We have occasionally written about the rise of the commercialized hospice industry, and concerns that commercialized hospices may not be providing the compassionate care they promise. As we have discussed before, the hospice movement began with small, non-profit, community based organizations meant to provide compassionate palliative care to the terminally ill. However, in the US, the hospice movement has been co-opted by commercial hospices, often run by large corporations, which may put profit ahead of compassion.
In the Washington Post series "Aging in America," Peter Whoriskey explored problems affecting the contemporary "industrialized" model of hospice. He noted in August, 2014,
The hospice industry in the United States is booming and for good reason, many experts say. Hospice care can offer terminally ill patients a far better way to live out their dying days, and many vouch for its value.
In the US, hospice care is funded by Medicare, and the funding at times may seem generous. As more hospices are taken over by for-profit corporations, that money may be irresistible. Whoriskey noted,
But the boom has been accompanied by what appears to be a surge in hospices enrolling patients who aren’t close to death, and at least in some cases, this practice can expose the patients to the more powerful pain-killers that are routinely used by hospice providers.
Whoriskey presented a case in which a non-terminally ill patient was admitted to hospice, and died possibly due to aggressive use of narcotics.
Clinard 'Bud' Coffey, 77, a retired corrections officer, did the crossword in The Charlotte Observer after breakfast every morning, pursued his hobby of drawing cartoons, talked seven or eight times a day to his son Jeff and, just two weeks before his death, told a pal that he still felt 'like a teenager.'
He did, however, have some chronic back pain, and in late March he was enrolled in hospice care 'essentially for pain management,' his doctor said. Over a two week period, he received rising doses of morphine and other powerful drugs, grew sleepy and disoriented, and stopped breathing, dying peacefully at home, according to his family and medical records they provided.
While hospices tend to use very aggressive pain management strategies, they also by design do not attempt to cure patients who develop new acute problems. So if a non-terminally ill patient enters hospice, such a new acute problem could be fatal. For example, we discussed a case in which a person admitted to a commercial hospice for "debility" but apparently not defined terminal illness, died from untreated sepsis. It is possible that timely use of antibiotics could have contained her initial infection, or possibly even cured her sepsis.
Yet evidence continues to accumulate that modern industrialized hospices, especially those owned and run by large for-profit corporations, may enroll patients who are not terminally ill to increase revenue. The regulatory response to such behavior continues to be spotty, and seems focused on enrollment of non-terminal patients as a form of fraud, not as a danger to patients.
So far in 2015 two commercial hospice chains settled charges that they enrolled patients who were not terminally ill.
Good Shepherd Hospice
Early in 2015, there was very abbreviated news coverage of the settlement made by Good Shepherd Hospice. A Department of Justice press release noted,
Today, Good Shepherd Hospice Inc., Good Shepherd Hospice of Mid America Inc., Good Shepherd Hospice, Wichita, L.L.C., Good Shepherd Hospice, Springfield, L.L.C., and Good Shepherd Hospice – Dallas L.L.C. (collectively Good Shepherd) agreed to pay $4 million to resolve allegations that Good Shepherd submitted false claims for hospice patients who were not terminally ill. Good Shepherd is a for-profit hospice headquartered in Oklahoma City which provides hospice services in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Texas.
The press release specifically stated,
The government alleged that Good Shepherd knowingly submitted or caused the submission of false claims for hospice care for patients who were not terminally ill. Specifically, the United States contended that Good Shepherd engaged in certain business practices that contributed to claims being submitted for patients who did not have a terminal prognosis of six months or less, by pressuring staff to meet admissions and census targets and paying bonuses to staff, including hospice marketers, admissions nurses and executive directors, based on the number of patients enrolled. The United States further alleged that Good Shepherd hired medical directors based on their ability to refer patients, focusing particularly on medical directors with ties to nursing homes, which were seen as an easy source of patient referrals. The United States also alleged that Good Shepherd failed to properly train staff on the hospice eligibility criteria.
However, it suggested that the behavior was fraudulent, not dangerous,
'Health care fraud puts profits above patients, and steals from taxpayers,' said U.S. Attorney Tammy Dickinson of the Western District of Missouri. 'In this case, company whistleblowers alleged that patients received unnecessary hospice care while Good Shepherd engaged in illicit business practices to enrich itself at the public’s expense.'
