In a unanimous decision, the Justices found that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) exceeded its legal authority when it cut Medicare reimbursement rates for outpatient drugs by 28.5 percent at 340B-eligible hospitals in 2018. The justices wrote that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) shouldn’t have cut payments to these hospitals without first surveying their average drug acquisition costs, as required by statute.
CMS must now figure out how to repay 340B hospitals the difference in reimbursement for 2018 and 2019, the two years the unlawful cuts were in effect, during which time it redistributed those savings to all hospitals in the form of higher reimbursement for outpatient services. (For an explainer on the mechanics of the 340B program, see our overview here, and for more details on this Supreme Court case, see our summary here.)
The Gist: This decision was a narrow ruling on administrative grounds, and did not touch on the larger policy debates concerning the 340B program. While 340B-eligible health systems can breathe a momentary sigh of relief, they are still facing significant, ongoing revenue disruptions as at least 17 pharmaceutical manufacturers are restricting discounted drug sales to contract pharmacies.
Scrutiny of the 340B program, which has grown to include over 40 percent of US hospitals, will continue to raise questions aboutwhether there are better ways to subsidize the operations of hospitals serving low-income patients, and to ensure that underserved patients have access to lifesaving treatments.
The U.S. Supreme Court sided with hospital groups June 15 in a case challenging HHS’ 340B payment cuts.
The case centered around whether CMS has the authority to make cuts to the program under its Medicare Outpatient Prospective Payment System. Under the payment rule, HHS cut the reimbursement rate for covered drugs by 28.5 percent in 2018, but it later lowered the reimbursement rate cut to 22.5 percent.
Under the 340B program, eligible hospitals can buy outpatient drugs at a discount. A hospital typically pays 20 percent to 50 percent below the average sales price for the drugs through the program.
The Supreme Court reversed a federal appeals court’s 2020 ruling that HHS had the authority to make the $1.6 billion annual reimbursement cut.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing the opinion for the court’s unanimous decision, said that absent a survey of hospitals’ acquisition costs, HHS may not vary the reimbursement rate for 340B hospitals.
“HHS’s 2018 and 2019 reimbursement rates for 340B hospitals were therefore contrary to the statute and unlawful,” he wrote. The American Hospital Association, Association of American Medical Colleges and America’s Essential Hospitals said in a joint statement emailed to Becker’s following the decision that they look forward to working with HHS and the courts to develop a plan to reimburse 340B hospitals affected by the cuts while ensuring other hospitals are not disadvantaged as they also continue to serve their communities.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) fined two of Atlanta-based Northside Hospital’s five facilities a total of $1.1M for failing to disclose their prices. Though only six percent of hospitals are fully in compliance with the federal rules that went into effect in January 2021, CMS has only sent 352 warning letters to date, and this week’s fines are the first the agency has issued.
The Gist: While these first fines are notable, it remains an open question whether the financial penalties for not complying with price transparency are stiff enough to motivate hospitals to submit their data. While more substantial than those under the Trump Administration, the current fines remain a rounding error for many hospitals, as they represent less than one percent of net patient revenue on average.
Market dynamics may be more of a factor in compliance than monetary penalties: a recent JAMA study found that hospitals in more competitive, urban markets were more likely to share prices.
Medicare currently pays for Hospital at Home using a top-down (hospital-centered) payment—the payment is made to hospitals, and the amount is based on Medicare’s payment system for acute inpatient admissions. An alternative, bottom-up approach could generate a payment amount on the basis of existing home-based care payment systems, with additions for the expanded services needed for the more acute patients in a Hospital at Home model. Because home care providers are typically reimbursed at lower rates, this approach to payment would be less expensive and could capitalize on the existing in-home care expertise these providers have, while expanding their reach to a higher-acuity patient population. The co-authors have compared payment options for home hospitalization programs under both the top-down and bottom-up approaches.
The Hospital at Home delivery model faces three significant and related challenges to expansion—generating a sufficient volume of patients to keep local programs in business, achieving cost efficiencies, and defining appropriate patients (not so sick that the patients will fail to heal or be in danger but not so healthy that they don’t need Hospital at Home).
