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February 11, 2013 10:36 AM Medicare’s ‘Improve or You’re Out’ Rehab Policy

By Don Taylor

I have been meaning to write about the important court order overturning Medicare’s longstanding ‘improve or you’re out’ (of Medicare financed SNF and/or home health) policy for rehabilitation services. Basically, beneficiaries who had plateaued and could at best maintain function could not receive rehab services under these parts of the Medicare benefit package. Medicare has settled the court ruling with plaintiffs to expand the availability of these services, even to patients who cannot show improvement, but only maintenance of function. Several quick points:

  • While this issue has long been on the radar of elder/disability advocates, it never made it into the popular culture as a political issue. Why? I think it is related to the fact that long term care and disability are the underside of the health care system and people don’t like to think about needing rehab just to be able to maintain their ability to swallow, for example. Not an attractive thought.
  • Imagine if Medicare announced that chemotherapy X to treat Cancer Y would only be paid for if you could prove it was extending your life. The internet and the health policy meets political corner of twitter would break. We turn in horror from looking at long term care, but run toward the potential denial of a curative therapy and have a group freak out (sorta like ‘rubber-necking’ at a bad car wreck).
  • It doesn’t bother me and I even like the fact that the question of ‘can/is this person benefiting?’ from rehab services is being asked. It is a policy question as to whether such care should be required to bring about improvement, or simply to maintain function. I think the case has now been rightly decided toward expansiveness of these services. However, the same type of bright lights (does it extend life, improve function, how much does it cost?) should be asked of the entirety of the Medicare program. Not just the parts no one likes to think about.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Don Taylor is an associate professor of public policy at Duke University, where his teaching and research focuses on health policy.
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