Employers seeking a “source of truth” for coronavirus guidance

https://mailchi.mp/f2774a4ad1ea/the-weekly-gist-may-22-2020?e=d1e747d2d8

What Is Truth? | Psychology Today

As states begin to reopen, employers need guidance to ensure safe, COVID-free operations, and are beginning to call local health systems for advice on how to manage this daunting task. Providing this support is uncharted territory for most systems, and they’re learning on the fly as they bring back shuttered outpatient services and surgery centers themselves. This week we convened leaders from across our Gist Healthcare membership to share ideas on how to assist employers in bringing businesses safely back online—and to discuss whether the pandemic might create broader opportunities for working with the employer community.

It’s no surprise some companies are hoping that providers can step in to test their full workforce, but as several systems shared, “Even if we thought that was the right plan, testing supplies and PPE are still too limited for us to deliver on it now.” Better to support businesses in creating comprehensive screening strategies (with some offering their own app-based solutions), coupled with a testing plan for symptomatic employees.

Health systems have been surprised by the hunger for information on COVID-19 among the business community. Hundreds of companies have registered for informational webinars, hosted by systems through their local chambers of commerce. They’re excited to receive distilled information on local COVID-19 impact and response. As one leader said, the system isn’t really creating new educational content, but rather summarizing and synthesizing CDC, state and local guidance.

Business leaders are looking for “a source of truth” from their local health system amid conflicting guidelines and media reports. Case in point: employers are asking about the need for antibody testing, having been approached by testing vendors and feeling pressure from employees. Guidance from system doctors provides a plain-spoken interpretation on testing utility (great for looking at a population, meaningless right now for an individual), and helps them make smarter decisions and educate their workforce.

Health systems are hopeful that helping employers through the coronavirus crisis will lay the foundation for longer-term partnerships with employers, allowing them to continue to provide benefits through lower cost, coordinated care and network options. 

Timing is critical, and it may be smaller businesses that have the ability to change more quickly. Large companies have mostly locked in their benefits for 2021, whereas many mid-market businesses are looking for alternative options now.

Worksite health, telemedicine, and direct primary care arrangements are all on the table. One system surveyed local brokers and employers and found that 20 percent of mid-market employers are open to narrow-network partnerships. “The number seems low,” they reported, “but it’s up from five percent last year, a huge jump.” For systems seeking direct partnerships with employers, there’s a window of opportunity right now to find those businesses committed to continuing to offer benefits, who are looking for a creative, local alternative—and to get that first Zoom meeting on the calendar.

 

 

 

Further confusion on the coronavirus testing front

https://mailchi.mp/f2774a4ad1ea/the-weekly-gist-may-22-2020?e=d1e747d2d8

Coronavirus test: confusion over availability and criteria is ...

With all 50 states now in the process of reopening, data reported by public health agencies on coronavirus testing is under increased scrutiny. The issue is not how many tests are being conducted—that number has dramatically increased nationwide (although experts still caution that total testing should be about three times higher than the current 300,000 per day).

Rather, as reported this week, the issue is what kind of tests are being included in public reporting. It emerged this week that several states—including GeorgiaTexasPennsylvaniaVermont, and Virginia—have been combining statistics on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, used to diagnose current infection, with antibody blood tests, used to detect past infection.

More troublingly, The Atlantic reported on Wednesday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been doing the same thing, which artificially inflates the number of tests conducted, and makes the numbers difficult to interpret. Among other experts, Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Public Health Institute, was stunned: “You’ve got to be kidding me. How could the CDC make that mistake? This is a mess.”

Accurate testing data is critical to determine the pace and scope of reopening, and to monitor for resurgences of the virus that might necessitate future restrictions. It’s important to know who’s infected now for clinical reasons, and it’s essential to understand who’s already been sick for public health purposes. Combining the two datasets is positively unhelpful, and likely only serves a political purpose.

Testing problems have proven to be this country’s original sin in the way the coronavirus pandemic has evolved, but it’s not too late to make sure that we have ample, accurate, and well-reported testing to guide critical public health decisions.

US coronavirus update: 1.62M cases, 95K+ confirmed deaths, 12.9M tests conducted (of some type).

 

 

 

Advocate Aurora reports Q1 operating loss, gets $328M bailout

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/finance/advocate-aurora-reports-q1-operating-loss-gets-328m-bailout.html?utm_medium=email

MyAdvocateAurora | Health Record | Advocate Aurora Health

Advocate Aurora Health saw revenue increase year over year in the first quarter of this year, but it ended the period with an operating loss, according to recently released unaudited financial documents

Advocate Aurora Health, which was formed in 2018 and has dual headquarters in Downers Grove, Ill., and Milwaukee, reported revenue of $3.1 billion in the first quarter of 2020, up from $3 billion in the same period a year earlier. Patient service revenue climbed 3.5 percent year over year, while capitation revenue dropped 13.2 percent.

