Does Your Insurance Cover Alzheimer’s Care?

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Senior man sitting on a wheelchair with caregiverOne in eight individuals 65 and older suffers from Alzheimer’s disease –quite a sobering statistic for the growing number of baby boomers rapidly crossing that age threshold. And the costs can be an “overwhelming financial burden,” says Carol Steinberg, executive vice-president of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.

Private and government insurance programs may cover some costs. Here’s a primer on your options.

Medicare

Many people are shocked to discover that Medicare does not cover the long-term custodial care that Alzheimer’s patients need. Custodial care is the non-medical care associated with activities of daily living, such as bathing and dressing.

Medicare does cover limited care in a nursing facility or at home. For home care, the patient must require skilled-nursing care or physical or occupational therapy to help with the recovery from an illness or injury — not to help an Alzheimer’s patient with daily-living activities. “One of the most difficult situations is when a loved one needs personal or custodial home care, but Medicare will only cover that if there is some type of skilled-care need,” says Frederic Riccardi, director of programs and outreach for the Medicare Rights Center, an advocacy group.

At-home services in most cases can be provided for fewer than seven days each week or less than eight hours each day over a period of 21 days or less. Limited custodial care could be provided during these visits — perhaps if an Alzheimer’s patient treated by a registered nurse for a broken hip needs help bathing. Medicare pays the cost of a skilled-nursing facility, but only to provide continuing treatment following a hospital stay of at least three days. Skilled care in a facility is limited to 100 days.

While Medicare offers little by way of custodial care, it does provide diagnostic and medical treatment that Alzheimer’s patients need. The new annual wellness physical exam, which is free and part of the health care law, includes testing for cognitive impairment. “This is a critical, yet hardly known, provision,” Steinberg says. Medicare also covers visits to a geriatric assessment clinic.

Alzheimer’s patients and their families need to carefully choose a Medicare Part D prescription-drug plan or private Medicare plan. Alzheimer’s medications are generally covered under Part D, but plans vary regarding co-payments. The Alzheimer’s Association offers a guide about coverage for common Alzheimer’s drugs.

If you choose a Medicare Advantage plan, make sure your neurologist and other physicians you see often are covered as in-network providers. Otherwise, you will pay higher out-of-pocket costs or ask about Medicare supplement plans.

Long-term-care insurance

These policies provide coverage for the custodial care that Alzheimer’s patients usually need. Benefits typically trigger if the patient needs help with at least two activities of daily living or if a doctor provides evidence of cognitive impairment. Because most people with Alzheimer’s receive care in their own homes, look carefully at the policy’s home-care requirements. Typically, a patient must wait 60 or 90 days before benefits begin. But policies differ on when the clock starts ticking, which could be a big headache for caregivers. 

Some long-term care insurance policies start the 60-day waiting period on the day the doctor certifies the cognitive impairment — and benefits trigger 60 days later. But other policies count only the days a patient receives care from a qualified caregiver during the waiting period. If the caregiver visits two days a week, the policy only counts those two visits toward the 60-day waiting period — and benefits will not trigger for 30 weeks. In the meantime, the family has to pick up the tab for the caregiver.

Before you hire a caregiver, check the policy’s fine print on the type of caregiver the insurance company will cover. Some policies pay for any caregiver who is not a family member, while others only pay for licensed caregivers who work for an agency. Some families who hire an unlicensed caregiver later discover that the caregiver doe not qualify under the policy.

Do not expect a policy to pick up round-the-clock home care. Daily coverage is based on the daily benefit. A policy with a $200 daily benefit, for example, will likely cover the cost of eight to ten hours of a home health aide. If a family caregiver cannot fill in the gap, a nursing home may be a better option.

You cannot use more than your daily benefit in a day, but you can stretch your daily benefit over longer periods. Say you choose a benefit period of three years, at $200 a day. If you only use $100 a day, your coverage can last for six years. Some policies cover adult day care, which can cost a lot less than daily caregivers. “Many adult day services specialize in care for those with Alzheimer’s disease and similar disorders,” says Kathy O’Brien, senior gerontologist with the MetLife Mature Market Institute.

An alternative and more cost-effective option for long-term care insurance in today’s expensive health care environment is a short-term custodial care policy.

Medicaid

This program, whose costs are shared by federal and state governments, is the primary payer of long-term-care services for the elderly. Unlike Medicare, it provides custodial care for Alzheimer’s patients. Custodial care typically is provided in Medicaid-eligible nursing homes, but many states’ Medicaid programs now pay for home care and sometimes adult day care or care in assisted-living facilities, says O’Brien.

 

The downside: You need to be virtually impoverished to qualify. Many people end up qualifying after spending their retirement savings on care. While state laws differ, generally you cannot have more than $2,000 in countable assets, including investments. A spouse who lives at home can generally keep about $113,000. You’re allowed to keep your home, car and assets in certain kinds of trusts. (Visit www.medicaid.gov to find eligibility requirements in your state.)

