Scarce hospice info leaves dying patients vulnerable

With little public information available on hospice companies, picking the right provider can  be a matter of chance — and the results can be devastating if the company doesn’t deliver.

One Pittsburgh-area family had a horror story, according to the Washington Post, and is suing the provider for failing to deliver on its promises.

According to the Post:

The hospice “came in and promised the world,” said Janice Holan, whose husband, a lung cancer patient, died at home under the care of a Pittsburgh-area hospice. “And when it really mattered, they delivered nothing.”

Robert Holan was choking and in pain the night before his death, the story said. But a nurse from Horizons Hospice found that the medicine he needed wasn’t there.

The nurse tried to reach the hospice doctor who was “not to be bothered,” according to Janice Holan, who is also a nurse.

That doctor, Oliver Herndon, pleaded guilty in May 2012 in federal court to insurance fraud and drug trafficking. Authorities considered him the largest illicit source of the painkillers oxycodone and oxymorphone in Western Pennsylvania, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Janice Holan told the Post that the hospice company was recommended by her husband’s doctor. She got assurances from a sales representative that the company would provide proper care.

The Holans were at a disadvantage because the federal government publishes no data on hospice quality.

While a 2010 law requires that information on hospice companies be made available, it won’t be ready until 2017, according to the story.

According to the Post:

The absence of information forces families to speculate and hope for the best — to roll the dice — when choosing medical care for a loved one facing death.

It also allows hospices that offer poor service to escape detection, while the care at better hospices goes unrecognized.

Some hospice companies offer excellent care, the story notes. But others do not.

One reason for bad care is that Medicare gives companies roughly $155 a day to pay for a patient, regardless of how costly that care is. The less a company spends, the story said, the more it keeps.

According to Medicare statistics, 18 percent of hospices don’t provide continuous nursing care and a similar number don’t have a nurse visit within 48 hours of death, the Post said.

To fill the void of publicly usable information, the Post launched a consumer guide so families can compare more than 3,000 hospice companies using self-reported information the companies are required to give to Medicare.

Other local hospice providers appear to offer better services than Horizons Hospice, according to the Post. Horizons provided either no or negligible crisis care to its patients, the data said.

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or at jbenzing@publicsource.org. Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing.