05/27/2010 09:30 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Little known Life-saving Medicare Benefit

This issue of my Gray Matters column is personal. But it needs to be said for Huffington Post, a marvelous service of modern journalism, pays too little attention to the issues facing older Americans, many of whom, like me, are online and eager to be part of the onine community. So, here goes..

My cancer doctor told me in writing, that I had six months to live. But he acknowledged he could not be sure and that the six months could be extended indefinitely.

That made me eligible to take advantage of a little understood, free Medicare program that has been enhanced by the new health insurance reforms, and could be available to anyone with a prolonged, chronic life-threatening illness. I'm talking about the Medicare/Medicaid hospice program.

Until recently entering a hospice program was frightening because it meant you understood you were dying and you voluntarily agreed to forgo chemotherapy or any other curative treatment, and were given only palliatives, painkillers and bedside help from professional whose job it was to make you comfortable.

All that has changed. As Dylan Thomas told us, we should "not go gentle into that good night." So hospice should no longer be feared and avoided like the "dying of the light." Rather it should be embraced as a fine, comprehensive home health care program.

A little background: In 1995, Medicare was under assault from the Republican congress led by Newt Gingrich. Specifically, Medicare's funds were cut to pay for private Medicare HMOs. And Medicare was criticized for the amount of money it was spending on the care of beneficiaries in the last year of their lives. Indeed it accounted for a third of Medicare spending.

Medicare responded with its pioneer hospice program to care for the dying. Hundreds of hospices were founded around the country, most of them funded by Medicare which included nurses, social workers and devoted volunteers, who became the providers of palliative care for the dying. Private insurers followed with coverage of hospice services, but private insurance carried heavy premiums; Medicare covered 100 percent of hospice costs.

I watched how it worked for a close relative who was dying of lung cancer and his family. Hospice supplied the hospital bed set up in the home. Hospice supplied the drugs he needed for pain as well as the care to keep him clean and comfortable. And hospice helped with bereavement counseling for his wife and son.

Then, as now, he was admitted to hospice because his doctor attested that he had less than six months to live. He died three months after his diagnosis. But remember the columnist Art Buchwald who cheated death and remained in hospice care for much longer than six months years? Because such predictions are more and more uncertain as treatment options have become available, the courts forced a change in Medicare regulations. A person could not be discharged from hospice because he lived longer than six months; the six months could be renewed indefinitely.

Since 2007 Congress and Medicare have realized that, with medical advances such as the CT-Scan, PET-Scan, open heart and by-pass surgery, radiation and chemotherapy that Medicare could not insist that hospice patients cannot take advantage of these possibilities, while fighting his or her disease. Medicare and private insurers adopted an "open access" policy, admitting into hospice-for curative and/or palliative treatment, as long as a doctor said they had no more than six months to live.

Thus hospice has become a comprehensive health care program for the seriously ill, who may or may not be close to death. Indeed, as I have learned, it is not at all rare that a beneficiary can get well enough to graduate from hospice. My hospice expects me to be one of those beneficiaries.

In the meantime, hospice assigns to a beneficiary a nurse who comes by your home regularly to check your vital signs, see how you're doing and help with chronic or even acute medical problems. Even more important the assigned nurse, or another nurse is on call 24/7. That means that if there is an emergency, such as a urinary problems, or the side effects of the chemotherapy, you need not go to the emergency room. I've learned that the hospice nurse on call is equipped and trained to deal with such problems. No longer do I need to call 911 on a weekend and go to an emergency room. Besides being traumatic and tiring, it would cost Medicare hundreds, even thousand of dollars.

Similarly, while a hospice beneficiary may keep routine appointments with doctors, hospice nurses are equipped to deal with colds, the flu and other ailments that would ordinarily send you to a physician, at Medicare' expense. And hospice will help a patient's oncologist by drawing blood often to keep track of possible problems such as a drop in the red or white cell counts or potassium and iron levels.

Thus hospice becomes your care giver in fighting the disease as well as preparing for the worst. Medicare hospice, for example, supplies beneficiaries with kits that include morphine and other powerful painkillers; I've put my kit away and have almost forgotten about it. The best option is to avid hospitalization for your illness, for Medicare requires that hospital patients forgo curative treatment.

In addition, Medicare hospice assigns to beneficiaries a licensed, professional social worker to help family care givers with advice, counseling and resources to help patients and families cope with the stresses of life-threatening and debilitating illness. Hospice may supply a hospital-style bed, with linens, or oxygen, or an IV to prevent dehydration

The recently passed health reforms expanded curative and palliative hospice care for children in Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). It allows children enrolled in either program to receive hospice services without forgoing curative treatment. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) are expected to require states to comply with the changes, which are to take effect in 2013.

Finally, as of next January 1, the reforms will require that a nurse practitioner or doctor must have a face-to-face encounter with the patient at the end of the six month period to recertify his/her eligibility.

Here is where you can read or download and print Medicare's 16-page booklet on its hospice services, including where to find a hospice near you:

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