The United States Supreme Court should keep in place a lower court ruling that bars hospitals from receiving higher Medicare reimbursements for outpatient services compared to other providers, according to a brief HHS filed late last week.
The 33-page brief filed with the high court is in response to a petition by the American Hospital Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges to hear the case. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled last July that HHS had the right to cut payments to hospital-owned facilities in order to achieve site neutrality, reversing the judgment of a district court.
Hospitals and HHS have been wrangling about the issue since the federal agency moved to cut payments to hospital-owned outpatient sites in 2019. The Supreme Court will have the final say, whether it decides to hear the case or not.
Site-neutral payments have been a hot button issue in the healthcare world for the better part of a decade, after many larger hospital systems began buying up physician practices. Hospitals are reimbursed by Medicare for evaluation and management services at a higher rate than standalone physician groups.
They began collecting those higher fees at the outpatient sites they acquired or opened. From 2012 to 2015, E&M encounters per Medicare enrollee grew at outpatient sites by 22%, versus a 1% drop at physician practices, HHS noted in its brief.
That strategy not only drove up costs to the Medicare program but also put more pressure on individual medical practices to merge with one another to better compete with hospital-owned practices, or be bought out. HHS attempted to remedy the issue by moving toward a site-neutral payment scheme beginning in 2019. Acute care providers, led by AHA and AAMC, sued to stop the change. They appealed to the Supreme Court last summer.
The brief filed by HHS attorneys with the high court asked that its new site-neutral payment policy be retained. The department argued that it did not act beyond the powers delegated to it by Congress, and that body would remedy such a disturbing financial trend on its own if it needed to.
The likelihood the high court will hear the case is low. Attorneys note that the Supreme Court only agrees to hear no more than 5% of cases brought to it for review that involve a federal agency. Moreover, they are even less likely to act if there is no conflict on the issue between the appeals court — which HHS noted in its brief.
If the Supreme Court declines to hear the case, the appellate court ruling would stand and the site neutral payment rule would remain on the books.
— At stake: scheduled payment reductions totalling $54 billion
Healthcare groups are applauding efforts being made in Congress to stop two different cuts to the Medicare budget — both of which are due to “sequestration” requirements — before it’s too late.
One cut, part of the normal budget process, is a 2% — or $18 billion — cut in the projected Medicare budget under a process known as “sequestration.” Sequestration allows for prespecified cuts in projected agency budget increases if Congress can’t agree on their own cuts. Medicare’s budget had been slated for a 2% sequester cut in fiscal year 2020; however, due to the pandemic and the accompanying increased healthcare needs, Congress passed a moratorium on the 2% cut. That moratorium is set to expire on April 1.
Another projected cut — this one for 4%, or $36 billion — will be triggered by the COVID relief bill, formally known as the American Rescue Plan Act. That legislation, which President Biden signed into law last Thursday, must conform to the PAYGO (pay-as-you-go) Act, which requires that any legislation that has a cost to it that is not otherwise offset must be offset by sequestration-style budget cuts to mandatory programs, including Medicare.
There are now several bills in Congress to address these pending cuts. H.R. 1868, co-sponsored by House Budget Committee chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), House Ways & Means Committee chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), and House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), among others, would get rid of the PAYGO Act requirement and extend the 2% Medicare sequester moratorium through the end of 2021.
Another bill, H.R. 315, introduced in January by Reps. Bradley Schneider (D-Ill.) and David McKinley (R-W.Va.), would extend the 2% sequester moratorium until the end of the public health emergency has been declared. In the Senate, S. 748, introduced Monday by senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) would do the same.
“For many providers, the looming Medicare payment cuts would pose a further threat to their ability to stay afloat and serve communities during a time when they are most needed,” Shaheen said in a press release. “Congress should be doing everything in its power to prevent these cuts from taking effect during these challenging times, which is why I’m introducing this bipartisan legislation with Senator Collins. I urge the Senate to act at once to protect our health care providers and ensure they can continue their work on the frontlines of COVID-19.”
Not surprisingly, provider groups were happy about the actions in Congress. “MGMA [Medical Group Management Association] supports recent bipartisan, bicameral efforts to extend the 2% Medicare sequester moratorium for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency,” said Anders Gilberg, senior vice president for government affairs at MGMA, in a statement. “Without congressional action, the country’s medical groups will face a combined 6% sequester cut — a payment cut that is unsustainable given the financial hardships due to COVID-19 and keeping up with the cost of inflation.”
