U.S. hospitals performed more than 100,000 surgeries on older patients during the first year of the pandemic, according to a new Lown Institute analysis.
The healthcare think tank relied on Medicare claims data and analyzed eight common low-value procedures. It called the 100,000 procedures unnecessary and potentially harmful in a press release. It found that between March and December 2020, among the most-performed surgeries were coronary stents and back surgeries.
The procedures either offered little to no clinical benefit, according to the institute, or were more likely to harm patients than help them.
“You couldn’t go into your local coffee shop, but hospitals brought people in for all kinds of unnecessary procedures,” Vikas Saini, M.D., president of the Lown Institute, said in a statement. “The fact that a pandemic barely slowed things down shows just how deeply entrenched overuse is in American healthcare.”
Here is the volume of each procedure analyzed, for a total of 106,474 procedures identified:
1. Stents for stable coronary disease: 45,176 2. Vertebroplasty for osteoporosis: 16,553 3. Hysterectomy for benign disease: 14,455 4. Spinal fusion for back pain: 13,541 5. Inferior vena cava filter: 9,595 6. Carotid endarterectomy: 3,667 7. Renal stent: 1,891 8. Knee arthroscopy: 1,596
Among the “U.S. News & World Report” 20 top-ranked hospitals, all had rates of coronary stent procedures above the national average in what the Lown Institute called “overuse.” Four had at least double the national average, including the Cleveland Clinic, Houston Methodist Hospital, Mt. Sinai and Barnes Jewish Hospital. The procedures and overuse criteria were based on previous Lown research.
“We’ve known for over a decade that we shouldn’t be putting so many stents into patients with stable coronary disease, but we do it anyway,” Saini said. “As a cardiologist, it’s frustrating to see this behavior continue at such high levels, especially during the pandemic.”
In response to the Lown analysis, the American Hospital Association said in a statement Tuesday that delays or cancelations in non-emergency care may have negative outcomes on patients. “Lown may define these services as ‘low value,‘ but they can be of tremendous value to the patients who receive them,” the statement read.
It also pointed to its response to last year’s Lown analysis, which it criticized as being based “on data that are not only incomplete, but also not current.” The organization argued the services surveyed only represent a portion of the care hospitals provide. It added that procedures are determined by physicians based on an evaluation of the patient’s medical needs.
Over the past two years, historians and analysts have compared the coronavirus to the 1918 flu pandemic. Many of the mitigation practices used to combat the spread of the coronavirus, especially before the development of the vaccines, have been the same as those used in 1918 and 1919 — masks and hygiene, social distancing, ventilation, limits on gatherings (particularly indoors), quarantines, mandates, closure policies and more.
Yet, it may be that only now, in the winter of 2022, when Americans are exhausted with these mitigation methods, that a comparison to the 1918 pandemic is most apt.
The highly contagious omicron variant has rendered vaccines much less effective at preventing infections, thus producing skyrocketing caseloads. And that creates a direct parallel with the fall of 1918, which provides lessons for making January as painless as possible.
In February and March 1918, an infectious flu emerged. It spread from Kansas, through World War I troop and material transports, filling military post hospitals and traveling across the Atlantic and around the world within six months. Cramped quarters and wartime transport and industry generated optimal conditions for the flu to spread, and so, too, did the worldwide nature of commerce and connection. But there was a silver lining: Mortality rates were very low.
In part because of press censorship of anything that might undermine the war effort, many dismissed the flu as a “three-day fever,” perhaps merely a heavy cold, or simply another case of the grippe (an old-fashioned word for the flu).
Downplaying the flu led to high infection rates, which increased the odds of mutations. And in the summer of 1918, a more infectious variant emerged. In August and September, U.S. and British intelligence officers observed outbreaks in Switzerland and northern Europe, writing home with warnings that went largely unheeded.
Unsurprisingly then, this seemingly more infectious, much more deadly variant of H1N1 traveled west across the Atlantic, producing the worst period of the pandemic in October 1918. Nearly 200,000 Americans died that month. After a superspreading Liberty Loan parade at the end of September, Philadelphia became an epicenter of the outbreak. At its peak, nearly 700 Philadelphians died per day.
Once spread had begun, mitigation methods such as closures, distancing, mask-wearing and isolating those infected couldn’t stop it, but they did save many lives and limited suffering by slowing infections and spread. The places that fared best implemented proactive restrictions early; they kept them in place until infections and hospitalizations were way down, then opened up gradually, with preparations to reimpose measures if spread returned or rates elevated, often ignoring the pleas of special interests lobbying hard for a complete reopening.
In places in the United States where officials gave in to public fatigue and lobbying to remove mitigation methods, winter surges struck. Although down from October’s highs, these surges were still usually far worse than those in the cities and regions that held steady.
