Attorney At Law: Does Medicare cover skilled nursing care?

Attorney At Law: Does Medicare cover skilled nursing care?

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By Nancy Burner, Esq.

Nancy Burner, Esq.

Skilled nursing care is a high level of care that can only be provided by trained and licensed professionals, such as registered nurses, licensed professional nurses, medical directors, and physical, occupational, and speech therapists. 

Skilled care is short-term and helps people get back on their feet after injury or illness. Skilled nursing facilities are residential centers that provide nursing and rehabilitative services to patients on a short-term or long-term basis. Examples of the services provided at a skilled nursing facility include wound care, medication administration, physical and occupational therapy, and pulmonary rehabilitation.

Generally, patients who are admitted to skilled nursing facilities are recovering from surgery, injury, or acute illness, but a skilled nursing environment may also be appropriate for individuals suffering from chronic conditions that require constant medical supervision. If you or a loved one is interested in using Medicare for skilled nursing, though, there are specific admission requirements set by the federal government:

• The individual has Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) with a valid benefit period. The benefit period will start from the date of admission to a hospital or skilled nursing facility and last for up to 60 days after the end of the stay.

• The individual has a qualifying hospital stay. This generally means at least three in- patient days in a hospital.

• The doctor has recommended skilled nursing care for the individual on a daily basis. The care must be provided by skilled nurses and therapists or under their supervision and should be related to the condition that was attended to during the qualifying hospital stay.

• The individual is admitted to a skilled nursing facility that is certified by Medicare. A skilled nursing facility must meet strict criteria to maintain its Medicare certification.

Usually, the skilled nursing care services covered by Medicare include the room charges, provided that it is a semi-private or shared room, meals at the facility, and any nutritional counseling, as well as costs of medication, medical supplies, medical social services, and ambulance transportation. It also covers rehabilitative services that are required to recover from the condition, such as physical therapy, respiratory therapy, and speech therapy.

Medicare generally offers coverage for up to 100 days of treatment in a skilled nursing facility. Note that if the patient refuses the daily skilled care or therapy as recommended by the doctor, then the coverage by Medicare may be denied for the rest of the stay at the skilled nursing facility. Many patients are advised that they will not get the full 100 days of Medicare benefits because they had reached a “plateau” or that they failed to improve. This is known as the Improvement Standard and was a “rule of thumb” used to evaluate Medicare patients. 

Applying the Improvement Standard resulted in the denial of much needed skilled care for thousands of Medicare patients. The denials were based on a finding that there was no likelihood of improvement in the patient’s condition. This standard ignored the fact that the patients needed skilled care in order to maintain their current state of health and to prevent them from deteriorating. More often than not, if the patient was not improving, Medicare coverage was denied. While this standard was widely used, it was inconsistent with Medicare law and regulations.

A court case brought by Medicare beneficiaries and national organizations against the Secretary of Health and Human Services (Jimmo v Sebelius) sought to change this. The plaintiffs argued that even though the term “plateau” does not appear in the Medicare regulations, it is this term that is often used and relied upon to deny coverage. The appropriate standard should be: will the covered services “maintain the current condition or prevent or slow further deterioration,” not whether the individual was showing signs improvement.

As a result of this litigation and the settlement on Jan. 24, 2013, patients should be able to continue receiving services provided by Medicare, even where improvement in the patient’s condition cannot be documented. However, the old standard continues to be used. Patients and their advocates should educate themselves on the correct standard to make sure coverage is not cut prematurely.

Nancy Burner, Esq. is the founder and managing partner at Burner Law Group, P.C with offices located in East Setauket, Westhampton Beach, New York City and East Hampton.