Early into the Trump presidency and health care/health policy is front and center. The first “Obamacare repeal and replace” attempt crashed and burned. The upcoming roll-out of the next round of bundled payments (cardiac and femur fracture) is delayed to October from the end-of-March target date. Logically, one can question is a landscape shift forming? Doubtful. Too many current realities such as the need to slow spending growth plus find new and innovative population health and payment models are still looming. These policy realities beget other realities. One such reality is that hospitals and health systems must find ways to partner with and integrate with, the post-acute provider industry.
In late 2016, Premier, Inc. (the national health care improvement organization) released the results of a study indicating that 85% of health system leaders were interested in creating expanded affiliations with post-acute providers. Interestingly, 90% of the same group said they believed challenges to do so would exist (Premier conducted the survey in summer of 2016 via 52 C-suite, health system executives). Most of the challenges? The gaps that exist “known and unknown” between both provider segments (acute and post-acute) and the lack of efficient communication interfaces (software) between the segments.
On the surface, bundled payments notwithstanding, the push for enhanced integration is driven by a number of subtle but tactile market and economic shifts.
- Inpatient hospital lengths of stay are dropping, driven by an increasing number of patients covered by managed care. Today, the largest payer source contributor of inpatient days, Medicare, is 30.6% “managed”…and growing. Medicaid is 62.7% and commercial, nearly 100% (99%). Source: http://www.mcol.com/managed_care_penetration
- Payment at the hospital end is increasingly tied to discharge experience – what happens after the inpatient stay. The onus today is on the hospital (and growing) for increasing numbers of patient types (DRG correlated) to discharge the patient properly such that the same does not beget a readmission to the hospital. Too many readmissions equal payment reductions.
- Population health, focused-care models such as ACOs are evolving. Their evolution is all about finding the lowest cost, highest quality centers of care. Other BPCI (bundled payment) initiative projects such as Model 3, focus directly on the post-acute segment of care. Unlike CJR (and the recently delayed cardiac bundles), the BPCI demonstration that began in 2013 covers 48 episodes of care (DRG based) and has participating providers (voluntarily) operating programs in all four model phases, nationwide.
- Patient preference continues to demand more care opportunities at-home. Never mind the increased risk of complication with longer inpatient hospital stays (the risk of infection, pressure injuries, weight loss, delirium, etc. increases as stays increase), it is patient preference to discharge quickly and preferably, to home with services (aka home care).
Regardless the fate of Obamacare now or in the near future, these trends are unlikely to change as they have been moving separate from Obamacare. Arguably, the ACA/Obamacare accelerated some of them. Nonetheless, the baked-in market forces that have emanated from ACOs and care episode payments illustrate that even in infancy, these different models produce (generally) more efficient care, lower costs and improved patient satisfaction and outcomes.
As with any integration approach such as a merger for example, cultural differences are key. The culture of post-acute care is markedly different from that of acute/hospital care. For hospitals to appreciate this difference, look no farther than the two key determinants of post-acute culture: regulation and payment. The depth and breadth plus the scope of survey and enforcement activity is substantially greater on the post-acute side than the acute side. As an example, observe the SNF industry and how enforcement occurs. Hospitals are surveyed for re-accreditation once every three years. The typical SNF is visited no less than four times annually: annual certification and three complaint surveys.
In terms of payment, the scope is drastically different. While hospitals struggle to manage far more payers than a post-acute provider, the amount that is paid to a hospital is substantially larger than that paid to a post-acute provider. At one point years back, the differences were substantiated largely by acuity differences across patients. While a gap still exists, it has narrowed substantially with the post-acute provider world seeing an increase in acuity yet lacking a concomitant payment that matches this increase.
Given this cultural framework, post-acute providers can struggle with translating hospital expectations and of course, vice-versa. Point-of-fact, there is no real regulatory framework in an SNF under federal law for “post-acute” patients. The rules are identical for a patient admitted for a short-stay or for the rest of his/her life. Despite the fact that the bulk of SNF admissions today are of the post-acute variety, the regulations create conformity for residency, presumptively for the long-term. Taking the following into consideration, a challenge such as minimizing a post-acute SNF stay to eight days for a knee replacement (given by a hospital to an SNF) is logical but potentially fraught with the peril presented by the federal SNF Conditions of Participation. The SNF cannot dictate discharge. A patient/resident that wishes to remain has rights under the law and a series of appeal opportunities, etc. that can slow the process to a crawl. At minimum, a dozen or more such landmines exist in analogous scenarios.
Making integration work between post-acute and acute providers is a process of identifying the “gaps” between the two worlds and then developing systems and education that bridge such gaps. Below is my list (experiential) of the gaps and some brief notes/comments on what to do bridge the same. NOTE: This list is generally applicable regardless of provider type (e.g., SNF, HHA, etc.).
- Information Tech/Compatibility: True interoperability does not yet exist. Sharing information can be daunting, especially at the level required between the provider segments for good care coordination. The simple facts are that the two worlds are quite different in terms of paper work, billing requirements, documentation, etc. Focus on the stuff that truly matters such as assessments, diagnoses, physician notes, plans of care, treatment records, medications, diagnostics, patient advance directives and demographics. Most critical is to tie information for treating physicians so that duplication is avoided, if possible.
- Regulatory Frameworks: This is most critical, hospital/physician side to the post-acute side, less so the other way. Earlier I mentioned just one element regarding an SNF and discharge. There are literally, dozens more. I often hear hospitals frustrated by HHAs and SNFs regarding the “rules” for accepting patients and what can/cannot be done in terms of physician orders, how fast, etc. For example, it might be OK in the hospital to provide “Seroquel for sleep or inpatient delirium” but it is not OK in the SNF. HHAs need physician face-to-face encounters just to begin to get care moving, including orders for DME, etc. There is no short-cut. Creating a pathway for the discharging hospital and the physician components to and through the post-acute realm is critical to keep stays short and outcomes high… as well as minimize delays in care and readmissions.
- Resource Differences: Understanding the resource capacities of post-acute, including payment, is necessary for smooth integration. What this means is that the acute and physician world needs to recognize that stay minimization is important but so is overall care minimization or better, simplification. Unnecessary care via duplicative or unnecessary medications, tests, etc. can easily eat away at the meager margins that are operative for SNFs and HHAs. For example, I have seen all too many times where a patient has an infection and is discharged to an SNF on a Vancomycin IV with orders for continued treatment for four more days. Those four days are likely negative margin for the SNF. A better alternative? If possible, a less expensive antibiotic or send the remaining Vancomycin doses to the SNF. Too many tests, too many medications, too much redundancy erodes post-acute margin quickly. Finding common ground between providers with shared resource opportunities is important for both segments to achieve efficiency and still provide optimal care.
