State autonomy versus a fundamental right: VP debate will spotlight divergent healthcare views

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/vice-presidential-debate-will-likely-spotlight-divergent-views-healthcare

Mike Pence and Kamala Harris take the debate stage Wednesday night. (Kamala (Harris photo by Ethan Miller; Pence photo by Joshua Roberts. Both Getty Images)

The undercurrent of the VP debate is the age and health of the two men vying for the presidency.

The two remaining presidential debates, scheduled for October 15 and 22, are in question due to President Trump’s positive COVID-19 and quarantine status, making the vice presidential debate this Wednesday at 9 p.m. even more important than VP debates of past elections.

The undercurrent in the debate consists of the ages of challenger Biden, who is 77 and turning 78 before the end of the year, and Trump, 74, who has been hospitalized for COVID-19 and was released from Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Monday afternoon. Trump has said he plans to debate Biden on October 15.

This VP debate is big, said Paul Keckley, a healthcare policy analyst and managing editor of the Keckley Report. 

“The reason is not so much the two are debating,” Keckley said. “We have a 77- year-old challenger and a 74-year-old incumbent. Voters are expecting the odds are one will become disabled and the vice president is going to step in. That’s the undercurrent of this debate.”

Healthcare is an obvious dominant theme Wednesday night beyond the health of the two men seeking the presidency. 

It is expected that Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris will challenge Vice President Mike Pence on his role heading the coronavirus task force when close to 7.5 million people in this country have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 200,000 have died.

Pence will likely challenge Harris on her support for Medicare for All before she backtracked to support Biden’s public-private option for healthcare coverage.

Pence and Harris are expected to lay out the healthcare plans of their respective Republican and Democratic nominees less than four weeks before the election, in a way the lead candidates failed to get across during the first presidential debate that presented more chaos than clarity.

TRUMP AND BIDEN PLANS

Trump and Biden differ fundamentally on whether the federal government should be involved in the business of providing healthcare coverage.

Trump’s guiding principles rest on the pillar of state autonomy as opposed to a federalized healthcare system and Biden’s maxim that healthcare is a right, not a privilege. 

Trump believes that private solutions are better than government solutions, according to Keckley. He is much less restrained on private equity and the Federal Trade Commission’s scrutiny of vertical integration. States become the gateway to the market as private solutions are sold to states as innovation.

Trump’s other concept is that the door to engaging consumers in healthcare is price transparency. His view is that price transparency will spawn consumer engagement.

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma, who was appointed by Trump in 2016 based largely on the recommendation of Pence, is instituting a rule, starting January 1, 2021, requiring hospitals to have price transparency for 300 shoppable services. Hospitals are being required to make their contract terms with payer accessible.

This is separate from CMS’s interoperability rule aimed at payers that also goes into effect on January 1.

Trump believes healthcare is a personal responsibility, not a public obligation. To Trump, healthcare is a marketplace where there are winners and losers, according to Keckley.

Biden has a more developed policy platform on making healthcare a universal right, starting with strengthening the Affordable Care Act that was passed while Biden was vice president during President Barack Obama’s terms.

Biden wants to increase the eligibility for tax subsidies in the ACA up to 400% of the federal poverty level, which would expand access to subsidized health insurance.

He also wants to reduce the affordability threshold for employer insurance. Currently, if employees pay more than 9.7% of their adjusted income for their workplace coverage, they can seek a plan in the ACA marketplace. Biden would lower that eligibility for ACA coverage to 8.5%, opening the door for many more consumers to be insured through the ACA, at a lower cost.

Biden would also lower the age of eligibility for Medicare from 65 to 60.

For companies such as manufacturing and transportation, in which individuals can retire after 30 years of service, this lets them into the Medicare system earlier to fill that gap between retirement and Medicare eligibility.

Biden’s public option would create insurance plans that would compete with private plans. 

The other factor to watch on the Biden side, Keckley said, is his clear focus on equity and diversity in healthcare. 

AFFORDABLE CARE ACT

Biden wants to strengthen Obamacare while Trump is actively pursuing a repeal of the law through the Supreme Court. 

President Trump’s debate prep and the White House Rose Garden event announcing the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, border on the definition of super spreader events.

The Justices, perhaps with the addition of Trump’s pick, Amy Coney Barrett, if there are enough Republican senators well enough and in attendance to vote for confirmation, are scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case brought by 18 GOP-led states on November 10, the week after the election.

Senators must be present to vote, and Republicans, who have a majority of 53 to 47 seats, need a four-vote majority. Two Republican senators – Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – have said they wouldn’t vote on a nominee prior to the election. Vice President Mike Pence could cast the deciding vote in a tie.

Three Republican senators have tested positive for the coronavirus. Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who sit on the Judiciary Committee, tested positive for COVID-19 days after attending the White House Rose Garden event on September 26. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin is now the third to test positive, though he did not attend that event.

There was a lack of social distancing and mask wearing at both the Rose Garden nomination and at a meeting between Trump and staff for debate prep. Twelve people in Trump’s inner circle, including his wife Melania, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, have tested positive since attending.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote in an email to GOP senators obtained by CNN that he needs all Republican senators back in Washington by October 19.

COVID-19

Trump announced in a tweet Monday that he would be leaving Walter Reed later in the afternoon, saying he felt “really good!” and adding, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”

Trump has been criticized for leaving the hospital on Monday to take a drive-by ride to wave to supporters. Attending physician Dr. James Phillips called the action “insanity” and “political theater” that put the lives of Secret Service agents in the car with him at risk.

Trump has downplayed the virus in an effort to reopen the country and the economy, and has put the blame on China, where the coronavirus originated.

