‘Shkreli Awards’ Shame Healthcare Profiteers

Lown Institute berates greedy pricing, ethical lapses, wallet biopsies, and avoidable shortages.

Greedy corporations, uncaring hospitals, individual miscreants, and a task force led by Jared Kushner were dinged Tuesday in the Lown Institute‘s annual Shkreli awards, a list of the top 10 worst offenders for 2020.

Named after Martin Shkreli, the entrepreneur who unapologetically raised the price of an anti-parasitic drug by a factor of 56 in 2015 (now serving a federal prison term for unrelated crimes), the list of shame calls out what Vikas Saini, the institute’s CEO, called “pandemic profiteers.” (Lown bills itself as “a nonpartisan think tank advocating bold ideas for a just and caring system for health.”)

Topping the list was the federal government itself and Jared Kushner, President’s Trump’s son-in-law, who led a personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement task force. The effort, called Project Airbridge, was to “airlift PPE from overseas and bring it to the U.S. quickly,” which it did.

“But rather than distribute the PPE to the states, FEMA gave these supplies to six private medical supply companies to sell to the highest bidder, creating a bidding war among the states,” Saini said. Though these supplies were supposed to go to designated pandemic hotspots, “no officials from the 10 hardest hit counties” said they received PPE from Project Airbridge. In fact, federal agencies outbid states or seized supplies that states had purchased, “making it much harder and more expensive” for states to get supplies, he said.

Number two on the institute’s list: vaccine maker Moderna, which received nearly $1 billion in federal funds to develop its mRNA COVID-19 preventive. It set a price of between $32 and $37 per dose, more than the U.S. agreed to pay for other COVID vaccines. “Although the U.S. has placed an order for $1.5 billion worth of doses at a discount, a price of $15 per dose, given the upfront investment by the U.S. government, we are essentially paying for the vaccine twice,” said Lown Institute Senior Vice President Shannon Brownlee.

Webcast panelist Don Berwick, MD, former acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, noted that a lot of work went into producing the vaccine at an impressive pace, “and if there’s not an immune breakout, we’re going to be very grateful that this happened.” But, he added, “I mean, how much money is enough? Maybe there needs to be some real sense of discipline and public spirit here that goes way beyond what any of these companies are doing.”

In third place: four California hospital systems that refused to take COVID-19 patients or delayed transfers from hospitals that were out of beds. Wall Street Journal investigation found that these refusals or delays were based on the patients’ ability to pay; many were on Medicaid or were uninsured.

“In the midst of such a pandemic, to continue that sort of behavior is mind boggling,” said Saini. “This is more than the proverbial wallet biopsy.”

The remaining seven offenders:

4. Poor nursing homes decisions, especially one by Soldiers’ Home for Veterans in western Massachusetts, that worsened an already terrible situation. At Soldiers’ Home, management decided to combine the COVID-19 unit with a dementia unit because they were low on staff, said Brownlee. That allowed the virus to spread rapidly, killing 76 residents and staff as of November. Roughly one-third of all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have been in long-term care facilities.

5. Pharmaceutical giants AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson, which refused to share intellectual property on COVID-19, instead deciding to “compete for their profits instead,” Saini said. The envisioned technology access pool would have made participants’ discoveries openly available “to more easily develop and distribute coronavirus treatments, vaccines, and diagnostics.”

Saini added that he was was most struck by such an attitude of “historical blindness or tone deafness” at a time when the pandemic is roiling every single country.

Berwick asked rhetorically, “What would it be like if we were a world in which a company like Pfizer or Moderna, or the next company that develops a really great breakthrough, says on behalf of the well-being of the human race, we will make this intellectual property available to anyone who wants it?”

6. Elizabeth Nabel, MD, CEO of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, because she defended high drug prices as a necessity for innovation in an op-ed, without disclosing that she sat on Moderna’s board. In that capacity, she received $487,500 in stock options and other payments in 2019. The value of those options quadrupled on the news of Moderna’s successful vaccine. She sold $8.5 million worth of stock last year, after its value nearly quadrupled. She resigned from Moderna’s board in July and, it was announced Tuesday, is leaving her CEO position to join a biotech company founded by her husband.

7. Hospitals that punished clinicians for “scaring the public,” suspending or firing them, because they “insisted on wearing N95 masks and other protective equipment in the hospital,” said Saini. Hospitals also fired or threatened to fire clinicians for speaking out on COVID-19 safety issues, such as the lack of PPE and long test turnaround times.

