So when her 7-year-old son, Cameron, tripped and gashed his knee in the backyard, the ER was not where her family headed first. In fact, Macsalka did just about everything she could to avoid paying a big, fat bill to get Cameron’s knee stitched up.
Ultimately, she failed.
Her adventure raises a big question: In a system where consumers are encouraged to “shop” for the best deal in health care, why is it so hard to get simple information, like a price?
On this week’s episode of “An Arm and a Leg,” we get some answers.
Instead of taking her son to the local emergency room for stitches, Macsalka took him to an urgent care clinic, one that provides patients with prices ahead of the service. There, the staff said stitching up Cameron’s knee would cost $150.
But there was a problem. The clinic didn’t have the topical anesthetic the doctor would need to numb Cameron’s skin first.
“And Cameron is like screaming and crying,” Macsalka said. “He doesn’t take pain well.”
So, reluctantly, the family headed to the local emergency room.
Macsalka tried to be a smart shopper there, too. When a staff member came to take her insurance information, Macsalka grilled him about how much the visit would cost.
“He was like, ‘I don’t know. Just walking through the ER [door] costs $600,'” she said.
To Macsalka, that sounded like a “facility fee” — a cover charge of sorts, separate from any health care services. And it sounded pricey. But she was over a barrel.
“The kid is still screaming and crying,” she said. “His knee’s a mess.” She wasn’t about to drive him back to the urgent care place and start over again.
They got the stitches in the ER. And, as it happened, the anesthetic wasn’t very effective.
Macsalka said her son’s screams were ear-piercing. “Yeah, Cameron’s lungs did not give out,” she said. “Those are very healthy lungs.”
As it turned out, Macsalka’s attempts to figure out what the final price would be weren’t very effective either. A few weeks after the ER visit, she got a bill for the doctor’s services and paid it: $214 after insurance.
Then there was another bill from the hospital. One line: $2,824.
Macsalka went back into smart-consumer mode. She called the hospital billing department and asked if there had been a mistake.
Macsalka said the person she spoke with on the phone told her that “just walking through the doors” of the emergency room cost $4,200. That amount matches a number on her insurance statement — an amount before the insurance company’s negotiated discount.
After that discount, the bill was $2,824 – and because Macsalka’s family had a high deductible, they were responsible for paying it all.
Macsalka said she tried another tactic and asked the billing representative: What if I didn’t have insurance? She said the billing rep told her: In that case, the hospital would accept 10% of its total bill to make sure it collected something. Without a negotiated rate from insurance, the total would have been about $6,000, so 10% would have been about $600.
It was more than Macsalka had hoped to pay. But less than $3,000.
“So I was like, ‘Fine, cool, I’ll take it.’ And she’s like, ‘Oh no. You can’t because it’s already gone through your insurance company. So that’s not an option for you.'”
Having insurance — with a high deductible — meant Macsalka was on the hook for the $2,800 charge.
She wishes someone could have told her the price upfront.
“I would’ve said thank you very much. And walked out and gone back to our lovely urgent care and been like, Cameron, bite on this stick,” she said.
For Episode 4, we also rounded up a hospital consultant and a journalist to better understand the perspectives of the hospital and insurance company.
New Ulm Medical Center struck a deal with a local payer willing to share the cost of a simple intervention. The arrangement has been paying dividends for seven years.
The intervention slashed PMPM billing by 61% in three years for a small cohort of plan members.
What makes this program atypical is the way the hospital took a broad problem-solving approach while minimizing its expenses.
Patients who use the emergency department at least three times within four months at Allina Health’s New Ulm Medical Center in New Ulm, Minnesota, have their names added to a high-utilization list.
The keeper of that list is Jennifer Eckstein, a licensed social worker who follows up with each patient directly, looking to solve underlying problems that may be driving their frequent ED use. Whether the patients need a primary care physician, a mental healthcare provider, supportive housing, or another solution, Eckstein does her best to address their social determinants of health and steer them away from the ED for non-emergent care.
The intervention is a straightforward concept. Many other hospitals have similarly hired social workers to help meet the needs of these ED frequent flyers. The program at New Ulm Medical Center, in fact, was inspired in part by an earlier and narrower intervention that focused exclusively on mental health needs of ED patients at Allina’s Owatonna Hospital in Owatonna, Minnesota.