Trump told Biden during the debate, “We got the gowns; we got the masks; we made the ventilators. You wouldn’t have made ventilators – and now we’re weeks away from a vaccine.” 

Biden puts the blame squarely on Trump for delaying action to stop the spread.

Biden said during the debate: “Look, 200,000 dead. You said over seven million infected in the United States. We in fact have 5% or 4% of the world’s population – 20% of the deaths. Forty thousand people a day are contracting COVID. In addition to that, about between 750 and 1,000 people, they’re dying. When [Trump] was presented with that number he said ‘It is what it is’ – what it is what it is – because you are who you are. That’s why it is. The president has no plan. He hasn’t laid out anything.”

Biden said that back in July he laid out a plan for providing protective gear and providing money the House passed to get people the help they need to keep their businesses open and open schools. 

Under Trump’s Administration, Congress passed $175 billion in provider relief funds for hospitals, small businesses, individuals and others – $100 billion from the CARES Act and $75 billion from the Paycheck Protection Program and Healthcare Enhancement Act.

MEDICAID EXPANSION

CMS Administrator Seema Verma was healthcare advisor to Pence while he was governor of Indiana. Her consulting firm, SVC, Inc., worked closely with Pence to design Indiana’s Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. They developed a unique Medicaid expansion program called Health Indiana Plan 2.0, which mandated low income adults above the poverty level pay monthly premiums for their healthcare. 

Members who did not pay faced being disenrolled for six months. 

As administrator, Verma has initiated similar work requirements for Medicaid coverage nationwide.

While as governor Pence implemented Medicaid expansion, as vice president he has supported torpedoing the ACA, and has pushed the Graham-Cassidy plan for healthcare reform that would have replaced the ACA.

DRUG PRICES

Neither Trump nor Biden has taken on the pharmaceutical industry in a meaningful way, though both have voiced a strong belief that drug manufacturers are egregious to the system, according to Keckley.

“Both camps are saying, we’re really going to take them on,” he said. 

During the debate, Trump said he was cutting drug prices by allowing American consumers to buy drugs from Canada and other countries under a favored nation status. 

“Drug prices will be coming down, 80 or 90 percent,” Trump said during the debate, telling Biden he hadn’t done anything similar during his 47 years in government.

If Trump gets a second term, there will likely be more industry folks in his circle, following up on his first term of stacking his cabinet with business people.

Biden would be more likely to lean toward a blend of public health officials and industry executives. There would be more of a spotlight on wealth creation in healthcare and executive pay.

In the $1.1 trillion world of prescription drugs, the United States makes up 40% of the market. 

“We’re the hub of the prescription drug industry,” Keckley said. 

CommonSpirit Health posts $550M operating revenue loss in fiscal year due to COVID-19

A financial chart

Hospital system CommonSpirit Health reported operating revenue losses of $550 million during its fiscal year that ended in June, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to roil patient volumes.

The 137-hospital system reported its financial earnings Friday for the 2020 fiscal year that ended June 30. CommonSpirit’s expenses also surged during the pandemic as more resources were needed to screen visitors and staff.

“Although it varies significantly by division, beginning the middle of March, the COVID-19 pandemic caused up to a 40% slowdown in volumes,” CommonSpirit’s financial report said. “As communities heeded guidelines to avoid hospitals for non-emergent issues, appointment volume, especially for specialty practices, fell and emergency department volume declined.”

CommonSpirit’s patient volumes did rebound after shelter-in-place orders started to be lifted in April and May, but the volumes are still below pre-pandemic levels.

At the end of the system’s fiscal year on June 30, the volumes on adjusted admissions were down 6.2% compared with the 2019 fiscal year.

Adjusted patient days for the fiscal year were also lower than the same period in 2019 by 5.7%.

At the same time, net patient and premium revenues declined by $239 million, or 0.9% over the same period in 2019.

“The decrease is primarily due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and increased charity care, partially offset by a stable payor mix,” the earnings said.

Overall, CommonSpirit recorded an operating loss of $550 million for the 2020 fiscal year, which was an improvement on the $617 million in losses from 2019.

But those 2020 losses ballooned up to $1.4 billion when not taking into account money the system received from a $175 billion provider relief fund Congress set up as part of the CARES Act to help prop up hospitals and other providers.

The system also reported a $1.3 billion decline in earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization and nonoperating income from March through June.

About 62% of the lost EBITDA has been recouped through the CARES Act funding, and another $500 million remains to be regained, CommonSpirit said.

Overall, CommonSpirit has recorded $826 million in money from the provider relief fund. It also got another $2.6 billion from the Medicare Accelerated and Advance Payment Program, which the system will have to repay.

The system anticipates it will defer $410 million in employer payroll taxes to December 2022, a flexibility also afforded under the CARES Act.

“While the aid received from the programs above provides much needed assistance during this crisis, CommonSpirit is unable to assess the extent to which the amounts and benefits received, or to be received, will offset the long-term changes in volumes, payor mix or service mix,” the report said.

The Department of Health and Human Services has more than $50 billion to still give out to hospitals, but some hospital groups say that more money is needed to combat the financial crisis caused by the pandemic. Talks on a new coronavirus relief deal have stalled in Congress.

While some larger for-profit systems such as HCA and Tenet have posted profits thanks to the provider relief funding, other not-for-profit systems such as Trinity Health and some smaller systems have reported struggles with overcoming the new financial crisis.

