The message comes in over the office slack line at 1:05 pm. There are four patients in rooms, one new, 3 patients in the waiting room. Really, not an ideal time to deal with this particular message.
“Kathy the home care nurse for Mrs. C called and said her weight yesterday was 185, today it is 194, she has +4 pitting edema, heart rate 120, BP 140/70 standing, 120/64 sitting”
I know Mrs. C well. She has severe COPD from smoking for 45 of the last 55 years. Every breath looks like an effort because it is. The worst part of it all is that Mrs. C just returned home from the hospital just days ago.
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.
The Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP), one of numerous pay-for-performance (P4P) schemes authorized by the Affordable Care Act, was sprung on the Medicare fee-for-service population on October 1, 2012 without being pre-tested and with no other evidence indicating what it is hospitals are supposed to do to reduce readmissions. Research on the impact of the HRRP conducted since 2012 is limited even at this late date , but the research suggests the HRRP has harmed patients, especially those with congestive heart failure (CHF) (CHF, heart attack, and pneumonia were the first three conditions covered by the HRRP). The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) disagrees. MedPAC would have us believe the HRRP has done what MedPAC hoped it would do when they recommended it in their June 2007 report to Congress (see discussion of that report in Part I of this two-part series). In Chapter 1 of their June 2018 report to Congress, MedPAC claimed the HRRP has reduced 30-day readmissions of targeted patients without raising the mortality rate.
MedPAC is almost certainly wrong about that. What is indisputable is that MedPAC’s defense of the HRRP in that report was inexcusably sloppy and, therefore, not credible. To illustrate what is wrong with the MedPAC study, I will compare it with an excellent study published by Ankur Gupta et al. in JAMA Cardiology in November 2017. Like MedPAC, Gupta et al. reported that 30-day CHF readmission rates dropped after the HRRP went into effect. Unlike MedPAC, Gupta et al. reported an increase in mortality rates among CHF patients. 
We will see that the study by Gupta et al. is more credible than MedPAC’s for several reasons, the most important of which are: (1) Gupta et al. separated in-patient from post-discharge mortality, while MedPAC collapsed those two measures into one, thus disguising any increase in mortality during the 30 days after discharge; (2) Gupta et al.’s method of controlling for differences in patient health was superior to MedPAC’s because they used medical records data plus claims data, while MedPAC used only claims data.
I will discuss as well research demonstrating that readmission rates have not fallen when the increase in observation stays and readmissions following observations stays are taken into account, and that some hospitals are more willing to substitute observation stays for admissions than others and thereby escape the HRRP penalties.
All this research taken together indicates the HRRP has given CHF patients the worst of all worlds: No reduction in readmissions but an increase in mortality, and possibly higher out-of-pocket costs for those who should have been admitted but were assigned to observation status instead.
Egged on by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), Congress has imposed multiple pay-for-performance (P4P) schemes on the fee-for-service Medicare program. MedPAC recommended most of these schemes between 2003 and 2008, and Congress subsequently imposed them on Medicare, primarily via the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010 and the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) of 2015.
MedPAC’s five-year P4P binge began with the endorsement of the general concept of P4P at all levels – hospital, clinic, and individual physician – in a series of reports to Congress in 2003, 2004, and 2005. This was followed by endorsements of vaguely described iterations of P4P, notably the “accountable care organization” in 2006 , punishment of hospitals for “excess” readmissions in 2007 , the “medical home” in 2008 and the “bundled payment” in 2008. None of these proposals were backed up by anything resembling evidence.
Congress endorsed all these schemes without asking for evidence or further details. Congress dealt with the vagueness of, and lack of evidence supporting, MedPAC’s proposals simply by ordering CMS to figure out how to make them work. CMS staff added a few more details to these proposals in the regulations they drafted, but the details were petty and arbitrarily adopted (how many primary doctors had to be in an ACO, how many patients had to sit on the advisory committee of a “patient-centered medical home,” how many days had to expire between a discharge and an admission to constitute a “readmission,” etc.).
