer back-up to make it work. 

BEFORE YOU BUY 

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners offers these tips in its Shopper's Guide to Long-Term Care Insurance . 

* Ask questions. If you have questions about the agent, the insurance company or the policy, contact the Ohio Insurance Department for help at (800) 686-1578. 

* Check with several companies and agents. Be sure to compare benefits, the types of facilities covered, the limits on your coverage, what's excluded and, of course, the premium. 

* Take your time and compare. Never let anyone pressure or scare you into making a quick decision. Ask for an outline of coverage of the policy's benefits and important features. Compare outlines for several policies. 

* Understand the policies. Make sure you know what the policy covers and what it doesn't. If you have any questions, call the insurance company before you buy. Talk about the policy with a friend or a relative. You may also want to call the Ohio Insurance Department. 

* Don't be misled by advertising. Celebrity endorsers aren't insurance experts, nor does Medicare endorse or sell long-term care insurance policies. Don't trust cards in the mail that look as though the federal government sent them. 

* Don't buy more than one long-term policy. One good policy is enough. 

* Be sure you accurately complete your application. The company can refuse to pay your claims or even cancel your policy based on the information you give. If an agent fills out an application for you, don't sign it until you read it. 

* Never pay in cash. Use a check or money order made payable to the insurance company. 

* Be sure to get the name, address and telephone number of the agent and the company. 

* Be sure to look at your policy during the free-look period. In most states, including Ohio, you have a 30-day period in which you can cancel the policy and get your money back. Make sure you keep the envelope the policy was mailed in, or ask the agent for a signed delivery when he or she hands you the policy. When cancelling, send both the policy and a letter requesting your refund by certified mail to the insurer. Keep a copy of all letters. 

* Read the policy again and make sure it gives you the coverage you want. If you have any questions, call the agent or the company right away. Also, reread the application you signed. If it's not filled out correctly, contact the agent or company right away. 

* Have the premium automatically taken out of your bank account. That way you won't lose your coverage if an illness makes you forget to pay your premium. 

* Check on the financial stability of the company you're thinking of buying from. You can get ratings from some insurer rating services free at most public libraries. Look for an A+ from A.M. Best or a AAA rating from Standard and Poor's, Moody's or Duff and Phelps, or a AA rating from two of the three. You also can call the services directly at the numbers listed below. 

* A.M. Best Company - (900) 555-BEST (billed to your telephone) or (800) 424-BEST (billed to your credit card) or on the Internet at www.ambest.com/. 

* Standard and Poor's - (212) 208-1527 or on the Internet at wwww.ratings.standardpoor.com. 

* Moody's Investor Service - (212) 553-0377 or on the Internet at www.moodys.com/. Look for a AAA rating. 

* Duff and Phelps, Inc. - (312) 368-3157 or (312) 629-3833 or on the Internet at www.dcreo.com/.

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