- Language Differences: In this case, I don’t mean dialect. Industry jargon and references are different. I often recommend cheat-sheets between providers just to make sure that everyone can have a “hospital to SNF to HHA” dictionary. Trust me, there is enough difference to make a simple working dictionary worth the effort.
- Education/Knowledge: The gap between staff working in different environments can be wide, particularly as the same relates to how and why things are done the way they are. For example, therapy. Physical therapy in a hospital for the acute stay is markedly different than the physical therapy in a home health setting or a SNF setting. Care planning is different, treatments similar but session length and documentation requirements are vastly different. The clinical elements are surprisingly similar but the implementation elements, markedly different. The notion that one staff level is clinically superior to another is long dispelled. SNF nurses can face as many clinical challenges and perhaps more due to no/minimal immediate physician coverage, as a hospital nurse. True, there are specialty differences (CCU, Neuro ICU, Trauma, etc.) but at the level where patients flow through acute to post-acute, the clinical elements are very similar. The aspect of care differences and the how and why certain things are done in certain settings is where interpretation and education is required.
- System and Care Delivery: While the diagnosis may follow, assuring proper integration among the various levels or elements of care requires systematic care delivery. The best language: clinical pathways and algorithms. Developing these across settings for an episode of care creates a recipe or roadmap that minimizes redundancy, misinterpretation, and lack of preparation (all of which create bad outcomes). With these in-place, common acute admissions that beget post-acute discharges, places every care aspect within the same “playbook”.
Join me as I host a one-hour webinar and conference call regarding post-election healthcare policy. The program/call is set for Wednesday, December 14 at 1:00 PM EST/noon CST.
With uncertainty looming, providers are wondering what will change as the Inauguration approaches and a new Congress settles in. We will review the ACA, Medicaid and Medicare, and related policy issues including;
- Value Based Purchasing
- CMS Center for Innovation/Alternative Delivery Models/Bundled Payments
- Additional Quality Measures and Quality Reporting
- Inter-Program and Payment Reform – Rate Equalization for Post-Acute Providers
- IMPACT Act
- ACO Expansion
The program is sponsored by HCPro and the registration link is below;
We knew that sooner or later, the first Tuesday in November would arrive and with that, a new President and changes (many or few) to Congress. The outcome certain, we move to uncertainty again concerning “what next”?…or as applicable here, what next from a health policy perspective.
With Donald Trump the incoming President-Elect, only so much from a policy perspective is known. Hillary Clinton’s path was easier to divine from a “what next” perspective as fundamentally, status quo was the overall direction. Trump’s likely direction and thus, changes to current policy, etc. are hazy at best. Thematically, there are points offered throughout the campaign that give some guidance. Unfortunately, much that drives current reality for providers is more regulatory begat by legislative policy than policy de novo.
Without divining too much from rhetoric, here’s what I think, from a health policy perspective, is what to expect from a Trump Administration.
- ObamaCare: Trump ran on a theme of “repeal and replace” ObamaCare aka the Affordable Care Act. This concept however, needs trimming. Repealing in total, existing federal law the magnitude of the ACA is difficult if not nearly impossible, especially since implementation of various provisions is well down the road. The ACA and its step-child regulations are tens of thousands of pages. Additionally, even with a Republican White House and Republican-majority Congress, the Congressional numbers (seats held) are not enough to avoid Democratic Senate maneuvers including filibuster(s). This means that the real targets for “repeal and replace” are the insurance aspects namely the individual mandate, Medicaid expansion, certain insurance mandates, the insurance exchanges, a likely the current subsidy structure(s). The other elements in the law, found in Title III – Improving the Quality and Efficiency of Health Care, will remain (my prediction) – too difficult to unwind and not really germane to the “campaign” promise. This Section (though not exclusively) contains a slew of provisions to “modernize” Medicare (e.g., value-based purchasing, physician quality reporting, hospice, rehab hospital and LTACH quality reporting, various payment adjustments, etc.). Similarly, I see little change made, if any to, large sections of Title II involving Medicaid and Title IV involving Chronic Disease. Bottom line: The ACA is enormous today, nearly fully intertwined in the U.S. health care landscape and as such, too complex to “wholesale” eliminate and replace. For readers interested in exploring these sections (and others) of the ACA, a link to the ObamaCare website is here http://obamacarefacts.com/summary-of-provisions-patient-protection-and-affordable-care-act/
- Medicaid: The implications for Medicaid are a bit fuzzier as Trump’s goals or pledges span two distinct elements of the program. First, Trump’s plan to re-shape ObamaCare (repeal, etc.) would eliminate Medicaid expansion. As mentioned in number 1 prior, this is a small part of the ACA but a lipid test for Republican governors, especially in states that did not embrace expansion (e.g, Wisconsin, Kansas, etc.). Second, Trump has said that he embraces Medicaid block-grant funding and greater state autonomy for Medicaid programmatic changes (less reliance on the need for states to gain waivers for coverage design, program expansion, etc.). It is this element that is vague. A series of questions arise pertaining to “policy” at the federal level versus funding as block grants are the latter. The dominant concern is that in all scenarios, the amount of money “granted” to the states will be less than current allocations and won’t come with any matching incentives. With elimination of the expansion elements, how a transition plan of coverage and care will occur is a mystery – federal assistance? state funding mostly? What I do predict is that Medicaid will only suffer the setback of a restructure and replacement of the Medicaid expansion elements under the ACA. I don’t see block grants happening any time soon as even Republican governors are opposed without a plan for wholesale Medicaid programmatic reform. Regardless of the approach, some initial Medicaid changes are in the offing, separate from the Block Grant issue. The Medicaid Expansion issue is no doubt, a target in the “repeal and replace Obama Care”. The trick however is to account for the large number of individuals that gained coverage via expansion (via eligibility increases due to increased poverty limits) – approximately 8 million impacted. This is less about “repeal” and more about “replace” to offset coverage lapse(s) for this group.
- Related Health Policy/ACA Issues: As I mentioned earlier, the ACA/ObamaCare is an enormous law with tentacles now woven throughout the health care industry. The Repeal and Replace issues aren’t as “clean” as one would think. The focus is the insurance mandate, the subsidies, the mandated coverage issues and to a lesser extent, Medicaid. That leaves fully 80% of the ACA intact including a series of policy changes and initiatives that providers wrestle with daily. These issues are unlikely to change in any substantive form. Republicans support alternative delivery projects, value based purchasing, etc. as much if not more than Democrats. Additionally, to repeal is to open a Pandora’s Box of agency regulations that tie to reimbursement, tie to other regulations, etc. For SNFs alone, there exists all sorts of overlap between Value Based Purchasing, Bundled Payments, new Quality Measures and quality reporting (see my post/presentation on this site regarding Post-Acute Regulatory Changes). The list below is not exhaustive but representative.
