Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"Prepare Them to Die" - For-Profit Hospices as the Real Death Panels

A Bloomberg news investigative report illustrated the adverse effects of having for-profit corporations taking care of patients.

Hospice as a Social Movement

The corporations in question this time are for-profit hospices. Hospices in general gained a good reputation for improving the quality of life for patients near life's end:
Hospice got its start in the 1960s as a social movement. Volunteers, often meeting in schools and church basements, organized care so patients could die at home with loved ones, instead of at the hospital laced with tubes. Dame Cicely Saunders, the pioneering English physician who opened St. Christopher’s Hospice in London in 1967, fought traditional methods of unconditional resistance to death, and brought the concept to U.S. shores.

Hospices Become Commercial

Subsequently, in the US, every part of health care has become commercialized, including hospices:
hospice care has evolved from its charitable roots into a $14 billion business run mostly for profit,

In addition,
Of the hospices with two- thirds or more of their patients in nursing homes, 72 percent are for-profits.

Commercial Hospices Expand Their Markets: "Stop All the Live Discharges"

Hospices were originally meant to care for patients near death, however commercial hospices sought to expand their markets:
Providers have been accused of boosting their revenues with patients who aren’t near death and not eligible for hospice -- people healthy enough to live a long time with traditional medical care.

In particular,
Two-thirds of patients in hospices run for profit have general diagnoses like 'failure to thrive' and 'debility' compared to half in non-profits, which cater more to faster- killing conditions like cancer, a Harvard University study found earlier this year. Patients stay an average of 98 days in for- profit hospices versus 68 days at non-profits, which have a 0.2 percent profit margin, according to Medicare. The margin at for- profits is 50 times higher at 10 percent.

My comment is that "failure to thrive," and "debility" are not real diagnoses. At best, they are merely general descriptions of patients' conditions. Physicians have a hard enough time predicting the life span of patients with chronic, ultimately terminal, well-defined diseases, like specific types of metastatic cancer. How anyone can accurately predict the survival of patients who fail to thrive or exhibit debility is beyond me (and I have spent many years assessing the accuracy of physicians' predictions of a variety of outcomes, including the survival of critically ill patients, references provided on request).

To be eligible for Medicare hospice coverage, a person must have a prognosis of six months or less to live, certified by two doctors. Yet 20 percent of hospice patients live beyond that term, with their providers receiving government checks via recertifications that can go on indefinitely.

One case cited by the Bloomberg article includes allegations that a for-profit hospice held on to patients even though it had become clear they were not at the end of life.
An executive of a hospice owned by Harden Healthcare LLC emailed managers in 2008 urging them to 'stop all these live discharges' of patients to keep enrollments high, according to a civil fraud complaint by the Justice Department in federal court in Kansas City, Kansas. Company spokeswoman Meg Meo said the alleged events occurred before Austin, Texas-based Harden owned the hospice.

A whistleblower lawsuit brought by a former social worker for hospices run by Atlanta-based Gentiva Health Services Inc. (GTIV) said her job was to talk people who weren’t dying into believing that they were. The allegations predated Gentiva’s ownership of the chain, spokesman Scott Cianciulli said.

Gentiva’s Odyssey hospice unit faces investigations by HHS’s Office of Inspector General and the state of Georgia, according to regulatory filings. The company, which is the second-largest hospice provider, is cooperating with investigators, Cianciulli said.

Enrolling patients, retaining them as long as possible, and controlling costs are the top priorities at for-profit hospices, according to former and current employees interviewed by Bloomberg News. To increase revenues, hospices tie employee bonuses to enrollment, pay kickbacks to patients and referral sources, and use false diagnoses to admit ineligible patients, according to whistleblower, or qui tam, suits against three chains filed under the False Claims Act, which allows plaintiffs to share in any financial recovery for the government.

The Bloomberg report contained an even more chilling case:
One of the suits was filed by Misty Wall, a former social worker at Gentiva’s VistaCare hospice unit who said she was fired in 2005. Wall was assigned to convince people who weren’t dying that they were, she said in an interview.

