The Cost of Dying

Patients' Last Two Months of Life Cost Medicare $50 Billion Last Year; Is There a Better Way?

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And once someone is admitted to the hospital, Fisher says, they're likely to be seen by a dozen or more specialists who will conduct all kinds of tests, whether they're absolutely essential or not.

Meredith Snedeker's 85-year-old mother spent her last two months shuttling between a nursing home and community hospital in New Jersey, suffering from advanced heart and liver disease.

Dorothy Glas was a former nurse who had signed a living will expressing her wishes that no extraordinary measures be taken to keep her alive. But that didn't stop a legion of doctors from conducting batteries of tests.

"I can't tell you all the tests they took. But I do know that she saw over 13 specialists," Snedeker told Kroft.

Asked what kind of specialists, Snedeker said, "Neurological, gastroenterologists. She even saw a psychiatrist because they said she was depressed. And she told the psychiatrist, 'Of course, I'm depressed. I'm dying.'"

When we reviewed the medical records, we discovered that there weren't 13 specialists who attended to her mother: there were 25, each of whom billed Medicare separately.

The hospital told 60 Minutes that all the tests were appropriate, and an independent physician said this case was fairly typical.

"You think they were running up the bill to make money? Or running up the bill or giving her all these tests because they really thought it might help her? Or to cover their…rear?" Kroft asked.

"Yeah, to cover their rear," Snedeker replied.

Among the tests conducted was a pap smear, which is generally only recommended for much younger women, not an octogenarian who was already dying of liver and heart disease.

"In medicine we have turned the laws of supply and demand upside down," Elliot Fisher said. "Supply drives its own demand. If you're running a hospital, you have to keep that hospital full of paying patients. In order to, you know, to meet your payroll. In order to pay off your bonds."

"So, the more M.R.I. machines you have, the more people are gonna get M.R.I. tests?" Kroft asked.

"Absolutely," Fisher said.

"There are people that would argue this is great medicine. You get tested for every conceivable, possible malady you might have," Kroft pointed out.

"Often the best care is saying 'Let's see how you do on this particular treatment for a couple of days. And see if you respond.' Not necessarily doing a lot of tests," Fisher said. "The best care may well be staying home with a trial of a new medication, rather than being admitted to a hospital where you can be exposed to a hospital-acquired infection. We have a system that rewards much, much more care."