- Value Based Purchasing
- CMS Center for Innovation/Alternative Delivery Models/Bundled Payments
- Additional Quality Measures and Quality Reporting
- Inter-Program and Payment Reform – Rate Equalization for Post-Acute Providers
- IMPACT Act
- ACO Expansion
As providers watch the inauguration approach and a new Congress settle in, the wonder is around change. Specifically, what will change. My answer – bet on nothing substantive in the short-run. While Mr. Trump ran partially on a platform that included regulatory reduction/simplification, the lack of overall specifics regarding “which or what” regulations on the health care front are targets leaves us guessing. My guess is none, anytime soon.
The Trump focus will be on campaign specific agenda first: ObamaCare, Immigration, Taxation, Foreign Trade, Energy, etc. – not health policy per se. There is some flow-through gains providers can anticipate down-the-road that can be gleaned from the Trump campaign but these are a year or more off. If Trump does deal with some simplification on drug and research regulation (faster, cheaper, quicker approvals), funding for disease management and tele-medicine and a fast-track of some Republican policy “likes” such as Medicare simplification, Medicaid reform at the program level, and corporate tax reduction (will help for-profit providers), then gains will occur or opportunities for gains will occur.
From a strategic and preparatory perspective, stay the course. Providers should be working on improved quality outcomes, reducing avoidable care transitions/readmissions, looking at narrow networks and network contracting/development opportunities and finding ways to reduce cost and improve care outcomes. Regardless of what a Trump Administration does first, the aforementioned work is necessary as payment for value, bundles/episodes of care, and focus on quality measures and outcomes is here to stay and to stay for the foreseeable future.
As alternative payment models expand and the options clarify, the post-acute segment of the health care spectrum faces a series of strategic questions, primarily;
- Join a network that exists or is forming be it part of an ACO, a SNP, a preferred provider organization in a Managed Medicaid state, or part of a bundled payment initiative
- Form one de novo – a SNP, a PACE, etc.
- Wait and see what evolves as certainly, much will change over the next two to four years.
One consideration that cannot be overlooked is that CMS plans on aggressively pursuing additional “value-based payments” at the expense of fee-for-service arrangements presently in-place. The process, if consistent with what has occurred in terms of roll-out/roll-forward, suggests a pace that will include new initiatives (e.g., bundled payments) every 12 months. Simultaneous or parallel to this movement, states continue to push forward on various hybrid Medicaid options including managed Medicaid plans, hybrid plans for dual eligible individuals, and the encouragement of more SNP and PACE options with some states offering incentives for formation (PACE Innovation Act allows for different program options with different benefit structures across more population categories. Also provides program opportunities for for-profit organizations).
The question oft asked these days is given the above, where to next for an SNF, a HHA, or even an ALF or Hospice? The answer starts with the market area and the dynamics within the market. The trends I see are truly unique and different region to region, market to market, state to state. For example, in certain states and regions, ACOs exist, are up and running, and have experience under their “belt”. In other states, ACOs are just forming or in some cases, re-forming post a distasteful experience and opportunities are fresh. In still other states, ACOs don’t exist and perhaps trial balloons have floated but nothing has persisted to conclusion.
The market factors that drive (majority of) network formation and thus, the maturity of the formation, the opportunities and the palate for additional or new ventures are;
- How much “managed” Medicare and Medicaid exists in the state, region, etc. and for how long. In markets with a large penetration of Medicare Choice plans, narrow networks and the experience and acceptance between providers is greater.
- Are ACOs up and running and/or forming. The more they are or are developing, the greater the interest in and opportunity for, network enhancement and development
- The market experience with early-phase, bundled payments via BPCI – the precursor to the current bundled payment initiatives. Similarly, whether the region is participating in the CCJR initiative or will in the new cardiac bundled payments.
No matter the dynamics of the market however, certainty does exist that post-acute providers must move to adapt to a value- based payment paradigm. How much risk a provider can and will accept depends on the provider, its existing care management acumen, its infrastructure maturity and its financial/capital position. Similarly, the evolution period that predominates the post-acute world now requires balance. This period is still fee-for-service heavy yet, transitioning (depending on regions, markets) to value-based payments. Providers must manage and excel at both though strategies to succeed in both are not mutually exclusive. Additionally, while payments are evolving, the compliance requirements are not. Oddly enough, the forthcoming revised Federal Conditions of Participation for SNFs will not in any way, provide accommodation for providers that work heavily in a transitional, post-acute world. The regulations are long-term care driven and heavily so in some cases wholly anathema to the transitional care world that is evolving.
Assumptively, this episode of care, value-based payment world is not going away. What this means is that survival in such a world for any post-acute provider is to avoid reactive strategy (defensive), instead applying resources and energy in the direction of the change. What I advise, before I answer the questions posed in the title, is as follows;
- Know your market and critically evaluate the landscape. What is going on in terms of Medicare Advantage plans, ACOs, etc.? If not done, have an in-depth conversation with hospital and physician referral partners regarding their approaches, strategies, etc. to bundled payments. Don’t be surprised however, if a level of vapor-lock exists. Be willing to forebear the task and direct some additional dialogue.
- Assess your organization critically. Where are your quality ratings and measures (stars, etc.)? How does your organization manage its lengths of stay, key quality measures (falls, hospitalizations, wounds, patient satisfaction, etc.)? Where is your HIS/MIS at? Can you communicate with other providers, provide physicians access, etc.?
- Can your organization make investments financially in infrastructure and staff realignment while still caring for a payer mix that is predominantly fee-for-service? Can you survive lower margins perhaps even losses while you transition? You may have extra staff temporarily, different staff, and more capital investment than typical.
- Can you laterally partner or downstream? For example, an SNF needs to find a HHA partner. What synergies in the market exist? Can (or will or already is) the SNF be in the HHA business? How about outpatient? How about physicians? Partner? Employ? Joint venture (careful here)?
Concluding: To the questions(s) posed in the title. Join? Yes, particularly if the provider is single site or limited sites in a region. Again, I am assuming the provider is prepared to join (I’ll summarize at the end). Source complimentary networks and get in and watch for opportunities in the market and within the network to develop additional product/service lines.
Form? Not unless the provider has mass, expertise and enough geographic span and parallel partner alignment to manage a population of at-risk individuals for capitated payments. This is a step that requires significant infrastructure and capital. A provider must have enough outlets and partners to manage population risk across a group exceeding normally, 10,000 lives (ideally larger). The common network models applicable for post-acute providers looking to form their own network are SNPs and PACE programs.
