U.S. begins publishing home health-care ratings

Figures are meant to help consumers choose service

November 04, 2003|By Bruce Japsen | Bruce Japsen,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - Responding yesterday to concerns that Americans lack critical information when choosing home health-care services, the federal government began publishing data comparing the quality of the nation's 7,000 home-care providers.

The reports measure how effectively home health agencies provide care to patients in need of short-term help with essential daily activities - comparing everything from dispensing medicines correctly to getting patients out of bed or bathed.

Administration officials say the comparisons might be more important than nursing home numbers released last year.

Because home care helps seniors and the disabled stay at home - and delay or avoid more expensive institutionalized care such as a nursing home - it is better for patients and less expensive for the federal and state governments, proponents say.

The government Medicare and Medicaid programs spend more than $17 billion annually on home health care.

"Not only will consumers be better informed, but home health agencies themselves will be able to see more clearly what they must do to improve their care," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said. "Publishing this kind of information creates real incentives for health-care providers to further improve the quality of care that they provide to their patients."

While the government routinely collects information on home-care providers, comparative numbers have not been readily available to consumers.

State and federal inspectors have the power to shut down home-care providers for fraud or other violations. But government health officials acknowledge that their efforts have fallen short when it comes to providing consumer-friendly ways to help the public make informed choices.

There are more than 3.5 million Americans in need of home care every year, according to the government. Those numbers are expected to grow as baby boomers enter their retirement years.

Home-health providers "will have a market-driven incentive to improve the quality of care," Thompson said.

The home-care industry applauded the initiative but said consumers should use the data only as one tool in choosing a provider or agency.

Comparisons of all Medicare-certified facilities are available on the government's Medicare Web site at http://www.medicare.gov, or through the help line, 1-800-MEDICARE.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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