Objectives: To examine whether there are urban-rural differences in use of the Medicare hospice benefit before death and whether those differences suggest that there is a problem with access to hospice care for rural Medicare beneficiaries.
Design: Observational study using 100% of Medicare enrollment, hospice, and hospital claims data.
Setting: Inpatient hospitals and hospices.
Participants: Persons aged 65 and older in the Medicare program who died in 1999.
Measurements: Rates of hospice use before death and in-hospital death rates were calculated.
Results: In 1999, there were 1.76 million deaths of Medicare beneficiaries aged 65 and older. Hospice services were used by 365,700 of these beneficiaries. Rates of hospice care before death were negatively associated with degree of rurality. The lowest rate of hospice use, 15.2% of deaths, was seen in rural areas not adjacent to an urban area. The highest rate of use, 22.2% of deaths, was seen in urban areas. Rural areas adjacent to urban areas had an intermediate level of hospice use (17.0% of deaths). Hospices based in rural areas had a smaller number of elderly patients each year than hospices based in urban areas (P<.001) and were more likely to have very low volumes (average daily census of three patients or less).
Conclusion: The consistently lower use of Medicare hospice services before death and smaller sizes of rural hospices suggest that the combination of Medicare hospice payment policies and hospice volumes are problematic for rural hospices. Adjusting Medicare payment policies might be a critical step to assure availability of hospice services forterminally ill beneficiaries regardless of where they live.