But what makes this program a bit different from others is the way New Ulm Medical Center took a broad problem-solving approach while minimizing its expenses. Rather than shouldering the full cost of employing a full-time ED social worker, the hospital partnered with local insurer South Country Health Alliance. They struck a deal and signed a contract agreeing to split the personnel expense 50/50, beginning in 2012.
Allina’s four hospitals in the Twin Cities metro area have regularly staffed social workers in their EDs, too, but none of them fund those positions through cost-sharing arrangements with health plans, according to a spokesperson for the nonprofit health system.
South Country Health Alliance CEO Leota Lind, who has been with the organization since its founding in 2000, says her organization didn’t need much convincing to sign the contract with New Ulm Medical Center. While unmet mental health needs are often a major factor contributing to ED overuse, they are far from the only factor, so the broader approach taken at New Ulm offered a chance to solve a wider range of the challenges that were leading plan members to an ED when they should be seeing a more cost-effective primary care physician instead, Lind says.
“We really just were looking at ways to influence and reduce emergency department visits,” Lind tells HealthLeaders. “By taking that broader scope, it gave us the opportunity to identify what other issues were contributing to that high utilization of the emergency department.”
FEWER DOLLARS, MORE SENSE
South Country Health Alliance and New Ulm Medical Center each contribute about $40,000 per year to cover Eckstein’s salary and benefits—which, at about $80,000 per year, are in line with what other hospital social workers earn in total compensation in the Midwest, says Carisa Buegler, MHA, director of operations for the hospital.
Both the hospital and payer say their shared investment has been paying off.
Before the social worker was introduced, a small cohort of 28 South Country Health Alliance plan members who received care in New Ulm Medical Center’s ED generated $731 per member per month (PMPM) in hospital bills, according to Buegler. A year after Eckstein began her work, in 2012, those bills fell to $416 PMPM, then they kept falling. By the end of the third year, in 2014, the 28-patient cohort generated $286 PMPM in bills, Buegler says.
That 61% reduction means the hospital billed the payer nearly $150,000 less in 2014—just for those 28 patients—than it had before the social worker was introduced. By the end of the third year, the cohort’s overall ED utilization was cut in half, and its inpatient admissions fell 89%, Buegler says.
That’s only part of the impact Eckstein’s labor has produced, since she doesn’t work exclusively with South Country plan members. Eckstein, who was hired into the position when it was created, says she helps roughly 150–200 patients per year, regardless of who’s paying for their care. Some needs are easier to meet than others, so she’s built a sense of rapport with some returning patients over the years.
“The good thing is they utilize me now instead of the ER, so when they get into a pickle or if they’re having trouble with something, they call me,” she says.
Across all payers, the intervention has likely been saving $500,000 or more, Buegler says.
The intervention is about more than just money, of course. It aims also to improve clinical care and patients’ quality of life.
“I don’t think the driver was necessarily just cost but appropriate care at the right place, at the right time, with the right kind of provider,” says South Country Health Alliance Chief Medical Officer Brad Johnson, MD.
But the financial implications of this intervention are especially interesting considering the fact that New Ulm Medical Center is spending $40,000 per year on a program that delivers cost-savings to payers while reducing the hospital’s revenue. The immediate financial benefit goes to the payer, not the provider.
The hospital has seen a 20% reduction in its overall ED volumes in the past five years, and that’s likely the direction in which most hospitals’ EDs are headed, which is generally good news, Buegler says. The situation presents a challenge, though, since value-based payment arrangements haven’t matured and proliferated to a point where they can compensate adequately for the trend, she says.
Why, then, would the hospital keep investing in this intervention?
“It’s the right thing to do,” Buegler says. “It’s providing the best level of care to our patients who are coming in the emergency department seeking help and then providing another level of service to those individuals to help them improve their social conditions, that will then help them to improve their health. … It’s really looking at the patient as a whole person.”
There’s also a longer-term business case to be made for the hospital’s continued investment, Buegler says.
“From a financial perspective, we’re preparing for more value-based payment contracts,” she says.
Although risk-based contracts have been arriving more slowly than many industry stakeholders had expected, leaders remain confident that more value-based models are on the way, so it makes sense for hospitals like New Ulm Medical Center to invest in the future it anticipates, Buegler says.