Note that as is usual in cases of health care fraud, Good Shepherd Hospice did not admit wrongdoing, and no individual who authorized, directed or implemented the alleged bad behavior suffered any negative consequences. The minimal media coverage of this case did not discuss the possibility of any risks to patients. (For example, look here.)
Good Shepherd Hospice is part of a for-profit corporation. I could find nothing about its ownership, who its leaders are, or its financial status. So who particularly benefited from the alleged behavior was not clear.
Guardian Hospice and AccentCare, Owned by Oak Hill Capital Partners
In early October, 2015, a brief news item in the Atlanta Journal Constitution described the settlement by Guardian Hospice.
A Georgia hospice company has agreed to pay $3 million to resolve allegations it billed taxpayers for patients who were not terminally ill,...
Guardian Hospice set aggressive targets to recruit and enroll patients it knew were not in the last months of their lives so it could collect Medicare payments, the federal government alleged.
The article noted the settlement arose from a whistle-blower law suit, and that the whistle-blowers
alleged they routinely saw non-terminal patients being treated but were told it was necessary to keep the hospice’s 'census' up,...
The AJC article did quote their attorney as saying,
the practice was 'doubly cruel' because when unqualified patients are put on hospice, they are forced to forego regular medical care that could help cure their illness.
But it provided no further detail. The official news release only quoted an agent of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Inspector-General's office:
Hospice care is only medically appropriate – and reimbursed by Medicare – for terminally ill patients who are in the last months of their lives
Again, there were no admissions of culpabality, and no actions taken against any individuals.
The $3 million penalty seems paltry, given that we do know something about the owners of Guardian Hospice and the depth of their pockets. One brief news article about a June, 2015, settlement made by Guardian Hospice for underpaying its nurses, did mention that Guardian Hospice is owned by AccentCare. A little more digging found this press release from 2010 made by Oak Hill Capital Partners, a large private equity firm.
Oak Hill Capital Partners announced today that following the closing of their acquisition of AccentCare, Inc. ('AccentCare'), a premier provider of home healthcare services, including nursing and attendant care services, they intend to combine it with Guardian Home Care Holdings, Inc. ('Guardian'), a leading homecare and hospice service provider in the Tennessee, Georgia and Texas markets. The terms of the transaction were not disclosed.
The combination of AccentCare and Guardian creates one of the largest operators in the industry, with an expanded geographical footprint and highly diversified service offerings. The new company will operate over 130 branches across 10 states, serving more than 30,000 patients.
Since private equity firms have minimal reporting requirements, we do not know who owns Oak Hill Capital Partners, and hence who owns AccentCare and Guardian Hospice. We do know from the Oak Hill Capital Partners web-site that their portfolio is prodigious.
Summary and Discussion
There are more cases being reported in which hospices, particularly those owned and run by for-profit corporations, have enrolled patients who were not terminally ill. These enrollments may be motivated by the desire for more money, but they put patients at risk. Hospice patients may receive large doses of psychoactive drugs and narcotics, which may lead to adverse effects up to and including death. Hospice patients may not, however, receive treatments for new acute problems, even if those problems are potentially curable. Therefore, hospice patients may die from untreated infections that otherwise might respond to antibiotics. Aggressive pain medication and withholding treatment of infections make sense as part of palliative care for terminally ill patients, e.g., those with terminal cancer. But they make no sense for patients with longer life expectancy.
Nonetheless, such abuses by hospices get little press coverage, seemingly are ignored by health care regulators and law enforcement, and are almost completely anechoic in the health care, medical and health policy literature.
If a measure of society is how it cares for the most vulnerable patients, the US laissez faire approach to for-profit hospices suggests a society in decline.
To repeat what I wrote the last time for-profit hospices were (barely) in the news for enrolling the wrong patients,...
In my humble opinion, we should return control of direct patient care, especially of the most vulnerable patients, to health care professionals and if necessary small non-profit community organizations. We ought to give strong consideration to banning corporate hospices, and banning all forms of the corporate practice of medicine and corporate health care "delivery."
Given how many insiders make so much money from the current version of laissez faire capitalism in health care, however, I would expect strong resistance should such apparently "radical," but actually conservative proposals actually get any mainstream attention.