These conversations are among the hardest I have had as a doctor

Few people want to die alone, and even fewer want their loved one to be alone in the final weeks, days and hours of their life.

By Julia Corfield

It’s a cold Saturday morning in Melbourne and I am a doctor at work in a palliative care unit. I have just reviewed one of my patients, whose body is beginning to reveal some of the tell-tale signs of dying.

His son stands over him and sadly remarks that “this is a bad time to die”.

With strict visiting restrictions firmly in place across Melbourne, there is a very real chance that his father will die alone and he knows it. This is the new normal.

In a state of disaster, there are a set of rules and visiting restrictions for families and friends of those dying in a hospital setting. These restrictions vary slightly between health services, but the message is the same: as few visitors as possible, for as short a time period as is reasonable.

For months now, hospital staff (myself included) have been chanting the mantra of seemingly arbitrary visiting windows, maximum numbers of visitors per patient and numbers of visitors permitted at the bedside.

In recent times, I have found myself asking questions such as “do all six of your siblings need to visit?” or “could your grandchildren say their goodbyes via FaceTime?”. These conversations are among the hardest I have had as a doctor.

Many find these new rules unacceptable, and with good reason. Few people want to die alone, and even fewer want their loved one to be alone in the final weeks, days and hours of their life.

However, these are not normal times, and a balance must be struck between compassion and safety. Across the world, and now in Victoria, we know that many people with COVID-19 are dying alone; but so are those without COVID-19. Both are tragic realities.

Under normal circumstances, achieving “a good death” is laden with obstacles, let alone in a pandemic. An inherent challenge is that a good death is an individualised experience, reflecting the diversity of the human person.

There are some commonalities across what constitutes a good death, and the company of friends and family features almost universally.

A current patient comes to mind — a woman in her 70s dying of lung cancer — who tells me almost daily that her breathing is bad but the feeling of loneliness even worse. She would like to see her grandchildren, but no children are allowed in the hospital.

Her brother visits, but the allocated two-hour visiting window is not long enough to fill the void created when faced with one’s own mortality. And so on. Her story is not unique.

Dying in a pandemic has brought with it new and more challenging obstacles, ones that make us question what it means to be human. Death is normal, but dying alone is not. So, frankly, when I hear my patients and their relatives say that it is a bad time to die, I can’t help but agree.

Ultimately, how we live and how we die tells us about society as a whole. Today, people die alone to protect society and this at least may be a small source of solace. Their strength and determination to push forward and adapt to this strange new world is a testament to the human spirit.

I hope, though, that those dying in this COVID-19 world know that their sacrifice has not gone unnoticed. Every day, their struggles are seen and felt. Many have had to forgo the so-called good death, and that is the undeniable truth.

Complete Article HERE!

Death doulas help the dying meet their end with affirmation

Death doula Anna Adams sits in an office at Holistic Hospice in San Antonio on Oct. 28, 2020. Just as birth doulas help expectant parents bring new life into the world, end-of-life doulas help the dying cope with their next journey. They help the dying and their survivors face death with empowerment and affirmation instead of fear and anxiety.

By RENÉ A. GUZMAN

Andrea Aycock can only sometimes look at the photos of her hands clasped with her mother’s just before she died in May. But she’ll always cherish the helping hand she got from Anna Adams, an end-of-life doula in San Antonio who preserved that personal moment and so many more for Aycock in her mother’s dying days.

“Anna came and took care of her,” said Aycock, a call center operator in San Antonio. “(She) just mainly comforted me.”

Just as birth doulas help expectant parents bring new life into the world, end-of-life doulas help the dying cope with their next journey. They help the dying and their survivors face death with empowerment and affirmation instead of fear and anxiety.

Also known as death doulas, these trained professionals provide the terminally ill and their families physical and emotional support before, during and after death, the San Antonio Express-News reported. These are nonmedical services that often include relaxation exercises, funeral planning, educating the family on their loved one’s condition and just simple companionship.

Adams sees death awareness becoming more commonplace in the United States in the way that Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations have grown more mainstream and that there are more calls for services of end-of-life doulas.

“Cultures like the Mexican culture that have these beautiful traditions of staying in connection with that (dying) process are so admirable and so beautiful. Doulas want to make sure that is available to all people,” said Shelby Kirillin, an end-of-life doula in Richmond, Va., and program development manager for the International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA) in Jersey City, N.J.

Kirillin sees the rising awareness of death doulas as part of what she calls a “death positive movement,” where more people are getting back to supporting their dying loved ones at home and engaging with their death more up close and personal, much as their ancestors did.

“In the last 100-plus years in our Western culture, that has been taken away from us,” Kirillin said. “How to be with someone who was dying, how to touch them. That was something that we knew how to do.”

INELDA is one of just a handful of death doula organizations in the nation and was launched just five years ago. Co-founder Henry Fersko-Weiss created the first end-of-life doula program in the United States at a New York City hospice in 2003.

Kirillin estimates INELDA has around 40 certified death doulas across the country, yet has trained around 3,000 individuals in death doula care. Many just sign up to learn more about facing death and don’t pursue death doula work, she said, while others branch off to do their own training.

Most death doula services come in three phases.

The first is planning and preparation, which involves getting a terminal patient’s affairs in order and asking some tough questions that call for honest answers. Where does that person want to die? Who do they want present for those final moments? What so they absolutely need to say or do before they’re gone?

Kirillin said that first phase often addresses the dying individual’s regrets and unfinished business, as well as any advance directives, wills, etc. Often referred to as “legacy work,” such planning makes it easier for family to understand and respect the dying person’s wishes.

Fran Morgan is in that early stage with her dying mother Rosalee, who receives hospice care at the private residence of a family friend.

“With Anna in the picture, she will be advocating for all of the things that need to happen,” said Morgan, a retired telecommunications company manager in San Antonio. “It will release me from those responsibilities, and I can just be with my mom and cherish those final moments.”

That second phase is called the vigil, usually the last four or five days of the dying person’s life where end-of-life doulas and family members spend more time at their bedside.

“I call them my angel vigils,” Adams said.

During her doula vigils, Adams, 38, often creates a soothing space for the dying with soft music and dim lighting. Sometimes she’ll add a favorite scent with aromatherapy. Most times, she just gently massages her client’s arms and holds their hands.

And in those final moments as they take their last breaths, Adams comforts them with what they most want to hear, be it Bible verses, soothing music or just someone to say it’s going to be OK.

