The decision by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services gives the hospitals a year to convince the Biden administration that for them, at least, there is no such thing as Central Jersey.
CMS released its decision as part of its final rules for fiscal 2022. It delayed a Trump-era proposal to move the hospitals out of the New York-Newark-Jersey City region and into the newly crafted New Brunswick-Lakewood core-based statistical area.
Any Central New Jersey designation usually is met locally with pride and joy, but this move came with a steep price. Hospitals’ Medicare reimbursements are tied in part to their labor costs. And the labor costs in their new region are about 17% lower than their old region.
The cuts in reimbursement rates would have saved money for federal taxpayers, but they also would have hit local hospitals hard. The industry during the pandemic was faced with higher expenses and forced to delay lucrative elective procedures.
As a result, 41% of New Jersey hospitals were losing money, according to the New Jersey Hospital Association, a trade group.
The group on Friday thanked the state’s congressional delegation for its help.
“NJHA has strongly advocated for the reversal of this ill-advised policy since it was first implemented last year, and this delay in further cuts in critical health care dollars to our state is welcomed news,” Cathy Bennett, the association’s president and chief executive officer, said.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez and U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., both Democrats, led the campaign to stop the new classification at least until the 2020 U.S. Census data was released.
In a letter a month ago to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, the lawmakers said hospitals moved to the new statistical areas would have lost revenue, making it tougher to compete with hospitals in New York and northern New Jersey to attract skilled workers.
“This federal support will benefit patients by allowing our top-notch hospitals to retain and hire the best and the brightest,” Pascrell said in a statement Friday.
In a vote of 384-38, the House on Tuesday passed a bill that eliminates the 2% cut to Medicare payments until the end of 2021. However, the bill proposes to offset the change by increasing the sequester cuts in 2030.
WHY THIS MATTERS
The cuts were triggered by a federal budget sequestration.
Hospitals, physicians and other providers protested the 2% cuts as coming at a time when they were struggling financially and clinically to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bill also makes several technical changes to the rural health clinic provisions that were included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act. Specifically, the CAA required that the payment rate for RHCs, including provider-based RHCs certified after Dec. 31, 2019, to be capped at $100 per visit, starting from April 1, 2021.
This rate will increase over time based on the Medicare Economic Index, but will remain well below typical provider-based RHC rates. The bill would correct the Dec. 31, 2019, date to Dec. 31, 2020, and include both Medicare-enrolled RHCs located in a hospital with less than 50 beds and RHCs that have submitted an application for Medicare enrollment as of this date, according to the AHA.
THE LARGER TREND
Last year, Congress paused the 2% Medicare cuts, but they were to resume on April 1.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services instructed Medicare administrative contractors to hold all claims with dates of service on or after April 1 for a short period until potential legislation was enacted.
In March, the House passed the bill to delay the cuts, and the Senate approved it later that month, but with an amendment to delay through December 31 and ensure that the cost of the delay is paid for.
Providers have reacted positively to the news.
American Hospital Association president and CEO Rick Pollack said, “Even though our country is making great progress by vaccinating millions of people a day, it is clear that this pandemic is far from over and that there is an urgent need to keep hospitals, health systems and our heroic caregivers strong.”
American Medical Association president Dr. Susan R. Bailey said, “The Senate and House, Democrats and Republicans, have overwhelmingly acknowledged that cutting Medicare payments during a pandemic is ill-conceived policy. Physician practices are already distressed, and arbitrary 2% across-the-board Medicare cuts would have been devastating.”
America’s Essential Hospitals SVP of policy and advocacy Beth Feldpush said, “Extending the moratorium through the end of this year provides much-needed relief for essential hospitals, which continue to face heavy financial pressure from their frontline response to COVID-19. The sequester would weaken the ability of our hospitals to care for the communities of color that have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic.”
— At stake: scheduled payment reductions totalling $54 billion
Healthcare groups are applauding efforts being made in Congress to stop two different cuts to the Medicare budget — both of which are due to “sequestration” requirements — before it’s too late.
One cut, part of the normal budget process, is a 2% — or $18 billion — cut in the projected Medicare budget under a process known as “sequestration.” Sequestration allows for prespecified cuts in projected agency budget increases if Congress can’t agree on their own cuts. Medicare’s budget had been slated for a 2% sequester cut in fiscal year 2020; however, due to the pandemic and the accompanying increased healthcare needs, Congress passed a moratorium on the 2% cut. That moratorium is set to expire on April 1.
Another projected cut — this one for 4%, or $36 billion — will be triggered by the COVID relief bill, formally known as the American Rescue Plan Act. That legislation, which President Biden signed into law last Thursday, must conform to the PAYGO (pay-as-you-go) Act, which requires that any legislation that has a cost to it that is not otherwise offset must be offset by sequestration-style budget cuts to mandatory programs, including Medicare.
There are now several bills in Congress to address these pending cuts. H.R. 1868, co-sponsored by House Budget Committee chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), House Ways & Means Committee chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), and House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), among others, would get rid of the PAYGO Act requirement and extend the 2% Medicare sequester moratorium through the end of 2021.
Another bill, H.R. 315, introduced in January by Reps. Bradley Schneider (D-Ill.) and David McKinley (R-W.Va.), would extend the 2% sequester moratorium until the end of the public health emergency has been declared. In the Senate, S. 748, introduced Monday by senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) would do the same.
“For many providers, the looming Medicare payment cuts would pose a further threat to their ability to stay afloat and serve communities during a time when they are most needed,” Shaheen said in a press release. “Congress should be doing everything in its power to prevent these cuts from taking effect during these challenging times, which is why I’m introducing this bipartisan legislation with Senator Collins. I urge the Senate to act at once to protect our health care providers and ensure they can continue their work on the frontlines of COVID-19.”
Not surprisingly, provider groups were happy about the actions in Congress. “MGMA [Medical Group Management Association] supports recent bipartisan, bicameral efforts to extend the 2% Medicare sequester moratorium for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency,” said Anders Gilberg, senior vice president for government affairs at MGMA, in a statement. “Without congressional action, the country’s medical groups will face a combined 6% sequester cut — a payment cut that is unsustainable given the financial hardships due to COVID-19 and keeping up with the cost of inflation.”
Leonard Marquez, senior director of government relations and legislative advocacy at the Association of American Medical Colleges, said in a statement that it was “critical” that Congress extend the 2% sequester moratorium “to help ensure hospitals, faculty physicians, and all providers have the necessary financial resources to continue providing quality care to COVID-19 and all patients ... While we are making progress against COVID-19, cutting provider payments in the middle of a pandemic could jeopardize the nation’s recovery.”
The American Medical Association (AMA) also urged Congress to prevent both the 2% and the 4% Medicare cuts. “We strongly oppose these arbitrary across-the-board Medicare cuts, and the predictably devastating impact they would have on many already distressed physician practices,” AMA executive vice president and CEO James Madara, MD, said in a letter sent to congressional leaders at the beginning of March.
“And, while Medicare spending on physician services partially recovered from the April low, it was still 12% less than expected by the end of June 2020,” he continued. “During the first half of 2020, the cumulative estimated reduction in Medicare physician spending associated with the pandemic was $9.4 billion (19%). Results from an earlier AMA-commissioned survey of 3,500 practicing physicians conducted from mid-July through August 2020 found that 81% of respondents were still experiencing lower revenue than before the pandemic.”
Not everyone is a fan of extending the 2% cut moratorium, however. “Bad idea,” said James Capretta, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, at an event Tuesday on Medicare solvency sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center. “There’s plenty of give in the revenue streams of these systems that creating a precedent where we’re going to go back to the pre-sequester level — it’s better to move forward and if there are struggling systems out there, deal with it on an ad hoc basis rather than just across the board paying out a lot more money, which I don’t think is necessary.” He added, however, that he agreed with the bill to get rid of the 4% cut. “The bigger cut associated with PAYGO enforcement I think would be too much.”