The coronavirus pandemic has forced nursing homes to place a number of restrictions on their residents. These constraints are having the unintended consequence of making it more difficult for nursing home residents to vote. Hundreds of thousands of nursing home and assisted living community residents could be disenfranchised.
Older Americans are some of the most reliable voters, but nursing home residents face challenges to voting even in normal times, and they are encountering even greater barriers this election season. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, nursing homes have locked down, prohibiting family and friends from visiting residents and residents from leaving the facilities. This means residents may not be able to leave to vote and also will not be able to have help from family members or organizations in obtaining and filling out mail-in ballots.
In past years, nursing homes and assisted living facilities often acted as polling places, but many of those are being moved due to the pandemic. In addition, nonpartisan organizations have historically been able to enter nursing homes to assist residents with their ballots, but it is unclear whether this will be allowed this year. North Carolina and Louisiana specifically prohibit nursing home staff from assisting residents with their ballots, but even in states that don’t explicitly prohibit it, overworked staff may not have the time to help residents.
While federal law requires nursing homes to protect their residents’ rights, including the right to vote, it is “a really open question to what extent people in long-term care institutions are going to be able to participate in our election in November,” says Nina Kohn, a law professor at Syracuse University who has studied facility residents’ voting-rights issues. Kohn warns that “we should be clear that there is tremendous reason to be concerned that nursing home residents will be . . . systematically disenfranchised in this election,”
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Every adult is assumed to be capable of making his or her own decisions unless a court determines otherwise. If an adult becomes incapable of making responsible decisions, the court will appoint a substitute decision maker, usually called a “guardian,” but called a “conservator” or another term in some states.
Guardianship is a legal relationship between a competent adult (the “guardian”) and a person who because of incapacity is no longer able to take care of his or her own affairs (the “ward”). The guardian can be authorized to make legal, financial, and health care decisions for the ward. Depending on the terms of the guardianship and state practices, the guardian may or may not have to seek court approval for various decisions. In many states, a person appointed only to handle finances is called a “conservator.”
Some incapacitated individuals can make responsible decisions in some areas of their lives but not others. In such cases, the court may give the guardian decision making power over only those areas in which the incapacitated person is unable to make responsible decisions (a so-called “limited guardianship”). In other words, the guardian may exercise only those rights that have been removed from the ward and delegated to the guardian.
The standard under which a person is deemed to require a guardian differs from state to state. In some states the standards are different, depending on whether a complete guardianship or a conservatorship over finances only is being sought. Generally, a person is judged to be in need of guardianship when he or she shows a lack of capacity to make responsible decisions. A person cannot be declared incompetent simply because he or she makes irresponsible or foolish decisions, but only if the person is shown to lack the capacity to make sound decisions. For example, a person may not be declared incompetent simply because he spends money in ways that seem odd to someone else. Also, a developmental disability or mental illness is not, by itself, enough to declare a person incompetent.
In most states, anyone interested in the proposed ward's well-being can request a guardianship. An attorney is usually retained to file a petition for a hearing in the probate court in the proposed ward's county of residence. Protections for the proposed ward vary greatly from state to state, with some simply requiring that notice of the proceeding be provided and others requiring the proposed ward's presence at the hearing. The proposed ward is usually entitled to legal representation at the hearing, and the court will appoint an attorney if the allegedly incapacitated person cannot afford a lawyer.
At the hearing, the court attempts to determine if the proposed ward is incapacitated and, if so, to what extent the individual requires assistance. If the court determines that the proposed ward is indeed incapacitated, the court then decides if the person seeking the role of guardian will be a responsible guardian.
A guardian can be any competent adult — the ward's spouse, another family member, a friend, a neighbor, or a professional guardian (an unrelated person who has received special training). A competent individual may nominate a proposed guardian through a durable power of attorney in case she ever needs a guardian.
The guardian need not be a person at all — it can be a non-profit agency or a public or private corporation. If a person is found to be incapacitated and a suitable guardian cannot be found, courts in many states can appoint a public guardian, a publicly financed agency that serves this purpose. In naming someone to serve as a guardian, courts give first consideration to those who play a significant role in the ward's life — people who are both aware of and sensitive to the ward's needs and preferences. If two individuals wish to share guardianship duties, courts can name co-guardians.
Courts often give guardians broad authority to manage the ward's affairs. In addition to lacking the power to decide how money is spent or managed, where to live and what medical care he or she should receive, wards also may not have the right to vote, marry or divorce, or carry a driver's license. Guardians are expected to act in the best interests of the ward, but given the guardian's often broad authority, there is the potential for abuse. For this reason, courts hold guardians accountable for their actions to ensure that they don't take advantage of or neglect the ward.
