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Medicare SNF Rate Outlook

Literally fresh off of a significant rate adjustment/reduction in October (2011), Medpac (the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission) releases a recommendation for complete SNF payment overhaul.  In their assessment of the SNF payment system under Medicare, Medpac concludes the following;

  • Medicare payments to SNFs represent 23% of all revenues.  Medicare (payer) as a share of SNF patient days averages 12%.
  • Provider supply and occupancy rates remain essentially flat year-over-year (2009-2010).
  • Quality as determined through survey and other indicators remains unchanged.
  • Average Medicare margin is 18.5%.  The average margin for for-profit SNFs is 20.7% and for non-profits, 9.5%.

The crux of the Medpac argument is that efficient providers have lower costs (about 10%) and higher quality as evidenced by higher rates of community discharges (38% higher) and lower rates of rehospitalizations (17% lower).  Accordingly, Medpac believes that the current system, inclusive of recent adjustments to rates (October) is set to produce the same level of behavior and outcomes, plus account for a 14.6% average margin in 2012.  The argument put forth by Medpac is that the Medicare SNF system must be re-based, principally due to the fact that margins have run consistently above 10% since 2000 and the correlation between margins and patient case-mix is non-existent.  In summary, the Medpac recommendation, which will head to Congress in the upcoming months, is to revise the PPS system now and begin rebasing rates in 2014, in phases.  In addition, Medpac is calling for a rehospitalization impact (negative) to rates for poor performing SNFs.

Ordinarily, Medpac recommendations such as this have more of a “frame the argument” impact than a real implementation objective.  Congress has been reluctant to take steps this drastic to any Medicare provider group for fear of industry fall-out and political damage.  Yet, as we have seen with the home health industry, greater movement is possible where rate cuts are concerned, particularly if the general tone is that the industry is too profitable and said profit is coming from gaming the system.  Double digit margins seem to get even Congressional types’ attention.

Looking at the industry, how the rate reductions in 2011 transpired, the initial report/recommendations from Medpac, and the current public policy environment in Washington, my near term rate outlook for SNFs is as follows.

  • All the evidence suggests PPS refinement is forthcoming.  The system simply isn’t working adequately in terms of tying payment rates to care costs and rewarding quality.  The “behavior” effect that CMS is looking for, namely a movement away from “rate ramping” focused on rehab case-mixes to rate equalization focused on a balanced book of Medicare patients (balanced case-mix) isn’t happening and apparently, isn’t properly incented in the current system. 
  • Rebasing isn’t far-fetched but it is aways off.  CMS is prone to be exceptionally slow at devising payment systems and of course, equally inept at getting the infrastructure to work properly.  If as I believe, the first step is PPS refinement, given the likely horizon of implementation, rebasing is farther away; certainly farther than 2014.
  • There is no question that payments will become tied to certain quality indicators, especially rehospitalizations.  This trend is foretold in the PPACA (Reform) and regardless of the law’s future (life or death or limbo), the payment tied to quality trend is here to stay.
  • Politically, the will to champion what will be viewed as over-payments is far less than the will to find ways to rein in excess (or perceived excess).  All this means, regardless of the upcoming political cycle and elections, is that lobbying for a system that continues to produce average margins north of 14% will fall on principally deaf ears on the Hill. 
  • Rates are trending down and I suspect another round of flat to modest decreases in rates forthcoming in October.  The push will be system revision as opposed to just rate reductions, feeling that the best approach is to revamp the existing PPS and in so doing, create lower spending overall.
  • Time tested arguments against cuts that won’t work or have run their course are as follows;
    • Medicare margins are necessary to offset Medicaid losses.  This one is good on its face but in reality, its tough to make the case for margins that have run in the 20% range and earnings that have been solid among the for-profit companies.  The publicly traded guys need to show pain (in the form of earnings) before Congress will relent on the lack of merit for this argument (publicly traded SNFs tend to have higher MA census and higher Medicare census).
    • Access will become an issue and facilities will close.  Per Medpac and most industry observers, the supply today is adequate and slightly surplus so some continued shrinkage isn’t a big concern.
    • Job losses will certainly occur.  The latest cuts from October don’t support this argument by any magnitude.  Additionally, the overall health care industry is growing so worker displacement isn’t really a grave concern – movement is easy between providers in most markets.
    • Capital will be even more difficult to access with future negative rate outlooks.  Again, this is a decent argument but in reality, capital access is provider specific and CMS and policy makers realize that well run, profitable providers will continue to have access to capital, even if the industry outlook is negative.  A better argument is that negative industry outlooks make capital marginally more expensive and the number of outlets fewer.  This is true only in the short-run however.

So in conclusion, here’s the take-away: Medicare rates are headed down in the near term and in the intermediate term.  It is a virtual certainty that the present PPS system will be revised over the next three to five years.  The future of the PPACA will impact this process as elements of reform shift the landscape for all providers.  The debt discussions in Washington will have literally no direct impact on the future of Medicare SNF payments; the industry share of the overall spending pie is negligible enough to not be overly impacted by automatic cuts in federal spending.  The future is one where providers must learn to balance their overall Medicare book/case-mix and focus on quality.  Quality incentives/penalties are a certainty and there is no longer any room left to ignore outcomes such as discharges and rehospitalizations.  Likewise, I believe bundled payments are forthcoming and the further development of ACOs will continue to shift SNFs to align their care and product/service offerings toward outcome oriented, bundled payments.  Medicare as a payer source will remain profitable for many SNFs although not at the same margin levels seen over the past decade.  Profitability ranges will trend into the high single digits or perhaps slightly more but only for providers with a well-balanced case-mix.  As always however, the key to making money in this declining reimbursement environment stems from solid management, a well-balanced payer mix, and an operating infrastructure that is aligned with the incentives remaining in the industry.


January 31, 2012 - Posted by | Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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