When COVID volumes waned in the spring and early summer, most health systems “de-escalated” dedicated COVID testing and triage facilities. But with the Delta variant surging across the country, consumers are now once again looking for services like drive-through testing, which is perceived as more convenient and safer.
One physician leader told us patients in the ED are asking why the hospital got rid of the “COVID tent”, which provided a separate pathway for patients with respiratory and other COVID symptoms—and a highly visible signal that the rest of the department was as COVID-free as possible.
Another system is now fielding questions from the media about whether they’ll bring back their dedicated COVID hospital: “We spent a lot of time last year convincing the community that the dedicated hospital was key to safely managing care during the pandemic. Now we’ve got almost as many COVID admissions spread across our hospitals.”
Over the past year, providers have learned how to safely manage COVID care and prevent spread in healthcare settings—but consumers may perceive the lack of dedicated facilities as a decline in safety.
Unlike last year, hospitals are full of non-COVID patients, as those who delayed care reemerge. And with the current surge likely to continue into flu season, emergency rooms will only get more crowded, necessitating a new round of communication describing how hospitals are keeping patients safe, and reassuring patients that healthcare settings remain one of the safest places to visit in the community.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued its final payment rule for inpatient hospitals for FY22 this week, giving providers a 2.5 percent pay increase, and implementing a number of other regulatory changes. Of particular note, the rule puts in place a requirement for hospitals and long-term care providers to report on COVID vaccination rates among their workers, amid growing calls for healthcare organizations to mandate vaccines.
The final rule will also extend additional payments to hospitals for delivering COVID care until the end of the public health emergency is declared.
On top of a number of changes to quality reporting programs aimed at reducing the adverse impact of the pandemic on hospital metrics, CMS also used the final inpatient rule to begin acting on the Biden administration’s stated desire of improving health equity by adding a maternal morbidity measure to hospital quality reporting requirements.
The measure will require hospitals to report whether they participate in initiatives to improve perinatal health, an area in which unequal treatment has led to disproportionately adverse outcomes for women of color. In what will surely be welcome news for hospitals, CMS will no longer require disclosure of the contract terms providers strike with Medicare Advantage insurers, which was a key provision of Trump-era transparency regulations.
Nevertheless, based on earlier proposed changes to physician and outpatient surgery payment rules, and the President’s recent executive order on competition policy, we’d anticipate the Biden administration will continue to boost efforts to increase transparency of provider pricing.
First things first, however: there’s a pandemic to get through, and this final inpatient payment rule should largely come as good news to hospitals who are increasingly feeling the strain of a fourth surge of COVID cases.
The performance of the U.S. healthcare system ranked last among 11 high-income countries, according to a report released Aug. 4 by the Commonwealth Fund.
To compare the performance of the healthcare systems in 11 high-income countries, the Commonwealth Fund analyzed 71 performance measures across five domains: access to care, care process, administrative efficiency, equity and patient outcomes.
Despite spending far more of its gross domestic product on healthcare than the other nations included in the report, the U.S. ranked last overall, as well as last for access to care, administrative efficiency, equity and patient outcomes. However, the U.S. ranked second on measures of care process, trailing only New Zealand.
Norway, the Netherlands and Australia had the best healthcare system performance, according to the report. In all seven iterations of the study conducted by the Commonwealth Fund since 2004, the U.S. has ranked last. It is the only country included in the study that does not provide its citizens with universal health insurance coverage.
Four features separate the top performing countries from the U.S., according to the report: universal health insurance coverage and removal of cost barriers; investment in primary care systems to ensure equitable healthcare access; reduction of administrative burdens that divert time and spending from health improvement efforts; and investment in social services, particularly for children and working-age adults.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released its 2022 Inpatient Prospective Payment System (IPPS) proposed rule this week. Overall, the rule brings good news for hospitals: Medicare reimbursement rates are slated to increase by 2.8 percent,resulting in a $2.5B payment boost to the industry.
In another win, hospitals will no longer be required to disclose their contract terms with Medicare Advantage (MA) insurers. Hospitals had previously been mandated by the 2021 rule to report median, payer-specific, negotiated charges for MA insurers on their Medicare cost reports. Medicare’s goal was to use this data to create a new, market-based, inpatient reimbursement methodology—an effort which has also been tabled, at least for now.
Led by the American Hospital Association, hospitals have been embroiled in lengthy legal challenges over a variety of CMS price transparency requirements, maintaining they are neither beneficial for consumers, nor helpful in lowering healthcare costs.
It’s too early to tell whether this step back from price transparency, which was a key goal of the Trump administration, signals anything about the Biden administration’s priorities; it’s possible CMS may just be slowing down the effort in the wake of the pandemic.
Other highlights of the proposed rule includefunding 1,000 more residency slots over the next five years, and extending payments for COVID-19 treatments to the end of 2022, as CMS expects COVID patients will need care beyond the duration of public health emergency. The agency also proposed several changes to its readmissions and other value-based purchasing programs, to ensure hospitals aren’t penalized by COVID-related impacts on quality measures.
Comments on the proposed rule are due by June 28th.
About 1 in 10 nursing homes in California and nationwide are owned by private equity (PE) investors, and new research suggests that death rates for residents of those facilities are substantially higher than at institutions with different forms of ownership.
Researchers from New York University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania found that the combination of subsidies from Medicare and Medicaid alongside incentives for PE owners to increase the value of their investments “could lead high-powered for-profitincentives to be misaligned with the social goal of affordable, quality care [PDF].” The researchers — Atul Gupta, Constantine Yannelis, Sabrina Howell, and Abhinav Gupta — reported that nursing homes owned by private equity entities were associated with a 10% increase in the short-term death rate of Medicare patients over a 12-year period. That means more than 20,000 people likely died prematurely in homes run by PE companies, according to their study, which was published in February by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).
