Medicare Case a Win For Patients
With Chronic, Debilitating Conditions, Disabilities

Patients on Medicare with chronic conditions and disabilities will no longer have to show improvement to get skilled care and therapy services, according to a proposed settlement of a class action suit, Jimmo v. Sebelius. The settlement clarifies the standard for Medicare coverage, ending the practice of denying coverage to patients deemed no longer able to improve, which was never part of the Medicare statute.  Proponents say that Medicare patients likely to benefit include those with disabling conditions, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, stroke, and heart disease.

“We were plaintiffs in this suit,” said David Chatel, Executive Vice President, Government Affairs, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Washington, DC. Chatel was adamant that this is  “not a new benefit, but a clarification for patients that were inappropriately denied coverage.” Importantly, the Medicare statute never included an improvement requirement. However, patients seeking rehabilitative therapies (speech, physical therapy, and occupational therapy, for example)are frequently turned down because they failed to show progress. Once they fail to show progress, they are put into a “custodial” classification, not covered by Medicare. As a result, the practice has left patients likely to benefit from services abandoned by the system and at increased risk of further deterioration and hospitalization.

The Maintenance Standard

Under the settlement, Medicare must pay for:

  • outpatient therapy,
  • home health care, and
  • skilled nursing

if needed to “maintain the patient’s current condition, or prevent or slow further deterioration.”

Aditya Ganapathiraju sustained a spinal cord injury several years ago. At the time of the accident, he was extremely weak and did not use much physical therapy. “I was in a lot of pain and lost a lot of weight,” he said. “Had I been able to get therapy post injury, I might have made a lot more improvement much earlier. Ganapathiraju says that he has used physical therapy extensively to help him with transferring and strengthening, permitting him to do a host of things he never could have envisioned at the start.  For example, he now drives, went back to school and graduated from the University of Washington Seattle, and is involved in training and research in rehabilitation medicine at the University of Washington. He is also an advocate with a presence on YouTube.

Ganapathiraju added: “The notion of maintenance to prevent further degradation is well founded. You can quickly degenerate quickly post injury.” Among the many benefits that he sees include prevention of contractures [abnormal, permanent shortening of muscle], prevention of surgery, improving seat function, and activities of daily living.”

But what really troubles Ganapathiraju is the notion that a condition prevents people from functioning in day-to-day life. “It’s really a subjective standard and can prove a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said.

Cost Considerations

Some accounts of the clarification of the Medicare standard claim that it will prove cost-prohibitive. “That’s kind of a red herring,” said Ganapathiraju. “Medicare financing is entirely a political decision. With just a modest increase in the taxes of the very rich, we could really afford Medicare for All.”

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