Wall, now an assistant professor of social work at Boise State University in Idaho, said one woman broke down in tears when Wall suggested her father was dying from renal failure. The man’s own doctor had declined to recommend hospice, prescribing dialysis instead. Wall said VistaCare sent her to the daughter to change the family’s mind.

'I gave her this huge emotional blow, then sat there and soothed her,' Wall said. 'Of course she signed.'

Wall’s lawyer, Loren Jacobson, said, 'It wasn’t her idea. She did it because that was what was expected of her as part of her job, and when she refused to do it anymore and complained, she was fired.' Jacobsen called her client 'an extremely good soul stuck in a bad situation.'

Wall’s lawsuit, filed in federal court in Dallas, accuses VistaCare of paying illegal kickbacks to patients and nursing- home employees who referred residents to hospice. It also accuses VistaCare of doctor shopping to get patients certified.

As part of its sales pitch, the hospice told prospects, 'The VistaCare Foundation is here to make all your dreams come true,' Wall said. 'We used it as a selling feature.'

This case is particularly disturbing because patients with kidney failure actually may have quite a long life expectancy if they do not have serious co-morbid disease. Patients can be sustained on dialysis, and may be eligible for kidney transplants.

Note also that in 2009 we discussed a case of SouthernCare, a for-profit hospice company which settled (for $24.7 million) a case alleging that it had enrolled patients who were not likely to die in six months to increase its revenue, further suggesting that this is a widespread problem among for-profit hospices.

Limiting Care: "Prepare Them to Die" 

So I am actually surprised that only 20% of hospice patients survived more than six months.

However, putting patients who were not already near the end of life in hospice may mean denying potentially life saving care to patients who had the potential to live for at least a while:
Providers have been accused of boosting their revenues with patients who aren’t near death and not eligible for hospice -- people healthy enough to live a long time with traditional medical care. In hospices, patients give up their rights to 'curative' measures because they are presumed to be futile.

'By admitting these folks to hospice, they are denied access to routine medical and rehabilitative care that they need to extend and improve their lives,' said Cristen Krebs, executive director of Catholic Hospice of Pittsburgh, a non- profit. 'A vulnerable and voiceless population is preyed upon for money.'

So if "curative" measures are not used for patients who started with relatively favorable prognoses, but have developed new problems, guess what may happen?

The Bloomberg article opened with another distressing case:
With his mother wheezing and losing consciousness in a California nursing home, Robert Rogers wanted her moved to a hospital. Vitas Healthcare, her hospice provider, said that wasn’t in the plan.

'Our job is not to prepare them to live,' a Vitas nurse told Rogers on the phone, according to a deposition he gave in April. 'Our job is to prepare them to die.'

Rogers called 911. At the hospital, an emergency-room doctor removed 11 maggots from an open wound on his mother’s big toe. Five days later, in September 2008, 91-year-old Thelma Covington died of a sepsis infection brought on by gangrene in her toe and poor circulation, her death certificate said.

Rogers is suing Vitas, a unit of Cincinnati-based Chemed Corp. (CHE), in a California court for alleged elder abuse and wrongful death. Vitas, the biggest company in hospice care, has denied negligence and said that Covington and Rogers knew the risk involved in entering hospice.

The article elaborated on Ms Covington's initial condition, and how she was enrolled in hospice despite of it:
Vitas admitted Thelma Covington to hospice in November 2007, taking over her medical care at Willow Pass Healthcare Center in Concord, California. Her son, Robert Rogers, who had Covington’s power of attorney, said a Vitas salesperson called him and offered help so he wouldn’t have to be there so much.

Rogers said he didn’t know he was giving up rights to curative care when he signed his mother up for hospice, and wouldn’t have done so if he did. He said he 'didn’t read the fine print' and gave his consent because he was told there would be more people looking after her, taking a load off him.

He described her as alert on his visits, doing crossword puzzles, discussing movies and enjoying the Kentucky Fried Chicken he brought her.

The Vitas admission assessment for Covington said she was terminally ill with 'debility, unspecified' and had various other conditions, including dementia, congestive heart failure and diabetes. Two doctors certified that she had less than six months to live.

