Sales Reps May Be Wearing Out Their Welcome In The Operating Room

In the operating room, surgical masks and matching scrubs can make it hard to tell who’s whom — at least for outsiders.

Patients getting wheeled in might not realize that salespeople working on commission are frequently present and sometimes even advise the clinical team during surgery.

Who are these salespeople, and why are they there?

The answer to the first question is pretty easy. These sales reps typically work for medical device companies, such as Stryker, Medtronic or DePuy Synthes. Many surgeries, especially orthopedic trauma and cardiac procedures, require insertion of artificial joints or other hardware manufactured by these companies.

But as to why they’re present in the operating room, the answer depends on whom you ask.

Critics of the practice contend that device reps attend surgeries to strengthen their relationships with particular surgeons and thereby persuade them to choose one brand of artificial hip joint or stent or pacemaker over a competitor’s.

The device reps contend they observe surgeries because they are experts on particular devices and their accompanying toolkits, which often include hundreds of wrenches, screws and other hardware to aid in installation.

Sometimes, the device reps have observed more surgeries with a particular device than any one surgeon. That depth of experience can be helpful, the reps say, especially with the newest device model or upgrade.

“I can’t keep my socks together through the dryer. You can imagine trying to get 100 pans or 300 pans of instruments all set up correctly,” says orthopedic surgeon Michael Christie of Nashville, who specializes in new hips.

Device reps have been attending surgeries for years, but that practice is coming under new scrutiny. As baby boomers age, there has been exponential growth in device-dependent procedures like total joint replacements. In addition, insurers are starting to crack down on health care costs, telling hospitals that they’ll only pay a fixed price, known as a “bundled payment,” for certain surgical procedures, such as hip or knee replacements.

That approach has forced hospitals to take a hard look at the price tags of the devices and the salespeople who are pushing the latest models. Hospitals are “starting to figure out what these reps make for a living. They feel like they’re making too much money, and I think that’s why they want them out,” says Brent Ford, a former sales rep who now works for Nashville-based HealthTrust, a firm that handles contracting and purchasing of supplies like hip implants for 1,600 U.S. hospitals.

Medical device reps are more often business majors than biology buffs, but they train for the job as if they might have to conduct surgery themselves. At an educational center in Colorado, future reps learn how to saw off a hip bone and implant an artificial hip.

Their corporate training frequently involves cadavers, which helps reps develop the steel stomach required for the unsettling sights and sounds of an orthopedic operating room — like a surgeon loudly hammering a spike into a bone.

“Before we’re allowed to sell our products to surgeons, we have to know the anatomy of the body, go through tests of why physicians use these types of products and how we can assist in surgery,” says Chris Stewart, a former rep for Stryker, one of the largest device manufacturers.

Stewart now works for Ortho Sales Partners, a company that helps device manufacturers navigate relationships with hospitals.

Keeping those relationships strong is crucial, because hospitals don’t have to allow reps into their operating rooms. But if reps are allowed, there are rules: Reps can’t touch the patient or anything that’s sterile.

Big companies like Stryker have developed detailed policies for their own reps about how to behave in the operating room. And some hospitals, like hospital chain HCA’s flagship medical center in Nashville, have instituted even stricter rules — selling is banned in the OR and reps are only allowed to provide support for surgical cases.

But Stewart maintains reps still can be useful. Some help surgical assistants find a particular tiny component among the trays of ancillary tools. Some reps even deliver the tool trays to the hospital themselves, prior to the surgery. They want the procedure to run as smoothly as possible so that a busy surgeon will become a steady customer.

“Obviously, there’s a patient on the table being operated on, so that’s where the sense of urgency is,” Stewart says. “You have to become an expert in understanding how to be efficient with helping everyone in the OR making sure your implants are being utilized correctly.”

Keeping up with technology

Stewart says it has become difficult for the hospital staff to keep pace with constant design changes for artificial joints or spinal rod systems.

