Pay Your Parents' Bills or Else

Industry representatives have long complained that too-low Medicaid reimbursements have unfairly squeezed their budgets. The recession, they say, has made the situation especially dire: Now cash-strapped states have even less Medicaid dollars to fund nursing home patients' stays.

"They're trying to stretch their dollars among a variety of different providers," said David Hebert, AHCA's senior vice president for policy and government affairs. "It becomes extremely difficult to do justice to all of them."

First, Seek Medicaid Coverage

Part of what's driving recent lawsuits hinging on filial support may be a 2005 federal law called the Deficit Reduction Act.

John Kennedy, a Harrisburg, Pa., lawyer who said he's represented Pennsylvania nursing homes in hundreds of such cases, said the act made it more complicated for nursing home patients to obtain Medicaid coverage for their bills.

Kennedy said that for most of his cases, he uses filial support lawsuits to persuade adult children to do the paperwork necessary to establish Medicaid eligibility for their parents. Most of the time, he said, the children being sued agree to help and aren't stuck paying their parents' bills.

"Most people would rather cooperate then be held financially personally responsible," he said.

In its statement, Suburban Woods said its first recourse is usually to apply for Medicaid coverage and to seek help from family members if a patient can't apply on her own.

Andrea August's lawyer, Linda Berman, said her client had already helped fill out Medicaid forms for her parents -- her particular case, Berman said, was more complicated than that. August said she never had power of attorney over her parents' assets and, before the lawsuit, thought that the nursing home and a guardian appointed to look after her mother had worked out how the bills would get paid.

August considers herself lucky -- her husband's employer had a legal coverage plan that allowed the couple to afford Berman's services. Many adult children hit with such claims, Berman said, can't afford legal representation and often get sacked with costly judgments. A Havertown, Pa. man tried representing himself in court against an $8,000 nursing home claim and lost, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

August was more fortunate. Through Berman, she contested the nursing home's claim and in January, she and the nursing home reached a settlement that freed her of her parents' debts.

Part of the reason they were successful, Berman said, is because Pennsylvania's fillial support law states that adult children can only be held liable if they have the means to pay. August, she said, clearly didn't.

For now, August said she's grateful for how her case was resolved. But she's unhappy that Pennsylvania's fillial support law is being enforced and she hopes others are able to fight back against lawsuits based on the statute.

"People are just letting these default judgments go through," she said. "They need to realize if we don't stand up for ourselves we're going to be in debt for the rest of our lives for something that we didn't even do."

With reports from ABC News' Nathalie Tadena.

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