PLUGGED INTO SUPPORT NETWORK
Eckstein is the sole social worker stationed in the ED, but she’s not running a one-woman show.
New Ulm Medical Center has a social worker assigned to its clinic, too, and South Country Health Alliance employs a physician as a community care connector in each of the 11 counties it serves—so Eckstein has multiple partners just outside the ED’s walls.
“By having that hospital social worker work in partnership with the community care connector at the county, they’re able to effectively make referrals and access some of those other types of community supports that have also helped address the issues that individuals may be experiencing as barriers to managing their healthcare,” Lind says.
This idea of bridging the gap between traditional medical care and broader social services has been central to South Country Health Alliance’s mission since it was founded, Lind says.
“We recognized way back then that those other aspects, those other social, environmental aspects of an individual’s life, impact their ability to manage and maintain their healthcare,” she adds. “That’s been a part of our program since the beginning.”
Johnson says this care coordination is a vital component of the local safety net.
“In rural Minnesota,” he says, “there’s lots of opportunities for people that are not savvy users of the healthcare system to fall through the cracks.”
“THE GOOD THING IS THEY UTILIZE ME NOW INSTEAD OF THE ER, SO WHEN THEY GET INTO A PICKLE OR IF THEY’RE HAVING TROUBLE WITH SOMETHING, THEY CALL ME.”
An emergency room staffing firm owned by TeamHealth has filed thousands of lawsuits against patients in Memphis in the last few years, ProPublica and MLK50 report.
This is a collision of two storylines: the aggressive billing practices of private equity-backed health care companies, and providers’ decision to take patients to court to collect their medical debts.
Media reports have, until now, mostly focused on hospitals’ lawsuits, but ProPublica and MLK50’s reporting suggest the practice could be more widespread.
Between the lines: TeamHealth has already been in hot water for its role in surprise billing.
Emergency room physicians send patients surprise medical bills more often than other specialties, especially physicians employed by TeamHealth.
These doctors then have leverage to obtain higher in-network payment rates, making the practice lucrative.
The group is also one of the main funders of the dark-money group that has run millions in ads against what was Congress’ leading solution to surprise medical bills.
The company was acquired by the Blackstone Group in 2017.
By the numbers: The Memphis subsidiary Southeastern Emergency Physicians has filed more than 4,800 lawsuits against patients in Shelby County General Sessions Court since 2017, per ProPublica and MLK50.
TeamHealth said last week, after receiving questions from reporters, that it will no longer sue patients and won’t pursue the lawsuits it’s already filed.
Orlando (Fla.) Health opened its sixth freestanding emergency room in Central Florida., Sept. 16, according to The Orlando Business Journal.
The 40,000-square-foot, two-story freestanding ER houses an imaging department, outpatient pharmacy and lab services unit. The ER, located in Lake Mary, Fla., cost $69 million to build.
The opening of Orlando Health’s freestanding ER comes as two rivals that operate in Central Florida — Altamonte Springs-based AdventHealth and national for-profit hospital operator Nashville, Tenn.-based HCA Healthcare — race to build additional freestanding ERs in the state.
Standalone emergency departments are on the rise in Florida because of overcrowded ERs on hospital campuses, according to the report.
The number of rural hospital closures in the United States has increased over the past decade.1 Since 2010, 113 rural hospitals,2 predominantly in Southern states, have closed. This is a concerning trend, since hospital closures reduce rural communities’ access to inpatient services and emergency care.3 In addition, hospitals that are at risk financially are more likely to serve rural communities with higher proportions of vulnerable populations.4
Understanding the financial pressures facing rural hospitals is imperative to ensuring that America’s 60 million rural residents have access to emergency care.5 Rural hospitals are generally less profitable than urban ones, and those with the lowest operating margins maintain fewer beds and have lower occupancy rates. Low-margin rural hospitals are also more likely to be in states that have not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). According to new analysis by the Center for American Progress, future hospital closures would reduce rural Americans’ proximity to emergency treatment. Among low-margin, rural hospitals—those most likely to close—the majority of those with emergency departments are at least 20 miles away from the next-closest emergency department.
This report first discusses the role that hospitals and emergency care play in rural health care as well as trends in hospital closures. It then uses federal data to examine differences in the financial viability of rural and urban hospitals and the availability of hospital-based emergency care in rural areas. The final section of this report offers policy recommendations to improve health care access and emergency care for rural residents.
