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The American Way of Death

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This ProPublica expose on the hospice-industry-trending-toward-nationwide-racket is fascinating and depressing. A couple of excerpts:

It might be counterintuitive to run an enterprise that is wholly dependent on clients who aren’t long for this world, but companies in the hospice business can expect some of the biggest returns for the least amount of effort of any sector in American health care. Medicare pays providers a set rate per patient per day, regardless of how much help they deliver. Since most hospice care takes place at home and nurses aren’t required to visit more than twice a month, it’s not difficult to keep overhead low and to outsource the bulk of the labor to unpaid family members — assuming that willing family members are at hand.

Up to a point, the way Medicare has designed the hospice benefit rewards providers for recruiting patients who aren’t imminently dying. Long hospice stays translate into larger margins, and stable patients require fewer expensive medications and supplies than those in the final throes of illness. Although two doctors must initially certify that a patient is terminally ill, she can be recertified as such again and again.

Almost immediately after the AseraCare takeover, Farmer’s supervisors set steep targets for the number of patients marketers had to sign up and presented those who met admissions quotas with cash bonuses and perks, including popcorn machines and massage chairs. Employees who couldn’t hit their numbers were fired. Farmer prided herself on being competitive and liked to say, “I can sell ice to an Eskimo.” But as her remit expanded to include the management of AseraCare outposts in Foley and Mobile, she began to resent the demand to bring in more bodies. Before one meeting with her supervisor, Jeff Boling, she stayed up late crunching data on car wrecks, cancer and heart disease to figure out how many people in her territories might be expected to die that year. When she showed Boling that the numbers didn’t match what she called his “ungodly quotas,” he was unmoved. “If you can’t do it,” she recalled him telling her, “we’ll find someone who can.”

Farmer’s bigger problem was that her patients weren’t dying fast enough. Some fished, drove tractors and babysat grandchildren. Their longevity prompted concern around the office because of a complicated formula that governs the Medicare benefit. The federal government, recognizing that an individual patient might not die within the predicted six months, effectively demands repayment from hospices when the average length of stay of all patients exceeds six months.

But Farmer’s company, like many of its competitors, had found ways to game the system and keep its money. One tactic was to “dump,” or discharge, patients with overly long stays. The industry euphemism is “graduated” from hospice, though the patient experience is often more akin to getting expelled: losing diapers, pain medications, wheelchairs, nursing care and a hospital-grade bed that a person might not otherwise be able to afford. In 2007, according to Farmer’s calculations around the time, 70% of the patients served by her Mobile office left hospice alive.

Another way to hold on to Medicare money was to consistently pad the roster with new patients. One day in 2008, facing the possibility of a repayment, AseraCare asked some of its executive directors to “get double digit admits” and to “have the kind of day that will go down in the record books.” A follow-up email, just an hour later, urged staff to “go around the barriers and make this happen now, your families need you.”

You may be able to guess where this is going:

Forty years on, half of all Americans die in hospice care. Most of these deaths take place at home. When done right, the program allows people to experience as little pain as possible and to spend meaningful time with their loved ones. Nurses stop by to manage symptoms. Aides assist with bathing, medications and housekeeping. Social workers help families over bureaucratic hurdles. Clergy offer what comfort they can, and bereavement counselors provide support in the aftermath. This year, I spoke about hospice with more than 150 patients, families, hospice employees, regulators, attorneys, fraud investigators and end-of-life researchers, and all of them praised its vital mission. But many were concerned about how easy money and a lack of regulation had given rise to an industry rife with exploitation. In the decades since Saunders and her followers spread her radical concept across the country, hospice has evolved from a constellation of charities, mostly reliant on volunteers, into a $22 billion juggernaut funded almost entirely by taxpayers.

For-profit providers made up 30% of the field at the start of this century. Today, they represent more than 70%, and between 2011 and 2019, research shows, the number of hospices owned by private-equity firms tripled. The aggregate Medicare margins of for-profit providers are three times that of their nonprofit counterparts. Under the daily-payment structure, a small hospice that bills for just 20 patients at the basic rate can take in more than a million dollars a year. A large hospice billing for thousands of patients can take in hundreds of millions. Those federal payments are distributed in what is essentially an honor system. Although the government occasionally requests more information from billers, it generally trusts that providers will submit accurate claims for payment — a model that critics deride as “pay and chase.”