But the speed of innovation concerns some researchers, including Adriane Fugh-Berman, a Georgetown University medical doctor who studies the relationships between industry and physicians.

“What we need are skilled helpers in the operating room who are not making money off of the choices of the surgeons,” she says.

Fugh-Berman has come to believe that reps should be banned from operating rooms. Her biggest concern is safety, including the occasional violations of sterile protocol. As part of her research, she anonymously interviewed reps who said they’re instructed to always push the latest, most expensive products, even when the old version is more proven.

“The newest device is not necessarily the best device,” she says. “In fact, it may be the worst device.”

Cost concerns

Yet safety issues are not what has worn out the welcome for some reps — it’s their potential influence on surgical costs. Their exact effect remains hard for hospitals to quantify, but hospital executives now have a new incentive to push back on the role of the rep because insurance reimbursement formulas have changed.

For example, in 2016 the government-run Medicare program began changing how it pays hospitals for a joint replacement — from a traditional billing-for-costs model to a fixed-dollar amount for each surgery. It’s a cost-control move, because joint replacement has become one of the most common reasons for inpatient hospitalization for Medicare patients.

Increasingly, hospitals are feeling the squeeze of these new payment caps.

“They’re looking at costs and saying, ‘I want to understand everything that drives cost in my OR,’ ” says Doug Jones, a former rep with DePuy who now works for HealthTrust to control surgical spending. “I think they’re becoming more aware that that rep is in there and saying, ‘Is there a cost associated with it?’ ”

HealthTrust hasn’t been telling administrators to kick out sales reps. But it has been suggesting hospitals reassess their role. The company, which is a subsidiary of for-profit hospital chain HCA, has studied particular devices, like pedicle screws, often used in spine procedures. They cost anywhere from $50 to $100 to manufacture, but a hospital might pay a thousand dollars apiece to keep them in stock. One basic spine procedure can involve several screws and rods, with the sales rep standing to make a 10 percent to 25 percent commission on the equipment used, according to HealthTrust’s market research.

And in many places, upselling occurs in the room, says HealthTrust’s Ford. He recalls seeing reps encouraging a surgeon preparing for a procedure to use a fancier device that wasn’t on the hospital’s discounted list.

Other HealthTrust clients are starting pilot projects on running operating rooms without company-sponsored reps and buying equipment directly from smaller firms, which often have devices that are nearly identical to the brand names.

But getting rid of the rep may have hidden costs, too.

Surgeon-rep relationships

Joint replacements have become so routine that an experienced surgical team can nearly operate in silence. When the surgeon says “neck” and reaches out his hand, an assistant places the piece in his hand without a moment’s delay.

The array of tools and components are often in the right place because a device rep made sure of it. Logistics is a big part of the job — delivering trays of instruments in the pre-dawn hours to be sterilized by the hospital, the “non-glorious side of being a rep,” Ford says.

The logistical role has essentially been filled by the manufacturers instead of hospitals in recent decades. And now surgeons may trust their reps more than anyone else in the room. They’re often the first call he or she makes when scheduling a case, to make sure the device will be ready to go.

“If that widget isn’t there the next day when I’m doing a case and I need the widget, we’re kind of at an impasse,” says Christie, the Nashville-based joint replacement surgeon.

Many experienced surgeons, like Christie, also have financial ties to manufacturers, collecting substantial royalties for helping design new implants. As of 2013, these payments are now disclosed publicly. Christie, for example, was paid $123,000 by DuPuy in 2017.

An industry trade group spokesman defends the close relationship as a way to improve their products and provide hands-on training to surgeons. “Those are two areas where it’s key to maintain a close, collaborative relationship, with the appropriate ethical limitations,” says Terry Chang, associate general counsel for AdvaMed.

Filling a personnel gap

The overall result is that many clinicians are happy to have reps in the room.

