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MDS 3.0, RUGs IV, RUGs III, Hybrid: A 45 Day Review

Forty- five days past the October 1 conversion to MDS 3.0 and the interim RUGS IV payment groups and I still am getting a great deal of requests for analysis tools, questions on payments, liabilities, dates and rates for the Hybrid (RUGs III) groups, maps between RUGs III and RUGs IV, etc.  While I lost track of how many spreadsheets I have e-mailed and how many questions I’ve tried to answer, I have managed to keep track thematically of the issues and ongoing needs of the folks that contact me.  To that end, it seems appropriate to consolidate the information I have, the questions I’ve gotten (and continue to get) and the issues as I hear them and provide my readers, colleagues and clients with a forty-five day recap.  Many thanks to Brett Seekins at Baker Newman Noyes who has passed along his insights based on ongoing conversations with principals at CMS.

RUGs III Hybrid

As of today, the Hybrid grouper is still not functional and CMS states that it is still undergoing development and testing.  I have confirmed this from numerous sources and CMS still is providing no hard date or date range when the Hybrid grouper may be functional.  Per a contact that Brett Seekins from Baker Newman has at CMS,  a crosswalk between RUGs III and RUGs III Hybrid was supposed to be posted on the CMS SNF web page by today.  As of now, it is still not posted but when it does become available, I will get it, analyze it and make it available to anyone who requests it.  NOTE: There is no crosswalk document between RUGs IV and RUGs Hybrid although there is a crosswalk between RUGs III and RUGs IV which I have and continue to make available to anyone who requests it.  Based on what I see when I gain access to the RUGs III to Hybrid crosswalk, I may be able to make some sense of a crosswalk strategy between RUGs IV and Hybrid.

Retroactive Adjustments/Overpayment Collections

This is a hot topic and one that remains very much in limbo.  First, CMS has made no definitive statements on how and if, repayments or retroactive adjustments will be handled when the switch is ultimately made between RUGs IV and Hybrid.  Recall that when MDS 3.0 went into effect on October 1, RUGs IV was the only grouper system that worked with 3.0 and thus, is being used to pay providers.  The issue that remains is for CMS to construct the Hybrid grouper and then, to determine how and if, overpayments occurred in the interim while RUGs IV was used.  The “how” and “if” determination will drive what CMS does with respect to retroactive adjustments or recoupment of overpayments.  My take on this subject is that CMS is a bit politically stuck at the moment as it, like the provider side of the business, is waiting to see if Congress steps forward and retroactively implements RUGs IV as law effective October 1, 2010.  This step would be huge and eliminate a ton of complications.  As to how likely this is, my guess is a shade better than 50/50.  Despite the present “lame-duck” session where historically, little of great significance is accomplished legislatively, a Medicare ticking time bomb exists.  This time bomb has to do with the pending cuts to the physician fee schedule, an issue I wrote extensively about in late spring and early summer.  Recall, that Congress created a temporary series of patches, the last creating a modest increase in the fee schedule (and related Part B services such as rehabilitation therapies) while pushing the scheduled cuts back to November 30.  The cuts are a result of a law passed by Congress years ago tying the increase or decrease in physician fees (and related Part B services) to a sustainable growth formula or more simple, a formula that is based on economic growth and overall program spending in Medicare.  Due to a languishing economy, the formula in-place calls for cuts in physician fees by 21% in 2010 with another forecast for additional cuts in 2011 (the current fiscal year).

Considering the physician fee schedule issue, Congress now must address this problem or face an enormous potential crisis with physicians and other providers reducing their services to Medicare beneficiaries.  The good news here for RUGs IV is that legislation regarding Medicare will be drafted if for no other significant purpose than to address the fee schedule problems, leaving room for other program changes to slip in such as those involving the implementation of RUGs IV.  In any other lame-duck session scenario, I would say that the chances of the RUGs IV issue being addressed would be “slim and none”.

On a final note, CMS has their hands full with getting the hybrid system in-place and therefore, retroactive adjustments are a far distant priority.  Remember, RUGs III and RUGs IV are pegged at budget neutral or in other words, RUGs IV is not supposed to cost Medicare any more dollars than the cumulative outlays under RUGs III.  In reality, because of the complexities of the new MDS assessment and the resultant changes to the case-mix weights that drive payments under RUGs IV, I believe CMS will spend less money initially under a RUGs IV system.  It will take providers a year or two to learn the intricacies of the new system and to adjust their operations, coding and billing practices accordingly.  This means that CMS will be under minimal pressure to recoup overpayments as few will likely exist.  I believe a greater probability is that CMS will make a technical adjustment in their annual rate setting for SNFs in July/August next year, reducing potential increases by a small factor for overpayments during the transition period.  Again, this only occurs if Congress fails to address the implementation date of RUGs IV back to October 1, 2010.