Rural hospitals have been closing at an unprecedented rate
From 2013 to 2017, rural hospitals closed at a rate nearly double that of the previous five years.6 (See Figure 1) According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), recent rural hospital closures have disproportionately occurred among for-profit and Southern hospitals. Southern states accounted for 77 percent of rural hospital closures over that time period but only 38 percent of all rural hospitals in 20137
Hospital closures may deepen existing disparities in access to emergency care. Closures are more likely to affect communities that are rural, low income, and home to more racial/ethnic minority residents.8 Although about half of acute care hospitals are located in rural communities and the other half are located in urban areas,9 rural residents live 10.5 miles from the nearest acute care hospital on average, compared with 4.4 miles for those in urban areas.10 According to a poll by the Pew Research Center, about one-quarter (23 percent) of rural residents said that “access to good doctors and hospitals” is a problem in their community, while only 18 percent of urban residents and 9 percent of suburban residents said it was a problem.11
A variety of factors influence hospitals’ sustainability. Thanks to medical and technological advances, conditions that once required hospitalization can now be treated in an ambulatory care center or a physician’s office. University of Pennsylvania professor and CAP nonresident senior fellow Ezekiel Emanuel has argued that one reason hospitals are closing is that “more complex care can safely and effectively be provided elsewhere, and that’s good news.”12 As a whole, the hospital industry remains highly profitable, and hospital margins are at their highest in decades.13
Evidence on the relationship between hospital closures and health outcomes is mixed. A 2015 study of nearly 200 hospital closures in Health Affairs found no significant changes in hospitalization rates or mortality in the affected communities, whether rural or urban.14 More recent studies have found an association between rural hospital closures and increased mortality. Harvard researcher Caitlin Carroll showed that rural hospital closures led to an overall increase in mortality rates for time-sensitive health conditions,15 and Kritee Gujral and Anirban Basu of the University of Washington found that rural hospital closures in California were followed by increases in mortality for inpatient stays.16
In rural areas, hospitals face additional challenges to their viability, including lower patient volumes; higher rates of uncompensated care; and physician shortages.17 In addition, rural patients tend to be older and lower income.18 Rural hospitals tend to be smaller, serve a higher share of Medicare patients, and have lower occupancy rates than urban hospitals.19 Rural hospitals commonly offer obstetrics, imaging and diagnostic services, emergency departments, as well as hospice and home care,20 but patients needing more complicated treatment are often referred to tertiary or specialized hospitals. In fact, rural patients are more likely to be transferred to another hospital than patients at urban hospitals.21
Most urban hospitals are reimbursed under the prospective payment systems (PPS) for Parts A and B of Medicare. Through both the inpatient and outpatient PPS, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) reimburse hospitals at a predetermined amount based on diagnoses, with adjustments—including those for local input costs and patient characteristics.22However, rural hospitals often face higher costs due to lower occupancy rates and provide care to a higher percentage of patients covered by Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Such hospitals may be eligible to receive higher payments from Medicare if they qualify as a Sole Community Hospital (SCH) or Medicare-Dependent Hospital (MDH).23
Another form of financial relief for rural hospitals is obtaining designation as a Critical Access Hospital (CAH), which Medicare reimburses based on cost rather than on the PPS.24 To qualify as a CAH, a hospital must provide 24/7 emergency services; maintain no more than 25 beds; and serve a rural area that is 35 miles from another hospital.25 Medicare reimburses CAHs at 101 percent of reasonable costs, rather than through the inpatient and outpatient PPS structures.26 As of 2018, there were 1,380 CAHs nationwide,27 accounting for about two-thirds of all rural hospitals.28
Even with cost-based reimbursement, however, some CAHs are unable to sustain the costs required to maintain inpatient beds.29 The 25-bed limit for CAHs prevent participating hospitals from eliminating inpatient services and restrict their ability to expand in response to fluctuations in community populations or care volumes. Other challenges facing rural hospitals include lacking sufficient patient volume to maintain high-quality performance for certain procedures and pressure to drop high-value but poorly reimbursed services such as obstetrics while maintaining low-volume, high profit services such as joint replacement procedures. 30