Webcast panelist Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, the Flint, Michigan, pediatrician who exposed the city’s water contamination, said that healthcare workers “have really been abandoned in this administration” and that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration “has pretty much fallen asleep at the wheel.” She added that workers in many industries such as meatpacking and poultry processing “have suffered tremendously from not having the protections or regulations in place to protect [them].”

8. Connecticut internist Steven Murphy, MD, who ran COVID-19 testing sites for several towns, but conducted allegedly unnecessary add-ons such as screening for 20 other respiratory pathogens. He also charged insurers $480 to provide results over the phone, leading to total bills of up to $2,000 per person.

“As far as I know, having an MD is not a license to steal, and this guy seemed to think that it was,” said Brownlee.

9. Those “pandemic profiteers” who hawked fake and potentially harmful COVID-19 cures. Among them: televangelist Jim Bakker sold “Silver Solution,” containing colloidal silver, and the “MyPillow Guy,” Mike Lindell, for his boostering for oleandrin.

Colloidal silver has no known health benefits and can cause seizures and organ damage. Oleandrin is a biological extract from the oleander plant and known for its toxicity and ingesting it can be deadly,” said Saini.

Others named by the Lown Institute include Jennings Ryan Staley, MD — now under indictment — who ran the “Skinny Beach Med Spa” in San Diego which sold so-called COVID treatment packs containing hydroxychloroquine, antibiotics, Xanax, and Viagra, all for $4,000.

Berwick commented that such schemes indicate a crisis of confidence in science, adding that without facts and science to guide care, “patients get hurt, costs rise without any benefit, and confusion reigns, and COVID has made that worse right now.”

Brownlee mentioned the “huge play” that hydroxychloroquine received and the FDA’s recent record as examples of why confidence in science has eroded.

10. Two private equity-owned companies that provide physician staffing for hospitalsTeam Health and Envision, that cut doctors’ pay during the first COVID-19 wave while simultaneously spending millions on political ads to protect surprise billing practices. And the same companies also received millions in COVID relief funds under the CARES Act.

Berwick said surprise billing by itself should receive a deputy Shkreli award, “as out-of-pocket costs to patients have risen dramatically and even worse during the COVID pandemic… and Congress has failed to act. It’s time to fix this one.”

After decades as a hospital operator, Tenet shifts its focus to surgery centers

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.

OwnerNumber of ASCs (fully or partially owned)
Tenet Health310
Amsurg (Envision) 250
Surgical Care Affiliates (Optum) 230
SurgCenter Development122
HCA121
Surgery Partners111
Total Medicare-certified ASCs in U.S.5,700

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.

Long-term strategy

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.”

CMS seeks to boost hospital capacity during COVID-19 surge

Troy Medicare Signs Contract with CMS for 2020 - Troy Medicare

CMS is giving hospitals facing a surge of COVID-19 patients expanded flexibility to care for Medicare patients in their homes, the department announced Nov. 25. 

The new Acute Hospital Care At Home program will require in-person screening protocols to assess both medical and non-medical factors, including working utilities, before care can begin at home. Medicare patients will be admitted into the program from emergency departments and inpatient hospital beds.

Once at-home care begins, a registered nurse will evaluate each patient every day either in person or remotely, and either registered nurses or mobile integrated health paramedics will have two in-person visits daily based on the patient’s nursing plan and hospital policies.

CMS approved the following six health systems with extensive experience providing acute hospital care at home to immediately participate in the program: 

  • Boston-based Brigham and Women’s Hospital
  • Salt Lake City-based Huntsman Cancer Institute
  • Boston-based Massachusetts General Hospital
  • New York City-based Mount Sinai Health System
  • Albuquerque, N.M.-based Presbyterian Healthcare Services
  • West Des Moines, Iowa-based UnityPoint Health. 

Other hospitals and health systems may submit a waiver request online. 

Are you ready for price transparency?

https://interimcfo.wordpress.com/2020/10/22/are-you-ready-for-price-transparency/

Exploring the Fundamentals of Medical Billing and Coding

Abstract:  This article focuses on the correct strategic response to the impending implementation of price transparency on New Year’s Day of next year.

I have stated before that I have multiple articles in process at any given time.  Some of them have been ‘in process’ for years because newer topics sometimes rise to the queue’s top.  Price transparency is an example of such a case.  I have a friend who is developing AI-enabled solutions to help organizations respond to price transparency government diktats.  Few people beyond healthcare CFOs, healthcare financial consultants, and accountants have any useful understanding of how convoluted hospital pricing has become due to decades of ill-conceived government policy for the most part.

Another problem is endless confusion over terms.  People frequently interchange the terms ‘price’, ‘cost’, ‘payment’, and ‘reimbursement’ in situations where the polar opposite is true on the other side of the issue.  In other words, ‘cost’ to a payor is price or reimbursement to a provider.