Establishing a Liability for Overpayments

Given the above discussion on retroactive adjustments, I have advised providers to prudently establish a liability for overpayment based on their Medicare utilization since October 1.  Here is what I am advising people to do regarding this transition and hybrid period. First, obtain a calculator with RUGs III hybrid rates and use it to establish a liability on the balance sheet for overpayments.  The calculator allows you to enter your utilization by RUGs III and/or RUGs IV claims and produces results for each payment system.  I have a calculator tool that I make available. Second, run a month end manual test on your claims by using the published hybrid rates. CMS released these in August. The manual test is as easy as a quick sample of claims for the month, mapped against the hybrid categories. Where a hybrid category does not exist, use the RUGs IV category – CMS has said it will use RUGs IV categories where no RUGs III hybrid exists. Third, compare your results and adjust your liability up or down by the error percentage (how much your sample said you were over or under) for the next month and error on the side of being conservative.  If in fact, Congress acts or CMS chooses not to recoup payments from individual providers, the liability simply evaporates to income once the issue is resolved.  The sole side-effect temporarily, is that income is slightly understated by the effect of the liability.

Monitor Performance and Progress

Regardless of where an SNF feels it is on the journey post October 1, the number of questions I am still getting plus the number of tools that I still send out suggest that providers are still transitioning.  This is to be expected given the enormity of change and the ordinary bumps in the road caused by CMS and its intermediaries.  My advice is that SNFs check their progress on the transition by doing the following.

  • For any SNF that is using a therapy contractor or rehab company, audit your contractor/rehab company. The largest change that occurred under the switch to MDS 3.0 and ultimately RUGs IV is in the provision of and payment for therapy.  Recall that the therapy company is not the Medicare Part A provider; the SNF is.  Any liabilities that arise from billing problems, overpayments, etc. are ultimately the responsibility of the provider with the agreement with CMS or in other words, the SNF.  I have seen tons of therapy company contracts with very limited indemnity clauses, typically not worth much in the event of a major billing probe, upcoding issues, fraud investigations or recoupment of overpayments.  In virtually all of these clauses, the indemnification back to the SNF from the therapy company is for the cost of the therapy charged by the therapy company to the SNF; not for the lost revenue and/or fines and penalties that can occur.  It is the SNF’s responsibility to assure that Medicare is appropriately billed and care is correctly provided and documented as assessed on the MDS.  The simplest way for an SNF to assure that such is the case is to audit the therapy company’s performance.  I have an outstanding partnership relationship with a therapy management firm (not a therapy company) that can provide such a service, cost-effectively and efficiently.  The principals are all MDS 3.0 certified and have decades of experience as therapists in the long-term care industry.  I advise any SNF that hasn’t audited their therapy provider to do so ASAP.  Even for SNFs that provide their therapies via employees, it makes sense to have an expert come-in, review current practices and to provide guidance where improvements can be made.  Feel free to contact me for a referral.
  • Periodically, check your utilization patterns as occurred under RUGs III and now, under RUGs IV.  Use a crosswalk tool to see exactly how your claims under RUGs IV are trending compared to what they were under RUGs III.  In 45 days, a significant change should not occur as for most providers, case-mix evolves rather slowly.  If you are seeing big jumps or changes, something is amiss (for example, Ultra High rehab patients should still conform accordingly under the RUGs III method and then group accordingly under RUGs IV).
  • Monitor your MDS completions and the time it is taking to complete the assessment.  MDS 3.0 is heavily driven by interviews and accordingly,  a provider should see a shift in time taken with direct patient interviews.  Likewise, the ultimate shift under RUGs IV significantly changes therapy minute counting, especially concerning concurrent therapy.  Provider should see movements toward more individualized therapy time and elimination of look-back assessments.
  • Sample some new admissions looking for a match between clinical charting and MDS coding.  What is being coded on the MDS should correlate tightly with what is reflected in the resident clinical record.  If there is a gap, time for re-training.


I have a number of tools that I can forward to make the analysis, budgeting, forecasting, checking, etc. easier.  For example, I have current Hybrid rates, RUGs IV rates by region/location, a RUGs III, Hybrid and RUGs IV calculator by region/location, a RUGs III to RUGs IV crosswalk and hopefully soon, a RUGs III to Hybrid crosswalk.  Feel free to e-mail me and request any or all of these tools or comment to this post with a valid e-mail address and I will get them to you ASAP.  My e-mail is  Likewise, feel free to drop me a question and I will do the best I can to answer it or point you in the right direction.


