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Check out home care providers on the Web and by telephone

(ran NP, PT, CI editions)

Medicare has long offered short-term assistance at home to those who qualify for skilled nursing care or even for basic help with eating, bathing and cooking. But if you or a family member want to receive such service _ as 2.5-million Medicare beneficiaries did last year _ how do you decide which agency to use?

Now people across the country can find out how well an agency performed at helping its clients get better at such tasks as dressing and bathing themselves, moving to and from the toilet and getting into and out of bed. The information on 11 measurements of quality, based on data collected between May 2002 and May 2003, is on the Web at the "Home Health Compare" section of www.medicare.gov.

"It's an awfully good idea," said Suzanne Mintz, president of the Kensington, Md.-based National Family Caregivers Association. "Any time that consumers have easy access to more information, they're in a better position to make good choices."

In states where these data have been available in a pilot project, observers have pointed out that the physical, educational and economic condition of the people who sign up with an agency may affect the Medicare scores irrespective of the agency's performance.

Mintz suggested contacting local offices on aging and national groups such as the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations for help in choosing a home health care agency. For details, go to www.jcaho.org.

Not everyone who needs home care is eligible to have Medicare pay for it. "You cannot qualify with a need for custodial care alone," notes the nonprofit Medicare Rights Center, which offers advice about choosing an agency at www.medicarerights.org.cq

"If you have Alzheimer's disease and need home health aide services but do not need skilled nursing or skilled therapy, you do not qualify for the home health benefit." Even if you do qualify, the center warns, "because of the amount Medicare pays the home health agencies, you can expect to receive about 10 hours a week of care at most."

For information, a free publication, "Medicare and Home Health Care" can be ordered by calling toll-free 1-800-633-4227.

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