Medicare Takes Aim At Boomerang Hospitalizations Of Nursing Home Patients

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/06/13/619259541/medicare-takes-aim-at-boomerang-hospitalizations-of-nursing-home-patients

“Oh my God, we dropped her!” Sandra Snipes said she heard the nursing home aides yell as she fell to the floor.

She landed on her right side where her hip had recently been replaced. She cried out in pain.

A hospital clinician later discovered her hip was dislocated.

That was not the only injury Snipes, then 61, said she suffered in 2011 at Richmond Pines Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center in Hamlet, N.C. Nurses allegedly had been injecting her twice a day with a potent blood thinner despite written instructions to stop.

“She said, ‘I just feel so tired,’ ” her daughter, Laura Clark, said in an interview. “The nurses were saying she’s depressed and wasn’t doing her exercises. I said no, something is wrong.”

Her children also discovered Snipes’ surgical wound had become infected and infested with insects. Just 11 days after she arrived at the nursing home to heal from her hip surgery, she was back in the hospital.

The fall and these other alleged lapses in care led Clark and the family to file a lawsuit against the nursing home. Richmond Pines declined to discuss the case beyond saying it disputed the allegations at the time. The home agreed in 2017 to pay Snipes’ family $1.4 million to settle their lawsuit.

While the confluence of complications in Snipes’ case was extreme, return trips from nursing homes to hospitals are far from unusual.

With hospitals pushing patients out the door earlier, nursing homes are deluged with increasingly frail patients. But many homes, with their sometimes-skeletal medical staffing, often fail to handle post-hospital complications — or create new problems by not heeding or receiving accurate hospital and physician instructions.

Patients, caught in the middle, may suffer. One in 5 Medicare patients sent from the hospital to a nursing home boomerangs back within 30 days, often for potentially preventable conditions such as dehydration, infections and medication errors, federal records show. Such rehospitalizations occur 27 percent more frequently than for the Medicare population at large.

Nursing homes have been unintentionally rewarded by decades of colliding government payment policies, which gave both hospitals and nursing homes financial incentives for the transfers. That has left the most vulnerable patients often ping-ponging between institutions, wreaking havoc with patients’ care.

“There’s this saying in nursing homes, and it’s really unfortunate: ‘When in doubt, ship them out,’ ” said David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. “It’s a short-run, cost-minimizing strategy, but it ends up costing the system and the individual a lot more.”

In recent years, the government has begun to tackle the problem. In 2013, Medicare began fining hospitals for high readmission rates in an attempt to curtail premature discharges and to encourage hospitals to refer patients to nursing homes with good track records.

Starting this October, the government will address the other side of the equation, giving nursing homes bonuses or assessing penalties based on their Medicare rehospitalization rates. The goal is to accelerate early signs of progress: The rate of potentially avoidable readmissions dropped to 10.8 percent in 2016 from 12.4 percent in 2011, according to Congress’ Medicare Payment Advisory Commission.

“We’re better, but not well,” Grabowski said. “There’s still a high rate of inappropriate readmissions.”

The revolving door is an unintended byproduct of long-standing payment policies. Medicare pays hospitals a set rate to care for a patient depending on the average time it takes to treat a typical patient with a given diagnosis. That means that hospitals effectively profit by earlier discharge and lose money by keeping patients longer, even though an elderly patient may require a few extra days.

But nursing homes have their own incentives to hospitalize patients. For one thing, keeping patients out of hospitals requires frequent examinations and speedy laboratory tests — all of which add costs to nursing homes.

Plus, most nursing home residents are covered by Medicaid, the state-federal program for the poor that is usually the lowest-paying form of insurance. If a nursing home sends a Medicaid resident to the hospital, she usually returns with up to 100 days covered by Medicare, which pays more. On top of all that, in some states, Medicaid pays a “bed-hold” fee when a patient is hospitalized.

None of this is good for the patients. Nursing home residents often return from the hospital more confused or with a new infection, said Dr. David Gifford, a senior vice president of quality and regulatory affairs at the American Health Care Association, a nursing home trade group.

“And they never quite get back to normal,” he said.

‘She Looked Like A Wet Washcloth’

Communication lapses between physicians and nursing homes is one recurring cause of rehospitalizations. Elaine Essa had been taking thyroid medication ever since that gland was removed when she was a teenager. Essa, 82, was living at a nursing home in Lancaster, Calif., in 2013 when a bout of pneumonia sent her to the hospital.

When she returned to the nursing home — now named Wellsprings Post-Acute Care Center — her doctor omitted a crucial instruction from her admission order: to resume the thyroid medication, according to a lawsuit filed by her family. The nursing home telephoned Essa’s doctor to order the medication, but he never called them back, the suit said.