In Denver, in late November 1918, an “amusement” lobby — businesses and leaders invested in keeping theaters, movie houses, pool halls and other public venues open — successfully pressured the mayor and public health officials to rescind and then revise a closure order. This, in turn, generated what the Rocky Mountain News called “almost indescribable confusion,” followed by widespread public defiance of mask and other public health prescriptions.
In San Francisco, where resistance was generally less successful than in Denver, there was significant buy-in for a second round of masking and public health mandates in early 1919 during a new surge. But opposition created an issue. An Anti-Mask League formed, and public defiance became more pronounced. Eventually anti-maskers and an improving epidemic situation combined to end the “masked” city’s second round of mask and public health mandates.
The takeaway: Fatigue and removing mitigation methods made things worse. Public officials needed to safeguard the public good, even if that meant unpopular moves.
The flu burned through vulnerable populations, but by late winter and early spring 1919, deaths and infections dropped rapidly, shifting toward an endemic moment — the flu would remain present, but less deadly and dangerous.
Overall, nearly 675,000 Americans died during the 1918-19 flu pandemic, the majority during the second wave in the autumn of 1918. That was 1 in roughly 152 Americans (with a case fatality rate of about 2.5 percent). Worldwide estimates differ, but on the order of 50 million probably died in the flu pandemic.
In 2022, we have far greater biomedical and technological capacity enabling us to sequence mutations, understand the physics of aerosolization and develop vaccines at a rapid pace. We also have a far greater public health infrastructure than existed in 1918 and 1919. Even so, it remains incredibly hard to stop infectious diseases, particularly those transmitted by air. This is complicated further because many of those infected with the coronavirus are asymptomatic. And our world is even more interconnected than in 1918.
That is why, given the contagiousness of omicron, the lessons of the past are even more important today than they were a year ago. The new surge threatens to overwhelm our public health infrastructure, which is struggling after almost two years of fighting the pandemic. Hospitals are experiencing staff shortages (like in fall 1918). Testing remains problematic.
And ominously, as in the fall of 1918, Americans fatigued by restrictions and a seemingly endless pandemic are increasingly balking at following the guidance of public health professionals or questioning why their edicts have changed from earlier in the pandemic. They are taking actions that, at the very least, put more vulnerable people and the system as a whole at risk — often egged on by politicians and media figures downplaying the severity of the moment.
Public health officials also may be repeating the mistakes of the past. Conjuring echoes of Denver in late 1918, under pressure to prioritize keeping society open rather than focusing on limiting spread, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its isolation recommendations in late December. The new guidelines halved isolation time and do not require a negative test to reenter work or social gatherings.
Thankfully, we have an enormous advantage over 1918 that offers hope. Whereas efforts to develop a flu vaccine a century ago failed, the coronavirus vaccines developed in 2020 largely prevent severe illness or death from omicron, and the companies and researchers that produced them expect a booster shot tailored to omicron sometime in the winter or spring. So, too, we have antivirals and new treatments that are just becoming available, though in insufficient quantities for now.
Those lifesaving advantages, however, can only help as much as Americans embrace them. Only by getting vaccinated, including with booster shots, can Americans prevent the health-care system from being overwhelmed. But the vaccination rate in the country remains a relatively paltry 62 percent, and only a scant 1 in 5 have received a booster shot. And as in 1918, some of the choice rests with public officials. Though restrictions may not be popular, officials can reimpose them — offering public support where necessary to those for whom compliance would create hardship — and incentivize and mandate vaccines, taking advantage of our greater medical technology.
As the flu waned in 1919, one Portland, Ore., health official reflected that “the biggest thing we have had to fight in the influenza epidemic has been apathy, or perhaps the careless selfishness of the public.”
The same remains true today.
Vaccines, new treatments and century-old mitigation strategies such as masks, distancing and limits on gatherings give us a pathway to prevent the first six weeks of 2022 from being like the fall of 1918. And encouraging news about the severity of omicron provides real optimism that an endemic future — in which the coronavirus remains but poses far less of a threat — is near. The question is whether we get there with a maximum of pain or a minimum. The choice is ours.
NeuroBehavioral Hospital in Crown Point, Ind., terminated the employment of a discharge planner last week after she spoke to the New York Times about nursing homes discharging unprofitable patients, a practice known as “patient dumping,” the NYT reports.
In the Sept. 19 NYT article, Kimberly Jackson said that during the pandemic nursing homes in Illinois and Michigan have repeatedly sent elderly and disabled Medicaid patients to NeuroBehavioral Hospital, a psychiatric facility, even though they were not experiencing psychosis, seemingly in an effort to get rid of patients who are not lucrative for reimbursement or require extra care.
“The homes seem to be purposely taking symptoms of dementia as evidence of psychosis,” Ms. Jackson is quoted in the article.
She was fired from NeuroBehavioral Hospital Sept. 24. Rebecca Holloway, the hospital’s corporate director of human resources, told the NYT that Ms. Jackson violated the hospital’s media policy.