To protect more of your assets, you can buy a state-approved long-term-care policy that is “partnership” eligible. The policy would allow you to qualify for Medicaid without having to spend almost all of your money first. For example, if you buy a partnership policy that covers $200,000 of care, you would pay out of pocket until you have $200,000 left and still qualify for Medicaid. Go to the National Clearinghouse for Long Term Care Information to see if your state allows these policies.

 

 

 

 

The Eyes and Ears for Doctors and Hospitals

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Meals ImageDebbie Case held an insulated bag with two packaged meals — a sandwich wrap and fruit for lunch, a burrito and cauliflower for dinner. “You are going to eat well today,” Case told 75-year-old Dave Kelly as she handed him the meals.  Kelly lost his sight about two years ago and reluctantly gave up cooking. 

After putting the food away, Kelly chatted with Case about his experience as a folk musician. As they talked in his living room, Case, CEO of San Diego County’s Meals on Wheels program, glanced around for hazards that could cause Kelly to fall.

Kelly said the homemade meals keep him from eating too much frozen food or take-out. But more than that, he said he appreciates someone coming by to check on him every day.

“Anything could happen,” Kelly said, adding that he worries about falling. “I wouldn’t want to lay around and suffer for days.”

Meals on Wheels is undergoing a dramatic overhaul as government and philanthropic funding fails to keep pace with a rapidly growing elderly population. The increased demand has resulted in lengthy waiting lists and a need to find other sources of funding. And at the same time, for-profit companies such as Mom’s Meals are creating more competition.

Meals on Wheels, which has served seniors for more than 60 years through a network of independent nonprofits, is trying to formalize the health and safety checks its volunteers already conduct during their daily home visits to seniors. Through an ongoing campaign dubbed “More Than a Meal,” the organization hopes to demonstrate that it can play a critical role in the health care system.

“We know we are keeping people out of the hospital,” Case said. “Seven dollars a day is cheaper than $1,300 a day.”

Meals on Wheels America and several of the local programs around the country have launched partnerships with insurers, hospitals and health systems. By reporting to providers any physical or mental changes they observe, volunteers can help improve seniors’ health and reduce unnecessary emergency room visits and nursing home placements, said Ellie Hollander, CEO of Meals on Wheels America.

“It’s a small investment for a big payoff,” Hollander said.

Studies conducted by Brown University researchers have shown that meal deliveries can help elderly people stay out of nursing homes, reduce falls and save states money.

Kali Thomas, an assistant professor at Brown University School of Public Health, estimated that if all states increased the number of older people receiving the meals by 1 percent, they would save more than $100 million. Research also has shown that the daily meal deliveries helped seniors’ mental health and eased their fears of being institutionalized.

Meals on Wheels can be the “eyes and ears” for health providers, especially in the case of seniors who are ill and do not have family nearby, said Thomas, who authored several studies of the organization.

Meals on Wheels has “the potential to capitalize on that,” she said. “They realize they are doing something that is unique and needed in our current health care space.”

Visitors from Meals on Wheels are the only people some seniors see all day. The volunteers get to know them and can quickly recognize problems.

“You notice if they are losing weight, if their house is a mess, if they are talking awkwardly,” said Chris Baca, executive director of Meals on Wheels West in Santa Monica. “Our wellness check is critical and almost as important as the food itself.”

The meal delivery and in-home visits also reduce isolation among residents, said Zia Agha, chief medical officer for West Health, which has organizations that provide and study senior services. Agha said that while numerous high-tech gadgets are available to keep an eye on seniors, they cannot replace a volunteer’s human touch.

Meals on Wheels, Brown University and the West Health Institute recently launched a two-year project in six states to formally build health and safety screenings into daily meal deliveries. The goal is to improve seniors’ health and catch problems early.

“The fact that you don’t have resources to feed yourself or you are so frail you can’t cook is a very big marker that you are going to have high health care utilization,” Agha said. “There is value in targeting these clients through this meal delivery service.”

That’s also what Meals on Wheels America is planning to do in a new partnership with Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland. The project aims to keep seniors at home and reduce their need for costly health services after hospitalization. The idea is to have trained volunteers report red flags and ensure, for example, that patients with congestive heart failure are weighing themselves regularly and eating properly.

Dan Hale, who is leading the project from the hospital, said the meal delivery volunteers can help track patients’ health even months after discharge and keep them from returning to the hospital. “It makes sense financially,” he said.

Funding for Meals on Wheels organizations primarily comes from the federal government, state organizations and donors.

The partnerships with health care organizations and insurers mean additional money for the Los Angeles County programs, said Baca, who heads a countywide association of local Meals on Wheels organizations.

On a recent day in Santa Monica, volunteers showed up just after 10 a.m., loaded up their cars with meals and headed out to deliver them. One of the clients, 58-year old Patrick Ward, receives daily meals at his apartment in Venice.

Ward, who has osteoarthritis and knee problems, said he has fallen numerous times and also had a heart attack this year. He said he can take care of himself pretty well, but his lack of mobility makes cooking difficult.

“It takes one thing out of the day that I don’t have to worry about,” Ward said. “I know they are going to be here every day.”

