So if, for example, you made a gift of a house worth $250,000 to a family member or friend, or sold it at far less than its market value, and the average monthly nursing home cost in your state is $5,000, your eligibility for Medicaid coverage would be delayed by 50 months ($250,000 divided by $5,000 = 50). The same rule applies to transfers of cash or other assets.
There are some exceptions to this rule. To take just one example: If you are not currently married and have an adult child who has lived in your home and looked after you for at least two years before you enter a nursing home, you can transfer the title of your home to that child without any delay in coverage.
This is only a thumbnail sketch of the many rules that govern Medicaid eligibility for nursing home care, many of which vary from state to state. To find out how the rules apply to you, you or a family member may need to consult an informed counselor or a qualified elder law attorney.
You can get a lot of information from your state's heath insurance assistance program (SHIP), which is a public service that provides personal help from trained counselors on all Medicare and Medicaid issues at no charge. To find SHIP counselors in the state where you or your family member is living in a nursing home (or will soon enter one), go to the SHIP website. SHIP counselors could also put you in contact with an elder law attorney if you need one.
* Note: The new health care law does introduce a new voluntary insurance program that allows working people to contribute money from their earnings in return for daily cash payments later on if they develop a disability or a medical condition that impairs daily living activities. The payments can be used toward the cost of assistance in your home, in an assisted living facility or in a nursing home. But they wouldn't be enough to cover the full costs of permanent residency in a nursing home. This program (known as the CLASS Act) is still being organized and full details of when it will begin and how it will work are not yet known. For more information, see AARP's fact sheet.
Patricia Barry is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.