The guardian of the property inventories the ward's property, invests the ward's funds so that they can be used for the ward's support, and files regular, detailed reports with the court. A guardian of the property also must obtain court approval for certain financial transactions. Guardians must file an annual account of how they have handled the ward's finances. In some states guardians must also give an annual report on the ward's status. Guardians must offer proof that they made adequate residential arrangements for the ward, that they provided sufficient health care and treatment services, and that they made available educational and training programs, as needed. Guardians who cannot prove that they have adequately cared for the ward may be removed and replaced by another guardian.
Alternatives to Guardianship
Because guardianship involves a profound loss of freedom and dignity, state laws require that guardianship be imposed only when less restrictive alternatives have been tried and proven to be ineffective. Less restrictive alternatives that should be considered before pursuing guardianship include:
Power of Attorney. A power of attorney is the grant of legal rights and powers by a person (the principal) to another (the agent or attorney-in-fact). The attorney-in-fact, in effect, stands in the shoes of the principal and acts for him or her on financial, business or other matters. In most cases, even when the power of attorney is immediately effective, the principal does not intend for it to be used unless and until he or she becomes incapacitated.
Representative or Protective Payee. This is a person appointed to manage Social Security, Veterans' Administration, Railroad Retirement, welfare or other state or federal benefits or entitlement program payments on behalf of an individual.
Conservatorship. In some states this proceeding can be voluntary, where the person needing assistance with finances petitions the probate court to appoint a specific person (the conservator) to manage his or her financial affairs. The court must determine that the conservatee is unable to manage his or her own financial affairs, but nevertheless has the capacity to make the decision to have a conservator appointed to handle his or her affairs.
Revocable trust.A revocable or “living” trust can be set up to hold an older person's assets, with a relative, friend or financial institution serving as trustee. Alternatively, the older person can be a co-trustee of the trust with another individual who will take over the duties of trustee should the older person become incapacitated.
Contact your attorney to discuss ways to protect against a guardianship.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly devastating for nursing homes and their residents. Aside from the tragically disproportionate loss of life, care for surviving residents has been delayed or interrupted due to infection, facility lockdowns or other health system disruptions. In such cases, Medicare beneficiaries who qualified for skilled nursing facility (SNF) coverage may be eligible for an additional 100 days of coverage. Whether all qualified beneficiaries will actually get the extended coverage is another question.
Medicare does not pay for long-term care, just for “medical” care from a doctor or other health care professional or in a hospital. But there's a partial exception to this rule. Medicare will pay for up to 100 days of care per “spell of illness” in an SNF as long as the following two requirements are met:
1. Your move to an SNF followed a hospitalization of at least three days; and
2. You need and will be receiving skilled care.
After the 100 days of coverage ends, a new spell of illness can begin if the patient has not received skilled care, either in an SNF or a hospital, for a period of 60 consecutive days. The patient can remain in the SNF and still qualify as long as he or she does not receive a skilled level of care, but only custodial care, during that 60 days.
Following the declaration of a public health emergency this spring, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a letter granting a waiver to allow Medicare beneficiaries coverage for an additional 100 days in an SNF, without satisfying the new spell of illness requirement, in certain COVID-19 related circumstances. The letter stated that the policy will apply only to skilled-care beneficiaries whose process of care was interrupted by the public health emergency. (The letter also waived the three-days-in-a-hospital rule in certain cases.)
Six months after that letter, however, there is still confusion about which COVID-19 related circumstances qualify for the waiver. Importantly, according to the Center for Medicare Advocacy, CMS recently confirmed that beneficiaries do not necessarily have to have a COVID-19 diagnosis to qualify for the additional 100 days of coverage. Rather, as described by Skilled Nursing News, “[t]he question is whether the emergency situation interrupted the patient’s path to 60 consecutive days of non-skilled, custodial care.”
In an August 26, 2020, memorandum, CMS attempted to clarify how it would determine whether a disruption in care was related to the public health emergency: “This determination basically involves comparing the course of treatment that the beneficiary has actually received to what would have been furnished absent the emergency. Unless the two are exactly the same, the provider would determine that the treatment has been affected by – and, therefore, is related to – the emergency.”
However, in some cases, nursing homes do not understand how the waiver applies or are not inclined to help patients with a waiver application. The Center for Medicare Advocacy offers a detailed case example of an individual who appears to meet the criteria for additional Medicare coverage but who has encountered multiple barriers in getting it.
In addition to confusion over who qualifies for the extended coverage, the Center for Medicare Advocacy has found that the “waiver that extends SNF benefits by up to 100 days does not appear to afford beneficiaries the same rights as the first 100 days of statutory coverage,” including rights to appeal coverage denials. The Center reports that it “has received an increasing number of requests for guidance on expanded Medicare coverage in skilled nursing facilities.” In response, the organization has compiled self-help materials to assist beneficiaries and their advocates.
The Center is asking those with experiences pursuing coverage under the public health emergency rules, waivers, or guidance to contact it at