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Boosting home health care

Published by Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Charlotte Weaver
August 7, 2014

Make a visit to almost any U.S. hospital today, and you’ll likely find a similar scenario: nursing units with an abundance of aging patients not necessarily sick enough to remain hospitalized, but not quite well enough to go home.

For these millions of Americans and their families, the choices can seem frustratingly limited. Once the acute phase of an illness or injury has passed, remaining an inpatient in a hospital is both expensive and unnecessary. However, with symptoms that still require intense monitoring and follow up, medical staff and case managers cannot safely discharge patients home. Independent seniors, who are comfortable in their own homes and communities, often bristle at the suggestion of skilled nursing facilities or assisted living.

Fortunately, a valuable alternative allows 3.5 million Americans — including more than 85,000 here in Georgia — to remain healthy and comfortable in their own homes. Skilled home health care has evolved in recent years from services that were primarily geared toward helping patients with basic daily tasks, to the delivery of increasingly sophisticated care for patients living with more chronic and complex health conditions.

As a nurse and chief clinical officer of a home health organization serving more than 12,000 seniors in the Atlanta area, I’ve witnessed the remarkable benefits home health care plays in the lives of patients and their families. Working hand-in-hand with family practice physicians, hospital doctors and case managers, my staff and I have helped patients effectively manage what can be debilitating health conditions, allowing them to continue their lives and daily activities in their own homes.

I’m also all too aware the delivery of this valuable care faces significant challenges if Medicare policies in Washington are not changed. Although the Medicare home health benefit enables millions of vulnerable seniors and disabled individuals to access this high-quality, clinically advanced care at home — at a cost far below the alternative option of expensive hospitalizations and facility-based care — recent changes to the Medicare benefit do not fully recognize the value.

On Jan. 1, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) cut funding for skilled Medicare home health by 3.5 percent annually for the next four years, equal to an unprecedented cut of 14 percent. According to CMS, this cut will leave “approximately 40 percent” of the nation’s home health agencies operating at a loss by 2017, putting 1.3 million vulnerable Medicare patients and upwards of 465,000 home health professionals in jeopardy.

Here in Georgia, where we have the nation’s 11th fastest-growing population of people 60 years old and older, data analyses show the Medicare cut will leave home health agencies across our state facing bankruptcy and closure — especially our state’s smaller agencies, which often treat patients in rural and underserved areas.

Fortunately, lawmakers in Washington, led by Georgia Rep. Tom Price, are taking steps to safeguard home health care for our seniors. These legislators need our support.

Congressman Price has sponsored the Securing Access Via Excellence (SAVE) Medicare Home Health Act which, if passed, would provide our patients and community with much-needed relief. By repealing the deep 3.5 percent-per-year cut currently slated for the next three years, this legislation would protect patients, jobs and home health businesses across our state. In their place, the SAVE Medicare Home Health Act utilizes hospital readmission reform to achieve savings by improving care for Medicare beneficiaries and reducing avoidable spending.

The legislation establishes a program to reduce hospital readmissions by establishing incentives that reward positive outcomes. These policy reforms would enable millions of seniors to remain in the comfort of their homes, rather than return to institutional settings, and would achieve significant savings for the Medicare program.

Even with today’s modern medicine, it’s impossible to delay the aging process. It is possible, however, to change and continually improve the process by which older Americans are cared for in their golden years. I hope all Americans, and Georgians, will continue to have the option of choosing skilled home health care should they ever need it. I applaud Congressman Price for introducing this critical Medicare reform legislation and urge his colleagues in Congress to follow his lead.

Charlotte Weaver is chief clinical officer at Gentiva Health Services Inc., an Atlanta-based provider of home health and hospice services.

See the original article here.

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