Moody’s: Hospital financial outlook worse as COVID-19 relief funds start to dwindle

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/hospitals/moody-s-hospital-financial-outlook-worse-as-covid-19-relief-funds-start-to-dwindle?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiWTJZek56Z3lNV1E0TW1NMyIsInQiOiJKdUtkZE5DVGphdkNFanpjMHlSMzR4dEE4M29tZ24zek5lM3k3amtUYSt3VTBoMmtMUnpIblRuS2lYUWozZk11UE5cL25sQ1RzbFpzdExcL3JvalBod3Z6U3BZK3FBNjZ1Rk1LQ2pvT3A5Witkc0FmVkJocnVRM0dPbFJHZTlnRGJUIn0%3D&mrkid=959610

For-profit hospitals are expected to see a financial decline over the next 12 to 18 months as federal relief funds that shored up revenue losses due to COVID-19 start to wane, a recent analysis from Moody’s said.

The analysis, released Monday, finds that cost management is going to be challenging for hospital systems as more surgical procedures are expected to migrate away from the hospital and people lose higher-paying commercial plans and go to lower-paying government programs such as Medicaid.

“The number of surgical procedures done outside of the hospital setting will continue to increase, which will weaken hospital earnings, particularly for companies that lack sizeable outpatient service lines (including ambulatory surgery centers),” the analysis said.

A $175 billion provider relief fund passed by Congress as part of the CARES Act helped keep hospital systems afloat in March and April as volumes plummeted due to the cancellation of elective procedures and reticence among patients to go to the hospitals.

Some for-profit systems such as HCA and Tenet pointed to relief funding to help generate profits in the second quarter of the year. The benefits are likely to dwindle as Congress has stalled over talks on replenishing the fund.

“Hospitals will continue to recognize grant aid as earnings in Q3 2020, but this tailwind will significantly moderate after that,” Moody’s said.

Cost cutting challenges

Compounding problems for hospitals is how to handle major costs.

Some hospital systems cut some costs such as staff thanks to furloughs and other measures.

“Some hospitals have said that for every lost dollar of revenue, they were able to cut about 50 cents in costs,” the analysis said. “However, we believe that these levels of cost cuts are not sustainable.”

Hospitals can’t cut costs indefinitely, but the costs for handling the pandemic (more money for personal protective equipment and safety measures) are going to continue for some time, Moody’s added.

“As a result, hospitals will operate less efficiently in the wake of the pandemic, although their early experiences in treating COVID-19 patients will enable them to provide care more efficiently than in the early days of the pandemic,” the analysis found. “This will help hospitals free up bed capacity more rapidly and avoid the need for widespread shutdowns of elective surgeries.”

But will that capacity be put to use?

The number of surgical procedures done outside of the hospital is likely to increase and will further weaken earnings, Moody’s said.

“Outpatient procedures typically result in lower costs for both consumers and payers and will likely be preferred by more patients who are reluctant to check-in to a hospital due to COVID-19,” the analysis said.

The payer mix will also shift, and not in hospitals’ favor. Mounting job losses due to the pandemic will force more patients with commercial plans toward programs such as Medicaid.

“This will hinder hospitals’ earnings growth over the next 12-18 months,” Moody’s said. “Employer-provided health insurance pays significantly higher reimbursement rates than government-based programs.”

Bright spots

There are some bright spots for hospitals, including that not all of the $175 billion has been dispersed yet. The CARES Act continues to provide hospitals with a 20% add-on payment for treating Medicare patients that have COVID-19, and it suspends a 2% payment cut for Medicare payments that was installed as part of sequestration.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services also proposed increasing outpatient payment rates for the 2021 fiscal year by 2.6% and in-patient rates by 2.9%. The fiscal year is set to start next month.

Patient volumes could also return to normal in 2021. Moody’s expects that patient volumes will return to about 90% of pre-pandemic levels on average in the fourth quarter of the year.

“The remaining 10% is likely to come back more slowly in 2021, but faster if a vaccine becomes widely available,” the analysis found.

 

 

 

 

A Doctor Went to His Own Employer for a COVID-19 Antibody Test. It Cost $10,984.

https://www.propublica.org/article/a-doctor-went-to-his-own-employer-for-a-covid-19-antibody-test-it-cost-10-984

An Austin Doctor Went To His Own Employer For A COVID-19 Antibody Test. It Cost  $10,984. – Corridor News

Physicians Premier ER charged Dr. Zachary Sussman’s insurance $10,984 for his COVID-19 antibody test even though Sussman worked for the chain and knows the testing materials only cost about $8. Even more surprising: The insurer paid in full.

When Dr. Zachary Sussman went to Physicians Premier ER in Austin for a COVID-19 antibody test, he assumed he would get a freebie because he was a doctor for the chain. Instead, the free-standing emergency room charged his insurance company an astonishing $10,984 for the visit — and got paid every penny, with no pushback.

The bill left him so dismayed he quit his job. And now, after ProPublica’s questions, the parent company of his insurer said the case is being investigated and could lead to repayment or a referral to law enforcement.

The case is the latest to show how providers have sometimes charged exorbitant prices for visits for simple and inexpensive COVID-19 tests. ProPublica recently reported how a $175 COVID-19 test resulted in charges of $2,479 at a different free-standing ER in Texas. In that situation, the health plan said the payment for the visit would be reduced and the facility said the family would not receive a bill. In Sussman’s case, the insurer paid it all. But those dollars come from people who pay insurance premiums, and health experts say high prices are a major reason why Americans pay so much for health care.

Sussman, a 44-year-old pathologist, was working under contract as a part-time medical director at four of Physicians Premier’s other locations. He said he made $4,000 a month to oversee the antibody tests, which can detect signs of a previous COVID-19 infection. It was a temporary position holding him over between hospital gigs in Austin and New Mexico, where he now lives and works.

In May, before visiting his family in Scottsdale, Arizona, Sussman wanted the test because he had recently had a headache, which can be a symptom of COVID-19. He decided to go to one of his own company’s locations because he was curious to see how the process played out from a patient’s point of view. He knew the materials for each antibody test only amounted to about $8, and it gets read on the spot — similar to an at-home pregnancy test.