 

New Guidelines For Lower Back Ache

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Couple of colorDr. James Weinstein, a back pain specialist and chief executive of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health System, has some advice for most people with lower back pain: Take two aspirin and please don’t call me in the morning.

The American College of Physicians published updated guidelines that say much the same. In making the new recommendations for the treatment of most people with lower back pain, the group is resisting what many doctors do and changing its previous guidelines, which called for medication as first-line therapy.

Dr. Nitin Damle, president of the group’s board of regents and a practicing internist, said pills, even over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatories, should not be the first choice. “We need to look at therapies that are nonpharmacological first,” he said. “That is a change.”

The recommendations come as the United States is struggling with an epidemic of opioid addiction that often begins with a simple prescription for ailments like back pain. In recent years, a number of states have enacted measures aimed at curbing prescription painkillers. The problem has also led many doctors around the country to reassess prescribing practices.

The group did not address surgery. Its focus was on noninvasive treatment.

The new guidelines say that doctors should avoid prescribing opioid painkillers for relief of back pain and suggested that before patients try anti-inflammatories or muscle relaxants, they should try alternative therapies like exercise, acupuncture, massage therapy or yoga. Doctors should reassure their patients that they will get better no matter what treatment they try, the group said. The guidelines also said that steroid injections were not helpful, and neither was acetaminophen, like Tylenol, although other over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin, naproxen or ibuprofen could provide some relief.

Dr. Weinstein, who was not an author of the guidelines, said patients have to stay active and wait it out. “Back pain has a natural course that does not require intervention,” he said.

In fact, for most of the people with acute back pain — defined as present for four weeks or less that does not radiate down the leg — there is no need to see a doctor at all, said Dr. Rick Deyo, a spine researcher and professor at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon, and an author of the new guidelines.

“For acute back pain, the analogy is to the common cold,” Dr. Deyo said. “It is very common and very annoying when it happens. But most of the time it will not result in anything major or serious. ”

Even those with chronic back pain — lasting at least 12 weeks — should start with nonpharmacological treatments, the guidelines say. If patients still want medication, they can try over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen or aspirin.

Scans, like an M.R.I. (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), for diagnosis are worse than useless for back pain patients, members of the group said in telephone interviews. The results can be misleading, showing what look like abnormalities that actually are not related to the pain.

Measures that help patients get back to their usual routines can help along the way, as Sommer Kleweno Walley, 43, of Seattle, can attest. Last spring, she slipped on the stairs in her house and fell down hard, on her back.

“After a couple of hours I could barely walk,” she said. “I was in real pain.”

She saw a physical therapist, but the pain persisted. Eleven days later, she showed up at the office of Dr. Christopher J. Standaert, a spine specialist at the University of Washington and Harborview Medical Center. She expected to receive an M.R.I., at least, and maybe a drug for pain.

But Dr. Standaert told her an M.R.I. would not make any difference in her diagnosis or recovery and that the main thing was to keep active. She ended up getting anti-inflammatory medication and doing physical therapy. A few months later, her back stopped hurting.

It is surprising, some experts in back pain say, how often patients are helped by treatments that are not medical, even by a placebo that patients are told at the start is really a placebo.

Dr. Standaert cited a study in which patients with chronic low back pain were offered a placebo, and were told it was a placebo, along with their usual treatment — often an anti-inflammatory drug like ibuprofen or naproxen. Or, the patients remained with their usual treatment alone.

Those taking the placebo reported less pain and disability than those in the control group who did not take the placebo. The placebo effect, although modest, was about the same as the effect in studies testing nonpharmacological treatments for back pain like acupuncture, massage or chiropractic manipulations.

Many people with chronic back pain tend to shut down, avoiding their usual activities, afraid of making things worse, Dr. Standaert said. Helping them is not a matter of prescribing drugs but rather teaching them to set goals and work toward returning to an active life, even if they still have pain.

“They have to believe their life can get better,” Dr. Standaert said. “They have to believe they can get to a better state.”

The question is: Will the new guidelines be adopted?

“Patients are looking for a cure,” said Dr. Steven J. Atlas, a back pain specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, who wrote an editorial accompanying the article on the new recommendations. “The guidelines are for managing pain.”

Added to the problem are the incentives that push doctors and patients toward medications, scans and injections, Dr. Deyo said. “There is marketing from professional organizations and from industry,” he said. “‘We have the cure. You can expect to be cured. You can expect to be pain free.’”

Medical insurance also contributes to the treatment problem, back experts say, because it does not pay for remedies like mindfulness training or chiropractic manipulations which, Dr. Deyo added, “are not inexpensive.”

Even if doctors want to recommend such treatments, there is no easy referral system, Dr. Atlas said.

“It is much easier at Mass General to get a shot than to get a mind-body or cognitive behavioral therapy,” he added.

Dr. Weinstein has a prescription: “What we need to do is to stop medicalizing symptoms,” he said. Pills are not going to make people better and as for other treatments, he said, “yoga and tai chi, all those things are wonderful, but why not just go back to your normal activities?”

 “I know your back hurts, but go run, be active, instead of taking a pill.”