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.)
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.