As we have discussed before, hospice care was initially designed to provide more humane treatment of the terminally ill, particularly patients with advanced cancer. The idea was that rather than subjecting such patients to futile, but often painful or dangerous treatment, they would receive humane, palliative care. Hospice care initally was provided in the US by small, local non-profit organizations. But since Medicare pays for hospice care fairly well, for-profit corporations soon got into the act. As we have discussed previously, some hospices, often but not always for-profit, began to admit patients who were not terminally ill.
The danger is that hospice care specifically excludes potentially curative care, such as antibiotics for infection or surgery for appendicitis. So if a patient who is not terminal is in hospice and that patient develops severe bacterial pneumonia, that patient may not get antibiotics and thus may die of a potentially curable disease.
We have been writing about this dangerous aspect of modern hospice care since 2011 (look here). In various posts here we have detailed particular cases of non-terminal patients admitted to hospice who later died, seemingly of the neglect of treatable illness mandated by the concept of hospice care. There have also been cases in which patients with chronic pain, but no terminal illness, may have died from hospice's overly aggressive use of narcotics . For example, in a 2014 Wasthington Post story,
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.
The Latest UnitedHealth/ Optum Case
The latest case of allegations of fraudulant hospice enrollment involved a very big, very profitable corporation. As reported in detail only in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune,
A division at Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group is paying $18 million to settle allegations that it submitted false claims to Medicare for hospice patients who were not terminally ill.
The payment announced this week resolves a whistleblower lawsuit against Optum Palliative and Hospice Care that alleged the company tried to boost the number of patients for whom it could bill the federal Medicare program, without regard to whether they were eligible for and needed hospice services.
UnitedHealth Group's Optum subsidiary is a fairly big player in the commercial hospice world,
Optum/Evercare provides hospice care in 12 U.S. markets, including Arizona and Colorado. It does not operate in Minnesota.
The Strib provides a bit more detail about what seems to have happened.
The government alleged that false claims in the case were submitted to Medicare from Jan. 1, 2007, through Dec. 31, 2013. The lawsuit argued that Optum discouraged doctors from recommending that ineligible patients be discharged from hospice, and failed to ensure that nurses accurately and completely documented patients’ conditions.
The allegations were first raised by former employees in whistleblower lawsuits, which let private parties sue on behalf of the government and share in any recovery. The share to be awarded in the Optum case has not yet been determined, the Justice Department said in a news release.
As is now tediously typical in legal settlements involving large health care organizations, the government allowed the case to settle without any determination of guilt or innocence, and of course, without any individual who may have profited from the alleged bad behavior having to suffer any negative consequences.
'We are pleased to resolve this issue and are proud of our long record of providing high-quality, compassionate hospice care consistent with the needs of patients and supported by their doctors and family members,' Optum said in a statement. 'We believe Evercare Hospice acted properly and did not engage in wrongdoing.'
'The claims resolved by the settlement are allegations only, and there has been no determination of liability,' the Justice Department said in a news release.
As is also usual in these cases, the monetary value of the settlement, while it might appear large to a middle-class lay-person, is tiny compared to the revenue of UnitedHealth. For example, according to Google Finance, the corporation's 2015 total revenue exceeded $157 billion.
All that would be bad enough if the case only involved financial fraud. Again, as noted above, it is possible that some patients without terminal disease who were enrolled in UnitedHealth's Optum hospice could have died of treatable conditions. Yet this possiblility was not addressed by the limited press coverage of this case, or even by the US Department of Justice's news release about the settlement.
Other Recent Cases
In 2016, there have been nearly anechoic media reports of cases of smaller hospices at least alleged to have deliberately enrolled non-terminal cases. Perhaps because these organizations involved were not "too big to jail," some of these cases involved findings of guilt.
Home Care Hospice
In February, 2016, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal,
Nearly three years after fraud charges against a Philadelphia nurse first surfaced, a jury found 68-year-old Patricia McGill guilty for her role in scamming Medicare out of $9.32 million.
McGill was the director of professional services for Home Care Hospice for roughly three years beginning in 2005. During that time, she authorized and supervised the admission of patients for hospice services that they did not need or were not eligible for, according to court records.
This was not the first finding of guilt in this case involving a small, local for-profit hospice.
Alex Pugman and Matthew Kolodesh, the owners of the defunct Home Care Hospice – at one time located along Grant Avenue in Northeast Philly – were previously convicted for their part in the crime. Kolodesh, of Bucks County, was sentenced to 14 years in prison after being found guilty on more than 30 separate counts.
Note that the sentences were severe, but as far as I could tell, not based on the possible danger to patients without terminal illness created by their admission to hospice.
Horizon Hospice Subsidiairy of JourneyCare
As reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in March, 2016,
The former top executive at Horizons Hospice in Monroeville is set to enter a guilty plea Friday in connection with charges of scheming to send patients to the center who weren’t terminal so she could bill Medicare and Medicaid.
She was not the first person to be found guilty in this case.
One of the key witnesses was expected to be Oliver Herndon of Peters, the medical director at Horizons from 2008 to 2012.
Herndon was sentenced in July to 33 months in prison after pleading guilty to certifying patients for hospice care who weren’t terminal and keeping them there longer so Horizons could continue billing the government.
Again, the possible danger to the fraudulantly enrolled patients was not discussed in the media accounts. Note that Horizons Hospice is a subsidiary of JourneyCare, which appears to be a non-profit organization.
Multiple Michigan Hospices
As reported in April, 2016, by the Washington Free Beacon,
Five individuals who have donated to Democratic politicians pleaded guilty to a scheme that drained Medicare out of $33 million dollars.
Two physicians and three owners of hospice and home care companies based out of Detroit, Mich., were charged on June 18, 2015 as part of the largest Medicare fraud case in history for submitting fraudulent claims for home health care and hospice services that were either not provided or deemed medically unnecessary.
The elaborate operation revolved around Muhammad Tariq, Shahid Tahir, and Manawar Javed—the owners of the home health care and hospice companies—paying kickbacks and bribes to physicians for referrals to their companies that included A Plus Hospice and Palliative Care, At Home Hospice, and At Home Network Inc.
While the reporting of this case focused on the apparent political leanings of the individuals involved, it also ignored any danger to non-terminal patients.
The problem of fraudulant enrollment of non-terminal patients in hospice continues, despite our efforts over five years to make the problem more public. The latest case involved a very big, very wealthy for-profit health care corporation which has had its share of troubles in the past. Yet the latest case is as anechoic as earlier ones, including smaller cases this year.
These enrollments may be motivated by the desire for more money, but they put patients at risk. 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.
But in an election season now often dominated by ridiculous hyperbole and outlandish statements, maybe such vitally (literally) important issues should start getting some attention.