Expanding Medicaid coverage to an estimated nine million more Americans—as mandated by the Affordable Care Act—reinforces the idea that Medicaid only serves the poor. That perception is not accurate. And it distracts from a looming budgetary threat to the program: long-term care.
More than two-thirds of annual spending on long-term care for the elderly is paid by state and federal governments, $60 billion of which flows from Medicaid. With 10,000 baby boomers reaching retirement age every day for the next 19 years, the Congressional Budget Office projects that spending on long-term care will more than double by 2050—to 3% of GDP from 1.3%.
We might accept these rising costs if benefits flowed only to the elderly poor, as originally intended. But that is not the case. Significant long-term care benefits flow to individuals in the top 20% of retirement earnings, enabled by Medicaid’s generous asset-exclusion limits.
In many states, an elderly person may own a home valued at $802,000, plus home furnishings, jewelry and an automobile of uncapped value while receiving long-term Medicaid support. In addition, they are allowed to have various life-insurance policies, retirement accounts with unlimited assets, $115,920 in assets for a spouse, income from Social Security, and a defined-benefit pension plan. By most standards, such a household would be considered wealthy.