Medicare Bundling Payments to Save Money

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has a new program that would bundle insurance payments for multiple procedures with the goal of improving patient care while saving money.  CMS invited providers to help develop four models to bundle payments.  The program encourages hospitals, doctors and other specialists to coordinate in treating a patient’s specific condition during a single hospital stay and recovery.  “Today Medicare pays for care in the wrong way,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.  “Payments are based on the quantity of care, and not on the quality of that care.  There is little financial incentive for the kind of care coordination that can help patients from returning to the hospital.” 

The models give providers flexibility regarding how they get paid and for which services, and provides financial incentives to avoid needless or duplicate procedures.  “Hospitals and other providers recognize that they have to accommodate the current (fiscal) environment,” said Nancy Foster, vice president for quality at the American Hospital Association. 

“From a patient perspective…you want your doctors to collaborate more closely with your physical therapist, your pharmacist and your family caregivers,” CMS Administrator Donald Berwick said.  “But that sort of common sense practice is hard to achieve without a payment system that supports coordination over fragmentation.  We’re taking steps that will save Medicare, seniors and taxpayers $28 billion over 10 years. Medicare is paying much more than the private sector for equipment like wheelchairs and walkers.  By expanding our successful competitive bidding program, we can ensure that Medicare pays a fair rate for these goods.”

According to CMS, the initial round of competitive bidding has added up to savings of 35 percent compared to the fee schedule.  Questions in the 1st quarter of 2011 totaled less than 0.9 percent of calls to Medicare’s call center; Medicare received just 45 complaints during that time.  CMS will conduct the second phase of the program for a similar set of products in 91 major cities.  Competition begins this fall; the new prices go into effect on July 1, 2013.  “The success we’ve had in the first phase tells us that we can achieve these savings with no disruption for patients’ access and no negative effect on patients’ health,” said Jonathan Blum, deputy CMS administrator and director of the Center for Medicare. “We remain confident in our bidding methodologies that will produce tangible savings while ensuring adequate choice of qualified suppliers.”

The CMS Innovation Center, created under President Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), has been investigating bundling payments as part of a larger effort to both improve patient care and reduce costs.

There is some disagreement over whether the CMS bidding program is successful.  Economists, consumer groups and some in Congress are on record opposing the program.  They cite reduced access to care, flaws in the program design and impact on local jobs.  “There’s a reason why more than 30 patient advocacy groups, 244 economists and auction experts and 145 members of Congress oppose this program: it undermines quality of care and it increases costs,” said Tyler J. Wilson, president of the American Association for Homecare.  “Because of this bidding program, beneficiaries will spend more time in expensive institutions, rather than in the far more cost-effective setting for care – their own homes.” 

Tim Size, executive director of the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative, is concerned about the impact on rural hospitals.  “Washington has created a new ‘super committee’ to find more cuts.  Some call it a super Congress to remind us this is a small group given powers usually kept by Congress.  Most economists say Washington needs a coherent policy for both additional cuts and additional revenue.  But politics seems to have taken new revenue off the table.  Most people believe the super committee will deadlock.  If Congress fails to act, cuts will be implemented across the board.  Most federal programs will be cut.  Across-the-board cuts harm efficient programs along with the inefficient.  Across-the-board cuts harm necessary along with the less necessary. The country deserves better than bulldozers driven by blindfolded drivers.  Most rural hospitals are financially just holding their heads above water.  Under-payment by government programs has left them vulnerable.  A sluggish economy and an increasingly competitive healthcare marketplace are taking their toll.  Medicare and Medicaid are rural hospitals’ largest payers. Additional cuts are likely to tip many rural hospitals into the red and eventual closure.”

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