New rule, new culture
This process – invention of nebulous P4P schemes by MedPAC, unquestioning endorsement by Congress, and clumsy implementation by CMS – is not working. Every one of the proposals listed above has failed to cut costs (with the possible exception of bundled payments for hip and knee replacements) and may be doing more harm than good to patients. These proposals are failing for an obvious reason – MedPAC and Congress subscribe to the belief that health policies do not need to be tested for effectiveness and safety before they are implemented. In their view, mere opinion suffices.
This has to stop. In this two-part essay I argue for a new rule: MedPAC shall not propose, and Congress shall not authorize, any program that has not been shown by rigorously conducted experiments to be effective at lowering cost without harming patients, improving quality, or both. This will require a culture change at MedPAC. Since its formation in 1997, MedPAC has taken the attitude that it does not have to provide any evidence for its proposals, and it does not have think through its proposals in enough detail to be tested. Over the last two decades MedPAC has demonstrated repeatedly that it believes merely opining about a poorly described solution is sufficient to discharge its obligation to Congress, taxpayers, and Medicare enrollees. Continue reading…
“[T]his is tough. I don’t know how to proceed…. Lord help the staff who must bring all this together.”
That was how Dr. Francis Crosson, chairman of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), reacted to the commission’s baffling discussion at its January 11 meeting moments before it voted 14-2 to replace the Merit-based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) with something called the “voluntary value program” (VVP) (pp. 167-169 of the transcript ). MedPAC’s staff must now summarize the January 11 discussion and prepare a report for inclusion in MedPAC’s March 2018 report to Congress.
MIPS is a pay-for-performance (P4P) scheme imposed on the traditional fee-for-service Medicare program by an act of Congress known as MACRA. MIPS requires that CMS measure performance on cost and quality at the level of the individual doctor, something MedPAC recently acknowledged can’t be done after spending 13 years claiming it could be done.
The portion of the commission’s January 11 discussion that focused on the repeal of MIPS was not hard to understand. The commissioners agreed that MIPS cannot work for multiple reasons, the most important being that the pools of patients treated by individual doctors are too small to permit accurate measurement of cost and quality. “MIPS will not succeed in helping beneficiaries choose clinicians, helping clinicians … improve value, or helping the Medicare program to reward clinicians based on value,” explained MedPAC staffer Kate Bloniarz. (pp. 116-117) Only one of the 16 commissioners present (Dr. Alice Coombs) disagreed with that statement.
Zen and the art of summarizing doubt
It was the commissioners’ discussion about what to replace MIPS with that will be very difficult to summarize. That’s because the discussion consisted largely of expressions of doubt about the VVP, which is essentially a proposal that all doctors who treat Medicare patients either join a “group” (aka ACO) or lose 2 percent of their Medicare payments. The discussion, which followed a vague opening presentation by two MedPAC staff members, consisted of numerous questions posed to the staff that neither the staff nor Dr. Crosson could answer. Because so many issues remained unresolved, ten of the 16 commissioners (one was absent) expressed reservations about voting for the VVP. How does the staff or anyone else summarize a discussion like that? How does the staff explain why the commission voted to recommend the VVP to Congress when a majority of commissioners have multiple concerns about it?Continue reading…
It’s official: the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) has at long last decided that MACRA’s MIPS (Merit-based Incentive Payment System) can’t work.
MedPAC reached this decision at its January 12 and March 2, 2017 meetings.
Its principle rationale was that measuring “merit” (quality and cost) at the individual physician level, which is what MIPS requires CMS to do, is not possible. As one MedPAC staff person put it at the January meeting, “A redesign of the MIPS program should build off a clear-eyed assessment of the limit of the national Medicare program’s ability to assess clinician performance” (pp. 235-236 of the transcript of the morning session of the January 12, 2017 meeting).
Now that the healthcare industry can work with clarity on care coordination strategies and programs, a new expansion of ACO models, trends in patient behavior and the companion issue of provider scope of practice have quickly emerged as critically-relevant spotlights. Historical perspective helps.
Simply put, even with the political tumult this fall, there is strong bipartisan support for aligning payment and care delivery models with improving quality to create a smarter and sustainable healthcare system, backed by historical precedent.
