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Tag: Senior Care

The Really Bad Math Behind the Social Security Cuts

Among the sacrifices Congressional representatives placed on the altar of deficit negotiations is an “inflation adjustment” that will shave “only” a few hundred dollars from an average, newly retired Social Security beneficiary’s income each year. But the cruel hoax is that the reduction will amount to as much as $1600 when the beneficiary is older, poorer, and sicker.  Many seniors already have a tough time paying for food, rent, and medical care.

Even worse,  reductions in beneficiaries’ incomes may well cost government more for potentially preventable hospital and long-term care.  Senator Elizabeth Warren and other New England lawmakers should be lauded for splitting from Democratic representatives and the Administration regarding this ill-conceived proposal.

Many senior citizens are already vulnerable to economic hardship.  A recent US Census analysis that counts rising medical expenses found that over 1 in 6 elderly people live in poverty, unable to meet basic living expenses, and almost 20% more are living just above the poverty line. Social Security is the only or largest source of income for about 70% of seniors; the average monthly check is only about $1200.

The typical retirement savings of seniors is a paltry $50,000 — barely enough to get through several years’ living expenses, let alone 20-30 years of retirement.  This is not the result of cavalier actions by the older generation; these are the Americans whose home values have plummeted, whose defined-benefit pension plans have been decimated or disappeared, and whose retirement accounts were eviscerated by the Wall Street meltdown of the last decade. Yet the current proposal punishes these Americans as if they were at fault for their poverty.

Fidelity Investments has estimated that the average retired couple will need more than $200,000 to pay their out-of-pocket medical expenses during retirement, and that figure is probably conservative.

The arithmetic of Social Security benefit reductions just doesn’t fit with this reality.

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Criminal Charges for Providers Won’t Fix the NHS, Dr. Berwick

One of US President Barack Obama’s key health advisers has just published a review in the aftermath of the Mid Staffordshire hospital scandal. Don Berwick’s review is both thoughtful and reflective but one of his key recommendations – to create criminal sanctions against health staff – will not make the NHS safer for patients.

Many patients, particularly elderly ones, suffered unnecessary indignities and avoidable harm at Mid Staffordshire.

The Francis report into the crisis concluded that patients were routinely neglected by a health trust more preoccupied with cutting costs and meeting targets rather than its responsibility to provide safe care. Patients’ calls for help to use the bathroom were ignored and some were left lying in soiled sheeting or sitting on commodes for hours. Events and failings there will probably go down in history as the blackest and bleakest moment for the NHS.

When the report was published in February, the government committed to appointing a advisory group of patients to consider the various accounts of what happened and the recommendations made by Robert Francis and others. The idea was that they would distill for the government and the NHS what lessons should be learned and what changes needed to be made.

Don Berwick, who worked on the long fought for Obamacare provisions in the US, is director and co-founder of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Boston. He was called in by the government to reflect on the Francis report and on patient safety.

Berwick’s review makes ten recommendations including that sufficient staff are available to meet the NHS’s needs now and in the future – staff should be well-supported and able to ensure safe care at all times; quality and safety sciences and practices should be a part of the initial preparation and lifelong education of all health care professionals, including managers and executives; and leaders should create and support learning and subsequently change, at scale, within the NHS.

But most controversial is his final recommendation:

We support responsive regulation of organizations, with a hierarchy of responses. Recourse to criminal sanctions should be extremely rare, and should function primarily as a deterrent to willful or reckless neglect or mistreatment.

Berwick proposes the government creates a new general offence of “willful or reckless neglect”, applicable both to organisations and individuals. Organizational sanctions might involve removing leaders and disqualifying them from future leadership roles, public reprimand of the organization and, in extreme cases, financial sanctions – but only where that will not compromise patient care.

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Why You Should Care About the Drugs Your Doctor Prescribes

The following column appears today on THCB, in the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times and at ProPublica.

Your doctor hands you a prescription for a blood pressure drug. But is it the right one for you?

You’re searching for a new primary care physician or a specialist. Is there a way you can know whether the doctor is more partial to expensive, brand-name drugs than his peers?

Or say you’ve got to find a nursing home for a loved one. Wouldn’t you want to know if the staff doctor regularly prescribes drugs known to be risky for seniors or overuses psychiatric drugs to sedate residents?

For most of us, evaluating a doctor’s prescribing habits is just about impossible. Even doctors themselves have little way of knowing whether their drug choices fall in line with those of their peers.

