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Category: Health Policy

How are hospitals supposed to reduce readmissions? Part II

By KIP SULLIVAN, JD

The notion that hospitals can reduce readmissions, and that punishing them for “excess” readmissions will get them to do that, became conventional wisdom during the 2000s on the basis of very little evidence. The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) urged Congress to enact the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP) beginning in 2007, and in 2010 Congress did so. State Medicaid programs and private insurers quickly adopted similar programs.

The rapid adoption of readmission-penalty programs without evidence confirming they can work has created widespread concern that these programs are inducing hospitals to increase utilization of emergency rooms and observation units to reduce readmissions within 30 days of discharge (the measure adopted by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services [CMS] in its final rule on the HRRP), and this in turn may be harming sicker patients. Determining whether hospitals are gaming the HRRP and other readmission-penalty schemes by diverting patients to ERs and observation units (and perhaps by other means) should be a high priority for policy-makers. [1]

In Part I of this series I proposed to address the question of whether hospitals are gaming the HRRP by asking (a) does research exist describing methods by which hospitals can reduce readmissions under the HRRP and, in the event the answer is yes, (b) does that research demonstrate that those methods cost no more than hospitals save. If the answer to the first question is no, that would lend credence to the argument that the HRRP and other readmission-penalty schemes are contributing to rising rates of emergency visits and observation stays. If the answer to second question is also no, that would lend even more credence to the argument that hospitals are gaming the HRRP.

In Part I, I noted that proponents of readmission penalties, including MedPAC and the Yale New Haven Health Services Corporation (hereafter the “Yale group”), have claimed or implied that hospitals have no excuse for not reducing readmission rates because research has already revealed numerous methods of reducing readmissions without gaming. I also noted many experts disagree, and quoted a 2019 statement by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality that “there is no consensus” on what it is hospitals are supposed to do to reduce readmissions.

In this article, I review the research MedPAC cited in its June 2007 report to Congress, the report that the authors of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) cited in Section 3025 (the section that instructed CMS to establish the HRRP). In Part III of this series I will review the studies cited by the Yale group in their 2011 report to CMS recommending the algorithm by which CMS calculates “excess” readmissions under the HRRP. We will see that the research these two groups relied upon did not justify support for the HRRP, and did not describe interventions hospitals could use to reduce readmissions as the HRRP defines “readmission.” The few studies cited by these groups that did describe an intervention that could reduce readmissions:

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The Opportunity in Disruption, Part 1

By JOE FLOWER

The system is unstable. We are already seeing the precursor waves of massive and multiple disturbances to come. Disruption at key leverage points, new entrants, shifting public awareness and serious political competition cast omens and signs of a highly changed future.

So what’s the frequency? What are the smart bets for a strategic chief financial officer at a payer or provider facing such a bumpy ride? They are radically different from today’s dominant consensus strategies. In this five-part series, Joe Flower lays out the argument, the nature of the instability, and the best-bet strategies.

“It’s a buckdancer’s choice, my friend. Better take my advice. You know all the rules by now, and the fire from the ice.”

— Robert Hunter, “Uncle John’s Band”              

Chief Financial Officer: tough gig. Seriously. Whether for a payer or a healthcare provider, the CFO’s job is the exact point where the smiling faces on the billboards meet the double entry, the financing, the payer mix, the debt structure. And it all has to work out in the black. It has to do that sustainably, not only this year but next year and five years from now. Best guess? It’s going to get a lot tougher, with shifting revenue streams, market boundaries, new technologies, growing consumer expectations and uncertain politics. 

Raise your hand if you can tell me the significance of these names: Univac, Control Data, Burroughs, Digital, Honeywell, IBM, NCR.

These companies dominated the computer world in 1980. As of 1990, all but IBM were gone, bankrupt, subsumed into some other company, or just out of the computer business. The one that survived, IBM, is the one that said, “Maybe we should at least get a toehold in this new personal computer game, even though it is risky for our main revenue streams.” All the others went “poof.”

A number of factors—radical new technologies with vast potential, ramifying customer frustration, shifting user base—are coming together to put healthcare today at exactly the place the computing world was in 1980.

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A Proposal to Improve Healthcare and Make It More Affordable

By STEVE ZECOLA

Americans spend about $3 trillion per year on healthcare, or about $10,000 per person per year. Despite these expenditures, Americans are worse off than their international counterparts with respect to infant mortality, life expectancy and the prevalence of chronic conditions.

In policy debates, Republicans mostly prefer to let the marketplace devise the appropriate outcomes, but this approach ignores the market failures that plague the industry.

