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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.