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Post-Acute, Site Neutral Payment Upcoming?

In the 2019 OPPS (outpatient PPS) proposed rule, CMS included a site neutral payment provision.  With the comment period closed, the lobbying (against) fierce, it will be interesting to see where CMS lands in terms of the final OPPS rule – maintain, change, or abate.  The one thing that is for certain, regardless of the fate of this provision, site neutral proposals/provisions are advancing.

CMS has advanced a series of conceptually similar approaches to payment reform.  Site neutral approaches are a twist on value-based care as they seek to reward the efficiency of care by de-emphasizing a setting value.  This is loosely an approach to “payment follows the patient” rather than the payment is dictated by the locus of care.  Assuming, which isn’t always in evidence, that for many if not most outpatient procedures, the care required is the same such that one setting vs. another isn’t impactful to the outcome, then a site neutral payment seems logical.  Managed care companies have been using this approach overtly, attaching higher cost-share to certain sites or eliminating payment altogether for procedures done in higher cost settings. In the OPPS proposal, the savings is rather substantial – $760 million spread between provider payments and patient savings (deductibles).  To most policy watchers, there is a watershed moment possible with this proposal and its fate.  The fundamental question yet resolved is whether hospitals will continue to have a favorable payment nuance over physician practices and free-standing outpatient providers.  Hospitals arguing that their administrative burden and infrastructure required overhead, combined with patient differences (sicker, older patients trend hospital vs. younger, less debilitated patients trending free-standing locations), necessitates a site different payment model (such as current).

In the post-acute space, payment site neutrality has been bandied about by MedPAC for some time.  Up to now, the concept of payment site neutrality has languished due to disparate payment systems in provider niches’.  SNFs and their RUGs markedly different from Home Health and its OASIS and no similarity with LTACHs in the least. Now, with post-acute payments narrowing conceptually on “patient-driven” models (PDPM and PDGM) that use diagnoses and case-mix as payment levers, its possible CMS is setting a framework to site neutral payments in post-acute settings.

In its March 2015 report to Congress, MedPAC called for CMS to create site neutrality for certain patient types between SNFs and IRFs (Inpatient Rehab Facilities).   While both have separate PPS systems for payment, the IRF payment is typically more generous than the SNF payment, though care may look very similar in certain cases.  For IRFs, payment is based on the need/extent of rehab services then modified by the presence or lack of co-morbidities.  IRFs however, have payment enhancements/ additions for high-cost outliers and treating low-income patients; neither applies in the SNF setting.

The lines of care distinction between the two providers today, certainly between the post-acute focused SNFs and an IRF, can be difficult to discern.  For example, both typically staff a full complement of therapists (PT, OT, Speech), care oversight by an RN 24 hours per day, physician engagement daily or up to three times per week, etc.  Where IRFs used to distinguish themselves by providing three hours (or more) of therapy, SNFs today can and do, provide the same level.  As a good percentage of seniors are unable to tolerate the IRF therapy service levels, SNFs offer enhanced flexibility in care delivery as their payment is not predicated (directly) on care intensity.  What is known is that the payment amounts for comparable patient encounters are quite different.  For example, a stroke patient treated in an IRF vs. an SNF runs $5,000 plus higher.  An orthopedic case involving joint replacement differs by $4,000 or more.  Per MedPAC the difference in outcomes is negligible, if at all.  From the MedPac perspective, equalized payments for strokes, major joint replacements and hip/femur related surgical conditions (e.g., fracture) between IRFs and SNFs made sense, at least on a “beta” basis.  With no rule making authority, MedPac’s recommendation stalled and today, may be somewhat sidelined by other value-based concepts such as bundled payments (CJR for example).

So the question that begs is whether site neutral payments are near or far on the horizon for post-acute providers.  While this will sound like “bet-hedging”, I’ll claim the mid-term area, identifying sooner rather than later.  Consider the following.

