Hospice is widely touted as the best form of care near the end of life. As a result, the proportion of people who are enrolled in hospice at the time of death has been steadily increasing. Nearly half of all Medicare patients are receiving hospice care at the time of death. But a new report suggests that the quality of care they receive may not be what it should be. Moreover, a chunk of the $16.7 billion that Medicare spends on hospice (that was in 2016; it's more today) goes towards care that is unnecessary or not provided at all. What exactly is the problem? How widespread is it and how can patients and families identify hospices that provide high quality care?
While substandard care and fraudulent billing are distributed throughout the country, these practices occur disproportionately in the 64 percent of hospices that are for-profit. The bad behavior predominantly involves two specific variants of hospice care: general inpatient hospice care and hospice services that are provided within institutions, whether skilled nursing facilities or assisted living facilities. General inpatient care is an intensive form of care offered when symptom control cannot be achieved elsewhere (ie at home], so the patient is transferred to a hospital or skilled nursing facility. For this type of care, Medicare pays a per diem rate of $720, compared to $187 for home hospice (actually this is the rate for days 1-60, after that, the rate drops to $147 per day). The kinds of abuses that have been reported are indeed disturbing: the report gives several examples.
However, General Inpatient Care accounts for only 1.5 percent of all the days that patients were enrolled in hospice.
Other cases of allegedly inappropriate billing take place in Skilled Nursing Facilities (SNF) or in Assisted Living Facilities (ALF). Some instances were unequivocally fraudulent, as when hospices paid facilities to enroll patients in hospice, sometimes without the knowledge of patients or their families. But again, it’s important to keep this in perspective. A minority of hospice patients are cared for in these environments: 25 percent of hospice beneficiaries during the period the study examined (2006-2016) lived in a SNF and only 13 percent in an ALF.
Several of the criticisms leveled by the report are of questionable significance. The study says that many hospices fail to develop the mandatory “comprehensive care plan,” a document that spells out what services the patient needs and how they will be provided. This failing was especially egregious in the inpatient setting, where in 85 percent of cases, no such plan was documented. But the absence of a written plan doesn’t mean there was no plan or that inadequate care was provided. It means just what it says—the hospice did not create the requisite piece of paper. Maybe, just maybe, they thought it was a waste of time, a meaningless bureaucratic requirement.
Hospice care is also criticized for failing to provide physician visits. Actually, hospice does provide one physician visit. A face to face visit with a physician at the time of admission to hospice has been mandatory since 2011, so hospice patients do see a physician at least once during their hospice stay, which in many cases is short: over half of all hospice patients are enrolled for less than 30 days, and over one-fourth are enrolled for a week or less. Many hospice patients and their families would like more involvement of the medical profession, particularly their primary care physician or the relevant specialist, but that’s different from suggesting that the quality of care was poor because there were no medical visits at all.
Skilled nursing facilities are accused of double dipping, of billing Medicare for services that they already routinely provide as part of their usual care. This has been a worry since Medicare agreed to cover hospice care in a SNF. Care by nurses and nurses’ aides are a normal component of nursing home care. But that doesn’t mean that the services offered by hospice are redundant; on the contrary, the reason that hospice can be beneficial in the SNF environment is precisely because the usual nurses may not be skilled in pain management and the amount of aide time may be totally inadequate for a dying patient.
Lastly, the report argues that the payment system incentivizes hospices to minimize services and to cherry pick patients, selecting low-need, long-stay patients, such as those with advanced dementia, rather than high-need, short-stay patients, such as those imminently dying of cancer. We’ve known about this phenomenon for some time. In fact, CMS responded by modifying its payment system to pay more for the first few days of care and for the last few days of care and less for the in-between days. The practice of complementing high-cost patients with low-cost patients is only a problem if the low-cost patients don’t deserve to be enrolled in hospice at all. If they do, and there’s every reason to think they do, then it’s simply a good business strategy. Hospitals do the same thing when they add services for which they are generally reimbursed well to compensate for the services for which they are poorly reimbursed. The alternative would be to abandon the per diem payment system and go to fee-for-service. But that’s the model that is gradually fading away from the rest of the medical system because it promotes the use of volume rather than quality.
What should we conclude about hospice care in America? How should prospective patients respond to this report and how should Medicare respond?
Patients and their families would do well to consult Hospice Compare, the CMS website, for basic information about quality. This tool relies principally on patient and family satisfaction surveys rather than objective measures, but it’s very revealing. Rather than add more measures, which is what the authors of the report propose, I think the tool should be publicized: I was familiar with Hospital Compare and Nursing Home Compare, but I confess I did not know about Hospice Compare until recently--and the site was launched in August, 2017.
If families have a choice between a not-for-profit hospice and a for-profit hospice, they may find it prudent to select the not-for-profit option. On average, not-for-profit facilities are associated with higher quality care.
As to steps that Medicare should take, increased across the board regulation, which is what the report advocates, seems unduly burdensome. Far wiser would be to target enhanced supervision and regulation to those areas that need it most, namely skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities. Stiffer penalties for malfeasance would also be wise. As with banking fraud, it’s not enough to slap the owner or executive director on the wrist. Jail time is a much more powerful disincentive to bad behavior. And the bad behavior we’re talking about here is neglecting people who are dying and in pain.