Two major policy developments emerged from this week’s release by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) of the FY22 proposed rule governing payment for hospital outpatient services and ambulatory surgical centers.
First, CMS proposes todramatically increase the financial penalties assessed to hospitals that fail to adequately reveal prices for their services, a requirement first put in place by the Trump administration. According to a report by the consumer group Patient Rights Advocate, only 5.6 percent of a random sample of 500 hospitals were in full compliance with the transparency requirement six months after the regulation came into effect, with many instead choosing to pay the $300 per hospital per day penalty associated with noncompliance. The new CMS regulation proposes to scale the assessed penalties in accordance with hospital size, with larger hospitals liable for up to $2M in annual penalties, a substantial increase from the earlier $109,500 maximum annual fine. In a press release, the agency said it “takes seriously concerns it has heard from consumers that hospitals are not making clear, accessible pricing information available online, as they have been required to do since January 1, 2021.” In a statement, the AHA stated that it was “deeply concerned” about the proposal, “particularly in light of substantial uncertainty in the interpretation of the rules.” The penalty hike is a clear signal that the Biden administration plans to put teeth behind its new push for more competition in healthcare, which was a major focus of the President’s recent executive order. We’d expect to see most hospitals and health systems quickly move to comply with the transparency rule, given the size of potential penalties.
More heartening to hospitals was CMS’ proposal to roll back changes the Trump administration made, aimed at shifting certain surgical procedures into lower cost, ambulatory settings. The agency proposed halting the elimination of the Inpatient Only (IPO) list, which specifies surgeries CMS will only pay for if they are performed in an inpatient hospital. Citing patient safety concerns, CMS noted that the phased elimination of the IPO list, which began this year, was undertaken without evaluating whether individual procedures could be safely moved to an outpatient setting. Nearly 300 musculoskeletal procedures have already been eliminated from the list, and will now be added back to the list for 2022, keeping the rest of the list intact while CMS undertakes a formal process to review each procedure. Longer term, we’d anticipate that CMS will look to continue the elimination of inpatient-only restrictions on surgeries, as well as pursuing other policies (such as site-neutral payment) that level the playing field between hospitals and lower-cost outpatient providers.
For now, hospitals will enjoy a little more breathing room to plan for the financial consequences of that inevitable shift.
Tenet, a major U.S. health system, has agreed to sell five hospitals in the Miami-Dade area for $1.1 billion to Steward Health Care System, a physician-owned hospital operator and health network.
The deal also includes the hospitals’ associated physician practices. Dallas-based Steward has agreed to continue using Tenet’s revenue cycle management firm, Conifer Health Solutions, following the completion of the deal, which is expected to close in the third quarter.
Further underscoring Tenet’s strategic focus, the sale will not include Tenet’s ambulatory surgery centers in Florida. Tenet will hold onto those assets as its ambulatory business becomes a bigger focus for the legacy hospital operator.
Dallas-based Tenet continues to bet on its ambulatory surgery business.
It’s noteworthy that this latest billion-dollar sale does not include any of its surgery centers in Florida, but half of its hospitals. Jefferies analyst Brian Tanquilut said the ambulatory segment now becomes even more important as it will contribute a majority of consolidated earnings in the near term.
The money generated from the sale could also pay for more ASCs, under Tenet’s unit, United Surgical Partners International (USPI), further bulking up Tenet’s ASC portfolio that already outnumbers its competitors.
Tenet is traditionally viewed as a hospital operator, even though its surgery center footprint dwarfs its hospital portfolio. Tenet operates 310 ASCs following a $1.1 billion deal in December to acquire 45 centers from SurgCenter Development. Tenet said Wednesday it operates 65 hospitals.
Of Tenet’s 10 Florida hospitals, Steward will buy up half, including Coral Gables Hospital, Florida Medical Center, Hialeah Hospital, North Shore Medical Center and Palmetto General Hospital.
Tanquilut said that leaves Tenet in control of its “core” south Florida business in the Boca and Palm Beach market, located about 75 miles north of the Miami area where Tenet is selling its hospitals.
During the volatile year of 2020, Tenet was able to post a profit of $399 million for the full year, which includes provider relief funding. As recovery continues, Tenet posted a profit of $97 million during the first quarter, which also includes federal relief due to the pandemic.
A key Medicare advisory panel is calling for a 2% bump to Medicare payments for acute care hospitals for 2022 but no hike for physicians.
The report, released Monday from the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC)—which recommends payment policies to Congress—bases payment rate recommendations on data from 2019. However, the commission did factor in the pandemic when evaluating the payment rates and other policies in the report to Congress, including whether policies should be permanent or temporary.
“The financial stress on providers is unpredictable, although it has been alleviated to some extent by government assistance and rebounding service utilization levels,” the report said.
MedPAC recommended that targeted and temporary funding policies are the best way to help providers rather than a permanent hike for payments that gets increased over time.
“Overall, these recommendations would reduce Medicare spending while preserving beneficiaries’ access to high-quality care,” the report added.
MedPAC expects the effects of the pandemic, which have hurt provider finances due to a drop in healthcare use, to persist into 2021 but to be temporary.
It calls for a 2% update for inpatient and outpatient services for 2022, the same increase it recommended for 2021.
The latest report recommends no update for physicians and other professionals. The panel also does not want any hikes for four payment systems: ambulatory surgical centers, outpatient dialysis facilities, skilled nursing facilities and hospices.
MedPAC also recommends Congress reduce the aggregate hospice cap by 20% and that “ambulatory surgery centers be required to report cost data to [Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)],” the report said.
But it does call for long-term care hospitals to get a 2% increase and to reduce payments by 5% for home health and inpatient rehabilitation facilities.
The panel also explores the effects of any policies implemented under the COVID-19 public health emergency, which is likely to extend through 2021 and could continue into 2022.
For instance, CMS used the public health emergency to greatly expand the flexibility for providers to be reimbursed for telehealth services. Use of telehealth exploded during the pandemic after hesitancy among patients to go to the doctor’s office or hospital for care.
“Without legislative action, many of the changes will expire at the end of the [public health emergency],” the report said.
MedPAC recommends Congress temporarily continue some of the telehealth expansions for one to two years after the public health emergency ends. This will give lawmakers more time to gather evidence on the impact of telehealth on quality and Medicare spending.
“During this limited period, Medicare should temporarily pay for specified telehealth services provided to all beneficiaries regardless of their location, and it should continue to cover certain newly-covered telehealth services and certain audio-only telehealth services if there is potential for clinical benefit,” according to a release on the report.
After the public health emergency ends, Medicare should also return to paying the physician fee schedule’s facility rate for any telehealth services. This will ensure Medicare can collect data on the cost for providing the services.
“Providers should not be allowed to reduce or waive beneficiary cost-sharing for telehealth services after the [public health emergency],” the report said. “CMS should also implement other safeguards to protect the Medicare program and its beneficiaries from unnecessary spending and potential fraud related to telehealth.”
The company’s surgery centers far outnumber its hospital portfolio, and its ambulatory earnings will account for nearly half of overall earnings next year.
Tenet Health got its start as a major hospital operator in the U.S. and can trace its hospital business roots as far back as 1969. But it may be time to think of the Dallas-based company as an ambulatory surgery center operator, first, and a hospital chain, second.
Following its latest acquisition, Tenet’s ASC footprint will be nearly five times larger by the number of facilities than its hospital portfolio, and its ambulatory earnings will account for nearly half of the company’s overall earnings next year, executives recently said. That’s a significant leap from about six years ago when ambulatory represented just 4% of the company’s earnings.
“From a stock perspective, I think they’re going to get more credit now for that ownership of the surgery center business than ever just because of the size contribution,” Brian Tanquilut, an analyst with Jefferies, said.
Still he noted they will likely retain their image as a hospital provider first given that half its business (and earnings) are subject to the dynamics of the hospital space.
Tenet will now operate up to 310 ASCs in 33 states following its $1.1 billion cash deal to buy up to 45 centers from SurgCenter Development.
