Many people in business say, “I’m a professional.” It would seem as if everyone is a professional. Yet, the public is truly disserved when people who are not professionals hold themselves out as professionals.
In the sense that a professional is a person who is highly trained in a particular field, I would agree with the broadening of the term. In our society, many people obtain advanced degrees or train for extended periods of time in order to master a particular field or skill, and I think that is great.
But there is one key aspect of professionalism that separates the wheat from the chaff when it comes to people who call themselves “professionals.” A true profession is a field that is governed by a complex and rigorously enforced code of ethics.
Lawyers, for instance, are extremely mindful of the code of ethics that governs their profession. Not only do lawyers have a code of ethics—after all, any field seeking to be a “profession” can write a bunch of rules—but the codes of ethics that governs lawyers is rigorously enforced.
As an elder law attorney, I frequently help clients apply for Medicaid benefits. The Medicaid program is a government health insurance program for needy individuals. To say that the laws governing the Medicaid Act are complicated would fail to convey the nature of the law.
Numerous individuals have engaged my services for a family member who had “simple” finances and whose Medicaid application was going to be “no problem at all.” The reality is, no matter how simple a person’s finances are, when you are looking at what an individual did over the past five years—which is the period of time that the Medicaid office reviews—you are always going to find financial events that just don’t look good. There may be checks made out to “cash” or gifts to family members or payments to caregivers under the table.
I cannot tell you how many clients I have had who have small estates, yet over the past five years have owned more then ten, and sometimes more than twenty, bank accounts. It is as if the client’s hobby were moving her money around from bank-to-bank. These movements of money make the Medicaid application extremely complex because the movement of money must be traced and a failure to trace the money can result in a denial of Medicaid benefits.
In the past few years, I have seen several companies spring up that assist people with applying for Medicaid benefits. These are not law firms. In fact, the staff may have no formal training whatsoever.
The nursing homes will refer patients’ families to these companies, and in some cases, the company that is assisting the family also handles the debt collection work for the nursing homes. In other words, the same company that duns patients for unpaid nursing home bills is the company that is offering the family its services in applying for benefits.
Ironically, many people who apply for Medicaid benefits fail to obtain eligibility for the exact date when those benefits are needed. For instance, the patient may have made $7,000 in gifts over the past five years. That patient would be ineligible for Medicaid for approximately one month. Now, the very same company that assisted the family with the Medicaid application will be dunning the family for the unpaid month of nursing home charges.
This type of conflict of an interest could never occur with an attorney. An attorney must advocate only for the client, whether the attorney agrees with the client’s position or not.
Furthermore, since Medicaid is a complex law the nuances of which can make all the difference between an acceptance letter and a denial letter, how can a non-attorney advocate for the family if benefits are denied or are not obtained exactly when needed? These companies don’t have the skills, and they don’t have the legal right to go to court and advocate for another individual.
Finally, these companies charge the same amount or more than law firms charge for the same services. So, the families are getting less for more. That’s never a good thing.