The final phase of a death doula’s work addresses survivors’ grief. Kirillin said that involves circling back with the family a few weeks after their loved one’s death to check on their emotional well-being.

Kirillin stressed that end-of-life doulas do console families, but are not licensed grief counselors and will refer families to such resources if necessary.

When it came to caring for Aycock’s mother, Adams mostly helped with her bedside care and keeping her visiting nurses on task. Adams also explained to Aycock any of her mother’s diagnoses she didn’t understand.

Then there was that time Adams took those hand photos of Aycock and her mother. Difficult as it is for Aycock to look at those photos, much less share them, she still holds them close.

She holds Adams’s work even closer.

“It is the best help that you can get,” Aycock said. “They provide comfort not only for your loved one that is going through the transition, but for you.”

Morgan expects to experience more of that care from Adams. “I’m looking forward to the relationship that we’re going to have,” said Morgan, who started working with Adams around three weeks ago. “For now my initial experience (and) impression is she certainly has the heart for what she’s doing.”

Adams’s first experience comforting the dying came when she was 16. Fresh from certification as a nursing aid, Adams tended to a best friend’s cousin for several months at her home with bathing and conversation. That care continued when that cousin transferred to hospice care and well up to her death.

“So we just had a bonding moment. I gave her that sacred zone,” Adams said. “That kind of piqued my interest.”

Adams went on to pursue a career in hospice, then for the last four years worked as an EMS manager and dispatcher for a private company. But something pushed her back into working with the dying.

“I told my family, ‘God wants me to do this. God is keeping me in line with this,’ ” Adams said.

At the start of this year, Adams got her end-of-life doula certification. Then over the summer, she partnered with fellow certified doula Sonja Koenig to launch TX Doula Movement, an online training and certification course for death doulas, senior care doulas and doula consultants.

Adams knows of just a handful of death doulas in San Antonio right now, but she expects that number to double later this year when around five of her TX Doula Movement students complete their certification. Adams plans to launch her own doula training service next year.

Adams said the coronavirus has not deterred her from her work, save for having to incorporate more video consultations with families and masks and frequent hand-washings during visits. She has yet to provide end-of-life doula services to someone with COVID-19, but one of the hospice companies she works with takes in COVID-19 patients.

“I don’t have a problem working with COVID patients,” Adams said.

Adams said most hospitals still don’t work with death doulas, but hospice services are slowly warming up to them as adjuncts to their own care.

“It is relatively new, but we’re seeing it more,” said Rachel Hammon, executive director of the Texas Association for Home Care & Hospice in Austin.

Holistic Hospice Care is one of two hospice centers in San Antonio that works with Adams. Administrator Erica Sandoval said Adams has been a welcome bridge between families and clinical teams.

“She can get on (everyone’s) level,” Sandoval said. “And she’s very calm and very patient. And she just wins their trust and they feel very comfortable with her.”

Like Adams, Sandoval, too, sees parallels between death doulas and Día de los Muertos, such as the memory books the doulas make for their clients and the Day of the Dead tribute altars families make for their lost loved ones.

“I definitely think that there’s a good association to that because they are (both about) wanting you to cherish their memories and enjoy the last moments and everything that you can remember of the individual,” Sandoval said.

Complete Article HERE!

Film ‘The Elephant in the Room’ Shines a Light on Palliative Care

By Holly Vossel

Public misperception is a barrier between patients and palliative care. Based on the true story of a nurse practitioner’s experiences with patients and families facing serious and terminal illnesses, the film “The Elephant in the Room” depicts the patient-centered interdisciplinary care that so many seriously ill patients need.

The film was written by Bonnie Freeman adapted from her novel, “Resilient Hearts: It’s All About the Journey,” based on true stories of her experience as a supportive care nurse practitioner for the Department of Supportive Care Medicine at City of Hope Medical Center located in Los Angeles. Shot throughout 2017 and directed by husband and photographer Allen Freeman, the book turned film brings an inside look into goal-concordant and patient-centered care through the eyes of those who provide it.

“Bonnie wanted to educate, that was her passion at the root of it all,” said Executive Producer William Dale, chair in Supportive Care Medicine at City of Hope. “She just wanted to make sure that our message got delivered. She had aspirations for us to break out of our little crowd that care about the cause, care about supportive care and palliative care.”

Dale also helped provide funding to support the film’s making.

According to producers, Freeman passed “unexpectedly and suddenly” before the film completed on April 26, 2018. She played an integral and hands-on role during filmmaking, working closely with Niko Vitacco, who played the lead role of nurse practitioner Michael Lafata. 

Films like the “The Elephant in the Room” could help to raise awareness and improve understanding of palliative care. The medical comedy-drama, walks viewers through end-of-life care through a provider’s lens, including goals-of-care conversations. The comical drama is currently available on Amazon Prime.

As many as 71% of people in the United States have little to no understanding of what palliative care is, including many clinicians in a position to refer patients to palliative care or hospice, according to A Journal of Palliative Medicine study.

While no standardized definition exists for “palliative care,” the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) defines the term as “patient and family-centered care that optimizes quality of life by anticipating, preventing and treating suffering. Palliative care throughout the continuum of illness involves addressing physical, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual needs and to facilitate patient autonomy, access to information and choice.”

Roughly half of community-based palliative care providers in the United States are hospices, according to the Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC). While a growing number of hospices are diversifying their service lines to include palliative care, many struggle to sustain and grow programming due to a widespread lack of awareness. These services remain relatively unknown and misunderstood among the general public, as well as within medical communities.

“Bonnie knew that storytelling was a way to help improve end-of-life care,” said Vitacco, actor and co-producer of Absolution Films. Vitacco read the following quote Freeman initially wrote to pitch the film. “‘I realized many health care providers did not know what we provided and the community was even less informed. I felt a film would reach a broader audience and could be a tool to promote discussions about effective ways to communicate the need for compassion and show the difference a dedicated palliative care team can make in the lives of each other, their patients and their families.’”

The film strikes a strong chord as the world comes face-to-face with a deadly pandemic. The COVID-19 outbreak has brought serious illness to the forefront, with the World Health Organization reporting more than 1.6 million lives lost globally since its onset.

