Some Nevada senior citizens say they fear losing their homes to the state after the Nevada Supreme Court upheld state liens on the estates of people who received Medicaid health care costs.
"They should warn people when they receive Medicaid that they are given a loan," said Henry Ringel, 79, of Las Vegas. "I love this country, but when we pass away we won't be able to leave our son anything. I worked for our home and now they can steal it away."
Justices ruled April 1 that the Welfare Division can continue to put liens on homes of widows and widowers to ensure the recovery of some health care costs provided for their spouses.
State Human Resources Director Michael Willden said taxpayers should not have to cover medical costs to enable a person to pass valuable property to descendants.
"The taxpayers are putting out this money and we have an obligation under federal regulations to try recover it," he said.
Sandy Webb, Nevada's estate recovery administrator, said the state has placed 60 liens on the homes of survivors since 1998. The program nets $1.2 million to $1.4 million a year, she said.
Elder rights lawyer Jim O'Reilly said the decision gives Nevada a national black eye among seniors organizations.
"Nevada ... sues old widows and widowers on their way home from the graveyard by slapping a lien on their homes," O'Reilly said. "Now the Supreme Court has placed the Good Housekeeping seal of approval on this horrible practice."
O'Reilly represented Las Vegas resident Agnes Ullmer, 86, before the Supreme Court.
A $125,000 lien was placed against her home shortly after the death of her husband in July 2001. The state said it had paid $144,000 for his medical costs.
Justices ruled 4-2 that the Welfare Division could put liens on homes of widows and widowers, but lifted the lien on Ullmer's home because of technical violations.
Medicaid is the health care system for the poor, disabled and blind. Costs of the program in Nevada are nearly $1 billion a year, half from federal funds.
To qualify, a resident must earn less than $1,692 a month, and have no more than $2,000 in the bank and one motor vehicle. Applicants sign a form letting the state recover costs with a lien on their homes if they die, according to program officials.
Many elderly need the program because Medicare does not cover long-term care costs in nursing homes, which can cost $3,000 or more a month.
Deputy Nevada state Attorney General Chuck Hilsbeck said the program lets seniors keep their homes.
"Rather than having to sell their homes to pay for medical care, they can continue to live there," Hilsbeck said. "It's a trade-off. The state can recover against the home, but not until the surviving spouse no longer has a need for it."
Justices ruled that surviving spouses can remain in their homes as long as they live, but put the state first in line to recover its costs when they die.
Assembly Majority Leader Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, said the issue should be studied at the 2005 Legislature.