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Non-Profit Going For-Profit: Merger Mania Manifests

According to the American Hospital Association, America has 4,840 general hospitals that aren’t run by the federal government: 2,849 are nonprofit, 1,035 are for-profit and 956 are owned by state or local governments.

What is the distinction between a for-profit and not-for-profit hospital… besides the obvious? The obvious difference is that one is “for-profit” and one is “not-for-profit” – but any reader of the English language would be able to tell you that. Unknown to some is that the not-for-profit status does not mean that the hospital will not make money; the status has nothing to do with a hospitals bottom line. Just ask any charity that brings in millions of dollars.

The most significant variation between non-profit and for-profit hospitals is tax status. Not-for-profit hospitals are exempt from state and local taxes. Some say that for-profit hospitals have to be more cost-effective because they have sales taxes and property taxes. I can understand that sentiment. Sales taxes and property taxes are nothing to sneeze at.

The organizational structure and culture also varies at for-profit hospitals rather than not-for-profit hospitals. For-profit hospitals have to answer to shareholders and/or investors. Those that are publicly traded may have a high attrition rate at the top executive level because when poor performance occurs heads tend to roll.

Bargaining power is another big difference between for-profit and non-profit. For-profit has it while non-profit, generally, do not. The imbalance of bargaining power comes into play when the government negotiates its managed care contracts. I also believe that bargaining power is a strong catalyst in the push for mergers. Being a minnow means that you have insect larvae and fish eggs to consume. Being a whale, however, allows you to feed on sea lion, squid, and other larger fish.

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Merger Mania

A report conducted by the Health Research Institute showed 255 healthcare merger and acquisition (M&A) deals in the second quarter of 2018. Just the second quarter! According to the report, deal volume is up 9.4% since last year.

The most active sub-sector in the second quarter of 2018 is long-term care, with 104 announced healthcare M&A deals representing almost 41% of deal volume.

The trend today is that for-profit hospitals are buying up smaller, for-profit hospitals and, any and all, not-for-profit hospitals. The upshot is that hospitals are growing larger, more massive, more “corporate-like,” and less community-based. Is this trend positive or negative? I will have to research whether the prices of services increase at hospitals that are for-profit rather than not-for-profit, but I have a gut feeling that they do. Not that prices are the only variable to determine whether the merger trend is positive or negative. From the hospital’s perspective, I would much rather be the whale, not the minnow. I would feel much more comfortable swimming around.

My opinion is that, as our health care system veers toward value-based reimbursement and this metamorphous places financial pressure on providers, health care providers are struggling for more efficient means of cost control. The logical solution is to merge and buy up the smaller fish until your entity is a whale. Whales have more bargaining power and more budget.

In 2017, 29 for-profit companies bought 18 for-profit hospitals and 11 not-for-profits, according to an analysis for Kaiser Health News.

10 hospital M&A transactions involved health care organizations with net revenues of $1 billion or more in 2017.

Here, in NC, Mission Health, a former, not-for-profit hospital in Asheville, announced in March 2018 that HCA Healthcare, the largest, for-profit, hospital chain would buy it for $1.5 billion. The NC Attorney General had to sign off on the deal since the deal involved a non-profit turning for-profit, and he did ultimately did sign off on it.

Regardless your opinion on the matter, merger mania has manifested. Providers need to determine whether they want to be a whale or a minnow.

Breaking Down the Barriers to Telehealth: CMS’s Latest Rural Health Strategy

CMS unveils new rural healthcare strategy via telehealth.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) wants to reduce hospital readmissions and unnecessary ER visits with its newly unveiled Rural Health Strategy.

Currently, there are significant barriers to accessing telehealth. While physicians and providers have to answer to their respective healthcare boards within the states in which they are licensed, if you provide telemedicine, you are held accountable and ordered to follow the federal rules and regulations (of which there are many!) – and the rules and regulations of every state in which you provide services. For example, say Dr. Hyde resides in New York and provides medication management via telehealth. Patient Jekyll resides in New Jersey. Dr. Hyde must comply with all rules and regulations of the federal government, New York, and New Jersey.