Anyway, my friend’s questions finally inspired me to go to the Federal Register, acquire the final rule, and begin the process of learning where government is headed with these regulations.  There are probably at least fifty diatribe angles I could launch into over the final rule, but I will confine my rant to only a couple of points.  

First, the final draft of the rule is ‘only’ 331 pages long. The three-column final rule in the Federal Register is ‘only’ 83 pages long.  That pales compared to Obamacare that is over 1,200 pages long, so by government standards, this is but a trifle of regulation.  

Secondly, some parts of the final rule are actually funny.  For example, CMS estimates that the average hospital will spend only 150 staff hours in the first and 46 staff hours in subsequent years complying with price transparency requirements.  Is it constitutional for government to compel private enterprises to disclose the terms of what they thought were private contracts?  Apparently so.  Once government breaks this ice, will any agreement of any type ever be private?

As I have discussed price transparency with healthcare leaders, I sense that leaders are currently focused on technical compliance with the regulations.  With COVID on their plate simultaneously, they have little capacity to take on strategic financial planning.

The final rule lays out in excruciating detail what providers face complying with the regulation.  Reading the comments and responses is equally entertaining.  CMS repeatedly says something to the effect; we heard your concern, and we’re proceeding as planned anyway.  Litigation brought by the AHA and others has to date been unsuccessful in slowing stopping the price transparency snowball that is now most of the way down the mountain.

So, what are you supposed to do?  The CFO and CIO will work, possibly with consultants’ assistance, to prepare the organization’s data release.  Soon after the release occurs, expect the defecation to hit the rotary oscillator.  The press will call out organizations with high prices, and the rancor over learning what some systems have been able to get from third-party payors will be entertaining, to say the least.  Many people believe that one of the primary motivators of the massive consolidation occurring in the healthcare industry is the market leverage exerted by growing systems on third-party payors to obtain otherwise unachievable reimbursement rates.

Regardless of the course of action following price releases in January, the intended and most likely result of this initiative is to drive prices to a lower common denominator.  A lot of people think Medicare rates will become that benchmark.  There are two significant issues that I did not see addressed in the pricing rule that will have the effect of transferring substantial risk to providers.  

The first is that there will be little if any provision for recognition of complications, comorbidities, and hospital-acquired conditions that can dramatically impact the cost of care in a given diagnosis.  

The second is the elephant in the room. The current pricing system has developed over time to facilitate cross-subsidization among payors.  There is a reason that commercial rates are so high that has nothing to do with the cost of providing care.  I have stated before that, government has turned the entire healthcare industry into a taxing authority to extract tax from commercial payors for the benefit of government payors that routinely reimburse providers below the cost of providing care.  It has been entertaining to watch the reaction of Boards of Directors when they first realize that the healthcare system has been forced by government into a wealth redistribution mechanism.

So, what happens as providers lose the ability to cross-subsidize the cost of care?  Very few hospitals (<10%) are profitable on Medicare, and it is doubtful that any hospital is breaking even on services provided to Medicaid patients.  In my experience, hospital reimbursement for self-pay patients is less than 5% of charges.  If the prices hospitals realize for services start falling and they lose the current ability to cross-subsidize the cost of care . . . . . well, you don’t need an MBA to understand the likely outcome.

What to do?  If (when) prices start falling and providers lose pricing leverage, the only place to turn is operating expense.  Hospitals that have failed to undertake serious, highly focused, and robust operating cost reduction programs that yield quantifiable results may not have a very bright future.  If your organization is not in the bottom quartile of operating cost compared to its peer group and part of your mission is to remain independent, you must be losing sleep.  In a recent article related to COVID Response, I argued that the time has come to get after clinical process variance that is the source of most of the high cost, waste, and abuse in the healthcare system. For most organizations, the days of sourcing cheaper supplies and sending nurses home early are, for the most part, over as there is little if any juice remaining in that lemon.

If, as a leader, you do not have a plan that gets you to break-even on Medicare within the next 12-18 months, you had better have a plan B, something like tuning up your CV.  I can help you with your response to price transparency, working on your CV, or helping manage your next career transition as the case may turn out.  I am as close as your phone.  Best of luck.

Contact me to discuss any questions or observations you might have about these articles, leadership, transitions, or interim services. I might have an idea or two that might be valuable to you. An observation from my experience is that we need better leadership at every level in organizations. Some of my feedback comes from people demonstrating interest in advancing their careers and inspiring content to address those inquiries.