November 15, 2010 Posted by | Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

RUGs III to RUGs IV: The Core of “Need to Know”

In the past month with October 1 looming closer, I’ve been fielding lots of questions regarding the transition from RUGs III to RUGs IV.  Instead of listing the questions and trying to recap my answers (my memory is good but not that good), I’ve settled on an overview or “summary”; the core of what SNFs need to know or if nothing else, get up to speed on quickly.  To organize this post, I’ve used headlines for expediency.

Overview: Difference Between RUGs III and RUGs IV

Simply put, the major difference applies to therapy at the expense of nursing or clinical care needs.  CMS became concerned that changes in the SNF population and patient needs altered industry practices and the allocation of resources, principally away from clinical nursing to rehabilitation therapy.  Via the engagement of 205 nursing homes across 15 states, CMS completed a time study to analyze the required resources provided to patients versus the clinical needs of patients.  The end result was an update to RUGs III known as RUGs IV.  RUGs IV consists of 66 groups divided into 16 categories (two were added) versus 53 under RUGs III.  To utilize the RUGs IV groups for payment, CMS revised the standardized assessment tool known as the MDS to version 3.0.  The final implementation rule published by CMS includes assurance that in calculating RUGs IV, the goal of payment parity is maintained.  In other words, the historical distribution of total payments to SNFs, based on 2007 claims data applied to RUGs IV, creates the same level of total PPS expenditure for SNFs as would occur under RUGs III.  Of course, this is not an assurance to any particular SNF that upon transition, revenues under RUGs IV will be equal or greater than revenues received under RUGs III.  The average rate, per CMS under RUGs IV will be $431.71 compared to $420.42 under RUGs III.

Financial Impacts Under RUGs IV

As with all changes of this magnitude, there are or will be, winners and losers. The losers in terms of financial impact are facilities that have run high levels of non-clinically complex rehab patients, treating on a concurrent therapy model.  Clearly, the bias under RUGs IV is for facilities to provide one-to-one therapy.  Under the concurrent therapy rules, the total treatment minutes are divided between the two patients (max that can be treated concurrently is two).  For example, one hour of therapy equals 30 minutes per patient.  The clear impact is that overall treatment minutes are reduced, reducing the RUG level and/or the SNF will need to increase the overall amount of therapy provided to patients (not practical or clinically viable) concurrently.  For example, an ultra high rehab under RUGs IV is divided into three groups based on ADL scores;  RUC, RUB, and RUA. The requirement, regardless of the ADL score, is for the resident to have a rehab diagnosis requiring a minimum of 720 minutes per week, receive 1 discipline 5 days per week and a second discipline 3 days per week.  Doing the math, meeting this criteria with concurrent therapy is virtually impossible.  Via CMS’ own analysis, the predicted percentage of patients that fall into RUC, RUB, and RUA under RUGs IV vs. RUGs III declines from 17.8% of all days of stay (RUGs III) to 8.9% of all days of stay (RUGs IV).  Not surprising however, is that the rate does increase under RUGs IV for these groups by an average  of more than $100 per day.  While contract therapy companies will give me continued grief for saying this, facilities that have contract therapy providers fall predominantly into this risk category; much heavier emphasis on concurrent and group therapy treatment models as a means of maximizing staff resources and maintaining high levels of productivity (benefits to the contract therapy company).

Another clear category of losers is facilities that took significant advantage of the hospital look-back provisions under RUGs III to establish diagnoses, rehab and clinical care plans.  RUGs IV and MDS 3.0 eliminate this provision entirely ( an exception exists for ventilator patients).  I like to use the example of “former” treatments such as IVs for fluids or medications present in the hospital.  Facilities that used the presence of IVs while a patient was in the hospital under the “look-back” provision could justify an extensive services qualifier to a high rehab group, capturing a high rehab plus extensive services RUG under RUGs III, even if the IV was gone when the patient was admitted to the SNF.  Under RUGs IV, no IV present on admission becomes the assessment basis plus, IVs for nutrition/hydration and medications now qualify as Clinically Complex rather than Extensive Services.  Extensive Services qualifiers under RUGs IV only include ventilator care, tracheostomy care, or isolation for an active, infectious disease.  The patient must also have an ADL score of 2 or higher.

