Extra fees drive assisted living profits
Prices soar as the industry leaves no service unbilled
December 15, 2023
KFF Health News
Jon Guckenberg's rent for a single room in an assisted living cottage in Cloquet was $4,140 a month before adding in a raft of other charges.
The facility, New Perspective Cloquet, charged him $500 to reserve a spot and a $2,000 "entrance fee" before he set foot inside two years ago. Each month, he also paid $1,080 for a care plan that helped him cope with bipolar disorder and kidney problems, $750 for meals, and another $750 to make sure he took his daily medications. Cable service in his room was an extra $50 a month.
A year after moving in, Guckenberg, 83, a retired pizza parlor owner, had run through his life's savings and was put on a state health plan for the poor.
Assisted living centers have become an appealing retirement option for hundreds of thousands of Baby Boomers who can no longer live independently, promising a cheerful alternative to the institutional feel of a nursing home.
But their cost is so crushingly high that most Americans can't afford them.
The facilities can look like luxury apartments or modest group homes and can vary in pricing structures. These highly profitable facilities often charge $5,000 a month or more and then layer on fees at every step. Residents' bills and price lists from a dozen facilities offer a glimpse of the charges: $12 for a blood pressure check; $50 per injection (more for insulin); $93 a month to order medications from a pharmacy not used by the facility; $315 a month for daily help with an inhaler.
The facilities charge extra to help residents get to the shower, bathroom, or dining room; to deliver meals to their rooms; to have staff check-ins for daily "reassurance" or simply to remind residents when it's time to eat or take their medication. Some even charge for routine billing of a resident's insurance for care.
"They say, 'Your mother forgot one time to take her medications, and so now you've got to add this on, and we're billing you for it,'" said Lori Smetanka, executive director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, a nonprofit.
Doug Anderson, a senior vice president at New Perspective, said in a statement that "the cost and complexity of providing care and housing to seniors has increased exponentially due to the pandemic and record-high inflation."
In one way, Guckenberg has been luckier than most people who run out of money to pay for their care. He has Medicaid to cover the health services he receives.
Most states have similar programs, though a resident must be frail enough to qualify for a nursing home before Medicaid will cover the health care costs in an assisted living facility. But enrollment is restricted. In 37 states, people are on waiting lists for months or years.
LaShuan Bethea, executive director of the National Center for Assisted Living, a trade association of owners and operators, said "we recognize the current system of having residents spend down their assets and then qualify for Medicaid in order to stay in their assisted living home is broken. Residents shouldn't have to impoverish themselves in order to continue receiving assisted living care."
Bethea said the industry would require financial support from the government and private lenders to bring prices down.
"Assisted living providers are ready and willing to provide more affordable options, especially for a growing elderly population," Bethea said. "But we need the support of policymakers and other industries." She said offering affordable assisted living "requires an entirely different business model."
About 850,000 older Americans reside in assisted living facilities, which have become one of the most lucrative branches of the long-term care industry that caters to people 65 and older. Investors, regional companies, and international real estate trusts have jumped in: Half of operators in the business of assisted living earn returns of 20 percent or more than it costs to run the sites, an industry survey shows. That is far higher than the money made in most other health sectors.
Rents are often rivaled or exceeded by charges for services, which are either packaged in a bundle or levied à la carte. Overall prices have been rising faster than inflation, and rent increases since the start of last year have been higher than at any previous time since at least 2007, according to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care, which provides data and other information to companies.
There are now 31,000 assisted living facilities nationwide - twice the number of skilled nursing homes. Four of every five facilities are run as for-profits. Members of racial or ethnic minority groups account for only a tenth of residents, even though they make up a quarter of the population of people 65 or older in the United States.
Many assisted living facilities are owned by real estate investment trusts. Their shareholders expect the high returns that are typically gained from housing investments rather than the more marginal profits of the heavily regulated health care sector. Even during the pandemic, earnings remained robust, financial filings show.
Ventas, a publicly traded real estate investment trust, reported earning revenues in the third quarter of this year that were 24 percent above operating costs from its investments in 576 senior housing properties, which include those run by Atria Senior Living and Sunrise Senior Living.
Ventas said the prices for its services were affordable. "In markets where we operate, on average it costs residents a comparable amount to live in our communities as it does to stay in their own homes and replicate services," said Molly McEvily, a spokesperson.
Brandon Barnes, an administrator at a family business that owns three small residences in Esko, said he and other small operators had been approached by brokers for companies, including one based in the Bahamas. "I don't even know how you'd run them from that far away," he said.
A public opinion survey conducted by health news provider KFF found that 83 percent of adults said it would be impossible or very difficult to pay $60,000 a year for an assisted living facility. Almost half of those surveyed who either lived in a long-term care residence or had a loved one who did encountered unexpected add-on fees for things they assumed were included in the price.
Assisted living is part of a broader affordability crisis in long-term care for the swelling population of older Americans. Over the past decade, the market for long-term care insurance has virtually collapsed, covering just a tiny portion of older people. Home health workers who can help people stay safely in their homes are generally poorly paid and hard to find.
And even older people who can afford an assisted living facility often find their life savings rapidly drained.
Unlike most residents of nursing homes, where care is generally paid for by Medicaid, the federal-state program for the poor and disabled, assisted living residents or their families usually must shoulder the full costs. Most centers require those who can no longer pay to move out.
The industry says its pricing structures pay for increased staffing that helps the more infirm residents and avoids saddling others with costs of services they don't need.
Prices escalate greatly when a resident develops dementia or other serious illnesses. At one facility in California, the monthly cost of care packages for people with dementia or other cognitive issues increased from $1,325 for those needing the least amount of help to $4,625 as residents' needs grew.
"It's profiteering at its worst," said Mark Bonitz, who explored multiple places in Minnesota for his mother, Elizabeth. "They have a fixed amount of rooms," he said. "The way you make the most money is you get so many add-ons." Last year, he moved his mother to a nonprofit center, where she lived until her death in July at age 96.
Others defend the extras as a way to appeal to the waves of boomers who are retiring. "People want choice," said Beth Burnham Mace, a special adviser for the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care. "If you price it more à la carte, you're paying for what you actually desire and need."
Yet residents don't always get the heightened attention they paid for. Class action lawsuits have accused several assisted living chains of failing to raise staffing levels to accommodate residents' needs or of failing to fulfill billed services.
"We still receive many complaints about staffing shortages and services not being provided as promised," said Aisha Elmquist, until recently the deputy ombudsman for long-term care in Minnesota, a state-funded advocate. "Some residents have reported to us they called 911 for things like getting in and out of bed."
Only 18 percent of residential care facilities agree to take Medicaid payments, which tend to be lower than what they charge self-paying clients, according to a federal survey of facilities. And even places that accept Medicaid often limit coverage to a minority of their beds.
For those with some retirement income, Medicaid isn't free. Nancy Pilger, Guckenberg's guardian in Cloquet, said that he was able to keep only about $200 of his $2,831 monthly retirement income, with the rest going to paying rent and a portion of his costs covered by the government.
In September, Guckenberg moved to a nearby assisted living building run by a nonprofit. Pilger said the price was the same. But for other residents who have not yet exhausted their assets, Guckenberg's new home charges $12 a tray for meal delivery to the room; $50 a month to bill a person's long-term care insurance plan; and $55 for a set of bed rails.
Even after Guckenberg had left New Perspective, the company had one more charge for him: a $200 late payment fee for money it said he still owed.
KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF - an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. This story appeared on the pages of MinnPost, a nonprofit online news source in Minnesota, which partners with the Pine Knot News. Visit its site at MinnPost.com.