More Medicare beneficiaries than expected using end-of-life care planning coverage

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Nearly twice the number of beneficiaries originally projected to participate in Medicare-covered end-of-life care consultations did so during the first year of the program, according to a report published Monday.

The American Medical Association estimated that 300,000 people would receive a covered consultation in 2016, the first year the Medicare program offered physicians reimbursement for discussing advance care planning with patients. Instead, federal data obtained by Kaiser Health News showed nearly 575,000 beneficiaries participated in an end-of-life care talk with their physician.

In total, 23,000 healthcare providers billed $93 million in charges for the talks, with $43 million of that covered by Medicare.

Medicare coverage of the talks was introduced as part of the 2016 physician fee schedule, and praised by providers as “necessary and important.”

Despite the higher-than-expected numbers, the percentage of Medicare beneficiaries who participated in a consultation still sits at just over 1%, with use varying widely between states. The numbers also could be stifled by some physicians who don't know that the reimbursement rule has taken effect, Kaiser reported.

“I think it's great that half a million people talked with their doctors last year. That's a good thing,” Paul Malley, president of nonprofit Aging with Dignity, told Kaiser. “Physician practices are learning. My guess is that it will increase each year.”