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Medicare SNF Cuts: Fact, Fiction, Probability

In early May, CMS released its proposed rule for FY 2012 concerning Medicare PPS reimbursement for SNFs.  As most followers of the industry from investors, to operators to developers know by now, CMS dropped a “bomb” to the industry indicating bluntly, a warning of a parity adjustment (reimbursement or payment reduction) of 11.3% or $3.94 billion.  In typical convoluted CMS fashion, the logic behind this foreboding news is scattered; an analysis of the agency’s inability to adequately anticipate provider behavior, utilization patterns, and to appropriately create a reimbursement mechanism that ties the cost of care required by current SNF patients with the costs and delivery systems necessary to provide the care.

Initially, the interpretation from many inside the industry was that CMS was overreacting, using only one-quarter’s worth of claims data to substantiate a “sky is falling” conclusion.  More recently, six month’s worth of claims data became available and analysis proved the trend correct and even a shade worse or better stated, more prevalent than originally assumed.  In short, the implementation of MDS 3.0 and RUGs IV missed the budget mark (budget or expenditure neutral) by $2.1 billion or 16%.

In the last week to ten days, the OIG (Office of Inspector General) for CMS stepped into the debate, stating its opinion that the overpayments must be stopped immediately.  Interpreting the OIG’s qualification of “immediately”, the timeframe at issue is next fiscal year.  In essence, the core of the problem continues to be the structural flaws within the RUGs system predominantly, that disproportionately pays more for rehabilitation therapy than for other primary care modalities.  A major intent of CMS during the switch from RUGs III to IV was a reallocation of the incentives (higher payments) from therapy to other resident care requirements.  Suffice to state, the methodology failed.  Below is a simple illustration of how on a pure rate basis, the RUGs III to IV therapy categories compare.

Table 1: Average Amount That Medicare Pays SNFs per Diem for Each Level of Therapy, FYs 2010 and 2011
Level of Therapy Number of Therapy Minutes Provided During Assessment Period Average per Diem Payment FY 2010 Average per Diem Payment FY 2011 Percentage Increase From FY 2010 toFY 2011
Low 45 to 149 $288 $430 49%
Medium 150 to 324 $369 $488 32%
High 325 to 499 $364 $532 46%
Very high 500 to 719 $418 $594 42%
Ultra high 720 or more $528 $699 32%
Source: OIG analysis of unadjusted per diem urban rates for FYs 2010 and 2011. See 74 Fed. Reg. 40288, 40298–40299 (Aug. 11, 2009) and 75 Fed. Reg. 42886, 42894–42895 (Jul. 22, 2010).

Reviewed on-the-face, it is logical to see how CMS could miss the targeted expenditure mark by the margin it has, even in-spite of the “methodology” changes that occurred in the conversion from 2.0 to 3.0 and RUGs III to IV.  Providers, being logical creatures of certain habits, moved accordingly to grab the payments at the highest attainable levels or in short, fulfilled the economic axiom of, “what gets rewarded (paid for) gets done”.  The expectation on the part of CMS that utilization trends would fall-off from the higher paying therapy categories, necessitating a higher re-balanced rate to negate a revenue “shock” to the SNFs was poorly thought through.

Quickly reviewing “what” occurred to produce such a variance from assumption to actual is easy. Getting to the core takes a bit more thought and digging.  In summary fashion; CMS assumed that by restructuring how therapy minutes were calculated for concurrent therapy (therapy provided to two individuals) from a two-equals one basis to an equal half, would reduce the ability of providers to meet the higher per minute category qualifications, necessitating more one to one therapy sessions (the previous concurrent therapy rules allowed providers to have two people in the same therapy session with the total session time allocated to both participants equally).  Similarly, CMS assumed that ending the look-back provision to establish reference dates and care requirements would more accurately stage the resident’s acuity and care needs to the point of admission (or proximally forward from admission) to the SNF.  Additional tightening of the extensive services qualifier rules would also, as assumed, reduce higher RUG scores and thus, payments.  Of these changes and assumptions, only the look-back period changes combined with the changes in qualification for extensive services provided any material classification changes (lower payments) though such changes were far less in total dollars than the dollar increase CMS imputed on the corresponding RUGs III to RUGs IV therapy payments. Providers however, merely switched to the remaining “open ground”, providing more therapy on an individual basis and most noticeably, on a group basis.  On a group basis, minutes are counted collectively, not split in equal parts among the participants – a provision CMS did not change from RUGs III to RUGs IV.  While the modifications made to the extensive services qualifier and the look-back period provision did impact providers, CMS completely misunderstood the application and prevalence within the provider community of these two provisions under RUGs III and as played-out, found that providers could still code residents into higher payment groups/categories in spite of the changes.

