Saturday, October 27, 2012

Medicare, falls, families, and risk: "Qualifying" to be in a safe place

Older people are, like all people, a widely varied group. Some are healthy and independent and can live on their own until very old age, while others have diseases that make them infirm at chronologically much younger ages. Some live with family members or have family members living with them. Most of those are well cared for, but some are exploited or even abused. Some elders live in assisted living facilities or nursing homes. A lot more of them are women than men, a reflection of differences in life expectancy. And most of them will, sooner or later, have an adverse event occur that leads them to be hospitalized. Sometimes it is almost routine, getting admitted for a complication of an existing condition such as chronic lung disease or heart disease; sometimes it a surprise, as when a 90-year old who has lived alone and been healthy falls and breaks her hip. The first time something happens, I find myself often repeating to these people and their families, is always the first time, whether at 20 or 90.

Whenever I am the attending physician on our inpatient service, we have a number of such people admitted, but in the last two weeks the number of people admitted who were what my residents call “little old ladies” seemed especially high. They ranged in age from their late 60s to 104; some lived in nursing homes, some with family, and some lived alone (including the 104 year old!). Some were admitted to the hospital for the first time, while others were “frequent fliers”; some had families hover around and others seemed to be left alone even when their family lived in town. A lot of them had falls, sometimes with broken bones (most commonly hip fractures, but others as well), sometimes, fortunately without. Some had moderate to very severe dementia, from Alzheimer’s or other causes, and may know only who they are (or not even that); others are “sharp as a tack” – at least when we can fix the dehydration or whatever else has brought them in.

One characteristic shared by many of these people is that they are unlikely to be safe returning to their homes. If they have fallen, they are likely to fall again. If they avoided a hip fracture this time, they may not next time. We do tests to see if there is an “explanation” for why they fell that might be treatable. Did they have a stroke? Should they be on blood thinners that make another stroke less likely but make the possibility of a bleed into their brain much higher if they do fall and hit their head? Heart rhythm problems? Maybe a pacemaker. Low blood sugar? Are they taking too much insulin? Maybe they “just” tripped: on the cat, on the rug, on the hem of their pants (which might be because those pants are hanging low from the 40 lbs they have lost since they were last seen a year ago -- really? I have been eating. I never noticed I was losing weight!) But, while anyone can trip, if it happens more than a couple of times, they are at risk of something bad. Sometimes it is possible for a health worker or family member to the home and help get rid of clutter, area rugs, and such, but sometimes that isn’t enough.

No one wants to go to a nursing home, especially compared to some idealized vision of being better and functional at home. Few families want to send their parents or grandparents to a nursing home, feeling that it is abandonment, or undignified, or irresponsible. Occasionally, there are complicating social issues, as nursing homes will take the Social Security check that family members are living on or Medicaid will require the sale of the house that family members are living in. And nursing homes are not a panacea; some are better than others, and folks get sick enough to require admission back to the hospital even from the best. But often they are a safer option, even when the family is committed to care. A person may be hospitalized by the family for a minor change that makes the Alzheimer’s victim even harder to care for; the primary care doctors may have already discussed admission to a nursing home, and, as one put it, “their voices said ‘no’, but their eyes and body language said ‘yes’.”

Medicare will pay for a period of time in a “skilled nursing facility” (SNF), where a person who was hospitalized but no longer needs to be in an acute-care hospital can get time to recover, get physical therapy, get to the point where they in fact, often with home health and a supportive family, go home. It works for someone who just had surgery, or someone who broke a bone and either had it surgically repaired or not. But to get this “benefit” the person needs to spend 3 midnights in the acute care hospital. Whether they need acute care or not. Indeed, if they don’t “meet Medicare criteria” for an inpatient hospitalization, they are not even officially “admitted” but are in a fantasy world of “observation status” where they are in the hospital, but are officially outpatients. And those nights don’t count toward “qualifying” for a SNF. So if you (or your father, or grandmother), “just” tripped and hurt themselves, and didn’t break a hip this time (sometimes they have already had both hips repaired), and is “just” bruised, and may have a “little” disorientation but no new stroke, and a little difficulty caring for themselves, and could really benefit from a month of skilled nursing, you better be able to pay for it, because Medicare won’t because they didn’t have 3 nights of “qualifying”.

This is crazy. I am a huge fan of “Medicare for All” rather than the nonsense patchwork of often-inadequate private insurance plans (and people who are uninsured) that we currently have. But that Medicare for all – and right now, for those who are on it – needs to have a rational payment and benefit structure. I understand the financial challenges facing Medicare (and the whole health insurance system – it is not a “Medicare” problem, it is a medical care problem) and believe that we need to save money by spending it rationally. This means, perhaps, not paying for every drug that the FDA approves even when it is not better than an existing, cheaper drug. This means not doing fantastically expensive interventions on people whose quality and duration of life will be marginally affected. It does mean placing people in the settings in which they can get the most appropriate, cost-effective care, whether at home with or without home health, in a skilled nursing facility, in a long-term care facility or in an acute care hospital. It does not mean requiring that someone who would benefit from a stay in an SNF first have to “qualify” by being in an acute care hospital overnight.

My local paper recently had a big front-page article about the fantastic new technology being employed at our hospital using GPS to map the location on the heart where an abnormal rhythm is being generated, so that it might be able to be fixed. Congratulations to the cardiologists and engineers who have developed this, and to the PR department that got it in the paper. It might be a big help for a few people, and will almost certainly be very costly (and profitable for the hospital). But as we develop all these expensive new technologies that might help a few people a lot and might help a few more a little, it is insane if we save money by not providing what we already know is the right thing in prevention and intervention for the conditions that affect the many. Right now, Medicare is trying to save money by identifying “fraud”; they do this (this is absolutely true!) by contracting with bounty-hunter companies called “RAC”s to discover when a patient has been “admitted” when their condition didn’t technically qualify and they should have been on “observation” status. They should be saving money by not paying for expensive high-tech procedures which offer little benefit.

A rational health care system, as we have discussed before, means that people are getting the right care in the right setting; this is the ostensible promise of health-care integrated systems. But, just as we will never have enough primary care doctors doing prevention and early treatment as long as we pay them a fraction of what we pay those doing heroic (and often ineffective) intervention for far-advanced disease, we will not have a rational health care system if we pay for huge high-ticket items but not for people to be in the right setting for them to receive the care that they need.

Medicare can, and should take the lead. For seniors, it is our national health program. Others will follow. 

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