Ms. Jackson told the newspaper she was shocked to be fired for speaking to the media.
“I saw something that was wrong, and I called it out,” she said.
NeuroBehavioral Hospital is part of NeuroPsychiatric Hospitals. The South Bend, Ind.-based network has five facilities in Indiana, two in Texas and one in Arizona.
We all agree healthcare providers should prioritize patient well-being and bill honestly. Most do. But, if not, my office, the Office of Inspector General for the HHS, and other government agencies, are watching.
We are especially monitoring an area of concern: abuse of risk adjustment in Medicare Advantage, the managed care program serving 23 million beneficiaries, 37% of the Medicare population, at a cost of about $264 billion annually. We have good reason to pay attention. Our recent report found that Medicare Advantage paid $2.6 billion a year for diagnoses unrelated to any clinical services.
Plans used a tool called “health risk assessments” to collect these diagnoses. Ideally, health risk assessments might be part of a Medicare beneficiary’s annual wellness visit and help care teams identify health issues. However, some Medicare Advantage plans use risk assessments without involving the patients’ regular care providers.
Some plans partner with businesses whose primary livelihood entails identifying diagnoses by conducting risk assessments. Some organizations send professional risk assessors, perhaps practitioners with some medical credentials but not physicians or other clinicians involved in the person’s care, to the beneficiaries’ homes. Our study found that 80% of that extra $2.6 billion payment resulted from in-home health risk assessments.
Medicare’s capitated payments vary by beneficiary for good reason. If Medicare paid the same for every beneficiary, plans might favor younger and healthier enrollees. It may not hold true every month, but, on average, it will cost a plan less to serve a healthy 65-year-old than an older person with diabetes or cancer.
Risk adjustment tailors the capitated rate to each beneficiary’s expected costs, so plans should enroll any interested beneficiary and not discriminate. But the risk adjustment is just a projection. Beneficiaries need not actually incur higher costs for the plan to receive higher payments. Some beneficiaries with a seemingly low risk will incur high costs in a given year and some beneficiaries with a high risk will incur low or even no costs.
In fact, one Medicare Advantage plan received about $7 million for beneficiaries who did not appear to receive any clinical care that year — other than the risk assessment, which was the only reason for the higher Medicare payment. Finding beneficiaries with high risk scores but low care utilization can prove a profitable business strategy.
Without gaming, on the aggregate, risk-based payments and utilization should even out over time. But what if plans do game the system? Perhaps making their beneficiaries look sicker? Or not providing care for beneficiaries’ health conditions?
We identified two main concerns:
bad data — risk of incorrect diagnoses identified in the health risk assessment resulting in incorrect payments to plans.
suboptimal care — risk that diagnoses are correct, but patients are not getting the care they need.
The question of whether beneficiaries are experiencing quality and safety problems requires more study. For example, it is possible that beneficiaries are receiving care, but plans are not submitting this data as required. Regardless, plans that use risk assessments to gather diagnoses, but then take no further action, are clearly missing an opportunity for meaningful care coordination. We urge Medicare Advantage plans to:
Ensure practices drive better care and not just higher profits.
Enact policies and procedures to ensure the integrity and usefulness of the data.
This could include measures like educating patients about the identified diagnoses and sharing them with caregivers. These steps are consistent with the best practices identified by CMS and provided to Medicare Advantage Plans in 2015.
It is not necessarily bad that Medicare allows risk assessments to influence payment, trusting that plans use risk assessments to identify missed diagnoses and not to fabricate nonexistent diagnoses.
However, this practice only helps patients if there is some additional intervention to improve care. If risk assessments are performed by third parties, at minimum, the beneficiary and the beneficiary’s care team should learn the results. Risk assessments should trigger meaningful care coordination, patient engagement and help ensure the care team takes appropriate action. Risk assessments that generate diagnoses for payment purposes, but result in no follow-up care raise serious concerns.
Ensuring beneficiaries receive the care they need should be front of mind for executives as they design risk assessment programs with an eye to quality of care and better care coordination. Failing that, executives should know that government agencies will scrutinize risk adjustment for abuse.
In response to our report, CMS promised to provide additional oversight and target plans that reap the greatest payments from in-home health risk assessments and conditions generated solely by risk assessments for which the beneficiaries appeared to receive no other clinical services. My office has identified red flags in some industry patterns and recommends plans adopt best practices. Executives should champion best practices and make sure their plans are driving correct diagnoses and quality care.
Ensuring that beneficiaries are properly diagnosed is important, not just for the integrity of taxpayer-funded federal healthcare programs, but also for the welfare of the beneficiaries served. Coordinating care and providing appropriate follow up is critical.
My office and other government agencies are targeting oversight to make sure plans do not pad risk adjustments with unsupported diagnoses. When plans find new real diagnoses, the plans deserve the extra payment, but only if patients get appropriate care.