Congress: Support access to palliative care for aging Americans
© Getty Images

The 21st century has brought remarkable advances in health care services, research and biopharmaceutical innovation. This has resulted in many Americans living longer with, and sometimes beating, serious illness. 

However, as illness becomes more serious, humane treatment should include non-medical supports to ease symptoms and optimize quality of life. Unfortunately, this is an area where our health care system – despite all its advances – falls regrettably short.

ADVERTISEMENT

Palliative care – a multidisciplinary specialty that focuses on providing relief from the symptoms, pain, physical and mental stress of a terminal diagnosis – is growing in demand in the United States. Like trusted hospice care, quality palliative care is patient-centered and addresses patients’ physical, emotional, psychosocial, spiritual and familial needs. It’s been shown to improve quality of life, reduce depression, and has been linked to greater survival time.

But without proper investment from Congress, it’s a specialty that is destined to remain out-of-reach for many Americans.

Research from the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM) indicates that a growing shortage of adequately trained hospice and palliative care providers will mean insufficient numbers of professionals to ensure aging Americans have access to quality palliative care. Other data from George Washington University Healthcare Institute estimates there will be no more than 1 percent growth in the palliative care and hospice physician workforce in the next 20 years, while the number of people eligible to benefit from palliative care will increase by more than 20 percent. Without new investments in palliative care education and training, there will be only one palliative physician for every 26,000 seriously ill patients by 2030.

Fortunately, Congress has recognized the need to enhance the outlook for palliative care services and acted to address this growing void in our health care system.

The Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act (or PCHETA, S. 693 and H.R. 1676) – which has the support of over 300 members of Congress from both parties and chambers – addresses this national workforce shortage by encouraging palliative medicine training in a variety of settings, not just hospice. The legislation would also establish a program to enable hospice and palliative physicians to train teams of interdisciplinary health care professionals – like nurses and clinical social workers – in palliative and hospice care techniques.

Legislators supporting PCHETA should be commended for their foresight, including co-sponsors Reps. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelHouse Republicans 'demand the release of the rules' on impeachment Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Trump insists Turkey wants cease-fire | Fighting continues in Syrian town | Pentagon chief headed to Mideast | Mattis responds to criticism from Trump Testimony from GOP diplomat complicates Trump defense MORE (D-N.Y.), Tom ReedThomas (Tom) W. ReedNo Labels' fight against partisanship 25 years of championing successful community development Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Walmart to stop selling e-cigarettes | Senators press FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately | House panel tees up e-cig hearing for next week MORE (R-N.Y.) and Buddy CarterEarl (Buddy) Leroy CarterMass shootings have hit 158 House districts so far this year Polling director: Young voters swayed by health care, economy, gun control The Hill's Morning Report - Can Trump save GOP in North Carolina special election? MORE (R-Ga.) in the House and Sens. Shelley Moore Capitol (R-W.Va) and Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinFederal funding for Chinese buses risks our national security Democrats threaten to withhold defense votes over wall The Trump downturn: Trouble ahead for the US economy MORE (D-Wis.) in the Senate. This legislation recently cleared the House Energy & Commerce Committee and is now poised for a full chamber vote this week.

I encourage the Congress to pass PCHETA to ensure the health of the hospice and palliative care workforce. I also ask Congress to continue this momentum and pass the Rural Access to Hospice Act (RAH), which ensures that all Americans, regardless of their zip code, can access critical serious-illness and end-of-life care. By passing both PCHETA and RAH, lawmakers will be ensuring more Americans have access to a comfortable, dignified death when the time comes.

Edo Banach, JD is President & CEO of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and of the Hospice Action Network.