Reg's Blog

Senior and Post-Acute Healthcare News and Topics

Post-Acute Outlook Post Debt Ceiling, Post Medicare Rate Adjustments, Etc.

OK, the title is a bit wordy and trust me, I could have included more “posts” but I think I got the point across.  First, I’ll admit to having a crystal ball however, the picture I see is a bit like the first (and only) television set I remember having as a kid: Not in color, lines running vertically and horizontally, snow, and an antenna that required frequent manipulation and tin foil to get any kind of reception.  And of course, there were only three channels available.  The same today is true about my crystal ball on health policy and what to expect in the post-acute industry. 

My crystal ball’s three channels are Medicare, Medicaid and the Economy.  Reviewing each, here’s the programming I see for the fall lineup or if you prefer, the period post October 1 (fiscal year 2012) through early next year.

The Economy: The debt ceiling discussion and the actions taken by S&P and the Fed in the last couple of weeks are a reminder via a cold slap, of how mired in dysfunction Washington remains and how moribund the economy truly is.  While technically not in a recession, the economy is not really growing either; a growth rate of less than 2% in GDP is like treading water.  For unemployment to change, consumers to return and capital to re-enter the business investment side, GDP growth needs to be above 2% and ideally north of 4% for a sustained period.  Unfortunately, in order for this to occur, fiscal policy in Washington needs to develop some semblance of coherency and consistency.

What I know from my economics training and background and my last twenty-five years plus in the healthcare industry boils down to some fairly simple concepts.  These concepts are I believe, a solid framework for providers to use in terms of planning for the near future and even somewhat beyond.

  • The U.S. debt level is fueled to a great degree by entitlement spending, less so by discretionary spending.  If the prevailing wind is about debt reduction and balance in the federal budget (or getting closer to balance), two things must occur.  First, spending constraint where spending primarily occurs, namely entitlements.  Second, revenue increases in some fashion, namely taxes.  The devil as we know it today, is how and where on both sides of the ledger (revenue and expenses).  Spending reductions alone are insufficient, unless dramatic, to significantly lower the debt level or balance the budget; particularly in a period of near zero economic growth.  Dramatic spending reductions are clearly unwise and potentially, deleterious to an industry sector (healthcare) that continues to provide steady employment.  Similarly, for spending reductions on entitlements to truly have a positive impact and make sense, program reform must be at the forefront of “why” less spending is needed or warranted.  Program reform, ala the health care reform bill which didn’t really reform Medicare or Medicaid but added new layers of entitlements, is far from the answer.  For providers, there is no immediate or for that matter, longer-range future that doesn’t entail less spending on Medicare or Medicaid.  As the only “trick” in Washington’s bag or the bags contained in the statehouses is rate cuts, anticipate and plan for the same.
  • A lackluster, no growth economy with high unemployment levels fuels provider competition wars over paying patients.  As fewer paying patients are available and/or fewer “good” paying patients are available, providers will compete for the same market share within and across the industry levels.  What this means is that providers will seek to acquire market share within industry segments (home health, hospice, SNF, etc.) and across industry levels (hospitals seeking to maintain patient days versus referring to post-acute providers).  The end result is more or similar levels of M&A activity, if capital remains available, and thus, consolidation that is driven primarily by market share motives.
  • According to a recent healthcare expenditure outlook released by CMS, healthcare spending is projected to reach $4.6 trillion by the end of the decade, representing nearly 20% of GDP.  The primary contributor to this projected level of growth is the Affordable Care Act, principally due to the expansion of Medicaid and the requirements for private insurance coverage (Medicaid growth of 20.3%).  While CMS notes that Medicare spending may slow somewhat, this assumption is predicated upon the continuation of spending cuts and a 29.4% reduction in physician payment rates required under the current Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula.  Assuming, as has historically occurred, Congress evacuates the cuts called for under the SGR and as has been discussed, moves to a formula tying payment to the Medicare Economic Index, Medicare spending accelerates to a 6.6% growth rate (1.7% projected for 2012 with continuation of the SGR).  Summarized, health spending is the two ton gorilla in the room and it will continue to have a heavy, significant influence on economic policy discussions at the federal level and beyond.  Though I don’t agree with the recent rating action taken by S&P, it is impossible to ignore the consensus opinions of allof the rating agencies: Entitlement spending, namely driven by healthcare spending, is unsustainable at its present level with the present level of income support (taxation) and as long as the status quo remains fundamentally unchanged, the U.S. economy is not fundamentally stable.
  • Current economic realities and the rating agencies actions and statements foreshadow a stormy, near term future for the healthcare industry.  As is always the case, there will be winners and losers or more on-point, those more directly impacted and those less so. On the post-acute side, excluding reimbursement impacts, I’ve summarized my views on what I see in terms of economic impacts for the near term (below).
    • The credit rating side will remain pessimistic for most of the industry “brick and mortar” providers.  Moody’s, Fitch, et.al. will continue to have negative outlooks on CCRCs, SNFs, etc. primarily due to the economic realities of the housing market, investment markets, and reimbursement outlook.  Within this group of brick and mortar providers, Assisted Living Facilities will fair the best as they are the least impacted by the housing market and for all intents and purposes, minimally impacted by reimbursement issues (save the providers that choose to play in the HCBS/Medicaid-waiver arena).
    • The publicly traded companies (primarily SNFs but home health and LTACHs as well) will continue to see stock price suppression due to the unfavorable outlooks and credit downgrades provided by the rating agencies.  This will occur regardless of the favorable earnings posted by some of the companies.  Reimbursement trends (down) are the primary driver combined with the hard reality that Medicaid is in serious financial trouble, even more so going forward as enrollment jumps due to continued healthcare reform phase-in schedules.
    • Capital market access will continue to be tight to inaccessible for some providers.  Reimbursement, negative rating agency outlooks, lending/banking reform, above historic levels of failures/bankruptcies, etc. all continue and will remain as an overhang to the lending environment.  Problems with potential continued stable to increasing funding levels at Fannie, HUD, etc. create additional credit negativity and tighter funding flow.  Capital access, when available, will continue to have a credit premium attached, in-spite of low base rates.  I expect to see continued development and demand for private equity participation.
    • Given the above, financially driven mergers and acquisitions will remain somewhat higher as organizations seek to use the M&A arena to create financially stable partnerships and bigger or larger platforms from which to derive credit/capital access.