Without the medication, Essa’s appetite diminished, her weight increased and her energy vanished — all indications of a thyroid imbalance, said the family’s attorney, Ben Yeroushalmi, discussing the lawsuit. Her doctors from Garrison Family Medical Group never visited her, sending instead their nurse practitioner. He, like the nursing home employees, did not grasp the cause of her decline, although her thyroid condition was prominently noted in her medical records, the lawsuit said.

Three months after her return from the hospital, “she looked like a wet washcloth. She had no color in her face,” said Donna Jo Duncan, a daughter, in a deposition. Duncan said she demanded the home’s nurses check her mother’s blood pressure. When they did, a supervisor ran over and said, “Call an ambulance right away,” Duncan said in the deposition.

At the hospital, a physician said tests showed “zero” thyroid hormone levels, Deborah Ann Favorite, a daughter, recalled in an interview. She testified in her deposition that the doctor told her, “I can’t believe that this woman is still alive.”

Essa died the next month. The nursing home and the medical practice settled the case for confidential amounts. Cynthia Schein, an attorney for the home, declined to discuss the case beyond saying it was “settled to everyone’s satisfaction.” The suit is still ongoing against one other doctor, who did not respond to requests for comment.

Dangers In Discouraging Hospitalization

Out of the nation’s 15,630 nursing homes, one-fifth send 25 percent or more of their patients back to the hospital, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis of data on Medicare’s Nursing Home Compare website. On the other end of the spectrum, the fifth of homes with the lowest readmission rates return fewer than 17 percent of residents to the hospital.

Many health policy experts say that spread shows how much improvement is possible. But patient advocates fear the campaign against hospitalizing nursing home patients may backfire, especially when Medicare begins linking readmission rates to its payments.

“We’re always worried the bad nursing homes are going to get the message ‘Don’t send anyone to the hospital,’ ” said Tony Chicotel, a staff attorney at California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, a nonprofit based in San Francisco.

Richmond Pines, where Sandra Snipes stayed, has a higher than average rehospitalization rate of 25 percent, according to federal records. But the family’s lawyer, Kyle Nutt, said the lawsuit claimed the nurses initially resisted sending Snipes back, insisting she was “just drowsy.”

After Snipes was rehospitalized, her blood thinner was discontinued, her hip was reset, and she was discharged to a different nursing home, according to the family’s lawsuit. But her hospital trips were not over: When she showed signs of recurrent infection, the second home sent her to yet another hospital, the lawsuit alleged.

Ultimately, the lawsuit claimed that doctors removed her prosthetic hip and more than a liter of infected blood clots and tissues. Nutt said if Richmond Pines’ nurses had “caught the over-administration of the blood thinner right off the bat, we don’t think any of this would have happened.”

Snipes returned home but was never able to walk again, according to the lawsuit. Her husband, William, cared for her until she died in 2015, her daughter, Clark, said.

“She didn’t want to go back into the nursing home,” Clark said. “She was terrified.”

 

 

 

U.S. Pays Billions for ‘Assisted Living,’ but What Does It Get?

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WASHINGTON — Federal investigators say they have found huge gaps in the regulation of assisted living facilities, a shortfall that they say has potentially jeopardized the care of hundreds of thousands of people served by the booming industry.

The federal government lacks even basic information about the quality of assisted living services provided to low-income people on Medicaid, the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, says in a report to be issued on Sunday.

Billions of dollars in government spending is flowing to the industry even as it operates under a patchwork of vague standards and limited supervision by federal and state authorities. States reported spending more than $10 billion a year in federal and state funds for assisted living services for more than 330,000 Medicaid beneficiaries, an average of more than $30,000 a person, the Government Accountability Office found in a survey of states.

States are supposed to keep track of cases involving the abuse, neglect, exploitation or unexplained death of Medicaid beneficiaries in assisted living facilities. But, the report said, more than half of the states were unable to provide information on the number or nature of such cases.

Just 22 states were able to provide data on “critical incidents — cases of potential or actual harm.” In one year, those states reported a total of more than 22,900 incidents, including the physical, emotional or sexual abuse of residents.

Many of those people are “particularly vulnerable,” the report said, like older adults and people with physical or intellectual disabilities. More than a third of residents are believed to have Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

The report provides the most detailed look to date at the role of assisted living in Medicaid, one of the nation’s largest health care programs. Titled “Improved Federal Oversight of Beneficiary Health and Welfare Is Needed,” it grew out of a two-year study requested by a bipartisan group of four senators.

Assisted living communities are intended to be a bridge between living at home and living in a nursing home. Residents can live in apartments or houses, with a high degree of independence, but can still receive help managing their medications and performing daily activities like bathing, dressing and eating.