Wait? I can’t recommend waiting as doing so will leave any provider at peril of being left-out as networks continue to evolve. This said, a play cautiously strategy is fine provided that the provider or group is diligent and active in gauging networks and negotiating. A wholesale “wait and see what happens” is an ill-advised strategy.
Final Note: By prepared to join a network I mean minimally, having the following pieces with experience and data as applicable.
- Ratings at 3 Stars or better – ideally 4 or higher particularly in markets where multiple 4 star or better providers exist.
- A great QAPI program that monitors outcomes and tracks and trends quality data and quality measures plus patient satisfaction. Minimally, the provider should have data and analysis on infections, falls, wounds, hospitalizations, response times, other care transitions, length of stay, etc.
- A procedure and personnel to care manage referrals through a full episode of care.
- A process of sharing quality data and communication on patient care and service issues across provider segments.
- HIS/MIS at a level that allows certain functional connectivity between providers such as lab/diagnostics, hospital, physicians, pharmacy, etc. such that patient information can be communicated and acted upon.
- Parallel service partners (either owned or contracted with) across, up and down stream – physicians, hospitals, pharmacy, HHA, hospice, outpatient, etc.
- Care algorithms to support best practices for outcomes on key patient profiles (minimally, bundled payments) plus supportive protocols for key co-morbidities such as COPD, CHF, diabetes, peripheral vascular disease, depression, and other source acquired pressure injuries and infections. The latter are necessary to minimize re-hospitalization risk.
- Care staff trained and using INTERACT tools and versed in physician communication protocols, ideally from a source such as AMDA.
Nearing the end of the Supreme Court session, the Court issued an important clarification ruling concerning the False Claims Act in cases of alleged fraud. In the Universal Health Services case, the Court addressed the issue of whether a claim could be determined as fraudulent if the underlying cause for fraud was a lack of professional certification or licensing of a provider that rendered care related to the subsequent bill for services. In the Universal case, the provider submitted claims to Medicaid and received payment for services. The services as coded and billed implied that the care was provided by a licensed and/or qualified professional when in fact, the care was provided by persons not properly qualified. In this case, the patient ultimately suffered harm and death, due to the negligent care.
The False Claims Act statute imposes liability on anyone who “(a) knowingly presents, or causes to be presented, a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval; or (b) knowingly makes, uses, or causes to be made or used, a false record or statement material to a false or fraudulent claim.” It defines “material” as “having a natural tendency to influence, or be capable of influencing, the payment or receipt of money or property.” And it defines “knowingly” as “actual knowledge; … deliberate ignorance; … or reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the information; and … no proof of specific intent to defraud is required.” The last element is key – no proof of intent to defraud is required.
Though providers sought a different outcome, the initial review suggests the decision is not all that bold or inconsistent with other analogous applications. The provider community hope was that the Court would draw a line in terms of the expanse or breadth of False Claims Act “potential” liabilities. The line sought was on the technical issue of “implied certification”; the notion that a claim for services ‘customarily’ provided by a professional of certain qualifications under a certain level of supervision doesn’t constitute fraud when the services are provided by someone of lesser professional stature or without customary supervision, assuming the care was in all other ways, properly provided. The decision reinforces a narrow but common interpretation of the False Claims Act: An action that would constitute a violation of a federal condition of participation within a program creating a condition where the service provided is not compliant creates a violation if the service was billed to Medicare or Medicaid. Providers are expected to know at all times, the level of professional qualifications and supervision required under the applicable Conditions of Participation.
The implications for providers as a result of this decision are many. The Court concretized the breadth of application of the False Claims Act maintaining an expansive view that any service billed to Medicare and/or Medicaid must be professionally relevant, consistent with common and known professional standards, within the purview of the licensed provider, and properly structured and supervised as required by the applicable Conditions of Participation. Below are a few select operational reminders and strategies for providers in light of the Court’s decision and as proven best-practices to mitigate False Claims Act pitfalls.
- One of the largest risk areas involves sub-contractors providing services under the umbrella and auspices of a provider whereby, the provider is submitting Medicaid or Medicare claims. In these instances the provider that is using contractors must vet each contractor via proper credentialing and then, provide appropriate and adequate supervision of the services. For example, in SNFs that use therapy contractors the SNF must assure that each staff member is properly licensed (as applicable), trained to provide the care required, and the services SUPERVISED by the SNF. Supervision means actually reviewed for professional standards, provided as required by law (conditions of participation), properly documented, and properly billed. The SNF cannot leave the supervision aspect solely to the therapy contractor.
- Providers must routinely audit the services provided, independently and in a structured program. Audits include an actual review of the documentation for care provided against the claim submitted, observations of care provided, and interviews/surveys of patients and/or significant others with respect to care and treatment and satisfaction.
- Establish a communication vehicle or vehicles that elicits reactions to suspicious activity or inadequate care. I recommend a series of feedback tools such as surveys, focus groups, hotlines and random calls to patients and staff. The intent is to provide multiple opportunities for individuals, patients, families and staff to provide information regarding potential break-downs in care or regarding outright instances of fraud.
- Conduct staff training on orientation and periodically, particularly at the professional level and supervisory level. The training should cover organizational policy, the legal and regulatory framework that the organization operates within, and case examples to illustrate violations plus remedy steps.
Concurrent with the White House Conference on Aging, CMS released its “proposed” rules of reform for the SNF Conditions of Participation. The proposed rule is set for publication tomorrow in the Federal Register but readers with interest can access the document/PDF on this site on the “Reports and Other Documents” page. The Federal Conditions of Participation for SNFs have not undergone substantial revision or update since 1991 (OBRA implementation and PPS). A portion of the impetus for the update is the continued roll-out of the various pieces of the ACA (Obamacare). Within the ACA are several directions to the Secretary of Health and Human Services to make modernization recommendations and regulatory updates for all provider segments within the Medicare/Medicaid domain.
In researching the content for this post and reviewing the released document (402 pages), it seemed the best use of space and the most expeditious for readers/followers that I summarize the “impactful” elements rather than regurgitate the content of the document. In so doing, I need to preference my summary with a bit of a preamble.
The document is a release of “proposed” rules not concretized rules. There is a lengthy comment period and the final rule will morph from this release. While I won’t profess to have a crystal ball, I have certain insight and 30 plus years of experience so I think my summary will provide a solid look into what the salient changes are and what is likely to happen. The latter is for another post and a planned webinar (watch for details). The key to remember for anyone reading this post and any other information that is current and forthcoming regarding the proposed rule is that this is the “macro” level; the finite level is the implementation and the survey and enforcement data otherwise known as Interpretive Guidelines. What you see now, read now, etc. is and will be a far cry from how the same (when final) is interpreted at the facility level and enforced. I can’t emphasize this point enough as anyone who has a similar history to me knows, the stuff in the Federal Register as the actual law can be widely and sometimes, astoundingly interpreted and enforced at the ground level (again, fodder for another post).