“You say ‘sales rep,’ ” says Marley Duff, an operating room manager at TriStar Centennial Medical Center. “I look at them more being somebody that’s expertly trained in their field to provide support for the implants that they happen to sell.”

Duff says reps can be especially helpful when a failing artificial joint needs to be removed and replaced.

Hospitals are reluctant to remove reps, for fear of irritating surgeons, who typically don’t work directly for a particular hospital and could move their cases to another institution. Those hospitals experimenting with going “rep-less” have done so quietly and have had to hire additional staff to pick up the slack.

One of the first in the country to try, Loma Linda University Health, boasted in 2015 of reducing costs for total knee and hip replacements by more than 50 percent by going rep-less.

But a hospital spokesperson now tells NPR that the medical center has abandoned the effort, though she refused to discuss why.


Can Paying for a Health Problem as a Whole, Not Piece by Piece, Save Medicare Money?

Among the standard complaints about the American health care system is that care is expensive and wasteful. These two problems are related, and to address them, Medicare has new ways to pay for care.

Until recently, Medicare paid for each health care service and reimbursed each health care organization separately. It didn’t matter if tests were duplicated or if a more efficient way of delivering care was available — as long as doctors and organizations were paid for what they did, they just kept providing care the way they always had.

But ordinary people do not think this way. We focus on solving our health problem, not which — or how many — discrete health care services might address it. New Medicare programs are devised to more closely align how care is paid for with what we want that care to achieve.

One of these programs is known as bundled payments. Instead of paying separately for every health care service associated with a medical event, you pay (or Medicare pays, in this case) one price for the entire episode. If health care providers can address the problem for less, they keep the difference, or some of it. If they spend more, they lose money. Bundled payment programs vary, but some also include penalties for poor quality or bonuses for good quality.

Medicare has several bundled payment programs for hip and knee replacements — the most common type of Medicare procedures — and associated care that takes place within 90 days. This includes the operation itself, as well as follow-up rehabilitation (also known as post-acute care). In theory, if doctors and hospitals get one payment encompassing all this, they will better coordinate their efforts to limit waste and keep costs down.

Do bundled payments work? They certainly appear promising, at least for some treatments. But it’s important to conduct rigorous evaluations.

Previous studies for Medicare by the Lewin Group and other researchers suggest that Medicare’s Bundled Payments for Care Improvement program has reduced the amount Medicare pays for each hip and knee replacement.

But that doesn’t mean the program saved money over all.

One possible issue would be if, despite saving money per procedure, health care providers wastefully increased the number of procedures — replacing hips and knees that they might not otherwise. A related concern is if hospitals try to increase profits by nudging services toward patients who may not need a procedure as much as patients with more severe and more expensive conditions. An average joint replacement costs $26,000, split almost equally between the initial procedure and post-acute care. But more expensive cases can be $75,000 to $125,000 — a costly proposition for hospitals.

A recent study published in JAMA examined whether the volume of Medicare-financed hip and knee replacements changed in the markets served by hospitals that volunteered for a bundled payments program, relative to markets with no hospitals joining the program. It found no evidence that the bundled payment program increased hip and knee replacement volume, and it found almost no evidence that hospitals skewed their services toward patients whose procedures cost less.

“These results suggest bundled payments are a win-win,” said Ezekiel Emanuel, a co-author of the study. “They save payers like Medicare money and encourage hospitals and physicians to be more efficient in the delivery of care.”

But Robert Berenson, a fellow at the Urban Institute, urges some caution. “Studying one kind of procedure doesn’t tell you much about the rest of health care,” he said. “A lot of health care is not like knee and hip replacements.”

Michael Chernew, a Harvard health economist, agreed. “Bundles can certainly be a helpful tool in fostering greater efficiency in our health care system,” he said. “But the findings for hip and knee replacements may not generalize to other types of care.”