Nothing in the report disputes the fact that some assisted living facilities provide high-quality, compassionate care.

The National Center for Assisted Living, a trade group for providers, said states already had “a robust oversight system” to ensure proper care for residents. In the last two years, it said, several states, including California, Oregon, Rhode Island and Virginia, have adopted laws to enhance licensing requirements and penalties for poor performance.

But the new report casts a harsh light on federal oversight, concluding that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has provided “unclear guidance” to states and done little to monitor their use of federal money for assisted living.

As a result, it said, the federal health care agency “cannot ensure states are meeting their commitments to protect the health and welfare of Medicaid beneficiaries receiving assisted living services, potentially jeopardizing their care.”

Congress has not established standards for assisted living facilities comparable to those for nursing homes. In 1987, Congress adopted a law that strengthened the protection of nursing home residents’ rights, imposed dozens of new requirements on homes and specified the services they must provide.

But assisted living facilities have largely escaped such scrutiny even though the Government Accountability Office says the demand for their services is likely to increase because of the aging of the population and increased life expectancy.

That potential has attracted investors. “Don’t miss out on the largest market growth in a generation!” says the website of an Arizona company, which adds that “residential assisted living is the explosive investment opportunity for the next 25 years.”

Carolyn Matthews, a spokeswoman for the company, the Residential Assisted Living Academy, said: “Unfortunately, there has been elderly abuse in this business. We are trying to change the industry so the elderly have better quality care and we are not warehousing them.”

The government report was requested by Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican who is the chairwoman of the Special Committee on Aging; Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, a Republican who is the chairman of the Finance Committee; and two Democratic senators, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

The Trump administration agreed with the auditors’ recommendation that federal officials should clarify the requirement for states to report on the abuse or neglect of people in assisted living facilities. The administration said it was studying whether additional reporting requirements might be needed.

“Although the federal government has comprehensive information on nursing homes providing Medicaid services, not much is known about Medicaid beneficiaries in assisted living facilities,” the report said.

Assisted living was not part of the original Medicaid program, but many states now cover it under waivers intended to encourage “home and community-based services” as an alternative to nursing homes and other institutions.

The report said that assisted living could potentially save money for Medicaid because it generally cost less than nursing home care. Under the most common type of waiver, Medicaid covers assisted living only for people who would be eligible for “an institutional level of care,” in a nursing home or hospital.

 

 

Infection Lapses Rampant In Nursing Homes But Punishment Is Rare

Infection Lapses Rampant In Nursing Homes But Punishment Is Rare

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A Kaiser Health News analysis of federal inspection records shows that nursing home inspectors labeled mistakes in infection control as serious for only 161 of the 12,056 homes they have cited since 2014.

Basic steps to prevent infections — such as washing hands, isolating contagious patients and keeping ill nurses and aides from coming to work — are routinely ignored in the nation’s nursing homes, endangering residents and spreading hazardous germs.

A Kaiser Health News analysis of four years of federal inspection records shows 74 percent of nursing homes have been cited for lapses in infection control — more than for any other type of health violation. In California, health inspectors have cited all but 133 of the state’s 1,251 homes.

Although repeat citations are common, disciplinary action such as fines is rare: Nationwide, only one of 75 homes found deficient in those four years has received a high-level citation that can result in a financial penalty, the analysis found.

“The facilities are getting the message that they don’t have to do anything,” said Michael Connors of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, a nonprofit in San Francisco. “They’re giving them low-level warnings year after year after year and the facilities have learned to ignore them.”

Infections, many avoidable, cause a quarter of the medical injuries Medicare beneficiaries experience in nursing homes, according to a federal report. They are among the most frequent reasons residents are sent back to the hospital. By one government estimate, health care-associated infections may result in as many as 380,000 deaths each year.

The spread of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and other antibiotic-resistant germs has become a major public health issue. While Medicare has begun penalizing hospitals for high rates of certain infections, there has been no similar crackdown on nursing homes.

As average hospital stays have shortened from 7.3 days in 1980 to 4.5 days in 2012, patients who a generation ago would have fully recuperated in hospitals now frequently conclude their recoveries in nursing homes. Weaker and thus more susceptible to infections, some need ventilators to help them breathe and have surgical wounds that are still healing, two conditions in which infections are more likely.

“You’ve got this influx of vulnerable patients but the staffing models are still geared more to the traditional long-stay resident,” said Dr. Nimalie Stone, the CDC’s medical epidemiologist for long-term care. “The kind of care is so much more complicated that facilities need to consider higher staffing.”