To begin: What is proposed to change is an actual bifurcation of clarifications and new elements. Oddly enough, there isn’t a tremendous amount of overhaul moreover, language changes and “modernizations”. In certain instances, the words are just references to current industry vernacular such as “care transitions” rather than transfer and discharge. Resident Rights are also a section where nothing substantive changes other than references and language. Ironically (and I could run a fun contest here), a number of proposed changes are nothing more than an incorporation of what I have seen evolve as survey tasks and enforcement tasks (current) that aren’t really tied (bright line) to current law. (Feel free to comment to this post if you see some of these ironic elements in the proposed rule). So, without further dribble, here is what my summary of the key proposed changes.
- Transitions of Care: There are two elements of change – one in 483.15 (Transfer, Discharge) and the other in 483.30 (Physician Services). First, any transition from the SNF to any provider will require additional documentation to accompany the resident such as present illness, reason for transfer, medical history, etc. This isn’t major. The major element is for any non-scheduled hospital transfer, the rule would require an in-person evaluation of the resident prior to the transfer by a physician, physician assistant, or advance practice nurse (qualified nurse specialist or NP). This means the 2:00 AM transfer to the hospital for an urgent/emergent condition could not occur without one of the aforementioned individuals being “on-site” and certifying the need for the discharge. I believe this element will either evaporate from the final rule or be substantially changed and better defined. It is not only impractical but frankly, in rural areas, etc., completely improbable and virtually impossible (heavy emphasis on “virtual’ as that is the only way it could occur, via tele-medicine).
- Care Planning: A new section is added titled “Comprehensive Person-Centered Care Planning” that will require an initial care plan in 48 hours, an expanded definition of Interdisciplinary Team to include a CNA, a food service/nutrition staff member and a social worker. The rule also proposes to implement the requirements of the IMPACT Act (Improving Medicare Post-Acute Care Transformation Act) as pertaining to discharge planning (med reconciliation to include pre-admission meds and current meds plus OTCs, discharge summary recommendations for follow-up care, resources and information for the resident regarding his/her discharge plan, etc. I believe this element will remain in the final rule, substantially unchanged.
- Nursing Services: The proposed rule would incorporate a competency requirement for determining sufficient number of staff based on a facility assessment which incorporates number of residents, acuity, diagnoses and careplans. This one I see changing quite a bit as it is so vague and potentially fraught with huge implementation and oversight problems. It also as written, is a bit confusing and disconcerting in terms of a survey element.
- Behavioral Health: This is proposed as a new section. It, similar to Nursing Services prior, would require a facility assessment to determine direct care staff needs regarding staff competency and skill sets to meet resident psychological and mental health needs. Again, I see this changing dramatically as it is horribly vague and fraught with implementation challenges.
- Pharmacy Services: The proposed rule includes a required 6 month pharmacist review of resident medication regimes and upon admission when the resident is new and post-hospitalization (return). and monthly when the resident is on an antibiotic, psychotropic drug or any other drug that a QAA (Quality Assurance) committee requests the pharmacist review. Irregularities are to be noted and reported to the attending physician, the medical director and the director of nursing. Attending physicians are then to document that the irregularity was reviewed and any action taken/not taken plus the reasoning for the action. I see this fundamentally staying with some clarifications.
- Dental Services: The “big” shift is the proposed requirement that facilities are prohibited from charging a Medicare resident for loss or damage of dentures, if the facility is responsible for the dentures. I’m not sure where this will fall out but if it remains fundamentally intact, facilities will be paying for lots of dentures, regardless of how the loss or damage occurred.
- Food Service: Following thematically with other elements in the proposal, the requirement is for a facility to assess the resident population by care needs, diagnoses, acuity and census and employ sufficient staff with sufficient competency to provide food and nutritional services. A Director of Food Service in the proposal must meet certain education and training requirements such as Certified Dietary Manager, Certified Food Service Manager, have at least an Associate’s degree in food service management or similar from an accredited institution. The proposal also requires facility menus to be reflect the cultural, religious and ethnic needs and preferences of residents, be periodically updated and not limit the resident’s right to make food choices. In addition, facilities will have to allow residents to consume and store foods brought by visitors and families. I see major changes forthcoming in this requirement, especially around the staff adequacy determination, menus and food brought into the facility by visitors and families. The latter is a huge infection control risk.
- QAPI: This requirement is added anew – not surprising.
- Facility Assessment: This also is a new element requiring the facility to conduct and document a facility-wide assessment to insure the resources necessary to care for residents are available daily and in emergencies. This assessment must be updated regularly. The assessment must address the resident population by number, overall care delivered and the staff competency to provide the care and meet resident preferences plus incorporate a facility-based and community-based risk assessment. I see this element changing dramatically as it is vague and potentially problematic to enforce and implement.
- Binding Arbitration Agreements: The rule will require facilities that use such agreements to meet certain requirements. Chief among the provisions is that a resident and/or his/her legal representative cannot be required to sign the agreement upon admission. Additionally, the agreement must indicate the resident’s right to communicate with federal, state and local officials (regulatory) including Ombudsmen. I do not see much change in this element.
- Infection Control: In addition to having an Infection Control Program the facility would be required to have an Infection Control Officer and this individual’s primary responsibility must be infection control. I see the Infection Control Officer element subject to change.
- Compliance and Ethics Program: This is a new element requiring the operating organization (not just the facility if part of a larger organization) to have at each facility a compliance and ethics program with written standards, policies and procedures such that the same are capable of reducing criminal, civil ad administrative violations. I see this element staying but changing to be a bit more definitive and relevant.
- Staff Training Requirements: This is also a new element requiring facilities to develop, implement and maintain for all staff, a training program that encompasses (minimally) the following (I don’t see much change in this requirement);
- Resident Rights and Facility Responsibilities
- Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation
- Compliance and Ethics
- Ongoing education for CNAs in dementia education and abuse prevention (12 annual hours minimum)
- Behavior Health Training
The estimate provided by CMS for implementation cost at the facility level is $46,491 in the first year, $40,685 in the following year totaling $729 million industry-wide in the first year. I guarantee that these numbers are light by 50% or more and in stable to declining reimbursement periods (now and going forward), this will be the driving point the industry will use in lobbying Congress, among the other points noted herein.