A key way that states can support struggling rural hospitals is by expanding Medicaid under the ACA. Expanding Medicaid increases coverage among low-income adults, 31 which in turn reduces uncompensated care costs for hospitals32 and allows financially vulnerable hospitals to improve their viability.33 Consistent with other recent studies,34 the GAO concluded in a 2018 report on rural hospitals that those “located in states that increased Medicaid eligibility and enrollment experienced fewer closures.”35
Rural hospitals are cutting back on services
Rural hospitals in different states have responded to financial pressures in a variety of ways, trying to balance community needs with financial viability. For many hospitals this has meant cutting inpatient obstetric services, leaving more than half of rural counties without hospital obstetric services.36 For instance, in Wisconsin, falling birth rates led to 12 hospitals in the state closing their obstetric services in the past decade.37 In Grantsburg, Wisconsin, lower birth rates and an older community population led Burnett Medical Center to shut down its obstetrics services.38 In order to offer these services, Burnett Medical Center would have needed to keep a general surgeon on call to perform caesarean sections, and with just 40 deliveries in 2017, the hospital could not justify the expense.39 While the hospital will continue providing prenatal and postnatal care, it will refer patients to a facility in Minnesota for deliveries—a facility is almost 40 minutes away.40
In other communities, hospitals have been replaced by other types of health care facilities. For example, Appalachian Regional Healthcare System closed Blowing Rock Hospital in North Carolina in 2013. Three years later, it opened a 112-bed post-acute care center in Blowing Rock in response to demand for rehabilitation services and the aging population in the surrounding area.41
Financial data shows that rural hospitals are more likely to struggle
To compare the financial situations of rural and urban hospitals and examine how future rural hospital closures could affect the availability of emergency care, CAP analyzed data from the CMS Healthcare Cost Report Information System (HCRIS). The CMS requires all Medicare-certified hospitals to report their financial information annually. CAP used the HCRIS to examine the financial margins and other characteristics of 4,147 acute care hospitals for fiscal year 2017. Of these, 1,954 hospitals (47 percent) were in rural areas, while the remaining were in urban areas. Hospitals self-report their status in the HCRIS as either urban or rural, which the CMS defines as either inside or outside of a metropolitan statistical area, respectively.42 Further information about CAP’s hospital sample can be found in the Methodological appendix.
Hospital operating margins, which measure excess patient-related revenues relative to patient-related expenses, are often used as an indicator of financial health.43 A 2011 study by Harvard researchers Dan Ly, Ashish Jha, and Arnold Epstein found that the lowest 10 percent of hospitals by operating margin were 9.5 times more likely to close within two years compared to all others. 44 The same study concluded that hospitals with low operating margins were also more likely to be acquired or merge.45
In CAP’s hospital sample, the median operating margin was negative 2.6 percent among all hospitals, negative 0.1 percent for urban hospitals, and negative 4.9 percent for rural hospitals.46 Public hospitals and MDHs in the sample were more likely to have negative operating margins, consistent with what other studies have found.47 To analyze hospitals’ relative financial health across geographic areas, CAP ranked hospitals in the HCRIS sample based on operating margin, splitting them into three groups: the lowest 10 percent, the middle 80 percent, and the highest 10 percent. The range of operating margins for each group is shown in Table 1.
Rural hospitals are less likely to be financially healthy than urban hospitals. In 2017, rural hospitals comprised only 27.9 percent of the hospitals with operating margins in the highest decile but comprised 59.7 percent of the hospitals in the lowest decile. Southern and Midwestern states had the greatest proportion of rural hospitals with low operating margins, mimicking the geographic patterns in hospital closures that the GAO report identified. CAP finds that from 2015 through 2017, rural hospitals were consistently more likely than urban hospitals to fall in the bottom 10 percent of operating margins. CAP’s analysis also confirms that rural hospitals in states that expanded Medicaid had a higher median operating margin (negative 3.4 percent) than those in states that have not expanded Medicaid (negative 5.7 percent).
