Medical groups implore Congress to extend moratorium on sequester cuts as COVID-19 ramps up

Congress building

A collection of provider and payer groups are imploring Congress to continue a moratorium on Medicare payment cuts instituted under the sequester.

The letter (PDF), sent Friday by more than 20 groups to congressional leaders, is concerned that the moratorium installed under the CARES Act expires on Jan. 1. The groups want the moratorium to extend through the COVID-19 public health emergency, which has been renewed by the federal government several times.

The groups said that the moratorium needs to be extended as healthcare facilities are under massive financial stress with new surges of COVID-19.

The surge has impacted the “financial health of medical professionals and facilities, including increased cost of labor to ensure adequate staffing, procurement of personal protective equipment, significant reductions in patient volume resulting from orders to cancel non-emergent procedures and the high cost of caring for COVID patients,” the letter said.

Some of the groups signing on to the letter include the American Medical Association, America’s Health Insurance Plans, Federation of American Hospitals and American College of Physicians.

The groups said that the moratorium on the sequester cuts installed as part of the CARES Act was an acknowledgment from Congress over the important role that Medicare reimbursement plays in “the financial well being of our healthcare system.”

The sequestration cut Medicare payments by 2% across the board to all Medicare providers back in 2013.

The letter comes as Congress is pondering another relief package for COVID-19 during the lame-duck period. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after the presidential election that he was open to restarting talks on a new relief package and added that hospitals will need some additional relief.

But McConnell said earlier this week that the same issues that have held up a deal with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are still there.

“I don’t think the current situation demands a multi-trillion dollar package,” McConnell told reporters. “I think it should be highly targeted.”

But Pelosi has endorsed a larger package. The House passed the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion relief bill, several months ago.

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.

Moody’s: Patient volume recovered a bit in May, but providers face long road to recovery

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/hospitals/moody-s-patient-volume-recovering-may-but-providers-face-long-road-to-recovery?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiWmpjeVlXVTRZV0l5T1RndyIsInQiOiJLWWxjamNKK2lkZmNjcXV4dm0rdjZNS2lOanZtYTFoenViQjMzWnF0RGNlY1pkcjVGcFwvZFY4VjFaUUlZaFRBT1NRMGE5eWhGK1ZmR01ZSWVZWGMxOHRzTkptZVZXZmc5UnNvM3pVM2VIWDh6VllldFc3OGNZTTMxTDJrXC8wbzN1In0%3D&mrkid=959610

Moody's: Patient volume recovered a bit in May, but providers face ...

Patient volumes at hospitals, doctors’ and dentists’ offices recovered slightly in May but lagged well behind pre-pandemic levels, according to a new analysis from Moody’s Investors Service.

In all, the ratings agency estimated total surgeries at rated for-profit hospitals declined by 55% to 70% in April compared with the same period in 2019. States required hospitals to cancel or delay elective procedures, which are vital to hospitals’ bottom lines.

“Patients that had been under the care of physicians before the pandemic will return first in order to address known health needs,” officials from the ratings agency said in a statement. “Physicians and surgeons will be motivated to extend office or surgical hours in order to accommodate these patients.”

Those declines narrowed to 20% to 40% in May when compared to 2019.

Emergency room and urgent care volumes were still down 35% to 50% in May.

“This could reflect the prevalence of working-from-home arrangements and people generally staying home, which is leading to a decrease in automobile and other accidents outside the home,” the analysis said. “Weak ER volumes also suggest that many people remain apprehensive to enter a hospital, particularly for lower acuity care.”

The good news:  The analysis estimated it is unlikely there will be a return to the nationwide decline of volume experienced in late March and April because healthcare facilities are more prepared for COVID-19.

For instance, hospitals have enough personal protective equipment for staff and have expanded testing, the analysis said.

For-profit hospitals also have “unusually strong liquidity to help them weather the effects of the revenue loss associated with canceled or postponed procedures,” Moody’s added. “That is largely due to the CARES Act and other government financial relief programs that have caused hospital cash balances to swell.”

However, the bill for one of those sources of relief is coming due soon.

