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State Bolsters Nursing Home Oversight

The New York State Assembly recently gave final legislative approval in a unanimous vote to a bill requiring the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program (LTCOP) to publicize, as part of its annual reports, the kinds and patterns of complaints received by its regional offices and the number of ombudsman visits to each long-term care facility.

Harlem World Magazine’s recent article entitled “NYS Lawmakers Move To Strengthen Nursing Home Oversight From Care, To Complaints And More” reports that the New York State Senate passed the companion bill on May 24 with a strong, bipartisan vote.

The move follows a $2.5 million increase in state funding in the 2022 state budget for the federally-required program – more than doubling its previous state-funded budget.

LTCOP has lagged in other states’ programs, while more than 15,000 people have died in New York nursing homes since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This bill would arm policymakers with the information they need to ensure the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program is as effective as possible in advocating for and speaking on behalf of our society’s most vulnerable population: nursing home residents,” said AARP New York State Director Beth Finkel.

“After over 15,000 deaths in New York nursing homes and counting since the start of the pandemic, we need a strong advocate. AARP New York thanks Senator Rachel May and Assembly Member Sarah Clark for steering this bill through their respective houses, and we strongly urge Governor Kathy Hochul to sign it into law.”

The New York Ombudsman Program is an advocate and resource for seniors and people with disabilities who live in nursing homes, assisted living and other licensed adult care homes. Ombudsmen help residents understand and exercise their rights to good care in an environment that promotes and protects their dignity and quality of life.

The legislation was supported by the Center for Elder Law & Justice in Buffalo, New York.

Although LTCOP can’t sanction long-term care facilities, it’s the only agency authorized to visit facilities on a regular basis to observe conditions, monitor care and help residents and families resolve problems.

In addition to helping individual residents and families, LTCOP is required by federal rules to act as an independent voice for residents with respect to laws and policies that impact their care.

Reference: Harlem World Magazine (June 4, 2022) “NYS Lawmakers Move To Strengthen Nursing Home Oversight From Care, To Complaints And More”

Will Vets Now Get a COLA Increase in Benefits?

The measure was filed by Representatives Elaine Luria, D-Virginia and Troy Nehls, R-Texas, along with Senators Jon Tester, D-Montana and Jerry Moran, R-Kansas. In joint statements, they called the proposal critical to bolstering veteran’s finances, reports Military Times’ recent article entitled “Lawmakers move to guarantee cost-of-living boost for veterans benefits.”

“We have a responsibility to take care of our veterans, many of whom rely on VA for financial support,” said Moran, ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

“As rampant inflation is driving up the cost of living, this legislation helps make certain that veterans are able to keep up with our changing economy and receive the benefits they have been promised.”

The bill linking the two government benefits is largely routine.  Lawmakers typically approve the annual proposal to couple VA benefits increases with Social Security benefits increases by large bipartisan margins.

However, this isn’t automatic. Even with the efforts of advocates in the past, an annual cost-of-living increase in veterans benefits requires congressional action.

Social Security benefits, in contrast, are adjusted based on an automatic formula that is triggered whether lawmakers vote on it or not.

In 2021, as inflation pressures began to impact the American economy, that increase was 5.9%. Officials haven’t said what this year’s adjustment may be. However, continued rising costs across the economy could push that figure even higher. The VA COLA increase legislation would apply to payouts for disability compensation, clothing allowance, dependency and indemnity benefits and other VA assistance programs.

“Transitioning from active duty to civilian life is not always easy, and a cost-of-living adjustment is the least we can do for the men, women and families who served our country,” said Luria, herself a Navy veteran.

Tester, who serves as chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the bill will “ensure [veterans] benefits are keeping pace with the changing economy.”

No timetable has been set for when either chamber could vote on the proposal.

Reference: Military Times (May 23, 2022) “Lawmakers move to guarantee cost-of-living boost for veterans benefits”

What’s the VA Doing about Long Wait Times?

In his recent testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said he’s concerned about delivering accurate information on appointment timeliness to veterans as they seek to resume care that was deferred or canceled in recent years, reports Military Times’ recent article entitled “VA secretary promises improvements in medical wait time data.”