For me and my colleagues in the trenches of pursuing fiscally sound care delivery nearly a decade ago, it is well remembered that the origins of accountable care reside within a 2004 HHS document entitled “The Decade of Health Information Technology: Delivering Consumer-centric and Information-rich Health Care.” This “Framework for Strategic Action” (as it is also known) was delivered to then-HHS Secretary and GOP-appointee Tommy Thompson. And it was delivered by the nation’s first National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, Dr. David Brailer.
The document’s goals of introducing health IT solutions to clinical practices, electronically connecting clinicians, using “information tools” to personalize care and advance population health reporting followed an executive order calling for widespread adoption of interoperable EHRs within 10 years.
Holiday cheer and bipartisan bonhomie are still possible on Capitol Hill.
For evidence, one need only look at the so-called “doc fix,” where Congress every year overrides a previous effort at health care cost control to ensure physicians get paid at least as much as they did the year before. Expect another present to arrive at physicians’ offices sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, now that the Super Committee has failed to permanently resolve the issue as part of Medicare’s contribution to long-term deficit control.
The heretical thought that the salaries of physicians who treat Medicare patients could be held in check dates from the mid-1990s. The optimistically entitled 1997 Balanced Budget Act created a “sustainable growth rate” (SGR) for physician reimbursement that said any increase in total pay for physicians could not exceed the growth rate of the rest of the economy.
That was wishful thinking, as it turned out. Health care costs and physician pay far exceeded economic growth, largely because of Medicare’s fee-for-service system. While the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services could fix the reimbursement rate for the 7,000 price-controlled services offered by physicians, it could not put a brake on the quantity that physicians ordered.
“This system, which ties annual updates to cumulative expenditures, has failed to restrain volume growth and, in fact, may have exacerbated it,” the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) noted in its non-binding recommendations to Congress in mid-October.
The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) is the closest thing Congress has to adult supervision on important health policy questions. The Commission commands bipartisan respect both for its record of sound policy advice and for its leadership.
With its October recommendations, MedPac attempted to solve the sustainable growth rate (SGR) physician payment formula budget crisis by spreading its more than $300 billion cost beyond the physician community. More than two-thirds of the burden would fall on hospitals, pharmaceutical and device manufacturers and, significantly, on Medicare beneficiaries themselves. Clearly MedPac’s intent was to widen the circle of pain.
However, a significant portion of the burden, over $100 billion, would still be borne by the physician community through 17 percent reductions in specialists’ fees and a ten-year freeze on primary care fees. If implemented, MedPac’s policies will give rise to a festival of unintended consequences: weakening multi-specialty group practices (which rely upon specialist comp to cross-subsidize their primary care services); winding down private practice-based primary care medicine; accelerating the hospital roll-up of medical practices while widening hospitals’ losses on the practices they already own; and triggering a further wave of ill-timed cost shifting to private insurers.
A little over two weeks ago, while most of you were paying attention to the debate about how to raise the debt ceiling, those of us who study health care policy were following hearings before the House Budget Committee. The purpose of the hearings was to scrutinize the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a commission that the Affordable Care Act created as part of its apparatus to control health care costs. And the hearings produced some genuinely interesting testimony on everything from the scope of the board’s authority to the limits of its legal power. If we were in the middle of a dialogue about how to improve the board’s structure and function, that testimony would be extremely useful.
But we’re not having a discussion about whether to reform the IPAB. We’re having a discussion about whether to repeal it. Opponents of the Affordable Care Act see the IPAB as an instrument of, and metaphor for, everything that is wrong with the new health care law. The problem with this law, they keep saying, is that it tries to solve the health care cost problem through “central planning.” At best, they say, this strategy will misallocate resources in ways that stifle innovation and make access to care more difficult. And at worst? It will ration care in ways that deny life-saving treatment to people who need it. As one Republican lawmaker put it recently, “It will destroy the very core of what has made our medical system the best in the world.”
Yes, these arguments should sound familiar. They are the same ones critics began making in the summer of 2009, when enactment of the law first seemed imminent. And since neither the argument nor the people making it are going away, maybe it’s a good time to take a step back and remind everybody what the IPAB is; how it will work; and why it (or something very much like it) is essential to making health care accessible to all seniors and, eventually, all Americans.