To examine commonalities among the hospitals most vulnerable to closure, CAP analyzed characteristics of the hospitals with low margins, defined as having an operating margin in the lowest 10 percent among all hospitals. Smaller, low-occupancy rural hospitals were most likely to struggle financially: nearly 1 in 6 (15 percent) of hospitals with 25 or fewer beds had low margins, and nearly one-fifth (17 percent) of hospitals with low-occupancy rates had low margins. (See Figure 3)
Emergency departments are on the front lines for rural health
In some emergency situations, hospital closures can be life-threatening, increasing the time and distance patients travel to receive care. Studies show that the probability of dying from a heart attack increases with distance from emergency care,48 and traumatic injuries are more likely to be fatal for rural residents than for urban ones.49
Rural residents are more likely than urban residents to visit the emergency department.50 A shortage of primary care providers; lack of public transportation infrastructure; shortages in preventive care; higher rates of smoking and obesity; and greater prevalence of chronic disease in rural areas all contribute to the greater utilization of emergency room care.51 As a result, emergency departments often stand in as the main source of care for vulnerable and low-income populations, especially for communities that face a shortage of primary care. 52 Among the dozens of rural hospitals that have closed in recent years, some served as the only emergency department in a community, according to MedPAC53
While freestanding emergency departments have proliferated,54 they are not filling the gap for rural emergency care. MedPAC found that, as of 2016, nearly all the country’s 566 stand-alone emergency departments were in urban areas and tended to be located in more affluent communities.55 Researchers at the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program found that the freestanding emergency department model was generally not viable in rural areas of the state due to low patient volumes, high rates of uninsured patients, and provider shortages.56 One limit on the growth of independent freestanding emergency centers is that they are not recognized in Medicare law and are therefore unable to bill the program, unlike hospital-affiliated off-campus emergency departments. 57
Future rural hospital closures would increase the distances that patients travel for emergencies
To better understand how future rural hospital closures could affect access to emergency care, CAP calculated hospitals’ distance to the next-closest hospital-based emergency department. CAP restricted its 2017 HCRIS data sample to the 3,616 acute care hospitals that provide 24-hour emergency services.58 Using addresses or coordinates provided in the HCRIS, CAP mapped each low-margin rural hospital to the next-closest hospital emergency department. Mapping strategies are detailed in the Methodological appendix.
Among the 222 low-margin rural hospitals, more than half (55 percent) were more than 20 miles away from the next-closest hospital-based emergency department, and one-tenth were more than 35 miles away. (See Figure 4). The average distance to the next-closest emergency department was 22 miles.
The disappearance of rural, low-margin hospitals would greatly increase patients’ travel distances for emergency care. Without other resources to fill the gap, some patients might forgo care they need and others would be forced to undertake an even longer journey to receive medical attention.
Policies to improve rural emergency and nonemergency care
As rural hospitals continue to close, it is crucial to preserve access to emergency care for rural Americans. The following section details a series of policy recommendations to support adequate emergency care and address care shortages in rural communities.
Experience to date suggests that rural hospitals in those states that have not yet expanded their Medicaid programs under the ACA would benefit from Medicaid expansion through lower levels of uncompensated care and increased financial sustainability. Medicaid expansion is associated with improvements in health and a wide variety of other outcomes, including lower mortality, less uncompensated care, and lower rates of medical debt.59 According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 4.4 million adults would gain Medicaid eligibility if the remaining 14 nonexpansion states expanded their programs.60
Policymakers can also support rural communities and their hospitals by opposing efforts to repeal the ACA. If the Trump administration-backed lawsuit against the ACA were to succeed, 20 million Americans would lose health insurance coverage, and uncompensated care would rise by $50 billion, according to the Urban Institute.61
Create a greater number of rural emergency centers
To preserve access to emergency care, Congress could allow rural hospitals like CAHs to downsize to an emergency department and eliminate inpatient beds without giving up special Medicare reimbursement arrangements. Qualifying hospitals could transfer patients requiring inpatient admission to other hospitals, while continuing to offer some diagnostic imaging and other outpatient services.
One such proposal is the Rural Emergency Acute Care Hospital Act (REACH Act), bipartisan legislation proposed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) that would create rural emergency centers.62 This designation would allow hospitals to provide only emergency care in rural communities and receive Medicare reimbursement at 110 percent of operating costs. Separately, MedPAC has recommended that rural hospitals located more than 35 miles from the nearest emergency department be allowed to convert to freestanding emergency departments while still being reimbursed at hospital rates.63
Institute global budgeting for rural hospitals
Under global budgeting, hospitals are paid a fixed amount rather than having their reimbursements based on the volume and types of services they provide.64 Global budgeting can reduce small, rural hospitals’ financial risk by providing them with a more predictable stream of revenue. In addition, payment reforms that include both hospital and nonhospital care can encourage communities to invest in services that are typically less generously reimbursed, such as preventive care.65
For example, in 2014, Maryland transitioned its acute hospitals from fee-for-service payments to a global budget.66 An evaluation of the global budget program showed that it reduced hospital expenditures relative to trend without transferring costs to other parts of the health care system.67 Future global budgets should emphasize improvements in population health and primary care,68 including ensuring that patients receive care in appropriate settings and reducing the number of avoidable hospital visits.
