Opinion

National Home Care and Hospice Month recognizes medical caregivers

November is National Home Care and Hospice Month, a time to recognize the skilled, dedicated professionals who make a difference in the lives of patients and their families every day.  Home care and hospice nurses, therapists, aides, and other caregivers play a central role in our health care system and in homes in Maine and across the nation.

I recently had the pleasure to celebrate this special month with the professionals of Maine General HomeCare and Hospice, which has served Augusta and the surrounding communities for decades.  Last year, staff provided expert care to nearly 4,400 people and drove 1.3 million miles in all kinds of weather to patients’ homes. Their purple vests are a welcome sight throughout Kennebec and Somerset counties.

I was honored to receive the Ruby Slipper Award from the Home Care and Hospice Alliance of Maine last year for my work to support and strengthen these vital services.  That award is perfectly named — for, as Dorothy said to the Wizard of Oz, “there’s no place like home.” Nevertheless, ensuring that people in Maine have access to the home care and hospice services they need requires more than clicking our heels together and making a wish.  It requires the dedication, expertise, and hard work home care and hospice providers demonstrate every day.

I have been a strong supporter of home care since I first went on a home visit 20 years ago.  It gave me the opportunity to meet and visit with home health patients, and I saw what a difference highly skilled and compassionate care can make to the lives of patients and their families.  Home health agencies help to keep families together and enable our most frail and vulnerable older and disabled individuals to avoid hospitals and nursing homes and stay just where they want to be — in the comfort, security, and privacy of their own homes.  Moreover, by helping these individuals avoid more costly institutional care, home health agencies are saving Medicare billions of dollars each year.

Last month, I introduced the Home Health Payment Innovation Act, a bipartisan bill to protect providers from premature and unwarranted payment rate reductions as well as expand access to care in a cost-effective manner.  The Home Health Planning Improvement Act is another bipartisan bill I’ve introduced that would improve access for Medicare beneficiaries by allowing other medical professionals, such as nurse practitioners, to authorize home health services rather than just physicians.

Currently, about 12 million Americans require long-term care services, a number that will more than double by 2050.  In-home care is increasingly important, and while home health professionals are essential, family caregivers are, too.

Providing 24/7 care to a loved one can place family members under considerable physical, emotional, and economic strain.  Last January, the RAISE Family Caregivers Act I authored became law.  This bipartisan law is leading to a coordinated national strategic plan to better provide family caregivers access to the resources and training needed to better balance the full-time job of caregiving along with everything else that life brings.

Home health services also address one of the unseen enemies of healthy living for seniors – isolation.  Last year, I chaired a series of hearings to examine the growing epidemic of isolation and loneliness on older Americans.  I was astonished to learn that the health risks of prolonged isolation are comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day! Home care programs help seniors retain the community connections that are vital to healthy aging.

Just as meeting with patients and providers help me appreciate the importance of a strong home health system, personal experience has shaped my support for hospice care.

A few years ago, one of my dear friends was a patient at the Gosnell House in Scarborough.  Despite her serious illness, her days were filled with visits from friends and family, and with many joyful moments.  I remember my friend having a yearning for scones and a staff member going out specially to buy some for her. Now, that’s patient-centered care!  She was surrounded by her loved ones when she died peacefully.

Palliative and hospice care is a demanding field that requires a well-trained workforce.  It is essential that patients and families are aware of the care that is available and have the ability to access it.  I have cosponsored the Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act that would establish training programs, raise awareness about the benefits of palliative care, and expand national research programs in palliative care.

I will continue to promote federal policies that support caregivers and organizations like MaineGeneral HomeCare and Hospice that relieve suffering, respect personal choice, and help patients remain in control of their own care.

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