Forced to Choose: Nursing Home vs. Hospice

An older person, someone who will die within six months, leaves a hospital. Where does she go?

Almost a third of the time, according to a recent study from the University of California, San Francisco, records show she takes advantage of Medicare’s skilled-nursing facility benefit and enters a nursing home. But is that the best place for end-of-life care?

In terms of monitoring her vital signs and handling IVs — the round-the-clock nursing care the skilled-nursing facility benefit is designed to provide — maybe so. But for treating end-of-life symptoms like pain and shortness of breath, for providing spiritual support for her and her family, for palliative care that helps her through the ultimate transition – hospice is the acknowledged expert.

She could receive hospice care, also covered by Medicare, while in the nursing home. But since Medicare only rarely reimburses for both hospice and the skilled-nursing facility benefit at the same time, this hypothetical patient and her family face a financial bind. If she opts for the hospice benefit, which does not include room and board at the nursing home, then she will be on the hook for hundreds of dollars a day to remain in the facility.

She could use the hospice benefit at home, of course. But, “we know these patients are medically complex,” said Katherine Aragon, lead author of the study in The Archives of Internal Medicine, and now a palliative care specialist at Lawrence General Hospital in Massachusetts. “And we know that taking care of someone near the end of life can be very demanding, hard for families to manage at home.” And that assumes the patient has a family or a home.

For some patients, a nursing home, though possibly dreaded, is the only place that can provide 24/7 care.

But if she uses the skilled-nursing facility benefit to pay for room and board in a facility, she probably has to forgo hospice. (The exception: if she was hospitalized for something unrelated to her hospice diagnosis. If she has cancer, then trips and breaks a hip, she can have both nursing home coverage and hospice. If cancer itself caused the bone to fracture, no dice.)

Let’s acknowledge that these are lousy choices.

The study, using data from the National Health and Retirement Study from 1994 through 2007, looked at more than 5,000 people who initially lived in the community – that is, not in a facility. About 30 percent used the skilled-nursing facility benefit during the final six months of life; those people were likely to be over 85 and family members said, after their deaths, that they had expected them to die soon. (The benefit is commonly referred to as S.N.F., which people in the field pronounce as “sniff”).

The choice to use S.N.F. had ongoing repercussions. Almost 43 percent of those who used it died in a nursing home and almost 40 percent in a hospital. Just 11 percent died at home, though that is where most people prefer to die, studies repeatedly show.

Among those who didn’t use the S.N.F. benefit, more than 40 percent died at home.

In effect, nursing homes were providing end-of-life care, expensively and probably not so well, for almost a third of the elderly population.

The skilled-nursing facility benefit, Dr. Aragon pointed out in an interview, is meant to provide rehabilitation. “The hope is that someone will get stronger and go home,” she said.

Sometimes, of course, that is what happens.

“What we may be missing is that this patient is on an end-of-life trajectory,” she continued. “Maybe they can’t get stronger.”

Moreover, Dr. Aragon pointed out, nursing homes often have financial incentives to keep re-hospitalizing patients. After three days in a hospital, the skilled-nursing facility benefit starts anew, and it reimburses at a higher level than Medicaid, which pays for most nursing home care.

Because this unhappy choice between hospice care and nursing home reimbursement reflects federal policy, there may be little that individual families can do. If physicians are willing to honestly discuss their patients’ prognosis, to assess whether a nursing home stay will lead to rehabilitation or whether it is where a patient will likely die, sooner rather than later, families may have some personal options.

If they knew that death was likely within a few months, they might try to provide care at home with hospice help for that limited time, difficult as that is. Or they might be able to muster enough money to pay for a few months in a nursing home, so that their parent can be a resident and still receive hospice care.

But these are still lousy choices. “Palliative care should be part of nursing home care,” said Alexander K. Smith, the study’s senior author and a palliative care specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. “And that regulation that prevents concurrent use of the S.N.F. benefit and hospice isn’t in the interest of patients and families.”

Paula Span is the author of “When the Time Comes: Families With Aging Parents Share Their Struggles and Solutions.”