I don’t write a lot on compliance issues. Given the scope of my firm’s practice in this area, maybe I should. My practice focus is more strategic, policy, research and corporate development while compliance is the purview of another Sr. Partner and it is our largest practice area (by full disclosure, this practice area is headed by my wife). In a recent meeting, we reviewed the list of common/current compliance issues, engagements, and information and speaking requests and determined that five compliance issues bear illustration via a post here. These are not in order of importance but their appearance represents issues of current magnitude or issues where we see clients potentially putting themselves “behind the 8 ball” by not addressing the requirements properly.
- Emergency Disaster/Preparedness Plan: In December of last year (2013), CMS issued a proposed rule that will significantly update the requirements for providers to address all elements of Emergency Preparedness (storms, earthquakes, active shooters, infectious disease outbreaks, etc.). While final Conditions of Participation are forthcoming as comment periods were extended, providers who have yet to start on a path toward compliance will find themselves startled by how lengthy and daunting the route toward compliance is. This process is a complete revamp of anything prior. Attached via link is the CMS Preparedness checklist: https://www.cms.gov/Medicare/Provider-Enrollment-and-Certification/SurveyCertEmergPrep/Downloads/SandC_EPChecklist_Provider.pdf Clearly, the larger the organization the greater the length of time and preparation required to complete the plan. As of this writing, the significant majority of the providers we connect with regularly are not in compliance and worse, haven’t started a process toward compliance and/or, haven’t paid attention that this new requirement is forthcoming. Note: This requirement applies to virtually all providers that participate in Medicare and Medicaid including hospitals, home health organizations, hospices, and yes, Assisted Living Facilities if the same receive resident care funding via Medicaid waiver programs (Home and Community Based Services). Anyone wishing additional info. or templates on this requirement, contact me directly via a comment to this post with a valid e-mail address or via the contact info. on the Author page of this blog.
- CPR/Advanced Care Planning: In October of 2013, CMS issued new survey guidance to SNFs and State Survey Agencies requiring that all SNFs provide CPR to residents who wish resuscitation and that each SNF have a program and process in-place to assure adequate trained individuals, the communication and education of residents regarding the availability of CPR and the rights of residents to execute Advance Directives including no-code orders. Effectively, CMS has said that a facility must provide residents access to CPR if desired, 24 hours per day, 365 days per year and no longer will “no code” policies suffice or “911 policies” be permitted. This regulation went into effect 30 days after it was published though we are just beginning to see enhanced enforcement. For SNFs there are many nuances to consider including the issues around resident transportation, activities outside of the facility, etc. As the SNF, without a complete discharge or transfer to another provider for specific care (hospital, ER, etc.) is still responsible for the care of the resident, CPR trained individuals must be available (and the SNF must assure availability) when residents are transported to physician visits, on therapeutic (recreational) outings, etc. Again, as with the Emergency Preparedness requirements, we continue to see a large number of SNFs unaware of this requirement and not in compliance by the documentation and trained staff requirements across the resident care continuum. The original CMS memo on this issue is here : http://www.cms.gov/Medicare/Provider-Enrollment-and-Certification/SurveyCertificationGenInfo/Downloads/Survey-and-Cert-Letter-14-01.pdf
- QAPI: I have written about this topic in an earlier post ( http://wp.me/ptUlY-fa ) and posted a PowerPoint from a presentation I did last fall on the Reports and Other Documents page of this site. While CMS has not yet set a hard date for SNFs to be compliant with a QAPI program, one is forthcoming. Like the Emergency Preparedness requirement, QAPI is not a simple “paperwork” fix. Meeting the requirement takes time and requires commitment fromf the entire organization plus an enhanced engagement from residents (via input), families/loved ones, and community. Additionally, with pay-for-performance forthcoming (competitive bidding/Quality Measures), facilities that are not actively engaged in a QAPI effort are today, behind and falling further behind. Illustratively, we have clients that have had their proverbial compliance Bacon “saved” by having a fully functional QAPI program in-place (QAPI minutes, data, etc. were used to show surveyors that issues were addressed, monitored and continued to be monitored – particularly QIS friendly). The take-away is that SNFs need to get on their QAPI journey now and build, build, build! Again, anyone needing additional resources that aren’t on this site or direction, feel free to contact me via comment or e-mail (on Author’s page).
- Care Transitions: SNFs that aren’t actively monitoring any and all transitions of their residents to other providers, especially hospitals, are placing themselves at- risk; competitively and from a reimbursement perspective. While the latter has yet to arrive, it is coming as CMS will, under ACA mandated pay-for-performance rules, begin to reduce Medicare payments for SNFs that re-hospitalize and hospitalize unnecessarily, Medicare residents. Additionally, as bundled payment models expand and ACOs increase, SNFs that cannot control their transitions are at competitive risk; the risk that they will be precluded from various alliances, ACO models, etc. In May of 2003, CMS issued enhanced survey guidance for hospitals via updated interpretive guidelines on discharge planning, focused on re-admission reductions. In order for SNFs to continue to garner referrals and position themselves for competitive success in the near future (and survival), a focus on care transitions is paramount. Attached is the link to Interact – a good resource for transition monitoring and reductions tools: http://interact2.net/
- Medicare Therapy Billing: This issue is on the OIG’s radar, in their 2014 work plan and forward on the audit agenda for CMS. SNFs that ignore this issue are asking for potential significant problems including False Claim Act exposure (it is illegal to bill Medicare for services not medically necessary). SNFs need to have an audit step engaged, periodically reviewing claims against the MDS, the careplan, nursing documentation, etc. If an SNF is using a contract therapy provider, this audit step is even more critical. Remember, SNFs cannot cede liability for fraudulent acts committed as a Part A provider to a contractor. Additionally, most therapy contracts we see (virtually all) limit the therapy company’s liability (indemnification) for rejected claims to the cost of the therapy billed to the SNF. In other words, while the entirety of the stay or large portions thereof are deemed non-payable to the SNF by CMS (or a CMS auditor), the SNF will recover from the therapy provider, the cost of therapy billed to the SNF for the stay – the rest of the RUG revenue is gone! In short, SNFs cannot nor should ever allow, their therapy contractors immunity from routine outside audits of their care provision, their MDS coding, their documentation, etc. This is a big and growing compliance risk area for SNFs and knowledge and simple systemic audit tools are a big step toward keeping this risk low. For additional insight on this area and resources, contact me directly via e-mail or post a comment on this article.
Recently, a reader asked me a question regarding which states still use RUGs III for their Medicaid case-mix payments. At the time, I honestly didn’t know the answer completely. Based on a little research, I’ve outlined the RUGs status as I currently know it, across the states that utilize Medicaid case-mix. Note: Not all states use a case-mix reimbursement methodology for their Medicaid SNF payments (eighteen don’t). Any readers that know more specifics about any of the states and their status as listed below, are free to comment with additional information.
