May 11, 2005

Wyden Legislation Would Improve Care for Patients near the End of Life

Two bills strengthen hospice in Medicare, support field of palliative care

Washington, DC - U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) today introduced legislation aimed at improving hospice care for America's seniors and expanding the field of palliative care for those at the end of life. Wyden's two bills - the Medicare Hospice Demonstration Act and the Palliative Care Training Act - are part of an effort to help the Senate address the fundamentals of end-of-life care and pain treatment in a responsible manner. "Supporting new ways to care for a very ill patient physically, spiritually and emotionally long before the last days of life is a good and appropriate use of the Senate's time," said Wyden. "Providing more hospice treatment to Medicare recipients and supporting palliative care are ways to both empower and comfort Americans at the end of life." In remarks before the Senate last month, Wyden called for a stop to congressional efforts to intrude on Americans' end-of-life decisions, and encouraged his colleagues to take up measured legislation that will empower Americans facing life-threatening medical crises, instead of growing the role of government. Hospice programs provide a range of services to control pain and other symptoms, maintain dignity and provide comfort care, primarily to individuals in their own homes. Medicare currently requires patients and doctors to stop all treatment that might bring a cure before they can begin hospice treatment - a choice that many patients and physicians are unwilling to make. The Medicare Hospice Demonstration Act would create demonstration projects permitting Medicare patients to seek hospice care as they seek a cure, to determine whether more patients will take advantage of the important care hospice can provide if they are not forced to abandon hope for a cure. Today, only 20 percent of patients who die in the United States receive hospice care, and of that low number few begin care early enough to receive the full benefit of hospice. The Palliative Care Training Act will help ensure that our country has health care providers who know how to provide support and comfort care to the dying. Palliative care is an approach that improves the whole quality of life of patients and their families facing the problems associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by early identification, assessment and treatment of pain and other problems. Palliative care neither hastens nor postpones death and is applicable early in the course of illness, in conjunction with other therapies that are intended to prolong life such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy, and offers a support system to help patients live as actively as possible until death. The Wyden legislation provides grants to individuals with appointments as junior faculty at accredited medical schools to help them teach palliative care to other providers. In recent testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, the National Hospice and Palliative Care Association singled out the Wyden legislation as addressing an important need. "These bills take an appropriate Federal approach to key end-of-life issues, and if the Senate is committed to considering the end of life in a serious fashion, I will expect to see them come to a vote," said Wyden. The Medicare Hospice Demonstration Act is expected to be referred to the Senate Committee on Finance, of which Wyden is a member. The Palliative Care Training Act is expected to be referred to the HELP Committee. Also expected to come before the HELP Committee is the Conquering Pain Act, legislation Wyden introduced today with U.S. Senator Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) to give patients, families and providers 24-hour access to information and assistance for pain management.