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If you would like to discuss any of this content, provide private feedback or ask questions, I may be reached at ras2@me.com.

https://interimcfo.wordpress.com/

Hospitals that don’t submit daily COVID-19 data could lose participation in Medicare, Medicaid

US Department of Health and Human Services moves to Microsoft Office 365

Hospitals currently not reporting daily COVID-19 data have a few months to get in compliance or risk being thrown out of Medicare and Medicaid.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced Tuesday it will send notices to all hospitals over their requirements for reporting COVID-19 data to the Trump administration.

Any hospital not in compliance with the daily reporting requirements will have 14 weeks to get in line or risk their participation in Medicare and Medicaid, officials said.

The agency gave an enforcement timeline that gives “hospitals ample opportunity to come into compliance,” said Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma on a call with reporters Tuesday.

The Trump administration wants hospitals to submit daily data that includes COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations as well as patients currently in the intensive care unit with the virus. Hospitals must submit data on the ages of patients admitted with suspected COVID-19 infections. Facilities need to also report their inventory of the COVID-19 therapy Remdesivir, any staffing shortages and the number of ventilators. Every week hospitals also report data on their personal protective equipment on hand and supply of critical medications.

Facilities now must also report on new data for influenza cases. “The new requirements will allow us to gather critical information on influenza at hospitals across the U.S.,” said Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, M.D.

Verma said that the large majority of hospitals in CMS’ system are already reporting this data to the agency. CMS will also give hospitals that are not in compliance a wide berth to get them into compliance.

Hospitals will be sent multiple notices over the 14-week timeline to get their data reporting in line.

“This work of getting hospitals into compliance around reporting has been an ongoing effort,” Verma said.

CMS proposed the mandatory daily reporting requirements back in August, much to the chagrin of hospital advocates. 

The American Hospital Association (AHA) said that CMS tying Medicare and Medicaid participation to compliance “remains an overly heavy-handed approach that could jeopardize access to hospital care for all Americans,” according to a statement released Tuesday. 

“Today’s interpretive guidance on COVID data reporting does answer some of the questions hospitals and health systems have been asking about compliance since the interim final rule was released six weeks ago,” the group said. “In particular, the Administration will provide hospitals with information on whether their data are making it into HHS Protect and they will give hospitals the necessary time to adjust their data collection to come into compliance if need be.”

The Federation of American Hospitals called the new rules “sledgehammer enforcement.”

“It is both inappropriate and frankly overkill for CMS to tie compliance with reporting to Medicare conditions of participation,” said FAH President and CEO Chip Kahn in a statement.

Health Groups Turn Up Heat on 2021 Medicare Fee Schedule

The CMS logo over an illustration of a male and female physician having opposite reactions to a fever chart

Physician groups and other healthcare providers continued expressing their dissatisfaction with the 2021 Medicare physician fee schedule proposed rule from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

“While we support the CPT coding revisions and revaluations of office and outpatient evaluation and management (E/M) services recommended by the AMA/Specialty Society RVS Update Committee [RUC], we strongly oppose the proposed budget neutrality reduction proffered by CMS for these and other physician fee schedule changes proposed for 2021,” said a letter sent Monday to CMS Administrator Seema Verma from 47 medical and health specialty groups including the American College of Surgeons, the American College of Radiology, and the American Academy of Ophthalmology. The groups represent 1.4 million providers, including physicians, social workers, and speech-language pathologists.

If adopted as proposed, the fee schedule would “reduce Medicare payment for services provided in patients’ homes, physician offices, non-physician practices, therapy clinics, skilled nursing facilities, hospitals and rehabilitation agencies — at a time when the spread of COVID‐19 remains unchecked,” the letter said.

The proposed fee schedule, which was announced in early August, includes “simplified coding and billing requirements for E/M visits [that] will go into effect January 1, 2021, saving clinicians 2.3 million hours per year in burden reduction,” CMS said. “As a result of this change, clinicians will be able to make better use of their time and restore the doctor-patient relationship by spending less time on documenting visits and more time on treating their patients.”

However, the proposed rule also lists (on p. 50375) the estimated impacts of the rule’s payment changes for each specialty, which includes losers as well as winners.

Three specialties fare the best: endocrinology, with a 17% increase; rheumatology, with a 16% increase; and hematology/oncology, with a 14% increase. At the bottom are nurse anesthetists and radiologists, both with an 11% decrease; chiropractors, with a 10% decrease; and interventional radiology, pathology, physical and occupational therapy, and cardiac surgery, all with a 9% decrease. Surgical specialties in general took some of the biggest hits, with cuts in every category ranging from 5% to 9%.

