Google Seeks Help From People With Down Syndrome

January 22, 2020

courtesy of NAELAeBulletin:

From Siri to Alexa, voice assistants are everywhere, but the technology tends to miss every third word that people with Down syndrome say. Now a new effort is underway to change that.

Google is partnering with the Canadian Down Syndrome Society to collect voice samples from adults with Down syndrome in order to program its algorithm to better decipher the unique speech patterns of this population.

Speech is often altered in those with Down syndrome due to variances in the facial skeletal and muscular systems, according to the Canadian Down Syndrome Society. However, in a small pilot, Google and the nonprofit group found that there were enough similarities across those with the chromosomal disorder to train the voice assistant technology.

“With the help of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society we were able to sample a small group to test whether there were enough patterns in the speech of people with Down syndrome for our algorithm to learn and adapt,” said Julie Cattiau, product manager at Google. “It’s exciting to see the success of that test and move into the next phase of collecting voice samples that represent the vocal diversity of the community. The more people who participate, the more likely Google will be able to eventually improve speech recognition for everyone.”

Participants in the Google effort known as Project Understood are asked to record themselves speaking 1,700 simple phrases like “strawberry jam is sweet.” The company will then use the data to improve its speech recognition models.

The Canadian Down Syndrome Society is hoping to solicit at least 500 voices. Given the increasing role of technology in everyday life, the Down syndrome group said the impact is likely to be significant.

“For most people, voice technology simply makes life a little easier,” said Laura LaChance of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society. “For people with Down syndrome, it has the potential for creating greater independence. From daily reminders to keeping in contact with loved ones and accessing directions, voice technology can help facilitate infinite access to tools and learnings that could lead to enriched lives.”

Project Understood is associated with Google’s Project Euphonia, a broad effort announced earlier this year to train computers to better understand and transcribe the words of those with speech impairments.

New Law Makes Big Changes to Retirement Plans

January 22, 2020

President Trump has signed a spending bill that makes major changes to retirement plans. The new law is designed to provide more incentives to save for retirement, but it may require workers to rethink some of their planning.

The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act changes the law surrounding retirement plans in several ways:

  • Stretch IRAS. The biggest change eliminates “stretch” IRAs. Under the previous law, if you named anyone other than a spouse as the beneficiary of your IRA, the beneficiary could choose to take distributions over his or her lifetime and to pass what is left onto future generations (called the “stretch” option). The required minimum distributions were calculated based on the beneficiary’s life expectancy. This allowed the money to grow tax-deferred over the course of the beneficiary’s life and to be passed on to his or her own beneficiaries. The SECURE Act requires non-spouse beneficiaries of an IRA to withdraw all the money in the IRA within 10 years of the IRA holder’s death. In many cases, these withdrawals would take place during the beneficiary’s highest tax years, meaning that the elimination of the stretch IRA is effectively a tax increase on many Americans. This provision will apply to those who inherit IRAs starting on January 1, 2020.
  • Required minimum distributions. Under prior law, you have to begin taking distributions from your IRAs beginning when you reach age 70 ½. Under the new law, individuals who are not 70 ½ at the end of 2019 can now wait until age 72 to begin taking distributions.
  • Contributions. The new law allows workers to continue to contribute to an IRA after age 70 ½, which is the same as rules for 401(k)s and Roth IRAs.
  • Employers. The tax credit businesses get for starting a retirement plan is increased and the new law makes it easier for small businesses to join multiple-employer plans.
  • Annuities. The newly enacted legislation removes roadblocks that made employers wary of including annuities in 401(k) plans by eliminating some of the fiduciary requirements used to vet companies and products before they can be included in a plan.
  • Withdrawals. The new law allows an early withdrawal of up to $5,000 from a retirement account without a penalty in the event of the birth of a child or an adoption. Currently, there is a 10 percent penalty for early withdrawals in most circumstances.

Given these changes, workers need to immediately reevaluate their estate plans. Some people have used stretch IRAs as an estate planning tool to pass assets to their children and grandchildren. One way of doing this has been to name a trust as the IRA’s beneficiary, and these trusts may have to be reformed to conform to the new rules. If a stretch IRA is part of your estate plan, consult with your attorney to determine if you need to make changes.

