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Safety-Net Hospitals Penalized for Too Many Readmissions – Fair or Not Fair?

Since 2012, Medicare has penalized hospitals for having too many patients end up back in their care within a month. Mind you, these re-admissions are not the hospitals’ fault. Many of the re-admissions are uninsured patients and who are without primary care. Without an alternative, they present back at the hospitals within 30 days. This penalty on hospitals is called the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP) and is not without controversy.

For example, if hospitals are not allowed to turn away patients for their lack of ability to pay, then penalizing the hospital for a readmission (who the hospital cannot turn away) seems fundamentally unfair. Imagine someone at the Center for  Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) yelling at you: “You cannot turn away any patients by law! But if you accept a patient for readmission, then you will be penalized!!” The logic is incongruous. The hospital is found in a Catch-22. Damned if they do; damned if they don’t.

The Emergency Medical and Treatment Labor Act (EMTLA) passed by Congress in 1986 explicitly forbids the denial of care to indigent or uninsured patients based on a lack of ability to pay. It also prohibits “patient dumping” a practice in which a hospital orders unnecessary transfers while care is being administered and prohibits the suspension of care once it is initiated.

Even non-emergent care is generally required, depending on the hospital. Public hospitals may not deny patient care based on ability to pay (or lack thereof). Private hospitals may, in non-emergency situations, deny or discontinue care.

The most recent HRRP report, which concentrated on Connecticut hospitals, which will penalize CT hospitals for too many readmissions starting October 1, 2018, shows: 27 of the 29 hospitals evaluated — or 93% — will be penalized in the 2019 fiscal year (Oct. 1, 2018 – Oct. 1, 2019) that began Oct. 1, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis of CMS data. $566 million in total penalties will be required, depending on the severity of the violations.

Here is the formula used to determine penalties for readmission within 30 days to a hospital:

Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 2.13.52 PM

No hospital that was audited received the maximum penalty of 3%, but 9 CT hospitals will have their Medicare reimbursements reduced by 1% or more. They are: Waterbury Hospital at 2.19%, Bridgeport Hospital at 2.01%, Bristol Hospital at 1.91%, Manchester Memorial Hospital at 1.74%, Johnson Memorial Hospital in Stafford Springs at 1.71%, Midstate Medical Center in Meriden at 1.37%, St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport at 1.21%, Griffin Hospital in Derby at 1.17%, and Yale New Haven Hospital at 1.03%.

There is controversy over the HRRP.

Observation status does not count.

Interestingly, what is not evaluated in the Hospital Readmission Reduction Program may be just as important, or more so, than what it is evaluated. -And what is not evaluated in the HRRP has morphed our health care system into a plethora of observation only admissions.

Patients who are admitted under observation status are excluded from the readmission measure. What, pray tell, do you think the result has been because of the observation status being excluded??

  • More in-patient admissions?
  • More observation status admissions?
  • No change?

If you guessed more observation status admissions, then you would be correct.

Most hospitals have developed clinical decision units, which are typically short-stay observation areas designed to care for patients in less than 24-hours. The difference between inpatient and observation status is important because Medicare pays different rates according to each status. Patients admitted under observation status are considered outpatients, even though they may stay in the hospital for several days and receive treatment in a hospital bed. Medicare requires a three-day hospital inpatient stay minimum before it will cover the cost of rehabilitative care in a skilled nursing care center. However, observation stays, regardless of length, do not count toward Medicare’s requirement.

30-Day readmission period is arbitrary.

Why 30-days? If a patient is readmitted on the 30th day, the hospital is penalized. But if the patient is readmitted on Day 31, the hospital is not penalized. There just isn’t a lucid, common sense reason except that 30 is a nice, round number.

The HRRP disproportionately discriminates against hospitals that have high volume of uninsured.

HRRP does not adjust for socioeconomic status. This means that the HRRP may be penalizing hospitals, such as safety-net hospitals, that care for disadvantaged populations.

When other laws, unintentionally or intentionally, discriminate between socioeconomic status, often an association or group brings a class action lawsuit in federal court asking the judge to declare the law unconstitutional due to discrimination. Discrimination can be proven in court by how the law of supply or how the law is written.