The proposed rule also lists the fee schedule’s final conversion factor — the amount that Medicare’s relative value units (RVUs) are multiplied by to arrive at a reimbursement for a particular service or procedure under Medicare’s fee-for-service system. Due to budget neutrality changes required by law, the proposed 2021 conversion factor is $32.26, a decrease of $3.83 from the 2020 conversion factor of $36.09, CMS said. Comments on the proposed rule were due by 5 p.m. on Monday.

American Medical Group Association (AMGA), which represents group practices, also weighed in on the proposed rule. “AMGA is concerned that the CMS proposed 2021 Physician Fee Schedule rule would inadvertently exacerbate the financial situation facing our membership that is a result of the ongoing novel coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic,” the association said in a statement. “While appreciative of the effort to increase support for primary care services, the Physician Fee Schedule’s budget neutrality requirements effectively shift funds from one specialty to another, potentially undermining the team-based approach to care that is the hallmark of the group practice model.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

In its comments on the rule, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) took particular issue with the fact that the changes to the E/M codes were not included in global payments for some surgical procedures that include an E/M visit. “The AANS … strongly urges CMS to apply the RUC-recommended changes to the E/M component of the 10- and 90-day global surgery codes to maintain the relativity of the fee schedule and to comply with the Medicare law’s prohibition on specialty payment differentials,” the AANS wrote in its comments.

The AANS also wasn’t happy with a proposed add-on code known as GPC1X, which CMS said could be used for “visit complexity inherent to E/M associated with medical care services that serve as the continuing focal point for all needed health care services and/or with medical care services that are part of ongoing care related to a patient’s single, serious, or complex condition.”

The code is nothing more than a “holdover” from an earlier bundled payment scheme that has since been replaced, the AANS said. “Instead of correcting a system that would have resulted in unfair payment reductions, the agency is creating a new coding scheme that inappropriately discriminates among physician specialties — over-inflating payments to individual specialties and causing steep cuts to others.” The association urged CMS to get rid of the add-on code, noting that “more than $3.3 billion will be redistributed between specialties if this code is implemented, and it is a significant contributor to the steep reduction in the conversion factor.”

The American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons objected to a decrease in the work RVUs for knee and hip arthroplasties. “The overall physician work for these procedures has not changed since they were last evaluated in 2013,” the group said in a statement. “If anything, orthopaedic surgeons and their staff are spending more time on the preoperative work that is essential to the clinical success and cost savings of Medicare alternative payment models.”https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

If these Medicare cuts are finalized, it sends a strong signal: when providers in the vanguard of value-based care begin to achieve some efficiencies in the delivery of care, CMS will use those positive developments as a justification to cut Medicare fee-for-service reimbursement regardless of the extra work that goes into achieving these outcomes,” C. Lowry Barnes, MD, president of the American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons, said in a statement.

Congress has also gotten involved in the proposed rule. Last Friday, representatives Michael Burgess, MD (R-Texas) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) introduced H.R. 8505, which would temporarily waive the legislation’s budget neutrality provision and avoid the payment cuts.

Medicare Advantage should not ‘game the system’ but prioritize patient care, honest billing

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/medicare-advantage-should-not-game-the-system-but-prioritize-patient-care/585613/

We all agree healthcare providers should prioritize patient well-being and bill honestly. Most do. But, if not, my office, the Office of Inspector General for the HHS, and other government agencies, are watching. 

We are especially monitoring an area of concern: abuse of risk adjustment in Medicare Advantage, the managed care program serving 23 million beneficiaries, 37% of the Medicare population, at a cost of about $264 billion annually. We have good reason to pay attention. Our recent report found that Medicare Advantage paid $2.6 billion a year for diagnoses unrelated to any clinical services.

Plans used a tool called “health risk assessments” to collect these diagnoses. Ideally, health risk assessments might be part of a Medicare beneficiary’s annual wellness visit and help care teams identify health issues. However, some Medicare Advantage plans use risk assessments without involving the patients’ regular care providers. 

Some plans partner with businesses whose primary livelihood entails identifying diagnoses by conducting risk assessments. Some organizations send professional risk assessors, perhaps practitioners with some medical credentials but not physicians or other clinicians involved in the person’s care, to the beneficiaries’ homes.  Our study found that 80% of that extra $2.6 billion payment resulted from in-home health risk assessments. 

Medicare’s capitated payments vary by beneficiary for good reason. If Medicare paid the same for every beneficiary, plans might favor younger and healthier enrollees. It may not hold true every month, but, on average, it will cost a plan less to serve a healthy 65-year-old than an older person with diabetes or cancer.

