Lawmakers and officials at the Department of Social Services are having a tough time adding up the cost of a proposal that would allow a person to keep more assets if their spouse ends up in a nursing home.

The bill, H.B. 5806, was debated early in the current session by the Human Services Committee. It would increase the minimum amount of marital assets for the spouse who remains in the community from $23,844 to $50,000. The couple’s home and car are, and would continue to be, excluded from the asset calculation.

Matthew Stillman, public policy chair of the Connecticut Chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, said this “is a bill to protect the community spouse.” And trying not to sound sexist, Stillman said, more often than not that community spouse is a woman whose husband is in a nursing home.

Stillman said Massachusetts allows the community spouse to keep $119,000 and New York allows $75,000.

“Why is Connecticut at $23,000?” Stillman asked.

Department of Social Services Deputy Commissioner Kathleen Brennan told the Human Services Committee in January that the department can’t support an increase because it “would have a negative fiscal impact on the Medicaid account in a challenging budget environment.”

Brennan testified that current state law allows a community spouse to keep half of the couple’s assets, from a minimum of $23,844 up to the federal maximum of $119,220, plus one car and the primary home. 

The bill would raise the minimum of $23,844 to $50,000, meaning that Medicaid would be responsible for more of the long-term care costs.

But the benefit of the proposal wasn’t lost on even the most fiscally conservative member of the committee.

Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, said “common sense would tell us if we let people retain more assets, they’d be more likely to be able to remain in their homes, and that could result in a savings to the state.” However, he acknowledged the difficulty the state would have in calculating that number.

“At the risk of breaking all my own rules for myself, I’d almost say that it’s worth the leap into the dark and find out what happens, because I don’t feel like the expense could be very great, and I feel like there’s a possibility that we might end up dollars ahead, and with a better circumstance for the people who would be involved in this program,” Markley added.

Jack Reardon, president of the Connecticut Chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, said increasing the amount a community spouse could retain may delay and possibly prevent a community spouse from having to go into a nursing home herself.

Stillman said they’ve been asking the state to come up with a fiscal note for years, but doesn’t believe “we’ve gotten a coherent response.”

Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, co-chairwoman of the Human Services Committee, said they’ve been trying to put a number to this proposal for four years now and have been unsuccessful.

Abercrombie asked Reardon if he had any information about how many people would be impacted by this proposal.

Reardon said he was in contact with other chapters of his organization in other states in an effort to gather more information and help the state put a number on it.

Reardon said he believes the bill would “allow a smaller portion of the population to keep that nest egg and maintain their homes, rather than becoming dependent upon the state for assistance when we impoverish them.”

The bill was forwarded last month to the Appropriations Committee for further consideration.