To read the legislation, click here.  For more on the new law, click here and here.

A Change in Medicare Has Therapists Alarmed

January 22, 2020

courtesy of NAELAeBulletin:
by Paula Span

Nov. 29, 2019

Medicare revamped its reimbursement policy for physical, occupational and speech therapy in nursing homes. That has left some patients with less help.

In late September, a woman in her 70s arrived at a skilled nursing facility in suburban Houston after several weeks in the hospital. Her leg had been amputated after a long-ago knee replacement became infected; she also suffered from diabetes, depression, anxiety and general muscular weakness.

An occupational therapist named Susan Nielson began working with her an hour a day, five days a week. Gradually, the patient became more mobile. With assistance and encouragement, she could transfer from her bed to a wheelchair, get herself to the bathroom for personal grooming and lift light weights to build her endurance.

That progress ended abruptly on Oct. 1, when Medicare changed its payment system for physical, occupational and speech therapy in nursing homes. Ms. Nielson, employed by Reliant Rehabilitation, which supplies therapists to almost 900 nursing facilities, said that her allotted time with the woman was reduced from 60 minutes to just 20 or so minutes a day, not even long enough to help her leave her bed.

“I’m not able to do my job,” Ms. Nielson said. “This person had the potential to do more, and I couldn’t help her.”

The same lament is being expressed by therapists nationwide. Professional organizations, including the American Physical Therapy Association and the American Occupational Therapy Association, report that the new Medicare policy has prompted some nursing home chains and rehab companies to scale back the treatment they provide to patients, and to lay off therapists or switch them to part-time status.

The organizations’ members are also speaking out about the pressure they feel to conduct therapy in groups rather than one-on-one. Medicare allows up to 25 percent of patients’ therapy to take place in groups — and some employers reportedly began requiring that percentage on Oct. 1, whether therapists thought their patients would benefit or not.

“Patients’ needs didn’t change overnight,” said Kara Gainer, director of regulatory affairs for the American Physical Therapy Association. “So what changed?” Although some companies have reacted responsibly to the new system, she said, “some are bad actors who put profits before patients.”

Her members have responded with “concern, fear, outrage,” she added. A new Facebook group, Rehab Therapists for a Union, swiftly attracted more than 20,000 members. A petition on Change.org, asking the Department of Health and Human Services to intervene, garnered 80,000 signatures.

Before Oct. 1, Medicare reimbursed nursing homes for therapy based on the number of minutes provided to each patient, up to 720 minutes a week. The goal is to help patients regain mobility and the ability to perform daily tasks, so that they can safely return home.

For years, however, federal investigators and advisers have reported that nursing homes frequently provided the maximum number of minutes of therapy, regardless of whether patients needed that much treatment.

“Therapy was sort of a profit center,” said Sharmila Sandhu, who directs regulatory affairs at the American Occupational Therapy Association. “The more therapy, the higher the reimbursement.”

The new approach, called the Patient-Driven Payment Model, eliminates such incentives; now facilities are paid based on patients’ diagnoses and characteristics. In an email, a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services called the P.D.P.M. “a historic reform” that will “appropriately reflect each resident’s actual care needs.”

“This is a well-intended policy, a real sea change in how we pay for care,” said David Grabowski, a health care policy researcher at Harvard Medical School who is organizing a study of the policy’s effects.

But about 70 percent of the nation’s 15,000 or so nursing homes are for-profit and have proved adept at maintaining profit margins despite policy shifts, said Toby Edelman, senior policy attorney at the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

Without volume incentives, nursing homes may direct therapists to administer less therapy and to see patients in groups, reducing the number of professionals required and lowering labor costs.

“The risk before was overprovision of therapy,” Dr. Grabowski said. “Now the real concern is underprovision.”

What the Secure Act is All About

January 22, 2020

by Harry S. Margolis Esq.

As part of the spending bill that recently passed Congress, effective January 1, 2020, new retirement plan rules will apply. They included in the Secure Act, which is an acronym standing for Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement. A big part of the bill encourages small employers to band together to offer retirement plans, which is the reason for the title. But here’s what may affect you and your family.