“Something within this script resonated so strongly with me. I saw it as an opportunity to help people on a larger scale, to share a story that was meaningful and bigger than me,” said Vitacco. “Even more so now in a world where humanity can sometimes feel lost, this film can show the type of the side of people that we all want to become but sometimes struggle to be.”

Despite heightened focus, palliative services remain underutilized throughout the globe. The World Health Organization reported in August that only 14% of people who need palliative care currently receive it. Many countries ranked low in an international review of length of palliative care received by people with life-limiting and terminal conditions, including the United States and Australia.

Increasing awareness around the benefits of serious illness care was a stated goal for the filmmakers.

“Palliative care is still considered new within the medical world,” said Vitacco. “Our mission was to make it universally known and share it with not only the professionals, but the public as well to show them what is readily available to them.”

Initially released in Middle Eastern countries, “The Elephant in the Room” came out in Australia, Canada, Germany, India, the United Kingdom and the United States on Amazon on Aug. 21, 2020, representing a broader reach for the film’s universal message.

“The subject is universal and we just wanted to release it wherever we could,” said co-producer Tamir Gedalia of Absolution Films. “For me, the message was that we need to change the way we treat terminally ill patients. It’s universal in every country. There is no country that doesn’t have this kind of love and treatment, there is no relation to a village.”

The film’s use of the term “supportive care” to describe end-of-life care was deliberate. The term is becoming more common in the field as providers seek to avoid stigma associated with the words “palliative” and “hospice.” Numerous organizations rebranded in recent years to remove those words from their company names.

Scenes show providers both engaging with patients and behind closed doors in interdisciplinary team meetings. The film’s team includes the supportive care department chair, oncologist, neurologist, pediatrician, pharmacist, nurse practitioner, social worker, chaplain and a staff psychologist who collaborate from the point of the patient’s admission through his passing. The social worker role of Valerie Howard was played by Rupinder Sidhu, a licensed social work program specialist at City of Hope.

Filming took place onsite for 12 days at City of Hope to minimize disruption to patients and operations, according to Dale, who expressed reluctance at opening the medical center’s doors to filming but ultimately valued an authentic setting.

“My hope is that people elsewhere understand the field and get entertained, but then also imbibe this message that it’s about how you take care of each other and take care of yourself,” said Dale. “We’ve all had those moments as providers when we’re in too deep with patients and families and we’ve gone across that line. The team did an amazing job dramatizing that, and I think that’s what Bonnie wanted and it’s my deepest goal for the field and for the film. This is more than we could have expected and we couldn’t have hoped for a better product that’s actually getting seen.”

Complete Article HERE!

Why Canada Could Be Next To Allow Psychedelic Therapy

(And How It’s Already Changing Lives)

Canada’s federal health minister has recently granted patients, therapists and doctors with exemptions to use psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes

by Amanda Siebert

Canada has an international reputation for progressive health policies, take for example its publicly funded healthcare program and its assisted dying laws. It also led the way in drug reform when it became the first G7 country to legalize cannabis in 2018.

But in the face of a worldwide pandemic, a national overdose crisis, and mounting evidence to show that greater access to both psychedelic and other restricted drugs could have positive public health outcomes, it’s fair to say some of the country’s regulations around restricted substances are outdated.

Now, as a handful of patients and more recently doctors and therapists have been granted exemptions to use psilocybin, the nation’s federal health agency is considering making changes to existing policies that could open the door to much more than magic mushrooms.

In 2020, a handful of firms including non-profit organizations and publicly traded companies have worked with Health Canada to encourage greater access to psilocybin and other psychedelic therapies. While one has gone the route of using existing legislation to help individuals apply for exemptions, another is encouraging policy changes that would allow doctors to seek access to restricted drugs for their patients.

‘The Unknown Of What Can Happen After You Die Doesn’t Feel So Unknown To Me Anymore’

One of the earliest studies to come out of the so-called psychedelic renaissance was conducted at Johns Hopkins University in 2016, and sought to examine how psilocybin would affect depression and anxiety in patients suffering from life-threatening cancers. It found that just a single dose of psilocybin left subjects with longstanding relief, with 78% experiencing lower rates of depression and 83% experiencing lower rates of anxiety six months after receiving the treatment.

When Thomas Hartle, a 52-year-old Saskatoon resident with stage four colon cancer read the results of the study, he says he “felt like they were too good to be true.”

“But when you suffer from anxiety, you really look for whatever sources of relief you can get,” he says. Hartle enlisted the help of TheraPsil, a non-profit organization based in Victoria, B.C., to try and access psilocybin therapy for himself. Using a subsection of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that allows the health minister to grant an exemption for medical or scientific purposes, TheraPsil has so far assisted dozens of Canadians, including terminally ill and clinically depressed patients, as well as doctors and therapists, in the application process.

In August 2020, Health Minister Patty Hajdu granted the first exemptions to four Canadians suffering from end-of-life anxiety. One of them was Hartle.

The father, husband, and IT technician says his anxiety is “specialized to the existential kind and doesn’t extend to public speaking,” so he’s more than happy to share his experiences with psilocybin. Before his first treatment, he prepared extensively with a therapist, and has since undergone a subsequent session. Without hesitation, he says the experiences have changed his perspective on death and dying.

“What it’s changed the most for me, is that the unknown of what can happen after you die doesn’t feel so unknown to me anymore. Most of how we define ourselves is our experiences and memories and things like that. In the psilocybin experience, my consciousness existed in ways that had absolutely nothing to do with anything in this life,” he says.

“To exist in another state that has nothing to do with my identity here, and to feel comfortable and serene in that state tells me that it’s possible to have some sort of continuation of consciousness that goes beyond our experience here.”

Hartle adds he feels more empathy towards other people since his initial treatment, and says his family has noticed he uses more emotional words in his speech. As a naturally analytical thinker, he says he’s also welcomed a shift to a more creative mindset.

Beyond the positive mental benefits he’s experienced, Hartle says psilocybin also helps to relieve pain associated with migraines, which he’s suffered from since he was a child. “When I compare it to most of the other treatments that I have gone through over the last few years, psilocybin is like the opposite of side effects,” he says, laughing.

Doctors Can Access Psilocybin, Too

Dr. Emma Hapke is TheraPsil’s co-chair of research and one of 16 doctors, nurses, therapists and social workers recently granted exemptions to take psilocybin in preparation for work with patients. She is part of a committee at TheraPsil developing a training program for psychedelic assisted psychotherapy, which she hopes to kick off in 2021.