“If you look at our average wait times across the system, they’re good, but it’s a big system and we’re coming out of a pandemic,” he said. “So, I fear that there are outliers where people are waiting too long.”

Wait times at VA facilities made headlines in 2014, after whistleblowers revealed that officials were manipulating data to cover up long delays in care to meet performance metrics. During President Trump’s administration, the department began posting wait-time data online for all VA hospitals and clinics in an attempt to show more transparency into how long veterans have to wait for routine or specialty appointments.

However, in a report released Thursday, the VA Inspector General’s office said much of that data remains confusing and misleading.

“The Veterans Health Administration] has sometimes presented wait times with different methodologies, using inconsistent start dates that affect the overall calculations without clearly and accurately presenting that information to the public,” officials wrote.

In response to similar concerns raised by lawmakers, Secretary McDonough said that “we have to do a better job with that” and said he expects an announcement on changes related to the wait time issues in coming months. We’re working really hard on it because I am frustrated with it myself.”

Broad legislation has been stalled in the Senate over concerns about cost and potential workload burdens on Veterans Affairs workers. That’s raised concerns about pressure on the VA health care system, and if veterans could see a significant increase in the time it takes to schedule appointments.

Health officials have touted new pandemic telehealth options within the department as a way to help ease the burden on facilities facing increased requests.

However, lawmakers said that in rural areas — locations with some of the longest wait times already — a lack of reliable internet access may restrict the availability of those services.

Reference: Military Times (April 8, 2022) “VA secretary promises improvements in medical wait time data”

How Is Florida Creating a Guardianship Database?

The Florida House voted 117-0 to grant final legislative approval to HB 1349 by Rep. Linda Chaney, R-St. Petersburg. Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Orange Park, sponsored the companion, SB 1710.

The Florida Bar’s recent article entitled “Bill Creates a Statewide Guardianship Database” reports that the measure will create a statewide database that will help with future reforms.

“This amendment establishes a guardianship database that we first heard last week,” Chaney said. “So thank you for recognizing this as a first step, and for supporting it, and I hope that you can help me take it to the next step.”

The bill would require the Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corporation and the clerks of court to create a statewide database of guardian and guardianship case information by July 2023. The database would be accessible only by judges, magistrates, court clerks and certain court personnel. It would include the registration status and “substantiated” disciplinary history of professional guardians. In addition, the bill would require the Office of Public and Professional Guardians to post searchable profiles of registered professional guardians on a website by July 2023.

Profiles would provide whether the professional guardian meets educational and bonding requirements, the number and type of substantiated complaints filed against the guardian and any disciplinary actions imposed by the Department of Elder Affairs. Data related to individual wards would be “deidentified” to protect their privacy. The restriction is needed to protect wards.

“The reason for that is there are times when family members have good intentions, and family members have bad intentions,” Chaney said. “So, we didn’t want them to have full access to the ward’s information, and maybe be part of a problem.”

The Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers organized the taskforce in the summer of 2021 to start addressing the issue. The group included legislators, court clerks, court system employees who work with guardianships, lawyers from the Elder Law and Real Property, Probate and Trust Law sections, consumer advocates, a former ward and others. The task force was given an open-ended mission to make recommendations for improving the system.

In addition to the database, the taskforce suggested creating a permanent legislative or state body to suggest regular updates to the law.

The task force also proposed barring hospitals and nursing homes from recommending a specific guardian when they file for a guardianship, including consideration of powers of attorney and advanced directives previously signed by a ward when a guardianship is set up, and upgrading training and education for everyone who is involved in the guardianship process.

Reference: Florida Bar (March 14, 2022) “Bill Creates a Statewide Guardianship Database”

Can I Avoid Taxes when I Inherit?

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Minimizing Taxes When You Inherit Money” says that if you inherit an IRA from a parent, the taxes on mandatory withdrawals could mean you will have a smaller inheritance than you anticipated.

Prior to 2020, beneficiaries of inherited IRAs or other tax-deferred accounts, like 401(k)s, could transfer the money into an account known as an inherited (or “stretch”) IRA. From there, you could take withdrawals over your life expectancy, allowing you to minimize withdrawals taxed at ordinary income tax rates. This lets the funds in the account to grow.

However, the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act of 2019 stopped this tax-saving strategy. Most adult children and other non-spouse heirs who inherit an IRA after January 1, 2020, now have two options: (i) take a lump sum; or (ii) transfer the money to an inherited IRA that must be depleted within 10 years after the death of the original owner. This 10-year rule doesn’t apply to surviving spouses, who can roll the money into their own IRA and allow the account to grow, tax-deferred, until they must take required minimum distributions (RMDs) at 72.  Spouses can also transfer the money into an inherited IRA and take distributions based on their life expectancy. The SECURE Act also created exceptions for non-spouse beneficiaries for those who are minors, disabled, chronically ill, or less than 10 years younger than the original IRA owner.

As a result, IRA beneficiaries who aren’t eligible for the exceptions could wind up with a big tax bill, especially if the 10-year withdrawal period is when they have a lot of other taxable income.

The 10-year rule also applies to inherited Roth IRAs. However, although you must still deplete the account in 10 years, the distributions are tax-free, provided the Roth was funded at least five years before the original owner died. If you don’t need the money, delay in taking the distributions until you’re required to empty the account. That will give you up to 10 years of tax-free growth.

Many heirs cash out their parents’ IRAs. However, if you take a lump sum from a traditional IRA, you’ll owe taxes on the whole amount, which might move you into a higher tax bracket.

Transferring the money to an inherited IRA lets you allocate the tax bill, although it’s for a shorter period than the law previously allowed. Since the new rules don’t require annual distributions, there’s a bit of flexibility.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 29, 2021) “Minimizing Taxes When You Inherit Money”

Will Congress Provide more Dollars for Elder Care?

For millions of Americans taking care of elderly or disabled loved ones, resources are very costly. Government assistance is provided through Medicaid, but it’s just for those with the lowest incomes. Many who qualify don’t get the help because many states restrict the number of eligible recipients, resulting in long waiting lists.

NBC News’ recent article entitled “Democrats want billions to pay for elder care. Republicans say the price tag is too high” reports that Democrats have earmarked roughly $300 billion to expand home-based care for seniors and the disabled in the $3.5 trillion spending bill dubbed the American Families Plan. The bill would offer states incentives to lift their income caps to 300 times the poverty level, or about $38,600 per person. Democrats say it would enable an additional 3.2 million people to be eligible for home-based assistance.

However, Republicans are launching an all-out messaging campaign that accuses Democrats of a “reckless tax and spending spree” and saying the American Families Plan would lead to higher inflation and a suffering economy. Democrats say they aren’t afraid of the cost or of Republican claims about inflation. Research shows that the elder care proposal is one of the most popular components of their agenda among likely Democratic voters. Two-thirds of voters said expanding access to home-based care for the elderly and the disabled was important, and 48% strongly favored the expansion.

Progressives have said $3.5 trillion is too little to transform the economy. Moderate Democrats point to the risk of inflation.

U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA), who is a member of the House Women’s Caucus, cared for her dad, who suffered a stroke, her mom, who had Alzheimer’s and three young children when she was running for Congress. She said elder care is a priority.

“Even though I had resources and options, it was really, really challenging to me. That story plays out for parents and women across this country every day,” Clark said in an interview. “It is long past time that we recognize how fundamental the care agenda and the care economy is to our economy in general.”

Democrats also would like to pass provisions to guarantee that home health care workers make a living wage through reporting guidelines and by requiring a minimum wage, which would be set by region.

Reference: NBC News (Aug. 21, 2021) “Democrats want billions to pay for elder care. Republicans say the price tag is too high.”

Can GI Benefits Be Used to Start a Business?

A proposal in Congress aims to let some recently separated service members use their GI Bill benefits to start a new business, rather than taking college classes. The legislation would establish a three-year pilot program for up to 250 veterans to pursue “educational entrepreneurial training” and receive their education payouts in the form of start-up capital, instead of the traditional tuition payments.

However, the bill hasn’t gained much legislative traction in recent years, reports Military Times’ recent article entitled “Use your GI Bill benefits to start a business? Lawmakers push pilot program.”

“Higher education is essential for many [veterans], but some have a different calling,” said Rep Ben Cline, R-Va. and a sponsor of the measure. “Veterans are seeking more options and want the choice to use their GI Bill benefit to start their own business. It’s common sense to offer veterans a choice in accessing resources, training and support to pursue the American dream to start a small business, create jobs and generate growth in our economy.”

Roughly 1.7 million veterans have some unused GI Bill benefits, and a new court ruling could provide a pathway to accessing them for the first time. Under the current post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits program, eligible veterans get 36 months of tuition payouts, housing stipends and other financial assistance. In certain situations, service members can also transfer that benefit to a spouse or dependents for their college classes.

More than 2.5 million businesses in America are veteran-owned, making up just under 10% of all American small businesses. Supporters of the Veterans Entrepreneurship Act say that individuals interested in pursuing that path after military service should not be shut out from using their earned benefits.

“By helping veterans start businesses, we are investing in America’s best and brightest,” co-sponsor Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., said in a statement.

“When our service members transition into civilian life, they bring considerable skills and experiences with them. Veterans know how to manage risk on the battlefield. And that’s what a successful entrepreneur does — manage risk.”

However, the bill has faced resistance in the past partly due to the fact that they are designed to help promote veteran entrepreneurship and employment, and in part because of concerns that misuse of the college benefit could result in long-term financial disadvantages for veterans.

Versions of the idea have made some progress in both the House and Senate in recent years but have not reached final approval from both chambers. No timeline has been set for a hearing or vote on the new proposal.

Reference: Military Times (July 16, 2021) “Use your GI Bill benefits to start a business? Lawmakers push pilot program”

Does New COVID Relief Bill have an Impact on Seniors?

Money Talk News’ recent article entitled “6 Ways the New COVID-19 Relief Law Affects Retirees” provides a look at some of the changes retirees can expect from the new legislation.

  1. Stimulus payments for dependent adults. A first noticeable way in which the third round of stimulus payments is different from the first two is that dependents of all ages can qualify. Therefore, a household that supports a disabled senior will receive an additional $1,400 payment for that senior, if the household claims the person as a dependent on their federal income tax.
  2. Funding for ailing pension plans. The American Rescue Plan Act includes several terms concerning pension plans, one of which calls for the Treasury Department to transfer funds to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. so that certain financially troubled multiemployer pensions can continue to pay out full benefits. That will help more than one million Americans. The PBGC operates insurance programs for single-employer and multiemployer pensions.
  3. Eligibility for the earned income credit for 2021. One of several changes the legislation made to the earned income tax credit — which is for working taxpayers with low to moderate incomes — is striking the maximum age of 64 for the 2021 tax year. As a result, seniors who work may be eligible to claim the earned income credit, when they file their taxes in 2022. The usual eligibility requirements for the credit require you to have at least one qualifying child or, if you don’t have a qualifying child, you must be between 25 and 65.
  4. Higher taxes for some gig workers. However, this COVID-19 relief law isn’t all good news for all taxpayers. Retirees (and anyone else) who earn some extra money with gig work might face more taxes in the future. This will help offset the cost of the American Rescue Plan Act, generating an estimated $8.4 billion in additional tax revenue for the federal government through fiscal year 2031. Companies with gig workers may report more payments than in the past, so the IRS will have a better idea of who is earning income from gig-economy jobs. This change may come as a surprise for some who’ve underreported income in the past.
  5. Tax relief for forgiven student loans. Under the Act, student loan debt that’s forgiven in 2021 through 2025 can be excluded from the debtor’s gross income. That will shield the canceled debt from federal taxation. Prior to this, such canceled debt generally was considered taxable income by the IRS. This will apply to student loan debtors of all ages. However, that group includes a growing number of retirees, as 20% of all student loan debt — around $290 billion — is owed by people age 50 and older, according to a 2019 AARP report. That’s five times more since 2004.
  6. New or expanded tax credits for health premiums. Retirees who aren’t yet 65 and as a result don’t have Medicare health insurance, might benefit from tax credits in the Act that help eligible individuals with two other types of health insurance. The law creates a refundable, advanceable tax credit for COBRA continuation coverage premiums. It is for people who are eligible for COBRA from when the Act was signed into law (March 11) and Sept. 30, 2021.

