Terminally ill patients bracing for Medicaid hospice cuts

Some of the state's poorest people in their final days of life are about to face a big cut in health coverage.

Starting February 1st, Medicaid will no longer pay for hospice care in Louisiana.  7News looks into what is behind the falling budget axe and what it means to dying patients.

It has only been three months since Eric Tillman of Lake Charles watched his wife, Cynthia, take her final breaths.  "She had done chemo," he said, "and the cancer went into remission for a year."

A diagnosis of stage four ovarian cancer limited his wife's final days, but hospice care ensured they were not filled with pain and a hospital stay.  CHRISTUS St. Patrick Hospice Nurse Director, Michele Hurley says hospice care allows terminally ill patients to pass away with dignity.  "We work toward having the best quality of life possible for patients that are terminally ill," she said.

Hurley says her passion is her hospice patients, but state cuts taking effect next month will mean Medicaid patients will no longer have hospice care covered.  "Eliminating the hospice benefit for Medicaid recipients, you're creating a whole pool of unfunded patients," she said.

The changes are because of a mid-year budget gap. Medicaid hospice is just one stripped program. Sherrill Phelps with the Louisiana-Mississippi Hospice Association says this will deprive terminally ill patients of the opportunity to die comfortably and with care.  "They're deserving to have the help and the support and the financial payment to provide that care for those people," he said.

Louisiana will become one of only two states to eliminate Medicaid hospice. Arizona was in that mix, but has already reinstituted it because it costs more.  "You're going to pick them up and bring them to the emergency room, to the hospital, which costs considerably more than the $140/day paid for by the state for the Medicaid program," said Phelps.

State Senator Dan "Blade" Morrish says state cuts were a must to balance the budget, but the Medicaid hospice plan needs to be looked at again.  "There comes a time in budget cuts when there is a line that you just can't cross anymore," he said, "and I think we've reached that with the hospice issue."

Tillman's hope is that his story puts a face to the program: a beloved wife that passed away peacefully at home.  "They gave us the opportunity to surround my wife with love," said Tillman, "she was comfortable.  My wife was content."

These hospice care changes will not affect Medicare, which covers most people over age 60.

There will be a candlelight vigil at the State Capitol steps Wednesday from 4:00 to 6:30 P.M. to protest the elimination of Medicaid hospice.

Copyright KPLC 2013.  All rights reserved.