We are now about a month into the new year and President Trump has taken office in an election that has surprised many! Here are just a few key issues of interest to watch out for this year that affect seniors and their families as well as those persons with disabilities: 

(1) Medicare Reform
As President-elect, Trump started by saying he was going to protect Medicare and Social Security. After meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan, he said he will modernize Medicare. Reince Priebus, incoming chief of staff, recently insisted that Mr. Trump won't meddle with Medicare or Social Security. Instead, he has said he will focus on (a) improving the economy, which will reduce the debt and ease entitlement concerns and ( b) save Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security without cuts while eliminating fraud, waste and abuse.

But he is already encountering resistance from Republicans, who for years have claimed that a major overhaul to Medicare and other entitlements are needed to ensure they don't go bankrupt; that entitlement reform is critical to reducing debt; and the longer they wait, the harder it becomes to solve the problems. Obama administration officials warned just last year that a central Medicare trust fund is projected to run out of money by 2028.

Yet Republicans are also encouraged by what some of Trump’s Cabinet picks could mean for future entitlement reform. Representative Tom Price (R-GA), who replaced Paul Ryan as Budget chairman and sought to overhaul entitlement programs, is Trump's pick for Health and Human Services secretary. Representative Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), a fiscal hawk and Freedom Caucus co-founder, will lead his White House budget office.

So, we will have to wait and see if President Trump, his Cabinet members and leading Republicans will find a way to agree. Some reforming of Medicare may be part of the 2017 budget reconciliation, but with Obamacare repeal and replace, tax reform and infrastructure as immediate priorities, solving the decades-long problem of deficits in Medicare and Social Security will likely have to wait until after 2017.

In the meantime, we are seeing a tilt toward Medicare Advantage plans. These managed care plans (offered through HMOs) often have lower costs and provide benefits not covered by traditional Medicare and Medicare Supplement Plans, such as health club memberships and preventative educational programs for those with diabetes and other chronic diseases.

A long-term goal for Medicare, which has been around since its founding in 1964, is premium support. Basically, the consumer would choose a plan from those offered through an exchange. The government would provide subsidies to companies, they would lower the premiums and then people would choose their plans. It's not likely that this will replace Medicare as we know it, but it is an idea being discussed. 

(2) Medicaid Reform
Medicaid Planning is a key concern to all of us as we age, as long-term care costs only continue to rise! President Trump has called for block granting Medicaid. House Speaker Paul Ryan has called for it, too, and Republicans are looking at whether they can reform Medicaid through budget reconciliation.

Those who want to reform Medicaid are focusing on the FMAP, the federal percentage match that states receive through federal funding. This is based on per capita income of the state. For example, a rich state like New Jersey is a 1:1 ratio, while a poor state like Mississippi is about a 3:1 ratio. This means for every one dollar that Mississippi spends on Medicaid, they will receive three free extra dollars from the federal government. This can impact states' budget decisions. For example, if the governor of Mississippi needs to cut costs, he will more likely cut education or infrastructure by one dollar, rather than cut Medicaid spending by one dollar and lose the three free extra dollars.

The idea of block grants has been around for about 30 years. They are attractive because there are fewer federal rules to comply with and the states can use the money however they wish. But block grants shift more costs onto the states, and governors tend to oppose that.

Another idea floating around is a per capita cap, which would give the states a fixed dollar amount per individual, based on Medicaid standard lines (the blind, aged, and disabled children and adults). It was first proposed by President Clinton, who also wanted block grants. A per capita cap may force the states to control Medicaid costs over time, but there is also a demographic shift to consider-the medical needs and costs for an 85-year-old are much greater than for a 65-year-old. Nursing homes and aging disability provider groups have a huge stake in this and would likely oppose it, as would some governors.

The cost changes may not be felt right away, but they will be noticeable ten years from now and that is what Congress must plan for. There may be increased waiver flexibility for the states and provider taxes to offset states' losses. We may also see reforms to make it easier to manage care.

(3) Affordable Care Act
Republicans are already moving to repeal and replace Obamacare. The question is: How much will be repealed? There are several programs included in the ACA, not related to traditional health insurance, that are important to elder law attorneys and their clients. For example, Medicaid expansion, a kind of Medicaid reform, is part of the ACA.

The ACA also includes programs that work toward ending the institutional bias in Medicaid. One is Community First Choice, a state plan that provides home- and community-based services. Currently it has an extremely low-income threshold so it's a limited population, but it's a start. 

Another is Money Follows the Person, which pays for transition services. For example, it could provide extra funds to help someone leave a nursing home, by paying for a housing coordinator to find an apartment, a roommate, buy basic furniture and so on.

We are moving toward home and community-based service, which many people favor. How will that interact with Medicaid reforms? Because they are optional, some fear that with per capita caps, these services will be among the first to go. There may be more opportunities to expand these services through block grants because they allow more flexibility in what is offered. Along this line, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has introduced a bill called the Disability Integration Act, which would make home¬ and community-based services a civil right.

(4) Long-Term Care Reform
There has been a lot of discussion on Capitol Hill about picking up the pieces on long-term care. After a decade, the market has completely collapsed. John Hancock just withdrew, and Genworth was bought out by a Chinese private equity firm. Republicans and Democrats agree on the problem, but there does not seem to be common ground yet on a solution. The Senate Aging Committee is starting the process, which is a positive step. There are calls for catastrophic coverage, at least on the back end, and probably some sort of front-end coverage for two or three years. There may be some long-term care reform as part of Medicaid reform.

These are just part of a growing number of issues that will be addressed in 2017 that can have significant impact on seniors and their loved ones and persons with disabilities! The key here is to plan ahead the best you can and consult with a certified elder law attorney to be proactive and not reactive as much as possible when planning for yours and your family’s future!

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