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which oversees inspections, has recognized that many nursing homes need to do more to combat contagious bugs. CMS last year required long-term care facilities to put in place better systems to prevent infections, detect outbreaks early on and limit unnecessary use of antibiotics through a stewardship program.

But the agency does not believe it has skimped on penalties. CMS said in a statement that most infection-control violations have not justified fines because they did not put residents in certain danger. For instance, if an inspector observed a nurse not washing his or her hands while caring for a resident, the agency said that would warrant a lower-level citation “unless there was an actual negative resident outcome, or there was likelihood of a serious resident outcome.”

 

Florida wipes inspections of troubled nursing homes from its website

http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/broward/article185211503.html?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Issue:%202017-11-20%20Healthcare%20Dive&utm_content=B&utm_term=Healthcare%20Dive

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On a good day, Olga Vasquez would dress up in the morning, apply makeup and stand in the hallway at her Hialeah Gardens nursing home, helping other residents get in and out of wheelchairs or offering unsolicited advice. On a bad day, her depression got the best of her and she would remain in bed in her nightgown.

May 31, 2012, was a very bad day.

Vasquez — who hadn’t seen a psychiatrist in weeks despite instructions to the contrary — hoisted herself out of the window of Room 310, and hurled herself to the concrete courtyard 39.4 feet below.

This is the type of thing you might want to know about before your mom, dad or spouse moves into a nursing home. And such documented events were readily available on the website of state health regulators.

They aren’t anymore — part of the latest erosion in what is supposed to be ready access to public records in Florida.

 A little under three months ago, the state scrubbed its website. No longer can you go online and view the 83-page report that found Vasquez’s death to be the result of misconduct and that determined other residents of Signature Healthcare of Waterford were in “immediate jeopardy.”

The document can still be obtained from the state Agency for Health Care Aministration, although you have to know what to ask for and whom to ask — and you may be required to pay and wait. Online, AHCA now refers consumers to a separate website managed by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, though that site does not include as much material as the state previously provided. AHCA does maintain spreadsheets online that rate homes on a host of criteria, and allow consumers to compare.

For many years, AHCA’s website included links to inspections of nursing homes, retirement homes and hospitals. They were available with a few keystrokes with very few redactions. The agency then began to heavily redact the reports — eliminating words such as “room” and “CPR” and “bruises” and “pain” — and rendering the inspections difficult to interpret for families trying to gauge whether a facility is suitable for a loved one. AHCA says the redactions were necessary to protect medical privacy, though patients were identified only by number. Vasquez was “Resident 239.”

Carmen Veroy’s 89-year-old parents, Libia and Gabriel Giraldo, survived the ordeal — but Veroy said she could not fathom the overheated conditions in the rehab center until her sister sent her a video of the hallway scene during a visit Tuesday night.

The Veroy Family

In the past year, the state spent $22,000 for redaction software that automatically blacks out words the agency says must be shielded from the public. Those same words were available on a federal website unredacted. Elder and open-government advocates said the newly censored detail did more to protect the homes than patients.

In September, 13 frail elders died miserable deaths at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in the sweltering aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which knocked out the home’s cooling system. The Miami Herald and other media wrote extensively about Hollywood Hills’ troubling regulatory history. And the Herald also reported on AHCA’s decision to heavily redact reports.

Soon after, with no announcement or notice, AHCA wiped its website clean of all nursing home inspections, shielding the industry to the detriment of consumers.

“I’m just stunned,” said Barbara A. Petersen, who is the president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, an open-government group. “Government serves the people. They are doing a disservice, and one with potentially grave consequences.”

Barbara Petersen

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee-based group that promotes open government, said the removal of online nursing home records makes it difficult for consumers to make informed choices.
Miami Herald file photo

In recent weeks, Petersen needed to find a nursing home for her 96-year-old father in Colorado. The assisted living facility where he lived had become inappropriate, and Petersen had only 48 hours to move him.

“If I was in that situation here, and I had to do that without the information that used to be online, I’d have to submit a public records request for it. And, as we know, it takes a long time for them to produce public records. Meanwhile, I’d be stuck with the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life without any information.”

“We put a tremendous amount of trust in these homes, and we need to make the best decisions for our families. Honestly, this makes no sense,” Petersen added.

A spokeswoman for the healthcare agency said both AHCA’s website and the federal site at Medicare.gov allow consumers to compare homes along a range of indicators, including quality of life, nutrition, dignity and abuse.

“AHCA goes above and beyond Florida law in the amount of information we make available online,” said spokeswoman Mallory McManus. “AHCA’s website www.FloridaHealthFinder.gov allows consumers to compare nursing homes by their inspection rating. Consumers can search by county, Zip code and even by services offered at every nursing home in Florida. This gives families more information to make informed healthcare decisions for their loved ones.”

