When Congress first introduced a hospice benefit into the Medicare program in 1982, it did so out of the recognition that patients who are very near the end of life need special treatment. Conventional medical care doesn’t work well for them; another type of care, focused intensively on symptom management and delivered principally in the home, tends to be far more beneficial. The problem—aside from the psychological issue of both patients' and doctors’ reluctance to acknowledge the imminence of the end of life—was how to pay for this kind of labor-intensive care. The legislation, introduced on a trial basis at first and then on a permanent basis in 1986, instituted an approach to payment that offered patients a trade: either Medicare paid for what was assumed to be life-prolonging care (for example, hospitalization and chemotherapy) or Medicare paid for what was assumed to be exclusively comfort-oriented care (for example, home nursing and medications such as morphine). The nice clean boundaries between life-prolongation and comfort-maximization turned out to be rather fuzzy: sometimes palliative care prolongs life more than does aggressive, high-tech medicine and sometimes the treatments that are thought of as life-prolonging, such as radiation therapy, are the best way to maximize comfort. But leaving aside the issue of whether we should decide what counts as life-prolonging on a case-by-case basis rather than by category (ie viewing all chemotherapy as life-prolonging), the fundamental principle remains—health insurance benefit packages necessarily involve both inclusions and exclusions.
The trouble with the structure of Medicare is that it provides well for the extremes, for people who are very vigorous or who are imminently dying, but it doesn’t provide well for those who are in between. To be fair, Medicare has evolved over the past ten years and pays far more attention than previously to people with chronic diseases and increasingly greater attention to people with multiple chronic diseases. It has introduced disease management programs, typically involving nurses who help patients adjust their own medications for diseases such as diabetes or heart failure. But patients who are frail or who have moderate to severe dementia benefit from many of the same intensive home care services as dying patients. They also often want to avail themselves of many of the same kinds of high-tech care as robust older patients. Medicare rightly balks at the prospect of paying for everything—it’s just too expensive. So what people with frailty and advancing dementia need is their own special Medicare benefit that is midway between conventional Medicare and the hospice benefit. They need what I call intermediate care; the way to pay for intermediate care is through a new benefit tier.
The comprehensive package—sandwiched between the intensive package and the palliative package—would be modeled on the Program of All-Inclusive Care for Elders (PACE), a very successful program in which only a very small number of patients have enrolled, providing integrated, multidisciplinary care outside the hospital or nursing home. Unlike PACE, it would not focus on the adult day health center (many older people don’t want to go to “daycare,” where lots of the PACE services are delivered) and it would not require that patients change physicians (an impediment to joining PACE as currently conceived). In exchange for the enhanced home services, the intermediate care benefit package would exclude a variety of high tech, high expense medical care that is seldom useful for frail or very demented patients. It would not cover ICU care. It would not cover surgery for devices such as the Left Ventricular Assist Device, a kind of partial artificial heart. It would exclude dialysis, which doesn’t prolong life in frail elders. What the intermediate care benefit would provide is a coordinated, integrated approach to care, with plans in place for what to do in the most likely scenarios for a given patient—what to do when the patient with advanced heart failure develops pulmonary edema, when the patient with advanced emphysema develops pneumonia, or when the patient with moderately severe dementia develops a fever. These plans would involve intensive home treatment or transfer to a skilled nursing facility, but not the current approach of emergency room—hospital—rehab—home. It would look similar to another variant of Medicare than has been proposed, called MediCaring.
Medicare is a great program but it needs substantial modification to truly benefit all those it is intended to serve: the robust, the frail and the demented, and the dying. Just as we don’t expect one antibiotic to treat all infections or a single chemotherapeutic agent to treat all types of cancer, we cannot expect one benefit package to make sense for all older patients. Offering three distinct packages, an intensive package, a comprehensive package, and a palliative package, as I argued in my book The Denial of Aging, would go a long way to making Medicare work for everyone.