Currently, 48 state medical boards, plus those of Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, require that physicians engaging in telemedicine be licensed in the state in which a patient resides. Fifteen state boards issue a special purpose license, telemedicine license or certificate, or license to practice medicine across state lines to allow for the practice of telemedicine. There are 18 States that only allow Medicaid recipients to receive telemedicine services. One state requires only private insurance companies to reimburse for services provided through telemedicine. Twenty-eight states, plus D.C., require both private insurance companies and Medicaid to cover telemedicine services to the same extent as face-to-face consultations.

As you can see, telehealth can leave hospitals and providers wondering whether they took a left at Albuquerque.

Getting paid for telemedicine has been an issue for many hospitals and medical providers – not only in rural areas, but in all areas. However, according to CMS, rural hospitals and providers feel the pain more acutely. We certainly hope that the progress CMS initially achieves with rural providers and telehealth will percolate into cities and across the nation.

The absolute top barrier to providing and getting reimbursed for telehealth is the cross-state licensure issue, and according to CMS’s Rural Health Strategy, the agency is seeking to reduce the administrative and financial burdens.

Through interviews with providers and hospitals across the country and many informal forums, CMS has pinpointed eight methods to increase the use of telehealth:

  1. Improving reimbursement
  2. Adapting and improving quality measures and reporting
  3. Improving access to services and providers
  4. Improving service delivery and payment models
  5. Engaging consumers
  6. Recruiting, training, and retaining the workforce
  7. Leveraging partnerships/resources
  8. Improving affordability and accessibility of insurance options

What this new Rural Health Strategy tells me, as a healthcare attorney and avid “keeper of the watchtower” germane to all things Medicare and Medicaid, is that the current barriers to telehealth may come tumbling down. Obviously, CMS does not have the legal authority to change the Code of Federal Regulations, which now requires that telehealth physicians be licensed in the state in which a patient resides, but CMS has enough clout, when it comes to Medicare and Medicaid, to make Congress listen.

My crystal ball prediction? Easier and more telehealth is in everyone’s future.

*My blog was published on RACMonitor on June 7, 2018.

CMS Proposes Mandatory Bundled Medicare Reimbursements: Financial Risk on Hospitals!

A new CMS proposal could transform durable medical equipment (DME) Medicare reimbursements to hospitals. The proposal, if adopted, would implement a mandatory bundled Medicare reimbursement for hip and knee replacements or lower extremity joint replacements (LEJRs).

CMS has proposed this change to be piloted in 75 metropolitan areas prior to being implemented nationwide.

This mandatory bundled Medicare reimbursement will be unprecedented, as, thus far, CMS has only implemented voluntary bundled reimbursement rates. However, CMS has stated that its goal is to have at least 50% of all Medicare fee-for-service reimbursement to be paid under an alternative payment model by 2018, and, in order to meet this objective, CMS will need to implement more  mandatory alternative payment models.

Another first is that CMS proposes that hospitals bear the brunt of the financial risk. To date, CMS has not targeted a type of health care provider as being a Guinea pig for new ideas, unlike the other proposed and implemented Bundled Payments for Care Improvement (BPCI) initiative where there are many types of providers that can participate and bear risks.

Will this affect NC hospitals?

Yes.

Of the 75 metropolitan areas chosen as “test sites” for the new bundled payment plan, 3 are located in NC.

1. Asheville
2. Charlotte
3. Durham-Chapel Hill

Apparently, CMS believes that Durham and Chapel Hill are one city, but you got to give it to them…by hyphenating Durham and Chapel Hill, CMS gets both Duke and UNC health systems to participate in the mandatory trial. Other large metro areas included in the trial are Los Angeles, New York City, and Miami.

LEJRs are the most frequent surgeries in the Medicare population. The average Medicare expenditures for LEJRs, including surgery, hospitalization, and recovery, can range from $16,500 to $33,000.

The mandatory bundled reimbursement will become effective January 2, 2016; however, the hospitals will not carry the financial risk until January 1, 2017.  So, hospitals, you got a year and a half to figure it out!!

What exactly will this bundled reimbursement rate include?

Answer: Everything from an inpatient admission billed under MS DRG 469 or 470 until 90 days following discharge.

