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New Legislation Seeks to Create A New Medicare Benefit

A transitional care benefit would provide services to help patients recover after hospitalization and reduce the risk and costs to Medicare of being admitted again.

Legislation being introduced in Congress aims to create a new benefit for Medicare beneficiaries. The benefit would provide coverage for services designed to help patients recover during those first critical days and weeks after leaving the hospital and reduce the risk—and the extra costs to Medicare—of having to be admitted again.

A bill was recently introduced in the Senate by Michael Bennet, D-Colo. A House bill, sponsored by Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Charles Boustany, R-La., is expected to be introduced before the Memorial Day recess.

Such a benefit “would enhance the health care experience for millions of older Americans and their family caregivers, improve their health outcomes and achieve substantial health care savings for the Medicare program,” Mary Naylor, professor of gerontology at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing, told a recent Senate Finance Committee roundtable on health care reform.

The lack of coordinated care during transitions—typically from the hospital to home, but also to a rehabilitation center or nursing home—has long been known. This is the time when patients, especially those with chronic conditions, are at their most vulnerable. It is also when they are least likely to receive the special care they need.

But only in the last year or so has compelling evidence emerged to make lawmakers sit up and pay attention. The most recent study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in April, showed that one in five Medicare beneficiaries who are discharged from the hospital goes back in within 30 days, and more than one-third do so within 90 days. The study estimated that the cost of these readmissions to Medicare in just one year (2004) was $17.4 billion.

“A lot of patients assume that health care professionals are communicating with one another and that there’s this whole elaborate way of ensuring continuity across care settings,” says Eric Coleman, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Denver and lead author of the study. “The reality is that health care is very fragmented, with very little interaction between hospitals, primary care doctors, and other providers.”

The result is that, too often, patients with multiple health problems are discharged from the hospital with no clear plan for what they should do to make a good recovery. At a time when their progress needs careful monitoring, they and their family caregivers are often left to their own devices.

Among such caregivers, 25 percent interviewed in a recent survey by AARP’s Public Policy Institute reported that the transitional care was not well coordinated, and 15 percent said there had been no follow-up medical visits after the hospital discharge. In the New England Journal of Medicine study, half of the patients who returned to the hospital within 30 days had never seen a doctor in that time.

AARP is advocating strongly for a transition benefit as an integral part of health care reform. “With a little assistance to help in the transition back to home, many older people could avoid the painful and costly setbacks that send them back to the hospital soon after discharge,” says Cheryl Matheis, AARP’s director of health strategies. “This is an example of how reform improves quality and saves money.”

In recent years, several possible approaches to improving care during these transitions have been tried and tested—notably the pioneering Transitional Care Model project led by Naylor in Pennsylvania, the Guided Care program led by Chad Boult, M.D., professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and the Care Transitions Program led by Coleman in Denver.

Naylor’s approach focuses on using specially trained nurses to act as care coordinators on a health team. They work personally with patients and caregivers to develop a tailored care plan that includes regular home visits for two months after discharge and telephone support available daily. They also arrange follow-up visits to the hospital and doctor’s office, call on any community services that are needed and help patients manage their medications, exercise regimes, and other therapies. Supporting family caregivers is also seen as a vital part of the care.

Boult’s approach uses nurses based in primary care doctors’ offices who assess patients’ needs, monitor their conditions, help them become engaged in their own care, and work with community services to ensure that their health goals are met.

Coleman’s approach is less labor-intensive. His program focuses exclusively on teaching patients to help themselves. Trained coaches—who may be nurses, social workers, or health plan employees—spend four weeks showing newly discharged patients how to manage their medications, spot symptoms that indicate their condition is getting worse, and learn how to respond. They also teach patients how to use a personal health record to track their own progress and be proactive in scheduling doctor appointments. “We make patients and caregivers explicit members of our team and not just passive recipients of care,” Coleman says.

Such approaches have been shown to reduce hospital readmissions by about half. In one study of patients in Naylor’s Transitional Care group, 28 percent were back in the hospital within 26 weeks, compared with 56 percent in a control group. In a study using Coleman’s coaching method, 15 percent of patients were readmitted within 60 days, compared with 29 percent of those who had not been coached.

Currently the federal Medicare agency is funding 14 projects around the nation to study how transitional care can reduce readmissions and cut costs. All of these programs provide experiences on which lawmakers can draw in crafting a Medicare transitional care benefit.

Patricia Barry is a senior editor at AARP Bulletin Today.

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