“In fact,” McManus added, “in 2016 FloridaHealthFinder.gov won a Digital Government Achievement Award from the Center for Digital Government in the “Government-to-citizen State and Federal government” category, showing that Florida is a leader in getting information about healthcare facilities to consumers. FloridaHealthFinder.gov is an excellent tool for consumers, and a national leader in transparency.”

The award was given before the state removed nursing home inspections from AHCA’s site.

The Herald was unable to speak with administrators at the Hialeah Gardens home. Representatives from the corporate Signature HealthCARE did not return requests for comment. McManus said health regulators removed the “immediate jeopardy” label from the nursing home days after Vasquez’s death after administrators demonstrated they had improved the home’s safety. “Our Agency expected quick action to remove the potential risk to others. During a revisit on July 5 [2012], it was determined that the facility had implemented measures that removed the threat of serious risk to patients,” McManus said.

“Our Agency held this facility accountable, and all deficiencies were corrected,” McManus said.

The home’s plan of correction included a long list of actions administrators took to improve safety, including a comprehensive review of all residents’ medical records, new policies to ensure doctors’ orders are carried out, better monitoring of the symptoms of psychiatric patients, and an audit of records for all patients on mental health drugs to “ensure that they were seen by the psychiatrist as ordered.”

Though reports on Vasquez’s death are no longer available on AHCA’s website — or that of the federal Medicare program — a copy of the inspection obtained by the Herald is heavily redacted. The words “neglect” and “abuse,” for example, are removed from one of the report’s findings — and the definition of abuse from the Florida statutes is redacted.

A separate 50-page AHCA report on the same incident recites a portion of Florida law: “[Redacted] means any willful act or [redacted] act by a caregiver that causes or is likely to cause significant [redacted] to a [redacted] adult’s physical, [redacted] or emotional health. [Redacted] includes acts and omissions.” The portion is drawn directly from the state’s elder abuse law, a public record, and is the definition of abuse.

AHCA’s move is far from the only restriction in what records the public can see. The Herald wrote about an emergency management plan from the Hollywood Hills rehab center that was filed with — and approved by — Broward County, which included portions that were copied and pasted from a prior year, and failed to say how residents would be kept cool during a power outage. Broward and Palm Beach counties then refused to release any plans, though both had originally said they were public record. Miami-Dade released 54 plans, all heavily redacted.

Vasquez, who migrated to Florida from Cuba, first began to suffer from depression about a decade before her death, when her husband died, relatives told the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office. “Due to her depression, she was placed in” the nursing home, the report said. In addition to depression, Vasquez also was diagnosed with anxiety, chronic insomnia, heart disease and hypertension.

AHCA’s report on Vasquez’s death, dated June 14, 2012, said the 82-year-old former factory worker last saw her primary psychiatrist on March 1, 2012, for treatment of clinical depression. Staff at Signature never told him, the report said, that Vasquez’s condition had worsened.

Vasquez, the report said, “was very depressed at times.”

Vasquez’s primary doctor had ordered a psychiatric consultation around April 30, 2012. But a constellation of lapses led to the home’s failure to ensure Vasquez actually was treated. The psychiatrist Vasquez was to see left the nursing home, a report said, and the nurse who was trying to help Vasquez never was told who would fill in. Meanwhile, a psychiatrist who regularly saw patients on Vasquez’s floor reported “he never saw [her] and [she] was not on his caseload.”

Complicating matters: there was a 15-day gap in nursing notes in Vasquez’s chart, the report said, and the home’s administrator told an AHCA inspector he “had no idea” why no notes were made during those two weeks.

AHCA concluded: “There was no documentation to demonstrate the [psychiatric] consultation was completed, as ordered.”

Three days before Vasquez died, the report said, she “was observed to be sitting in the hallway or lying in bed; she was not wearing any makeup, and the resident told [a nurse] she did not feel like doing anything.” Vasquez needed help to fill out her menus.

A short report from the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner said that, on May 31, 2012, a maintenance worker noticed that the window in Vasquez’s room was open. The widow was found in the courtyard underneath her bedroom window, 14 feet from the building. The medical examiner’s office ruled Vasquez’s death a suicide.

Six months before Vasquez plunged from her window, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development faulted the home for failing to maintain the windows safely. Windows, HUD said, were secured only with screws, and a corrective action plan required Signature to install window locks within all residents’ rooms.

The AHCA report is unclear as to whether the windows in Vasquez’s room were fixed, though an unspecified relative told AHCA she had noticed the day before Vasquez died that “the window clamp was not in place.”