And we are talking about everything.

Thus, you will be reimbursed per “Episode of Care,” which includes:

“All related items and services paid under Medicare Part A and Part B for all Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries, including physicians’ services, inpatient hospital service, readmissions (subject to limited exceptions), skilled nursing facility services, durable medical equipment, and Part B drugs.”

What should you do if you are a hospital so graciously selected to participate?

1.  Assess your protocol as to discharging patients.  Where do your patients go after being discharged?

2. Determine whether you want to partner with any critical care facilities, skilled nursing agencies, or home health agencies.

3.  Assess your current reimbursement rates and analyze what current delivery patterns must be revamped in order to maintain profitability.

4. Determine future care management and clinical reprogram needs.

5. Analyze ways to provide more efficient delivery components.

6. Communicate with your DME vendors.  Discuss ways to decrease spending and increase efficiency.

7.  Plan all ways in which you will follow the patient after discharge through the 90 day period.

8. Consult your attorney.

If you would like to comment on the proposed rule, you have until September 8, 2015 at 5:00pm.

Medicare Appeals to OMHA Reaches 15,000 Per Week, Yet Decisions Take Years; Hospital Association Sues Over Medicare Backlog

When you are a health care provider and make the business determination to accept Medicare or Medicaid, you are agreeing to deal with certain headaches.  Low reimbursement rates and more regulations than you can possibly count make accepting Medicare and Medicaid a daunting experience.  Throw in some pre- and post-payment review audits, some inept contractors, and dealing with the government, in general, and you have a trifecta of terrible to-dos.

But having to “pay back” (by reimbursement withholding) an alleged overpayment before an appeal decision is rendered is not a headache which hospitals have agreed to take, says the American Hospital Association.  And it said so very definitively, in the form of a Complaint in the U. S. District Court for the District of Columbia

In both Medicaid and Medicare audits, if you get audited and are told to pay back XX dollars, you have a right to appeal that determination.  Obviously, with Medicare, you appeal on the federal level and with Medicaid, you appeal to the state level.  But the two roads to appeal (the state and federal) are not identical.  Robert Frost once said, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”  However,the Medicare appeal route is NOT the route less traveled by.

As of February 12, 2014, over 480,000 Medicare appeals were pending for assignment to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), with 15,000 new appeals filed each week.  In December 2013, HHS Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) announced a moratorium on assignment of provider appeals to ALJs for at least the next two years, and possibly longer.  The average wait-time for a hearing is approximately 24 months, but will undoubtedly increase quickly due to the moratorium.  A decision would not come until later.  And all the while the parties are waiting, the provider’s reimbursements will be withheld until the alleged overpayment amount is met.  Literally, a Medicare appeal could take 3-5 years.

The American Hospital Association is fed up. And who can blame them?  On May 22, 2014, the American Hospital Association (AHA) filed a Complaint in the United States District Court in the District of Columbia against Kathleen Selebius, in her official capacity as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), complaining that HHS is noncompliant with federal statutory law because of the Medicare appeal backlog.  I am not surprised by AHA’s Complaint; I am only surprised that it took this long for a lawsuit.  I am also surprised that more providers, other than hospitals, are not taking action.

AHA is requesting relief under the Mandamus Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1361.  The Mandamus Act allows a court to compel an officer or employee of the United States or any agency thereof to perform a duty owed.  In this case, the AHA is saying that HHS has a statutory duty to resolve Medicare appeals within 90 days.  So, AHA is asking the district court to compel HHS to resolve Medicare appeals by not later than the end of the 90-day period beginning on the date a request for hearing has been timely filed.

And, here, I am obliged to insert a quick, two thumbs-up for our very own Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH)  in NC for its handling of Medicaid appeals.  If you file a contested case at OAH, it will not take 3-5 years.

