Column: A go to with my late mom’s nurse, and a lesson on what it’s best to learn about hospice care

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When my mom was dying, a non-public, for-profit hospice company failed her — the assigned nurse was late for the primary go to due to a staffing scarcity. My mom suffered in distress with out ache treatment, and our household dumped the company and switched to a nonprofit.

Karen Eshelman was the nurse who got here to the rescue, calmly and rapidly adjusting the ache treatment and compassionately making ready us for the inevitable. Grace Lopez died peacefully a few days later, simply shy of 90.

Eshelman confirmed up at my mom’s funeral to pay her respects, and just lately, virtually 5 years later, I dropped by her house in Harmony to say thanks.

“For lots of us in hospice care, one thing occurred in life that made us need to give again,” Eshelman advised me in her kitchen, carrying her blue uniform as she bought prepared for an additional shift. She mentioned she misplaced her first husband when she was 30, and with their two youngsters to take care of, she needed to learn to confront loss of life and transfer previous it.

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“I do know households will get via it,” mentioned Eshelman, who remarried 25 years in the past. “Grief isn’t straightforward, however you’ll come out on the opposite aspect and have good issues occur in life.”

Demand for hospice care will develop dramatically because the inhabitants ages, however employees shortages, company profiteering and a rash of Medicare fraud and billing scandals have roiled the trade, with latest exposes within the L.A. Occasions and a joint ProPublica-New Yorker investigation. For a time, nonprofits resisted these tendencies, however Eshelman shocked me with a information flash.

A woman with a badge around her neck stands and poses for a picture

Karen Eshelman is a registered nurse who works at Hospice East Bay and cared for Grace Lopez in her ultimate days.

(Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Occasions)

She and her colleagues at Hospice East Bay had simply voted to hitch the Nationwide Union of Healthcare Employees as a result of they felt that trade pressures had begun to hit their company. Eshelman mentioned the massive problem wasn’t cash, however a perception that staffing shortages have been impacting the standard of care.

“It results in nurses being burned out, and never simply nurses, however social staff and religious care counselors,” Eshelman mentioned. “And it results in extra folks calling in sick as a result of they only want a break they usually want a day without work.”

Almost 400 workers at 5 Bay Space nonprofit hospice companies have joined the identical union since Could 2022, mirroring organizing efforts at hospice companies in a number of different states.

Sal Rosselli, president of NUHW, mentioned the corporatization of what had been primarily a faith-based, community-oriented, charitable trade has led to “an growing drive to concentrate on the underside line versus offering enough care or caring for healthcare staff.”

If you’re holding the hand of a cherished one who’s dying, you’ve bought lots in your thoughts, nevertheless it’s not the hospice company’s backside line you’re fascinated about.

Some hospice workers “are being advised they solely have half-hour with a affected person,” mentioned Richard Draper, NHWU’s director of organizing, though relying on the extent of care wanted, a affected person may want much more consideration. “The most important problem for us is staffing,” Draper mentioned, “and having the ability to have a voice in how the care is delivered.”

Jessica Williams is a registered nurse on the nonprofit Windfall Hospice Sonoma County, the place 131 workers organized in February. “I believe ‘nonprofit’ is admittedly solely a reputation,” mentioned Williams, who bought into hospice care after her mom died in a automobile accident and she or he attended a grief help service at a hospice company. She mentioned a layoff and the scaling again of visits by house well being aides “makes it harder for us to do a very good job on the market,” at the same time as executives within the company’s mum or dad group pocket tens of millions in compensation.

The director of her hospice company didn’t reply to my interview request, however I checked the ProPublica log of nonprofit tax data, during which the tax-exempt St. Joseph Windfall Well being — one of many nation’s largest nonprofit healthcare corporations — listed its mission as being “steadfast in serving all, particularly those that are poor and susceptible.” For the 2021 tax 12 months, in accordance with the log, firm Chief Government Rod Hochman pocketed greater than $10 million and was one among 11 executives on the firm making above $1 million.

This can be a nonprofit?

Claire Eustace, a religious care clinician at Hospice East Bay, mentioned her job is made harder when the nursing crew is understaffed and overworked, and there have been instances when nurses needed to work 10 straight days.

“It impacts my work in that … family members are upset as a result of they’re not getting the help they want,” Eustace mentioned.

“We have been being stretched too far and couldn’t present excellent care and have been getting burned out,” mentioned her colleague Andrea Hurley, a social employee. Caseloads for social staff went from 26 to 30 and extra, Hurley mentioned, which may nonetheless be manageable besides that shortages for different job classes have been mounting.

“In earlier years, I felt just like the management would hear us and there might be some adjustments,” Hurley mentioned.

Invoice Musick, interim CEO of Hospice East Bay, mentioned his staffing-per-patient ranges are among the many highest within the trade, however he conceded the company is on the sting of a cliff financially. He’s down a number of nurses, he mentioned, as a result of it’s onerous to fill positions given a healthcare labor scarcity. So he’s been utilizing contracted touring nurses.

“Medicare reimbursement charges have elevated barely over time, however they’ve not stored up with inflation and the rise in wages,” Musick mentioned. “And so 12 months after 12 months, we’re making an attempt to determine what we will reduce in an effort to keep in enterprise.”

Holding onto legacy traditions like grief counseling isn’t straightforward, Musick mentioned, and he predicts consolidation. However a latest plan to merge Hospice East Bay with one other nonprofit fell via.

Folks can have good experiences in for-profit hospice care and dangerous ones in nonprofits, mentioned Jennifer Moore Ballentine, chief govt of the advocacy and coverage group Coalition for Compassionate Care of California. Basically, she mentioned, “nonprofits have higher high quality metrics and are doing a greater job,” however they’re struggling to remain afloat.

“Frankly, it’s a multitude,” Ballentine mentioned. “I weep daily for the trade that was hospice as a result of I believe it truly is in bother.”

Within the hospice trade, and within the nursing house area as effectively, the supplier community grew to become inundated by fairness and actual property traders, amongst different opportunists with no shred of expertise in healthcare. Given the inevitability of power sickness and end-of-life care, they flocked like vultures, wanting to money in.

California has cracked down on hospice company proliferation following The Occasions expose, however larger regulation and oversight on the federal stage is crucial. Dr. Joan Teno, a Brown College authority on the trade, referred to as for a raft of reforms in a JAMA article revealed in Could.

“The necessity for change is pressing to make sure that frail, older folks obtain high-quality care and that fraudulent care is rooted out of the system,” Teno wrote. “High quality measures are essential, however there’s a want to enhance integrity oversight. The time is now.”

Ballentine mentioned anybody searching for a hospice company ought to check out the nationwide hospice locator, which compiles knowledge on company high quality. Once I checked Bay Space listings, Hospice East Bay was on the prime.

It’s price noting that once I spoke to my mom’s nurse and her colleagues, they advised me that regardless of their grievances, they need to follow their employer.

“I moved right here as a result of I like this company and suppose it’s actually good,” mentioned Eshelman, who’s from the Midwest. Unionizing, she mentioned, was a means for workers to have an even bigger voice in upholding the traditions of the nonprofit mannequin.

The last word purpose, she mentioned, “is to offer even higher affected person care.”

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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