Lisa Zamosky answers legal questions related to health care for the Los Angeles Times. Her answer to the following question was right on point and worthy of sharing.
My aunt is in a nursing home. They tell us she isn’t allowed to leave unless she gets the doctor’s permission. If she does, she has to sign a statement saying she doesn’t hold them liable and will lose all her healthcare coverage. She is on Medicare. Can you help?
For starters, no doctor or any other healthcare provider has the authority to strip you of your health insurance benefits, including Medicare, the federal program for senior citizens.
There are requirements that must be met in order for Medicare to cover some of the cost of your aunt’s current stay in the skilled nursing facility, or SNF. However, it’s unlikely that the care she’s already received from the home would be denied because she left against the doctor’s orders.
What determines coverage is that there was a qualifying three-day hospital stay before entering the SNF, that your aunt has Medicare Part A with days left in the benefit period and that the services she received in the SNF were ordered by her doctor and are related to the treatment of her diagnosed condition. For more information about benefits, visit the Medicare Rights Center at medicareinteractive.org.
Also inaccurate is the nursing home staff’s assertion that your aunt is not allowed to leave, says Eric Carlson, directing attorney with the Los Angeles office of the National Senior Citizens Law Center. "The person isn’t incarcerated, and doctors are professionals hired to give advice, not to force people to do things against their will," he says.
If someone chooses to leave a nursing home against a doctor’s advice, the decision simply has to be documented. "Often it’s the kind of thing that can be noted on the medical chart," Carlson says.
With regard to signing a document related to liability, steer clear of anything stating that the doctors or facility are off the hook for any wrongdoing. "Healthcare people can’t [legally] absolve themselves from their own negligence," Carlson says.
It’s possible that the staff at the nursing home have misunderstood what they’ve been told about discharge procedures and/or Medicare benefits, which are quite complicated. This is a common problem, according to Carlson.
Understanding your rights and communicating them clearly to the staff often is enough to rectify the situation. A good place to start is the National Senior Citizens Law Center’s website (www.nsclc.org), which offers a free consumer guide called "20 Common Nursing Home Problems and How to Resolve Them."
If you continue to face trouble, however, there are places to turn for help.
The Office of the Medicare Ombudsman handles complaints. To find a representative in your state, visit the National Long-Term Care Ombudsman Resource Center at http://www.ltcombudsman.org/ombudsman.
In California, an ombudsman can be located by county on the California Department of Aging website, http://www.aging.ca.gov. Click on "Other Service Providers" and navigate your way to the Long-term Care Ombudsman Program, which has a link to local county program coordinators.
If you have concerns about the quality of care being delivered at a specific nursing facility, you can file a complaint with your state’s Department of Public Health.
To report abuse, go to the National Center on Elder Abuse website at http://www.ncea.aoa.gov, click on "Nursing Home Abuse," then "Where to Report" to find hotlines in your state.
If your circumstance requires you to work with a lawyer, you can find one at the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (www.naela.org) or the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform (www.canhr.org).