AHA’s lawsuit is significant because AHA does not restrict the relief requested to only hospital Medicare appeals.  AHA requests that the District Court “enter a declaratory judgment that HHS’s delay in adjudication of Medicare appeals violates federal law.”  If granted, I would assume that this declaratory judgment would impact all Medicare providers.  The only way to ensure all providers are covered by this decision is for all providers to either (1) file a separate action (to include damages, which is not included in AHA’s action for some reason); or (2) to join AHA’s action (and forego damages), but its impact will be broad.  I am not sure why AHA did not seek damages; the time value of money is a real damage…the non-ability for the hospitals to invest in more beds because their money is stuck at HHS is a real damage…the loss of the interest on the withheld money, which is obviously benefiting the feds, is a real damage.

AHA’s request is not dissimilar to an arrested individual’s right to a speedy trial.  During a criminal trial, the defendant remains incarcerated.  Therefore, because we believe our liberty is so important, the defendant has a right to a speedy trial.  That way, if he or she is innocent, the defendant would have spent the least number of days imprisoned.

With a Medicare audit appeal, HHS begins immediately withholding reimbursements until the alleged overpayment amount is met, even though through the appeal, that overpayment will most likely be decreased quite substantially.  Apparently, across the nation, the percent of overturned Medicare audits through appeal is around 72%,  but I could not find out whether the 72% represents ANY amount overturned or the entire 100% of the audit being overturned.  Because, in my personal experience, 99.9% of Medicare appeals have SOME reduction in the alleged amount (I would have said 100%, but we are taught not to use definitive remarks as attorneys).

Because the provider’s Medicare money is withheld based on an allegation of an overpayment, the fact that the cases are backlogged at the ALJ level is financially distressing for any provider.Even without the backlog, Medicare appeals take longer than Medicaid appeals.  In Medicare, there is four-step appeal process.  Going before the ALJ is the 3rd level.

First, a Medicare appeal begins with the Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) for redetermination.  The MAC must render a redetermination decision within sixty days.

If unsuccessful, a provider can appeal the MAC’s decision to a Qualified Independent Contractor (“QIC”) for reconsideration. QICs must render a decision within sixty days.

Provided that the amount in controversy is greater than $140 (for calendar year 2014), the next level, and where the backlog begins, is at the level of appeal to an ALJ. The ALJ is required both to hold a hearing and to render a decision within ninety days, which is not happening.

Hence, AHA’s lawsuit.  Hopefully AHA will be successful, because a backlog of Medicare appeals at the ALJ level doesn’t help anyone.  And audits are not going away.

More Financial Pressure on Hospitals By 2013’s Legislative Medicaid Budget

Representative David Price spoke as the Keynote Speaker at the North Carolina Society of Health Care Attorneys annual meeting yesterday morning.  Since Representative Price was actually up in Washington D.C. during the shutdown, it was very interesting to hear him speak.  His opinion, as one would expect from his ideology, was that the shutdown was idiotic and unnecessary.

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What I found interesting was how he described the relationships between congressmen and women today versus in the 90s.  Remember, he has represented NC in Washington for more than one decade.  He described the relationships, even across party lines, as more cordial in the 90s than today’s relationships.  I wonder why our legislative body has become more segregated.

In the afternoon session, Linwood Jones from the North Carolina Hospital Association spoke about recent legislative action.  This legislature was not good to hospitals.  As Linwood described the legislative session this year…”It was all about Medicaid.” (I know you were wondering how the NC Society of Health Care Attorneys annual meeting was going to be germane to Medicaid).  According to Mr. Jones, the Medicaid budget was the primary factor in almost all budget cuts.  And what entities get most of Medicaid funding?

Duh…Hospitals.  Hospitals are the biggest providers in the state, and, in some areas, the biggest employers.

Our Medicaid budget is approximately $13 billion.

Remember…36 million a day is what we spend on Medicaid in NC.

How much of that $13 billion Medicaid budget goes to hospitals?   According to Kaiser Family Foundation, 25.7% for inpatient care.  Or $3.341 billion annually.  Or $9.252 million a day!!

Including outpatient care?  38.7%  Or $5.031 billion annually.  Or $13.932 million a day!!

According to the handy-dandy Wikipedia website, North Carolina has 126 hospitals in 83 counties.  For those of you who never went to 6th grade in North Carolina, we have 100 counties in NC.  (In the 6th grade, if you grew up here, you learn all about North Carolina geography, which apparently didn’t stick, because I still get lost).

