Q. I’m helping my parents make improvements to their home so that it’ll be a safer place for them. Does Medicare pay anything toward the costs of installing grab bars and nonslip flooring or widening doorways? Also, does it cover lifts for people who can no longer get up the stairs?
A. Medicare does not cover these home improvements, even though they’re sensible precautions that may prevent future injuries and therefore could, in the long run, save Medicare money. Medicare considers all these improvements—including stair lifts or elevators for people unable to climb stairs because of their physical condition—as items of convenience rather than of medical necessity.
Medicare’s rules say that “equipment which basically serves comfort or convenience . . . [does] not constitute medical equipment” for coverage purposes. Apart from those mentioned above, other items Medicare does not pay for include bathtub lifts or seats, room heaters, air conditioners, humidifiers, dehumidifiers, electric air cleaners, posture chairs, massage devices, physical fitness equipment, and telephone emergency alert systems.
Exceptions: A few safety devices do count as “durable medical equipment” that Medicare helps pay for in some circumstances. For example, Medicare may cover the rental or purchase of seat lifts that help incapacitated people sit down or get up from a chair. Medicare also covers trapeze bars to help people confined to bed to sit up, change positions, or get in and out of bed. In all cases, for you to get coverage, your doctor must prescribe the equipment as necessary for your medical condition.
Assistance from the VA: The Department of Veterans Affairs has three programs that give cash grants to qualified veterans with disabilities for safety improvements in the home:
- The Home Improvements and Structural Alterations (HISA) grant can be used for improvements such as wheelchair ramps and door widening, lowering kitchen and bathroom counters and sinks, installing elevators and stair lifts, and many more. Maximum grants are currently $4,100 for veterans with a 50 to 100 percent service-connected disability, or $1,200 for veterans with disabilities that are not service related.
- The Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) grant can be used for substantial housing modifications that help eligible veterans function independently in their own homes. The maximum grant, currently $50,000, is available to veterans who have a permanent and total disability (blindness or loss of limbs) as a result of military service.
- The Special Home Adaptation (SHA) grant can be used for any home improvement that can help veterans with service-connected disabilities increase mobility throughout their homes. Maximum grants are currently $10,000 and are available to veterans who have permanent and total disability (blindness or loss of limbs) as a result of military service.
A qualified veteran can receive both an HISA grant and either an SAH or SHA grant. To apply for the HISA grant, you should complete VA form 10-0103 and send it to your local VA medical center. To apply for an SAH or SHA grant, complete VA form 26-4555 and send it to your VA regional office. For more information, call 1-800-827-1000 or go to the websites on HISA and on SAH/SHA.
Patricia Barry is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.