To understand what might happen next, one needs to look at how this mess occurred.  As I’ve typically found, the answer lies in both camps; providers and CMS.  In my recent work, its clear that many providers don’t understand the transition from RUGs III to RUGs IV and as I have looked at “oodles” of Medicare claims, I dare say a large number are still frought with “up-coding” and questionable therapy-minute counting practices.  This is not to say that the whole of the industry has behaved in this fashion but arguably, and CMS understands this as do both major trade associations, providers have not totally changed their business models to reflect the changes in payment systems.  One needs only to look at how claims trended under RUGs III and how they now are trending under RUGs IV.  The trend is too consistent to support an assumption of SNFs; a) staffing substantially more therapy personnel to capture the minute requirements via individual treatment or, b) SNFs moved a sizable share of their Medicare case-load into group therapy.  The latter, while I’m certain it has occurred on a broad basis as the OIG report suggests, is problematic from a care delivery perspective for a large range of diagnoses that truly require individual therapy sessions.

CMS continues to remain fundamentally inept at developing reimbursement systems that provide adequate payment for the care and services required by SNF residents.  I have yet to see, across my 25 years in the industry, any period or any system devised by CMS that didn’t under-support or over-support, one type or category of patient versus others.  It is also illogical that CMS cannot develop the audit tools and claims management infrastructure that both educates providers and pre-emptively kicks-back claims clearly evidencing up-coding.  I am consistently amazed at “what” gets paid and for how long.  In short, CMS is apparently willing to consistently miss the mark, make wholesale adjustments and reallocation of dollars, only to over-correct past inconsistencies while producing new ones.  Such will not doubt occur with this latest blunder.

While I won’t claim to have a crystal ball in terms of forecasting “what happens” next, experience and ongoing dialogue with individuals on Capital Hill and within CMS gives me some decent insights.  With debt ceiling/deficit reduction talks mired in politics, it is unlikely any substantial cuts to entitlement spending are forthcoming.  Senate Democrats and the President are sufficiently dug-in on cutting Medicare spending by any measurable amount thus the target on this issue (Medicare SNF spending) has moved away from the current political fracas.  The remaining Washington impetus for cutting SNF reimbursement  resides within CMS.  In spite of the OIG’s report,  enacting cuts of the magnitude suggested is a political issue.  CMS can propose all the spending cuts its desires but Congress has the final say.  Rarely if ever, although given today’s climate an exception may be possible, has Congress sustained reimbursement cuts of this magnitude.  Synthesized, my view of what happens next, based on what I know to date, is:

  • Providers and their trade association are willing to capitulate to a modest adjustment in the therapy categories.  This symbolic give-back will play well politically.  Net of a market-basket/inflation update, cuts of 2% to 4% are possible in a “cut scenario”.
  • In a scenario that involves no real cuts, rates will be flat.  CMS will institute additional refinements and perhaps, even re-calibrate or fine tune payments by RUGs category, moving dollars within the RUGs system, without reducing payments.  In this scenario, the attempt on the part of CMS to is to “patch the potholes” and let the system itself reduce payments via tightening the requirements and re-allocating dollars within the RUGs categories.
  • A most probable scenario involves, as is typical, a bit of both.  CMS will cut the therapy rates using some language about re-basing.  At the same time, a series of corrections will be made regarding the counting of minutes for group therapy, assessment windows, etc.  Overall, payments to SNFs across all RUGs IV categories will be flat or targeted as a reduction equaling 2-4%.  The pull-back on the therapy RUGs rates could be as steep as 8% to 10%.  Even at this level, the remaining rate will be higher than the former RUG III rate.
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July 24, 2011 - Posted by | Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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