Hospitals, CMS Butt Heads Over Too Many Readmissions

Medicare has plans to penalize hospitals that frequently readmit patients who really don’t need hospitalization. According to one estimate, this practice costs the federal government $12 billion every year.  Medicare’s goal is to persuade hospitals to be certain that patients get the care they need following their discharge.  This new policy is likely to excessively impact hospitals, particularly those that treat low-income patients, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis of data provided by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.  Hospitals that admitted the most underprivileged Medicare patients were approximately 60 percent as likely to have significantly higher readmission rates for heart failure.  At these hospitals, lower-income people comprise a larger share of the patients than they do at 80 percent of hospitals.

“When some of our patients get home, their lights and gas are shut off,” said Roland Abellera, vice president of quality and corporate compliance at St. Bernard Hospital in Chicago’s blighted Englewood neighborhood.  “So what ends up happening is that the ambulance brings them back to us and we have to house them until our staff can help them get the utilities turned on.  We have a community in need.”

Within 30 days of discharge, 25 percent of Medicare patients with heart failure are readmitted to the hospital.  The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) has ruled that beginning next October, Medicare will fine hospitals whose patients who have had heart attacks, heart failure or pneumonia return to the hospital too soon.  By 2014, hospitals with high readmission rates can potentially lose up to three percent of their Medicare reimbursements.

Medicare has set aside funds so hospitals can more effectively plan patients’ post-discharge care.  According to Patrick Conway, Medicare’s chief medical officer, some funds will be targeted to hospitals that serve significant numbers of poorer people.  “We especially are concerned about safety-net hospitals that take care of a high portion of patients in poverty and racial and ethnic minorities,” he said.  At the same time, his agency is committed to the readmission penalties, in part because it is the law and because it believes the penalties will persuade hospitals to be certain that patients get the follow-up care they need.

Some hospital administrators are concerned that the new policy is too harsh.  “In essence, they are penalizing those hospitals and areas that need the most help and the most money to address these issues because we have the sickest, most noncompliant and vulnerable patient population,” said Guy Alton, chief financial officer at St. Bernard.  According to Abellera, St. Bernard’s heart failure patients usually have more than one serious conditions, such as kidney failure, hypertension and diabetes.  “A patient does not come here for heart failure alone,” he said.  “They have no less than six or seven diagnoses — we’ve had many with more than that.”

Dr. Ashish Jha, in the latest New England Journal of Medicine, makes the case that readmissions aren’t the best gauge of unnecessary care — even though they’re a natural target for budget-cutters.  The Harvard University professor points out that many hospitals with the highest readmission rates serve the poorest areas with the biggest health problems.  “Readmissions are caused by what hospitals do, who the patients are, and what’s happening in the community,” he says. “You want hospitals to fix the things they can, but you don’t want to punish them for taking care of poor people, and you don’t want to punish them for being located in a poor area.”

Two of the most frequent reasons for hospital readmissions are medication errors and failure to see a physician – both of which could be reduced if patients were supervised through home care visits following discharge.

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