He could even do the reading himself. So he assumed Physicians Premier would comp him and administer it on the house. But the staff went ahead and took down his insurance details, while promising him he would not be responsible for any portion of the bill. He had a short-term plan through Golden Rule Insurance Company, which is owned by UnitedHealthcare, the largest insurer in the country. (The insurance was not provided through his work.)

During the brief visit, Sussman said he chatted with the emergency room doctor, whom he didn’t know. He said there was no physical examination. “Never laid a hand on me,” he said. His vitals were checked and his blood was drawn. He tested negative. He said the whole encounter took about 30 minutes.

About a month later, Golden Rule sent Sussman his explanation of benefits for the physician portion of the bill. The charges came to $2,100. Sussman was surprised by the expense but he said he was familiar with the Physicians Premier high-dollar business model, in which the convenience of a free-standing ER with no wait comes at a cost.

“It may as well say Gucci on the outside,” he said of the facility. Physicians Premier says on its website that it bills private insurance plans, but that it is out-of-network with them, meaning it does not have agreed-upon prices. That often leads to higher charges, which then get negotiated down by the insurers, or result in medical bills getting passed on to patients.

Sussman felt more puzzled to see the insurance document say, “Payable at: 100%.” So apparently Golden Rule hadn’t fought for a better deal and had paid more than two grand for a quick, walk-in visit for a test. He was happy not to get hit with a bill, but it also didn’t feel right.

He said he let the issue slide until a few weeks later when a second explanation of benefits arrived from Golden Rule, for the Physicians Premier facility charges. This time, an entity listed as USA Emergency sought $8,884.16. Again, the insurer said, “Payable at: 100%.”

USA Emergency Centers says on its website that it licenses the Physicians Premier ER name for some of its locations.

Now Sussman said he felt spooked. He knew Physicians Premier provided top-notch care and testing on the medical side of things. But somehow his employer had charged his health plan $10,984.16 for a quick visit for a COVID-19 test. And even more troubling to Sussman: Golden Rule paid the whole thing.

Sussman was so shaken he resigned. “I have decided I can no longer ethically provide Medical directorship services to the company,” he wrote in his July 13 resignation email. “If not outright fraudulent, these charges are at least exorbitant and seek to take advantage of payers in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic.”

Sussman agreed to waive his patient privacy so officials from the company could speak to ProPublica. USA Emergency Centers declined interview requests and provided a statement, saying “the allegations are false,” though it did not say which ones.

The statement also said the company “takes all complaints seriously and will continue to work directly with patients to resolve issues pertaining to their emergency room care or bill. …The allegations received pertain to a former contracted employee, and we cannot provide details or further comment at this time.”

Physicians Premier advertises itself as a COVID-19 testing facility on its website, with “results in an hour.” According to the claims submitted by Physicians Premier to Golden Rule, obtained by Sussman, the physician fee and facility fees were coded as emergency room visits of moderate complexity. That would mean his visit included an expanded, problem-focused history and examination. But Sussman said the staff only took down a cursory medical history that took a few minutes related to his possible exposure to COVID-19. And he said no one examined him.

The claims also included codes for a nasal swab coronavirus test. But that test was not performed, Sussman said. The physician’s orders documented in the facility’s medical record also do not mention the nasal swab test. Those charges came to $4,989.

The claims show two charges totaling $1,600 for the antibody test Sussman received. In a spreadsheet available on its website on Friday, Physicians Premier lists a price of $75 for the antibody test.

For comparison, Medicare lists its payment at $42.13 for COVID-19 antibody tests. That’s because Medicare, the government’s insurance plan for the disabled and people over 65, sets prices.

Complicating matters, Texas is the nation’s epicenter for free-standing emergency rooms that are not connected to hospitals. Vivian Ho, an economist at Rice University who studies the facilities, said their business model is based on “trying to mislead the consumer.” They set up in locations where a high proportion of people have health insurance, but they don’t have contracted rates with the insurers, Ho said. They are designed to look like lower-priced urgent care centers or walk-in clinics, Ho said, but charge much higher emergency room rates. (The centers have defended their practices, saying that they clearly identify as emergency rooms and are equipped to handle serious emergencies, and that patients value the convenience.)

The day after he resigned, Sussman texted an acquaintance who works as a doctor at Physicians Premier. The acquaintance said the facility typically only collects a small percentage of what gets billed. “I just don’t want to be part of the game,” Sussman texted to him.

Shelley Safian, a Florida health care coding expert who has written four books on medical coding, reviewed Sussman’s medical records and claims at ProPublica’s request. The records do not document a case of a complex patient that would justify the bills used to code the patient visit, she said. For example, the chief complaint is listed as: “A generic problem (COVID TESTING).” Under “final acuity,” the medical record says, “less urgent.” Under the medical history it says, “NO SYMPTOMS.”

Safian described the charges as “obscene” and said she was shocked the insurer paid them in full. “This is the exact opposite of an employee discount,” she said. “Obviously nobody is minding the store.”

Congress opened the door to profiteering during the pandemic when it passed the CARES Act. The legislation, signed into law in March, says health insurers must pay for out-of-network testing at the cash price a facility posts on its website, or less. But there may be other charges associated with the tests, and insurers generally have tried to avoid making patients pay any portion of costs related to COVID-19 testing or treatment.

The charges for Sussman’s COVID-19 test visit are “ridiculous,” said Niall Brennan, president and CEO of the Health Care Cost Institute, a nonprofit organization that studies health care prices. Brennan wondered whether the CARES Act has made insurers feel legally obligated to cover COVID-19 costs. He called it “well intentioned” public policy that allows for “unscrupulous behavior” by some providers. “Insurance companies and patients are reliant on the good will and honesty of providers,” Brennan said. “But this whole pandemic, combined with the CARES Act provision, seems designed for unscrupulous medical providers to exploit.”