Hospitals and other providers will have to start repaying Medicare for advance payments starting this summer. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services doled out more than $100 billion in advance payments to providers before suspending the program in late April.

Hospital group Federation of American Hospitals asked Congress to change the repayment terms for such advance payments, including giving providers at least a year to start repaying the loans.

Another risk for providers is the change in payer mix as people lose jobs and commercial coverage, shifting them onto Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) insurance exchanges.

“This will lead to rising bad debt expense and a higher percentage of revenue generated from Medicaid or [ACA] insurance exchange products, which typically pay considerably lower rates than commercial insurance,” Moody’s said.

 

 

 

Hospital price transparency push draws industry ire, but effects likely limited

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/hospital-price-transparency-push-draws-industry-ire-but-effects-likely-lim/557536/

Image result for price transparency

Far-reaching rules mandating industry price transparency could mark a major shift, but experts are skeptical the efforts will meaningfully lower prices for patients without a more fundamental system overhaul.

President Donald Trump’s executive order signed Monday directs HHS and other federal departments to begin rulemaking to require hospitals and payers to release information based on their privately negotiated rates. Providers would also have to give patients estimates of their out-of-pocket costs before a procedure.

The moves come amid efforts from the federal government and Congress to push the healthcare industry to address patient anger over high prices, particularly regarding what medical bills they can expect to receive.

Many details must still be worked out as HHS and CMS craft their proposals, but providers and payers were quick to condemn any notion of making negotiated rates public. A legal challenge to the rules is also likely.

Many policy analysts and economists said that while price transparency is good in theory, current evidence shows patients don’t take advantage of pricing information now available, said Ateev Mehrotra, associate policy of healthcare policy and Harvard Medical School.

Patients are wary of going against a doctor’s advice to undergo a certain procedure or test, and to get it done at a certain facility. A difference in price may not be enough to sway them.

Also, the healthcare system has so many moving parts and unique elements that understanding a medical bill and how the price was calculated is daunting, to say the least.

“That complexity hinders the ability of people to effectively shop for care,” Mehrotra told Healthcare Dive “It’s not like going to Amazon and buying a toothbrush or whatever.”

What the order actual does

The executive order has two main directives:

  • Within 60 days, HHS must propose a regulation “to require hospitals to publicly post standard charge information, including charges and information based on negotiated rates and for common or shoppable items and services, in an easy-to-understand, consumer-friendly, and machine-readable format using consensus-based data standards that will meaningfully inform patients’ decision making and allow patients to compare prices across hospitals.”
  • Within 90 days, HHS and the Departments of Labor and Treasury must solicit comment on a proposal “to require healthcare providers, health insurance issuers, and self-insured group health plans to provide or facilitate access to information about expected out-of-pocket costs for items or services to patients before they receive care.”

The order also outlines smaller steps, including a report from HHS on how the federal government and private companies are impeding quality and price transparency in healthcare and another on measures the White House can take to deter surprise billing.

It also directs federal agencies to increase access to de-identified claims data (an idea strongly favored by policy analysts and researchers) and requires HHS to identify priority databases to be publicly released.

The order requests the Secretary of the Treasury expand coverage options for high-deductible health plans and health savings accounts. It specifically asks the department to explore using HSA funds for direct primary care, an idea Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he “especially like[d].”

Industry pushes back

The order itself wastes no time in pointing the finger at industry players for current patient frustrations with the system. “Opaque pricing structures may benefit powerful special interest groups, such as large hospital systems and insurance companies, but they generally leave patients and taxpayers worse off than would a more transparent system,” according to the document.

As expected, payer and provider groups slammed any attempt to force them to reveal the rates they negotiate behind closed doors, though they expressed appreciation for the general push toward more transparency.

The American Hospital Association shied away from strong language as details are still being worked out, but did say “publicly posting privately negotiated rates could, in fact, undermine the competitive forces of private market dynamics, and result in increased prices.”

The Federation of American Hospitals took a similar tone in a statement from CEO Chip Kahn. “If implementing regulations take the wrong course, however, it may undercut the way insurers pay for hospital services resulting in higher spending,” he said.