Once they graduate from medical schools, physicians often have a tough time keeping up with the latest clinical trials and sorting through the hype on new drugs. Seldom are they monitored to see if they are prescribing appropriately — and there isn’t even universal agreement on what good prescribing is.

This dearth of knowledge and insight matters for both patients and doctors. Drugs are complicated. Most come with side effects and risk-benefit calculations. What may work for one person may be absolutely inappropriate, or even harmful, for someone else.

Antipsychotics, for example, are invaluable to treat severe psychiatric conditions. But they are too often used to sedate older patients suffering from dementia — despite a “black-box” warning accompanying the drugs that they increase the risk of death in such patients.
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How My Parents’ Death Changed My Thinking About End-Of-Life Care

My sister and I took our positions in the funeral home’s family room and greeted hundreds of mourners who had come to pay their respects. Everything seemed as it had four months earlier at our mother’s funeral. The ubiquitous tissue boxes. My navy pinstriped suit. The ripped black ribbon, a Jewish tradition, affixed to my lapel.

But this time, we were accepting condolences after the death of our dad, who stood next to us such a short time before.

It’s hard enough to lose one parent. Losing two within months is incomprehensible. When I left my parents’ Michigan apartment last month, I couldn’t believe it would be for the last time. I’ve replayed phone messages so that I could hear their voices again. And each morning, I look at Dad’s watch on my wrist, thinking it should be on his.

Two days before my dad died, I celebrated the first Mother’s Day without my mom. Now, I’m marking the first Father’s Day without my dad.

As I’ve mourned my parents, I’ve been struck by how many stories I’ve heard about husbands and wives dying soon after their spouses. One of my high school teachers lost both parents within a year; so did a journalist friend in Los Angeles. My rabbi told me his parents died only months apart.

My mom buried both of her parents within the same week in April 1979, when I was 5. My zaydee died first, unable to fathom life without his wife, who lay dying in the hospital. My bubbe died during his funeral two days later.

I wondered whether there was more to this than coincidence, and sure enough, there’s a well-documented “widowhood effect.” Those who lose a spouse are about 40 percent more likely to die within six months than those with living spouses. The effect has been found in a host of countries, across a range of ages, in widows and in widowers – though men are more likely to die soon after losing spouses than women are.

S.V. Subramanian, a professor of population health and geography at Harvard University, co-wrote a review published in 2011 that looked at more than a dozen studies on the effect. “We never say that grief is a disease,” he told me. “But what some of this research is showing is that at older ages, grief can make you more vulnerable to mortality.”

Subramanian said his uncle’s parents died within days of one another.

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The Bounce Back Effect

Critically ill Medicare patients, who are battling for stable health at the end of life, are victims of repeated hospitalizations, especially after being discharged to a skilled nursing facility (SNF).  The cycle of hospitalizations is an indicator of poor care coordination and discharge planning – causing the patient to get sicker after every “bounce back” to the hospital.  Total spending for SNF care was approximately $31 billion in 2011; with an estimated one in four patients being re-hospitalized within thirty days of discharge to a SNF.[1]

Each readmission leads to further test and treatments, higher health care costs, and most importantly, patient suffering.  It is hard to imagine that patients would prefer to spend their last few months of life shuttling from one healthcare setting to another and receiving aggressive interventions that have little benefit to their quality and longevity of life.  The heroic potential of medical care should not compromise the patient’s opportunity to die with dignity.   A hospital is not a place to die.

Medicare beneficiaries are eligible to receive post-acute care at SNFs, after a three day hospital admission stay.  SNFs provide skilled services such as post-medical or post-surgical rehabilitation, wound care, intravenous medication and necessities that support basic activities of daily living.  Medicare Part A covers the cost of SNF services for a maximum of 100 days, with a co-payment of $148/day assessed to the patient after the 20th day.  If a patient stops receiving skilled care for more than 30 days, then a new three day hospital stay is required to qualify for the allotted SNF care days that remain on the original 100 day benefit.  However, if the patient stops receiving care for at least 60 days in a row, then the patient is eligible for a new 100 day benefit period after the required three day hospital admission.[1]  It is evident that the eligibility for the Medicare SNF benefit is dependent on hospitalizations – many of which may be a formality and a source of unnecessary costs.

