Compassionate, informed advice about healthcare decision making

published by Hank Dunn - July 6th, 2011
Hospice Care Too Long?

Is hospice care costing our nation too much because some providers are caring for patients who are not terminally ill?

That is the question addressed in research conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the New York Times and published in the June 28,, 2011 edition of the Times. Hospice programs are reimbursed by Medicare a set amount each day they care for a patient. The amount depends on services required for the average patient with a particular terminal condition. For a patient to qualify for hospice care a physician has to certify that, in all likelihood, the patient will probably die in six months or less. If the patient is still alive after six months then the physician can recertify that six-month or less prognosis.

People staying too long in hospice care? The average length of stay in hospice care from admission until death is 17 days. That means when you add the number of total days Medicare pays for and divide by the number of patients receiving hospice care the average is 17 days. Whether or not hospice providers are taking advantage of the system by seeking out patients who will likely live longer is a question beyond my expertise.

Seventeen days is not a long time

My interest in this study is what is implied about the other end of this equation. With the average stay in hospice of 17 days and if some patients are inappropriate because they are likely to live beyond the six-month prognosis, then there are a heck of a lot patients who are “too-short-stay.” Seventeen days is not a long time when the original intent of the hospice Medicare benefit was to provide quality end-of-life care in the last six months of life.

The short-stay patients (one to three days, for example) are the hardest to give the highest quality care. These patients obviously have very advanced diseases and either the patient, family, or physician waited until the last minute to opt for hospice care. So you have a patient and family with the greatest need and only a day or two for the hospice to provide for their needs.

Turns out, it actually is very expensive for a hospice to get all the services in place. Without going into the details too much, a lot of staff time is needed to admit a new hospice patient such as setting up medical equipment in the home, buying medications, completing paperwork, and other administrative costs. But the hospice is reimbursed at the daily rate that is much less than what they actually have to spend. They lose money on these short-stay patients. They are glad to provide this service and can do it because they know other patients will be in the program longer and thus they can recover some of those costs.

These late-referrals have great physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.

These late-referral patients and their families have great physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Dying three days after admission means, most likely, they just accepted the terminal condition of the patient. Perhaps they were in denial and hoping for a cure. Their hopes have been dashed and the patient is in the most frail condition. They look to hospice to “make it better.” Not provide a cure, but to make the death as peaceful and pain-free as possible.

My experience, which makes this purely anecdotal, is that occasionally hospices are unable to provide the quality care just because of the press of time. Perhaps, they couldn’t get the pain under control immediately or emotional and spiritual needs were left unmet. So, at times, you have an angry family because their and the patient’s needs were not met. From the hospice program’s viewpoint it was impossible to provide for these needs on such short notice. And the hospice makes the least amount of money from these patients. I have a theorem for this situation. It goes like this:

“The amount of anger and hostility of a family directed toward hospice is inversely proportional to the amount of financial reimbursement the hospice receives.”

Yes, perhaps some patients are staying in hospice care too long. I will leave that for others to sort out. But I know far too many are not in hospice care long enough. I am not sure how we get individual patients and families to seek hospice care sooner. Generally, our health care system focuses on cure (most often appropriately) rather than comfort and quality of life.

My wish would be that people would make that switch sooner from cure to comfort care only.

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