The health system said it began postponing or canceling elective procedures on March 17 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the public curtailed visits to physicians, clinics and emergency rooms for fear of contracting the virus.

“These actions have served to decrease revenues from non-COVID-19 patients while driving up costs to prepare for and care for COVID-19 patients with minimal additional revenues from these patients,” Advocate Aurora said.

To help offset financial damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the health system implemented cost-reduction measures. Since April 1, it has also received $328 million in grants made available through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and about $730 million in advance Medicare payments, which must be paid back.

Advocate Aurora’s expenses were up 9 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period of 2019. The increase was due in part to it acquiring the remaining 51 percent interest in Bay Area Medical Center in Marinette, Wis., in April 2019.

Advocate Aurora posted an operating loss of $85.6 million in the first quarter of this year. That’s compared to operating income of $112.8 million in the same period a year earlier. Excluding nonrecurring expenses, the health system posted an operating loss of $49.3 million in the first quarter of this year and operating income of $131.2 million a year earlier.

The 26-hospital system reported a nonoperating loss of $1.23 billion in the first quarter of this year, which was largely attributable to investment losses. Advocate Aurora ended the first quarter with a net loss of $1.3 billion, compared to net income of $596.8 million a year earlier. 

As of March 31, the health system had 229 days cash on hand, down from 274 days in December 2019. 

 

 

 

 

HCA asks union to abandon wage increases this year

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/hr/hca-asks-union-to-abandon-wage-increases-this-year.html?utm_medium=email

HCA revenue beats the hospital chain's expectations in 2019

A union representing more than 150,000 registered nurses in hundreds of U.S. hospitals is disputing with Nashville, Tenn.-based HCA Healthcare regarding pay and benefits.

National Nurses United said HCA is demanding that the union choose between an undetermined number of layoffs and no 401(k) match for this year or no layoffs and no nurse pay increases for the rest of the year, according to ABC affiliate Kiii TV.

HCA Healthcare, which to date has avoided layoffs due to the pandemic, told Becker’s Hospital Review it is asking the union to give up their demand for wage increases this year, just as nonunion employees have. HCA executive leadership, corporate and division colleagues and hospital executives have also taken pay cuts.  

The union said it takes issue with having to make this choice given HCA’s profits in the last decade, the additional funding the for-profit hospital operator received from the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, and additional Medicare loans.

“It is outrageous for HCA to use the cover of the pandemic to swell its massive profits at the expense of its dedicated caregivers and the patients who will also be harmed by cuts in nursing staff,” Malinda Markowitz, RN, California Nurses Association/National Nurses United president, said in a news release.

HCA pointed to the pandemic pay program it implemented and recently extended through at least the end of June that allows employees who are called off or affected by a facility closure and cannot be redeployed to receive 70 percent of their base pay.

“It is surprising and frankly disappointing that unions would demand pay raises for their members and may reject the continuation of a generous pay program that is providing continued paychecks for more the 100,000 colleagues,” HCA said in a statement. “The goal of HCA Healthcare’s pandemic pay program is to keep our caregivers employed and receiving paychecks at a time when hospitals throughout the country are experiencing significant declines in patient volume and there is not enough work for them.”

HCA said more than 16,000 union members have participated in the pandemic pay program, even though it is not part of their contract. 

 

 

 

 

Congress Should Redirect The Medicare Shared Savings Program To Address The COVID-19 Emergency

https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20200518.386084/full/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=COVID-19%3A+Redirecting+The+Medicare+Shared+Savings+Program%2C+The+Hidden+Homeless%2C+Senior+Housing+Communities+Need+Support%3B+Reimagining+Involuntary+Commitment%3B+Book+Reviews&utm_campaign=HAT+5-22-20

Congress Should Redirect The Medicare Shared Savings Program To ...

The COVID-19 virus has unleashed a rolling series of crises among fee-for-service providers. First, and most directly affected, providers in areas with major outbreaks have suffered extreme personal hardship and risked infection themselves with inadequate equipment and protective gear when treating patients. Second, everywhere in the country, physician practices and hospitals have seen revenue drops from 20 percent to 60 percent due to the need to follow social distancing practices to minimize infection. This revenue collapse has perversely resulted in staffing reductions that are likely to accelerate unless Congress provides further assistance to the industry. Third, and only partially observed so far, there is a pending “second wave” of health crises discernible in the “missing heart attacks” and reports from nephrologists and oncologists of patients making difficult decisions about whether to continue necessary care. In some cases, emergency care has shifted out of the hospital, and some triage is conducted on the street to avoid risk of COVID-19 infection.