Risk adjustment tailors the capitated rate to each beneficiary’s expected costs, so plans should enroll any interested beneficiary and not discriminate. But the risk adjustment is just a projection. Beneficiaries need not actually incur higher costs for the plan to receive higher payments. Some beneficiaries with a seemingly low risk will incur high costs in a given year and some beneficiaries with a high risk will incur low or even no costs.

In fact, one Medicare Advantage plan received about $7 million for beneficiaries who did not appear to receive any clinical care that year — other than the risk assessment, which was the only reason for the higher Medicare payment. Finding beneficiaries with high risk scores but low care utilization can prove a profitable business strategy. 

Without gaming, on the aggregate, risk-based payments and utilization should even out over time.  But what if plans do game the system? Perhaps making their beneficiaries look sicker? Or not providing care for beneficiaries’ health conditions?

We identified two main concerns:

  • bad data — risk of incorrect diagnoses identified in the health risk assessment resulting in incorrect payments to plans.
  • suboptimal care — risk that diagnoses are correct, but patients are not getting the care they need.

The question of whether beneficiaries are experiencing quality and safety problems requires more study. For example, it is possible that beneficiaries are receiving care, but plans are not submitting this data as required. Regardless, plans that use risk assessments to gather diagnoses, but then take no further action, are clearly missing an opportunity for meaningful care coordination. We urge Medicare Advantage plans to:

  • Ensure practices drive better care and not just higher profits.  
  • Enact policies and procedures to ensure the integrity and usefulness of the data.

This could include measures like educating patients about the identified diagnoses and sharing them with caregivers. These steps are consistent with the best practices identified by CMS and provided to Medicare Advantage Plans in 2015.

It is not necessarily bad that Medicare allows risk assessments to influence payment, trusting that plans use risk assessments to identify missed diagnoses and not to fabricate nonexistent diagnoses. 

However, this practice only helps patients if there is some additional intervention to improve care. If risk assessments are performed by third parties, at minimum, the beneficiary and the beneficiary’s care team should learn the results. Risk assessments should trigger meaningful care coordination, patient engagement and help ensure the care team takes appropriate action. Risk assessments that generate diagnoses for payment purposes, but result in no follow-up care raise serious concerns.

Ensuring beneficiaries receive the care they need should be front of mind for executives as they design risk assessment programs with an eye to quality of care and better care coordination. Failing that, executives should know that government agencies will scrutinize risk adjustment for abuse. 

In response to our report, CMS promised to provide additional oversight and target plans that reap the greatest payments from in-home health risk assessments and conditions generated solely by risk assessments for which the beneficiaries appeared to receive no other clinical services. My office has identified red flags in some industry patterns and recommends plans adopt best practices. Executives should champion best practices and make sure their plans are driving correct diagnoses and quality care.

Ensuring that beneficiaries are properly diagnosed is important, not just for the integrity of taxpayer-funded federal healthcare programs, but also for the welfare of the beneficiaries served. Coordinating care and providing appropriate follow up is critical.

My office and other government agencies are targeting oversight to make sure plans do not pad risk adjustments with unsupported diagnoses. When plans find new real diagnoses, the plans deserve the extra payment, but only if patients get appropriate care.

 

 

 

 

Moody’s: Hospital financial outlook worse as COVID-19 relief funds start to dwindle

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/hospitals/moody-s-hospital-financial-outlook-worse-as-covid-19-relief-funds-start-to-dwindle?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiWTJZek56Z3lNV1E0TW1NMyIsInQiOiJKdUtkZE5DVGphdkNFanpjMHlSMzR4dEE4M29tZ24zek5lM3k3amtUYSt3VTBoMmtMUnpIblRuS2lYUWozZk11UE5cL25sQ1RzbFpzdExcL3JvalBod3Z6U3BZK3FBNjZ1Rk1LQ2pvT3A5Witkc0FmVkJocnVRM0dPbFJHZTlnRGJUIn0%3D&mrkid=959610

For-profit hospitals are expected to see a financial decline over the next 12 to 18 months as federal relief funds that shored up revenue losses due to COVID-19 start to wane, a recent analysis from Moody’s said.

The analysis, released Monday, finds that cost management is going to be challenging for hospital systems as more surgical procedures are expected to migrate away from the hospital and people lose higher-paying commercial plans and go to lower-paying government programs such as Medicaid.

“The number of surgical procedures done outside of the hospital setting will continue to increase, which will weaken hospital earnings, particularly for companies that lack sizeable outpatient service lines (including ambulatory surgery centers),” the analysis said.