The clear winners under RUGs IV are facilities that care for clinically complex patients and patients that are more ADL dependent.   For example, and in follow-up to the paragraph above, SNFs that provide ventilator care, tracheostomy care, care for infectious diseases, etc., plus provide rehab, can win “big”.  For example, a ventilator patient receiving 325 minutes of therapy per week from 1 discipline 5 days per week (Speech and/or OT are the most common here) would be categorized as an RVX under RUGs IV with a corresponding urban federal rate (payment rates are by regions) of $786.66.  An RVX under RUGs III pays $467.62.  A similar relationship holds true across the categories for facilities that provide care to more ADL dependent patients.  Higher ADL dependency scores increase payments rather rapidly.  There is a note of caution here though as today, I routinely see ADL scoring that is speculative at best (typically upped) as the MDS 2.0 is less sensitive about ADL scores to generate a RUGs rate.  Under MDS 3.0, the ADL assessments are far more sensitive and detailed, designed to truly qualify ADL deficits.  I believe a fair number of facilities will find their ADL scores decreasing rather than increasing over time.

As I indicated previously, RUGs IV increases the nursing index weights at the expense of rehab.  Essentially, facilities that typically bill below average rehab utilization (days) under RUGs III stand to come out ahead under RUGs IV, provided their clinical complexity is average or higher.  For example, an SSB for wounds under RUGs III correlates under RUGs IV to HD1 or HD2, depending on the presence (lack of) depression.  The clinical weight index jumps by  .50 under HD1 or by 1.0 under HD2, creating a positive revenue impact of $90 to $140 per day respectively.  Fundamentally, facilities that provide more clinical nursing care to a population with higher ADL deficits, cognitive impairments, and maintain an average rehab profile as expressed through utilization, will fare better under RUGs IV than RUGs III.

Assessing the Impact of RUGs III to RUGs IV

In order to assess the financial impact or revenue impact of payment under RUGs III vs. RUGs IV, a provider needs to essentially map their current/historic Medicare case mix as determined under MDS 2.0 (paid under RUGs III) to RUGs IV.  To date, there are two ways to do this and neither are easy.  The first is to complete an MDS 3.0 for each current resident under Medicare.  I don’t advise doing this as it is cumbersome and in many cases, providers are still learning the nuances of 3.0 assessments.  The second option is to use a cheat sheet and a somewhat simplified method.  The method is as follows.

  • Pick a fairly consistent utilization period such as the last six months to a year.  Across that period, total the number of patients billed under each applicable RUGs III category, including the days billed.  Obviously, not every group will be used.  For example, if during a set period such as six months, the facility had 42 patients in RHA with respective lengths of stay ranging from 22 days to 36 days,  I’d list 42 RHA with a calculated average length of stay.
  • For each RUGs III group with billed patient days, pull the corresponding MDS’ for each patient.  Analyze the MDS’ to develop a consistent profile of the patients that fit into the corresponding categories.  The profile should be specific enough to cover typical ADL scores, significant clinical issues (wounds, IVs, etc.), therapy disciplines and minutes, etc.
  • Next, using a spreadsheet that I can provide (drop me a note at including your e-mail address and I will send it out), map your RUGs III profiles as created in steps one and two to RUGs IV groups.  Note: An RVX under RUGs III will not likely correspond to an RVX under RUGs IV as to qualify,  a patient under a RUGs IV RVX must have a ventilator, require tracheostomy care or have an active infectious disease.  Also, be very conscious of the concurrent therapy minute changes under RUGs IV when mapping your therapy minutes.  Remember, under RUGs IV, concurrent therapy is divided equally among the two residents/patients (i.e., two residents in PT treated concurrently for an hour does not equal 60 minutes of therapy for each resident but 60 minutes total, 30 minutes allocated to each resident).
  • Once the facility has mapped each RUGs III profiled group  to corresponding RUGs IV groups, you can analyze the revenue impact.  Multiply the number of residents per RUGs III group times the average length of stay for the group times the applicable RUGs III rate.  This is your RUGs III revenue average.  Next, do the same calculation for the RUGs IV groups (if you need the RUGs IV rates, drop me a note at and I can provide them to you).  Finally, compare the two sets of revenue numbers.

IMPORTANT: The second method gives you a good generalization of the revenue impact but it is not exact.  To be more precise, one would need to analyze each billed encounter under the RUGs III system and then, translate the same profile to RUGs IV.  Additionally, the only true exact method is to reassess each patient under MDS 3.0.  Because of the significant changes under RUGS IV to ADL scoring, look-back periods, and therapy minutes (concurrent vs. one on one vs. group) and the weighting of clinical issues (IVs no longer qualify as “extensive”, etc.), it is very difficult to map precisely, the financial impact of transitioning from RUGs III to RUGs IV.