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Stepping Up to the Long-Term Care Crisis

It starts with a call that a loved one is in the hospital after being in a serious accident. Sometimes it comes from having chronic health conditions that minimize daily functioning as one grows older. These life-changing events present individuals and their families with a new set of needs and challenges that require a variety of human capital and financial resources to redefine and maintain daily living on their terms.

The likelihood that you or someone you love will need this kind of support is greater than you may think. While nearly all Americans hope to remain in their homes as long as possible—enjoying good health and living independently—the reality is that 70 percent of people over 65 will need some form of support to assist them with daily activities at some point in their lives, for an average of three years.

Over the next two decades, Americans will reach that milestone at a rate of nearly 8,000 a day. The older people become, the more likely they will need long-term care, and with advances in medicine and technology, we are living well into our 80’s and 90’s.

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The Moral Case for Romneycare 2.0

Since 2010, when the Affordability Care Act was signed into law, the American mainstream media has insisted that President Obama’s bill provides the most at-risk Americans, low income families and seniors, with better health care. And that must mean, by any logic, better access to doctors, more access to the modern tools of diagnosis and treatment, and ultimately better health outcomes. That poor Americans benefit greatly from the ACA, and that seniors will be more secure under the president’s law, has seemed so obvious to the left-leaning news outlets that this fact has yet to be critically examined by them.

President Obama’s ACA law purports to provide new health coverage to upwards of 16 million low income Americans by way of Medicaid. We already see in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that many, if not most, states simply cannot be burdened with massive increases in their Medicaid outlays, regardless of the promise of financial support from the federal government (itself a financially unsustainable funding source).

But President Obama’s assertion about new insurance for the poor and all it brings is, in fact, a grand deception. We know that 55 percent of primary care physicians and obstetricians already refuse all or most new Medicaid patients (about four times the percentage that refuse new private insurance patients), and only half of specialist doctors accept most new Medicaid patients. Clearly, granting poor people Medicaid is not equivalent to providing access to doctors.

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Why Medicare Matters

Now that Mitt Romney has picked Paul Ryan to be his running mate, a major national debate on Representative Ryan’s so-called ‘premium support’ plan has become certain. Ryan’s plan would replace the current Medicare program for workers under the age of 55. When eligible, they would receive a flat dollar amount—or voucher—that would cover part of the cost of a health insurance plan. The value of the voucher would be adjusted annually according to a pre-specified index. If health care costs increased faster than that index, enrollees would have to pay the added cost themselves or accept narrowed insurance coverage.

Because that plan would not apply to anyone age 55 or older, supporters claim that older Americans don’t ‘have a dog in that fight.’ For reasons I explain below, that isn’t true, even if one looks only at Representative Ryan’s Medicare proposal. Other elements of the Romney/Ryan health care program have even larger implications for older Americans, but let’s start with the Ryan Medicare plan.

Costs for Seniors Could Rise

The claim that the Ryan plan leaves American’s over age 55 unaffected is untrue because it is likely to raise the amount they have to pay out-of-pocket for insurance. The reason is technical, but easy to understand. The premium for those who stay in traditional Medicare under the Ryan plan would be calculated as under current law, but the average cost of serving those who remain in traditional Medicare would go up as private insurance companies market selectively to those with relatively low anticipated costs.

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All Hell Hath Broken Loose

I’ve never seen a week in health care policy like last week. The media reports have to be in the thousands, all trying to make sense of the furious debate between Obama and Romney over Medicare.

As someone who has studied this issue for more than 20 years, it has also been more than exasperating for me to watch each side trade claims and for the press to try to make sense of it.

This blog post is quite long because the subject matter is complicated. If you want to cut to the chase, see my conclusion and summary at the end of this post.

Allow me to list a few of the questions people are asking and give you my take on it.

Will current seniors suffer under the Romney-Ryan Medicare plan?

No. Let me start by saying something that will likely surprise you. If I could be king for a day, I would prohibit anyone over the age of 60 from voting in this election. This election is really about the future and the big decisions on the table are about the long-term government spending and entitlement issues that should be made by younger voters who will have to pay for them and will benefit or suffer from them.

Those in their 60s and older are almost surely going to cruise to the end with the benefits they now have.

Whether its Obama’s Medicare plan, based heavily on the Medicare cost control board imbedded in his health reform bill (which doesn’t begin to impact hospital costs until 2020), or the Romney/Ryan Medicare premium support plan (that has no effect on anyone now over the age of 55), today’s seniors’ benefits are insulated from this issue.

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