Jean Stone, who worked for years as a program-integrity senior specialist at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said that hospice was a particularly thorny sector to police for three reasons: “No one wants to be seen as limiting an important service”; it’s difficult to retrospectively judge a patient’s eligibility; and “no one wants to talk about the end of life.” Although a quarter of all people in hospice enter it only in their final five days, most of the Medicare spending on hospice is for patients whose stays exceed six months. In 2018, the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that inappropriate billing by hospice providers had cost taxpayers “hundreds of millions of dollars.” Stone and others I spoke to believe the figure to be far higher.

Some hospice firms bribe physicians to bring them new patients by offering all-expenses-paid trips to Las Vegas nightclubs, complete with bottle service and private security details. (The former mayor of Rio Bravo, Texas, who was also a doctor, received outright kickbacks.) Other audacious for-profit players enlist family and friends to act as make-believe clients, lure addicts with the promise of free painkillers, dupe people into the program by claiming that it’s free home health care or steal personal information to enroll “phantom patients.” A 29-year-old pregnant woman learned that she’d been enrolled in Revelation Hospice, in the Mississippi Delta (which at one time discharged 93% of its patients alive), only when she visited her doctor for a blood test. In Frisco, Texas, according to the FBI, a hospice owner tried to evade the Medicare-repayment problem by instructing staff to overdose patients who were staying on the service too long. He texted a nurse about one patient: “He better not make it tomorrow. Or I will blame u.” The owner was sentenced to more than 13 years in prison for fraud, in a plea deal that made no allegations about patient deaths.

A medical background is not required to enter the business. I’ve come across hospices owned by accountants; vacation-rental superhosts; a criminal-defense attorney who represented a hospice employee convicted of fraud and was later investigated for hospice fraud himself; and a man convicted of drug distribution who went on to fraudulently bill Medicare more than $5 million for an end-of-life-care business that involved handling large quantities of narcotics.

Once a hospice is up and running, oversight is scarce. Regulations require surveyors to inspect hospice operations once every three years, even though complaints about quality of care are widespread. A government review of inspection reports from 2012 to 2016 found that the majority of all hospices had serious deficiencies, such as failures to train staff, manage pain and treat bedsores. Still, regulators rarely punish bad actors. Between 2014 and 2017, according to the Government Accountability Office, only 19 of the more than 4,000 U.S. hospices were cut off from Medicare funding.

Because patients who enroll in the service forgo curative care, hospice may harm patients who aren’t actually dying. Sandy Morales, who until recently was a case manager at the California Senior Medicare Patrol hotline, told me about a cancer patient who’d lost access to his chemotherapy treatment after being put in hospice without his knowledge. Other unwitting recruits were denied kidney dialysis, mammograms, coverage for lifesaving medications or a place on the waiting list for a liver transplant. In response to concerns from families, Morales and her community partners recently posted warnings in Spanish and English in senior apartment buildings, libraries and doughnut shops across the state. “Have you suddenly lost access to your doctor?” the notices read. “Can’t get your medications at the pharmacy? Beware! You may have been tricked into signing up for a program that is medically unnecessary for you.”

Some providers capitalize on the fact that most hospice care takes place behind closed doors, and that those who might protest poor treatment are often too sick or stressed to do so. One way of increasing company returns is to ghost the dying. A 2016 study in JAMA Internal Medicine of more than 600,000 patients found that 12% received no visits from hospice workers in the last two days of life. (Patients who died on a Sunday had some of the worst luck.) For-profit hospices have been found to have higher rates of no-shows and substantiated complaints than their nonprofit counterparts, and to disproportionately discharge patients alive when they approach Medicare’s reimbursement limit.

A huge factor here is that long-term care for chronically ill elderly people is so poorly managed in this country that lots of families have to go broke just to become eligible for government-funded programs. And naturally the line between “the chronically ill” and “the terminally ill” is often very fuzzy — quite profitably so, this being America and all. And when it becomes profitable to move people back and forth between these categories, well we’re good at that too, even if it sometimes requires “nudging” some recalcitrant “terminally ill” patients that aren’t cooperating with their diagnosis.

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