Medicare: The problems with Medicare are too deep and lengthy to rehash here and thus, I’ll move to brevity.  Medicare is, as I have written before, horribly inefficient, bureaucratic, and inadequately funded to remain or be, viable.  As a result, only two real scenarios exist today: Cut outlays or increase revenues.  Arguably, a third that involves portions of each scenario is the most probable solution.  Real reform is light-years away as the current and forseeable political future foretells no scenario that includes a Ryanesque option (Paul Ryan plan from the Republican Congressional Budget and/or Roadmap for America).  Viewed in this light, the Medicare outlook for post-acute providers is as follows.

  • For SNFs and Home Health Agencies, reimbursement levels are on the decline.  The OIG for CMS and MedPac have each weighed-in that providers are being overpaid.  Profit margins as a result of Medicare payments or attributable to Medicare, are deemed too high (mid to upper teens) and as such, the prevailing wind is payment or outlay reductions.  The bright-side if such exists, and as I have written before, this “cutting” trend will impact some providers far more than others.  The providers that have relied heavily and primarily on certain patient types for reimbursement gains will be more negatively impacted than providers with a more “balanced” book – a more diverse clinical case mix.  The movement is toward a more balanced level and thus lower level, of reimbursement theoretically closer aligned with the actual clinical care needs of patients.  Providers with more diverse revenue streams and more overall case-mix balance will not be as adversely impacted although, the Medicare revenue stream will be lower or less profitable.
  • Hospice has remained relatively unharmed, principally due to its lower overall outlay from the program.  It remains a less-costly level of care than other institutional alternatives.  A note of caution here is important.  While rates have not been cut, program reform is occurring on the fringes and I suspect a wholesale re-design of the Medicare Hospice benefit is forthcoming.  In such a fashion, payment reform rather than rate reform or reduction will occur.  The obvious trend is to restructure payments away from a reward for lengthier stays and to require more precise determinations of terminality, tied to a tighter or imminent expectation of death.  OIG and MedPac have issued a number of papers and memos regarding the relationships between Hospice and SNFs that correlate to longer stays for certain diagnoses.  Summarized, payment reductions via rate are less of an issue but utilization reform is forthcoming via additional regulation designed to reduce overall payments to Hospices or as CMS would say, to more closely align payments to the real necessity of care for qualified, terminally ill patients.  Without question, the largest impact (negative) going forward will be on hospices that have sizable revenue flows tied to nursing home patients.
  • LTACHs are in a similar reimbursement boat as hospice; small overall outlay within the program and for the past few years, minimal expenditure growth.  The industry is from a cost perspective, fundamentally flat.  What will be interesting to watch is whether under certain aspects of healthcare reform, this niche’ takes on a growth spurt.  Bundled payments, ACOs (Accountable Care Organizations), and shifts in SNF reimbursement away from higher acuity, rehab patients may lead toward more utilization of the LTACH product.  This being said, the prevailing Medicare reimbursement profile is fundamentally flat.  Given a bit more creativity on the part of the LTACH provider community, this segment may be poised for some growth, although not directly via increasing payments.
  • The most uncertainty lies on the Part B provider side, particularly providers that are reimbursement “connected” to the Physician Fee Schedule (therapy for example).  As of today, the required change to the fee schedule as a result of the Sustainable Growth Rate formula is a fee cut of 29.4%.  It is quite possible, due to the current negative or flat growth trajectory of the economy, and sans any change in the law, for fees to be cut again in 2013, barring Congressional action.  Most acutely impacted in this scenario are physicians and predominantly, primary care physicians.  I have yet to see a Congress that fails to intercede and repair cuts this draconian but the political times and the budget deficit debates are markedly different than during any prior period.  Critical to whether this cut or some level less than this is implemented is the issue of access, already a hot topic for physicians.  Physicians, particularly primary care specialists, are already in short-supply nationally, woefully short in certain markets.  If cuts of this magnitude or perhaps any magnitude roll forward, I suspect many physicians will curtail or close their practice to new Medicare patients.  On the other side represented by non-physician providers, Part B cuts of this magnitude will no doubt limit service and access.  Fixing the formula and the law has been difficult for Congress as the dollar implications are substantial.  I foresee another round of patches, etc., occurring close to the “cut” date, especially since 2012 is an election year.

