Money Follows the Person is a cornerstone of the federal government’s effort to move Medicaid beneficiaries from nursing homes into the community. But a new study commissioned by Medicaid itself shows how difficult those transitions can be. In the 30 states that have been testing the program over the past three years, only 8,500 people have used MFP to return to their communities.

That’s just a tiny fraction of the nearly 1 million people who are eligible, and only about one-quarter of the 35,000 the participating states initially hoped to move. And of the 8,500 who have enrolled in the program, one-third lived in just one state–Texas. By contrast, California has signed up only 186 people since MFP began, and New York only 165, according to the study done by Mathematica Policy Research Inc.  

The concept makes great sense. Move people out of nursing homes, where most don’t want to live and where the costs to Medicaid are extremely high, and help them get back to their homes or other community residences. Unfortunately, states have struggled to turn this concept into reality.     

Most troubling for the frail elderly, it turns out that while three out of every four people eligible for the program are age 65 or older, only one-quarter of participants are seniors. Money Follows the Person has been far more successful for younger adults with physical and developmental disabilities than for the frail elderly. 

Mathematica identified several reasons why so few frail elders participate. The biggest may be that they have no home to return to. In the original design, MFP participants had to have been nursing home residents for at least six months. Because many elderly people sold their homes or given up their apartments when they moved into a nursing facility, it was not possible for them to return to their communities. In addition, in many states participants were not allowed to move into assisted living facilities.

Just as troubling, many states don’t have enough subsidized rental housing or funding for necessary home and community based services, such as personal aides or transportation. Unfortunately, the growing wave of state budget cuts is likely to make that problem even worse.  

Still, there is some good news. The 2010 health reform law (the Affordable Care Act) allows people to use the program after only 90 days in a nursing facility, instead of six months. That will make another 112,000 people eligible to participate. The health law also promised an additional $1.75 billion in funding, gives states new flexibility in providing community-based services, and continued MFP experiment until 2014.

Long-term care experts and top government officials have had high hopes for Money Follows the Person. They see it as key to helping both the frail elderly and younger people with disabilities receive the supports and services they need at home and not in nursing facilities. But as the Mathematica study suggests, MFP has so far fallen far short of those expectations.