Hospice programs provide care and support people who are terminally ill. Their focus is on comfort, or “palliative” care, not on curing an illness. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization reports that 1.43 million Medicare beneficiaries were enrolled in hospice care for at least one day in 2016.
Medicare covers almost all aspects of hospice care with little expense to patients or families, as long as a Medicare-approved hospice program is used (in 2016, there were more than 4,300 Medicare-certified hospice programs in the US). When a Medicare beneficiary enters hospice the hospice benefits are provided via Original Medicare, even if the beneficiary had previously been enrolled in Medicare Advantage.
But if a Medicare Advantage enrollee who is in hospice care needs treatment for something that isn’t part of the terminal illness or related conditions, they can choose to use Original Medicare or their Medicare Advantage coverage.
To qualify, a patient must be eligible for Medicare Part A, and a doctor must certify that the patient is terminally ill and has six months or less to live. Medicare-approved programs usually provide care in your home or other facility where you live, such as a nursing home or, in some cases, hospitals.
Medicare covers a full complement of medical and support services for a life-limiting illness, including drugs for pain relief and symptom management; medical, nursing and social services; certain durable medical equipment and other related services, including spiritual and grief counseling, which Medicare typically doesn’t cover. There’s no deductible for hospice care, and copays for covered medications related to the terminal condition won’t exceed $5 (note that if a hospice patient needs medications that aren’t related to the terminal condition, their Part D plan would still have to cover them with its normal cost-sharing requirements, and their medical provider has to notify the Part D plan that the medications are unrelated to the terminal condition. This can be complicated, but it’s important for beneficiaries and their families to understand).
Medicare will also cover respite care, which is a short-term stay at a qualified hospice facility. It gives the usual caregiver a chance to rest. Respite care may last up to five days at a time.
Typically, Medicare does not cover room and board in facilities like nursing homes, but in-patient hospice care is covered during respite care, or at other times if the hospice programs deems it necessary and arranges it. If a hospice patient receives respite care, the patient will be billed 5 percent of the Medicare-approved cost of the inpatient care, and Medicare will pay the other 95 percent. Medigap plans can help to cover the out-of-pocket costs associated with hospice care, including respite care.
Hospice care continues as long as the hospice medical director or doctor recertifies that you’re terminally ill.