Christine Yee, a health economist with the Partnered Evidence-Based Policy Resource Center at the Boston Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, has studied Medicare’s previous efforts and summarized studies about them. (I and several others were also involved in compiling that summary.) “Medicare has tried bundled payments in one form or another for more than three decades,” Ms. Yee said. “They tend to save money, and when post-acute care is included in the bundle, use of those kinds of services often goes down.”

One limitation shared by all of these studies is that they are voluntary: No hospital is required to participate. Nor are they randomized into the new payment system (treatment) or business as usual (control). Therefore we can’t be certain that apparent savings are real. Maybe hospitals that joined the bundled payment programs are more efficient (or can more easily become so) than the ones that didn’t.

Another new study in JAMA examines a mandatory, randomized trial of bundled payments. On April 1, 2016, Medicare randomly assigned 75 markets to be subject to bundled payments for knee and hip replacements and 121 markets to business as usual. This policy experiment, known as the Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement program, will continue for five years. The JAMA study analyzed just the first year of data.

“In this first look at the data, we examined post-acute care because it is an area where there is concern about overuse,” said Amy Finkelstein, an M.I.T. health economist and an author of the study. “In addition, prior work suggested that it’s a type of care that hospitals can often avoid.”

The study found that bundled payments reduced the use of post-acute care by about 3 percent, which is less than what prior studies found. “Those prior studies weren’t randomized trials, so some of the savings they estimate may really be due to which hospitals chose to participate in bundled payment programs,” Ms. Finkelstein said. Despite reduced post-acute care use, the study did not find savings to Medicare once the costs of paying out bonuses were factored in. The study also found no evidence of harm to health care quality, no increase in the volume of hip and knee replacements, and no change in the types of patients treated.

“Savings could emerge in later years because it may take time for hospitals to fully change their behavior, “ Ms. Finkelstein said. In addition, the program’s financial incentives will increase over time; bonuses for saving money and penalties for failing to do so will rise.

On the other hand, Dr. Berenson said, health care providers could figure out how to work the system: “In three to five years, we may see volume go up in a way that offsets savings through reduced payments for a procedure. We’ll wait and see.”

Medicare put its best foot forward by using a randomized design. Not only were the markets selected in a randomized fashion, but providers in those markets were also required to participate. Though common in medical studiesrandomization is rare in health care policy, as is mandatory participation. Nearly 80 percent of medical studies are randomized trials, but less than 20 percent of studies testing health system change are. Organizations that would be subject to the experiments often strongly resist randomizing health system changes and forcing providers to participate.

Unfortunately, the randomization of the Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement program will be partly compromised in coming years. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced last year that hospitals in only half of markets under the program would have to stay in it. Participation is voluntary in the other half, and only one-quarter of hospitals opted in.

Going to a partly voluntary program will make it harder to learn about longer-term effects, Ms. Finkelstein said, and to get at the answers we’re seeking.

Bundled Payment Program Does Not Drive Hospitals to Increase Volume

Lower extremity joint replacement

The Issue

In 2013, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) introduced a voluntary program for hospitals called Bundled Payments for Care Improvement (BPCI). Under this alternative payment model, CMS makes a single, preset payment for an episode, or “bundle,” of care, which may include a hospitalization, postacute care, and other services. Evaluations of the program for lower extremity joint replacement surgery (e.g., a hip or knee replacement) have found that it reduced spending. But experts wonder if bundled payments could encourage hospitals to perform more surgeries than they would otherwise or to cherry-pick lower-risk patients. Commonwealth Fund–supported researchers explore these issues of volume and case mix in the Journal of the American Medical Association.The authors used Medicare claims data from before and after the launch of BPCI, comparing markets that did and did not participate in the program.