That is $13.932 million dollars a day going to 126 hospitals in NC.  That is a lot of money!!!

Does Medicaid matter to hospitals?

Heck, yes!! Remember, a hospital cannot turn anyone away, including Medicaid recipients and uninsured.  Add the fact that the mentally ill in NC are not getting medically necessary services because our managed care organizations (MCOs) have monetary incentives to NOT provide the expensive mental health services; PLUS the fact that Medicaid reimbursements are painfully low, which leads to many physicians not accepting Medicaid, and you get the sad sum of Medicaid recipients ending up in emergency rooms of hospitals.

Don Dalton, a spokesman for the Hospital Association, said that statewide about 46 percent of hospitals’ revenue comes from Medicaid. (See Rose Hoban’s article).

But, hospitals don’t make a huge profit.  Especially on Medicaid recipients.

On average, Medicaid reimburses hospitals 80% of the actual cost for hospital services.

But this year, the General Assembly created a budget in which the 80% will be reduced to 70%.

Medicaid reimbursements were already bad.  But now, the Medicaid reimbursements will be 10% worse.  Subtract 10% from the $13.932 million dollars a day…

This is not a good thing for hospitals nor Medicaid recipients.

When Representative Price was speaking, a woman raised her hand with a question/vignette.  She said that she and her friends had gotten on the health care exchange (Obamacare) (Healthcare.gov) website and “shopped” for health insurance.  She said that all the people who signed up for health care exchange (because it is mandated and there is a penalty for not having insurance) had their premiums increase anywhere from 300%-800%.  Although Rep. Price made a good point, that they all should have contacted Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) and asked why BCBS dropped that particular insurance plan.  Nonetheless, the woman harped on the fact that Obama had promised, “You like your insurance? You can keep it! You like your doctor? You can keep him/her!” (I added the “her.”)

So, here we are…with low Medicaid reimbursements to begin with, high medical costs, and the General Assembly reducing the Medicaid rates for hospitals by 10%.

Incentive to accept Medicaid recipients?  I think not…but hospitals have no choice.

Physicians and other Medicaid providers have the choice as to whether to accept Medicaid patients, but hospitals?  No choice there.  Hospitals must accept Medicaid recipients.  Mandatory!!!

In my opinion, the very first step toward fixing the Medicaid system is RAISING Medicaid reimbursement rates.

Sound counterintuitive? Yes, I agree it sounds counterintuitive.  But think about Medicaid like this:

If you agree with me that Medicaid is an entitlement and that the Medicaid budget is way too high, but that all Medicaid recipients deserve quality health care…if you agree with all that…

And you also agree with me that it is drastically more expensive for Medicaid recipients to go to the emergency room (ER) for health issues that could be solved in a family physicians’ office…if you agree with all that…

Then we would save Medicaid dollars by increasing (drastically) the Medicaid reimbursements.  If doctors had a monetary incentive to accept Medicaid, then more doctors would accept Medicaid (Logic 101).  If more doctors accept Medicaid, then more Medicaid recipients have the ability to go see a doctor.  If more recipients have more office visits then ER visits drop.  If more unnecessary ER visits drop, then the State pays less money to the hospitals, which is an extremely higher rate (even with the 10% reduction) than a higher Medicaid reimbursement to physicians.  Cut the $13.932 million a day to hospitals, not by decreasing the reimbursement rate, but by fewer Medicaid recipient going to the ER…instead have the recipients receive quality care outside the hospital, thus saving money…

Get it?

By reducing the Medicaid reimbursements to hospitals, the legislature did decrease the Medicaid budget, but not in a way that intelligently attempts to fix the system.  The same amount of Medicaid recipients will be going to hospitals.  Since the hospitals cannot turn anyone away, reducing reimbursements to hospitals merely hurts the hospitals.

Want to decrease the Medicaid budget? Increase Medicaid reimbursements (drastically) to Medicaid providers.  More providers accepting Medicaid means more recipients receiving quality care and NOT checking into the ER….

Money saved intelligently.  Too bad the legislature didn’t ask my opinion prior to slashing Medicaid reimbursement rates.