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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:

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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.

 

Class Action Lawsuit Alleges Right to Inpatient Hospital Stays: Hospitals Are Damned If They Do…and Don’t!

Hospitals – “Lend me your ears; I come to warn you, not to praise RACs. The evil that RACs do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their appeals; So let it be with lawsuits.” – Julius Caesar, with modifications by me.

A class action lawsuit is pending against U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) alleging that the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) encourages (or bullies) hospitals to place patients in observation status (covered by Medicare Part B), rather than admitting them as patients (covered by Medicare Part A). The Complaint alleges that the treatments while in observation status are consistent with the treatments if the patients were admitted as inpatients; however, Medicare Part B reimbursements are lower, forcing the patient to pay more out-of-pocket expenses without recourse.

The United States District Court for the District of Connecticut refused to dismiss the class action case on February 8, 2017, giving the legal arguments within the Complaint some legal standing, at least, holding that the material facts alleged warrant investigation.

The issue of admitting patients versus keeping them in observation has been a hot topic for hospitals for years. If you recall, Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) specifically target patient admissions. See blog and blog. RAC audits of hospital short-stays is now one of the most RAC-reviewed issues. In fiscal year 2014, RACs “recouped” from hospitals $1.2 billion in allegedly improper inpatient claims. RACs do not, however, review outpatient claims to determine whether they should have been paid as inpatient.

On May 4, 2016, CMS paused its reviews of inpatient stays to determine the appropriateness of Medicare Part A payment. On September 12, 2016, CMS resumed them, but with more stringent rules on the auditors’ part. For example, auditors cannot audit claims more than the six-month look-back period from the date of admission.

Prior to September 2016,  hospitals would often have no recourse when a claim is denied because the timely filing limits will have passed. The exception was if the hospital joined the Medicare Part A/Part B rebilling demonstration project. But to join the program, hospitals would forfeit their right to appeal – leaving them with no option but to re-file the claim as an outpatient claim.

With increased scrutiny, including RAC audits, on hospital inpatient stays, the class action lawsuit, Alexander et al. v. Cochran, alleges that HHS pressures hospitals to place patients in observation rather than admitting them. The decision states that “Identical services provided to patients on observation status are covered under Medicare Part B, instead of Part A, and are therefore reimbursed at a lower rate. Allegedly, the plaintiffs lost thousands of dollars in coverage—of both hospital services and subsequent skilled nursing care—as a result of being placed on observation status during their hospital stays.” In other words, the decision to place on observation status rather than admit as an inpatient has significant financial consequences for the patient. But that decision does not affect what treatment or medical services the hospital can provide.

While official Medicare policy allows the physicians to determine the inpatient v. observation status, RAC audits come behind and question that discretion. The Medicare Policy states that “the decision to admit a patient is a complex medical judgment.” Ch. 1  § 10. By contrast, CMS considers the determination as to whether services are properly billed and paid as inpatient or outpatient to be a regulatory matter. In an effort to avoid claim denials and recoupments, plaintiffs allege that hospitals automatically place the patients in observation and rely on computer algorithms or “commercial screening tools.”

In a deposition, a RAC official admitted that if the claim being reviewed meets the “commercial screening tool” requirements, then the RAC would find the inpatient status is appropriate, as long as there is a technically valid order. No wonder hospitals are relying on these commercial screening tools more and more! It is only logical and self-preserving!

This case was originally filed in 2011, and the Court of Appeals overturned the district court’s dismissal and remanded it back to the district court for consideration of the due process claims. In this case, the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs could establish a protected property interest if they proved their allegation “that the Secretary—acting through CMS—has effectively established fixed and objective criteria for when to admit Medicare beneficiaries as ‘inpatients,’ and that, notwithstanding the Medicare Policy Manual’s guidance, hospitals apply these criteria when making admissions decisions, rather than relying on the judgment of their treating physicians.”

HHS argues that that the undisputed fact that a physician makes the initial patient status determination on the basis of clinical judgment is enough to demonstrate that there is no due process property interest at stake.

The court disagreed and found too many material facts in dispute to dismiss the case.

Going forward:

Significant discovery will be explored as to the extent to which hospitals rely on commercial screening tools. Also whether the commercial screening tools are applied equally to private insureds versus Medicare patients.

Significant discovery will be explored on whether the hospital’s physicians challenge changing a patient from inpatient to observation.

Significant discovery will be explored as to the extent that CMS policy influences hospital decision-making.

Hospitals need to follow this case closely. If, in fact, RAC audits and CMS policy is influencing hospitals to issue patients as observation status instead of inpatient, expect changes to come – regardless the outcome of the case.

As for inpatient hospital stays, could this lawsuit give Medicare patients the right to appeal a hospital’s decision to place the patient in observation status? A possible, future scenario is a physician places a patient in observation. The patient appeals and gets admitted. Then hospital’s claim is denied because the RAC determines that the patient should have been in observation, not inpatient. Will the hospitals be damned if they do, damned if they don’t?

damned

In the meantime:

Hospitals and physicians at hospitals: Review your policy regarding determining inpatient versus observation status. Review specific patient files that were admitted as inpatient. Was a commercial screening tool used? Is there adequate documentation that the physician made an independent decision to admit the patient? Hold educational seminars for your physicians. Educate! And have an attorney on retainer – this issue will be litigated.