What the Study Found


increase in mean quarterly market volume in non-BPCI markets after the program was launched


increase in mean quarterly market volume in BPCI markets after the program was launched

  • Participation in the BPCI program was not significantly associated with an overall change in the volume of surgeries performed.
  • The mean quarterly market volume in non-BPCI markets increased 3.8 percent after the program was launched. For BPCI markets, the increase was 4.4 percent.
  • The analysis found only one change in case mix: patients who had previously used skilled nursing facilities were slightly less likely to undergo a lower extremity joint replacement surgery at a hospital participating in BPCI.

The Big Picture

Results from this study alleviate concerns that hospitals’ participation in voluntary bundles may increase the overall number of joint replacement surgeries paid for by Medicare. In particular, the savings per episode observed in prior BPCI evaluations are not diminished or eliminated by an increase in procedure volume. The findings do raise concerns: if patients with prior use of skilled nursing facilities are less likely to undergo procedures at BPCI-participating hospitals, perhaps it is because hospitals avoid them based on perceived risk. On the other hand, the authors note, these decisions could have been based on clinically appropriate factors, like risk of complications.

The Bottom Line

Hospital participation in a bundled care program did not change overall volume, thereby alleviating the risk of eliminating savings related to the program. In addition, participation was generally not associated with changes in case mix.




What Have We Learned About Bundling Medical Conditions?

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As an alternative payment model, bundled payments hold the potential to improve the value of care by holding clinicians and organizations accountable for episode-specific quality and costs. Medicare has scaled bundled payments nationwide via several programs that define episodes based on hospitalization and up to 90 days of post-acute care.

However, the impact of bundled payments appears to differ between surgical and medical episodes. On one hand, Medicare has achieved promising results from bundling surgical care for lower extremity joint replacement. Medicare’s evaluation of its largest national bundled payment program, the Bundled Payments for Care Improvement (BPCI) initiative, has demonstrated that participation in joint replacement bundles is associated with a 3.8 percent decrease in per-episode spending with stable-to-improved quality. Other work evaluating the experience of high performers in BPCI demonstrates that bundled payments may reduce the costs of joint replacement episodes by up to 20 percent, with sizeable bonuses to physicians and hospitals and small improvements in quality – outcomes that, if scalable, would represent a win for patients, clinicians, organizations, and Medicare alike. On the other hand, recent evidence corroborates analyses conducted by Medicare and its contractor, suggesting that as designed, bundles for medical conditions such as congestive heart failure (CHF) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are not associated with significant changes in quality or Medicare spending.

Therefore, one critical aspect of understanding the impact of bundled payments is evaluating how and why it differs for surgical versus medical care. This insight is particularly important given that surgical and medical episodes will be further expanded at a national scale in the forthcoming Bundled Payments for Care Improvement Advanced (BPCI-Advanced) program. In this post, we describe why the lack of episode savings in Medicare’s medical bundles may not be unexpected, why policymakers should not abandon medical bundles, and why existing evidence poses three important policy implications for the future of medical bundles.

Why Results May Differ For Surgical Versus Medical Bundles

By designing bundles that span hospitalization and post-acute care, Medicare has emphasized reductions in post-acute utilization and spending as major financial savings opportunities. While this approach suits surgical care in which a procedure triggers a cascade of acute and post-acute care, it may pose several challenges for episodes related to medical conditions. First, spending patterns for surgical versus medical care differ, more predictably spiking after surgical procedures but adopting a more cyclical pattern for chronic medical conditions. Accordingly, hospitalization may be more appropriate as an episode trigger for surgical episodes than for medical ones.

In surgical care such as joint replacement, hospitalization is a clear, distinct trigger before which there would be no expected episode-related utilization (e.g., little to no joint replacement-associated services prior to the surgery) and after which there is a distinct cascade of related utilization (e.g., physical rehabilitation, wound care, and post-surgical follow-up). In contrast, hospitalization only represents one aspect and phase of management for medical conditions such as CHF and COPD, which span outpatient, inpatient, emergency department, and post-acute settings over longer periods.

Second, physicians’ and hospitals’ ability to impact post-acute care utilization and spending may differ between surgical and medical episodes. This difference is not simply a reflection of the proportion of total episode spending paid to institutional post-acute care providers. For example, spending on skilled nursing facilities and inpatient rehabilitation facilities was only marginally higher for joint replacement compared with five medical conditions (26 versus 24 percent, respectively).

Rather, differences in the ability to impact post-acute care utilization may relate to the types of services provided in institutional post-acute settings for surgical versus medical patients. For surgical episodes, care at skilled nursing facilities often involves discrete, time-limited activities such as physical rehabilitation to achieve post-surgical recovery (e.g., strengthening, functional improvement). In contrast, given the natural history of diseases such as CHF and COPD, institutional post-acute care services for medical patients generally involve complex tasks such as medication management(e.g., diuretics) and multifaceted occupational therapy to promote self-care and activities of daily living. Consequently, hospitals in surgical bundles have achieved savings without compromising quality by shifting discharges from skilled nursing facilities and inpatient rehabilitation facilities towards home, with either home health or self-care. However, it remains unclear if similar efforts are possible or appropriate for the types of post-acute care that are often required as part of medical bundles. In turn, discharge patterns in medical bundles may reflect the less predictably defined roles of institutional post-acute care providers.

Another reason that shifting discharges away from institutional post-acute care providers may prove challenging under medical bundles is that they involve different types of patients than those often involved in surgical bundles. As noted recently, patients in medical bundles tend to be older and at higher risk for poverty and disability than patients in joint replacement bundles. In turn, patients receiving care for medical conditions may have greater clinical needs during and after hospitalization than patients undergoing surgical procedures.

Implications For The Design Of Medical Bundles

Collectively, these dynamics offer insight into why clinicians bundling care for medical conditions have not achieved savings in BPCI. They also have implications for the design of medical bundles going forward.

First, Medicare could consider modifying when and how medical episodes begin. Rather than being a necessary pre-condition for an episode, hospitalization itself may be a modifiable element of variation in medical conditions. Consequently, unlike in surgical procedures, using hospitalization as a medical episode trigger may miss the opportunity to include cost and utilization variation across the care continuum. As an alternative, if medical episodes were triggered in the outpatient setting – for example, after two specialty office visits within one month — provides might be better able to coordinate medical bundles with other efforts to improve value (e.g., payment models such as accountable care organizations and policies such as the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program).

Second, Medicare could design medical bundles so that the emphasis on improvement is not restricted to care delivered in the post-discharge period. While variation reduction is not an absolute requisite for performance in bundled payments, care standardization remains an important organizational strategy for improving episode-based care. Creating incentives to focus on outpatient and pre-discharge elements may be particularly fruitful for medical bundles given the complexities of ongoing (in the ambulatory setting) and acute (in the hospital setting) management, and the possibility that practice redesign may require more time and greater effort than in surgical episodes.

Third, more data are needed to understand the impact of medical bundles and how best to design them in the future. To date, we have only early evidence about the impact of medical bundles in BPCI (the mean number of months of BPCI participation was 7 months for these hospitals). Given that other alternative payment models such as accountable care organizations have required three or more years before participants achieved savings, medical bundled payment policy should be guided by longer-term evaluations. Such evaluations should also closely monitor the programs for unintended effects: while it may be reassuring that medical bundles have not appeared to inadvertently lead to more readmissions or emergency department visits, vigilance is nonetheless required given the history of racial disparities in access that stem from quality- and value-based policies. Finally, future work can speed progress towards improvement by providing more detailed descriptions of the utilization and spending patterns of patients involved in medical bundles, as well as highlighting the experiences of high-performing providers.

Looking Ahead

While existing evidence suggests that medical bundles may not improve the value of care, these findings are not necessarily unexpected, and policymakers should not abandon the effort to bundle the care of medical conditions. Instead, in addition to more long-term evaluations, the design of medical bundles may be improved in the future by modifying how they are triggered and which phases of care they capture.


