What’s Trending: A New Feature

By popular request, I’ve created a new feature to this site to cover issues and topics “in brief” that I am watching or in some cases, directly tangential to by engagement.  Weekly, my inbox is awash in “what have you heard?”, “are you seeing this?”, “what’s going on with?”, etc., type questions.  I do try to answer them all to the extent possible and then one day, someone asked if I could compile my comments into a weekly or bi-weekly piece and route it or post it accordingly.  This is my first compilation of what I think, will occur on an every week to ten-day basis (if I can keep up).

  • Supreme Court Decision: Thursday is the day we learn the decision of the Court regarding the future existence of the PPACA; the focal discussion on the individual mandate.  My reasoned opinion, obtained in part from my myriad of qualified and unqualified sources is that the Court will find the mandate unconstitutional.  Personally, I believe that the Court will also effectively reason that the core of the PPACA then falls, applicable to the exchanges, Medicaid expansion, and the expanded benefit and coverage criteria mandates for commercial/private insurance policies.  I am less clear about how the language will be interpreted from a policy perspective but suffice to say, I am solidly in “the camp” of those who believe the PPACA will be shot full of holes on Thursday, left to crumble as it is structurally gutted.
  • Post PPACA Demise: Regardless of the ultimate outcome, I am advising providers to look at the core concepts embedded in the PPACA and to quickly understand, the health care landscape has fundamentally changed.  Remember, CMS has broad and powerful rule-making capabilities and what once may have been a part of the PPACA can quickly return in elemental form via administrative law.  For those who will joyfully celebrate the end of the PPACA, I offer a quick refresher regarding the “law of unintended consequences”.  An activist CMS/DHHS can quickly re-visit a number of core concepts and apply the same with perhaps, nuances and twists that are more onerous than applied in the PPACA.  Thus, I suggest everyone stay close to a script that focuses on quality based payments, bundled payments, new network and delivery systems (ACOs), re-hospitalizations, new outcome measures, coordinated care, and Medicare payment restructuring and re-basing (the latter necessitated by the poor fiscal outlook for Medicare, PPACA notwithstanding).
  • Hospital Observation Stays Rising: Starting October 1, hospitals will receive weighted payment reductions for re-hospitalizations occurring within 30 days post discharge for Medicare patients hospitalized concurrent with one of three DRGs – heart failure, pneumonia or MI/heart attack.  Payment reductions will occur for all Medicare payments for hospitals that rank retrospectively, in the bottom quartile of performance on re-admission rates compared to applicable peers.  In October 2015, additional at-risk DRGs are added and monitored for re-admissions.  The trend that we are seeing today is for hospitals to take a “cautious” approach with Medicare patients presenting via outpatient settings, nursing homes, and through the Emergency Department as applied to admissions.  While penalties are not yet in-force, hospitals are mindful of the re-admission implications and are using observation stays as a vehicle to expand care without triggering an inpatient admission and thus, a possible adverse event.  I am not yet seeing a diagnosis correlation to these events simply a Medicare implication.  The downstream implication is that a hospital discharge to an SNF may not include a three-day qualified “inpatient” stay for Medicare coverage.  I hear increasing complaints from SNFs about this issue and I advise the same tactics; get to the hospital in-person to qualify your discharges and do your homework.
  • Post Acute Care Transitions: In light of the topic above and the focus on avoidable re-admissions, post-acute providers need to get on-board and quickly.  Hospitals are loath to do business with weak post-acute providers that beget re-admissions in 30 days, regardless of the original hospital admission DRG; too much risk.  SNFs, home health providers and to a lesser extent, hospices need to focus on tightening their care transition approaches and increase their ability to insulate against unnecessary discharges to the hospital.  Increasing internal clinical competence, strengthening physician relations, improving pre-admission assessments, improving staffing particularly on off-shifts and weekends, developing transition algorithms for various disease states and routine discharge causes, and working with families via education are all key components in improving post-acute care transitions.
  • Hospice Still under Watch: I am hearing constantly from hospices that are being probed, struggling for referrals and having re-certs denied.  Frankly, this isn’t surprising as almost week by week, we learn of another settled Qui Tam case involving False Claims Act violations.  The most recent occurred with Hospice Care of Kansas, strikingly similar to others within the industry.  The Feds smell blood in the water here and as I have cautioned before, one public Qui Tam action begets others, particularly when large dollars are involved.  Whistleblower actions are a new cottage industry within health care and hospice claims are low-hanging fruit.  Here’s the take away and for those who haven’t heard me lecture on this subject or read other pieces that I have written on it, this isn’t “news”.  Hospice is a niche industry and under Medicare, very oddly regulated with ill-defined eligibility and coverage criteria.  The Medicare guidelines are frankly dated and the payment, inversely proportionate by setting and by length of stay.  The combination of dated regulations, improperly incentivized payments, and non-diagnosis specific coverage determinations can’t help but create an environment of fraud.  Mix Medicare with Medicaid payments that over-arch within nursing homes and certain home/community based settings and effectively, open flame is applied to a combustible liquid.  In reality, there are too few organically qualified, terminally ill Medicare patients that desire and elect hospice, compared to the number of Medicare hospice providers.  By “organically” I mean patients with classic end-stage diseases or conditions such as cancer, end-stage Parkinson’s, certain categories or stages of heart failure, COPD, etc.  In these cases, certainty without treatment and intervention is known.  Expanding the eligibility criteria (for providers) under Medicare is fairly easy as diagnostic codes are not required for coverage nor really, is evidence of decline in status though recently via probe activity on recertifications, I have seen situations where CMS has denied continuation of coverage for lack of evidence of terminality (evidenced by condition or status deterioration).  Bottom-line: Hospice will remain under scrutiny for quite some time and the net result, a stagnant environment for referrals and new patients will persist.  I expect the industry to shrink in total volume or marginally, remain flat over the next three years.

I hope everyone likes this new feature and for regular readers and followers, please feel free to keep your comments and questions flowing. I’ll get to them as best as I can.

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