Tuesday, October 14, 2014

October 14, 2014 — Hospice and the Elephant in the Living Room

OK, this is something of a grim subject. But it need not be.

The subject is conversations about dying and end-of-life care. I’m writing, now, more as a pastor than as a cancer survivor reflecting on my own situation. (Thankfully, my health has been good, and there’s been no sign of recurring lymphoma.) My wife, Claire, is a minister who’s worked for more than 15 years in hospice ministry, so this is a subject that does come up at the dinner table from time to time.

I’ve seen a number of moving news articles on this subject recently.

Atul Gawande has written in the New York Times, summarizing the goal of palliative care in hospice programs as providing patients with “the best possible day.” Hospice has got that wonderful here-and-now focus. Not tomorrow. Not next week. But today. Carpe diem.

Nina Bernstein has written in that same newspaper about a situation in which offering a patient the best possible day seemed to be the last thing on medical caregivers’ minds. She tells the story of Maureen Stefanides, who worked without letup to find a way to get her dying father, Joseph Andrey, out of a nursing home and back to her home so he could die with dignity. Tragically, a web of competing health and financial regulations — coupled with a shortage of home-care nurses and aides (a singularly low-salary occupation) in high-rolling New York City — made that impossible. As it was, the poor man was simply falling apart with multiple age-related issues, and no one seemed willing to stop the aggressive-treatment train. Stopping it in his case was all the more difficult because the nursing home stood to lose profits if they discharged him to home hospice care. (“The nursing home collect[ed] $682.48 a day from Medicare, about five times the cost of a day of home care.”) There’s really got to be a better way to run a healthcare system.

In Ms. Bernstein’s case, talking about hospice care was not the issue, but for many families it’s the proverbial elephant in the living room. Family members tiptoe around the subject, thinking it’s important to keep a relentlessly positive attitude, fearing that if their loved one knew he or she were “terminal,” the terminus would arrive all the sooner. In reality, the sick person is likely very aware of the imminent end, and may have strong feelings about what sort of end-of-life care is the best. Yet, on their side, seriously-ill patients sometimes hesitate to raise the subject with their families, out of deference to their feelings. Such “after you, Alphonse” hesitation often leads to an unwanted final few days in a medically-invasive intensive-care unit.

An article about President Obama’s recent signing of the Impact Act, which will lead to greater Federal scrutiny of hospice programs, observes that “The median length of stay for hospice patients in recent years has been fewer than 20 days — probably much too short, in many cases — so a hospice that provides six months’ care for half its patients is a true outlier.” Claire has shared, from her experience in hospice chaplaincy and bereavement support, that a shockingly large number of patients in her program live less than 48 hours after their admission to the program. This has nothing to do with the quality of care; it's just that so many patients aren't even recommended for hospice until they're just days (sometimes hours) from the end. I’m told hospice team members have a name for that sort of patient: “on and gones” - as in "on the program and gone." In some cases, the program barely has an opportunity to provide any of their excellent services, because the patient doesn’t live long enough to receive them.

The heightened Federal regulation is important, because there’s been a proliferation of for-profit hospice programs, taking advantage of Medicare payment policies that can make palliative care financially lucrative for the providers, especially if they can pick and choose which cases they accept. Some of these for-profit programs are heavy on the marketing and light on the services provided. Claire works for a non-profit program associated with our local hospital system. They have a lower profile but provide better, more comprehensive services than some of the for-profits.

A few years ago, Sarah Palin got the whole nation into a fit of agita over her made-up “death panels” campaign issue. I think this is one of the most reprehensible things any politician has ever done, because the government’s failure to work the end-of-life conversation into Medicare payment regulations has led to a great many patients missing out on hospice care they would have very much wanted. Political opportunism at its worst.  For shame.

Too many patients today are paying a heavy cost for her death-panels diversion.

We’ve simply got to find a better way, as a society, to talk about this particular elephant in the living room.