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…
Pay for performance, the catchall term for policies that purport to pay doctors and hospitals based on quality and cost measures, has been taking a bashing.
Last November, University of Pittsburgh and Harvard researchers published a major study in Annals of Internal Medicine showing that a Medicare pay-for-performance program did not improve quality or reduce cost and, to make matters worse, it actually penalized doctors for caring for the poorest and sickest patients because their “quality scores” suffered. In December, Ankur Gupta and colleagues reported that a Medicare program that rewards and punishes hospitals based on arbitrary limits on the number of hospital admissions of heart failure patients may have increased death rates. On New Year’s Day, the New York Times reported that penalties for “inappropriate care” concocted by Veterans Affairs induced an Oregon hospital to deny acute medical care to its sickest patients, including an 81-year-old “malnourished and dehydrated” vet with skin ulcers and broken ribs.
And just three weeks ago, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission recommended that Congress repeal a Medicare pay-for-performance program, imposed by Congress in 2015, because the program is costly and ineffective.
This bad news comes on top of a decade of less-publicized research indicting policies intended to reward and penalize doctors based on measures — most of them inaccurate — of their cost and quality. That research demonstrates that penalties against doctors:
Cause doctors to game quality measures. For example, a Medicare program that punished hospitals for hospital-acquired infections actually induced some hospitals to characterize infections acquired after admission as “present upon admission” or to simply not report the infection rather than reduce actual infection rates.
Subjecting doctors and hospitals to carrots and sticks hasn’t worked for several reasons. The most fundamental one: Clinician skill is not the only factor that determines the quality of care. Consider one widely used performance measure: the percent of patients diagnosed with high blood pressure whose blood pressure is brought under control. Doctors who treat older, sicker, and poorer patients with high blood pressure will inevitably score worse on this so-called quality measure than doctors who treat healthier and higher-income patients.
Meaningful Use and Pay for Performance – two of the most talked about programs in healthcare IT over the past several years. They are both based on the premise that if you want to drive behavior change among providers and improve quality of care, you need to offer financial rewards to get results.
But what about the consumer? We have now entered a new era in healthcare where the consumer is rightfully front and center – AHIP is even calling 2014 the “Year of the Consumer.” Payers, and other population health managers, who until recently viewed consumers as claims, now want to “engage,” “motivate” and “delight” them.
The challenge, however, is that we are giving consumers more responsibility, but not making them accountable for the quality of care they provide for themselves.
As a country we have spent tens of billions of dollars on Meaningful Use incentives and Pay for Performance programs for clinicians. Providers need to demonstrate they are making the best choices for patients, being efficient and coordinating care.
They need to educate patients and give them access to information based on the belief that if patients are informed, they will take responsibility and action. Unfortunately, this seems like a “Field of Dreams” spinoff – “If we say it, they will act.”
However, that movie has a different ending. The intentions are good, but the flaw is that consumers don’t simply need more information. They need personalized guidance and support, and they need to feel like they have a financial stake in the game.
So the big question is – why aren’t we spending more time thinking about how the concepts behind “meaningful use” and “pay for performance” could be used as a way to get consumers engaged in their health? Yes, clinicians are important as they direct approximately 80 percent of the healthcare spend in our “sick-care” health system.
However, what most people do not realize is that 75 percent of healthcare costs are driven by preventable conditions like heart disease and type-2 diabetes. And while some consumers may throw up their hands and blame genetics for the majority of their health issues, it’s a fact that 50 percent of what makes us healthy is under our control – as opposed to 20 percent for genetics.
So what if we made wearable technologies such as FitBit more “meaningful” for the consumer? Instead of just tracking steps, what if consumers were financially rewarded for taking steps to improve their health (pun intended) through health premium reductions, copay waivers or even gift cards?
Consider a scenario where an individual who was identified as being pre-diabetic and then took action to prevent the onset of diabetes. What if we required that proactive person to pay less in premiums than someone who was not taking any initiative to improve their health? That would clearly be very motivating.
The most commonly heard comment in healthcare these days is that we have to move from paying for volume to paying for value. While it may sound trite, it also turns out to be pretty true. Right now, most healthcare services are paid for on a fee-for-service basis – with little regard for the quality of that service. We clearly need to move towards value-based payments (sometimes referred to as pay-for-performance or P4P).
Although a few folks remain skeptical about whether VBP/P4P can work (as though our pay for volume strategy is working out so well), asking whether we should pay for volume versus pay for quality no longer seems like a particularly interesting question.
The far more compelling and difficult question is how best to pay-for-performance? As I have written before, we need bold experiments with new payment models that employ three key principles: putting real money on the table, focusing on outcomes, and keeping the reward system simple (i.e. the better you do, the more you should get).
Despite these disappointing findings, the U.S. Congress, in crafting the Affordable Care Act, modeled VBP closely on HQID. The incentives in the program are small (currently at 1.25% of total Medicare payments) and still more heavily weighted towards process measures than outcomes.
The key question for VBP is whether it will work – whether patients will be better off because of it. We don’t know and realistically, we won’t for another year or so.
But what we do know is that two years into the program, certain hospitals seem to be doing well and others, not so much. Yes, the incentives are small and my guess is that any impact will be very modest as well. But, it’s still worth taking a look at how different types of hospitals are faring under VBP.
There’s been a great deal of discussion about health care payment reform. Prominent in this discussion is “Pay for Performance” (P4P). The idea is simple — rather than pay providers based on volume of care (fee-for-service) or number of patients (capitation), tie their payment to a measure(s) of performance. There has been substantial concern about the quality of care delivered to patients, so pay for performance appears to make a lot of sense. Don’t we want to reward providers for good performance? Shouldn’t this encourage them to provide high quality care?