It’s illegal for medical providers to charge for services they did not provide. But ProPublica has previously reported how little insurers, including UnitedHealthcare, do to prevent fraud in their commercial health plans, even though experts estimate it consumes about 10% of all health care costs. For-profit insurance companies don’t want to spend the time and money it takes to hold fraudulent medical providers accountable, former fraud investigators have told ProPublica. Also, the insurance companies want to keep providers in their networks, so they easily cave.

In mid-July, Sussman used the messenger system on Golden Rule’s website to report his concerns about the case. Short-term health plans are typically less expensive because they offer less comprehensive coverage. Sussman said he appreciated that his plan covered the charges, and felt compelled to tell the company what had happened.

That led to a phone conversation with a fraud investigator. They went line by line through the charges and Sussman told him many of the services had not been provided. “His attitude was kind of passive,” Sussman said of the fraud investigator. “There was no indignation. He took in stride, like, ‘Yep, that’s what happens.’” The investigator said he would escalate the case and see if the facility had submitted any other suspect claims. But Sussman never heard back.

Maria Gordon-Shydlo, a spokeswoman for UnitedHealthcare, which owns Golden Rule, would not provide anyone to be interviewed. She said in an emailed statement that the company’s first priority during the pandemic “has been to ensure our members get the care they need and are not billed for COVID testing and treatment. Unfortunately, there are some providers who are trying to take advantage of this and are inappropriately or even fraudulently billing.”

“Golden Rule has put processes in place to address excessive COVID-related billing,” the statement said. “We are currently investigating this matter and, if appropriate, will seek to recoup any overpayment and potentially refer this case to law enforcement.”

Golden Rule’s 100% payment of the charges may simply come down to “incompetence,” said Dr. Eric Bricker, a Texas internist who spent years running a company that advised employers who self-fund their insurance. Insurance companies auto-adjudicate millions of claims on software that may be decades old, said Bricker, who produces videos to help consumers and employers understand health care. If bills are under a certain threshold, like $15,000, they may sail through and get paid without a second look, he said.

UnitedHealth Group reported net earnings of $6.6 billion in the second quarter of 2020. Bricker said the company may be paying bills without questioning them because it doesn’t “want to create any noise” by saying no at a time its own earnings are so high, Bricker said.

Texas has a consumer protection law that’s designed to prevent businesses from exploiting the public during a disaster. The attorney general’s office has received and processed 52 complaints about health care businesses and billing or price gouging related to the pandemic, a spokeswoman from the office said in an email. The agency does not comment on the existence of any investigations, but has not filed any cases related to overpriced COVID-19 tests.

Sussman said he got one voicemail from a billing person at Physicians Premier, saying she wanted to explain the charges, but he did not call back. He said he spoke out about it to ProPublica because he opposes Medicare-for-all health care reform proposals. Bad actors in the profession could cause doctors to lose their privilege to bill and be reimbursed independently, he said. Most physicians are fair with their billing, or even conservative, he said. “If instances like these go unchecked it will provide more ammo for advocates of a single-payer system.”

 

 

 

For-profit systems fare better than nonprofits in weathering COVID-19 cash crisis, MedPAC says

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/hospitals/medpac-for-profit-systems-do-better-job-than-nonprofits-weathering-covid-19-cash-crisis?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTlRJM05qVmhOVEptWm1ZNSIsInQiOiJaRHlaWHpyaHVZUHlvTFwvZmRaZDZKUVY2aEJka25ncStYSmcxZXo3bTR5TzV3NFE0YzdpYlpGMGRrbUxkcWVYT0Z4ZTVMa0VPN3BuSElkMldQRXBpTk1pbnN1T3VoalNXd0JzTU9aYngwazltVXRud0hISVppZnF2OHU0bFwvVzN6In0%3D&mrkid=959610

For-profit health systems have been better able to weather a financial crisis caused by COVID-19 than their nonprofit counterparts because they could reduce more expenses, a new analysis from the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission finds.

The analysis released Thursday during MedPAC’s monthly meeting comes as providers struggle to recover from low patient volumes stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. The report also explored how physician offices have fared.

Hospitals faced a massive dip in patient volume in March and April at the onset of the pandemic, which forced facilities to cancel or delay elective procedures. Patient volumes have since recovered to near pre-pandemic levels, MedPAC found.

But the recovery has been mixed depending on the hospital system.

MedPAC looked at earnings for three large nonprofit systems in the U.S. and four large for-profit systems in the second quarter and found a variation in how they handled the decline in revenue.

Aggregate patient revenue for the nonprofit systems declined by $1.5 billion and this led to a $621 million loss for the systems in the second quarter compared to the same period in 2019. Overall the systems had operating profit margins ranging from negative 13% to positive 5%.

The four for-profit systems saw a $3.5 billion decline in patient revenue. However, the systems posted an increase of $634 million in operating income.

This led to a range of operating margin increases of 1 to 14% in the second quarter compared to 2019.

The for-profit systems got more relief funding ($1.9 billion compared with $782 million) from a $175 billion federal provider relief fund created by the CARES Act.

But the biggest difference between for-profit and nonprofit systems was how they handled expenses.

“For-profit systems substantially reduced expenses in the second quarter, in aggregate reduced by $2.3 billion and that made up for lost revenue,” said Jeff Stensland, a MedPAC staff member, during the meeting.

Nonprofit systems only saw a $13 million decline in expenses.