In addition to the higher short-term death rates, these homes were found to have sharper declines in measures of patient well-being, including lower mobility, increased pain intensity, and increased likelihood of taking antipsychotic medications, which the study said are discouraged in the elderly because the drugs increase mortality in this age group. Meanwhile, the study found that taxpayer spending per patient episode was 11% higher in PE-owned nursing homes.
There’s nothing new about for-profit nursing homes, but private equity firms are a unique subset that in recent years has made significant investments in the industry, Dylan Scott reported in Vox. PE firms typically buy companies in pursuit of higher profits for shareholders than could be obtained by investing in the shares of publicly traded stocks. They then sell their investments at a profit, often within seven years of purchase. They often take on debt to buy a company and then put that debt on the newly acquired company’s balance sheet.
They also have purchased a mix of large chains and independent facilities — “making it easier to isolate the specific effect of private equity acquisitions, rather than just a profit motive, on patient welfare.” About 11% of for-profit nursing homes are owned by PE, according to David Grabowski, professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. The NBER study covered 1,674 nursing homes acquired in 128 unique transactions.
While the owners of many nursing homes may not be planning to sell them, they also have strong incentives to keep costs low, which may not be good for patients. A study funded by CHCF, for instance, found that “early in the pandemic, for-profit nursing homes had COVID-19 case rates five to six times higher than those of nonprofit and government-run nursing homes. This was true of both independent nursing homes and those that are part of a corporate chain.”
Given the dramatic increase in PE ownership of nursing facilities coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the higher death rates are troubling. The year-over-year growth between 2019 and 2020 is especially striking. Before the pandemic, 2019 saw 33 private equity acquisitions of nursing homes valued at just over $483 million.In 2020, there were 43 deals valued at more than $1.5 billion, according to Bloomberg Law reporter Tony Pugh.
And PE interest in health care is not restricted to nursing homes, explained Gretchen Morgenson and Emmanuelle Saliba at NBC News. “Private equity’s purchases have included rural hospitals, physicians’ practices, nursing homes and hospice centers, air ambulance companies and health care billing management and debt collection systems.” Overall, PE investments in health care have increased more than 1,900% over the past two decades. In 2000, PE invested less than $5 billion. By 2017, investment had jumped to $100 billion.
Industry advocates argue that the investments are in nursing homes that would fail without an influx of PE capital. The American Investment Council said private equity firms invest in “nursing homes to help rescue, build, or grow businesses, often providing much-needed capital to strengthen struggling companies and employ Americans,” according to Bloomberg Law.
The Debate Over Staffing
A bare-bones nursing staff is implicated in poorer quality at PE-owned nursing homes, both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Staff is generally the greatest expense in nursing homes and a key place to save money. “Labor is the main cost of any health care facility — accounting for nearly half of its operating costs — so cutting it to a minimum is the fastest profit-making measure owners can take, along with paying lower salaries,” journalist Annalisa Merelli explained in Quartz.
Staffing shrinks by 1.4% after a PE purchase, the NBER study found.
The federal government does not set specific patient-to-nurse ratios. California and other states have set minimum standards, but they are generally “well below the levels recommended by researchers and experts to consistently meet the needs of each resident,” according to the journal Policy, Politics, & Nursing Practice.
According to nursing assistant Adelina Ramos, “understaffing was so significant [during the pandemic] that she and her colleagues . . . often had to choose which dying or severely ill patient to attend first, leaving the others alone.”
Ramos worked at the for-profit Genesis Healthcare, the nation’s largest chain of nursing homes, which accepted $180 million in state and federal funds during the COVID-19 crisis but remained severely understaffed. She testified before the US Senate Finance Committee in March as a part of a week long look into how the pandemic affected nursing homes. “Before the pandemic, we had this problem,” she said of staffing shortages. “And with the pandemic, it made things worse.”
$12.46 an Hour
In addition, low pay at nursing homes compounds staffing shortages by leading to extremely high rates of turnover. Ramos and her colleagues were paid as little as $12.46 an hour.
Loss of front-line staff leads to reductions in therapies for healthier patients, which leads to higher death rates, according to the NBER study. The effect of these cuts is that front-line nurses spend fewer hours per day providing basic services to patients. “Those services, such as bed turning or infection prevention, aren’t medically intensive, but they can be critical to health outcomes,” wrote Scott at Vox.
Healthier patients tend to suffer the most from this lack of basic nursing. “Sicker patients have more regimented treatment that will be adhered to no matter who owns the facility,” the researchers said, “whereas healthier people may be more susceptible to the changes made under private equity ownership.”
Growing Interest on Capitol Hill
In addition to the Senate Finance Committee hearings, the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing at the end of last month about the excess deaths in nursing homes owned by PE. “Private equity’s business model involves buying companies, saddling them with mountains of debt, and then squeezing them like oranges for every dollar,” said Representative Bill Pascrell (D-New Jersey), who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee’s oversight subcommittee.
The office of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) will investigate the effects of nursing-home ownership on residents, she announced on March 17.
The hope is that the pandemic’s effect on older people will bring more attention to the issues that lead to substandard nursing home care. “Much more is needed to protect nursing home residents,” Denise Bottcher, the state director of AARP’s Louisiana office, told the Senate panel. “The consequence of not acting is that someone’s mother or father dies.”