Any health care innovation needs patient volume to be viable. A Hospital at Home program requires teams that can immediately access and deliver all needed care, including diagnostics, monitoring, pharmaceuticals, and nursing services. It also requires physicians adept at working with home-based patients while coordinating all aspects of care. Patient intake and discharge must be handled promptly, including care plans for the patient during their Hospital at Home “stay” and transitioning the patient to their regular providers after the acute phase. Much, but not all, of this infrastructure exists in home health agencies, but Hospital at Home patients typically have more time-sensitive and intense needs than the usual home health patient, which will require some staff expansion by a home health agency seeking to run a Hospital at Home program. A few patients a day will not likely generate enough revenue to maintain the staff expertise or the infrastructure needed to deliver all the different services Hospital at Home patients need.
While it might seem logical that Hospital at Home programs would be sponsored and operated by individual hospitals, many hospitals would not generate sufficient volume to support their own program. In 2019, the national average discharge rate per hospital bed was about 33 per year, and about half were Medicare beneficiaries. A large hospital with 1,000 beds might have 15,000 Medicare discharges per year. On average, we found about 5 percent of Medicare discharges would be eligible for Hospital at Home—only about 15 per week for a 1,000-bed hospital. A program sponsored by a particular hospital might not receive referral patients from competing hospitals because the competing hospitals would be losing patient volume and revenue, and except for extremely large hospital systems, most hospitals would not generate sufficient volume to support the program. A program that serves multiple hospitals will likely have advantages of scale.
When it comes to cost, hospital-based services are well-known to bear facility overhead expenses, which can make hospital-based services more expensive than services delivered from other sites. Medicare pays for hospital inpatient services mostly using diagnosis-related groups. Medicare pays a pre-set amount for each kind of admission, regardless of the actual cost accrued by the provider for a particular patient. But as our analysis shows, starting with Medicare’s home care reimbursement saves the payer more than 50 percent of an acute patient stay, when considering all facility, professional, and ancillary services. Of course, the lower price is appealing to a payer, such as a Medicare Advantage plan, but it could also save a patient money in reduced cost sharing.
Identifying the right patients for medical interventions has been a challenge for decades.The goal is to strike the right balance: avoiding unnecessary care but not skimping on needed care. To promote efficiency and outcomes, private payers and Medicare apply utilization management reviews and quality monitoring. Even for patients appropriate for Hospital at Home, hospitals may dislike the programs, as they fail to see the value of home-based care delivery in the face of many unfilled inpatient beds. On the other hand, home health agency-based Hospital at Home programs could see financial gains and tend to over-use such programs. All of this must be balanced with patient perceptions and acceptance of such programs. Participants who have piloted both top-down and bottom-up models have found substantially higher patient acceptance in models that allow entry to a Hospital at Home admission without an emergency department visit, which is typically required of top-down models. Clearly, use and quality management programs will be needed to achieve the right balance of these competing interests, and value based programs can help align incentives as well.
Most research and proposals for implementing home hospitalization programs assume they are an extension of hospital operations and assume hospital costs and reimbursement. But there are cost and other advantages to building home hospitalization on the foundation of home-based care providers, whose expertise includes keeping patients safe and healthy at home. Policy makers who design reimbursement for home hospitalization programs and set conditions for providers to participate in them should consider whether home-based care providers should be eligible to manage, or play a foundational role in, these programs. This could simultaneously save payers money, create operational efficiencies, and increase patient access. Physicians and hospitals sponsoring these programs should similarly consider the roles home-based care providers could play within current home hospitalization programs. Simply extending the reach of hospitals into patients’ homes is unlikely to allow the promising scale or cost savings stakeholders hope for from home hospitalization programs. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Medicare patients could benefit.
Medicare Advantage (MA) is the private insurance alternative to traditional Medicare. MA organizations contract with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to offer eligible beneficiaries residing in a defined geographic service area (a collection of counties) a selection of private plans. Insurers may offer multiple plans across different plan types under one contract. The service area is defined at the contract-level, and for most MA plans, service areas can include a single county or a collection of multiple counties. (There are other types of plans for which there are constraints on the boundaries of the service area, but these don’t account for very much of MA enrollment.)
As MA-offering insurers contract with CMS, they establish networks that govern patient liability for seeing in- and out-of-network providers. Consequently, plans will vary in their cost-sharing structures and benefit designs as they assume different levels of liability for the cost of out-of-network providers. Overall, plans will cover the cost of care (less copays and deductibles) for patients seeing providers in-network, and certain plan types may require that patients pay more for out-of-network services or receive referrals/prior authorization from primary care providers (PCP) to see specialists.