The analysis comes as some larger for-profit systems like HCA Healthcare generate profits in the second quarter, while nonprofit systems such as Providence posted losses.

MedPAC did not name the systems that it analyzed nor did it delve into what expenses were reduced and how.

Some systems have taken to furloughing employees but all systems have faced increased expenses for personal protective equipment and some staff.

The analysis also looked at the financial impact of the pandemic on physician offices. MedPAC found that federal grants, loans and payment increases offset a majority of the revenue lost in March and May due to patient volume declines.

MedPAC estimated physician offices lost between $45 to $55 billion. However, offices got $26 billion in loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, which don’t have to be repaid if the majority of the funds go to payroll.

Physician offices also received $5 billion out of the $175 billion provider relief fund passed as part of the CARES Act.

Physicians also got $1 billion in savings from the temporary suspension of a 2% decline in Medicare payments created under sequestration.

 

 

 

Northwell records $329M loss in first half of 2020

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/finance/northwell-records-329m-loss-in-first-half-of-2020.html?utm_medium=email

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Northwell Health, a 19-hospital system based in New Hyde Park, N.Y., ended the first half of 2020 with an operating loss despite a revenue increase year-over-year, according to recently released financial documents. 

In the six months ended June 30, the health system recorded revenue of $6.3 billion, up from $6.1 billion reported in the same period in 2019.

The health system saw its patient revenue drop 9.7 percent in the first half of the year to $5.1 billion, compared to the same period in 2019. The patient revenue drop was attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Northwell’s expenses climbed in the first six months of this year to $6.6 billion, an increase of about 9.5 percent from the same period in 2019.

The health system recorded an operating loss of $249.6 million.

After accounting for nonoperating gains and losses, the system ended the first half of 2020 with a $329 million net loss. This compares to a net income of $393 million in the first half of 2019.

Northwell Health estimated that the negative financial hit from the COVID-19 pandemic in the six months ended June 30 was about $1.2 billion and attributed most of the financial impact to lower patient volume.

Through Aug. 28, Northwell has received $1.2 billion in grants from the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act. In the six months ended June 30, the health system recorded $754 million of this relief aid as “other operating revenue.”

“While the financial impact estimates noted above have been made using the best available information at the time, the ultimate net impact of the pandemic to Northwell and its financial condition is uncertain,” Northwell Health stated.

 

 

 

 

Cleveland Clinic posts $201.8M operating loss in Q2

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/finance/cleveland-clinic-posts-201-8m-operating-loss-in-q2.html?utm_medium=email

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Cleveland Clinic ended the second quarter of this year with an operating loss, which the system attributed to financial damage tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The 18-hospital system’s revenue declined to $2.3 billion in the second quarter of this year, down from $2.7 billion in the same period a year earlier, according to unaudited financial documents. In the first six months of this year, the health system experienced net patient service revenue shortfalls of more than $830 million, compared to plan, and incurred more than $165 million in COVID-19 preparedness costs. 

Cleveland Clinic reported operating expenses of $2.36 billion in the second quarter of this year, up from $2.34 billion in the same period last year.

The hospital system ended the most recent quarter with an operating loss of $201.8 million, compared to operating income of $116.2 million in the second quarter of 2019. Looking at the first six months of this year, Cleveland Clinic reported an operating loss of $241.7 million, compared to operating income of $152.4 million a year earlier. 

To help offset financial damage tied to the pandemic in the first six months of this year, Cleveland Clinic recognized $324 million in federal grants made available under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The health system also applied for and received $849 million in Medicare advance payments, which must be repaid. 

After factoring in investment gains of $477.5 million and other nonoperating items, Cleveland Clinic closed out the second quarter of this year with net income of $276.1 million. In the same period a year earlier, the health system posted net income of $256.4 million.

 

 

CMS to require positive COVID-19 test results for Medicare pay boost

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CMS to Pay For Hospital COVID-19 Care Furnished in Other Settings

CMS recently released guidance that includes a new requirement for hospitals to get a Medicare payment boost for caring for patients diagnosed with COVID-19. 

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act provided a 20 percent add-on payment to the inpatient prospective payment system diagnosis-related group rate for treating patients diagnosed with COVID-19. Until now, a physician’s documentation that a patient has COVID-19 was sufficient to receive the add-on payment. However, recent guidance from CMS adds the requirement to have a positive COVID-19 laboratory test documented in the patient’s medical record for the claim to be eligible for the add-on payment. The new requirement applies to admissions occurring on or after Sept. 1.

To receive the payment boost under the new guidance, the COVID-19 test must be taken within 14 days of the hospital admission. Only the results of viral testing that are consistent with CDC guidelines can be used. Tests performed by an entity other than the hospital, such as a local government-run testing center, can be manually entered into the patient’s medical record, CMS said.

Meeting the new requirement for the add-on payment could be difficult for hospitals, Ronald Hirsch, MD, vice president of the regulations and education group at R1 Physician Advisory Services, told Becker’s Hospital Review

“There is no way to indicate on a claim for a hospital patient that a test was positive or negative,” he said. “First, the hospital will manually need to go into every record for a patient with U07.1 as a diagnosis and look for a positive test in their own lab system. If one is not found, they will need to search the notes to see if the patient had a test in the 14 days prior to admission and if that test was positive. If there is a note the patient self-reported that they had a positive test, the hospital must decide if they must go through due diligence and attempt to get that actual test result for their records.”

In cases where there isn’t a positive test noted in the medical record, hospitals would need to notify the Medicare audit contractor that they are submitting a claim for a COVID-19 diagnosis that was made clinically, Dr. Hirsch said. The MAC would need to make the appropriate adjustment to ensure the 20 percent add-on payment is not made.

