hospital readmissions

When persons are admitted to a hospital, insurers’ payment rates are based on the diagnosis, not the number of days in the hospital (known as a “length of stay”).  As a result, once the admission is triggered, the hospital has important economic incentive to discharge the patient as quickly as possible. My physician colleagues used to refer to this as “treat, then street.”

Unfortunately, discharging patients too soon can result in readmissions.  That’s why I have agreed with others that diagnosis-based payment systems and a policy of “no pay” for readmissions were working at cross purposes. Unified bundled payment approaches like this seem to be a good start.

But that’s all theoretical.  What’s the science have to say?

Peter Kaboli and colleagues looked at the push-pull relationship between diagnosis-based payment incentives  and the likelihood of readmissions in a scientific paper just published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The authors used the U.S. Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital’s “Patient Treatment Files” to examine length of stay versus readmissions in 129 VA hospitals.  The sample consisted of over 4 million admissions and readmissions (defined as within 30 days and not involving another institution) from 1997 to 2010. The mean age started out at 63.8 years and increased to 65.5 years, while the proportion of persons aged 85 years or older increased from 2.5% to 8.8%. Over the years, admissions also grew more complicated with a higher rate of co-morbid conditions, such as diseases of the kidney (from 5% to 16%).

As length of stay went down, readmissions should have gone up, right?

Continue reading “Building Smarter Hospitals: The Widely Misunderstood Relationship Between Discharging Patients Too Early and the Likelihood of a 30 Day Readmission”

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I’ve been getting emails about the NY Times piece and my quotation that the penalties for readmissions are “crazy”.  Its worth thinking about why the ACA gets hospital penalties on readmissions wrong, what we might do to fix it – and where our priorities should be.

A year ago, on a Saturday morning, I saw Mr. “Johnson” who was in the hospital with a pneumonia.  He was still breathing hard but tried to convince me that he was “better” and ready to go home.  I looked at his oxygenation level, which was borderline, and suggested he needed another couple of days in the hospital.  He looked crestfallen.  After a little prodding, he told me why he was anxious to go home:  his son, who had been serving in the Army in Afghanistan, was visiting for the weekend.  He hadn’t seen his son in a year and probably wouldn’t again for another year.  Mr. Johnson wanted to spend the weekend with his kid.

I remember sitting at his bedside, worrying that if we sent him home, there was a good chance he would need to come back.  Despite my worries, I knew I needed to do what was right by him.  I made clear that although he was not ready to go home, I was willing to send him home if we could make a deal.  He would have to call me multiple times over the weekend and be seen by someone on Monday.  Because it was Saturday, it was hard to arrange all the services he needed, but I got him a tank of oxygen to go home with, changed his antibiotics so he could be on an oral regimen (as opposed to IV) and arranged a Monday morning follow-up.  I also gave him my cell number and told him to call me regularly.

Continue reading “Is the Readmissions Penalty Off Base?”

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The debate over pay for performance in healthcare gets progressively more interesting, and confusing. And, with Medicare’s recent launch of its value-based purchasing and readmission penalty programs, the debate is no longer theoretical.

Just in the past several months, we’ve seen studies showing that pay for performance works, and others showing that it doesn’t. We’ve heard from some theorists who describe P4P as sapping intrinsic motivation and doing violence to professionalism, and others who feel that its effects are as natural and predictable as water running downhill. Some commentators beg us to stop it, while others denounce P4P’s current incarnations as too wimpy to work and recommend they be turbo-charged.

If we weren’t talking about the central policy question of a field as important as healthcare, we could call this a draw and move on. But the stakes are too high, so it’s worth taking a moment to review what we know.

In the U.S., the main test of P4P has been Medicare’s Hospital Quality Incentive Demonstration (HQID) program. A recent analysis of this program, which offered relatively small performance-based bonuses to a sample of 252 hospitals in the large Premier network, found that, after 6 years, hospitals in the intervention group had no better outcomes than those (3363 hospitals) in the control arm. Prior papers from the HQID demonstrated mild improvements in adherence to some process measures, but – as in a disconcerting number of studies – this did not translate into meaningful improvements in hard outcomes such as mortality.

Continue reading “Pay for Performance in Healthcare: Do We Need Less, More, or Different?”

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As a cardiac electrophysiologist, I’m pretty far removed from public policy.  But I have to admit that I was interested in the latest move by CMS to cut their Medicare payment rates to hospitals by invoking pay cuts for hospital readmissions.  The Chicago Tribune‘s article is enlightening and filled with some interesting anecdotes after the first round of pay cuts were implemented:

(1) The vast majority of Illinois hospitals were penalized (112 of 128)

(2)  Heart failure, heart attack, and pneumonia patients were targeted first because they are viewed as “obvious.”

(3) “A lot of places have put a lot of work and not seen improvement,” said Dr. Kenneth Sands, senior vice president for quality at Beth Israel.

(4) Even the nation’s #1 Best Hospital (according to US News and World Report) lost out.

So what’s a hospital to do?

Continue reading “Out of the Box Thinking on Avoiding Hospital Readmissions. Stop Trying”

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The tendency of government to impose crude performance metrics on hospitals is a well known phenomenon, but its use is growing as jurisdictions look for ways to cut their budgets.  The latest example is found in Massachusetts.

As reported by the MA Hospital Association:

Governor Deval Patrick’s FY2013 state budget proposal includes $40 million in rate cuts for hospitals. A significant portion of these cuts would be made through highly questionable policy changes. One of the more troubling policies would double penalties on hospitals for re-admissions that occurred in 2010.

The 2012 MassHealth acute hospital RFA – the main contract between the state and hospitals serving Medicaid patients — introduced a new preventable readmission penalty for hospitals that MassHealth determined had higher-than-expected preventable readmission rates.

Inpatient payment rates for 24 hospitals were reduced by 2.2% in FY2012. Now the administration is proposing to double the penalty to 4.4% in FY2013.  There are so many things wrong with this. First, as I have reported in the past:

Even if the readmission rate is the right metric to use for comparison purposes, we don’t have a model that would accurately compare one hospital to the others.  This suggests that the time is not ripe to use this measure for financial incentives or penalties.  It might give the impression of precision, but it is not, in fact, analytically rigorous enough for regulatory purposes.

Continue reading “Simple, But wrong, Approach on Readmissions”

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