Tenet has billed its purchase from SurgCenter Development as a transformative deal, crowning itself the leading musculoskeletal surgical platform.
SurgCenter Development is one of the larger ASC operators in the country. The Towson, Maryland-based firm has developed more than 200 centers since the company was officially established in 2002. SCD’s business model calls for its physician partners to maintain majority ownership while SCD provides consulting and capital.
In fact, Tenet will pull ahead of the pack and will operate the most ASCs compared to its competitors, according to various public data.
Amsurg, an ASC operator under private equity-owned Envision, controls more than 250 surgery centers, according to its website, followed by Optum’s 230 centers under its Surgical Care Affiliates brand.
Number of ASCs (fully or partially owned)
Surgical Care Affiliates (Optum)
Total Medicare-certified ASCs in U.S.
Still, those large players only control a sliver of the overall market. There are more than 5,700 Medicare-certified ASCs operating in the U.S., according to MedPac’s latest March report.
The market is so fragmented because, historically, a handful of doctors could come together and open up a small surgery center with a few operating rooms, Todd Johnson, a partner at Bain and Company, said. Johnson noted there are not that many deals like this out there, which is why it’s significant that Tenet was able to gobble up 45 centers in one swoop.
“We’re a long way from this being a market where any individual operator’s got 30% of market share. There’s just so many of these out there,” Johnson said.
What’s so attractive?
Regulatory and reimbursement changes and patient preference continues to fuel certain procedure migration away from hospitals.
“For payers, typically, the surgery rates are 30 to 40% less than the same procedure that’s done in a hospital outpatient department. So, payers certainly value the economic value proposition of ASCs,” Johnson said.
Just recently, regulators cleared the way for more procedures to be done in ASCs. CMS is eliminating the list of procedures that must be performed in a hospital, drawing ire from the hospital lobby. The inpatient-only list will be completely phased out by 2024, creating even more growth potential for surgery centers. Come Jan. 1, total hip replacements will be covered if performed in an ASC, a huge win for ASC operators.
It’s why hospital operators like Tenet have been keen to expand their surgery center footprint. The centers attract relatively healthy patients for quick procedures — eating into hospitals’ revenue and margin.
“This further move only solidifies the fact that they are trying to diversify their revenue streams, and, frankly move into a more attractive economic profile of procedure types — not trauma and COVID but rather scheduled surgeries they can run in and out like a factory but with really good clinical outcomes,” Johnson said.
To this point, Tenet leaders said the new SurgCenter Development centers generate higher margins and have minimal debt.
Patients also tend to prefer ASCs, Johnson said. Plus, as a lower cost option it can be persuasive for patients, especially those with high-deductible health plans.
Tenet has continued to bet on the shift from inpatient to outpatient services following its purchase of USPI in 2015.
The purchase set Tenet up to be a serious competitor in the space, establishing a portfolio of 244 surgery centers when the deal was announced. It illustrated Tenet’s intent to build a broader portfolio.
At the same time, it has whittled down its hospital portfolio, divesting in markets where it isn’t the No. 1 or No. 2 player as it seeks to hone its most competitive segments and markets.
Just last year, it announced plans to largely exit the Memphis, Tennessee, market with the sale of a number of assets including two hospitals, urgent care centers and the associated physician practices.
In 2018, Tenet shed all of its operations in the U.K. and eight hospitals across the U.S.
That long-term strategy was made clearer last week when Tenet announced its sale of its urgent care business to FastMed. By selling off its 87 CareSpot and MedPost centers, Tenet said it will allow the company to further focus on its surgery center business.
Tenet has been keen to tout its position of musculosketel procedures — a high growth area compared to other procedure types such as gastroenterology. A 2019 report from Bain and Company expects that orthopaedic and spine procedure volumes will increase the fastest over the next few years.
With the SCD centers in the mix, CEO Ron Rittenmeyer said, “this transaction ensures Tenet will essentially double down and further deepen our concentration in these high growth areas of the future.”