The “undue burden” that the new requirement will place on hospitals was one of the concerns the American Hospital Association highlighted in an Aug. 26 letter to CMS Administrator Seema Verma. The group is also concerned that requiring a positive COVID-19 test will lead to unnecessary additional testing.

“Basing the COVID-19 diagnosis code on clinical judgment alone — in line with coding rules — continues to be an important approach given that test accuracy may not be reliable, re-testing is unnecessarily onerous, and some communities face persistent testing shortages.” 

The AHA is urging CMS to drop the new requirement and allow provider documentation of a COVID-19 diagnosis to be sufficient for the add-on payment if the test result is unavailable. 

 

 

 

 

Hospitals face closure as $100B in Medicare loans come due

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CMS accelerated payments to hospitals and other healthcare providers at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to help temporarily relieve financial strain. It’s time to begin repaying the Medicare loans but that isn’t possible for some rural hospitals, according to NPR

CMS expanded the Accelerated and Advance Payment Program in late March to help offset financial damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. CMS announced April 26 that it was reevaluating pending and new applications for advance payments due to the availability of funds under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. As of May, CMS had paid out $100 billion in advance payments, the bulk of which went to hospitals. 

Hospitals and other healthcare providers are required to start repaying the Medicare loans this month. Most hospitals will have one year from the date the first loan payment was made to repay the loans, according to Kaiser Family Foundation.

Ozarks Community Hospital, 25-bed critical access hospital in Gravette, Ark., is one of the hospitals that applied for and accepted the Medicare loans. The hospital also received grants made available under the CARES Act, which do not have to be repaid.

CEO Paul Taylor said Ozarks Community Hospital’s revenue is still constrained, and he doesn’t know how it will pay back its $8 million Medicare loan. Payments for new Medicare claims will be offset to repay the loans, but losing those payments could force the hospital to close, Mr. Taylor told NPR.

“If I get no relief and they take the money … we won’t still be open,” he said.

Ozarks Community Hospital is one of more than 850 critical access hospitals in rural areas that received Medicare loans, according to NPR. Given the shaky financial footing of many rural hospitals before the pandemic, the strain of having Medicare payments withheld could be enough to force others to shut down. 

Before the pandemic, more than 600 rural hospitals across the U.S. were vulnerable to closure, according to an estimate from iVantage Health Analytics, a firm that compiles a hospital strength index based on data about financial stability, patients and quality indicators.

If the financial pressures tied to the pandemic force any of those hospitals to shut down, they’ll join the list of 131 rural hospitals that have closed over the past decade, according to the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research.

 

 

 

 

Billions in Hospital Virus Aid Rested on Compliance With Private Vendor

Billions in Hospital Virus Aid Rested on Compliance With Private ...

The Department of Health and Human Services told hospitals in April that reporting to the vendor, TeleTracking Technologies, was a “prerequisite to payment.”

The Trump administration tied billions of dollars in badly needed coronavirus medical funding this spring to hospitals’ cooperation with a private vendor collecting data for a new Covid-19 database that bypassed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The highly unusual demand, aimed at hospitals in coronavirus hot spots using funds passed by Congress with no preconditions, alarmed some hospital administrators and even some federal health officials.

The office of the health secretary, Alex M. Azar II, laid out the requirement in an April 21 email obtained by The New York Times that instructed hospitals to make a one-time report of their Covid-19 admissions and intensive care unit beds to TeleTracking Technologies, a company in Pittsburgh whose $10.2 million, five-month government contract has drawn scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

“Please be aware that submitting this data will inform the decision-making on targeted Relief Fund payments and is a prerequisite to payment,” the message read.

The financial condition, which has not been previously reported, applied to money from a $100 billion “coronavirus provider relief fund” established by Congress as part of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, signed by President Trump on March 27. Two days later, the administration instructed hospitals to make daily reports to the C.D.C., only to change course.

“Another data reporting ask,” a regional official in the health department informed colleagues in an email exchange obtained by The Times, adding: “It comes with $$ incentive. We really need a consolidated message on the reporting/data requests, this is past ridiculous.”

A colleague replied, “Another wrinkle. What a mess.”

The disclosure of the demand in April is the most striking example to surface of the department’s efforts to expand the role of private companies in health data collection, a practice that critics say infringes on what has long been a central mission of the C.D.C. Last month, the federal health department moved beyond financial incentives and abruptly ordered hospitals to send daily coronavirus reports to TeleTracking, not the C.D.C., raising concerns about transparency and reliability of the data.

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services say that the moves were necessary to improve and streamline data collection in a crisis, and that the one-time reports collected in April by TeleTracking were not available from any other source.

“The national health system has not been challenged in this way in any time in recent history,” Caitlin Oakley, a department spokeswoman, said in a statement, adding that TeleTracking offered a “standardized national hospital capacity tracking system which provided more real-time, better informed data to make decisions from.”

But critics remain alarmed.

“In the middle of a pandemic, the Trump administration is using funds meant to support hospitals as a tool to coerce them to use an unproven, untrusted and deeply flawed system that sidelines public health experts,” Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health Committee, said in a statement.

In a statement, TeleTracking said it has three decades of experience providing health care systems “with actionable data and unprecedented visibility to make better, faster decisions.”

Still, public health experts and hospital executives are puzzled as to why the health agency chose such a difficult time to employ an untested private vendor rather than improve the C.D.C.’s National Healthcare Safety Network, a decades-old disease tracking system that was deeply familiar to hospitals and state health departments.

The N.H.S.N., as it is known, had built up trust over decades of working with hospitals and state health departments. Administrators were reluctant to make the switch.

