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Scrutinizing Medicare Coverage For Physical, Occupational and Speech Therapy

Older hand holding another hand
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

For years, confusion has surrounded the conditions under which older adults can receive physical, occupational and speech therapy covered by Medicare.

Services have been terminated for some seniors, such as those with severe cases of multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease, because therapists said they weren’t making sufficient progress. Others, including individuals recovering from strokes or traumatic brain injuries, have been told that they reached an annual limit on services and didn’t qualify for further care.

Neither explanation stands up to scrutiny. Medicare does not require that older adults demonstrate improvement in order to receive ongoing therapy. Nor does it limit the amount of medically necessary therapy, for the most part.

The February congressional budget deal eases long-standing concerns by lifting a threat that some types of therapy might be restricted. But potential barriers to accessing this type of care remain. Here’s a look at how Medicare now covers such services.

Medical necessity. All therapy covered by Medicare must be deemed “reasonable and necessary to treat the individual’s illness or injury,” require the services of skilled professionals and be subject to medical oversight.

What isn’t a precondition for receiving services is ongoing improvement — getting measurably better. While this can be a goal for therapy, other goals can include maintaining a person’s current abilities or preventing deterioration, according to a groundbreaking legal settlement in 2013.

The implication for older adults: If your therapist claims that she can’t help you any longer because you aren’t making substantial progress, you may well have grounds for an appeal. At the very least, a discussion with your physician about reasonable goals for therapy is advisable.

Part A therapy services. Often, older adults require therapy after an untoward event brings them to the hospital — for instance, a stroke or a bad fall. If a senior has an inpatient stay in the hospital of at least three days, he or she becomes eligible for up to 100 days of rehabilitation, including therapy, in a skilled nursing facility under Medicare Part A.

Therapy services covered by Medicare Part A also can be obtained in an inpatient, hospital-based rehabilitation facility. In this setting, requirements call for therapy to be “intensive” — at least three hours a day, five days a week. Stays are covered by Medicare up to a maximum 90 days.

If a senior returns home after being in the hospital, he or she may receive therapy from a home health agency under Medicare Part A. To qualify for home health care, an older adult must need intermittent skilled services, such as those provided by a registered nurse or physical therapist, and be substantially homebound. Each episode of home health care can last up to 60 days and be renewed with a physician’s authorization.

“A lot of home health agencies believe, wrongly, that the home health benefit, including therapy services, is limited in duration to a couple of 60-day episodes,” said David Lipschutz, senior policy attorney at the Center for Medicare Advocacy. The bottom line for beneficiaries: You may have to advocate aggressively for the care you think you need and enlist your physician to intervene on your behalf.