A Hialeah Gardens police report confirms some of AHCA’s account, noting Vasquez wasn’t breathing by the time she arrived at Palmetto General Hospital. A doctor pronounced her dead at 4 p.m.

Vasquez’s niece, Maria Salgado, who handled Vasquez’s affairs, told police she had been taking 10 medications for her depression, some of which are listed in the AHCA report, though the names and dosages are largely redacted.

Staff at the nursing home told Salgado that something happened to her aunt while she was walking in the garden — exactly what Salgado was told is redacted — according to the AHCA report.

Salgado, 53, called her aunt’s death and the ordeal that followed painful to talk about.

She felt very close to her aunt, she said.

“It was such a horrible time,” she said. With a long breath, she added, “I don’t want to relive it.”

OBTAINING AN INSPECTION REPORT

To request an inspection report for a Florida nursing home, use this form and submit it to this web address. Here are tips from the Agency for Health Care Administration.

Medicaid Has A Bull’s-Eye On Its Back, Which Means No One Is Entirely Safe

Medicaid Has A Bull’s-Eye On Its Back, Which Means No One Is Entirely Safe

Image result for Kaiser Health News: GOP Health Bill Changes Go Far Beyond Preexisting Conditions

 

When high levels of lead were discovered in the public water system in Flint, Mich., in 2015, Medicaid stepped in to help thousands of children get tested for poisoning and receive care.

When disabled children need to get to doctors’ appointments — either across town or hundreds of miles away — Medicaid pays for their transportation.

When middle-class older Americans deplete their savings to pay for costly nursing home care, Medicaid offers coverage.

The United States has become a Medicaid nation.

Although it started as a plan to cover only the poor, Medicaid now touches tens of millions of Americans who live above the poverty line. The program serves as a backstop for America’s scattershot health care system, and as Republicans learned this year in their relentless battle to replace the Affordable Care Act, efforts to drastically change that can spur a backlash.

The latest Republican proposal — by Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Bill Cassidy (La.) — is being pummeled by doctors, insurers, hospitals and patient advocates because it would scrap the health law’s Medicaid expansion and reduce federal funding for Medicaid. Senate leaders are trying to get a vote before Sept. 30, when special budget rules would allow the package to pass with only 50 votes.

Today, Medicaid is the nation’s largest health insurance program, covering 74 million, or more than 1 in 5 Americans. Over the next weeks, Kaiser Health News will explore the vast reach of the program. Twenty-five percent of Americans will be on Medicaid at some point in their lives — many are just a pink slip away from being eligible.

Medicaid funding protects families from having to sell a home or declare bankruptcy to pay for the care of a disabled child or elderly parent. It responds to cover disaster relief, public health emergencies and programs in schools that lack other sources of funding.

Millions of women who don’t qualify for full Medicaid benefits each year obtain family planning services paid for by Medicaid. These women have incomes as high as triple the federal poverty rate, or over $36,000 for an individual. And thousands of women, who otherwise don’t qualify for the program, get treated each year for breast and cervical cancers through Medicaid.

“Instead of cutting Medicaid, [lawmakers] increased public awareness of its value and made it even harder to cut in the future,” said Jonathan Oberlander, professor of health policy and management at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a supporter of the federal health law. The Medicaid cuts passed the House, but the ACA overhaul legislation fell short in the Senate in July.

Medicaid is the workhorse of the health system, covering:

  • 39 percent of all children.
  • Nearly half of all births in the country.
  • 60 percent of nursing home and other long-term care expenses.
  • More than one-quarter of all spending on mental health services and over a fifth of all spending on substance abuse treatment.

Unlike Medicare beneficiaries, who keep that insurance for life, most Medicaid enrollees churn in and out of the program every few years, depending on their circumstances.

Such numbers underline the importance of Medicaid, but also provoke alarm among conservatives and some economists who say the U.S. cannot afford the costs over the long run.

Bill Hammond, director of health policy of the fiscally conservative Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany, N.Y., said Medicaid has been a big help for those it was designed to cover — children and the disabled. But it has grown so big that the cost hurts state efforts to pay for other necessary public services, such as education and roads. “I can’t think of any other anti-poverty program that reaches so many people. … It’s too expensive a benefit.”

“We need to transition people to get coverage in the private sector,” he said, noting how millions on the program have incomes above the federal poverty level.

It May Be The Person Down The Block

Joana Weaver, 49, of Salisbury, Md., who has cerebral palsy, has been on and off Medicaid since birth. For the past few years, it’s paid for home nursing services for six hours a day to help her get dressed, bathed and fed. That’s kept her out of a nursing home and enabled her to teach English part time at a local community college.

“For me, Medicaid has meant having my independence,” Weaver said.