  1. Later Required Beginning Age. For those who have not already reached age 70 1/2 by the end of 2019 (meaning they were born on or before June 30, 1949), they can delay taking their required minimum distributions until the April 1st of the year they reach 72, rather than 70 1/2. If you were born after June 30, 1949, you can still choose to withdraw without penalty, other than paying taxes on the amount withdrawn, any time after age 59 1/2, you just don’t have to do so quite as early.
  2. A Shorter Time Period for Withdrawing from Inherited IRAs. Up until now, anyone who inherited a retirement plan who was not a spouse of the deceased owner had to begin taking minimum distributions the following year, but could take them out based on their own life expectancy, meaning that a younger person could stretch out the withdrawals and enjoy the tax deferral for many years. Under the new rules, with some exceptions, inherited IRAs must now be entirely withdrawn within 10 years of the death of the initial owner. This restrictions only applies to those retirement plans inherited after this year.
  3. The Exceptions. The New Inherited IRA rules don’t apply to spouses of the deceased owner who can continue to convert inherited IRAs to their own ownership. In addition, there are exceptions for:
    • minor children,
    • individuals with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and
    • those who are less than 10 years younger than the original owner.

    The exception may also apply to special needs trusts.

  4. You Can Keep Contributing if You Keep Working. Under the old rules, those over age 70 1/2 who continued to work could continue to contribute to their work-related 401(k) plans Roth IRAs but not to their own IRAs. Now they can continue to contribute to traditional IRAs as well. Of course, after age 72 this creates the interesting situation of continuing to contribute at the same time you’re required to withdraw.

The New Rules and Trusts

While these new rules effect no changes for planning with respect to spouses, they may for children and others. Some parents provide for continuing trusts for their children and grandchildren in order to provide creditor or divorce protection or for special needs planning purposes. These are drafted as “accumulation” or “conduit” trusts under complex retirement plan rules. The new rules won’t affect “accumulation” trusts, but some parents may want to change their “conduit” trusts.

“Conduit” trusts get their name because they provide that any required minimum distributions from retirement plans held by the trusts must be distributed annually to the beneficiaries. Parents may have agreed to this provision knowing that such distributions will be relatively small each year since they’re stretched out over the beneficiary’s lifetime. In some instances, they may not want larger distributions made during the first 10 years after their deaths, as would be required as the trusts are currently drafted.

Conclusion

Undoubtedly, unanticipated results will arise as the new rules affect real-life situations. We’ll continue to better understand the impact of the new rules and let you know how the work. Also, don’t hesitate to be in touch or post any questions you might have. We’ll do our best to find answers.

Feds Release 2020 Guidelines Used to Protect the Spouses of Medicaid Applicants

January 22, 2020

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has released the 2020 federal guidelines for how much money the spouses of institutionalized Medicaid recipients may keep, as well as related Medicaid figures.

In 2020, the spouse of a Medicaid recipient living in a nursing home (called the “community spouse”) may keep as much as $128,640 without jeopardizing the Medicaid eligibility of the spouse who is receiving long-term care. Known as the community spouse resource allowance or CSRA, this is the most that a state may allow a community spouse to retain without a hearing or a court order. While some states set a lower maximum, the least that a state may allow a community spouse to retain in 2020 will be $25,728.

Meanwhile, the maximum monthly maintenance needs allowance (MMMNA) for 2020 will be $3,216. This is the most in monthly income that a community spouse is allowed to have if her own income is not enough to live on and she must take some or all of the institutionalized spouse’s income. The minimum monthly maintenance needs allowance for the lower 48 states remains $2,113.75 ($2,641.25 for Alaska and $2,432.50 for Hawaii) until July 1, 2020.

In determining how much income a particular community spouse is allowed to retain, states must abide by this upper and lower range. Bear in mind that these figures apply only if the community spouse needs to take income from the institutionalized spouse. According to Medicaid law, the community spouse may keep all her own income, even if it exceeds the maximum monthly maintenance needs allowance.