Transitioning to RUGs IV (either upcoming, very recent or at this point in time)
- Maryland (last cost based state in the country, transition in July of 2014)
- Indiana (2015)
RUGs III (some may be in the process of developing a transition)
- North Dakota
- South Dakota
- New Hampshire
- New York
- West Virginia
- North Carolina
Again, if anyone knows more specifics about any of the above mentioned states, please feel free to comment to this post.
Rarely do I write about a specific company as my work doesn’t focus on individual companies per se, more on industries and the policy/economics of health care industry segments. Occasionally, a company’s story typifies an industry flaw or trend or the same is illustrative of an endemic issue (Vitas for example). Amedisys’ continued saga of decline is an exception where a company’s story is illustrative of a series of missteps and failures in vision and leadership. The latter is a trend I see altogether too often.
Yesterday, Amedisys announced its third quarter results (4th quarter 2013). In summary, for the quarter net revenues declined by 13.7%, net loss increased to $2.2 million a decrease of 135% compared to the same period in 2012 and annualized negative changes (from year to year) in EBITDA (negative 49.7%) and net income of 83.8%. Comparatively, two years ago their margin was 7% (not good but not deplorable), -26% last year and for 2013, -5.6%. Their aggregated profit margin in “real-time” is -16%. In spite of any rhetoric from management (new leadership at the helm after the ouster all too late in my opinion of founder Bill Borne) about hitting bottom, improving fundamentals, etc. the future picture is “crystal”. In fact, analyst surprise over yesterday’s results is illustrative of a lack of generalized understanding about health policy, health care/provider risk concentration, and sustainable operations. Suffice to say, no surprise looks on my face.
I have written before somewhat on Amedisys and referenced them as a story that others insist on paralleling (Vitas again comes to mind). So as the title reference applies, below is the cautionary tale.
- Concentration of Risk: All too many providers get caught-up in following the “shiny object” syndrome. They mine the reimbursement trend of greatest reward, using the most advantageous coding, and layering their plates with as many patients possible that fit the highest payment profile. Some do this by stretching the very definitions of medical necessity. Others do so by overly zealous and questionable referral methods; some overtly fraudulent such as pay-for-referral or incentive-for-referral arrangements with other providers. The flawed belief is that effective lobbying, smoother lawyers, and a public persona campaign that focuses on “good, ethical, high quality care” imagery will somehow ward off intrusions that could burst the bubble. All of the aforementioned is the flaw in how health care reimbursement and policy really works. The handwriting was on the wall for Amedisys as its book of business was feverishly high with Medicare patients and patient profiles by margin, concentrated in therapy. All the signs of a crumble were present and no diversification strategy was even in the works when the OIG stepped-in, Congress following and CMS on the backend re-writing reimbursement rules. The hey day ended and today, with no ability to re-tool quick enough away from the only business model Amedisys knows but generate visits under Medicare, their financial house is exposed. They were too big, too reliant on a single element of business and not properly diversified to mitigate the risk exposure that comes with mining government reimbursement programs.
- Short vs. Long Term: To be certain, publicly traded companies are driven by ever-increasing earnings and thus can lose quickly, the perspective of sustainability of business. Like in mining, veins tap out quickly and the quest is always to find another “motherload”. Unfortunately in health care, more of the same even widely diversified by geography doesn’t create sustainability it simply magnifies the concentration of risk. Creating a sustainable platform of survival and thus success is all about leveraging core competency beyond the simple “how much per eaches can I bill”. Innovation and multi-level capabilities crossing all lines of business and depth of payer diversification is how long-term earnings are made. I refer to this, as do others, as system thinking. Integrating pieces and constantly rolling-forward new lines of innovation allows for a pipeline of other service/product lines to build sustainable growth and profit.
- Failure to Understand Policy and Economic Implications: Health policy is rarely illogical though it often in final form, is misguided and bureaucratically over-cooked. Medicare and Medicaid are unsustainable entitlement programs and government’s response to structural funding problems is to reduce “spending” not sustain it or increase it. Any provider segment today that believes more money for anything is forthcoming truly has suspended reality. This isn’t to say that in components, Medicare and Medicaid can’t be viable business segments. It does mean that the world has been changing for quite some time and anyone who pays attention to basic, easily accessible information from source like MedPac can see the change ahead. The days of disconnect between quality and volume are over. Excessive margins are eroding from all elements of Medicare. Payments are heavily scrutinized. Providers that haven’t been preparing for this shift across many prior years are today, rueing the lack of foresight. This is true for all provider segments. Home health fell earliest.
- The Fraud Peril Disconnect: I lost track years ago of how many providers/executives/boards I have talked to and counseled regarding “too much success”. There is an inherent disconnect that occurs when profits are rising, volumes the same, and life is “good”. Instead of asking key questions and doing a little independent analysis around “why so good”, the push goes on to ramp-up even a tad more. The incentives rise, the fever brews and no one seems willing to ask the pressing question of, “why are we doing so good”? Instead of analysis to create justification, I counsel the alternative; analysis that questions any justification. The latter is a discipline that focuses on matching trends elsewhere and demands a clear line of service to billing. When the trends in any organization are simply so much better than any other organization logic demands inquisition as to why. If others start following, I get even more nervous. Conversely, if an organization suddenly finds a swell that arose simply by following an established industry trend, I also get nervous. Systemic fraud occurs mostly because organizations justify their own results with rhetoric rather than clear analysis. Any focus on why and how things are truly occurring, particularly via an external, non-invested source will quickly detect where the break-downs lie and the risks run deep. Unfortunately and all too often, the executive level reaction is the “three monkey reaction”; hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.
The cautionary tale? Amedisys exemplifies all of the above. Today, Vitas the same and I fear Gentiva is on their heels. Each has too much reimbursement concentration of risk, a business model that solely exists to gather certain types of patients and a cavalier regard for health policy and economic trends. Their models are unsustainable without complete overhaul and an overhaul is not in the cards as doing so would require a planned shrinkage and a death spiral for their share price. Oddly enough, their share prices will still hit the death spiral, as did Amedisys but not because of the prior comment. This spiral will occur as a result of not having read the cautionary tale sooner.
Next for Amedisys? Non-existence as a public company is my forecast and continued acquisition of their shares on behalf of KKR is the harbinger. I predict, as I have in other posts, that Vitas is on the same path as Amedisys and nothing to date has eroded this opinion; its only stronger. Vitas has enormous risk concentration, a disregard in operating philosophy from the real reimbursement and policy climate operative today and a focus almost entirely on reinvigorating volume and thus earnings. The latter is anathema to where they sit on the Feds radar.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post covering the Home Health PPS Final Rule for 2014. As I was writing that post, I simultaneously reviewed the Gentiva/Harden deal plus the recent quarterly earnings of Amedisys and Almost Family (plus their acquisition of SunCrest HealthCare). The earnings reports plus the analytics from these two recent transactions paint and interesting picture of where the Home Health industry is headed.