CMS makes it official: Two mandatory bundled-pay models canceled

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The CMS has finalized its decision to toss two mandatory bundled-payment models and cut down the number of providers required to participate in a third.

Only 34 geographic areas will be required to participate in the Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement Model, or CJR, according to a rulemaking released Thursday. Initially, 67 geographic areas were supposed to participate.

Up to 470 hospitals are expected to continue to operate under the model. That includes the CMS’ estimate that 60 to 80 hospitals will voluntarily participate in CJR. Originally, 800 acute-care hospitals would have participated under the program.

With so many hospitals getting a reprieve, the CMS estimates the model will save $106 million less over the next three years versus what it would have saved if CJR had remained mandatory for all 67 geographic areas. The model is now expected to save $189 million over those years instead of $295 million.

The rule comes weeks after the CMS finalized a proposal to allow knee-replacement surgeries to take place in outpatient settings. When the proposal was released in July, some questioned if it was an attempt to undermine the CJR model.

The CMS has also finalized plans to cancel the Episode Payment Models and the Cardiac Rehabilitation Incentive Payment Model, which were scheduled to begin on Jan. 1, 2018. Eliminating these models gives the CMS greater flexibility to design and test innovations that will improve quality and care coordination across the inpatient and post-acute-care spectrum, the agency said.

These cardiac pay models were estimated to save Medicare $170 million collectively over five years.

The agency acknowledged that some hospitals wanted the models to continue on a voluntary basis, as they had already invested resources to launch them, but said those arguments were not detailed enough for the agency to do so.

“We note that commenters did not provide enough detail about the hiring status or educational and licensing requirements of any care coordinator positions they may have created and filled for us to quantify an economic impact for these case coordination investments,” the CMS said.

On average, hospitals have five full-time employees, including clinical staff, tracking and reporting quality measures under value-based models, according to the AHA. They are also spending approximately $709,000 annually on the administrative aspects of quality reporting.

More broadly, the average community hospital spends $7.6 million annually on administrative costs to meet a subset of federal mandates that cut across quality reporting, record-keeping and meaningful use compliance, according to the trade group.

Ultimately, the CMS decided to not alter the design of these models to allow for voluntary participation since that would potentially involve restructuring the model, payment methodologies, financial arrangement provisions and quality measures, and it did not believe that such alterations would offer providers enough time to prepare for the changes before the planned Jan. 1, 2018 start date.

The CMS acknowledged that hospitals and other stakeholders have voiced concerns that the Trump administration may not be as committed to value-based care as the Obama administration, but it insists that’s not true. The CMS said the Trump administration just believes voluntary models are the better way to go.

“We take seriously the commenters’ concerns about the urgency of continuing our movement toward value-based care in order to accommodate an aging population with increasing levels of chronic conditions,” the agency said in the rule. “We continue to believe that value-based payment methodologies will play an essential role in lowering costs and improving quality of care, which will be necessary in order to maintain Medicare’s fiscal solvency.”


The Promise and Pitfalls of Bundled Payments

he Obama administration recently announced that it plans to expand bundled payment models in the Medicare program. Bundled payments are one of several new payment alternatives in Medicare and Medicaid designed to hold health providers accountable for the cost and quality of care, and thereby encourage and reward better health care value.

All these so-called value-based payment initiatives, which include accountable care organizations (ACOs) and enhancements to older managed care programs under Medicare and Medicaid, are to some degree experimental and their full effects are still uncertain. However, the spread of bundled payments deserves particular scrutiny because of potential unintended consequences.

Why Bundled Payments?

Under bundled payments, a single payment is made for all of the services associated with an episode of care, such as a hip or knee replacement or cardiac surgery. Services might include all inpatient, outpatient, and rehabilitation care associated with the procedure.