“We feel that it’s essential that therapists themselves have their own experiences in a non-ordinary state of consciousness, to be on the receiving end of that type of therapy so they can then guide others to do the same,” she says.

She emphasizes that while psychedelic substances have been shown to provide benefit for people suffering from an array of mental health conditions, it’s imperative that any psychedelic experience be paired with therapy for maximum and longstanding relief.

“The molecule in and of itself isn’t what’s healing—it’s the whole package of being in a healing relationship with a therapist and going into the non-ordinary state with psilocybin to access different parts of the psyche,” she says. “If the experience is not integrated, it’s hard for it to lead to lasting change, and so it’s really important that we’re not just talking about a psychedelic. We’re talking about psychedelic-assisted therapy.”

Spencer Hawkswell, TheraPsil’s CEO, says before August 4, seeking exemptions for terminally ill patients felt like an uphill battle. Today the mood has changed, and there is a greater sense of optimism among his team.

“I never thought I’d say that it was easy, or that Health Canada has been incredibly cooperative,” he says. “These [patients] are empowered Canadians, and we do have rights and systems that work for them. Just to have that affirmation is pretty amazing.”

Recognizing the utilitarian nature of Canada’s approach to mental healthcare and drug policy, Hawkswell says that while the current system tries to meet the needs of most, it falls short. “What TheraPsil is doing is showing that there are options beyond the current policy regulations and the norm of healthcare in Canada.”

Numinus Advocates For Special Access Program Reform

Health Canada’s Special Access Program (SAP) allows healthcare professionals to request restricted or otherwise unavailable drugs for patients who have tried existing treatments and found them to be unsuccessful. In theory, the SAP should allow doctors to request access to drugs like psilocybin, MDMA, and LSD. That changed in 2013, when under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, accessing restricted drugs through the SAP was prohibited. Since then, the only way for patients to access such substances is through clinical trials.

On December 12, Health Canada announced its intention to reverse the regulatory changes made in 2013, and initiated a 60-day comment period seeking public feedback. Dr. Evan Wood, chief medical officer at Numinus, has been advocating for changes to the program since early 2019.

Wood says by amending the SAP provision on restricted drugs, Health Canada will better align itself with the Helsinki Declaration, a set of international ethical guidelines that suggest (among other things) if a patient accesses a restricted drug through a clinical trial and finds it to be beneficial, they should be entitled to receive ongoing therapy. Currently, if a Canadian were to access a psychedelic substance or another restricted drug though a clinical trial, even with the support of a physician, they would not be able to continue to access it.

“In my view, it’s really just about stigma and the cultural baggage associated with these molecules,” Wood says. “This is bringing Canada in compliance with those international ethical guidelines, and kicking the door open a crack for Canada to be a real world leader in this area.”

While Wood acknowledges that the Covid-19 pandemic has rightfully taken the majority of Health Canada’s attention in 2020, he’s glad to see that psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy has risen to an area of needed focus, and gives full credit to the agency for proposing the regulatory reversal.

If the change to the SAP is made, Wood says access to novel psychedelic treatment has the potential to increase significantly, as interested patients would simply need to find a doctor willing to apply for access to the drug on their behalf. Applications would then be judged on an individual basis, but would be less arduous than applying for an individual Section 56 exemption, and perhaps even eliminate the need for that process entirely.

For companies like Numinus, Wood says the changes would enable them to better establish the physical infrastructure of their businesses, to train staff, and “to do all of the things that are necessary to do this kind of work safely.”

“When you put the known risks alongside the known safety of these substances, it’s a bit of a no brainer,” he says. “It’s not going to be a cure for everybody, but even to be talking about a ‘cure’ in the context of mental health challenges is a total paradigm shift.”

Some might argue that decriminalization is the obvious next step, however Health Canada isn’t alluding to that just yet. In an email, a spokesperson for Minister Hajdu said the agency “thoroughly reviews all requests for exemption and makes decisions after taking into account the risks and benefits.”

“We still have much to learn about the risks, which is why the sale and possession of psilocybin is still illegal. Until there is a sufficient evidence base, Health Canada will review each request for an exemption on a case-by-case basis.”

Complete Article HERE!

End-of-Life Experts Call for Expansion of Patient-Centered, Goal-Concordant Care

By Holly Vossel

A deadly worldwide pandemic has helped to expose pitfalls in a broken health care system, drawing increased awareness and attention around the delivery of serious illness and end-of-life care, according to hospice and palliative care experts speaking at End Well’s Take 10 virtual conference.

The virus has claimed more than 1.6 million lives globally since its onset, according to a recent World Health Organization report which stated that the United States continues to bear the brunt of the pandemic’s effects, accounting for 86% of new deaths worldwide in the last week alone. According to a number of health care stakeholders, the government and the health care system itself hasn’t sufficiently adapted to meet patients’ needs during the crisis.

“We’ve been putting our elderly and disabled in solitary confinement for months, and that was understandable during the first few weeks where we didn’t understand anything about the virus or how to keep people safe. We saw entire units where elderly people and disabled people died, but now we know how to keep people safe,” said Atul Gawande, M.D., a surgeon, writer and public health leader, at the End Well event. “I myself have family with serious health issues and they need long term care, but we’re told we have to sign away the possibility that we’d ever see them again, that we’d ever hug them again and that’s just unacceptable. They won’t provide the [personal protective equipment (PPE)] and the training to make such things as possible, and that is outrageous.”

Gawande is founder and chair of Ariadne Labs, a joint center for health systems innovation, and of Lifebox, a nonprofit organization aimed at making surgery safer globally. He is also co-founder of the Massachusetts Serious Illness Care Coalition and serves as board chairman of Haven Healthcare. Gawande is among the providers calling for fundamental changes to the health care system.

A key component of that change would be to promote end-of-life and goals-of-care conversations among patients and families. Gawande cited surveys conducted by the Massachusetts Serious Illness Care Coalition, an organization he founded, which indicated that only about 50% of people who have a serious health condition have discussed their wishes with their loved ones. Only 25% have had such conversations with their clinicians.

“When they have those conversations they’re not at all confident that those wishes will be followed. That should be an outrage,” Gawande said.

COVID-19 has disrupted the health care system as providers faced lack of protective resources, staffing issues and revenue losses. Hospices have been pummeled by the disease’s spread, taking hits to operations and finances and facing difficulty accessing facility- and community-based patients.

Some of the roadblocks to quality end-of-life and serious illness care often stem from social determinants of health, lack of awareness around hospice care, and racial divides in accessible care. While these issues are gradually coming to the forefront of discussions in the end-of-life space among clinical, business and policy leaders, stakeholders are renewing calls to accelerate a reorientation of the health care system towards patient-centered, goal-concordant care.

“We all deserve a system that we’re not just tolerating,” said Mark Ganz, president and CEO of Cambia Health Solutions at the End Well Take 10 event. “Let’s resolve as we accelerate out of this curve called 2020 that we take some of the difficult things we’ve seen and talked about and we turn it into a thing of light. We have the opportunity to invent the systems that allow us to truly see the patients and their loved ones in a new way. We need to act and act now.”

Complete Article HERE!

What you need to know if you or a loved one requires end-of-life care

By Ben Poston, Kim Christensen

Conceived as an end-of-life option for terminally ill patients, hospices provide palliative care, medications, nursing services and counseling for those diagnosed with six months or less to live.

The number of U.S. hospices has roughly doubled in the last 20 years, as more for-profit providers vie for a share of $19.2 billion a year in Medicare spending that covers hospice care. More than 1.5 million Medicare beneficiaries now receive care from some 5,000 hospices, nearly a quarter of them in California.

While hospice has been a godsend for millions of dying Americans and their families, a Times investigation found that intense competition for new patients has spurred billing fraud and other illegal practices, including falsified diagnoses and kickbacks to unscrupulous doctors and recruiters who target prospective patients at retirement homes and other venues.

The Times also found hundreds of instances in which California hospice patients were harmed, neglected or put at serious risk, their mistreatment sometimes exacerbated by serious gaps in government oversight.

What are the benefits of hospice care?

Hospice is intended to provide comforting, compassionate care and a range of support services for terminally ill patients and their families. In addition to nursing and medical care that includes pain management, prescription drugs and supplies, patients receive spiritual and emotional support, help with personal hygiene and respite care for family caregivers.

Most hospice patients receive care in their homes, including assisted-living settings and nursing facilities.

How do I choose a hospice?

There’s no set formula for choosing a hospice, although experts suggest discussing options with your personal physician and seeking recommendations from friends and relatives whose loved ones have had good experiences.

You should also interview any prospective hospice, asking questions about its licensing, which is required by the California Department of Public Health; whether it is certified by Medicare; when it was last inspected and whether violations were found; the range of available services; the makeup of the hospice care team and the roles of its doctors, nurses and others; and the role the hospice expects family members to play in a patient’s care plan.

Several industry and advocacy groups offer online guidance, including the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, which provides a worksheet and a list of questions.

How do I know if a hospice is reliable?

There is no one place where consumers can go to make a comprehensive comparison of local hospices — a gap that patient rights advocates have long criticized.

A variety of online sources provide information about hospice care, but each has limitations. Medicare’s hospice comparison site allows consumers to search for providers by ZIP Code or name, but has scant information about quality-of-care issues and inspections.

The California Department of Public Health has a searchable tool called Cal Health Find Database, which provides users with inspection reports when serious violations are uncovered back to 2017. It also allows consumers to compare quality metrics of up to three hospices at a time, but it doesn’t provide a rating system for providers. The results of inspections by accrediting agencies are not included on the site — a significant problem for consumers in California, where more than 80% of hospices contract with accrediting agencies rather than the state to conduct certification inspections once every three years.

Another resource that is more difficult to navigate is an interactive site maintained by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The site includes copies of complaint investigations and a look-up function that allows users to compare the number of serious violations at hospices in California and other states.

What red flags should I look for?

Be on the lookout for any hospices that have been cited in recent years with serious violations. In the language used by Medicare, these include “condition-level” deficiencies or “immediate jeopardy” situations, which are considered the most severe. Also, hospices can be cited for failing to certify that patients are terminally ill, which is an indication of possible fraud.

If you have the name of a hospice administrator, which can be found on the state public health department’s website, you can find out if that person has been excluded from receiving federal healthcare payments on a site run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General.

If I’m not happy about my hospice, where do I complain?

If you can’t resolve your issues with the hospice, the California Department of Public Health investigates complaints, which can be filed online — but not necessarily with satisfying results.

You may also file a complaint about Medicare providers directly with the federal agency or with the California Senior Medicare Patrol, a federally funded statewide hotline to help Medicare beneficiaries prevent, detect and report fraud.

Hospice industry growth marked by fraud, deficient care

By Kim Christensen, Ben Poston

Martin Huff was 67 when he fell off his bicycle, banged up his knee and spent a couple of hours in a Riverside County emergency room before walking out under his own power.

Ten days later he was in hospice care, diagnosed as terminally ill by a small Covina provider of end-of-life services that said he was weak and wasting away, with six months or less to live.

Five years after that grim prognosis, however, Huff was still very much alive. He testified in federal court that no one from California Hospice Care had ever given him a medical exam before claiming he was dying.

“I really never knew exactly what the deal was on the hospice,” he said.

Huff is among a legion of mostly older Americans targeted for audacious, widespread fraud in an industry meant to provide comforting care in their final days, a Los Angeles Times investigation found.

Like Huff, many are unwitting recruits by unscrupulous providers who bill Medicare for hospice services and equipment for “terminally ill” patients who aren’t dying.

Intense competition for new patients — who generate $154 to $1,432 a day each in Medicare payments — has spawned a cottage industry of illegal practices, including kickbacks to crooked doctors and recruiters who zero in on prospective patients at retirement homes and other venues, The Times found.

The exponential boom in providers has transformed end-of-life care that was once the realm of charities and religious groups into a multibillion-dollar business dominated by profit-driven operators.

Nowhere has that growth been more explosive, and its harmful side effects more evident, than in Los Angeles County.

The county’s hospices have multiplied sixfold in the last decade and now account for more than half of the state’s roughly 1,200 Medicare-certified providers, according to a Times analysis of federal healthcare data.

Scores of providers have sprung up along a corridor stretching west from the San Gabriel Valley, where California Hospice Care was located, through the San Fernando Valley, which now has the highest concentration of hospices in the nation.

“There are too many providers in L.A. County, and too many providers who are in it for the wrong reasons,” said Edo Banach, who heads the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, the largest U.S. trade group for hospices. “Folks who go into this for the wrong reason generally do not do a good job.”

