Guest Column

Medicare can help you find the right hospice

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Medicare’s “Compare” websites have helped millions of Americans find the right nursing home, hospital or home health care agency for themselves or their families. Now, a new Medicare online tool is available to help terminally ill patients and their loved ones find the right hospice service as well.

The “Hospice Compare” website – at www.medicare.gov/hospicecompare -- displays information on almost 3,900 hospices nationwide and allows patients, family members and health care providers to get a snapshot of the quality of care each hospice service offers. The site contains data on 777 hospice agencies in Texas.

 Terminally ill people who choose hospice services receive care and support for their physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs. They’re no longer seeking a cure, but they do want to live out their last weeks and months as comfortably as possible and with dignity. Hospice care is typically provided within the patient’s home.

Hospice Compare lets patients and their caregivers see how the hospice services they are considering stack up against the national average when it comes to such quality measures as managing pain, treating symptoms and respecting patients’ beliefs and values. Plans call for more measures to be added.

In time, after additional quality measures are posted, the website will feature star ratings similar to those now available for nursing homes and hospitals. Each hospice agency will be rated from one star (poor) to five stars (excellent) so that consumers can more easily compare facilities. The site will be updated quarterly.

Though Hospice Compare can’t tell the whole story about where to go for care, it can serve as a useful screening tool. Patients and family members can search the website by using their ZIP code or city to find all of the nearby hospice services. Or they can type in the name of a particular hospice provider they’re considering.

To qualify for Medicare’s hospice benefit, you must be eligible for Medicare’s Part A hospital insurance, and your physician and your hospice medical director must certify that you have six months or less to live, assuming your illness runs its normal course. The benefit is available to people with traditional Medicare or private Medicare Advantage plans.

Hospice programs follow a team approach. The specially trained team typically includes doctors, nurses, counselors and social workers. A doctor and nurse are on call 24-7 to care for you and support your family when you need it. If your hospice team determines you need hospital inpatient care, it will make the arrangements.

As long as the hospice care comes from a Medicare-approved hospice, Medicare will cover the physician services, nursing care, drugs, medical equipment and supplies, and physical and occupational therapy. Medicare will also continue to pay for the treatment of other conditions unrelated to your terminal illness.

You can receive hospice care as long as you’re recertified. After 90 days of care, you’re re-evaluated by the hospice’s medical director or other hospice doctor to determine if the care is still appropriate. Another re-evaluation is done after another 90 days and then every 60 days.

Patients and family members who want to learn more about hospice programs in their area should talk to their doctor or call their state’s hospice organization. The number for Texas is 1-800-580-9270. The Hospice Compare website also contains a list of questions you may want to ask when looking for and choosing a hospice program.

They include: When I call with an urgent need, how long will it take for someone from the hospice team to respond?  How will the team manage my pain or other symptoms that arise? Can I still see my regular doctor? How will the hospice team prepare me and my family for what to expect? How will the team support my family through the grieving process?

Like Medicare’s other Compare websites, the new Hospice Compare site will give patients and their families an important tool for making informed decisions at an especially challenging time. Choosing the right hospice service isn’t about giving up; it’s about making every day count.

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