What is Medicaid?

Medicaid (called “Medi-Cal” in California, “MassHealth” in Massachusetts, and “TennCare” in Tennessee) is a joint federal-state program that provides health insurance coverage to low-income children, seniors, and people with disabilities. In addition, it covers care in a nursing home for those who qualify.

In the absence of any other public program covering long-term care, Medicaid has become the default nursing home insurance of the middle class. Lacking access to alternatives such as paying privately or being covered by a long-term care insurance policy, most people pay out of their own pockets for long-term care until they become eligible for Medicaid.

As for home care, Medicaid has traditionally offered very little — except in New York, which provides home care to all Medicaid recipients who need it. Recognizing that home care costs far less than nursing home care, more and more states are providing Medicaid-covered services to those who remain in their homes.

Although their names are confusingly alike, Medicaid and Medicare are quite different programs. For one thing, all retirees who receive Social Security benefits also receive Medicare as their health insurance. Medicare is an “entitlement” program. Medicaid, on the other hand, is a form of welfare — or at least that’s how it began. So to be eligible for Medicaid, you must become “impoverished” under the program’s guidelines.

Also, unlike Medicare, which is totally federal, Medicaid is a joint federal-state program. Each state operates its own Medicaid system, but this system must conform to federal guidelines in order for the state to receive federal money, which pays for about half the state’s Medicaid costs. (The state picks up the rest of the tab.) This complicates matters, since the Medicaid eligibility rules are somewhat different from state to state and they keep changing. This most recently occurred with the passage of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (the DRA), which significantly changed rules governing the treatment of asset transfers and homes of nursing home residents. To be certain of your rights, consult an expert. He or she can guide you through the complicated rules of the different programs and help you plan ahead.

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