Advisory Group in Washington State Works to Bring Palliative Care to Rural Patients

By: Beth Blevins

An advisory team run by the Washington State Office of Rural Health (WA SORH) is looking at ways to bring palliative care to rural patients through telehealth and better community engagement.

Palliative care aims to relieve the suffering of patients with terminal or life-limiting illnesses. But in rural areas, palliative care isn’t always available locally, especially for patients who don’t immediately qualify for hospice services.

Pat Justis, director of the WA SORH, was drafting ideas for rural palliative care when inspired to start the Palliative Care Rural Health Integration Advisory Team (PC-RHIAT) after hearing a presentation at the 2016 NRHA Annual Meeting. “Seeing there what Stratis Health had accomplished and learned in Minnesota gave me velocity and concrete ideas on how to get this advisory group together,” Justis said.

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PC-RHIAT includes a cross-section of perspectives from three domains: palliative care expertise, rural health expertise, and telehealth expertise. “Our role is to be a catalyst—primarily, to do the support to bring the right conversations together, link resources, and give the whole process structure,” Justis said. “We’re laying a framework, and providing tools, coaching, and facilitation for the rural hospitals, clinics, and community team members. The community teams will develop an action plan based in the community and rural community health care organizations. And the teams will decide how quickly they move and how much to take on.”

In addition, Justis affirmed, “we are going to work closely with rural home health and hospice agencies. There’s no way that we’re trying to supplant what they do. What we want is to collaborate and help build complimentary care processes.”

PC-RHIAT also aims to work on sustainable, multi-pronged funding. Justis said that might include grant funding for capacity building, such as helping a Critical Access Hospital or Rural Health Clinic send nursing staff or providers to a national training for palliative care; bringing in case consultation services like Project Echo; and providing paid internship stipends to engage students.

One barrier to funding, however, is that there is no defined Medicare benefit for palliative care, Justis said. “As it stands now, palliative care services under Medicare are covered on a piecemeal basis under the auspices of other types of Medicare-funded services: outpatient care by a physician or non-physician provider, or home health or hospice care if the patient meets the specific eligibility criteria for those programs.”

“So,” she said, “we’re also going to work on payer strategies both within our state and looking at whether we can organize multiple states on an approach to Medicare. We’re hoping to get a national change in policy for funding so palliative care outside hospice is a covered service under Medicare.”

After consensus on the conceptual model, the advisory team will convene its first work group this month. “There are two hospitals that have already done some work, and a few other early adopters,” Justis said. “One of those will move quickly because they’ve laid a lot of groundwork for it already. The pace at which communities take this up will depend on where they are developmentally, and on community engagement and how many resources they have for it.”

The overall goal, Justis said, is to have a model where the work groups are the instigators and tool providers. “(The advisory team) wants to gradually hand off the heart of the work to the community teams as we put our focus on policy change.”

According to Justis, the advisory team is currently being funded with in-kind contributions. “The new SORH budget has a small amount committed,” Justis said. “We have a grant writing plan and strategies to work with payers. And a small amount of Flex funding has helped CAH staff with travel costs, although most meetings, but not all, are done via Zoom.”

The advisory team is bringing to fruition Justis’ long-time interest in palliative care. “I began working with hospice as a concept as an undergrad and did internships around it in graduate school,” she said. “It has long been a desire of mine to look at ways for people to stay in their community without being sent away for treatment that might not be what they need or want.”

Justis added, “The conversation should be about quality of life. ‘How can we get you more comfortable? What are your goals? How can we support those?’ That’s true for patients and family. That’s what I love about palliative care and hospice—the goals of patients and family are at the center of what happens.”

Does your SORH have a “Promising Practice”? We’re interested in the innovative, effective and valuable work that SORHs are doing. Contact Beth Blevins at (301) 260-0556 or thebethblevins@gmail.com to set up a short email or phone interview in which you can tell your story.

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