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State bar association sues over Medicaid law

December 5, 1997

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ The state bar association says its members are being gagged by a federal law meant to discourage senior citizens from transferring assets to relatives in order to qualify for Medicaid.

The law makes it illegal to accept a fee to counsel people how to make those transfers.

The New York State Bar Association sued the federal government on Thursday, saying the law is a ``gag order″ that denies people from seeking professional help.

``This `Catch-22′ legislation says to the 80-year-old Alzheimers patient, `Sure, you can make lawful transfers, but no one can help or advise you,‴ state bar President Joshua Pruzansky said.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Albany, claims the law violates First Amendment protections of free speech. Other bar associations have expressed interest in joining the lawsuit, said Frank Ciervo, a spokesman for the New York bar.

The current law replaced a 1996 law that made it a crime to apply for Medicaid, under certain circumstances, after transferring significant assets. It was quickly dubbed the ``Granny Goes to Jail″ law by critics. Congress repealed the unpopular law in its Balanced Budget Act of 1997, but substituted new language.

The misdemeanor offense carries a penalty of up to a year in jail or a fine of up to $10,000, or both.

There was no immediate response from the Justice Department.

But a spokeswoman for Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, who fought to kill the earlier provision, defended the new law. Debbie Winston said not many people will be caught by the new provision; a lawyer would have to counsel someone to essentially break the law, she said.

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