The new spousal impoverishment numbers (except for the minimum monthly maintenance needs allowance) take effect on January 1, 2020.

For a more complete explanation of the community spouse resource allowance and the monthly maintenance needs allowance, click here.

Home Equity Limits:

In 2020, a Medicaid applicant’s principal residence will not be counted as an asset by Medicaid if the applicant’s equity interest in the home is less than $595,000, with the states having the option of raising this limit to $893,000.

For more on Medicaid’s home equity limit, click here.

Medicare Part D: A First Look at Prescription Drug Plans in 2020

December 24, 2019

courtesy of NAELA eBulletin:

During the Medicare open enrollment period  from October 15 to December 7 each year, beneficiaries can enroll in a plan that provides Part D drug coverage, either a stand-alone prescription drug plan (PDP) as a supplement to traditional Medicare, or a Medicare Advantage prescription drug plan (MA-PD), which covers all Medicare benefits, including drugs.

Click here for the entire article and the issue brief

Medicaid’s Treatment of the Home

December 24, 2019

Nursing home residents do not automatically  have to sell their homes in order to qualify for Medicaid, but that doesn’t mean the house is completely protected. The state will likely put a lien on the house while the resident is living and attempt to recover the property after the resident has passed away.

Medicaid will not count a nursing home resident’s home as an asset when determining eligibility for Medicaid as long as the resident intends to return home (in some states, the nursing home resident must prove a likelihood of returning home). In addition, the resident’s equity interest in the home must be less than $585,000, with the states having the option of raising this limit to $878,000 (figures are adjusted annually for inflation; these are for 2019).

The equity value of the home is the fair market value minus any debts secured by the home, such as a mortgage or a home equity loan. For example, if your home has a fair market value of $400,000 and an outstanding mortgage of $100,000, the equity value is $300,000. Your equity interest depends on whether you own the home by yourself or with someone else.  If you own the home by yourself, your equity interest is the entire equity value.  If you own your home jointly with your spouse or someone else, your equity interest is only half of the home’s equity value.

The home equity rule does not apply if the Medicaid applicant’s spouse or a child who is under 21 or is blind or disabled lives in the home.

While the house may not need to be sold in order to qualify for Medicaid, state Medicaid agencies will likely place a lien on any real estate owned by a Medicaid beneficiary during his or her life. The state cannot impose a lien if a spouse, a disabled or blind child, a child under age 21, or a sibling with an equity interest in the house is living in the house.

Once a lien is placed on the property, if the property is sold while the Medicaid beneficiary is living, not only will the beneficiary cease to be eligible for Medicaid due to the cash from the sale, but the beneficiary would have to satisfy the lien by paying back the state for its coverage of care to date. In some states, the lien may be removed upon the beneficiary’s death. In other states, the state can collect on the lien after the Medicaid recipient dies. Check with your attorney to see how your local agency handles this.

Even if the state did not place a lien on the home during the Medicaid beneficiary’s life, the home may still be subject to estate recovery after the Medicaid recipient’s death, again depending on the state.

There are steps you can take to protect your home. Contact your attorney to learn more.

Medicare Premiums to Increase By Almost $10 a Month in 2020

December 24, 2019

After small or no increases the past couple in of years, Medicare’s Part B premium will rise sharply 2020. The basic monthly premium will increase $9.10, from $135.50 a month to $144.60.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced the premium increase on November 8, 2019. Not everyone will pay the whole increase, however. Due to a “hold harmless” rule around 70 percent of Medicare recipients’ premiums will not increase more than Social Security benefits, and Social Security benefits are increasing only 1.6 percent in 2020. This “hold harmless” provision does not apply to about 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries: those enrolled in Medicare but who are not yet receiving Social Security, new Medicare beneficiaries, seniors earning more than $87,000 a year, and “dual eligibles” who get both Medicare and Medicaid benefits.

Meanwhile, the Part B deductible will go from $185 to $198 in 2020, while the Part A deductible will go up by $44, to $1,408. For beneficiaries receiving skilled care in a nursing home, Medicare’s coinsurance for days 21-100 will increase from $170.50 to $176. Medicare coverage ends after day 100. CMS attributed the sudden steep rise in Part B premiums and deductibles on the increased costs of physician-administered drugs.

