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GRAY MATTERS: Medicare Home Health Care

Posted Feb 06 2010 2:30am

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the weekly Gray Matters column which appears here each Saturday. Links to past Gray Matters columns can be found here. Saul's Reflections columnin which he comments on newspolitics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generationalso appears at Time Goes By twice each month.


I learned the hard way: The greatest and the most predictable danger for older people is falling. Too oftena broken hip can lead to a deep and irreversible decline in one’s health or well-being if you don’t get the best of help quickly. For meI was laid temporarily low by a mild concussion.

Fortunatelyfor those of us who are eligibleMedicare and Medicaid have made some advances in fashioning benefits that will keep patients at home to mend instead of keeping them in a hospital which can be dirtydangerous and expensiveor sending them to a nursing homewhere the pamperingdiapering and surroundings can be even more debilitating.

I hope this is not too basicbut in case you’re a caregiver or a potential patient and you don’t knowor haven’t read the 2010 “Medicare and You” manualunder the Medicare lawafter a hospitalization of at least three days – sayfor an accidenta stroke or for a broken or surgically mended hip – a patient is entitled to up to 20 days of rehabilitation and therapy in a skilled nursing facility at no cost. (After 20 days the cost is more than $133 a day). The skilled nursing facilityI should addis not a nursing home. But nurses and therapists are available to help you bathe and dress until you’re able to do so for yourself.

A very important (and inexpensive) alternativewhen leaving the hospital or the nursing facility or if you simply need medical help getting over a wound or illness is home health carewhich Medicare covers and will cost you nothing. This is one of the best Medicare benefitsalthough too few beneficiaries or caregivers know about it.

I learned something about Medicare Home Health Care just a few days ago after I took a serious fall from the steep brick steps leading into my homewhich left me with bruisesa minor concussion and further impairment of my right arm and legwhich had been weakened by a stroke six years ago. For those of you who are wonderingeven six years into a stroketherapy can help.

That meant I needed trained professionals to look after my recovery from the concussion and to provide physical therapy to get me back on my feet. All it took to get part-time home health care was a prescription from a savvy emergency room physician who wrote in his Rx that the care was “medically necessary.”

As the manual says“a doctor must order it and a Medicare-certified home health agency must provide it.” That’s especially important for in past yearsMedicare cracked down on fly-by-night agencies who charged but didn’t deliver adequate care.

The hospital may recommend an agencybut you should use one that is recognized. In my areathe best is the Johns Hopkins Home Health group.

The home health services may include medical social servicesmaking sure you have help in the homeand part-time or intermittent home health aide services such as checking on a bandage or an IVadministering drugs or simply keeping track of your vital signs and the healing of a wound or a surgical site. The manual says that “you must be homebound” to receive such servicesbut that means you can leave home to visit a doctorgo to religious services or even go to adult day care.

In my casethe nurseAnne Bilderbackcame to the house twice a week to check my progress in getting over that concussion which left me weakened and occasionally dizzy. Another fall in the house could have been disastrous. She checked to make sure there were no side effects and lectured me on the need to drink fluids and keep my feet up to minimize swelling. And twice a week a physical therapist came to the house and spent an hour with me helping me to walkexercise my leg and even get up and down the steps from which I fell.

Medicare will not provide 24-hour nursing care nor will it provide meals or help with bathing and dressing unless these services are necessary for your plan of care. In shortif bathingdressing and meal taking are the only problems you havethey won’t be covered by Medicare. And if oxygen or a wheelchair or other durable medical equipment is requiredMedicare will pay 80 percent of the cost.

One more important thing about home health care. Medicare generally pays for up to nine weeks of visits and as much as 35 hours of care per weekalthough that may vary depending on the reasons for the care. My problem required much less than nine weeks. But Anne told me that a privatefor profit companyfor which she worked would urge her to discharge patients too soon in order to save money.

If you have a Medicare Advantage HMO or PPOit is supposed to offer you the same benefits that original Medicare offers. But some private insurance companies use only those health care agencies with which they have special business relationships - such as getting kickbacks. Thisplus the fact that some agencies billed Medicare for patients they did not seewere among of the reasons Medicare cut its support for home health care a few years back.

So be careful about which company you choose; check with a doctor or someone you know. And if you think you’ve been discharged too soonyou have the right to make a quick appeal.

See the Medicare website where you or a care giver may find and compare Medicare certified private (proprietary) and public non-profit home health care agencies. Or if you enter home health care in the search boxyou may download or read all 35 pages of the manual on the subjectwhich may be more than you want or need to know.

After discharge from home health careyou may continue physical or occupationalor speech therapy with a doctor’s prescription. If you go to a private therapistyou may run into a cap on the number of visits which was imposed by Congress a few years agoalthough there are exceptions for some conditions.

But there are no caps if the therapy takes place in a hospital. In any caseMedicare pays 80 percent of the cost of therapy; you or your supplemental policy pays the rest.

Finallymost of the benefits I’ve described are provided by Part B of Medicare whichas most of you knowpays most of the cost of outpatient services – doctor visitslabsx-rays. If you don’t have Part Bit’s open for general enrollment until March 31.

This is one of two pieces on Home Health Care. Next time: Medicare and the blight of Depression.

Questions: Write to saulfriedman@comcast.net.

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