Much more than money is at stake.

Some patients who unknowingly enrolled in hospice later discovered they had signed away their rights to life-saving emergency medical treatment, state inspection records show. Others endured excruciating pain in their final days when providers failed to deliver the comforting care they desperately needed.

Still others suffered the consequences of neglected, festering sores that developed maggots or resulted in hospitalizations.

Privacy laws and government reports that keep the names of patients, doctors and hospice administrators confidential make it difficult to quantify and humanize many of the cases.

But The Times found that since 2008, regulators have cited hospices in California more often than anywhere else in the country for the most serious types of violations, four times as many as states such as Texas and Georgia, which also have large numbers of providers.

Despite those citations, California and federal regulators have rarely fined, suspended or shut down deficient hospices, state reports show. Oversight has been weakened further during the coronavirus pandemic, as regulators suspended requirements for most hospice inspections and limited the types of complaints they investigate.

California, which has among the lowest barriers to setting up a new hospice, also leads the nation in violations for enrolling patients without medical proof they were terminally ill.

The Times’ analysis revealed that Los Angeles County hospices discharged patients 80% more often than providers nationwide, highlighting a rate that federal authorities say is a red flag for Medicare fraud.

California Hospice Care claimed that Jesse Staten suffered from terminal heart failure when it signed him up for end-of-life treatment. His predicted six months to live expired in 2012, but he didn’t: When The Times contacted him eight years later, he was still going strong.

“I’m hanging in,” said Staten, 75. “I’ve got a lot of issues in my blood and I have other issues, but I can’t complain.”

Federal prosecutors accused California Hospice Care of bilking taxpayers of $7.5 million in illegal payments in connection with Staten, Huff and scores of other ineligible Medicare recipients. The hospice owner and two doctors were sentenced to prison, and several others were convicted or pleaded guilty in the scheme.

Many of the hospice’s patients were addicts lured by the promise of free narcotic painkillers, prosecutors said.

Some were enlisted by a doctor who collected a bounty from the hospice on each, according to his indictment.

One was a 47-year-old woman who lost her place on a waiting list for a liver transplant when she signed up for hospice, which prohibits curative care. It took her months to get reinstated, and she died not long after finally receiving a new organ.

“That’s the last hope, and having that person removed from the liver donor list by placing them in the program is conduct that is hard to understand,” U.S. District Judge James Otero said when sentencing a hospice nurse to 18 months in prison. “That’s callous.”

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Conceived as an end-of-life option for terminally ill patients, hospice care properly delivered has been a godsend for millions of dying Americans and their families. It provides palliative care and prescription drugs, nursing services, medical equipment, supplies and spiritual counseling for those diagnosed with six months or less to live.

The U.S. hospice industry took root in the mid-1970s but flourished only after Medicare began covering its services in 1983. For-profit providers sprung up to meet a growing need that outstripped the capabilities of charities and religious institutions that pioneered end-of-life care.

In the last 20 years, the number of U.S. providers has roughly doubled, while Medicare spending on hospice has grown sixfold, to $19.2 billion a year. More than 1.5 million Medicare beneficiaries now receive care from some 5,000 hospices, nearly a quarter of them in California.

“Virtually all of the growth is of for-profit providers, which appear to be crowding out the local nonprofits that established the hospice model and had a desire to maintain its integrity,” said Michael Connors, a long-term care advocate with California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform.

For-profit operators now make up 70% of all hospices certified by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and 91% of those in California. In Los Angeles County, they account for 97%.

Many provide excellent care.

Satisfaction surveys reported by hospices nationwide show that more than 80% of respondents rate their hospice as a 9 or 10 out of 10, but in L.A. County that figure drops to 74%. Respondents in L.A. also were less likely to report that hospices always gave them the help they needed.

Most hospice care is provided in patients’ homes, but services also are rendered at stand-alone facilities, nursing homes and assisted-living centers. Regulatory inspections and financial audits are infrequent, making the system a soft target for scammers.

Complaints about shady operators began lighting up the California Senior Medicare Patrol hotline in mid-2017 and have not let up, said Sandy Morales, who oversees the federally funded statewide hotline whose mission is to help Medicare beneficiaries prevent, detect and report fraud.

“It’s all over Southern California: Riverside County, Hemet, Indio, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Bakersfield,” she said. “Right now, it’s huge.”

Since January 2019, her agency has forwarded more than 100 cases of suspected hospice fraud to federal investigators, Morales said. One doctor’s office in Los Angeles County recently reported that 10 patients appeared to have been fraudulently enrolled by a hospice.

Fraudsters stick to a familiar script, enticing or duping Medicare recipients into signing up for services they don’t need, she said. They send recruiters door-to-door and to churches, food banks, senior centers and apartment complexes, often misrepresenting hospice as an “extra” Medicare benefit that pays for nursing visits, hospital beds or other needs.

‘It makes no sense. I can’t imagine there are 60 hospices in Burbank that are doing it the right way. There can’t be enough people for 60 hospices there.’
Jan Jones, chief executive officer of the California Hospice Network

The pandemic has spun off new schemes, she said, with unscrupulous recruiters now enticing prospects with hand sanitizer, gloves and promises of other COVID-19 “freebies.”

Many who sign up don’t even realize they are in hospice care.

“They’ll say, ‘No, I’m not dying. I wanted help with housekeeping and cooking and that’s what I signed up for,’” Morales said.

In May 2017, the daughter of an Alzheimer’s patient told a state investigator that a marketer for All Seasons Hospice in Paramount signed up her mother with a promise of 24-hour nursing care. When no one showed up, she called the hospice and was told the only 24-hour service was by phone.

The hospice administrator acknowledged the bogus sales pitch but mostly shrugged it off.

“It is a dog-eat-dog situation out there, very competitive,” the administrator told inspectors, according to a state report that did not name the employee. “I have no control over what these marketers say or do. They do what they want and promise anything to get the patient.”

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid did not respond to specific questions about the extent of hospice fraud, but said in a statement that the agency aggressively seeks to ferret it out.

“CMS identifies fraud, waste and abuse in hospice services utilizing cutting-edge data analytics, medical review and program integrity investigations,” it said. “In instances of potential fraud, CMS refers those providers to law enforcement for further criminal investigation and for appropriate administrative actions.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General reported in July 2018 that inappropriate billing and fraud by hospice providers cost taxpayers “hundreds of millions of dollars,” but the full extent is unknown.