Preferred Provider Organizations (PPOs) are considered the most flexible type of plan in providing access to care and covering it out-of-network. PPO enrollees can use out-of-network providers for covered services without a referral from a PCP, albeit at greater cost to them than in-network providers.
Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), in comparison to PPOs, are more restrictive plans that provide less access to care and less coverage for out-of-network providers, with the exception of emergency, urgent, and dialysis care. HMO members are required to select a PCP and must get authorization for most specialty services. For any out-of-network services received, the patient bears the full cost, up to the traditional Medicare rate.
Health Maintenance Organization Point-of- Service (HMO-POS) are a hybrid plan between PPOs and HMOs. Like an HMO, members must select a PCP for care coordination, but they do not need a referral for specialty services. (However, some services may require prior authorization for coverage.) Like a PPO, this plan does provide some coverage for out-of-network providers.
The differences across plan types in access to and cost sharing for out-of-network providers leads to the important question, do MA networks vary by plan within contract? For example, in Figure 1 below, do the beneficiaries enrolled in Plan 1 or 2 under Contract A have the same set of in- and out-of-network providers (likewise for the beneficiaries in Plans 1-3 under contract B)? More specifically, what if Plan 1 is an HMO and Plan 2 is a HMO-POS plan, do they share the same network?
The simple answer seems to be: not necessarily, though more recent regulations attempt to push insurers toward having the same networks across plans within contracts.
Under the current MA Network Adequacy Criteria Guidance, CMS assesses network adequacy requirements both under triggering events (as explained above) and, separate from that, on a triennial-basis at the contract-level. CMS has previously commented in the 2021 Final Rule that this approach allows them to assess the adequacy of organizations’ networks across all of their plan types (HMOs, PPOs, SNPs) and consider the broadest availability of providers and facilities for an organization. Again, this suggests that insurers may vary networks across plans within contracts.
There are at least two scenarios for which we know certain plans can and likely do have different networks compared with other plans in the contract.
Special Needs Plans (SNPs) are plans designed for individuals with specific diseases or characteristics, such as those who are dual-eligible, have institutional care needs, or have a chronic condition. SNPs can be allowed by regulators to augment the contract’s network to integrate care management teams and specialty providers to accommodate beneficiaries’ complex care needs under the plan’s Model of Care. While SNPs may be granted additional flexibility to alter the contract-level networks established, CMS does not allow SNPs to narrow or shrink that network. They can only expand it.
Provider Specific Plan (PSPs) are plans often found under large, integrated medical groups or provider groups that are the primary bearers of risk. PSP enrollees have access to a smaller subset of in-network providers. Since this plan type has a network of fewer providers than the overall contracted network, organizations must request to offer a PSP from CMS and attest that these plans are in compliance with network adequacy requirements.
Future work with Vericred provider-network data could be one approach to exploring variations in networks among plans under the same contract and service area, beyond the cases listed above. If networks are varying across HMO, PPO, and HMO-POS plans within contracts, it would be interesting to explore just how different they are from one another. Moreover, as CMS reviews continues to review network adequacy requirements at the contract-level (and if networks do differ by plan), one should consider the breadth of the network that organizations are submitting for evaluation. To what extent all plans in a contract are in compliance with network adequacy rules warrants future investigation.
Despite substantial operating margin declines during the first year of COVID-19, U.S. hospitals were able to keep their finances on track thanks to billions in government relief funds, Johns Hopkins researchers wrote in a new study published Friday in JAMA Health Forum.
Per their analysis of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Hospital Cost Reports data, researchers found that thousands of hospitals broadly maintained their overall profit margins thanks to a boost in “other nonoperating income,” the category under which hospitals recorded the collective $175 billion in subsidies Congress allocated to support healthcare facilities and clinicians.
This was particularly the case for government, rural and smaller hospitals that typically run on tighter margins, the researchers wrote. Because they, by design, received more targeted relief than other types of hospitals, these facilities were able to record higher overall profit margins in 2020 than in prior years.
“Hospital operations were really hit hard during the pandemic,” Ge Bai, professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Health Policy and Management, a professor of accounting at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and an author of the study, said in a statement.
“Our study shows that the relief funds provided an important lifeline to keep financially weak hospitals up and running.”