Both hospital groups highlighted more transparency for patient out-of-pocket costs and suggests the onus should be on payers to communicate information on cost-sharing and co-insurance.

Mollie Gelburd, associate director of government affairs at MGMA, which represents physician groups, said doctors don’t want to be in the position of explaining complex insurance terms and rules to a patient.

“While physicians should be encouraged to talk to patients about costs, to unnecessarily have them be doing all this education when they should be doing clinical care, that sort of gets concerning,” she said.

Practices are more concerned about payer provider directories and their accuracy, something not addressed in the executive order. Not having that type of information can be detrimental for a patient seeking care and further regulation in the area could help, Gelburd said.

Regardless, providers will likely view with frustration any regulations that increase their reporting and paperwork burdens, she said.

“I think the efficacy of pricing transparency and reducing healthcare costs, the jury is still out on that,” she said. “But if you have that onerous administrative requirement, that’s certainly going to drive up costs for those practices, especially those smaller practices.”

Payer lobby America’s Health Insurance Plans was quick to voice its opposition to the order.

CEO Matt Eyles said in a statement disclosing privately negotiated rates would “reduce incentives to offer lower rates, creating a floor — not a ceiling — for the prices that hospitals would be willing to accept.” He argued that current tools payers use to inform patients of cost expectations, such as cost calculators, are already offering meaningful help.

AHIP also said the order works against the industry’s efforts to shift to paying for quality instead of quantity. “Requiring price disclosure for thousands of hospital items, services and procedures perpetuates the old days of the American health care system paying for volume over value,” he said. “We know that is a formula for higher costs and worse care for everyone.”

Limited effects

One potential effect of making rates public is that prices would eventually trend toward equalization. That wouldn’t necessarily reduce costs, however, and could actually increase them for some patients. A payer able to negotiate a favorable rate for a specific patient population in a specific geographic area might lose that advantage, for example, Christopher Holt, director of healthcare policy at the conservative leaning American Action Forum, told Healthcare Dive.

John Nicolaou of PA Consulting told Healthcare Dive consumers will need help deciphering whatever information is made available however. Reams of data could offer the average patient little to no insight without payer or third-party tools to analyze and understand the information.

“It starts the process, just publishing that information and just making it available,” he said. “It’s got to be consumable and actionable, and that’s going to take a lot more time.”

The order does require the information being made public be “easy-to-understand” and able to “meaningfully inform patients’ decision making and allow patients to compare prices across hospitals.” That’s far easier said than done, however, Harvard’s Mehrotra said. “We haven’t seen anybody able to put this information in a usable way that patients are able to effectively act upon,” he said.

Holt said patients are also limited in their ability to shop around for healthcare, considering they often have little choice in what insurance company they use. People with employer-based plans typically don’t have the option to switch, and those in the individual market can only do so once a year.

Another aspect to consider is the limited reach of the federal government. CMS can require providers and payers in the Medicare Advantage program, for example, to meet price transparency requirements, but much of the licensing and regulations for payer and providers comes at the state level.

Waiting for details, lawsuits

One of the biggest questions for payers and providers in the wake of Monday’s announcement is how far exactly the rulemaking from HHS will go in mandating transparency. One one end, the requirements could stick close to giving patients information about their expected out-of-pocket costs without revealing the details of payer-provider negotiations. Full transparency, on the other hand, would mean publishing the now-secret negotiated rates for anyone to see.

“I think it’s the start of a much longer process,” Holt said. “It’s going to depend a lot on how much information is going to be required to be divulged and how that’s going to be collected.”

It’s almost certain that as soon as any concrete efforts at implementation are made, lawsuits will follow.

That’s what happened after Ohio passed a price transparency law in 2015 that required providers give patients information on out-of-pocket costs before a procedure — a proposal the executive order also puts forward.

The law still has not been enforced, as it has been caught up in the courts. The Ohio Hospital Association and Ohio State Medical Association sued over the law, arguing it was too vague and could lead to a delay in patient care.