On the other hand, Democrats propose a variety of solutions such as “Medicare for All” which nationalizes all healthcare insurance or, as a variant, “Medicare as an Option for All” which further extends the federal government into the provision of healthcare insurance. Such approaches could actually result in a less efficient outcome, or worse yet, create a market beset by political ping pong when Administrations change.

This paper proposes a new standards-based approach for fixing the inefficiencies plaguing the healthcare industry in the United States. As described herein, a non-profit standards body would be established by Congress to bring a coordinated approach to healthcare for each of the top ten chronic diseases.

Such an approach would establish consistent priorities and practices across all of the components of the healthcare industry affecting these chronic diseases, including standards of care, areas of research emphasis and insurance guidelines.

Under such an industry structure, patient care would improve and the overall costs for the provision of healthcare would drop significantly.

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A National Patient Identifier: Should You Care?

By ADRIAN GROPPER, MD

The rather esoteric issue of a national patient identifier has come to light as a difference between two major heath care bills making their way through the House and the Senate.

The bills are linked to outrage over surprise medical bills but they have major implications over how the underlying health care costs will be controlled through competitive insurance and regulatory price-setting schemes. This Brookings comment to the Senate HELP Committee bill summarizes some of the issues.

Who Cares?

Those in favor of a national patient identifier are mostly hospitals and data brokers, along with their suppliers. More support is discussed here. The opposition is mostly on the basis of privacyand libertarian perspective. A more general opposition discussion of the Senate bill is here.

Although obscure, national patient identifier standards can help clarify the role of government in the debate over how to reduce the unusual health care costs and disparities in the U.S. system. What follows is a brief analysis of the complexities of patient identifiers and their role relative to health records and health policy.

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Why the Health Care System Is Incapable of Reducing Its Own Costs: A Brief Structural System Analysis

By JOE FLOWER

Leading lights of the health insurance industry are crying that Medicare For All or any kind of universal health reform would “crash the system” and “destroy healthcare as we know it.”

They say that like it’s a bad thing.

They say we should trust them and their cost-cutting efforts to bring all Americans more affordable health care.

We should not trust them, because the system as it is currently structured economically is incapable of reducing costs.

Why? Let’s do a quick structural analysis. This is how health care actually works.

Health care, in the neatly packaged phrase of Nick Soman, CEO of Decent.com, is a “system designed to create reimbursable events.” For all that we talk of being “patient-centered” and “accountable,” the fee-for-service, incident-oriented system is simply not designed to march toward those lofty goals.

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Patient Privacy Rights: Comment on Regulatory Capture

Deborah C. Peel
Adrian Gropper

By ADRIAN GROPPER, MD and DEBORAH C PEEL, MD

To ONC and CMS

We begin by commending HHS, CMS, and ONC for skillfully addressing the pro-competitive and innovative essentials in crafting this Rule and the related materials. However, regulatory capture threatens to derail effective implementation of the rule unless HHS takes further action on the standards.

Regulatory capture in Wikipedia begins:

“Regulatory capture is a form of government failure which occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating.  When regulatory capture occurs, the interests of firms, organizations, or political groups are prioritized over the interests of the public, leading to a net loss for society. Government agencies suffering regulatory capture are called “captured agencies.” (end of Wikipedia quotation.)

The extent to which HHS has allowed itself to be influenced by special interests is not the subject of this comment. This comment is just about how HHS and the Federal Health Architecture can act to more effectively implement the sense of Congress in the 21st Century Cures Act.

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One Physician’s Frustrations of Practicing Amidst the CHIPHIT Complex and Implications for the Future of the U.S. Healthcare System

By HAYWARD ZWERLING, MD

The high cost, low quality and systemic inequities of the U.S. healthcare system have been the impetus for its redesign. Our healthcare system is now controlled by Consolidated Healthcare institutions, Insurance companies, Pharmaceutical companies and Health Information Technology companies (CHIPHIT complex). The CHIPHIT complex, along with the Federal Government, will create and control our future healthcare system. Ominously missing from this list are independent healthcare policy experts, independent healthcare providers and members of the general public.

Historical precedents have demonstrated that the CHIPHIT complex is incapable of creating the healthcare system we need.

Thus, if we hope to build a low cost, high quality, egalitarian healthcare system, physicians and their professional organizations must take an emphatic stand against the CHIPHIT complex today.

Consolidated Healthcare Institutions

There are innumerable mandates which make running a small medical practice very difficult. As a result, many younger physicians will no longer attempt to start a new medical practice and existing profitable practices, which are looking to off- load their regulatory burdens, are being acquired by large healthcare institutions and private equity firms.

While these consolidated healthcare institutions vocalize their desire to improve our healthcare system, many enforce a uniformity on the practice environment which belies the reality of patient care; that there is no “best” practice model, nor are there information technology tools which work well for all physicians. This imposed uniformity stifles physician innovation, which is a necessary precondition to improve our healthcare system.