The watchdog agency declined to comment on the scope of hospice fraud and said it could not provide a count of cases it has investigated. The Department of Justice did not respond to repeated requests for its prosecution numbers.

But according to interviews with hospice providers and industry experts, and a review of law enforcement releases on individual cases, state licensing reports, lawsuits and federal data, fraud is widespread.

“Hospice fraud remains absolutely rampant in the United States,” said Mark Schlein, an attorney with the Los Angeles firm Baum Hedlund who specializes in hospice whistleblower lawsuits. He links the fraud in large part to the industry’s unfettered growth.

“That translates into much more money being paid to hospice companies by federal healthcare programs,” he said. “When Willie Sutton was asked, ‘Why do you rob banks?’ he said, ‘Because that’s where the money is.’”

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More than two dozen hospices pepper a mile-long stretch of Victory Boulevard, an east-west artery in the San Fernando Valley. One well-worn office building in the 13600 block in Van Nuys is home to 15 providers.

“Hospices have been growing like mushrooms around here,” said one of the other tenants, who declined to give his name for fear of alienating his neighbors in the complex, where monthly rents start at an enticingly low $399.

Scores of others are in neighboring Valley communities, all part of a sprawling regional hotbed of for-profit hospices. Many are small operations, some purchased as investments by people with little or no healthcare experience.

Since 2010, the number of providers in Los Angeles County has skyrocketed from 100 to 618, federal data show.

North Hollywood is home to 35 hospices, while Glendale has 60, Burbank has 61 and Van Nuys 63.

By comparison, New York State and Florida each have fewer than 50.

With a population of 103,000, Burbank has a per capita rate of hospices that is nearly 40 times the national average, according to The Times’ analysis.

“It makes no sense,” said Jan Jones, recently retired chief executive officer of the California Hospice Network, a coalition of nonprofit providers. “I can’t imagine there are 60 hospices in Burbank that are doing it the right way. There can’t be enough people for 60 hospices there.”

New York, Florida and dozens of other states require prospective hospice owners to obtain a “certificate of need” to justify the demand for additional providers before they can get licensed.

California providers must be free of felony convictions, but there are few other qualifications for starting or operating a hospice beyond getting licensed by the state and certified by Medicare, a process that costs only a few thousand dollars.

“There is not a high-cost entry point to start a hospice program, unlike a hospital or a nursing home,” Jones said. “I think a lot of people think it is an easy business, which frankly I think is wrong. It is very complicated and complex, and very important to the people we serve.”

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With the explosive growth have come serious quality-of-care issues.

The Times’ review of more than 800 state licensing and inspection reports revealed instance after instance in which patients were deprived of comforting care because of the actions — or inaction — of hospice providers.

Mismanaged pain medications, neglected infections, missed nursing visits, incompetent or dishonest home health aides — all were cited among hundreds of violations that required hospices to draw up plans to correct the problems but resulted in little or no disciplinary action.

Patients suffered for lack of pain medication or had maggots crawling out of festering foot sores and head wounds, state inspection records show. Others died alone because no one from the hospice showed up when needed.

“We will never heal from that devastation,” Joyce Craig said of the final moments of her brother, Peter Craig, 74, a partner in a Los Angeles accounting firm who died of cancer in 2017.

The California Department of Public Health licenses and regulates hospices to ensure they meet state and federal standards but has limited ability to punish offenders. The only fines it can impose are for breaches of patient confidentiality.

To qualify for hospice, patients must be certified as terminally ill by their attending physicians, if they have them, and by a hospice doctor. The certification process is ripe for fraud.

The Times’ analysis of federal data showed that California hospices led the nation in violations for enrolling non-terminal patients, logging 57 such deficiencies since 2008, nearly three-fourths of them in L.A. County.

The next closest states were Georgia and Louisiana with 22 each. But the actual numbers in California and elsewhere are probably much higher, because of variations in how improper terminal diagnoses are coded and categorized by state inspectors.

At Eleos Hospice in Van Nuys, state officials who sampled five patients’ records in December 2016 discovered there was no evidence that any were terminally ill. The agency was “claiming or attempting to claim reimbursement for patients who did not need hospice care and services,” a licensing report noted.

All five were promptly discharged, but records show no action was taken against the doctor or hospice. The hospice has changed hands twice since then, according to a new owner who took over in August and said he was unaware of those deficiencies.

Inspectors found a similar scenario when they examined the records of two patients of Orion Hospice Care Services in Valley Village in November 2018.

The hospice’s medical director, in recertifying a patient as terminally ill, wrote that she was experiencing a steady decline in health and appetite and was losing weight. But that’s not what the patient told a state investigator.

“I did not have pain and my appetite is OK,” she said, “and I did not lose any weight.”

In fact, records kept at the board-and-care home where the woman lived showed she had gained seven pounds over the preceding three months.

The hospice administrator declined to comment when asked by inspectors to explain, and the medical director admitted he’d never put the woman on a scale, describing a method akin to a guess-your-weight booth at a county fair.

“I assessed her weight by my own clinical measurement and judgment, not by any actual documented measurement,” the doctor said, according to a state inspection report.

State inspectors found no records to support either terminal diagnosis, nor do inspection reports reflect any disciplinary action against the doctor or hospice beyond requiring a corrective action plan.

For a patient at Guiding Light Hospice in Sun Valley, the assessment could not have been bleaker.

The woman was easily fatigued, needed help with feeding, dressing, bathing, toileting, walking, handling money and medications and could speak “less than six intelligible words per day,” a state inspection record noted. She also was incontinent, had a history of falls and was forgetful, disoriented and confused, “with imminence of death.”

When interviewed by state inspectors, however, the woman, identified in a state licensing report only as Patient 1, said her only infirmity was some back pain from arthritis.

“Patient 1 stated she knew she was not ready to die, and laughed while denying she had a terminal diagnosis, and a life expectancy of six months or less,” according to the report.

The nurse who made the dire, detailed assessments insisted they were accurate, despite all evidence to the contrary. No disciplinary action was taken, but when inspectors returned for a follow-up 16 months later, Guiding Light had closed its office.

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Karen Alvarez at first gave little thought to the visitors from Ace of Hearts Hospice who showed up at Lancaster’s Sierra Retirement Village with armloads of fast food. After all, the apartment manager said, many of her low-income tenants were grateful for a complimentary meal.