Like Weaver, many people getting Medicaid today are not easily typecast. They include grandmothers — one-quarter of Medicaid enrollees are elderly people or disabled adults.

Or the kid next door. About half of Medicaid enrollees are children, many with physical or mental disabilities.

Many of the rest — about 24 million enrollees — are adults under 65 without disabilities who earn too little to afford health insurance otherwise. About 60 percent of non-disabled adult enrollees have a job. Many of those who don’t work are caregivers.

“It’s the mechanic down the street, the woman waiting tables where you go for breakfast and people working at the grocery store,” said Sara Rosenbaum, a health policy expert at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

While all states rely on Medicaid, it’s used more in some places than others because of varying state eligibility rules and poverty rates. As of August, about 44 percent of New Mexico residents are insured by Medicaid. In West Virginia and California, the rate is nearly 1 in 3.

peak or walk. It also covers costs for his wheelchair, walker and home health care. (Nick Krug/Lawrence Journal-World)

Jane and Fred Fergus, in Lawrence, Kan., said Medicaid has been a cornerstone in their lives since their son, Franklin, was born eight years ago with a severe genetic disability that left him unable to speak or walk. He is blind and deaf on one side of his body.

Although the family has insurance through Fred’s job as a high school history teacher, Franklin was eligible for Medicaid through an optional program that states use to help families let their children be cared for at home, rather than moving to a hospital or nursing home. Medicaid pays all his medical bills, including monthly transportation costs to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where for the past 18 months he has been receiving an experimental chemotherapy drug to help shrink tumors blocking his airway, Jane Fergus said. It also covers his wheelchair, walker and daily nursing care at home.

“We have such great health care for him because of Medicaid,” his mother said.

Jane Fergus was never politically active until this year, when she feared that the GOP plans to cut Medicaid funding would reduce services for her son.

“If there is a silver lining in all this debate, it’s that we have been given a voice, and people in power are being educated on the role of Medicaid,” she said.

Moving Beyond Its Roots

Medicaid was born in a 1965 political deal to help bring more support for President Lyndon Johnson’s dream of Medicare, the national health insurance program for the elderly.

Over the past 40 years and in particular since the 1980s, Medicaid expanded beyond its roots as a welfare program. In 1987, Congress added coverage for pregnant women and children living in families with incomes nearly twice the federal poverty level (about $49,200 today for a family of four).

In 1997, Congress added the Children’s Health Insurance Program to help cover kids from families with incomes too high for Medicaid.

And since September 2013, Obamacare allowed states to expand the program to anyone earning under 138 percent of poverty (or $16,394 for an individual in 2016), adding 17 million people.

In addition, more than 11 million Medicare beneficiaries also receive Medicaid coverage, which helps them get long-term care and pay for Medicare premiums.

“Medicaid is plugging the holes in our health system,” said Joan Alker, executive director of the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families, “and our health system has a lot of holes.”

But that comes at a steep price. 

A Blessing And A Curse

With increasing enrollments and health costs steadily rising, the cost of Medicaid has soared. Federal and state governments spent about $575 billion combined last year, nearly triple the level of 2000.

Those dollars have become both a blessing and a curse for states.

The federal government matches state Medicaid spending, with Washington paying from half to 74 percent of a state’s costs in 2016. Poorer states get the higher shares.

The funding is provided on an open-ended basis, so the more states spend the more they receive from Washington. That guarantee protects states when they have sudden enrollment spikes because of downturns in the economy, health emergencies such as the opioid crisis or natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

The program is the largest source of federal funding to states. And Medicaid is often the biggest program in state budgets, after public education.

“Medicaid is the elephant in the room for health care,” said Jameson Taylor, vice president for policy for the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank. He said states have become dependent on the federal funding to help fill their state budget coffers. While the poorest states, such as Mississippi, get a higher percentage of federal Medicaid dollars, that still often isn’t enough to keep up with health care costs, he said.

Extensive Benefits

Medicaid provides significant financing for hospitals, community health centers, physicians, nursing homes and jobs in the health care sector.

But the revenue stream flows further. Billions in annual Medicaid spending goes to U.S. schools to pay for nurses; physical, occupational and speech therapists; and school-based screenings and treatment for children from low-income families, as well as wheelchairs and buses to transport kids with special needs.

Medicaid also often covers services that private health insurers and Medicare do not — such as non-emergency transportation to medical appointments, vision care and dental care. To help people with disabilities stay out of expensive nursing homes, Medicaid pays for renovations to their homes, such as wheelchair ramps, and personal care aides.

