Dead taxpayers got relief checks. Can survivors keep them?

In this April 23, 2020, file photo, President Donald Trump's name is seen on a stimulus check issued by the IRS to help combat the adverse economic effects of the COVID-19 outbreak.

THE ISSUE

The CARES Act, which addressed the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and was signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27, provided a $1,200 tax credit for many individuals. But Spotlight PA’s Aneri Pattani reported June 2 that these stimulus checks “aren’t reaching a growing number of seniors in Pennsylvania’s long-term care homes, depriving them of money needed now more than ever ... amid a pandemic that has overcome their facilities and isolated them from visitors.” Spotlight PA is an independent newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer, with partners including LNP Media Group.

Elderly citizens residing in long-term care facilities have been hit harder by COVID-19 than any other demographic.

They represent the majority of the deaths. Some of the facilities in which they reside have seen major outbreaks of confirmed cases.

When the necessary quarantine arrived in late winter, a wall essentially crashed down around their facilities. Residents were cut off from seeing anyone but their caregivers and others in the facility.

No children. No grandchildren. No outside friends. No excursions. And only socially distanced visits through windows.

Imagine being alone, while friends die around you from an unforgiving virus.

In any context, we would find the incidents reported by Spotlight PA’s Pattani to be infuriating.

But in the context of the upheaval brought by COVID-19 to Pennsylvania seniors, we find some of the details of her reporting to be unconscionable. A rundown:

— In at least one nursing home in northeastern Pennsylvania, multiple residents were threatened with eviction if they didn’t use their stimulus funds to pay outstanding debt.

— The state’s Long-Term-Care Ombudsman Program had received, as of the Spotlight PA article’s publication, 76 complaints from residents or family members related to finances, many of which involve stimulus funds.

— One nursing home resident had to negotiate with her facility in order to use a portion of her stimulus money to purchase a gift for a grandchild.

— “What we’re hearing is families and residents are having trouble convincing facilities that it’s not money that needs to be surrendered,” Carolyn Tenaglia, the regional long-term care ombudsman for northeastern Pennsylvania, told Pattani.

These situations can be especially concerning in personal care homes, where there are fewer state and federal regulations than in nursing homes. Additionally, many residents of those facilities have memory impairments,  making them more vulnerable to situations involving management of their finances.

Let’s be very clear about this: Stimulus funds belong to residents. Period.

“It is their personal private property and can be spent however they want,” Tenaglia said.

As Pattani further explains, “the majority of nursing home residents in Pennsylvania rely on Medicaid to pay for their care. ... That means the state and federal government will pay for most of their care, but individuals are generally required to turn over all their income (typically pensions or Social Security) — minus a $45 personal allowance — to pay the nursing home each month.”

But the stimulus checks are not income.

The federal government and state Department of Human Services have made that explicitly clear. Stimulus funds represent tax credits, not income.

Thus, any requirement to turn over income is not applicable.

The Federal Trade Commission put an exclamation point on this issue in a May 15 online post by Lois Greisman, who said the “horror story” of residents on Medicaid being required to sign over their stimulus payments has happened across the country.

“If a loved one lives in a nursing facility and you’re not sure what happened to their payment, talk with them soon,” Greisman wrote. “And consider having a chat with the facility’s management to make sure they know which side of the law to be on.”

Fortunately, many are working to watch out for the rights of long-term care facility residents and ensure that the nature of the stimulus checks is crystal-clear to facility administrators.

Margaret Barajas, Pennsylvania’s long-term care ombudsman, said postcards and fliers have been produced and distributed to residents, detailing their rights regarding stimulus funds. “Local ombudsman programs are also working with facility administrators to clear up misunderstandings that can arise through the often-complicated accounting process,” Pattani noted.

We are heartened by all of these efforts and oversight. It is in times such as this when the value of watchdogs and advocacy groups is made abundantly clear.

The state Attorney General's Office and Departments of Health and Human Services have also been available to receive questions and complaints.

This is an issue that’s likely to remain in the spotlight this summer, so we must continue to raise awareness. Stimulus funds from the CARES Act are still being issued. And there is preliminary discussion in Congress about an additional round of stimulus later this year.

Residents of long-term care facilities, and their families, should know their full rights regarding stimulus funds. The pandemic has been traumatic enough; they don’t need this additional controversy.

Senior citizens residing in long-term care facilities are most of all citizens — the “senior” is only a descriptor. Stimulus payments belong to them, and must not be taken away through misunderstanding, manipulation or any other method.