But Alvarez was soon struck by the aggressive tactics of the Ace of Hearts personnel, who took over the lobby every Wednesday and trailed residents back to their units to pitch them on “free” hospice care, hospital beds and motorized scooters, all billable to taxpayers.

“You know, hospice people are gentle and talk to you nice. They are understanding and kind,” she said. “They don’t come in swarming like bees, like these people did.”

Few hospices better epitomize the most serious problems that afflict the industry — or underscore the failure of regulators to address them — than Ace of Hearts.

More than a dozen patients were not terminally ill and should never have been enrolled, according to a felony criminal complaint and state reports that detail a litany of deficiencies.

Based in a small office on Foothill Boulevard in Tujunga, the hospice racked up at least 115 regulatory violations from 2014 to 2016, second most among the 1,200 California providers over the last decade, federal records show.

Details of the violations fill nearly 200 pages of state inspection reports chronicling mishandled medications, neglected sores and repeated missed visits by nurses and home health aides.

In one patient’s case, aides failed to show up for 18 straight visits over a span of several months.

“It must have been a computer glitch,” was how the Ace of Hearts administrator explained it to state inspectors, who found dozens of other missed patient visits.

Ace of Hearts owner Rozanna Avetyan, 42, who signed the inspection reports as the administrator, did not respond to requests for interviews left with a person at her Stevenson Ranch home and with a woman who answered her cellphone but would not identify herself.

Her attorney, Donald Marks, did not respond to repeated phone and email messages.

In 2016, the government paid the hospice about $450,000 for 29 patients, nearly two-thirds of whom were discharged alive, Medicare data show. Although hospice patients may be recertified to receive care for more than six months, federal officials say that very long stays and high “live discharge” rates are potential indicators of fraud.

Ace of Hearts’ 62% live discharge rate in 2016 was nearly six times the national rate that year, according to The Times’ analysis of Medicare data.

That October, state inspectors could find no evidence of terminal illness for three of 11 patients sampled. Some had been admitted by the hospice medical director, who signed certifications electronically, state inspection records show.

The unidentified doctor, whose office was in Palm Springs, more than 100 miles from Tujunga, told state officials he did not recall some of the patients and didn’t know how his signature wound up on their certifications.

“I do not like computers so I do not use them,” he said, according to a state licensing report. “I did not sign anything electronically.”

The improper certifications had serious ramifications: Some non-terminal patients who signed up were stunned to learn they had forfeited their existing medical coverage in the process, the report states.

At least two lost their HMO coverage when they were enrolled in hospice without being told they could refuse. One was signed up while in an assisted-living facility, the state licensing records show, and the other while residing in a board-and-care home.

“The HMO won’t even see him in the emergency room, and he does not understand it,” the board-and-care owner told state investigators, according to a state report.

When pressed for an explanation, the report said, the Ace of Hearts administrator blamed the board-and-care owner for referring the man, who developed serious bed sores while in hospice care.

“I had nothing but trouble with the board-and-care owner,” the administrator said. “Now the patient has multiple wounds. I told [his] caregiver that we don’t do wounds here.”

Poor wound care was nowhere more evident than in the case of one patient treated by an Ace of Hearts nurse who lacked enough clean gauze to dress a serious foot sore.

“She picked up the dirty discarded Kerlix dressing that was removed from the wounds that was soiled with a few spots of old red colored discharge and she re-used the old dressing on top of the clean dressing,” wrote a state inspector who witnessed the violation of infection-control protocols.

It was but one of a long list of serious deficiencies over the years.

“The cumulative effect of these systemic practices resulted in the failure of the hospice agency to ensure the provision of quality healthcare in a safe environment,” a 2016 inspection report said.

Despite that finding, however, Ace of Hearts continued to operate for three years. It eventually was undone not by state regulators but by its own weekly free breakfast sales pitch visits to Sierra Retirement Village and the nearby Aurora Village Retirement Center.

Alvarez, the Sierra complex manager, told The Times that two federal agents dropped by one day to grill her about the visits and kickback offers of up to $300 per patient by Avetyan, who also owned Team Hospice in Lancaster.

“I wasn’t interested in that at all,” Alvarez, who was not accused of wrongdoing, said of the kickbacks. “I said, ‘No, I have a job, I don’t need that.’”

Authorities had been tipped off by a county social worker who was surprised that a resident she was visiting had been given a “hospice bed” when she was not ill, Alvarez said.

In 2018, the California attorney general’s office filed fraud charges against Avetyan and four others, alleging that her hospices had billed Medicare and Medi-Cal for $1.2 million for ineligible patients.

Avetyan had paid more than $180,000 in kickbacks for illegal referrals, some of them by a woman who worked in a doctor’s office and gleaned names from the patient roster, prosecutors alleged in a criminal complaint.

A different physician, Dr. Blanca Galapon, now 80, was accused of falsely certifying a dozen patients as terminally ill in exchange for unspecified payments from Avetyan, according to the complaint.

Avetyan pleaded guilty in April 2019 to one count of conspiracy to pay and accept insurance kickbacks and was given a suspended six-month jail sentence and placed on four years’ probation.

Galapon and other defendants cut plea deals for deferred prosecution or probation.

In January, Avetyan was barred from all federal healthcare programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, for at least five years. By early this spring, both Ace of Hearts and Team Hospice had closed their offices.

But court documents and other public records indicate that Avetyan sought continued involvement in the hospice industry.

At least five hospices based at one Van Nuys office building appear to have been spun off directly from Ace of Hearts or have significant links to it, The Times found. Online biographies that list two young women as chief executives of the five hospices describe both as former Ace of Hearts employees.

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One of them, Arpine Melikyan, is a 2019 graduate of Cal State Los Angeles who was an Ace of Hearts accountant and now heads up two other providers, Life Hospice and High Care Hospice.

In a 2019 lawsuit, Avetyan alleged that she agreed to pay Melikyan $5,000 a month and provide staffing and other resources in exchange for a 30% stake in the two hospices. Melikyan declined to comment on the lawsuit, which accuses her of reneging on the deal.

Avetyan is due back in court on Dec. 16, accused of violating her probation.

Prosecutors would not provide details, but said in an email to The Times that she continued to bill Medi-Cal for hospice services after being barred from the program.

Complete Article HERE!