Helios program works to reduce ER, hospital visits

Dec. 23—A program offered by Helios Care has reduced the need of palliative care patients to visit the emergency room or be admitted to a hospital by 70%, according to the organization.

Helios Care President/CEO Dan Ayres said the Choices program is an in-home palliative care treatment for people suffering symptoms of chronic illnesses, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure, cancer or those receiving dialysis treatments. The program will start its third year of study and will receive funding through the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation.

Ayres said the program serves 22 patients in each Otsego and Delaware counties and 10 patients in Schoharie County. Helios Care receives referrals to the program through physicians, and patients must meet some criteria, such as receiving treatment for their disease, before they are accepted into the program, he said. The program provides a patient with a visiting nurse and a social worker, and the patient has access to 24/7 triage via phone or telemedicine.

Ayres said a majority of the patients needed help with food, housing and heating insecurities, so the social worker was able to refer them to the appropriate agency that could help them.

"They helped them with food insecurity by getting them signed up for Meals on Wheels, heating and housing assistance through Office for the Aging," Ayres said. "This made them healthier and reduced expenses."

All of the patients in the program had been seen at emergency rooms or had been admitted to hospitals at least three times in the previous six months before they started the Choices program, he said. Once the program started, Ayres said, there was a "dramatic reduction of acute care needed by these high users by 70%. This not only improves the health of the patient, but it helps health care systems save money."

Ayres said palliative care is not fully paid by insurance, but it should be because it reduces costs. He said some Medicare and Medicaid Advantage plans pay for it. "This service provides better care and better outcomes for patients at a cheaper cost then if they have to go to the emergency room or be admitted to the hospital," he said.

He said he thinks the COVID-19 pandemic may help push insurers to pay for the palliative care their clients need.

"COVID has obviously depleted revenues at the federal government and they are looking for ways to cut costs," he said. "One way to do that is the innovative program we started where people receive care in their home and avoid the hospital."

The Choices program was recently selected as a Silver Winner in The John A. Hartford Foundation Tipping Point Challenge, a national competition focused on the submission of innovative initiatives that have made — or will make — positive, breakthrough change in the care of the serious illness. The challenge is sponsored by the Center to Advance Palliative Care and The John A. Hartford Foundation. Helios Care was recognized as one of the top eight of the national applications.

"I am very proud of this program," Ayres said. Helios Care was the smallest hospice organization and the most rural organization to submit its program to the challenge, he said. "Most of the places submitted plans of what they wanted to do," he said. "We were reciting actual outcomes of the program we put in place."

For more information about Helios Care, visit helioscare.org.

Vicky Klukkert, staff writer, can be reached at vklukkert@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7221. Follow her @DS_VickyK on Twitter.