The Pennsylvania Rural Health Model is the first Medicare demonstration project to test the financial viability and community effects of a global budget for strictly rural hospitals.69 This six-year program aims to smooth out cash flow for 30 rural Pennsylvania hospitals on a monthly basis with the goal of enabling hospitals to meet community needs, especially for substance-use disorder and mental health services.70 With global budgets based on the previous year’s revenues, participating hospitals will have a more predicable stream of revenue. Importantly, the program allows hospitals to share in the savings that result from avoidable utilization.71
Improve transportation for rural residents
The lack of transportation infrastructure can lead rural residents to rely on ambulances and emergency rooms for nonemergency care. In nonemergency situations, patients often cite the lack of affordable transportation as a major barrier to care access.72 In order to fill the gap, payers and policymakers should consider efforts to utilize existing community transit resources for medical transportation or reimburse patients who use ride-sharing services in areas that lack public transit or taxi services. 73 Another option would be to formalize volunteer services for medical transit. Oregon offers a tax credit for volunteer rural emergency medical services (EMS) providers, who provide medical and transportation services analogous to those of volunteer firefighter programs.74 The CMS should also consider policies to better reimburse and expand the use of telehealth in remote areas to reduce patients’ burden of transportation.75Finally, the CMS should stop approving states’ requests to waive coverage of nonemergency medical transportation (NEMT) requirements under Medicaid.76 NEMT is vital to eligible beneficiaries’ access to care, including appointments for preventive care, chronic disease management, and substance-use disorder treatment.
Strengthen the rural health care workforce
Rural health care provider shortages contribute to poorer access to care and poorer quality of care in rural communities. While 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, only 9 percent of primary care physicians practice in rural areas.77 Greater access to primary care providers in rural areas would improve quality of care and health outcomes while also reducing unnecessary emergency department visits.78
One way to assist rural areas would be to encourage health professionals to train and work in underserved communities. Federal funding for physician training should include reimbursements for community-based sites so that medical residents can rotate through nonhospital settings.79 Expanding the National Health Service Corps—which provides scholarships and student loan repayment for professionals who work in federally designated health professional shortage areas—could also help bolster the rural workforce. In addition, changes to immigration policy—such as expanding the Conrad 30 program that funnels immigrant doctors into rural and underserved communities, reforming H-1B visas to benefit high-need communities—could help alleviate rural areas’ shortage of medical professionals.80
Mounting closures of rural hospitals across the country are exacerbating the disparity in health care access between rural and urban areas. The financial vulnerability of the remaining rural hospitals suggests that the trend may continue, leaving shortages in emergency care and other hospital services.
Policymakers should support initiatives that allow remaining rural hospitals the flexibility to tailor their services to meet community needs and improve access to care for rural Americans.
Patients saw increases of up to 12% in their out-of-pocket responsibilities for inpatient, outpatient and ED care in 2018.
A new TransUnion Healthcare analysis has found that most patients likely felt a bigger pinch to their wallets as out-of-pocket costs across all settings of care increased in 2018. The new findings were made public yesterday at the 2019Healthcare Financial Management Association Annual Conference in Orlando.
The analysis reveals that patients experienced annual increases of up to 12% in their out-of-pocket responsibilities for inpatient, outpatient and emergency department care last year.
In 2017, the average inpatient cost was $4,068; the average outpatient cost was $990; and the average emergency department cost was $577.
In 2018, the average inpatient cost was $4,659; the average outpatient cost was $1,109; and the average emergency department cost was $617.
FUELING THE TREND
There are certain factors that are influencing this trend, according to Jonathan Wiik, principal of healthcare strategy at TransUnion Healthcare.
“Patients are becoming more aware that emergency care is expensive and somewhat inefficient,” Wiik said. “No one wants to go to the emergency room unless we have to, because we don’t want to deal with the time there or the expense. They aren’t the best place to get primary or even urgent care.”