Among the study’s sample of 1,378 hospitals, mean operating margin declined from –1.0% in 2019 to –7.4% in 2020, representing the hit facilities took to their operations prior to the relief funding.
Those hospitals’ mean overall profit margin during the first year of the pandemic was 6.7%, which the researchers wrote was stable in light of the preceding four years and across all ownership types, geographic locations and hospital sizes.
The difference-maker, they wrote, was an increase in other nonoperating income as a share of a hospital’s total revenue. While that mean share was 4.4% in 2019, it jumped to 10.3% in 2020 thanks to the government relief funds.
Additionally, certain types of hospitals with traditionally lower overall profit margins saw significant improvements in 2020. These included government hospitals (3.7% to 7.2%), rural hospitals (1.9% to 7.5%) and hospitals with fewer admissions (3.5% to 6.7%).
“Hospitals that tend to serve socioeconomically disadvantaged patients and more who are uninsured are the most vulnerable to financial losses,” Yang Wang, a doctoral student in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Health Policy and Management and the study’s first author, said in a statement. “But the extra federal funding helped them stay operational.”
The researchers’ study included hospitals with fiscal years beginning in January whose financial data were compiled and processed as part of RAND Hospital Data, which in turn pulls its data from CMS’ Medicare Cost Reports. The findings persisted among a second sample of 785 hospitals from the database with fiscal years beginning in July.
The government’s distribution of COVID-19 relief funds to providers has faced some critique from healthcare policy researchers, some of whom suggested that the methodology led to funding skewed toward hospitals serving well-insured communities.
Private insurance plans paid hospitals on average 224% more compared with Medicare rates for both inpatient and outpatient services in 2020, a new study found.
Researchers at RAND Corporation looked at data from 4,000 hospitals in 49 states from 2018 to 2020. While the 224% increase in rates is high, it is a slight reduction from the 247% reported in 2018 in the last study RAND performed.
“This reduction is a result of a substantial increase in the volume of claims in the analysis from states with prices below the previous average price,” the study said.
The report showed that plans in certain states wound up paying hospitals more than others. It found that Florida, West Virginia and South Carolina had prices that were at or even higher than 310% of Medicare.
But other states like Hawaii, Arkansas and Washington paid less than 175% of Medicare rates.
“Employers can use this report to become better-informed purchasers of health benefits,” study lead author Christopher Waley said in a statement. “The work also highlights the levels and variation in hospital prices paid by employers and private insurers, and thus may help policymakers who may be looking for strategies to curb healthcare spending.”
The data come as the federal government has explored ways to lower healthcare costs, including going toe-to-toe with the hospital industry. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has in recent years sought to cut payments to off-campus outpatient clinics in order to bring Medicare payments in line with payments paid to physicians’ offices but has met with stiff legal and lobbying opposition from the hospital industry that argues the extra payments are needed.
CMS has also published regulations that call on hospitals to increase transparency of prices, including a rule that mandates hospitals publish online the prices for roughly 300 shoppable services.
The hospital industry pushed back against RAND’s findings, arguing that the study is based on incomplete data. The industry group American Hospital Association said researchers only looked at 2.2% of overall hospital spending, a small portion of overall expenses.
“Researchers should expect variation in the cost of delivering services across the wide range of U.S. hospitals – from rural critical access hospitals to large academic medical centers,” said AHA CEO Rick Pollack in a statement to Fierce Healthcare. “Tellingly, when RAND added more claims as compared to previous versions of this report, the average price for hospital services declined.”
Hospitals’ labor costs rose by more than a third from pre-pandemic levels by March 2022, according to a report out Wednesday from Kaufman Hall.
Heightened temporary and traveling labor costs were a main contributor, with contract labor accounting for 11% of hospitals’ total labor expenses in 2022 compared to 2% in 2019, the report found.
Contract nurses’ median hourly wages rose 106% over the period, from $64 an hour to $132 an hour, while employed nurse wages increased 11%, from $35 an hour to $39 an hour, the report found.
The new data from Kaufman Hall supports concerns hospital executives expressed while releasing first quarter earnings results, as higher-than expected labor costs spurred some operators, like HCA, to lower their financial full-year guidance.
The ongoing use of contract labor amid shortages driven by heightened turnover was a key factor executives cited for higher costs, and follows the findings from Kaufman Hall’s latest report.
