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System forces seniors to spend life savings on elder care

Published: Apr. 8, 2022 at 5:55 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - There is a looming crisis in Vermont over how we will care for our aging population.

Nearly one-quarter of Vermont’s population is over 65 and tens of thousands of people are unsure of how they will pay for health care and other needs as they get older.

I told you previously about big proposed rates for long-term care insurance plans, putting the pinch on some Vermont seniors. Seniors without insurance will rely on the safety net of Medicaid, but only after they liquidate their life savings and assets.

It’s a challenge that hits home for many Vermonters, even the state’s top health care regulator.

Kevin Mullin’s parents took out a long-term care policy years ago.

In 2017, they began using it on memory care services after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

“You can explain to them 20 times in a visit what the pandemic is and what’s going on and they’re still going to continually ask you the same questions over and over,” said Mullin of the Green Mountain Care Board.

His parents haven’t had to pay recent rate hikes for their insurance, but Mullin says his mother has run through four years of coverage, so she is now having to pay for care using her life savings.

Mullin doesn’t fault the insurance carrier or the assisted living provider.

“You can live a very, very long time with a chronic disease like Alzheimer’s and it doesn’t matter how well you’ve planned for it, your resources can run out,” he said.

And when those resources do run out, state Medicaid then kicks in.

“Really the long-term care system is simply this, you spend yourself into poverty, you get onto Medicaid, you go to a nursing home,” said Greg Marchildon of AARP Vermont.

Vermont is the second oldest state in the U.S. and one of the healthiest. Leaders are preparing for a strain on the Medicaid budget that all of us pay into as an even larger proportion of the population needs long-term care in the coming years.

“It’s a very difficult spot for sure. We do whatever we can to support people and make sure they have care and coverage in the setting they prefer,” said Andrea DeLaBruere, the commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access.

Now that Vermont is emerging from the immediate pandemic crisis, lawmakers say they’ll focus more attention on care for the elderly and consider looking at how much of their wealth Vermonters should give up before Medicaid kicks in.

“I’m not willing to say categorically that one has to pay down all of one’s resources. Maybe there’s a limit that we should be looking at,” said Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden County.

A broader solution to issues posed by aging is on the front burner.

AARP says for every $1 that’s spent caring for people in their homes, it translates to $14 spent in a skilled nursing facility.

The state passed a sweeping law in 2020, an action plan to help Vermonters age well at home, creating strategies and partnerships to promote health care, financial stability, transportation, housing, recreation and dignity for all of us as we age.

“To bring everyone to the table to line up what does it mean to age well, where are the gaps and how can we address those gaps moving forward,” said Monica White, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Aging and Independent Living.

Lawmakers tell me there are a number of solutions they’ve been working on and will continue to look into so people can receive care in their homes, like universal cell and broadband coverage for telehealth, and more benefits for caregivers so family members can care for their loved ones.

Related Story:

Long-term care insurance rate hikes putting a pinch on seniors

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