Starting with Gentiva/Harden, and analogous to the Almost Family/SunCrest deal, the transactions are not due to growth or really expansion; rather each is about creating defensive scale. Gentiva/Harden is a bit of an oddity in so much that Harden has a brick and mortar component via ownership of a small portfolio of skilled nursing facilities in Texas. This element however, is not a complimentary piece for Gentiva and as such, my prediction is these facilities will divest from Gentiva post a final roll-up period. The SNF piece is not what they do nor does it really provide a significant source of additional volume or revenue, net of the risk and asset holding cost. Harden grew out from the facility ownership side and thus, the SNF component was in their “wheelhouse”. The same is not true with Gentiva. Regardless of the rhetoric from Gentiva regarding keeping all management, integrating all components, etc., transactions of this scale don’t work that way – they never do. The outlet pieces and the home health book of business is what Gentiva is after.
The same is true in the Almost Family/SunCrest deal with one exception – it’s a home health – home health deal. Almost Family is looking for outlets and the home health book of business to create scale and volume insulation. To a certain extent, both transactions are also about “book of business” diversification; more so in the Harden deal. Almost Family and Gentiva have a risk concentration in their home health revenue models known as Medicare. As my post on the Home Health Final Rule covered, Medicare is a payment source that is shrinking via overall outlay and directed payments per episode. The belief among Gentiva and Almost Family is that mass, ideally scalable via more outlets and more efficient infrastructure will insulate the revenue and thus, earnings impact. In short, even if the margin per each case falls, if more cases are attainable and the incremental expense in doing so is proportionately less than the incremental revenue gain (ideally by a factor of greater than 20%), then it makes sense to increase volume. That’s the theory at least.
Looking at where Gentiva and Almost Family started in terms of earnings reports prior to or concurrent with the referenced transactions, each had their share of performance issues. Almost Family posted an earnings surprise (per share) positive (11% up over consensus) but delving into the numbers shows a continuing performance problem. Additionally, the net impact of additional Medicare cuts foreshadows more negativity in the upcoming quarters, even in spite of the SunCrest deal. It will take Almost Family all of 2014 to absorb and re-define the benefits or difficulties of the SunCrest deal, In the meantime, their risk concentration in skilled nursing and Medicare remains high. Their savior in the interim is a steady growth outlook for their non-Medicare personal care business. Volume growth remains attainable but in order for a continued bright earnings outlook, the growth in personal care, a less revenue rich source than skilled home care, must be equal to or greater than the revenue reductions forthcoming under Medicare. My view is that in the interim, pending absorption of SunCrest, net income and revenues will flatten or trend slightly down.
Gentiva is moving on a parallel trend to Almost Family, with one exception – Odyssey. Gentiva owns the nation-wide hospice provider Odyssey and as such, a twist that separates or bifurcates its strategy from Almost Family exists. On the home health side, Gentiva is seeking outlet growth and looking to expand its presence in the non-Medicare, personal care world as well as the Medicaid waiver world commonly known as Home and Community Based Services (HCBS). The Harden acquisition is the jump for Gentiva into this niche. Prior to Harden, Gentiva was a non to bit player in the non-Medicare, personal and community care environment.
For the nine-months ending September 30, Gentiva lost $197 million. Not surprising, the company announced, post the Harden disclosure, a consolidation and restructuring plan called One Gentiva. The intent is to tighten operations, reduce redundancy, and coordinate revenue opportunities more closely between its home health operations and its hospice operations (Odyssey). The Odyssey segment revenue contribution shrunk by 7.5%, year over year. Hospice clearly is a struggling segment as the overhang of the Vitas suit plus the changes in certification requirements and coding have effectively narrowed or literally closed, resources commonly used by providers like Odyssey to capture patients and attract new business. The One Gentiva initiative will no doubt, further shrink the Odyssey/hospice component, both in terms of outlet numbers and operational infrastructure components in an attempt to mitigate further revenue and earnings erosion to Gentiva consolidated.
Placing all of the above into context and adding a quick peek at Amedisys, the home health industry is clearly struggling and trying to rebalance. Amedisys, once the biggest player in the home health industry, continues to reel post a series of federal investigations and fraud allegations. Their recent settlement ($150 million) with the Department of Justice regarding Medicare improper billing allegations added another nail in a coffin that continues to emerge. Continued losses, closure of outlets, and further Medicare reductions foretell a near future of non-existence. My prediction is that Amedisys will soon be restructured to a private company via a private equity transaction. The future for them is bleak and the industry outlook for Medicare home health providers of which Amedisys dominated, is fraught with revenue decline and earnings suppression.
The focus on the near future for companies like Almost Family and Gentiva is about survival. Can the strategy of creating greater scale and volume in a declining revenue environment continue to produce positive earnings? If the theory that when the margin per each drops, doing more per “eachs” with a controlled incremental expense element lower than the incremental revenue produced through greater volume is accurate, then at some point earnings improve. Unfortunately, I have never seen this theory play-out in a home health or health care environment. By its operational nature, home health is fairly inefficient in terms of staffing productivity and volume efficiency. Within a volatile landscape, the inefficiencies increase as more variables are operative that can quickly, change referral patterns and volume fortunes. Revenue always erodes faster than expense particularly since the bulk of the expense is staff that can’t be quickly recruited, trained and then fallowed when volumes decline or stagnate.
The other side of the strategy, diversification away from the Medicare risk concentration via increased volume in the personal care, Medicaid world offers some hope but it is not a silver lining. True, dual-eligibles (Medicare/Medicaid) provide greater revenue capture opportunity but not without assuming another element of governmental payer risk – Medicaid. Medicaid has its share of problems and in the HCBS world, the providers therein paint a picture of cuts as demonic as in the straight Medicare world. In virtually every state, Medicaid has a “spend-less” charge not a “spend-more” profile, even with Obamacare. Medicaid expansion under the ACA drops cash into state coffers but only to address the increased enrollment of folks who are under 65 and uninsured. This group is not a big user of HCBS or home health. The 65 plus group that dominates the HCBS world and is the personal care side of the industry does not benefit via Obamacare and thus, states continue to seek ways to limit the financial impact to state funded Medicaid via HCBS. As more states move to a Managed Medicaid model, the impact of shrinking or constraining Medicaid cash outlays for HCBS and personal care is just now emerging. In short, I just can’t buy the notion that diversification toward a Medicaid component is a salvation or a counter-balance to revenue reductions on the Medicare skilled side. The impact in my opinion, is nominal in the near-term and perhaps equally or greater negative over the next two to three years.