“People — especially in public health and clinical health — are very protective of their data, so that trust factor is certainly an issue,” said Patina Zarcone, the director of informatics for the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “The fear of having their data leaked or misused or used for a purpose that they weren’t aware of or agreed to — I think that’s the biggest rub.”

Ms. Oakley said the C.D.C.’s system was “not designed for use in a disaster response” and could not adapt quickly in a crisis. Allies of the C.D.C. say withholding taxpayer dollars from the CARES Act in lieu of cooperation was an inappropriate effort to push hospitals into a system they were reluctant to use.

“It’s an absolutely enormous lever,” said William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University. “It’s a compulsion to oblige institutions to report to this TeleTracking system because they knew if it weren’t tied to money, it wouldn’t happen.”

The Pittsburgh company has no obvious ties to the Trump administration. Rather, the push appears to be part of a broader privatization. The Health and Human Services Department has also asked the Minnesota-based manufacturer 3M “to create, and continuously update, a nationwide clinical data set on Covid-19 treatment,” according to documents obtained by The Times.

The effort is separate from the TeleTracking data collection. Tim Post, a company spokesman, said that because 3M already operates hospital information systems, it is “uniquely positioned,” with the permission of its clients, to submit information to the health department to help officials study disease patterns and recommend treatment options.

Some experts say this kind of cooperation with the private sector is long overdue. But the push also appears to be driven at least in part by an intensifying rift between the C.D.C., based in Atlanta, and officials at the White House and Department of Health and Human Services, the parent agency of the disease control centers.

Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, and Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff, have taken a dim view of the C.D.C. and believe its reporting systems were inadequate. In a recent interview, Michael Caputo, the spokesman for Mr. Azar, accused the C.D.C. of having “a tantrum.”

Accurate hospital data — including information about coronavirus caseloads, deaths, bed capacity and personal protective equipment — is essential to tracking the pandemic and guiding government decisions about how to distribute scarce resources, like ventilators and the drug remdesivir, the only approved treatment for hospitalized Covid-19 patients.

The health agency has set up a new database, H.H.S. Protect, to collect and analyze Covid-19 data from a range of sources. TeleTracking feeds hospital data to that system.

But the public rollout of H.H.S. Protect has been rocky. The nonpartisan Covid Tracking Project identified big disparities between hospital data reported by states and the federal government and deemed the federal data “unreliable.”

The tension dates to March, when the novel coronavirus was making its first surge in the United States

On March 29, Vice President Mike Pence, charged by Mr. Trump with overseeing the federal response, informed hospital administrators that the C.D.C. was setting up a “Covid-19 Module,” and asked them to file daily reports which, he said, were “necessary in monitoring the spread of severe Covid-19 illness and death as well as the impact to hospitals.”

But around that time, TeleTracking submitted a proposal for data collection to the Trump administration, through an initiative, ASPR Next, created to promote innovation. On April 10, TeleTracking was awarded its contract.

The health department’s spokeswoman said the intent was to complement the C.D.C., not compete with it. Like the C.D.C.’s network, TeleTracking’s system requires manual reporting on a daily basis. But in June, Ms. Murray demanded the administration provide more information about what she called a “multimillion-dollar contract” for a “duplicative health data system.”

Some hospital officials also objected to the change.

“We have been directing our hospitals to N.H.S.N.,” Jackie Gatz, a vice president of the Missouri Hospital Association, wrote to a regional health and human services official in an email obtained by The Times, “and now this email with a much greater carrot — CARES Act distributions — is routing them to TeleTracking.”

When the order was delivered, flaws had already emerged in the new system.

“H.H.S. has acknowledged long wait times for those calling for technical support, and indicated that TeleTracking recently added 100 staff to respond to call center requests,” the American Hospital Association wrote to its members in a “special bulletin” on April 23. “They also are directing hospitals to leave a message if they are unable to reach someone live.”

At the time, hospitals had the option of making their daily coronavirus reports to TeleTracking or the C.D.C. Few were using the new database.

In June, the administration again used a stick to demand that hospitals report to TeleTracking, this time in order to obtain remdesivir. By July, with Dr. Birx pushing to bolster hospital compliance, the administration instructed hospitals to stop filing daily reports to the C.D.C. and to send them to TeleTracking instead.

One official at a major academic hospital, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering officials in Washington, said the switch left her “unable to sleep at night.”

“Ethically, it felt like they had taken a very trusted institution in the C.D.C. and all of that trust built up with many public health people,” she said, then “moved it onto a politically and financially motivated portion of this response.”

Health and human services officials say the government now has a much more complete picture of hospital bed capacity, with more than 90 percent of hospitals reporting. But Dr. Janis M. Orlowski, the chief health officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges, who worked with Dr. Birx and the administration to bolster hospital reporting, said that she was “stunned” by the switch and that the increase in reporting came because of efforts by her group and others, not the TeleTracking system.

Dr. Orlowski said the data and maps now published on the administration’s H.H.S. Protect data hub are “just not as sophisticated as the C.D.C.”

The switch also generated pushback inside the C.D.C., where officials have refused to analyze and publish TeleTracking data, saying they could not be assured of its quality and had continuing questions about its accuracy, according to a senior federal health official.

Administration officials say the C.D.C. is working with a little-known office in the executive branch — the United States Digital Service — to build a “modernized automation process” in which data will continue to flow directly to the Department of Health and Human Services. But the project is in its infancy, one senior federal health official said.

Critics say that if the department believed the C.D.C.’s health network had problems, those should have been fixed.

“We have a public health system that depends upon communication from hospitals to state health departments to the C.D.C.,” said Dr. Schaffner, the Vanderbilt University infectious disease expert. “It’s very well established. Can it be improved? Of course. But to cut out the public health infrastructure and report to a private firm essential public health data is misguided in the extreme.”