The COVID-19 public health emergency has generated a massive set of emergency changes in Medicare payment policy, loosening regulation of acute hospital care, dramatically expanding use cases for telehealth and other types of virtual care, and, through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and subsequent relief legislation, releasing a $175 billion pool of money that attempts to prop up Medicare providers dependent on in-person, fee-for-service revenue. Now, with that first batch of changes handled, a debate has started among proponents of value-based purchasing as to the appropriate direction for the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) and other value-based initiatives during the emergency.

In this context, a number of stakeholders have begun to call on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to modify existing MSSP parameters to maintain the program through the emergency. CMS has responded by eliminating downside risk for accountable care organizations (ACOs) for the duration of the public health emergency and taking COVID-19 costs out of ACO financial calculations. These are welcome changes but don’t completely address the serious problems ACO participants face. We urge a different focus—the federal government should charge these existing networks with addressing the “second wave” of health care needs going largely unaddressed, as patients with serious, non-COVID-19-related chronic conditions see procedures and visits postponed indefinitely. Commensurately, Congress should suspend all financial impacts from the MSSP for the duration of the public health emergency—and consider excluding any data from 2020 for performance years 2021 and beyond. We describe key elements of these changes in this post.

A Growing Call For MSSP Modifications

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) issued a comment letter urging CMS to allow ACO providers to focus on COVID-19, rather than shared savings. MedPAC, acknowledging the dramatic shifts in care delivery necessitated by the COVID-19 crisis, made several recommendations about treatment of savings and losses in the MSSP for 2020. MedPAC asked CMS not to use 2020 data for purposes of ACO quality, bonuses, and penalties. MedPAC would also have CMS disregard 2020 claims when assigning beneficiaries to ACOs, since a shift to telehealth, with physicians and patients potentially located far apart, could distort the ACO assignment with unintended effects. Finally, MedPAC recommended extending all ACO agreement periods, keeping everyone in the current risk arrangement for one year, a recommendation CMS adopted.

William Bleser and colleagues recently suggested immediate and short-term actions that could help preserve ACOs through this crisis. Their blog post identifies the decision point, coming on June 30, 2020, for ACOs to stay in the program and be accountable for losses in 2020. The impact of the emergency on ACOs will still be unclear at that time, and the authors recommend that CMS allow ACOs to completely opt out of downside risk for 2020 while accepting a capped amount of potential shared savings. Eliminating the downside and offering a limited upside might just convince ACOs not to leave the program entirely. CMS has taken these concerns seriously and removed all COVID-19–related costs from ACO financial calculations and eliminated shared losses during the public health emergency.  

Another recent blog post by Travis Broome and Farzad Mostashari makes the case that the population health focus and financial incentives for ACOs position them uniquely, not just to survive, but to lead the way for primary care during the COVID-19 crisis. ACO participation may protect these practices because of the program’s unique financial metrics. Unlike Medicare managed care, MSSP ACOs are measured against a benchmark that trends forward at actual regional and national spending growth rates. During an unusual spending year, as 2020 is sure to be, those factors are included in the trend, and the ACO is not heavily penalized for the spending pattern. Broome and Mostashari recommend that CMS focus on shielding primary care practices from certain quality reporting and information collection requirements to pave the way for high-quality care and solid financial performance.

A More Focused Re-Envisioning Of The MSSP

Foundational to the MSSP is an agreement between groups of providers and the federal government to align their financial relationship with patient and taxpayer goals: to improve the quality of care for their patients and reduce the growth of health care spending. Both of those elements must take a back seat during a massive public health emergency.

Reducing overall health care costs is not an appropriate consideration for providers today. Even though national and regional growth factors will track actual changes in expenditures and may allow for identification of more efficient providers, this objective is second order to directly responding to the threat of the emergency. Given the overwhelming need to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in their communities, the ability of any health system or ACO to influence costs this year is likely to be dwarfed by factors outside its control. This type of highly infectious, novel pandemic is a risk that can only be properly assumed by the federal government. Neither physician practices, nor hospitals, nor any other ACO participants can realistically budget and prepare for such an event on their own. Congress and CMS should adopt MedPAC’s suggestion to suspend charging penalties or paying bonuses for all of 2020, no matter how long the public health emergency is in effect.