More than a third of nurses surveyed by staffing firm Incredible Health said they plan to leave their current jobs by the end of this year, according to a March report. While burnout is driving them to leave, higher salaries are the top motivating factor for taking other positions, that report found.
Kaufman Hall’s report, which analyzes data from more than 900 hospitals across the country, found hospitals spent $5,494 in labor expenses per adjusted discharge in March compared to $4,009 roughly three years ago.
Costs rose for hospitals in every region, though the South and West experienced the largest increases from pre-pandemic levels as those expenses rose 43% and 42%, respectively.
The West and Northeast/Mid-Atlantic regions saw the highest expenses consistently from 2019 to 2022, according to the report.
“The pandemic made longstanding labor challenges in the healthcare sector much worse, making it far more expensive to care for hospitalized patients over the past two years,” said Erik Swanson, senior vice president of data and analytics at Kaufman Hall.
“Hospitals now face a number of pressures to attract and retain affordable clinical staff, maintain patient safety, deliver quality services and increase their efficiency,” Swanson said.
The report also notes that hospitals are competing with non-hospital employers also pursuing hourly staff, though those companies can pass along wage increases to consumers through higher prices “in a way healthcare organizations cannot,” the report said.
Some hospitals, like HCA Healthcare and Universal Health Services, are looking to raise prices for health plans amid rising nurse salaries, according to reporting from The Wall Street Journal.
Another recent report from group purchasing organization Premier found the CMS underestimated hospital labor spending when making payment adjustments for the 2022 fiscal year, resulting in hospitals receiving only a 2.4% rate increase compared to a 6.5% increase in hospital labor rates.
To match the rates hospitals are now paying staff, an adequate inpatient payment update for fiscal 2023 is needed, that report said.
The CMS proposed its IPPS rule for FY 2023 on April 18 that includes a 3.2% hike to inpatient hospital payments, which provider groups like the American Hospital Association rebuked as “simply unacceptable” considering inflation and rising hospital labor costs.
The CMS proposed payment increase of 3.2 percent, or $1.6 billion, for fiscal year 2023, is inadequate due to inflation and labor and supply costs, Stacey Hughes, executive vice president of the American Hospital Association, said April 18.
Hospitals would actually see a net decrease in payments from this year to next year because of proposed cuts to Disproportionate Share Hospital payments and other payment cuts, Ms. Hughes said.
“This is simply unacceptable for hospitals and health systems and their caregivers that have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic for over two years now,” she stated in an April 18 news release. “While we have made great progress in the fight against this virus, our members continue to face a range of challenges that threaten their ability to continue caring for patients and providing essential services for their communities.”
The association is happy with the proposed 5 percent cap on a decrease to a hospital’s wage index, but Ms. Hughes asked that this be used in a “non-budget neutral” way.
CMS released the Inpatient Prospective Payment System proposed rule April 18 and is now accepting comments on it through June 17.
Read the full American Hospital Association statement here.
On Thursday CMS announced it will replace all versions of its Global and Professional Direct Contracting (GPDC) model, which allowed primary care providers to take full or partial risk on managing cost of care for traditional Medicare beneficiaries, after progressive Democrats raised concerns about whether a growing presence of Medicare Advantage insurers and private equity-backed groups in the model might compromise patient care and access in the traditional Medicare program. GPDC will be replaced with a new three-year demonstration called Accountable Care Organization Realizing Equity, Access and Community Health (ACO REACH), to start enrollment in 2023. The 51 current participants in the GPDC model can move into ACO REACH as long as they meet new requirements, which include developing plans to identify and address health disparities, and ensuring providers control three quarters of governing boards (as compared to a quarter in the GPDC model). Private equity and insurer applicants can still apply, but must demonstrate a track record of direct patient care, delivering quality outcomes, and serving vulnerable populations.
The Gist: ACO REACH is largely a “re-skinning” of the Direct Contracting program, rather than a significant overhaul. Physician, health system, and ACO groups, who were concerned that the program would be canceled altogether, were pleased with the announced changes to the model, although debate continues on whether the new guardrails will effectively address concerns around for-profit insurer and investor participation.
Like Direct Contracting before it, ACO REACH will be an important vehicle for risk-ready providers to move more extensively into full-risk contracting, without launching a plan or partnering directly with a MA insurer.