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Private Health Insurance Organizations Shouldn’t Dictate Quality of Care

By LYNLY JEANLOUIS

Health insurance companies are standing in the way of many patients receiving affordable, quality healthcare. Insurance companies have been denying patient claims for medical care, all while increasing monthly premiums for most Americans. Many of the nation’s largest healthcare payers are private “for-profit” companies that are focused on generating profits through the healthcare system. Through a rigorous approval/denial system, health insurance companies can dictate the type care patients receive. In some cases, this has resulted in patients foregoing life-saving treatments or procedures.  

In 2014, Aetna, one of the nation’s leading healthcare companies, denied coverage to Oklahoma native Orrana Cunningham, who had stage 4 nasopharyngeal cancer near her brain stem.  Her doctors suggested she undergo proton beam therapy, which is a targeted form of radiation that can pinpoint tumor cells, resulting in a decrease risk of potential blindness and other radiation side effects. Aetna found the study too experimental and denied coverage, which resulted in Orrana’s death. Aetna was forced to pay the Cunningham family $25.5 million.  

In December of 2007, Cigna Healthcare, the largest healthcare payer in Philadelphia, denied coverage for Nataline Sarkisyan’s liver transplant. Natalie was diagnosed with leukemia and had recently received a bone marrow transplant from her brother, which caused complications to her liver. A specialist at UCLA requested she undergo a liver transplant, which is an expensive procedure that would result in a lengthy inpatient hospital stay for recovery. Cigna denied the procedure as they felt it was “too experimental and outside the scope of coverage”. They later reversed the decision, but Nataline passed away hours later at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center.

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The “Back Story” of the JAMA Wellness Smackdown (Part 2)

By AL LEWIS

Part 2 picks up where Part 1 left off, as coincidence would have it.


Soeren Mattke (as mentioned in the last installment) and I were quite relentless in trying, quixotically, to get Professor Baicker to explain her results. Its popularity could have landed her many profitable speaking and consulting gigs, but she evinced no interest in cashing in, or even in defending her position. Indeed, the four times she spoke publicly on the topic, she didn’t do herself, or her legions of sycophants in the wellness industry, any favors. In each interview, she distanced herself more and more from her previous conclusion. Here are her four takeaways from her own study “proving” wellness has precisely a 3.27-to-1 ROI:

  1. It’s too early to tell (um, after 30 years of workplace wellness?)
  2. She has no interest in wellness anymore
  3. People aren’t reading her paper right (Shame on us readers! We’re only reading the headline, the data, the findings and the conclusion, apparently)
  4. “There are few studies with reliable data on the costs and the benefits”(um, then how were you able to reach a conclusion with two significant digits?)

Individually or in total, these comments sounded an awful lot like retractions, but she (and her co-author and instigator, David Cutler) claimed those comments didn’t constitute retractions. Whatever they were, she wasn’t exactly doubling down on this 3.27-to-1 conclusion.

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The “Back Story” of the JAMA Wellness Smackdown (Part 1)

By AL LEWIS

Let’s climb into the WABAC Machine (and, yes, that’s the way it’s spelled) and set the dial for 2008.

Then-candidate Barack Obama, campaigning on the promise of universal health coverage, enlisted Harvard professor David Cutler as his key adviser on that topic. Business lobbying associations were not thrilled about their members having to cover all their full-time employees and incorrectly assumed, then as now, that the major drivers of healthcare cost were employees smoking, overeating, and not exercising. Prof. Cutler suggested, quite correctly, that one way to assuage that concern would be to allow employers to spend less money covering employees with those three health habits.

Fast-forward to 2009, when it appeared that — with enough concessions to enough vested interests — the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could become a reality. Business lobbying groups were, then as now, powerful entities. Using Prof. Cutler’s suggestion, they were pacified by allowing businesses to tie up to 30% of total premium dollars to employee health (in practice, largely employee weight). Generally, the business lobbying groups engineered this withhold in the shadows. It wasn’t until 2015 that one of those business groups, the Business Roundtable, publicly admitted that the 30% withholdwas the main reason they bought into the ACA.

Since this 30% was basically a giveaway to corporations, the Obama Administration needed to justify it as a cost-savings measure. On the one hand, they had the Safeway experience “proving” that wellness could save money in practice. This alleged proof was met with open arms by both parties. Safeway’s CEO became a “rock star” on Capitol Hill.  (Of course, Safeway’s wellness program, like virtually every other great-sounding success in wellness, turned out to be a scam. In retrospect, just reading the Safeway CEO’s Wall Street Journal op-ed* announcing these results, it’s amazing how the mind-blowingly fallacious statistics didn’t get called out back then, by me or anyone else.)

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