Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) and other proponents of the
Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP) justified their support for the
HRRP with the claim that research had already demonstrated how hospitals could
reduce readmissions for all Medicare fee-for-service patients, not just
for groups of carefully selected patients. In this three-part series, I am
reviewing the evidence for that claim.
We saw in Part I and Part II that the research MedPAC cited in its 2007 report to Congress (the report Congress relied on in authorizing the HRRP) contained no studies supporting that claim. We saw that the few studies MedPAC relied on that claimed to examine a successful intervention studied interventions administered to carefully selected patient populations. These populations were severely limited by two methods: The patients had to be discharged with one of a handful of diagnoses (heart failure, for example); and the patients had to have characteristics that raised the probability the intervention would work (for example, patients had to agree to a home visit, not be admitted from a nursing home, and be able to consent to the intervention).
In this final installment, I review the research cited by the Yale New Haven Health Services Corporation (hereafter the “Yale group”) in their 2011 report to CMS in which they recommended that CMS apply readmission penalties to all Medicare patients regardless of diagnosis and regardless of the patient’s interest in or ability to respond to the intervention. MedPAC at least limited its recommendation (a) to patients discharged with one of seven conditions/procedures and (b) to patients readmitted with diagnoses “related to” the index admission. The Yale group threw even those modest restrictions out the window.
The Yale group recommended what they called a “hospital-wide (all-condition) readmission measure.” Under this measure, penalties would apply to all patients regardless of the condition for which they were admitted and regardless of whether the readmission was related to the index admission (with the exception of planned admissions). “Any readmission is eligible to be counted as an outcome except those that are considered planned,” they stated. (p. 10)  The National Quality Forum (NQF) adopted the Yale group’s recommendation almost verbatim shortly after the Yale group presented their recommendation to CMS.
In their 2007 report, MedPAC offered these examples of related and unrelated readmissions: “Admission for angina following discharge for PTCA [angioplasty]” would be an example of a related readmission, whereas “[a]dmission for appendectomy following discharge for pneumonia” would not. (p. 109) Congress also endorsed the “related” requirement (see Section 3025 of the Affordable Care Act, the section that authorized CMS to establish the HRRP). But the Yale group dispensed with the “related” requirement with an astonishing excuse: They said they just couldn’t find a way to measure “relatedness.” “[T]here is no reliable way to determine whether a readmission is related to the previous hospitalization …,” they declared. (p. 17) Rather than conclude their “hospital-wide” readmission measure was a bad idea, they plowed ahead on the basis of this rationalization: “Our guiding principle for defining the eligible population was that the measure should capture as many unplanned readmissions as possible across a maximum number of acute care hospitals.” (p. 17) Thus, to take one of MedPAC’s examples of an unrelated admission, the Yale group decided hospitals should be punished for an admission for an appendectomy within 30 days after discharge for pneumonia. 
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. 
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.
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:
The notion that hospital readmission rates are a “quality” measure reached the status of conventional wisdom by the late 2000s. In their 2007 and 2008 reports to Congress, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) recommended that Congress authorize a program that would punish hospitals for “excess readmissions” of Medicare fee-for-service (FFS) enrollees. In 2010, Congress accepted MedPAC’s recommendation and, in Section 3025 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) (p. 328), ordered the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to start the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP). Section 3025 instructed CMS to target heart failure (HF) and other diseases MedPAC listed in their 2007 report.  State Medicaid programs and the insurance industry followed suit.
Today, twelve years after MedPAC recommended the HRRP and seven years after CMS implemented it, it is still not clear how hospitals are supposed to reduce the readmissions targeted by the HRRP, which are all unplanned readmissions that follow discharges within 30 days of patients diagnosed with HF and five other conditions. It is not even clear that hospitals have reduced return visits to hospitals within 30 days of discharge. The ten highly respected organizations that participated in CMS’s first “accountable care organization” (ACO) demonstration, the Physician Group Practice (PGP) Demonstration (which ran from 2005 to 2010), were unable to reduce readmissions (see Table 9.3 p. 147 of the final evaluation) The research consistently shows, however, that at some point in the 2000s many hospitals began to cut 30-day readmissions of Medicare FFS patients. But research also suggests that this decline in readmissions was achieved in part by diverting patients to emergency rooms and observation units, and that the rising rate of ER visits and observation stays may be putting sicker patients at risk  Responses like this to incentives imposed by regulators, employers, etc. are often called “unintended consequences” and “gaming.”
To determine whether hospitals
are gaming the HRRP, it would help to know, first of all, whether it’s possible
for hospitals to reduce readmissions, as the HRRP defines them, without gaming.
If there are few or no proven methods of reducing readmissions by improving
quality of care (as opposed to gaming), it is reasonable to assume the HRRP has
induced gaming. If, on the other hand, (a) proven interventions exist that reduce
readmissions as the HRRP defines them, and (b) those interventions cost less
than, or no more than, the savings hospitals would reap from the intervention
(in the form of avoided penalties or shared savings), then we should expect much
less gaming. (As long as risk-adjustment of readmission rates remains crude, we
cannot expect gaming to disappear completely even if both conditions are met.)
On the morning of December 21, I opened my copy of the New York Times to find an op-ed that said almost exactly what I had said in a two-part article The Health Care Blog posted two weeks earlier. The op-ed criticized the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP), one of dozens of “value-based payment” programs imposed on the Medicare fee-for-service program by the Affordable Care Act. The HRRP punishes hospitals if their rate of readmissions within 30 days following discharge exceeds the national average. The subtitle of the op-ed was, “A well-intentioned program created by the Affordable Care Act may have led to patient deaths.”
The first half of the op-ed made three points: (1) The HRRP appears to have reduced readmissions by raising the rate of observation stays and visits to emergency rooms; (2) the penalties imposed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) for “excessive readmissions” have fallen disproportionately on “safety net hospitals with limited resources”; and (3) “there is growing evidence that … death rates may be rising.”
That’s exactly what I said in articles published here on December 6 and December 7. In Part I, I described the cavalier manner in which the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee (MedPAC) endorsed the HRRP in its June 2007 report to Congress. In Part II, I criticized the methodology MedPAC used to defend the HRRP in its June 2018 report to Congress, and I compared that report to an excellent study of the HRRP published in JAMA Cardiology by Ankur Gupta et al. which suggested the HRRP is raising mortality rates. In its June 2018 report, MedPAC had claimed the HRRP has reduced the rate at which patients targeted by the HRRP were readmitted within 30 days after discharge without increasing mortality. Gupta et al., on the other hand, found that for one group of targeted patients – those with congestive heart failure (CHF) – mortality went up as 30-day readmissions went down.