The booming hospice industry is changing what it looks like to die in the U.S. Rather than under the care of doctors and nurses in a hospital, more Americans than not now spend their final days in familiar surroundings, often at home, being cared for by loved ones.
While hospice has been a beautiful experience during a difficult time for many families, a yearlong reporting project by WPLN finds end-of-life support often falls short of what they need.
“Our long-term care system in this country is really using family, unpaid family members. That’s our situation,” says professor Katherine Ornstein, who studies the last year of life at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “As we increasingly see that we want to provide home-based care, we’re relying even more on caregivers. And it does take a toll.”
The federal government has found that families often misunderstand what they’re entitled to when they elect hospice. And many still have to pay out of pocket for nursing home services or private caregivers, which Medicare rarely covers — all while the hospice agency is paid nearly $200 a day.
Hospice has catapulted from a sector led by nonprofits and volunteers to one dominated by investor-owned companies — including several based in the Nashville area such as Amedysis and Compassus — with more growth expected.
In the process, hospice has ballooned into a nearly $19 billion industry. It’s now the most profitable service sector in health care, as the industry’s business model relies heavily on unpaid family caregivers.
“This seems like it’s in sync with patient-centered care,” says Ornstein, “but the reality of that situation may be very, very challenging.
“I think we have a responsibility to really think about whether the families can handle this.”
‘A Longer-Term Thing’
The Fortners could be the poster family for hospice of old. On an overcast morning last May, they gathered with dozens of other grieving families at Alive Hospice’s residence in Murfreesboro for the nonprofit agency’s annual butterfly release.
McCoy Fortner, 8, opened a triangular box and a dormant monarch began to twitch.
“You can also whisper to it to tell the person in heaven what you want to say,” he explained.
He held the winged messenger on his forefinger until the black and orange wings perked up and stretched out. He relayed a few words to his father, Jeremy, who died two years ago of cancer.
“Thank you for being my best dad,” he said as the monarch took flight.
McCoy’s mom, Elicia, stood behind her son with tears in her eyes. Her husband called off endless chemotherapy. He was on hospice at home and then moved to a residential hospice facility where he passed away. Between the two, he was on hospice for 10 days.
Elicia Fortner said she just wishes they had stopped curative treatment and switched to hospice sooner.
“I don’t know if I really understood the options,” she said. “I didn’t realize hospice could be a longer-term thing.”
The Hospice Nudge
The average amount of time patients spend on hospice has been creeping up steadily, amid an industry-wide push that has aligned most of the interests in health care. The Affordable Care Act gave hospitals new incentives to reduce the number of deaths that occur in the hospital or shortly after a patient’s stay. Some studies suggest that’s caused an uptick in hospice use. And many doctors have been sold on the idea of prioritizing quality of life in the final days.
More patients are also eligible: Hospice has expanded beyond cancer to any terminal illness.
Very few people now die in a hospice facility. More often, hospice is received at home or, increasingly, in a nursing home.
But some of the biggest end-of-life evangelists are beginning to see unintended consequences of putting families in charge of the death bed.
Jessica Zitter, an *intensive care and palliative care physician in Oakland, Calif., wrote a book about needlessly dying in the hospital on ventilators with very little consideration about quality of life. She advocates for prioritizing comfort care, which often means recommending hospice. When a patient has been told they have less than six months to live, Medicare and most private insurance will allow them to sign up for hospice services meant primarily to help them die in peace.
Zitter filmed one documentary called “Extremis.” It showed the impossible end-of-life decisions that have to be made in a hospital.
Then, she decided to make a second documentary, still in production, following a husband who took his wife home on hospice after ending cancer treatment.
Zitter met with Rick Tash and Bambi Fass for the nine weeks she spent in at-home hospice. The storyline didn’t play out as expected.
“It made me realize how naïve I — the ‘doctor of death’ — was,” Zitter says. “This is this beautiful love story of these two people. Then you hear him say, ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’”
Tash became overwhelmed — from managing Fass’s morphine doses to getting her to the toilet every few hours.
With at-home hospice, everyday caretaking — and even many tasks that would be handled by professionals in a hospital or nursing home — are left to the family.
Medicare requires agencies to provide a few baths and a nurse check-in each week. But government data reveals that, on average, a nurse or aide is there at the house only about half an hour a day.
Zitter sat Tash down at his kitchen table, with his granddaughter on his lap. She encouraged calling in reinforcements.
“Asking for more support from hospice, if you need it, is really important,” she told him.
“Yeah, but what they offered me was a volunteer for two hours, one day a week,” Tash responded.
“That’s it?” Zitter asked.
“That’s what they offered,” Tash said.
Zitter was stunned. She realized Rick was getting all hospice had to provide, and it wasn’t nearly enough.
“The good death isn’t as easy as you might think,” she says. “We’ve got to put some things in place here so we can make it more likely that people can achieve that.”
*Correction: Jessica Zitter is an intensive care unit physician, not an emergency physician.
Blake Farmer’s reporting on end-of-life care is part of a reporting fellowship on health care performance, sponsored by the Association of Health Care Journalists and supported by the Commonwealth Fund.