Here, the 27 hospitals, which will be receiving penalties for fiscal year 2019, serve a high population of low income patients. The result of which hospitals are getting penalized is an indication of a discriminatory practice, even if it is unintentional.

The Upshot from Knicole:

These hospitals should challenge the HRRP legally. Reimbursements for services render constitute a property right. Usurping this property right without due process may be a violation of our Constitution. For $566 million…there should be a fair fight.


NC is #1 in USA!! (For Highest Percentage Increase in Total Medicaid Spending)…and What About the Rest of the USA?

On October 21, 2013, the magazine Modern Healthcare published an article, “Medicaid budgets By State,” which showed each state’s total Medicaid spent in 2012, total number of Medicaid enrollees in 2012, and average spending per enrollee in 2012.

Where does North Carolina rank in terms of our Medicaid budget versus other states?  We hear constantly that we spend all this needless money on administrative costs of Medicaid.  But, in terms of our Medicaid budget, where do we rank?  And my next question…do we simply have more Medicaid recipients in NC in relation to other states?  Is NC’s average spending per Medicaid enrollee grossly higher or lower than the national average?

Inquiring minds want to know!

Surprisingly, at least to me, Alaska has the highest average spending per Medicaid enrollee: $13,073, on average, per enrollee.  But then I thought about, much of Alaska is rural…not only rural , but almost impossible to navigate due to the snow and ice.  I don’t know for sure, but I would imagine that getting to and from Medicaid recipients or getting recipients to services (while not always reimbursed by Medicaid) must impact some of the costs.

[Important to note: The average spending per enrollee, to my knowledge, does not mean actual money spent per enrollee.  I believe the authors took the total budget and divided it by the number of enrollees.  So the average spent per enrollee includes built-in, administrative costs.]

Or…Maybe Alaska has a low number of Medicaid recipients and that is why Alaska spends the most per enrollee…maybe Alaska has a huge Medicaid budget without many recipients on which to spend it…few people, big pie…

I looked.

Alaska had, in 2012, 109,000 Medicaid recipients.

The fewer people you have at Thanksgiving, the bigger the pie pieces.  However, interestingly enough, Alaska spent $1.425 million total in Medicaid in 2012.  Delaware spent $1.421 in Medicaid in 2012. (Close enough, right?).  Yet, Delaware spent $6831, on average, per enrollee.  Maybe the pie analogy doesn’t work.  Maybe sometimes, even with a big pie and few people, too many rats and ants nibble at the pie.

Out of 50 states, where do you think NC falls?  Top 10 highest spender?  Bottom 10?  Right in the middle?

Drum roll……..


The only 8 states that spend more than NC per Medicaid recipient are:

1. Alaska

2.  New Jersey (somehow that did not surprise me) ($11,433/recipient)

3. Rhode Island (that did surprise me…I mean, look how little RI is…how big a Medicaid budget can it have?) ($11,080/recipient)

4.  North Dakota (a less populous state (less tax dollars), I believe) ($10,969/recipient)

5.  Pennsylvania ($10,835/recipient)

6.  Minnesota (there are big cities there (more tax dollars), no surprise) ($10,080/recipient)

7.  Missouri  (I went to law school in Missouri. This number surprised me a bit).  ($10,022/recipient)

8.  Connecticut ($9883/recipient)

9.  NC ($9,430/recipient)

Crazy! What about Illinois? With the hugely populous, Windy City and it being Obama’s home state, surely, Medicaid spending per recipient is, at least, in the middle, right?

Wrong.  Illinois is dead last with only $5229, on average, per recipient being spent.

Probably because too many people were invited to Thanksgiving…in 2012, Illinois had 2.626 million Medicaid recipients enrolled….or too many rats and ants.

Compare to NC in 2012 – 1.471 million Medicaid recipients.

What was Alaska’s Medicaid budget/spending in 2012 that the average spending per enrollee was $13,073?

$1.425 million spent.  Up 10.3% from 2011.  And 109,000 Medicaid enrollees.

