Medicare - Compare Hospice Providers Tool

Hospice is provided by both Medicare and Medicaid. My Medicaid-planning clients often ask me for recommendations for Hospice Care Providers, or what I think about VITAS or Trustbridge (formerly: Hospice of Broward County, Hospice of Palm Beach County and Hospice by the Sea). While I can give my personal and what I have heard from prior clients, its often useful to do your own research. Medicare agrees and patients, or their families, looking for hospice care can now get help from Medicare’s website. The agency’s new Hospice Compare site allows patients to evaluate hospice providers according to several criteria. The site is a good start, but there is room for improvement, experts say.

Medicare's comprehensive hospice benefit covers any care that is reasonable and necessary for easing the course of a terminal illness. Medicare launched the hospice compare website to improve transparency and help families find the right hospice provider.

The website provides information on how hospices deal with treatment preferences, address a patient's beliefs and values, screen and assess for pain and shortness of breath, treat shortness of breath, and give a bowel regimen for patients treated with opioids. Patients can compare up to three hospices at a time.

Next year, the site plans to add more information, including allowing families to rate hospices as well as adding data on the number of staff visits a patient received in the final week before death.

Kaiser Health News reports that while the website is helpful to families looking for information about hospice care, experts believe it is of limited use right now. According to Dr. Joanne Lynn of the Altarum Institute, a nonprofit health systems research and consulting organization, patients looking for hospice care need different information, including the hospice staff's average caseload, the percentage of patients discharged alive, and the share of the hospice's resources devoted to at-home care versus nursing home care.

In addition to the uncertainty of the ratings, the website also has been experiencing a problem with its search function. When patients search for a provider by location, they may get agencies that do not serve their zip code. While the problem is being fixed, patients should call to confirm that hospice providers service their area.   

A robust hospice rating system is badly needed, according to a Kaiser Health News investigation. A review of 20,000 government inspection records found that hospice providers often missed visits and neglected patients who were dying at home. Families or caregivers have filed more than 3,200 complaints with state officials in the past five years.

To begin comparing hospice providers, click here

Medicare Advantage Enrollees More Likely to go to Lower Quality Nursing Homes

A new study has found that people enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan were more likely to enter a lower-quality nursing home than were people in traditional Medicare. The study raises questions about whether Medicare Advantage plans are influencing beneficiaries' decisionmaking when it comes to choosing a nursing home.

Medicare Advantage plans, an alternative to traditional Medicare, are provided by private insurers rather than the federal government. The government pays Medicare Advantage plans a fixed monthly fee to provide services to each Medicare beneficiary under their care, and the services must at least be equal to regular Medicare’s. While the plans sometimes offer benefits that original Medicare does not, the plans usually only cover care provided by doctors in their network or charge higher rates for out-of-network care.

The study, conducted by researchers at Brown University School of Public Health, examined Medicare beneficiaries entering nursing homes between 2012 and 2014. Using Medicare’s Nursing Home Compare website as the measure of quality, the study found that beneficiaries in Medicare Advantage plans tended to enter lower quality nursing homes than beneficiaries in original Medicare. This was true even when the researchers took into account the beneficiaries' distance from the nursing home and other decision factors. Even beneficiaries enrolled in highly rated Medicare Advantage plans were more likely to enter a low-quality nursing home compared to original Medicare beneficiaries.

The study does not draw any conclusions about whether the Medicare Advantage beneficiaries fared worse than original Medicare beneficiaries, only that they tended to enter facilities that had higher re-hospitalization rates and worse outcomes. The study concluded that Medicare Advantage plans may be influencing beneficiary decisionmaking around nursing home selection. According to Skilled Nursing News, one of the study’s authors speculated that a Medicare Advantage plan "might be incentivized to send patients to a given nursing home regardless of what the quality ratings are, because of a relationship with that nursing home or because they have a lot of patients in that nursing home and can better manage their care."

Information on exactly why this is happening is “of vital policy importance,” according to the study's authors. They recommend gathering more information about Medicare Advantage nursing home claims and re-hospitalization rates and requiring Medicare Advantage plans to be more transparent about the quality of nursing homes in their networks.

To read the study, which was also published in the January issue of the journal Health Affairs, click here.

New Medicare Cards (and New Medicare Scams)

The federal government is issuing new Medicare cards to all Medicare beneficiaries. To prevent fraud and fight identity theft, the new cards will no longer have beneficiaries' Social Security numbers on them.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is replacing each beneficiary's Social Security number with a unique identification number, called a Medicare Beneficiary Identifier (MBI). Each MBI will consist of a combination of 11 randomly generated numbers and upper case letters. The characters are "non-intelligent," which means they don't have any hidden or special meaning. The MBI is confidential like the Social Security number and should be kept similarly private.

The CMS will begin mailing the cards in April 2018 in phases based on the state the beneficiary lives in. The new cards should be completely distributed by April 2019. If your mailing address is not up to date, call 800-772-1213, visit www.ssa.gov, or go to a local Social Security office to update it.

The changeover is attracting scammers who are using the introduction of the new cards as a fresh opportunity to separate Medicare beneficiaries from their money. According to Kaiser Health News, the scams to look out for include phone calls with callers:

  • claiming to be from Medicare looking for your direct deposit number and using the new cards as an excuse,
  • asking for your Social Security number to verify information,
  • claiming Medicare recipients need to pay money to receive a temporary card, or
  • threatening to cancel your insurance if you don't give out your card number.

There is no cost for the new cards. It is important to know that Medicare will never call, email or visit you unless you ask them to, nor will they ask you for money or for your Medicare number. If you receive any calls that seem suspicious, don't give out any personal information and hang up. You should call 1-800-MEDICARE to report the activity or you can contact your local Senior Medicare Patrol (SMP). To contact your SMP, call 877-808-2468 or visit www.smpresource.org.

For more information about the new cards, click here and here.

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