'She didn’t have no dementia,' Rogers said.

No one said anything about his mother’s life expectancy, according to Rogers, 75, a retired longshoreman and Covington’s only child. For 10 months, Medicare paid Vitas $199 a day to provide palliative care for her at Willow Pass, bills show.

Obviously, Ms Covington had more than 10 months to live. There is a major question whether she had anything resembling dementia. As noted earlier, "debility" is not a real diagnosis and does not imply a specific life-span.

The details of how the hospice allegedly failed to treat a new condition which was eventually fatal for Ms Covington are gut-wrenching:
On July 9, 2008, two months before her death, a Vitas doctor ordered a two-week cleansing and ointment treatment for an open wound on Covington’s toe, medical records show. The treatment was never carried out because the plan wasn’t placed in the 'treatment administrative record' that the nursing home used to implement orders, according to a deposition by Jennifer Bernal, one of Covington’s Willow Pass nurses. She called it 'a serious nursing error.'

Nevertheless, Vitas 'discontinued' the toe treatment on July 28, according to notes written by one of its nurses, who added 'course complete.'

Two days later, Covington was in agony from the wound; a Vitas nurse assessed her pain at level 10 on a 10-point severity index, records show. She was given morphine and a sedative.

On Aug. 25, a nursing home employee noted in a 'skin condition report' that the toe was scabrous, swollen, contained pus and had developed black 'eschar' -- dead tissue that’s a sign of gangrene. 'Hospice notified,' the report said.

Vitas’s notes on the toe for Aug. 25 and Aug. 27 again said 'interventions effective, continue plan.' On Sept. 5, a Vitas nurse described 'soft black eschar' on the toe. By then, Covington was in such pain from the wound that she lay moaning, 'Lo[r]d have mercy,' a Vitas nurse noted.

On the morning of Sept. 7, a Vitas nurse discovered the gangrene and maggots, conferred with a Vitas doctor, washed the toe and wrapped it in plastic, according to nursing notes.

Rogers said in his deposition that he learned of the maggots later that day from the emergency-room doctor.

There has been a lot of blather from politicians in the US about "death panels" in debates about health care reform. Many such politicians seem worried that the US government has or will have death panels under the new health care reform legislation. We have criticized that legislation for not addressing many important health care problems. No one, however, has convingly demonstrated how its provisions would convene "death panels."

Wendell Potter argued in his book, Deadly Spin, (see this post) that for-profit insurance companies had their own "death panels." The Bloomberg article strongly suggests that for-profit hospices may also act like death panels. In search of more revenue, for-profit hospices may enroll patients who are not at the end of life, but then provide them only "comfort care," so that if they develop new conditions that are treatable, they are likely to die in the absence of treatment.

I am waiting for the politicians who so enthusiatically condemned the supposed "death panels" to be found in health care reform legislation to condemn for-profit hospices for behaving like death panels. 

In my humble opinion, the cases discussed above are the strongest argument yet that we need to reconsider our headlong rush to turn health care, particularly the direct care of patients, over to relatively unregulated, for-profit corporations. The cases above suggest that the pursuit of revenue ahead of patients' welfare by such organizations may lead to sick and dead patients.

I cannot see how for-profit direct patient care can be made safe for patients without intense government regulation. If any of those vocal advocates of "free market" health care (in the absence of any good explanation of how health care can ever be an ideal free market, see this post) can explain to me how for-profit hospices can be made safe for patients without such regulation, I would welcome their attempts.

Meanwhile, this just calls out for legislative and legal investigation, and urgent policy changes.


Afraid said...

Well intense government regulators is not what we get and the FBI certainly won't be looking for these killers.

See the recent Bloomberg story on how the bankers get away with it: http://money.msn.com/investing/why-no-ceos-were-busted-post-crisis-bloomberg.aspx

Billy Rubin said...

Great post, HCR. I linked yours in my own entry about the nonsense of death panels @ http://www.billyrubinsblog.org/2011/07/free-market-capitalism-and-death-panels.html. Best, Billy