Rena Schrager, 42, of Jupiter, Fla., who has severe vision problems, has relied on Medicaid  for more than 20 years. Although she often has difficulty finding doctors who will accept Medicaid’s reimbursements — which are often lower than private insurance and Medicare — she is grateful for the coverage. “When you do not have anything else, you are glad to have anything,” Schraeger said.

As it’s grown, Medicaid has become more popular, another reason why politicians are cautious to curtail benefits or spending.

A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed three-fourths of the public, including majorities of Democrats (84 percent) and Republicans (61 percent), hold a favorable view of Medicaid. That’s nearly as high as Americans’ views on Medicare. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

But it may still have a bull’s-eye on its back.

“The fact that the House passed a bill to cut $800 billion from Medicaid and it came one vote short to passing the Senate shows Medicaid is stronger than maybe many Republican leaders anticipated,” said Oberlander. “But politically it is still in a precarious position.”

California’s Health Care Workforce

http://www.chcf.org/publications/2017/08/california-workforce

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California’s health care industry employed more than 1.4 million people in 2015. Five Almanac guides provide data on wages, education, and workplaces for selected health professions.

California’s health care industry employed more than 1.4 million people in 2015. Among these workers, nearly 55% were employed in ambulatory settings, about 25% in hospitals, and 20% in nursing or residential care facilities. An aging population, population growth, and federal health reform will likely contribute to increased demand.

This series of Quick Reference Guides from the CHCF California Health Care Almanac examines specific segments of the state’s health care workforce, focusing on pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, physician assistants, health diagnostic and treatment therapists, clinical laboratory scientists and technicians, and imaging professionals.

Among the trends:

  • California’s supply of pharmacists grew 17% between 2012 and 2015, while the supply of pharmacy technicians increased by 8%. About half of the state’s pharmacists were trained in California.
  • The number of physician assistants (PAs) in California grew 37% between 2012 and 2015. The Northern and Sierra region had more licensed PAs per capita than the rest of the state.
  • The supply of occupational and physical therapists increased between 2012 and 2015, while the supply of speech-language pathologists decreased slightly.
  • Between 2012 and 2015, California’s supply of clinical laboratory scientists remained stable while the number of medical/clinical lab technicians rose 11%.

The complete guides, as well as the 2014 editions, are available as Document Downloads.

Healthcare companies overbilling Medicare targeted by nonprofit whistleblowers group

http://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/healthcare-companies-overbilling-medicare-targeted-nonprofit-whistleblowers-group?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTlRJM01qYzNNekUzWkRNeCIsInQiOiJpNmdaaVhQY1hiamFJbVwvWFNjSGxPMXVYZ015RmRRUEVDVW9yaHRCNjhkRDBPamIxcTlhaGZvSUN2WTNoOTY4ZXhWZ0hxNVVmWFdWQTg0ejR2eDZCT0Z6UCtjVEw2UytxTGJYMUNiWnpnT0tiUUZzY0RWVjFmZW1cL1dFM2hLUzhGIn0%3D

The outreach was prompted by a Justice Department announcement in June that Genesis Healthcare would pay the federal government more than $53.6M.

The nonprofit Corporate Whistleblower Center is urging a medical doctor in any state to call them if they possess proof a healthcare company is substantially overbilling Medicare for hospice services for people who are not dying. The organization is also interested in hearing about skilled nursing or nursing homes facilities that are billing Medicare as if they are fully staffed when in fact they’re not.

The outreach was prompted by a Justice Department announcement in June that Genesis Healthcare would pay the federal government more than $53.6 million to settle lawsuits and investigations alleging that companies it acquired violated the False Claims Act — submitting false claims to government healthcare programs for medically unnecessary therapy and hospice services, and grossly substandard nursing care.

Allegedly the companies were also billing for hospice services for patients who weren’t terminally ill and were thus ineligible for the Medicare hospice benefit. The companies also allegedly billed inappropriately for certain physician evaluation management services.

Additionally, the settlement resolves allegations that Genesis and its affiliates violated certain essential requirements that nursing homes have to meet to participate in and receive reimbursements from government healthcare programs, and failed to provide sufficient nurse staffing to meet residents’ needs. The whistleblowers will receive a combined $9.67 million as their share of the recovery in this case.

The Corporate Whistleblower Center suspects that similar scenarios have the potential to occur in every state, whether it be a hospital admitting Medicare patients who should not have been admitted, a nursing home billing Medicare as if their Medicare patients are receiving the proper care when they’re not, or a hospice company signing up patients who are not dying.

The group advised potential whistleblowers not to approach the government first, or the news media. It offers help finding law firms to handle the information.

Potential whistleblowers can contact the Corporate Whistleblower Center at 866-714-6466 or at corporatewhistleblower.com.