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MedPac Report to Congress: 2012 Recommendations

MedPac (Medicare Payment Advisory Commission) just released its March report to the Congress on Medicare program and rate recommendations for the FY 2012 (beginning October 1, 2011).  The full report is available in PDF form on the Reports and Other Documents page on this site.  Below I’ve provided a summary of the key recommendations contained in the report.

Important to note about this year’s report and the recommendations contained therein is the political context in which this report will be received.  Congress has often been politically unmotivated to take MedPac’s recommendations fully to heart as the same often involves program and payment reform following a path of curtailed spending.  As MedPac was officially created/established as part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, a critical element of its charge is to monitor payment adequacy in light of Medicare’s beneficiary’s access to care and the quality of care delivered.  Most notably, MedPac has gradually evolved to an organization that advocates for more aggressive programmatic reforms combined with rate reduction and/or spending reduction.  For routine readers of the annual payment reports (issued in March), the opening tone within the Executive Summary section has grown more pointed regarding Medicare’s solvency issues (lack of sustainability) and the Commission’s view of Medicare and the broader economic impact it has on the global U.S. economy.  Today (presently) within a House that is demonstrably pushing spending reforms and reductions and an overall Congressional environment stuck in debate regarding fiscal reforms that include entitlement reform, MedPac’s report certainly will receive more review and deliberation than in other years.  Similarly, health care is a front burner issue given the politics (anti-reform) that surround the recently passed PPACA, effectively producing a wholesale shift in political power in Washington.  Wrap the Washington political issues with a moribund economy that hasn’t yet established its recovery footing, significant Medicaid deficits across the States, and local political wars focused on labor unions, contracts and unfunded and/or expensive benefit packages (including health care).  Summarized: The ancient Chinese proverb applies, “It is better to be a dog in a peaceful time than to be a man in a chaotic period”.

Opening, MedPac provides a quick context for their recommendations noting that Medicare’s share of the total GDP is expected to rise from 3.5% to 5.5% by 2035.  More important and a point too often missed by economists and analysts is that Medicare’s cost growth is not separate from the larger health care economy as it is directly linked to other cost drivers within the health care system that today, are rising far faster than GDP growth (especially given the current and recent pace of GDP growth).  Overall, including the payroll tax funded Part A, Medicare consumes 18 percent of all income tax revenue.  The CMS Office of the Actuary, taking into account the purported Medicare spending reductions contained in the PPACA (see my last post on the Unraveling of the PPACA for more on Medicare and the PPACA) forecast a slower rate of spending growth – 6% vs. 9% under current law.  Critical to this assumption is the realization of spending reductions totaling $575 billion as well as a more stabilized, normative GDP growth pattern combined with historic levels of employment.

Key to this year’s payment recommendations (FY 2012) is MedPac’s philosophy and charge of balancing equitable payments that maintain or improve access, redistribute payments within a particular PPS sector to improve equity among providers and/or adjust for biases in patient selection and service (the term “cherry picking” applies), correct unusual patterns of utilization (over incentivizing) and to attempt to tie payments to quality outcomes and efficient practices (pay-for-performance).  The report covers 10 PPS sectors of which, I follow and work within 6 primarily.  As a result, I won’t summarize or comment on MedPac’s recommendations for hospital inpatient, hospital outpatient, ambulatory surgery centers, and outpatient dialysis.  Readers with interest in these sectors can download the report from my site page titled “Reports and Other Documents”.