“Knee and hip replacements are well-suited to bundles because they often involve comparatively young patients who are physically active (often the source of their joint damage) and want to remain so. But when patients have multiple chronic conditions that interact with each other, it becomes less clear whether the bundle should include the costs of caring for all those problems.”

There are a number of potential advantages to this payment approach. Bundled payments give providers strong incentives to keep their costs down, including by preventing avoidable complications. Bundled payments also can encourage collaboration across diverse providers and institutions, as well as the development and implementation of care pathways that follow evidence-based guidelines. In addition, bundles target the work of specialists, who have been less likely up to now than primary care physicians to participate in value-based payment arrangements.

More conceptually, health care economists are drawn to bundled payments because a bundle of care constitutes a clinically and intuitively meaningful “product” — in this case, the clinical episode. Defining clear products in health care helps create markets in which providers directly compete on quality and price. One barrier to effective health care markets has been that prices, when available, tend to relate to inputs into clinical care — such as pills, bandages, bed days, or X-rays — that are not meaningful to consumers of care and that don’t necessarily predict the total costs of care. For example, a health system that charges a lot for X-rays may still be more efficient because it uses fewer of them or saves money on other inputs. Bundles bring all these inputs together into a single price for a single basket of services.

Three reimbursement changes to watch in 2017

By far, the biggest change Health Partners’ Donna Zimmerman sees in terms of reimbursement in 2017 is the increased momentum behind bundled payments for orthopedic care.

Zimmerman“Hospitals need to be prepared for more of this,” says Zimmerman, who is senior vice president of government and community relations at the Bloomington, Minnesota-based nonprofit healthcare provider and payer. That’s because employers are increasingly interested in bundled payments for orthopedic and other types of procedures, and they’re often offering incentives related to bundled episodes of care in benefit plans, she says.

Offering a bundled payment option for a joint replacement, in particular, is getting more common. Even with physical therapy that lasts a few months, these are “fairly discrete episodes of care,” says Zimmerman, who adds that bundled payments are particularly attractive to employers and payers since they allow them to manage the total cost of care.

As a result, provider organizations will need to continue to focus on improving their quality scores, since this is one of the primary ways to distinguish their facilities from competing hospitals. In addition to the total cost of care, Zimmerman highlights that payers will be keeping tabs on providers’ complication rates and will adjust the prices they’re willing to pay providers for bundles of care as a result.

Here’s more on how bundled payments will evolve in 2017, and two other reimbursement changes to watch.

Bundled payments: What healthcare leaders need to know

The Promise and Pitfalls of Bundled Payments

Why Bundled Payments?

Under bundled payments, a single payment is made for all of the services associated with an episode of care, such as a hip or knee replacement or cardiac surgery. Services might include all inpatient, outpatient, and rehabilitation care associated with the procedure.

There are a number of potential advantages to this payment approach. Bundled payments give providers strong incentives to keep their costs down, including by preventing avoidable complications. Bundled payments also can encourage collaboration across diverse providers and institutions, as well as the development and implementation of care pathways that follow evidence-based guidelines. In addition, bundles target the work of specialists, who have been less likely up to now than primary care physicians to participate in value-based payment arrangements.

More conceptually, health care economists are drawn to bundled payments because a bundle of care constitutes a clinically and intuitively meaningful “product” — in this case, the clinical episode. Defining clear products in health care helps create markets in which providers directly compete on quality and price. One barrier to effective health care markets has been that prices, when available, tend to relate to inputs into clinical care — such as pills, bandages, bed days, or X-rays — that are not meaningful to consumers of care and that don’t necessarily predict the total costs of care. For example, a health system that charges a lot for X-rays may still be more efficient because it uses fewer of them or saves money on other inputs. Bundles bring all these inputs together into a single price for a single basket of services.

VIDEO: Healthcare Economist & Futurist Dr. Bill McGivney

VIDEO: Healthcare Economist & Futurist Dr. Bill McGivney

Healthcare Executives Network