Despite the growing number of Americans seeking end of life care, the number of short stays in hospice is troublesome, and a sign that caregivers and the hospice industry see as a major lack of awareness about a key service for the dying.
A new report from the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) shows that more than one in three hospice patients (35.5 percent) died or were discharged within seven days of admission last year. That rate was largely the same as in 2011.
NHPCO’s analysis comes as usage of hospice, however, is on the rise. More than 1.5 million patients with a “life-limiting illness” were admitted to hospice last year, at a time of greater need- with an aging population of baby boomers eligible for the Medicare health insurance program for the elderly.
“Many physicians and hospitals don’t refer those patients until the end. Some don’t refer because it interrupts their own reimbursement or the physician’s.”
“There’s an awareness problem,” said Donald Schumacher, president and chief executive officer of National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) in an interview with Life Matters Media. “People are always struggling when it is going to be the end of life.”
Hospice is generally care provided in a patient’s home, but can also be provided in a center, hospital, nursing home or other long-term care facility for people facing illness near the end of life. The number of hospice patients served has risen more than 25 percent over the last five years from 1.25 million in 2008, according to NHPCO figures published in the organization’s 2013 annual publication “Facts and Figures: Hospice Care in America”
Caregivers say the industry needs to do a better job at outreach and education to medical professionals and the public at large, particularly given the benefit is adequately funded by the Medicare health insurance program for the elderly and disabled, which offers access to hospice to potentially millions of Americans.
Schumacher said there can be many reasons for the lack of service and related knowledge about a benefit designed for patients with a prognosis of six months or less, assuming their disease follows its normal progression. Patients can remain in hospice if they live longer, pending a physician’s analysis for continued eligibility, hospice providers say.
“Many physicians and hospitals don’t refer those patients until the end,” Schumacher said. “Some don’t refer because it interrupts their own reimbursement or the physician’s.”
Though the number of patients with short lengths of service is a concern, the average length of service, or length of stay, continues to rise. In 2012, the average length of service was 71.8 days compared to 69.1 days in 2011.
“As hospice and palliative care professionals, we need to continue reaching out to patients and family caregivers to help them understand all the benefits that hospice care brings,” Schumacher said in a statement NHPCO released to accompany its report. “And as part of our ongoing engagement efforts, we must continue our efforts to reach communities that are under-utilizing hospice care.”
To improve awareness about hospice and the services it provides, NHPCO is launching a first-ever national campaign. Though NHPCO executives are not ready to disclose details, they did confirm the campaign will be a “multi-million-dollar” effort launching in January.
Certainly, hospice facilities have a financial interest in making patients and their families aware of this benefit.
But meanwhile in Washington, the sequester has already slashed Medicare and other government spending on an array of programs – including hospice – and providers don’t want to give Congress another reason to reduce spending on a service studies show is needed. This year, hospice had Medicare reimbursement of nearly $160 per day reduced to $156, a payment that covers professional staffing such as nurses, therapists and social workers.
Still, Schumacher said Congress is supportive of the hospice benefit and said it fits the push by the Affordable Care Act and government health insurance programs to keep patients in high quality, low cost settings rather than in more expensive inpatient hospital settings.
“There is Medicare funding for hospice,” Schumacher said.
“We are a huge savings,” he said of hospice care. “Hospice saves on average about $2,300 in comparison to other patients who are admitted for similar illness” to other facilities like hospitals.
The Medicare hospice benefit is the primary source of coverage for hospice care. In 2012, 83.7 percent of hospice patients were covered by Medicare, the NHPCO study showed.
Schumacher said hospice programs are becoming more integrated in newer healthcare delivery models designed to help save Medicare dollars, while at the same time improving quality such as accountable care organizations (ACOs) that have contracts with Medicare to coordinate treatment in hopes of improving outcomes while lowering the cost of medical care.
This fall in Detroit, for example, Hospice of Michigan partnered with Genesys Physician Hospital Organization’s ACO.
The ACO model differs from the predominant fee-for-service medicine in which medical providers are paid for each service for each patient in a system. Fee-for-service medicine can lead to potentially excessive treatment. When it comes to end of life care, patients are known to get a lot of care, but it is often not coordinated.
Genesys Physician Hospital Organization’s ACO was one of the original 32 so-called “pioneer ACOs” that were launched by Medicare’s administrator, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
“By offering additional support early on to those suffering from serious illness, we are able to better manage symptoms and relieve pain,” Dottie Deremo, president and chief executive officer of Hospice of Michigan, said in a statement announcing the new partnership. “This type of care provides the patient with comfort, helps relieve stress and anxiety and extends the patient’s quality of life.”
Bruce Japsen is an independent journalist and contributing health care columnist to Forbes and author of the new book, “Inside Obamacare: The Fix For America’s Ailing Health Care System.” He is a regular analyst to Fox News Channel’s Forbes on Fox show, CBS-owned WBBM Newsradio 780 and 105.9 FM as well as WTTW’s Chicago Tonight public affairs program.
He has covered the rise, fall and rise again of health reform, chronicling national trends as well as the influence of Barack and Michelle Obama from Chicago's South Side on changes to the U.S. health system from his Chicago base.