Here are all the new Medicare payment figures:

  • Part B premium: $144.60 (was $135.50)
  • Part B deductible: $198 (was $185)
  • Part A deductible: $1,408 (was $1,364)
  • Co-payment for hospital stay days 61-90: $352/day (was $341)
  • Co-payment for hospital stay days 91 and beyond: $704/day (was $682)
  • Skilled nursing facility co-payment, days 21-100: $176/day (was $170.50)

So-called “Medigap” policies can cover some of these costs.

Premiums for higher-income beneficiaries ($87,000 and above) are as follows:

  • Individuals with annual incomes between $87,000 and $109,000 and married couples with annual incomes between $174,000 and $218,000 will pay a monthly premium of $202.40.
  • Individuals with annual incomes between $109,000 and $136,000 and married couples with annual incomes between $218,000 and $272,000 will pay a monthly premium of $289.20.
  • Individuals with annual incomes between $136,000 and $163,000 and married couples with annual incomes between $272,000 and $326,000 will pay a monthly premium of $376.00.
  • Individuals with annual incomes above $163,000 and less than $500,000 and married couples with annual incomes above $326,000 and less than $750,000 will pay a monthly premium of $462.70.
  • Individuals with annual incomes above $500,000 and married couples with annual incomes above $750,000 will pay a monthly premium of $491.60.

Rates differ for beneficiaries who are married but file a separate tax return from their spouse. Those with incomes greater than $87,000 and less than $413,000 will pay a monthly premium of $462.70. Those with incomes greater than $413,000 will pay a monthly premium of $491.60.

The Social Security Administration uses the income reported two years ago to determine a Part B beneficiary’s premiums. So the income reported on a beneficiary’s 2018 tax return is used to determine whether the beneficiary must pay a higher monthly Part B premium in 2020. Income is calculated by taking a beneficiary’s adjusted gross income and adding back in some normally excluded income, such as tax-exempt interest, U.S. savings bond interest used to pay tuition, and certain income from foreign sources. This is called modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). If a beneficiary’s MAGI decreased significantly in the past two years, she may request that information from more recent years be used to calculate the premium. You can also request to reverse a surcharge if your income changes.

Those who enroll in Medicare Advantage plans may have different cost-sharing arrangements. CMS estimates that the Medicare Advantage average monthly premium will decrease by 14 percent in 2020, from an average of $26.87 in 2019 to $23 in 2020.

For Medicare’s press release announcing the new premium and deductible amounts, click here.

Home Care Costs Rise Sharply in Annual Long-Term Care Cost Survey

December 24, 2019

When it comes to long-term care costs, the charges for home care are now rising faster than those for nursing home care, according to Genworth’s 2019 Cost of Care survey. In the past year, the median annual cost for home health aides rose 4.55 percent to $52,624, while the median cost of a private nursing home room rose only 1.82 percent to $102,200.

Genworth reports that the median cost of a semi-private room in a nursing home is $90,155, up 0.96 percent from 2018, and the median cost of assisted living facilities rose 1.28 percent, to $4,051 a month. But home care services had sharper increases. The national median annual rate for the services of a home health aide rose from $22 to $23 an hour, and the cost of adult day care, which provides support services in a protective setting during part of the day, rose from $72 to $75 a day, up 4.17 percent annually.

Alaska continues to be the costliest state for nursing home care by far, with the median annual cost of a private nursing home room totaling $362,628. Oklahoma again was found to be the most affordable state, with a median annual cost of a private room of $67,525.

The 2019 survey, conducted by CareScout for the sixteenth straight year, was based on responses from more than 15,178 nursing homes, assisted living facilities, adult day health facilities and home care providers. Survey respondents were contacted by phone during May and June 2019.

As the survey indicates, long-term care is growing ever more expensive. Contact your elder law attorney to learn how you can protect some or all of your family’s assets from being swallowed up by these rising costs.

For more on Genworth’s 2019 Cost of Care Survey, including costs for your state, click here.