The Personal Care Services program, which exceeded $14.5 billion in fiscal year 2014, is rife with financial scams, some of which threaten patient safety, according to a recent report from the Office of lnspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services.
The report exposes vulnerabilities in a system that more people will rely on as baby boomers age. Demand for personal care assistants is projected to grow by 26 percent over the next 10 years – an increase of roughly half a million workers – according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
“This type of industry is ripe for fraud,” warned Lynne Keilman-Cruz, a program manager at Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services who has investigated widespread fraud. The risks increase because the care takes place out of view in people’s homes, and because neglected patients may not advocate for their own care.
The OIG report describes a range of rip-offs, some of which involve caretakers caught up in the nation’s opioid epidemic. In one Illinois case, a woman whose nursing license had been suspended for allegedly stealing drugs at work signed up as a caretaker. She billed Medicaid for $34,000 in caretaking services she didn’t provide – including charges made while she was on a Caribbean vacation. In Vermont, a caretaker on probation for drug possession split her paychecks with the patient’s wife – in exchange for stealing the patient’s prescription painkillers, while he lay in visible discomfort.
In other cases, Medicaid beneficiaries colluded in hoaxes, faking disability so they could hire unneeded help.
In some cases, elderly patients were neglected by their own children, who signed up for caretaker payments. In Idaho, a woman was hospitalized for severe dehydration and malnourishment after her son and caretaker, Paul J. Draine, neglected her. Investigators found the home they shared littered with drug paraphernalia. Draine pleaded guilty to fraud and abuse or neglect, and was sentenced to a sober home.
Investigators provided no count of how many cases of fraud and abuse involved relatives, but “it’s fairly common for family members to be the attendants, and it’s fairly common for those same family members to be the ones who are abusing, neglecting, or committing fraud,” said David Ceron, an OIG special agent based in Washington, DC. In California, three-quarters of Medicaid-funded personal assistants are relatives, though some states restrict hiring family members.
In California, a Kaiser Health News investigation last year revealed widespread problems, as well as a lack of training and oversight, in the state’s program, which is the largest in the U.S.
California’s frail elderly and disabled residents increasingly are receiving care in their own homes, an arrangement that saves the government money and offers many people a greater sense of comfort and autonomy than life in an institution. Yet caregivers are largely untrained and unsupervised, even when paid by the state, leaving thousands of residents at risk of possible abuse, neglect and poor treatment, a Kaiser Health News investigation found.
The move from nursing-home to in-home care is part of a massive shift across the nation, driven by cost-cutting and patient preference. In California, at least four times more elderly and disabled residents receive in-home care than live in nursing facilities – a rate that is only expected to rise as baby boomers age. California’s $7.3 billion IHSS program is the largest publicly funded caregiver program in the nation. The caseload has more than doubled since 2001 and now serves about 490,000 low-income clients throughout the state.
Kaiser Health News’ investigation into the IHSS program found that: training for caregivers is minimal and mostly optional. California doesn’t require training for everyone – even in CPR, first aid or preventing injuries. By design, IHSS is not a medical program and caregivers are supposed to confine themselves to tasks such as feeding, dressing or bathing. But some become ad hoc nursing aides, helping to dress wounds and manage medications. The state requires caregivers receive training and authorization from physicians in these cases, but only about one in nine caregivers receives it, officials say.
Counties are also supposed to report to the state “critical incidents” potential neglect, abuse or self-harm requiring immediate action. But reporting practices vary widely, yielding puzzling results. In fiscal year 2012-2013, for instance, not a single critical incident was reported among the 235,000 clients in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, the three largest in the state. That same year, smaller Sacramento County reported 1,688 incidents – accounting for most of the problems reported statewide.
“There is no evidence indicating that Sacramento County has a disproportionately higher number of critical incidents than other counties,” a Sacramento county spokeswoman said.