Similarly, while the prevention and care management metrics embedded in the MSSP remain appropriate indicators directionally, difficulties in seeing patients for well visits and new standards for documentation during telehealth visits will make any precise differentiation of quality in primary care practices near impossible. MedPAC is correct that using 2020 data for performance evaluation would undercut the legitimacy of the program, and the commissioners are right to support the call to suspend the use of such data in establishing bonuses, penalties, and benchmarks in 2020 and beyond.

However, many practices have made significant investments in population health technology, staff, and training that remain as valuable as ever during this emergency. And the public has an interest in maintaining those staff and those skills, as the basis for a better health system in the future. All told, like much of the rest of the economy, putting the MSSP and other ACO arrangements “on ice” to allow providers to focus on near-term priorities would best serve the public interest. That includes delaying or freezing requirements to step up to higher-risk tracks in the Pathways to Success program, as well as delaying or canceling quality submission requirements. These delays, however, should be paired with public funding to reflect the work that ACOs have already undertaken, as well as work that they can do to help manage through the crisis, discussed further below.

Taking steps to preserve ACOs through 2020 is a good start, but we believe Congress and CMS should think bigger and empower ACOs to focus directly on the current crisis for the next two years.

Adapting ACOs To Serve The Current Emergency

ACOs are a valuable asset for the Medicare program, reflecting nearly 10 years of work across hundreds of thousands of providers serving tens of millions of beneficiaries. Disbanding them by indifference would be a mistake. The current collapse in fee-for-service volume is a problem of fee-for-service medicine primarily, and ACOs represent an infrastructure for a further step away from volume-focused medicine once the danger from this emergency passes.

Suspending financial considerations and consequences for the duration of the emergency is insufficient. Without the responsibility for managing risk and sharing in any savings, the ACO contract with CMS loses its organizing force, and the program becomes “a solution in search of a problem.”

We see two opportunities for ACOs to redirect their energies productively this year and next. First, ACOs should be directed to follow best practices in testing and public health data collection, in collaboration with local and state officials. Managing the spread of the virus in their communities is already a daily task for these providers; additional surveillance and data collection could be adopted and updated continuously as recommendations evolve. By providing resources to ACOs to support this work directly, CMS would help ensure providers can keep up.

Second, and perhaps more important in most of the country to date, ACOs should be charged with meeting explicit virtual care management requirements to identify, contact, and serve patients in their panel with multiple high-risk chronic diseases. These patients are underserved today, and efforts to address their needs are piecemeal. In place of the current financial incentives, we propose that CMS require ACOs to perform a variety of care management and COVID-19 surveillance functions in exchange for a care management fee. Congress could enable and CMS could specify that ACOs place 10 percent to 15 percent of their patients under virtual care management programs, for example, and require that ACOs maintain regular contact with these patients as well as others at higher risk. The 10 percent to 10 percent figure is a fairly low bar, considering that more than 60 percent of Medicare patients have multiple chronic conditions, according to CMS. Additionally, COVID-19 patients could be offered principal care management, a new service for Medicare beneficiaries with one serious health condition, for a month or more after their diagnosis. New flexibilities for remote patient monitoring and virtual care make this far easier to implement than it had been before the pandemic.

CMS could quickly adapt existing financial models to support this work, drawing from analysis and design of the Primary Care FirstComprehensive Primary Care Plus, and other care management programs. ACOs are by design collaborative and can rapidly learn and share best practices for establishing virtual care management services. Behavioral health services and outreach, as well as other valuable preventive care, could also be directly funded through this structure. As an alternative to the fee for care management and surveillance, Congress could allow ACOs to receive their 2019 shared savings amounts again for 2020, for ACOs continuously operating in each year.

Looking Ahead

The steps we have outlined here will accomplish several worthwhile ends in this crisis:

  • directly funding primary care capacity at a time when volumes are nosediving;
  • keeping the nearly 500,000 physician and other clinicians already in ACOs working together, maintaining the infrastructure that has already been built; and
  • providing upfront resources to manage patients whose conditions could deteriorate in the coming months, potentially catching them before they do.

These modifications should be executed first by Congress, not CMS, to ensure that such changes to the program do not become commonplace. This would invigorate the ACO programs by focusing them on the unique set of problems of this crisis, unencumbered by requirements better suited to peacetime than wartime. And when the war is over, these organizations can resume their longer-term mission to manage total costs and quality with all of the new tools and capabilities they have acquired during the crisis.