Leonard Marquez, senior director of government relations and legislative advocacy at the Association of American Medical Colleges, said in a statement that it was “critical” that Congress extend the 2% sequester moratorium “to help ensure hospitals, faculty physicians, and all providers have the necessary financial resources to continue providing quality care to COVID-19 and all patients ... While we are making progress against COVID-19, cutting provider payments in the middle of a pandemic could jeopardize the nation’s recovery.”
The American Medical Association (AMA) also urged Congress to prevent both the 2% and the 4% Medicare cuts. “We strongly oppose these arbitrary across-the-board Medicare cuts, and the predictably devastating impact they would have on many already distressed physician practices,” AMA executive vice president and CEO James Madara, MD, said in a letter sent to congressional leaders at the beginning of March.
“And, while Medicare spending on physician services partially recovered from the April low, it was still 12% less than expected by the end of June 2020,” he continued. “During the first half of 2020, the cumulative estimated reduction in Medicare physician spending associated with the pandemic was $9.4 billion (19%). Results from an earlier AMA-commissioned survey of 3,500 practicing physicians conducted from mid-July through August 2020 found that 81% of respondents were still experiencing lower revenue than before the pandemic.”
Not everyone is a fan of extending the 2% cut moratorium, however. “Bad idea,” said James Capretta, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, at an event Tuesday on Medicare solvency sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center. “There’s plenty of give in the revenue streams of these systems that creating a precedent where we’re going to go back to the pre-sequester level — it’s better to move forward and if there are struggling systems out there, deal with it on an ad hoc basis rather than just across the board paying out a lot more money, which I don’t think is necessary.” He added, however, that he agreed with the bill to get rid of the 4% cut. “The bigger cut associated with PAYGO enforcement I think would be too much.”
A stop-gap funding bill the president signed into law Thursday will keep the government open until mid-December and includes some provisions that could help providers’ bottom lines. The bill includes relief on advanced and accelerated Medicare loans and a delay of Medicaid payment cuts for disproportionate share hospitals.
The legislation extending government funding at current levels was passed by the House earlier this month and approved by the Senate on Wednesday. But more sweeping aid many providers wanted, including more grants for hospitals and a higher federal match rate for Medicaid, were left out of the legislation.
Provider groups like the American Hospital Association thanked Congress and the Trump administration for the relief, but AHA noted it would continue lobbying for Medicare loan forgiveness and an extended deadline for the Medicaid DSH cuts.
The continuing resolution, and its healthcare provisions within, are pretty much the only direct aid providers can expect from Washington before the looming November presidential election. Congress has largely punted on a fifth round of COVID-19 relief legislation amid partisan deadlock, with Republicans backing a much skinnier package than Democrats.
The CR delays the repayment date for $100 billion in advanced Medicare loans to providers by a year. CMS originally planned to start recouping the loans from providers’ fee-for-service Medicare payments in late July, but unilaterally decided to hold off as lawmakers negotiated the bill.
It also lowers the rate of recoupment to 25% for the first 11 months of repayment, down from the current 100% rate, and 50% for the next six months. Providers have 29 months to pay back the funds in full before interest kicks in, and the interest rate is decreased from 9.6% to 4%.
The original repayment terms and timeline would have been difficult for some cash-strapped doctor’s offices and hospitals to meet, as the burden imposed by COVID-19 hasn’t lifted and is worsening in many areas of the country. Many providers took out the loans earlier this year as a lifeline to stave off insolvency — still a very real threat for many practices.
About 35% of primary care physicians say revenue and income are still significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels, losses that could force them to close, according to a September survey by the Larry A. Green Center and the Primary Care Collaborative.
AHA CEO Rick Pollack said in a Wednesday statement the massive hospital association appreciated the provisions, but would keep pushing for full loan forgiveness, along with extending the delay of DSH cuts for all of the 2021 fiscal year. The CR pushed back the original payment cut start date from Dec. 1 to Dec. 12.
The Association of American Medical Colleges was more worried about the impact on the system.
“We are concerned that health care providers, researchers, students, and public health professionals — who have been our country’s first line of defense against COVID-19 — will remain in limbo despite ongoing challenges that the pandemic presents,” CEO David Skorton said in a statement. “We strongly believe that a larger COVID-19 legislative relief package is essential to our nation’s health.”
However, drastic estimates from providers on financial losses largely haven’t panned out, though public health experts do warn COVID-19 could worsen going into the winter months. AHA estimated U.S. hospitals would see operating profits fall by almost $51 billion in April, the month with the sharpest volume decline because of the pandemic. It’s likelier hospitals lost about half that, according to research from a congressional advisory board, with federal grants covering the worst of short-term losses.
The CR also includes a provision stopping Medicare beneficiaries from seeing a monthly $50 Part B premium hike next year. It will keep the government open until Dec. 11, setting up another funding fight to avoid a shutdown after the election.