 Medicaid: For as many reasons as Medicare is a mess, Medicaid is as well, though magnified by a factor of two or more.  Medicaid’s biggest problem now is rapid growing enrollment, primarily due to high unemployment and upcoming federal eligibility changes mandated via the Accountable Care Act (healthcare reform). Given Medicaid’s current funding structure, this issue poses huge problems in flat to negative growth economies.  States simply due not have the revenue to create a higher matching threshold or level, necessary to achieve more federal dollars.  In July, the enhanced federal match provided via the Recovery Act (stimulus) sunsetted leaving states with huge structural deficits and the prospect of deficit growth due to increasing enrollment.  In virtually every state, rate cuts have been discussed and in half-again as many, implemented.  States continue to move to the federal government seeking relief from required or imputed service provision requirements and/or relief from eligibility requirements (waivers).  The inherent difficulty with balancing Medicaid funding is that the same is directly tied to stable to growing state revenues and a clear picture of population risk or need.  Changing (increasing) populations often present adverse-risk scenarios, creating higher than normative utilization.  For obvious reasons, lower than market reimbursement levels, access is a big issue.  Not all providers willingly and openly desire Medicaid patients and those that do are not on the increase. Without additional funding assistance at a level beyond what is called for in the Accountable Care Act, regulatory relief and an improving economy, the reimbursement prospects under Medicaid are all bleak.

  • In the post-acute environment, the biggest impact of this continued ugly Medicaid scenario will fall directly on SNFs.  Matching prospective or real Medicaid cuts with Medicare cuts forthcoming is a true “negative” Perfect Storm.  For most SNFs, Medicaid is the largest payer source and until recent, Medicare was used as a make-up funding source for Medicaid reimbursement shortfalls.  Adding fuel to an already smoldering fire, the suppressed earnings available to seniors, no growth in Social Security payments, and a stock market that presently produces only a flat return trajectory limits the pool of private paying and privately insured patients.  In short, there is no additional room on the revenue side to make-up an SNFs Medicaid losses.  For SNFs, only the few that have limited leverage, high occupancy, an extremely balanced payer mix, and stable staffing will weather the Medicaid near term future; a future of no rate increases or likely cuts.
  • While not a huge segment of the post-acute environment, HCBs providers will feel the Medicaid pinch as well.  As a result of needing to reign in Medicaid spending, states are rapidly curtailing their funding and payment levels for HCBs programs.  While most states still claim that HCBs expansion would help soften their Medicaid deficit, states that bit a big bullet in this arena early on (California for one), now realize that waiver programs produce massive new levels of beneficiaries who want and need access to community support services.  SNF access was already somewhat limited as the industry has truly shrunk but the demand for services in this growing eligibility pool has expanded.  Funding these services is becoming a real problem for states and as such, support payments will remain flat, decline and program growth will be capped.
  • Home Health will also feel a bite from declining Medicaid funding although its Medicaid utilization levels are modest at best.  For Home Health, Medicare is the big dog and Medicaid a minor element.  Staffing costs are on the rise for Home Health as the competition for home health aides in many markets is brutal or getting rough.  Competition, even in a high unemployment environment, for certain categories of employees, raises wages and benefit costs.  Staffing is the largest expense for a home health agency and as such, a scenario with rising employment costs and flat to declining reimbursement negatively impacts margins.  I don’t see this scenario changing any time soon.