A $175 billion provider relief fund passed by Congress as part of the CARES Act helped keep hospital systems afloat in March and April as volumes plummeted due to the cancellation of elective procedures and reticence among patients to go to the hospitals.

Some for-profit systems such as HCA and Tenet pointed to relief funding to help generate profits in the second quarter of the year. The benefits are likely to dwindle as Congress has stalled over talks on replenishing the fund.

“Hospitals will continue to recognize grant aid as earnings in Q3 2020, but this tailwind will significantly moderate after that,” Moody’s said.

Cost cutting challenges

Compounding problems for hospitals is how to handle major costs.

Some hospital systems cut some costs such as staff thanks to furloughs and other measures.

“Some hospitals have said that for every lost dollar of revenue, they were able to cut about 50 cents in costs,” the analysis said. “However, we believe that these levels of cost cuts are not sustainable.”

Hospitals can’t cut costs indefinitely, but the costs for handling the pandemic (more money for personal protective equipment and safety measures) are going to continue for some time, Moody’s added.

“As a result, hospitals will operate less efficiently in the wake of the pandemic, although their early experiences in treating COVID-19 patients will enable them to provide care more efficiently than in the early days of the pandemic,” the analysis found. “This will help hospitals free up bed capacity more rapidly and avoid the need for widespread shutdowns of elective surgeries.”

But will that capacity be put to use?

The number of surgical procedures done outside of the hospital is likely to increase and will further weaken earnings, Moody’s said.

“Outpatient procedures typically result in lower costs for both consumers and payers and will likely be preferred by more patients who are reluctant to check-in to a hospital due to COVID-19,” the analysis said.

The payer mix will also shift, and not in hospitals’ favor. Mounting job losses due to the pandemic will force more patients with commercial plans toward programs such as Medicaid.

“This will hinder hospitals’ earnings growth over the next 12-18 months,” Moody’s said. “Employer-provided health insurance pays significantly higher reimbursement rates than government-based programs.”

Bright spots

There are some bright spots for hospitals, including that not all of the $175 billion has been dispersed yet. The CARES Act continues to provide hospitals with a 20% add-on payment for treating Medicare patients that have COVID-19, and it suspends a 2% payment cut for Medicare payments that was installed as part of sequestration.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services also proposed increasing outpatient payment rates for the 2021 fiscal year by 2.6% and in-patient rates by 2.9%. The fiscal year is set to start next month.

Patient volumes could also return to normal in 2021. Moody’s expects that patient volumes will return to about 90% of pre-pandemic levels on average in the fourth quarter of the year.

“The remaining 10% is likely to come back more slowly in 2021, but faster if a vaccine becomes widely available,” the analysis found.

 

 

 

 

House government funding bill gives providers relief on Medicare advance payments

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/hospitals/house-government-funding-bill-gives-providers-relief-medicare-advance-payments?utm_medium=nl&utm_source=internal&mrkid=959610&mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiWTJZek56Z3lNV1E0TW1NMyIsInQiOiJKdUtkZE5DVGphdkNFanpjMHlSMzR4dEE4M29tZ24zek5lM3k3amtUYSt3VTBoMmtMUnpIblRuS2lYUWozZk11UE5cL25sQ1RzbFpzdExcL3JvalBod3Z6U3BZK3FBNjZ1Rk1LQ2pvT3A5Witkc0FmVkJocnVRM0dPbFJHZTlnRGJUIn0%3D

The House passed a short-term government funding bill that extends the deadline for providers to start repaying Medicare advance payment loans to the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The bill that the House passed late Tuesday is a major win for provider groups who worried they could struggle to repay the Medicare loans starting in August. The bill still has to pass through the GOP-controlled Senate.

The continuing resolution, which funds the federal government through Dec. 11, also lowers the interest rate for payments made under the Medicare Accelerated and Advance Payment Program to 4%, down from 10.25%.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) gave out more than $100 billion in advance payments in March to providers slammed by the pandemic. The payments are essentially loans which CMS recoups by garnishing Medicare payments to providers. That process starts 120 days after the first payment was received.

But the bill would give providers one year before Medicare can claim their payments.

It would also give providers 29 months since the first payment to fully repay the loan amount. Currently, CMS gives providers a year to fully repay.

In addition to the changes to the repayment terms, the bill also delays $4 billion in payment cuts to disproportionate share hospitals that were supposed to go into effect as part of the Affordable Care Act. The cuts will now be delayed until December.

The bill earned plaudits from the hospital industry, which has pressed Congress for help as providers are still struggling with the pandemic and could not afford to have Medicare payments become garnished.

