Hospice enrollment policies contribute to the underuse of hospice care in the U.S., according to new findings published in the journal Health Affairs. Findings from the first national survey on hospice enrollment policies found 78 percent had at least one policy restricting care access for high-cost patients.
Although almost all Americans live within close proximity to a hospice, more than half of patients eligible for the care die without it. There are more than 3,500 hospice providers in the U.S.
Some 600 hospices were studied, and according to researchers, “patients with potentially high-cost medical care needs, such as chemotherapy or total parenteral nutrition,” had a greater likelihood of facing the restrictions. Limited enrollment policies were identified in both for-profit and nonprofit hospices. These restrictive policies include not receiving chemotherapy, total parenteral nutrition, blood transfusions, an intrathecal catheter, radiation therapy, tube feedings or requiring a primary caregiver at home.
“It represents a barrier to people who want hospice care but can’t receive it,” said lead author Melissa Aldridge Carlson, a palliative care researcher at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
The aim of hospice care is to manage the pain and symptoms of the terminally ill so that their last days are spent with dignity. The care is not intended to treat the disease. Hospice is most often used when curative treatment is no longer effective, and a terminal patient is expected to live about six months or less. Medicare states that to elect the Medicare hospice benefit, an individual “waives the right to receive all other Medicare covered services for the terminal illness and related conditions.”
Hospices may restrict access because of current Medicare reimbursements, which account for more than 80 percent of hospice revenue. The reimbursements do not cover treatments related to a patient’s terminal illness, so a hospice must pay for it. As Carlson points out, the average per diem reimbursement is only $140 per day.
The researchers explain, “many patients with terminal illnesses can benefit from using oral chemotherapy for palliative rather than curative purposes; radiation; or blood transfusions for treatment- or disease-related low blood cell counts.” Any one of these treatments can cost more than $10,000 a month.
Open access policies allow enrollment of those who are not yet eligible for the Medicare hospice benefit, anticipating that they will remain with the hospice when they do become eligible. Patients receive the medical comfort and social support available through hospice while simultaneously retaining access to medical treatments for their disease. Such patients may be covered by private insurance plans or pay for the care out of pocket. However, initial reports indicate that the cost of caring for patients enrolled through open access policies is generally absorbed by the hospice provider.
The authors conclude that increasing the hospice per diem rate for patients who require complex palliative treatments and removing the Medicare hospice benefit limitation on concurrent care may enable more hospices to expand their enrollment to patients who need and want it. Providing hospice services in a cost effective manner for those whose treatment plans include concurrent life-extending and palliative care is the subject of the a pilot project funded by section 3131 of the Affordable Care Act, although results for this pilot project are years from completion.
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