Concluding, this may be one of my most depressing posts, if for no other reason than the current external view is dreary and nothing foreshadows improving weather.  For brick and mortar providers, capital access is critical, especially for SNFs who have as a profile, some of the oldest physical plants.  SNFs are capital-intensive operations and without an ability to fluidly and reasonably, access modest cost funds, deferred maintenance (already high) will increase.  With so much revenue tied to reimbursement and a reimbursement outlook that is negative, it is unlikely that capital will flood back to the post-acute industry.  Critically important to the viability of this sector is an improving economy combined with regulatory reform that, if reimbursement remains flat, allows providers to become truly more efficient. In short, increased program revenues under Medicare and Medicaid due to economic growth, will ease a lot of the immediate crunch and perhaps, buy sufficient time for absolutely critical, health policy reform.

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August 26, 2011 - Posted by | Assisted Living, Home Health, Hospice, Policy and Politics - Federal, Senior Housing, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. Reg, I think you covered it all and, as usual, spoke very well to all points. The change is fast, furious and happening at the same time to all provider types. I wished that was managed a bit better. It is very difficult to develop any long term care plan when NF, SNF, Home Health, Hospital and Docs are experiencing major programming changes; particularly in an era when we are trying to coordinate care in the most appropriate setting, with the most appropriate staff to provide quality low cost outcomes.
    Well done and thank you! Brett

    Comment by Brett Seekins | August 26, 2011 | Reply

    • Brett:

      As always, thanks for the comment and I couldn’t agree with you more – the administrative rule-making is fast, furious and often, more confusing than clarifying. It is truly a tumultuous period – good for types like us but difficult for clients. It is a bit unsettling to tell “folks” that my best answer is “wait and see” and be prepared to move quickly if opportunities present. Stay tuned for a busy couple of years, especially as the election cycle gets hot!

      Reg

      Comment by Reg Hislop III | August 26, 2011 | Reply

  2. “… only two real scenarios exist today: Cut outlays or increase revenues.”

    Reg, your analysis is right on. The only thing I’d add is that there is a third option, one involving hastening death, i.e., “stealth euthanasia,” which I write in detail about in my online web-book (free to read online), Stealth Euthanasia: Health Care Tyranny in America:
    http://www.hospicepatients.org/this-thing-called-hospice.html

    Hastening death a year or more before a natural death would occur, as well as eugenic treatment refusals/imposing death upon severely disabled (which I am hearing about in various hospitals around the country), is a silent epidemic that yields significant savings to the federal and state governments, though it is not a topic for open discussion by the politicians or health care industry leaders. It has been mentioned many times by those who favor such practices as ways of reducing costs.

    Even Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, former Health Care advisor for the current administration has written about not providing basic services for those who are not able to participate fully in society (meaning the severely disabled and very elderly). He also wrote about the “Complete Lives System” for rationing care, focused in that article about rationing scarce vaccines and organs for donation (and not providing them to the elderly). This “Complete Lives System” is being applied on a larger scale for basic services and treatments, basically eliminating some services, treatments, or surgical options for the elderly (even if in good health).

    The cost reductions you mention, if applied in a way that forces providers to not provide needed services to the elderly, will result in hastened deaths and consequently, cost reductions.

    Comment by Ron Panzer, Pres. Hospice Patients Alliance | August 26, 2011 | Reply

    • Mr. Panzer:

      Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately, many ethicists and philosophers have opined on the need of a system such as ours to adopt rationing. While rationing occurs today, its form is subtle and within a social construct that has been adopted somehwat universally (i.e., Medicaid). I thoroughly agree that there is always a movement that will offer, as a means of cost savings, policy options that include rationing of end-of-life care, with the implict or covert goal of shortening life. We live in interesting times.

      Reg

      Comment by Reg Hislop III | August 27, 2011 | Reply


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