Here is NC:

Spending: $13.872 million. Up 22.8% from 2011. And 1.471 million recipients.

Here is a crazy one..Nevada:

In 2012, Nevada had 301,000 Medicaid enrollees.  A little under 3x Alaska.  Nevada spent $1.692 million on Medicaid (only 200,000-ish over Alaska), but Nevada’s average spending per enrollee was $5,621 (less than half of Alaska and the third lowest amount spent per enrollee).  Where did all Nevada’s Medicaid money go?? Rats and ants eating away the pie?

North Dakota has the very least number of Medicaid enrollees in 2012…66,000.  Wyoming is a close second with only 67,000 Medicaid enrollees in 2012.

North Dakota was the 4th highest state as to spending per enrollee with an average of $10,969/enrollee.

Wyoming was the 16th highest state as to spending per enrollee with an average of $8537/enrollee.

Guess which state had the highest total spending on Medicaid in 2012?

Drum roll…..

California. (Shocker!). California spent $47.726 million on Medicaid, up 4.2% from 2011.  California also had the highest number of enrollees on 2012 with 2.624 million enrollees (over a million more than NC).  California also spent the 5th lowest on average per enrollee, $6,065.

Having a high number of enrollees did not always have a direct correlation with spending the least, on average, per enrollee.  Oregon only had 569,000 Medicaid enrollees in 2012 and spent the 4th lowest amount, on average, per enrollee, $6,007.

New York is the closest state to spending and number of recipients to California, but New York succeeded in a much higher average spending per enrollee than California.

New York spent $39.257 million total on Medicaid (less than $8 million difference from California) in 2012.  New York had 5.004 million enrollees (2.8 million Medicaid enrollees less than California) and spent, on average, $7845/enrollee (absolute, dead-on-middle as compared to all states).

Georgia is, perhaps, the most comparable to North Carolina in terms of number of Medicaid enrollees in 2012.  NC = 1.471 million enrollees in 2012.  GA = 1.529 enrollees in 2012.

NC spent $13.872 million, while Georgia spent $8.497 million in 2012.  So, Georgia had MORE Medicaid enrollees and spent over $5 million less……

Is that good or bad?  Is Georgia more efficient?  Did Georgia spend less in administration costs?

Actually (albeit there may be other factors), Georgia spent significantly less, on average, on each Medicaid enrollee.

Georgia spent 2nd lowest, on average, per Medicaid enrollee.  Only Illinois surpassed Georgia in lowest spending, on average, per enrollee.  Georgia spent, on average, $5,229 per enrollee.

NC spent $9430, on average, per enrollee. (Which, BTW, is more than enough for my “A Modest Proposal”).

That is a huge difference!

One other number jumped out at me when I reviewed Modern Healthcare‘s article, “Medicaid Budgets By State.”  Remember I told you that NC spent $13.872 million on Medicaid in 2012…and that the amount spent was a 22.8% increase from 2011?

22.8% is a high percentage to increase in only one year!

I looked at the increases/decreases of the states.  North Carolina gets the award for the highest percentage growth in spending on Medicaid in the entire nation.  NC was the only state whose percentage “increase of Medicaid spending” percentage from 2011 to 2012 was in the 20s.

NC is #1 in the nation for percentage increase as to total Medicaid spending!!!! (Proud?)

The next state with the highest increase in spending on Medicaid is Mississippi with a 17.4% increase in spending from 2011.  Next in line is Alabama with a 14.7% increase in Medicaid spending.

Guess which states decreased its Medicaid spending the most from 2011 to 2012?

Drum roll…

Oregon (decrease of 23.2% spending) and Illinois (decrease of 15% spending).  Is it coincidental that Illinois spent the absolute least, on average, per Medicaid recipient and that Oregon spent the 4th lowest, on average, per Medicaid recipient?

Regardless the size of the pie, the number of guests, and the number of rats and ants, we need to make sure that the guests (Medicaid recipients) are benefitting most from the pie.

Sometimes a decrease in spending equals a decrease in services to Medicaid recipients…sometimes not…I guess it depends on the number of rats and ants.