Unfortunately, this is not as straightforward as it might appear. While the idea of pay for performance is very appealing and intuitive, there are some major pitfalls in implementation.
These should be the best of times for the patient safety movement. After all, it was concerns over medical mistakes that launched the transformation of our delivery and payment models, from one focused on volume to one that rewards performance. The new system (currently a work-in-progress) promises to put skin in the patient safety game as never before.
Yet I’ve never been more worried about the safety movement than I am today. My fear is that we will look back on the years between 2000 and 2012 as the Golden Era of Patient Safety, which would be okay if we’d fixed all the problems. But we have not.
A little history will help illuminate my concerns. The modern patient safety movement began with the December 1999 publication of the IOM report on medical errors, which famously documented 44,000-98,000 deaths per year in the U.S. from medical mistakes, the equivalent of a large airplane crash each day. (To illustrate the contrast, we just passed the four-year mark since the last death in a U.S. commercial airline accident.) The IOM report sparked dozens of initiatives designed to improve safety: changes in accreditation standards, new educational requirements, public reporting, promotion of healthcare information technology, and more. It also spawned parallel movements focused on improving quality and patient experience.
As I walk around UCSF Medical Center today, I see an organization transformed by this new focus on improvement. In the patient safety arena, we deeply dissect 2-3 cases per month using a technique called Root Cause Analysis that I first heard about in 1999. The results of these analyses fuel “system changes” – also a foreign concept to clinicians until recently. We document and deliver care via a state-of-the-art computerized system. Our students and residents learn about QI and safety, and most complete a meaningful improvement project during their training. We no longer receive two years’ notice of a Joint Commission accreditation visit; we receive 20 minutes’ notice. While the national evidence of improvement is mixed, our experience at UCSF reassures me: we’ve seen lower infection rates, fewer falls, fewer medication errors, fewer readmissions, better-trained clinicians, and better systems. In short, we have an organization that is much better at getting better than it was a decade ago. Continue reading…
The expansion of health insurance coverage may be the most visible aspect of health reform, but other elements will ultimately have a significant impact on how we all experience health care. One pivotal change is how health care organizations are paid. New payment approaches will reward providers based on whether services actually improve patients’ health and keep costs down versus simply incentivizing them to provide more care.
One of the more consequential changes will be a greater focus on helping patients to be more involved in their care. There is ample evidence that the behaviors people engage in and the health care choices they make have a very clear effect on both health and costs, positively and negatively. The most innovative health care delivery systems recognize this and see their patients as assets who can help them achieve the goals of better health at lower costs. From this point of view, “investing” in patients and helping them to be more effective partners in care makes good sense.
Our study, reported in the February issue of Health Affairs, highlights this role that patients play in determining health-related outcomes. We found that patients who were more knowledgeable, skilled and confident about managing their day-to-day health and health care (also known as “patient activation,” measured by the Patient Activation Measure) had health care costs that were 8 percent lower in the base year and 21 percent lower in the next year compared to patients who lacked this type of confidence and skill. These savings held true even after adjusting for patient differences, such as demographic factors and the severity of illnesses.
Even among patients with the same chronic illness, those who were more “activated” had lower overall health care costs than patients who were less so. Among asthma patients, the least activated patients had costs that were 21 percent higher than the most activated patients. With high blood pressure, the cost differential was 14 percent.
Over the past decade, there has been yet another debate about whether pay-for-performance, the notion that the amount you get paid is tied to some measure of how you perform, “works” or not. It’s a silly debate, with proponents pointing to the logic that “you get what you pay for” and critics arguing that the evidence is not very encouraging. Both sides are right.
In really simple terms, pay-for-performance, or P4P, can be thought about in two buckets: the “pay” part (how much money is at stake) and the “performance” part (what are we paying for?). So, in this light, the proponents of P4P are right: you get what you pay for. The U.S. healthcare system has had a grand experiment with P4P: we currently pay based on volume of care and guess what? We get a lot of volume. Or, thinking about those two buckets, the current fee-for-service structure puts essentially 100% of the payments at risk (pay) and the performance part is simple: how much stuff can you do? When you put 100% of payments at risk and the performance measure is “stuff”, we end up with a healthcare system that does a tremendous amount of stuff to patients, whether they need it or not.
Against these incentives, new P4P programs have come in to alter the landscape. They suggest putting as much as 1% (though functionally much less than that) on a series of process measures. So, in this new world, 99%+ of the incentives are to do “stuff” to patients and a little less than 1% of the incentives are focused on adherence to “evidence-based care” (though the measures are often not very evidence-based, but let’s not get caught up in trivial details). There are other efforts that are even weaker. None of them seem to be working and the critics of P4P have seized on their failure, calling the entire approach of tying incentives to performance misguided.
The debate has been heightened by the new national “value-based purchasing” program that Congress authorized as part of the Affordable Care Act. Based on the best of intentions, Congress asked Medicare to run a program where 1% of a hospital’s payments (rising to 2% over several years) is tied to a series of process measures, patient experience measures, and eventually, mortality rates and efficiency measures. We tried a version of this for six years (the Premier Hospital Quality Incentives Demonstration) and it didn’t work. We will try again, with modest tweaks and changes. I really hope it improves patient outcomes, though one can understand why the skeptics aren’t convinced.Continue reading…
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.
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.