  • Physicians and Other Health Professional Services: MedPac dances through this topic without adding any substantive input regarding physician fees, let alone any other allied health professions with fees tied to the physician fee schedule (outpatient therapy for example).  Primarily the avoidance is due to the political “hot potato” that is the SGR (Sustainable Growth Rate) issue. Per MedPac’s analysis, overall beneficiary access to physician care is good, physicians continue to accept Medicare patients, service volume continues to grow, quality is stable, and payments for service run at 80% of the typical PPO payment for similar care (unchanged from last year). MedPac does note however that some regional problems in terms of access to primary care are present, attributable to moderately low levels of reimbursement (in some cases, half as much as payments to specialists) and the inherent flaws of the SGR.  MedPac comments on the need to reform this reimbursement mechanism but offers no insight into what it may propose, merely that projected fee cuts of 25% in 2012 are untenable and as a result, MedPac will continue to work on developing alternative SGR approaches along with other formulaic options for the fee-schedule.  Their overall rate recommendation is a 1% increase in fee-schedule service related payments.
  • Skilled Nursing Facilities: Per MedPac, Medicare spent $26.4 bilion on SNF reimbursement in 2010 and per their analysis, the majority of indicators examined showed payment adequacy.  Prefacing their rate recommendations, the reports notes that the average Medicare margin for a free-standing SNF was 18% in 2009.  Specifically, MedPac notes that facilities with wider Medicare margins have aggregated more days into higher paying PPS groups, particularly rehab focused groups as opposed to the medically complex groups.  Additionally, provider costs remained relatively stable while rate increases paced above cost inflation. Per MedPac, successful facilities have found ways to have costs well below industry averages, high quality and corresponding high Medicare margins.  As a result of these conclusions, MedPac is recommending no rate adjustment for SNFs for 2012 while recommending continued categorical revisions within the PPS to move payment focus away from rehab to clinical care – more focused on patient care needs.  Additionally, they are recommending quality of care modifiers, providing incentives for high quality providers and creating rate reductions (disincentives) for sub-standard quality such as “avoidable” re-hospitalization.  As required under the PPACA, MedPac is also charged with reporting on Medicaid utilization.  Interestingly, their comments are boiled down substantially, indicating that total Medicaid certified beds have decreased while utilization and spending has increased.  They note that Medicaid margins are negative  and fundamentally, that all non-Medicare margins are negative but total margins for the industry are positive. 
  • Home Health Services: As it has in prior reports, MedPac continues to advise that access is adequate (90% of beneficiaries live within a zip code containing a certified agency), the number of agencies continues to grow dominated by for-profit entities within a limited geography, the volume of episodes of care continue to increase (25% over the period 2002 to 2009), quality measures are fundamentally unchanged from previous years, and the major for-profit organizations have sufficient access to capital.  As in the most recent prior year reports, MedPac notes that the PPS system continues to produce high margins for providers (17%), principally because payments exceed costs and growth in cost per episode remains below the assumptions used in the market basket update.  Using these conclusions combined with a cautionary statement regarding discovered fraud in the industry, MedPac recommends that the Secretary be charged with re-basing home health rates over a two year period, starting in 2013 (October of 2012).  Re-basing of rates would target a reduction in the therapy “incentive”, modulating more rate toward medical care while incorporating a revised case-mix system.  Additionally, MedPac recommends the development of a cost-share for home health, thereby instituting a beneficiary payment for services.  MedPac believes, like in other Medicare post-acute payments, that imposition of a cost-share will charge the beneficiary with more consumer awareness of the benefit and the utilization thereof.  Finally, MedPac recommends that the Secretary charge the Office of Inspector General with enforcement responsibility in areas/regions where fraud has been evident, removing payments, reducing enrollment and de-certifying agencies engaged in fraudulent activity.
  • Inpatient Rehab Facilities: Although a relatively small segment in the post-acute continuum ($6 billion), MedPac is recommending a zero percent increase in IRF rates.  They conclude that access is adequate, quality as supported by improvement at discharge is stable to improving, and as most facilities are hospital based, access to capital is not an issue.  They note that the average margin for IRFs is 8.4%.
  • Long-term Care Hospitals (LTACH): As with IRFs, this segment is relatively small – $4.9 billion.  MedPac notes that in spite of the limited moratorium placed on new LTACH and additional beds in existing facilities (July 07 to December 2012), the number of facilities increased by 6.6%; worked through the exceptions provided within the moratorium. LTACHs are not required to submit quality data to CMS though MedPac reports, based on claim reviews, that readmissions and deaths within 30 days of discharge are stable or marginally declining compared to prior years. Per MedPac, payments between 2008 and 2009 increased 6.4% despite costs increases of 2%.  The average Medicare margin in 2009 was 5.7%.  Within the PPACA, LTACHs are subject by 2014 to a pay-for-reporting program, though “reporting of what” is yet defined.  MedPac also believes that a pay-for-performance element should be introduced.  The recommendation for a rate increase or update for 2012 is zero.
  • Hospice: Per MedPac, hospice services received $12 billion in Medicare reimbursement 2009.  In the same year, hospice use increased across virtually all demographic areas and across beneficiary characteristics. Between 2000 and 2009, the supply of hospices increased by 50% with for-profit organizations accounting for virtually the entire amount of growth.  During the same period (2000-2009), the use of hospice increased from 23% of all decedents to 42% of all decedents with average length of stay increasing from 54 days to 86 days. In 2012, CMS is required to publish quality measures and in 2014, hospices are required to report on these quality measures or receive a 2 percentage point reduction in payment.  For 2012, MedPac recommends a 1% rate update. As in previous reports, MedPac recommends that the hospice PPS be altered to create higher payments for days early in the stay and late (near death) in the stay with lower payments applicable during the middle of the stay.  As stays continue to move slightly longer, this payment system is supposed to reflect more accurately, the intensity and cost of services provided to the typical hospice patient.  MedPac also recommends that the Secretary of HHS investigate the relationships between hospices and nursing homes and the differences in patterns of referrals between nursing homes and hospices. MedPac also calls for an investigation into agency enrollment practices where lengths of stay are unusually long as well as an investigation into the marketing and referral development practices of these agencies, particularly as they pertain to length of stay. This recommendation is unchanged from last year.
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March 27, 2011 - Posted by | Policy and Politics - Federal | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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