“Our hospitals continue to suffer high costs and revenue losses associated with COVID-19, and they welcome the relief this continuing resolution would provide,” said Bruce Siegel, president and CEO of America’s Essential Hospitals, which represents safety net hospitals.

The Federation of American Hospitals said earlier this week before the House vote that the advance payment program is a “vital lifeline to hospitals and healthcare providers during the pandemic that has enabled hospitals and providers to maintain access to critical patient care. But the ongoing pressures of the current crisis required a revision of the repayment terms.”

The bill, which has approval from the White House, now heads to the Senate. The chamber must reach a decision on the legislation to avoid a government shutdown when funding runs out on Sept. 30.

 

 

 

 

CMS kills controversial Medicaid fiscal accountability rule

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/cms-kills-controversial-medicaid-fiscal-accountability-rule/585206/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Issue:%202020-09-15%20Healthcare%20Dive%20%5Bissue:29671%5D&utm_term=Healthcare%20Dive

What You Need to Know About the Medicaid Fiscal Accountability Rule (MFAR)  | KFF

Dive Brief:

  • CMS is axing its proposed Medicaid Fiscal Accountability Rule, agency head Seema Verma announced via Twitter late Monday afternoon, in a move quickly cheered by provider organizations.
  • The rule proposed last year would have increased federal oversight of how states fund their Medicaid programs and potentially resulted in funding cuts for the cash-strapped safety net insurance. Myriad providers, patient advocacy groups and lawmakers in both states and the halls of Congress opposed the rule as a result.
  • “We’ve listened closely to concerns that have been raised by our state and provider partners about potential unintended consequences of the proposed rule, which require further study. Therefore, CMS is withdrawing the rule from the regulatory agenda,” Verma said.

Dive Insight:

MFAR was designed to increase fiscal transparency in the 55-year-old Medicaid program, but was quickly met with a firestorm of controversy, with even bipartisan House and Senate members raising concerns it could lead to states being forced to choose between program cuts or raising taxes to replace the lost funding.

One estimate, conducted by Manatt Health for the American Hospital Association, estimated the changes proposed in the rule would cut Medicaid funding by almost $50 billion annually, shrinking the program by 8%.

“Hospitals and health systems will be greatly relieved when the proposed rule is formally withdrawn,” AHA EVP Tom Nickels said in a statement.

Bruce Siegel, CEO of America’s Essential Hospitals, a lobby representing hospitals serving a disproportionate amount of vulnerable patients, called CMS’ decision “wise and welcome … especially as state budgets and providers strain under the heavy financial burden and economic fallout of COVID-19.”

Medicaid is jointly funded by the states and the federal government. Generally, CMS matches every dollar states spend at rates that vary depending on the state, its covered services and its population. There are no limits for how much federal funding a state can receive, and snowballing spending in Medicaid has resulted in concerns about cost control.

Medicaid spending swelled from $456 billion in 2013 to $576 billion in 2016, per CMS data, mostly due to an expanding federal share.

The most acute worries on the federal side stemmed from supplemental payments, or payments state Medicaid agencies give to providers for going above and beyond routine care, normally for high-need patients or those in underserved areas.

Supplemental payments to healthcare providers have increased from 9.4% of all other payments in 2010 to 17.5% in 2017, according to CMS, and are generally uneven across state lines, contributing to geographic funding disparities.

Oversight agencies, including the Government Accountability Office and the Office of the Inspector General, flagged the growth in payments and called for stronger Medicaid oversight in a series of reports from 2006 to 2015.

As a result, CMS proposed the MFAR rule in November 2019. If finalized, it would require states to report Medicaid payment and financing data at the individual provider level, instead of an aggregate, and establish definitions for “base” and “supplemental” payments. It would also have allowed CMS to sunset existing supplemental payment methodologies after up to three years, requiring states to get approval for a longer period, and close financing loopholes that might allow states to re-use federal Medicaid dollars to fund additional payments.

At the outset, CMS attempted to stamp out criticisms the rule could winnow Medicaid funding. “Alarmist estimates that this rule, if finalized, will suddenly remove billions of dollars from the program and threaten beneficiary access are overblown and without credibility,” Verma wrote in a blog post on the proposal in February.

But the rule received more than 4,000 public comments, most of them negative. The swirling concerns about unintended consequences, especially as COVID-19 exacerbates worries about care access, have now brought CMS back to the drawing board on Medicaid fiscal accountability.

As of late Monday, MFAR remained on the Federal Register.

Other actions from the Trump administration to overhaul Medicaid have faced similar backlash, including unpopular efforts to instill requirements linking coverage to work hours and an early 2020 push to cap federal funding for states in exchange for wider latitude in program administration.