Important Points to Consider/Remember

Based on my varied and numerous conversations with providers, I’ve created this brief list of issues and/or important points regarding the transition from RUGs III to RUGs IV.

  • RUGs IV and MDS 3.0 will change “how” SNFs do business or it should, unless the SNF wants to see Medicare revenue shrink.  Extremely key to remember and plan for;
    • No look-back period
    • Concurrent therapy rules
    • Highest Rehab groups (extensive services)  require the patient to be on a ventilator or require tracheostomy care or have an infectious disease.
    • Next  highest rehab groups will be difficult to meet the minute and discipline requirements if your current standard for rehab relies heavily on concurrent therapy.
    • Emphasis on ADL scoring is key in terms of attaining higher groups within categories as is the documentation of depression (if present).
    • Assessments under MDS 3.0 are longer and meeting dates is critical to avoid default rates – more work, more staff time and time sensitive dates.
  • If an SNF is using a contract therapy provider or company, the time to review and gain understanding about the transition to RUGs IV is NOW.  The SNF needs to make certain that the therapy company is capable of providing the necessary staff resources to principally deliver one to one therapy.  The SNF also needs to understand the financial impact to its operations that occurs when the therapy company adds staff (if required).  Further, and this point can’t be ignored: Medicare billing liability for all claims under Part A and B follows or stays with the owner of the provider number.  In a relationship between an SNF and a therapy company, the SNF is the Part A and predominantly, the Part B provider – not the therapy company.  Under the law, the requirement to assure accurate and timely billing falls to the SNF.  Any OIG enforcement, RAC activity, etc., will focus all fines, penalties, recovery, etc. on the SNF, not the therapy company as the SNF is the owner of the Part A provider number.  Implication: Don’t let your therapy contractor “drive the bus” on the transition to RUGs IV.  This needs to be a partnership and one where each party knows the rules, knows the impacts and has clear duties spelled out in the contract with clear remedies.  SNFs should not rely on standard therapy company indemnity clauses as the clauses I have seen typically limit the damage to the SNF for claims rejections, etc. to the “charges” the therapy company passed on to the SNF for providing services under the contract as applicable to the specific claim.  In short, the SNF bears the loss of the revenue for the claim plus if applicable, any fines or penalties, even if the therapy company personnel and their actions were the primary reasons the Medicare claim was denied, rejected, and/or deemed fraudulent.
  • The weighting within RUGs IV and thus the dollars, skew to the nursing side of things, away from rehab.  The weighting has shifted to clinical from therapy and as a result, gaining dollars and better reimbursement will come from a) changing your patient profile to one that has more clinically complex patients, and/or b) capturing the true clinical needs of your patients and their depression, ADL dependency, etc., on the MDS 3.0.  I always urge caution about (b) as the daily documentation better support the picture portrayed under the MDS or the implication is that the MDS was created to take advantage of payment which, if not matched by a patient with those needs, is Medicare fraud. 
    • Providers that wish to alter their patient profile need to explore the full ramifications of doing so financially and operationally.  More clinically complex and dependent patients may generate more Medicare revenue under RUGs IV but they also come with a cost.  The cost is typically in higher medication use, supply use, and staff resources.  Suffice to say, this population requires more nursing staff and perhaps, different nursing staff in terms of qualifications and training.  Additionally,  more clinically complex and dependent patients require more Social Service time and are more potentially problematic from a survey standpoint as there is more “stuff” going on with them.  An SNF moving in this direction needs to evaluate fully, the risks, costs and benefits associated with such a strategy.
  • While CMS says that overall Medicare spending on SNF care remains the same under RUGs IV and RUGs III, don’t believe it.  The distribution as forecasted is clearly toward a particular patient profile that is different than current or, a RUGs IV profile patient is different than the current RUGs III profile patient.  MDS 3.0 is a lot of work and will require facilities to adapt how and when they do their assessments and what resources they allocate to the assessment process.  In short, to make a smooth transition between RUGs III and RUGs IV requires planning – a lot of it.  It is less about groups and assessments and more about “how” the SNF does business.  Understanding the core concepts behind MDS 3.0 and RUGs IV is akin to understanding the rules of the game.  No game can be played successfully and efficiently without first, fully understanding the rules.

September 3, 2010 Posted by | Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments