May 4, 2020
While this pandemic has been difficult for us all, we in the pooled trust world are keenly aware of how it impacts injury victims and others with disabilities. The National Disability Institute recently conducted two listening sessions to assess the needs born out of the COVID-19 outbreak. Issues raised included access to healthcare, caregiving services and supplies, employment, and access to educational programs for children with disabilities. This data is being used to craft recommendations for government action and direct advocacy efforts, which will undoubtedly be critical to our recovery; however, such efforts take time and resources. For the moment, we find ourselves working with our clients and beneficiaries daily to help them bridge the gap until the available resources meet the growing demands.
Pooled Trust Services is headquartered in Orlando, Florida. As Floridians, the disaster-scenario we are most familiar with is a hurricane. For those who do not live in an area threatened by hurricanes, we usually have a week or more of warning, triggering people all over the state to stock up on gas, bottled water, and non-perishable food. Those who cannot be without power will either purchase a generator or evacuate. Before a hurricane, we are flooded with requests from our beneficiaries to buy supplies and/or travel. If we find ourselves in the path of the storm, we will close the office temporarily, but generally, operations return to normal within a couple of weeks. Dealing with a pandemic is different. Like many, our operations had to go remote very quickly and stay that way for a yet-to-be-determined period. Our beneficiaries are finding themselves with new issues which present new challenges to our staff. This article will discuss those experiences thus far and what we doing to make sure we support them.
Infection & Caregivers
It goes without saying that everyone’s #1 concern is becoming infected. For our beneficiaries with caregivers, the concern is multiplied because their caregiver might infect them or be too ill to provide care. A high percentage of our beneficiaries who require the services of a caregiver have chosen to get that care from a loved one and often that person lives with the beneficiary. Many of our beneficiaries’ caregivers are paid using funds from the trust but employed by a company called TEAM. This arrangement allows the beneficiary to decide who cares for them while reducing liability for the trust and providing benefits for the caregiver such as access to a health insurance plan. Further, because payroll taxes are deducted from their paycheck, they have workers’ compensation coverage and earn work credits for Social Security and Medicare.
When a caregiver can no longer serve, two issues arise. The first is finding a new caregiver which is something we can help with directly. Resources are certainly strained right now, but we work with several companies nationwide who can help fill this need. The second issue is the employment of the caregiver. While our duty is to the beneficiary, ensuring continuity of care for the beneficiary includes a collateral concern for the caregiver. This is a tricky issue for trustees because special needs trusts include a “sole benefit provision” which means that the trust cannot be used to gift money to others. If the caregiver is no longer able to work, then further payments to them would be considered a gift; however, one benefit of being “officially” employed is that they are eligible for unemployment payments. Thanks to the recent Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, unemployment coverage due to COVID-19 has been expanded to include those who cannot work because they or a family member has been diagnosed or is awaiting their results.
If the beneficiary does fall ill and needs someone to care for them, a family member may need to stop working. While there is now support under the CARES Act for that scenario, an alternative would be for the family member to begin getting compensation through TEAM. Given that millions are now applying for unemployment all at the same time, being paid from the trust may result in faster payments and less disruption to the family. Family members can also be compensated for performing wellness checks on a trust beneficiary.
Inability to Work or Access Resources
Like many, we are starting to hear from beneficiaries who aren’t totally disabled and have been laid off or furloughed. Generally, they are eligible for unemployment, but some are having to dip into their trust to make ends meet until unemployment and stimulus payments begin arriving. We are also finding that some public resources our beneficiaries rely on are no longer available. For example, we have a surprising number of beneficiaries who do not have home access to the internet. Ordinarily, they would go to their local library to print forms or send us emails or faxes. Now that many libraries are closed, they have to wait for us to send them forms in the mail, which they then have to fill out and mail back. Something that could be done in an afternoon now takes over a week simply because their local library is closed. This has forced us to modify our procedures to ensure beneficiaries are getting what they need despite the technological barriers.
Protection of Funds
One of the reasons many of our beneficiaries selected a pooled trust was to take advantage of the long-term protections a trust offers. Not only do all r trusts provide protection against the claims of creditors, in an economic downturn such as this, losses can be mitigated because the funds are typically invested conservatively.
A trustee also serves as a layer of protection against fraud and scams. Many of our beneficiaries are vulnerable and sadly there is no shortage of people waiting to prey on them. Even in the wake of a pandemic, new scams are popping up all the time. There are two primary ways in which we protect our beneficiaries from fraud and scams. The first is through our processes, such as having at least two people sign off on any transaction and verifying payment information with the recipient. The second is through the various controls we have over the True Link card (a Visa debit card carried by the beneficiary which we can load with funds for them to make purchases at their leisure). The True Link card automatically blocks anyone on their ScamWatch list and allows us to toggle on or off a number of merchant categories including international transactions, online transactions, money transfers, and others in addition to being able to limit transactions by amount. We can also disable the card immediately if fraud is suspected.
Finally, we are a resource for information and, sometimes, a shoulder to cry on. We are one of the first places our beneficiaries turn when they want to know if Social Security is changing their rules, whether their stimulus check will be countable resource causing them to lose SSI or Medicaid, and what resources might be out there to help them get through this difficult time. COVID-19 has been unprecedented in so many ways, but we remain ready to help our clients get through it now and for decades to come.