The international hospice symbol is in the shape of a heart. It was appropriate, then, that on Feb. 14 -- Valentine's Day -- Soldotna's 1st Choice Home Health Care Inc. became certified as just the second Medicare-licensed Hospice provider in Alaska.
The designation means 1st Choice patients will be able to utilize their Medicare benefits for hospice services, something that previously wasn't available on the Kenai Peninsula.
According to 1st Choice co-owner Lori Brown, becoming a Medicare-certified hospice provider is something she's been looking forward to for some time.
"It's been needed for quite a while," she said. "We've been talking about it for five years."
Although 1st Choice has been certified by Medicare to provide home health care since 1996, the hospice certification allows them to provide a much broader spectrum of services.
Some things not covered by Medicare under home health, but covered under hospice benefits, include private physician care, chaplain services, dietitians, respite care, bereavement services, medication related to primary illness and physical, occupational and speech therapy.
1st Choice did offer many of those services in the past, but patients could not utilize those services under Medicare. Now they can.
1st Choice works with numerous other health care providers, including Central Peninsula General Hospital and Hospice of the Central Peninsula, to provide a comprehensive range of services. The hospital recently entered into an agreement with 1st Choice to provide in-patient hospice care for things like pain management and respite care; while Hospice of the Central Peninsula helps 1st Choice provide additional patient needs, such as volunteer services and bereavement counseling services.
The company's administrator, Chuck Boll, said 1st Choice uses a mix of staff nurses and contract health care providers to ensure patients get individualized care. He said once a patient is referred to 1st Choice, an interdisciplinary team made up of nurses, doctors, therapists, chaplain, dietitians, social workers and others meet to assess the patient's individual needs.
"This team meets and discusses the hospice patients and to update their plan of care. That's a requirement (of Medicare)," he said. "They revise (the plan) as the patient's status changes."
Boll said the group's medical director, Dr. Craig Doser, oversees all aspects of patients' medical care and trains staff on proper end-of-life care, which is essential to the hospice philosophy.
Most of the Hospice patients 1st Choice serves have long-term terminal illnesses, such as cancer, that can be better attended to in a home environment. However, many need specialized care that before now couldn't be offered under Medicare outside a hospital setting. Now, patients are able to receive 24-hour on-call nursing care without necessarily having to be in a hospital bed -- which makes a big difference in their comfort level.
"Really, what we're trying to do is help the patients," Brown said.
The biggest thing is that patients can be better cared for within the hospice philosophy. That philosophy incorporates a broad range of care and other support services to ensure clients are able to be as comfortable as possible during the final stages of their illness.
Hospice care also offers counseling and support to family and loved ones during a difficult time.
Brown said the best part of being Medicare certified is it allows 1st Choice to work with various health care groups, care providers and spiritual groups to serve a greater variety of patients in a hospice setting. She also noted that 1st Choice and Hospice of the Central Peninsula are always looking for volunteers to provide various comfort and quality-of-life services to its clients.
"If anyone is interested in the community with volunteering with any skill -- whether it's art, music, massage therapy -- they can contact us, and we'll work with them," she said. "It's really a community team effort to provide the best end-of-life care possible."
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