Reference: Money Talk News (March 16, 2021) “6 Ways the New COVID-19 Relief Law Affects Retirees”

Federal Court Decides for ‘Blue Water’ Navy Veterans

In November, the U.S. District Court for Northern California ruled in favor of thousands of “blue water” Navy veterans and their survivors, who argued that they’re being wrongly denied benefits as part of a deal reached by Congress last year.

Military Times’ recent article entitled “New court ruling could give thousands of Vietnam vets and survivors overdue disability payouts” reports that under that plan, the Department of Veterans Affairs was required to grant presumptive benefit status for chemical defoliant exposure to veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam during that war.

Advocates for years had said that VA’s requirement of direct proof of exposure was hard to obtain, when it has been decades after veterans were in the service. However, more than 22,500 blue water veterans or survivors have received VA benefits payouts since the beginning of 2020.

The new law didn’t require VA officials to go back and review cases denied before 2020. Vets who reapplied for benefits could have their cases considered again, but advocates argue that all of the cases should be resurfaced and reviewed by the VA.

In an interview with Military Times, Under Secretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence said no decision has been made by VA and Department of Justice officials on an appeal. However, he did remark that the lawsuit was discussed as part of VA’s preparations for the new benefits processing at the start of this year.

If the decision stands — either upon further appeal or if the government opts to simply accept the latest ruling — Lawrence said he’s confident the VA can start reviewing those cases without any significant disruption to operations.

President Trump signed legislation granting presumptive status for disability benefits to about 90,000 Navy veterans who served in the seas around Vietnam during the war. This concludes a long battle to get disability benefits more quickly for up to 90,000 Navy veterans who served in Vietnam.

VA has already paid out about $700 million in retroactive benefits related to the “blue water” veterans benefits in 2020.

Reference: Military Times (Nov. 16, 2020) “New court ruling could give thousands of Vietnam vets and survivors overdue disability payouts”

tax planning

Is a Tax Change a Good Time to Check My Will?

A last will and testament can make certain that your goals for legacy and asset disposition are satisfied and carried out. However, what most people fail to grasp is that a will needs regular review—especially if the document was written or involved the creation of a trust prior to passage of tax reform, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), in 2017, says Financial Advisor’s recent article entitled “Tax Changes Make This A Good Time To Revise A Will.”

Wills can pass on assets, but taxes have come to greatly impact how much money is passed on. People usually understand the primary components, including the tax implications, of their wills.

These include:

  • The unlimited marital deduction
  • Applying current rules to make non-taxable gifts of up to $15,000 per person
  • The current estate tax exemption of $11.58 million
  • Health care directives
  • Naming trustees and executors; and
  • Creating long-term trusts with non-taxable asset transfers.

Wills and trusts were created prior to the passage of the TCJA may not consider that reform changed the amount which can be exempted from estate taxes.

The law more than doubled the amount that can be exempted from estate taxes. The potential tax changes could cause many more Americans to have a taxable estate, and it’s important to have a full understanding of your assets and carefully decide who you want to receive them. You must also decide if you want them passed outright or through a trust.

Privacy is a good reason why some people often prefer trusts. They also like the quick processing and avoiding probate.

Estate plans should be reviewed every few years, and wills should be reviewed more frequently because life changes are the biggest reason for trouble in revising wills.

Divorce, separation or marriage; the birth or adoption of children, as well as a child reaching adulthood; and changes to finances, location and health all can play important roles.

Reference: Financial Advisor (Nov. 9, 2020) “Tax Changes Make This A Good Time To Revise A Will”