Another factor, he said, is that providers realize the emergency department is a care setting of last resort for many. Providers want to make sure that have room in the ED for cases that are real emergencies, so they’re essentially curating their patients, steering patients to the most cost effective settings possible — often primary care, which is the least expensive setting.
Noting that the biggest annual increases were in inpatient and outpatient care, Wiik said that was largely a function of utilization and just a general wariness, in addition to the fact that most EDs have pretty flat contracts. Financial communication with patients is also an issue.
“Most people can’t afford the average out-of-pocket, so providers are really trying to educate patients as early as they can about those costs,” said Wiik. “Emergency care is a really hard place to educate people on finances, let alone collect on them.”
The analysis found that, during a hospital visit, patients are likely experiencing cost increases that continue the trend of higher out-of-pocket costs. About 59% of patients in 2018 had an average out-of-pocket expense between $501 and $1,000 during a healthcare visit. This was a dramatic increase from 39% in 2017. Conversely, the number of patients that had an average out- of-pocket expense of $500 or below decreased from 49% in 2017 to 36% in 2018.
And with out-of-pocket costs increasing, the trend toward consumerism is growing as more patients, payers and providers transition to lower cost settings of care.
One example: Inpatient care, traditionally the most expensive healthcare option, has seen a leveling off with the percentage of price estimates remaining at 8% between 2017 and 2018. The percentage of outpatient services estimates, generally about one-quarter of the cost of inpatient services, rose in that same timeframe from 65% to 73%.
“Patients are likely seeing more providers and payers recommending that they take advantage of cost-effective healthcare options, which brings down costs for all parties,” said Wiik. “This is especially important as costs continue to rise in all areas of healthcare, particularly in inpatient, outpatient and emergency department services.”
This is having an impact on providers, payers and patients, he said.
“Let’s pretend Joanna had an MRI in her head, and that ran $3,200. That might have been paid by Blue Cross Blue Shield, and $100 out of Joanna’s pocket. Now Joanna’s paying $300. Most patients don’t look up how much the MRI’s going to be. They just get the bill later and try to figure it out. I think the patient portion of the bill is going to be in the 35, 40% range very soon. What that means is we’re quickly approaching half of the bill coming from the patient and half from the payer. That’s not insurance anymore, that’s a bank account.”
A recent Kaiser Family Foundationstudy indicated that 34% of patients are finding it difficult to pay their deductible before insurance kicks in. In addition to patients being challenged to make payments, the trend is that providers are also feeling the pressure of increased denial rates and write-offs, which is increasing bad debt.
Considering these factors together — increased out-of-pocket expenses, a patient’s challenge to make payment, and increased denial rates — collecting payments from all payers is critical for providers. In order for providers to ensure they receive payment for the patient-care services rendered, it is vital that they implement strategies that maximize reimbursements.
The plan would have required those members to pay in full for out-of-network visits to UPMC hospitals and physician offices.
Highmark Medicare Advantage members will not have to pay in advance for medical services at UPMC hospitals and physician offices that will be out of network if the UPMC-Highmark consent decrees are allowed to expire June 30.
UPMC officials informed the Pennsylvania Insurance Department of the change Wednesday, according to a news release on UPMC’s website. They had said in late 2018 that UPMC would require patients with out-of-network Medicare Advantage plans to pay in advance for any nonemergency treatment and then seek reimbursement from their insurer.
In addition, UPMC will accept direct payment from Highmark for out-of-network emergency care at the same rate UPMC Health Plan now pays Highmark’s Allegheny Health Network hospitals, including Saint Vincent Hospital.
“As the consent decrees near their end on June 30, our intent is to ensure that Highmark members can receive emergency and other care that they need without being caught in the middle of billing issues created by their insurer,” UPMC spokesman Paul Wood said in the news release.
UPMC’s decision came after federal officials said they might be taking a closer look at UPMC’s prepayment policy, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
UPMC will bill Highmark directly for its Medicare Advantage members who use out-of-network services and will accept reimbursement at the Medicare fee schedule amount, UPMC said in the news release.
The announcement comes about a week before a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court judge will hold a hearing in Harrisburg regarding the state attorney general’s office’s attempt to modify and extend the consent decrees past June 30. The hearing is scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday.