Palliative Care Can Provide Comfort to Dying Residents

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 10, 2015

           A recently published study, by Brown University researchers, takes a look at end-of-life care in America’s nursing facilities, seeking to answer the question, is knowledge and access to information on palliative associated with a reduced likelihood of aggressive end-of-life treatment?

Brown researchers say when a nursing facility resident is dying, oftentimes aggressive interventions like inserting a feeding tube or sending the patient to the emergency room can futilely worsen, rather than relieve, their distress. While palliative care can pull resources together in a facility to provide comfort at the end of a resident’s life, the knowledge of it varies among nursing directors.  A new large national study found that the more nursing directors knew about palliative care, the lower the likelihood that their patients would experience aggressive end-of-life care.

Susan C. Miller, professor (research) of health services, policy and practice in the Brown University School of Public Health and lead author of the study in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, published March 16, 2015, worked with colleagues to survey nursing directors at more than 1,900 nursing facilities across the nation between July 2009 and June 2010.  The researchers hoped to learn more about their knowledge of palliative care and their facility’s implementation of key palliative care practices.

Knowledge Is Power

According to the findings of the Brown study, the first nationally representative sample of palliative care familiarity at nursing homes, more than one in five of the surveyed directors had little or no basic palliative care knowledge, although 43 percent were fully versed.

“While the Institute of Medicine has called for greater access to skilled palliative care across settings, the fact that one in five U.S. nursing home directors of nursing had very limited palliative care knowledge demonstrates the magnitude of the challenge in many nursing homes,” Miller said. “Improvement is needed as are efforts to facilitate this improvement, including increased Medicare/Medicaid surveyor oversight of nursing home palliative care and quality indicators reflecting provision of high-quality palliative care,” she said, noting that besides quizzing the directors the researchers also analyzed Medicare data on the 58,876 residents who died during the period to identify the type of treatments they experienced when they were dying.

When researchers analyzed palliative care knowledge together with treatment at end of life, they found that the more directors knew about basic palliative care, the lower likelihood that nursing facility residents would experience feeding tube insertion, injections, restraints, suctioning, and emergency room or other hospital trips. Meanwhile, residents in higher-knowledge facilities also had a higher likelihood of having a documented six-month prognosis.

The study shows only an association between palliative care knowledge and less aggressive end-of-life care, the authors say, noting that knowledge leads to improved care, but it could also be that at nursing facilities with better care in general, there is also greater knowledge.  But if there is a causal relationship, then it could benefit thousands of nursing facilities residents every year for their nursing home caregivers to learn more about palliative care, the authors conclude.

Progress in Providing End-of-Life Care

Virginia M. Burke, J.D. President and CEO of the non-profit Rhode Island Health Care Association, said, “We were gratified that the authors found that most of the nursing directors who responded to their survey gave correct answers on all (43% of respondents) or most (36%of respondents) of the “knowledge” questions on palliative care.  We were also gratified to see that the number of hospitalizations during the last thirty days of life has declined significantly over the past ten years, as has the number of individuals who receive tube feedings during their last thirty days.  The need for continued progress is clear.”

Burke, representing three-quarters of Rhode Island’s skilled nursing and rehabilitation centers, adds, “It is not at all surprising that greater understanding of palliative care leads to better application of palliative care.”

The states’s nursing facilities are committed to providing person-centered end of life care, says Burke, noting that according to the National Palliative Care Research Center, Rhode Island’s hospitals are among the top performers for palliative care.  “We suspect that our state’s nursing facilities are as well.  We would be very interested in state specific results in order to see any areas where we can improve.”

Says spokesperson Director Michael Raia, of Rhode Island’s Health & Human Services Agency, “We need to provide the right care in the right place at the right time for all patients.”

When it comes to nursing facilities, Raia calls for reversing the payment incentives so that facilities are rewarded for providing better quality care and having better patient outcomes.  He notes that the Reinventing Medicaid Act of 2015 reinvests nursing home reimbursement rate savings into newly created incentive pools for nursing homes and long-term care providers that reward facilities for providing better quality care, including higher quality palliative care.

Bringing Resources to Families

With caregiving one of AARP’s most important issues, it’s no surprise that the organization provides a great deal of guidance on palliative care, stressing that “it involves organizations and professionals coming together to meet a person’s needs both in terms of pain management, along with emotional and spiritual perspectives,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell.

Connell says that “It’s is truly a team effort in which nursing home staff become key players. The resources are important to patient with chronic and terminal issues. Their families need help, too. So it is important any time we learn more about ways we can address this very important healthcare need.”

Adds Connell, “In Rhode Island, I’m confident that we have nursing homes that are dedicated to easing the difficulty of this particularly stressful stage of life. They give patients and their families enormous comfort. We certainly applaud their compassion and hope the report is helpful anywhere it identifies a need for improvement,” adds Connell.

AARP’s Caregiving Resource Center (http://www.aarp.org/home-family/caregiving/) includes an End of Life section. Check out a specific palliative care resource at  http://assets.aarp.org/external_sites/caregiving/multimedia/EG_PalliativeCare.html

To read the Brown Palliative Care Study go to http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/jpm.2014.0393.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

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Meals on Wheels Should Be Expanded

 Published in Pawtucket Times, October 25, 2013

            A warm, nutritious meal combined with social interaction can go a long way to putting the brakes to a state’s spiraling Medicaid costs.  According to new study findings detailed in this months issue of Health Affairs by Brown University public health researchers, expanding programs like Meals on Wheels, would save 26 of 48 states money in their Medicaid programs, just by allowing a person to stay in their own homes. 

            Kali Thomas, Assistant Professor of Research in the Brown University School of Public Health, says that if every U.S. state in the lower 48 expanded the number of seniors receiving meals by just 1 percent, 1,722 more Medicaid recipients avoid living in a nursing facility and most states would experience a net annual savings from implementing the expansion.

Put the Brakes to Medicaid Costs

            According to the study’s findings, Medicaid cost savings would be different in every state.  For instance, Pennsylvania would see the greatest net savings – $5.7 million – as Medicaid costs for nursing facility care decrease more than costs rose for delivering the additional meals.  Meanwhile, Florida would see a net cost of nearly $11.5 million instead. Overall, 26 states would stand to see a net savings according to the Brown University Public Health analysis, while 22 would end up spending more.

            Every state would enable more seniors, who could live independently except for meals, to remain in their homes regardless of whether they are on Medicaid.

            Thomas, the study’s lead author, believes the study’s findings can provide guidance for state lawmakers and state policymakers as they hammer out budget funding for home-delivered meals programs, which are conducted under the Older Americans Act.

            “We wanted to provide a roadmap for people,” Thomas said.

             To calculate Medicaid savings, Thomas and co-author Vincent Mor, Brown’s Florence Pirce Grant Professor of Community Health, examined data, including how many seniors in each state receive home-delivered meals and how much it costs each state to provide those meals. She and Mor also took a look at nursing facility and Medicaid data to estimate the number of seniors that Medicaid maintains in nursing facilities who are “low-care,” meaning they may have the functional capabilities to live at home. Finally they looked at the per diem Medicaid pays in each state for seniors to live in nursing facilities.

 Keeping Seniors at Home

             The study findings allowed them to estimate the incremental cost of providing meals to 1 percent more seniors in each state, the number of additional seniors on Medicaid who would no longer need to live in nursing facilities, and how much less Medicaid would have to pick up for the higher level of care in each state.

            The researchers found that the 1 percent expansion nationwide would bring meals to 392,594 more seniors at a cost of more than $117 million. Because 1,722 seniors would no longer have to live in costly nursing facilities paid for by Medicaid, total program savings would total $109 million.

            The reason why the study’s findings indicate that additional food delivery costs outstrip Medicaid savings nationwide, even though most states would save money on a net basis, is that in some very large states with relatively few low-care seniors or relatively low Medicaid per diems, food costs outweighed the resulting Medicaid savings on a relatively large scale.

            “In states like California and Florida where a 1-percent increase in the 65-plus population is a lot of people, it will cost those states a lot more to feed them,” Thomas said.

            But, as she and Mor wrote in Health Affairs, “Our analyses suggest that 26 states with high Medicaid nursing home per diem reimbursement rates, a large proportion of low-care [nursing home residents on Medicaid], and a relatively small population of older adults, could save money.”

            Thomas said states projected to lose money can opt to focus their efforts in ways that are more precise than an across-the-board expansion.

            “We’re not proposing that all states simply increase the proportion of age 65 plus receiving meals by 1 percent,” she said. “But if they were to target these vulnerable people who are at risk for nursing home placement they would likely see more savings. This is a program that has the potential to save states a lot of money if it’s done correctly.”

            Policymakers should consider not only the fiscal implications of providing home-delivered meals, which the study quantifies, but also the impact on individual seniors, said Thomas, who has seen the benefits anecdotally as a Meals on Wheels volunteer in both Florida and Rhode Island.

            Thomas’s research, detailed in this month’s issue of Health Affairs, which was completed last December, is featured in AARP Rhode Island’s award-winning documentary Hungry in the West End. Creator and director John Martin of the AARP

             Rhode Island state office screened the documentary in August at the Meals on Wheels Association of America National Conference in Boston. You can watch Hungry in the West End online at www.aarp.org/hungry.

             Although the quality of life argument is easy to see, other researchers, like Thomas, are closely looking at how the Meals on Wheels program can lower Medicaid costs.

             Based on a study by the Washington, D.C. based Center for Effective Government released in April 2013, every dollar invested in Meals on Wheels today could save taxpayers up to $50 in Medicaid costs down the road.

 Other Benefits of Meals on Wheels  

             Ellie Hollander, President and CEO of the Meals on Wheels Association of America, observes that both Brown University and the Center for Effective Government studies specifically focused on Medicaid savings attributable to nursing homes, but do not take into consideration significant savings that would be realized through reduced Medicare costs as well, through fewer visits to physicians and the emergency room and less hospitalization or reduced readmissions.

             Hollander says, “We have long known that the value of Meals on Wheels goes beyond the social and moral imperative of helping to address the epidemic of senior hunger in America.  “The friendly visit and a safety check are a lifeline enabling seniors to live more independently and healthy in their own homes, which in turn avoids far more costly health care alternatives often paid through Medicare and Medicaid,” she says.

             “The Brown University research proves what our work has long suggested to us: the Home Delivered Meals Program not only makes a positive impact for the senior, it is a good investment for the state as well,” says Executive Director Heather Amaral, Meals on Wheels of RI.

            Another study is in the works to support Thomas’ efforts to closely look at the impact of nutritious home delivered meals.  According to Hollander, a $350,000 grant from the AARP Foundation and the Meals on Wheels Association announced on Oct. 6 will enable Thomas to begin her randomized controlled trial of 600 seniors representing a cross-section of rural, urban, low income and minority populations across the country and a majority of the grant will be used to feed these seniors.            

            In this upcoming study, 200 seniors will receive meals daily, 200 more will receive a delivery of frozen meals once a week and then another 200 will continue on the waiting list as before as a control group. The study will compare quality of life, isolation, and health care utilization among individuals before and after they begin receiving meals and across the three groups.

             Holland says, “Through our generous grant from AARP Foundation, and with Dr. Thomas and Brown University’s help, we will seek to monetize the value add of the “more than a meal” component of Meals on Wheels.”

A Call for Support

            On AARP.org, Kathleen S. Connell, Rhode Island AARP State Director, calls on state lawmakers to take a very hard look at how they fund the state’s Meals on Wheels program.  Connell urges Congress not to put the Meals on Wheels program on the budgetary chopping block as a way to chop the huge federal budget deficit.

            Connell says that “Leaders need to be reminded that Meals on Wheels recipients aren’t unemployed workers waiting to return to jobs that will accompany an economic recovery. They are older retirees living on limited fixed incomes. With the cost of prescription medicines, healthcare and utilities going up, they sometimes can’t afford to eat. Many commonly sacrifice on food because of money worries – real or feared.”

            Connell notes, “Meals on Wheels is a big deal [to seniors]. No one should take it for granted.”

            Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.