To qualify for hospice care, two doctors must certify that a patient is expected to live no more than six months. But patient James B. Nelson discovered that sometimes the doctors are wrong.
"It was decided that I was not dying fast enough," he told Arizona Public Media in 2015. "And so, to put it most succinctly, I flunked the hospice program."
Nelson died a few months after giving that interview, but his situation isn't all that unusual.
Government reports show that the median rate of hospice patients discharged before death has climbed steadily since at least 2000, peaking in 2012 and 2013 at almost one patient in five, though more recently the percentage has declined somewhat. But the rate actually varies widely from one care organization to another. Some hospices discharge less than 2 percent of their patients prior to death, while others discharge more than 80 percent. Non-profits have lower rates of live discharge than for-profit hospices. Regionally, live discharge rates are highest in the South.
It's important to understand, though, that when patients are discharged from hospice, they don't necessarily go anywhere. Hospice agencies, whether they are independent or affiliated with an institution like a hospital, usually deliver services to patients in their homes.