  • Post-acute care is the fastest growing, reimbursed segment of health care by Medicare.
  • The landscape is changing dramatically as Medicare Advantage plans have shifted historic utilization patterns (shorter stays, avoidance of inpatient stays for certain procedures, etc.).
  • Medicare Advantage days as a percentage of total reimbursed days under Medicare are growing. One-third of all Medicare beneficiaries were enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan in 2017.  Executives at United Healthcare believe that Medicare Advantage penetration will eclipse 50% in the next 5 to 10 years.  As more Boomers enter Medicare eligibility age, their familiarity with managed care and the companies thereto plus general favorability with the product makes them quick converts to Medicare Advantage.
  • Managed care has to a certain extent, created site preference and site based value payment approaches already.  There is market familiarity for steering beneficiaries to certain sites and/or away from higher cost locations.  The market has come to accept a certain amount of inherent rationing and price-induced controls.
  • At the floor of recent payment system changes forthcoming is an underlying common-thread: Diagnoses driven, case-mix coordinated payments.  PDPM and PDGM are more alike in approach than different.  IRFs already embrace a modified case-mix, diagnoses sensitive payment system. Can homogenization among these be all that far away?
  • There are no supply shortage or access problems for patients.  In fact, the SNF industry could and should shrink by about a third over the next five years, just to rationalize supply to demand and improve occupancy fortunes.  There is no home health shortage, save that which is temporary due to staffing issues in certain regions (growth limited by available labor rather than bricks and mortar or outlets). Per MedPac, the average IRF occupancy rate pre-2017 was 65%.  It has not grown since.  In fact, the Medicare utilization of IRFs for certain conditions such as other neurologic and stroke (the highest utilization category) has declined. (Note: In 2004 CMS heightened enforcement of compliance thresholds for IRFs and as a result, utilization under Medicare has shrunk).
  • Despite payment reductions, Home Health has grown steadily as has other non-Medicare outlets for post-acute care (e.g., Assisted Living and non-medical/non-Medicare home health services).  Though the growth in non-Medicare post-acute services has caused some alarm due to lax regulations, CMS sees this trend favorably as it is non-reimbursed and generally, patient preferred.
  • Demonstration projects that are value-based and evidence of payment following the patient or “episode based” rather than “site based” are showing favorable results.  In general, utilization of higher cost sites is down, costs are down, and patient outcomes and satisfaction are as good if not better, than the current fee-for-service market.  Granted, there are patient exceptions by diagnoses and co-morbidity but as a general rule, leaving certain patients as outliers, the results suggest a flatter, site neutral payment is feasible.

If there is somewhat of  a “crystal ball” preview, it just may be in the fate of the OPPS site neutral proposal.  I think the direction is unequivocal but timing is everything.  My prediction: Site neutral payments certainly, between IRFs and SNFs are on the near horizon (within three years) and overall movement toward payments that follow the patient by case-mix category and diagnoses are within the next five to seven years.


October 2, 2018 Posted by | Home Health, Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

March 27, 2011 Posted by | Policy and Politics - Federal | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CMS Proposed Policy and Rate Changes for LTAcHs

Yesterday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released its proposed rule for rates and other policy changes for FY 2011 (October 1, 2010) as applicable to Medicare inpatient stays within long-term acute care hospitals (LTAcH).  The entire rule can be found at

In their release, CMS noted that the proposed rule does not address provisions that are applicable to inpatient hospitals under the PPACA (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) or the Reconciliation Act.  The expectation is for CMS to provide additional guidance to providers on PPACA implications for 2010 and 2011 in the near future.  Below I have summarized the key provisions found in CMS’ proposed rule.

  • A rate update for 2011 of 2.4%
  • An offset or adjustment to the update of (negative) 2.5% to reflect an estimated increase in spending in FYs 08 and 09 due to documentation and coding that did not accurately reflect an increase in patient acuity or severity of illness (CMS stating that they essentially over-paid for a presumed higher level of care that did not occur).  CMS also notes that it is holding off on a negative 3.9% adjustment to rates; an amount required by law for a full recoupment of funds paid-out due to documentation and coding.  This amount may be phased-in for future years or taken all at once.
  • Since the net effect of the rate update and the negative adjustment for recoupment is a negative .1%, CMS proposes to increase the outlier threshold to $18,692 (last year’s was 7.5% or .5% below the target maximum of  8% of projected PPS payments)
  • The proposed rule calls for a partial freeze to any code updates for ICD-9 and ICD – 10 (set to go into effect October 1, 2013).  The freeze is intended to eliminate problems associated with coding software updates.  Any new updates that are applied would occur after October 1, 2011 to reflect only new technologies or diseases.
  • CMS is estimating that the net effect of the above rate changes is an increase in payment to LTAcHs of .8% or $41 million.

April 20, 2010 Posted by | Policy and Politics - Federal | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment