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Senior and Post-Acute Healthcare News and Topics

Home Health and Hospice: Strategic Movement in an Evolving Market

Last year 2017, was a bit of a “downer” in terms of mergers/acquisitions in the home health and hospice industry.  Though 2017 was fluid for hospital and health system activity, the home health and hospice sectors lagged a bit.  Some of the lag was due to capacity concerns in so much that health system mergers, if they involve home health as part of the “roll-up”, take a bit of sorting out time to adjust to market capacity changes (in markets impacted by the consolidations).  The additional drag was attributable to CMS proposing to change the home health payment from a per visit function to a process driven by patient characteristics – after implementation, a net $950 million revenue cut to the industry.  CMS has since scrapped this proposed payment revision however, the future foreshadows payment revisions nonetheless including changing to some format of a shorter episode window for payment (ala 30 days).

Hospice has always been a bit of niche in terms of the post-acute industry.  Where consolidation and merger/acquisition activity occurs, it is most often fueled by a companion home health transaction.  De Novo hospice “only” activity of any scale has been steady and unremarkable, save regional and local movement.  From a reimbursement and policy implication standpoint, hospice has been far less volatile than home health.  Minor changes in terms of scaling payment levels by length of stay have only marginally impacted the revenue profile of the industry.  What continues to impact hospice patient flow is the medical/health care culture within the U.S. that continues to be in steep denial regarding the role of palliative medicine/care and end-of-life care, particularly for advanced age seniors.  Sadly, too many seniors still pass daily in expensive, inpatient settings such as hospitals and nursing homes (hospitals more so), racking up bills for (basically) futile healthcare services.  If and when this culture shifts, hospice will see expansion in the form of referrals and post-acute market share.

Despite somewhat (of) a tepid M&A climate in 2017, the tail-end of the year and early 2018 provided some fireworks.  Early 2018 is off to the races with some fairly large-scale consolidations.  In late 2017, LHC group and Almost Family announced their merger, recently completed.  Preceding this transaction in August, Christus Health in Texas formed a joint venture with LHC, encompassing its home health and hospice business (LTAcH too).  Tenet sold its home health business to Amedysis (though not a major transaction by any means).  And, Humana stepped forward to acquire Kindred’s Home Health business.

In the first months of 2018, Jordan, a regional home health and hospice business in Texas,  Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas, announced a merger with fellow regional providers Great Lakes and National Home Health Care.  The combined company will span 15 states with over 200 locations.  In other regions, The Ensign Group, primarily a nursing home and assisted living provider continues to expand into home health and hospice via acquisitions; primarily underperforming outlets that have market depth and need restructuring.  Former home health giant Amedysis continues to redefine its role in the industry via additions of agencies/outlets in states like Kentucky.  Amedysis, once the largest home health provider in the nation, fell prey to congressional inquiries and regulatory oversight regarding suspected over-payments and billing improprieties.  Having worked through these issues and shrinking its agency/outlet platform to a leaner, more core and manageable level, Amedysis is now growing again, though less for “bigger” sake, more for strategy sake.

Given the preceding news, some trends are emerging for home health in particular and a bit (quite a bit) less so for hospice.  Interestingly, one of the trends apparent for home health has been present for hospitals, health systems, and now starting, skilled nursing: there is too much capacity, somewhat misaligned with where the market needs exist.  I believe this issue also exists for Seniors Housing (see related post at https://wp.me/ptUlY-nA ) but the drivers are different as limited regulation and payment dynamics are at play for Seniors Housing.  While home health is no doubt, an industry with continued growth potential as more post-acute payment and policy drivers favor home care and outpatient over institutional options, capacity problems still exist.  By capacity I mean too many providers wrongly positioned within certain markets and not enough providers properly positioned to deliver more integrated elements of acute and post-acute, transitional services in expanding markets (e.g., Washington D.C., Denver, Dallas, etc.).

Prior to their final consolidation with Humana, Kindred provided an investor presentation explaining their rationale for exiting the home health business (somewhat analogous to their exit rationale from skilled nursing).  The salient pages are available at this link: Kindred Investor Pres 2 18 . Fundamentally, I think the underpinnings of the argument beginning with the public policy and reimbursement dynamics which are extrapolated against a “worse-case” backdrop (MedPac recommendations don’t equate to Congressional action directly nor do tax cuts equate directly to Medicare reimbursement cuts) get lost to the real reason Kindred exited: excess leverage.  Kindred was overly leveraged and as we have seen with all too many like/analogous scenarios, excessive overhead and fixed costs in a tight and competitive market with sticky reimbursement dynamics and risk concentration on Medicare beget few strategic options other than shrink or exit.

With the backdrop set, the home health environment is at an evolutionary pass – the fork-in-the-road applies for many providers: bigger in scale or focused regionally with more network alignment required (aka strategic partnerships).  I think the following is safe to conclude, at least for this first half of 2018.

  • The M&A driver today is strategy and market, less financial.  While financial concerns remain due to some funky (technical term) policy dynamics and reimbursement unknowns, the same are more tame than 12-18 months ago.  To be certain, financial gain expectations are part of every transaction, just less impactful in terms of motivation.
  • The dominant strategic driver is network alignment: being where the referrals are.  The next driver is “positioning” as a player managing population health dynamics.  Disease management focus is key here.
  • Medicare Advantage penetration is re-balancing patient flow in many markets.  As the penetration escalates above 50% (half or better of all Med A days coming from Med Advantage), the referral flows are shaping to more demand for in-home care (away from institutional settings), shorter lengths of stay across all post-acute segments, increasing complexity and acuity on transition, and pay-for-performance dynamics on outcomes (particularly, re-hospitalization).
  • Market locations are key and very, very strategic.  With home health, being able to channel productivity, especially in a low labor supply/high demand environment, is imperative.  Being proximal to referrals, being tight with geographic boundaries, being able to lever staff resources, and being able to deploy technology to enhance efficiency is operationally, imperative.
  • Partnerships are synergistic today and in-flux.  It used to be that a key partner was an acute hospital.  Today, the acute hospital remains important but not necessarily, primary.  With physicians starting to embrace ACOs and Bundled Payment models, the referral relationship most preferred may be direct agency to doctor.  In fact, the hospital partner may not be anywhere near as valuable as the surgical center partner, owned and controlled by physicians.
  • Capacity and capability to bear risk from a population management perspective and to accept patients with higher acuity needs (in-home) and broader chronic conditions.  Effectively, home health agencies are going to continue to feel pressure to take patients with multiple chronic needs and comorbidities and to coordinate these care needs across perhaps, two to three provider spectrums (outpatient, specialty physicians, hospice if required, etc.).

 

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May 23, 2018 Posted by | Home Health, Hospice | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Health Systems, Hospitals and Post-Acute Providers: Making Integration Work

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.

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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”.

 

March 28, 2017 Posted by | Home Health, Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Post-Acute Compliance 2015: OIG Targets

As is customary in late fall, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services released its Fiscal Year work plan.  As a reminder or preface, the work plan is the summary of investigations and focal areas the OIG plans to undertake in the upcoming fiscal year and beyond to ensure program efficiency and integrity and to identify and prevent fraud, waste and abuse (the latter is the most relevant activity).  Each provider segment reimbursed by Medicare is covered, some more so than others depending on the prevailing nature of program expenditures.  As of late (most recent years), the post-acute sector is targeted principally due to the outlay/expenditure growth (Medicare) for hospice, home health and skilled nursing care.

Below is the categorical highlights (not exhaustive) found within the 2015 Work Plan (the full plan can be found here ( https://oig.hhs.gov/reports-and-publications/archives/workplan/2015/FY15-Work-Plan.pdf ;

Skilled Nursing Facilities

  • Medicare Part A Billing: Scrutiny on claim accuracy and appropriateness of billed charges, particularly focused on therapy utilization and RUGupcoding.  Recent False Claims Act cases withExtendicare illustrate how the OIG views Medicare payments for inappropriate utilization and for care that is clearly inadequate.  This is a major risk area for providers and no SNF should discount the exposure, particularly if any of the following elements within the organization’s operations are present.
    • Therapy services provided by an outside contractor.  The OIG has identified previously that there exists a correlation between certain therapy agency contractors and patters of upcoding.
    • Disproportionately higher (as a percentage of census/payer mix), Medicare utilization.  The common threshold level is 30% or lower of total census.  Higher Medicare days as a percent of overall payer mix is a red flag for the OIG or an outlier.
    • Low overall Part B therapy utilization.
    • Skewed RUG distribution where the majority of days are falling the highest paying therapy RUGs (particularly ultra-high with moderate to minimal ADL scores – minimum/moderate assist levels)
    • Longer length of stays at higher RUG levels – minimal or infrequent Change of Therapy without corresponding Change of Conditions or vice-versa.
  • Medicare Part B Billing: The converse to the point previous is enhanced focus by the OIG on over-utilization or inappropriate utilization of Part B therapy services when Part A is exhausted or unavailable.  The OIG has noticed a trend for providers wary of Part A scrutiny to shift utilization to Part B. Again, the focus is on inappropriate billing patterns and utilization trends above or beyond, the historical norm.
  • State Agency Survey Reviews: The OIG plans to review how frequently and how well, state survey agencies reviewed and verified, facility plans of correction for completeness and compliance.  The gist: enhanced/additional federal look behind visits and desk reviews.
  • Hospitalizations: The OIG intends to review the hospitalization trends of SNF patients, identifying patterns of utilization for manageable or preventable care issues. A 2011 review found that 25% of Medicare SNF patients were hospitalized in a given year and the OIG is of the opinion that a percentage (likely sizable) is preventable and potentially, indicative of quality problems at the SNF level.

Hospice

  • Hospice in Assisted Living: The OIG will monitor the continued growth trend of hospice care provided in Assisted Living facilities.  Part of this initiative is couched in the requirement within the ACA for the Secretary (of HHS) to reform the hospice payment system.  The OIG indicates that it will gather data on hospice utilization, diagnoses, lengths of stay, etc. for residents in Assisted Living facilities.  Medpac has noted that for many providers, particularly the larger national chain organizations, that hospice care in this setting is typified by longer stays and thus, monitoring is warranted.
  • General Inpatient Care: OIG will continue to monitor the utilization of General Inpatient Care within the hospice benefit for appropriateness and potential abuse.  As General Inpatient Care pays a higher per diem and many hospices maintain their own inpatient units, the concern on the part of OIG is misuse or abuse for payment or, to mitigate (agency) staffing shortages where the better alternative for the patient is Continuous Care.

Home Health

  • Reimbursements/Payments: The OIG will continue to monitor payments made to agencies principally for accuracy.  Prior investigations by the OIG identified that at least on in four claims were incorrect and potentially, fraudulent.  This initiative is a continuation of ongoing concerns by the OIG of excessive fraud and or waste in the Home Health sector principally due to improper application of the Medicare benefit and lack of substantiated medical necessity and/or supported clinical documentation of appropriateness of care (e.g., therapies particularly).

LTAcHs and Inpatient Rehab Facilities

  • Adverse Events: The OIG is targeting both settings for an analysis of adverse events/temporary harm circumstances to patients in the setting (falls, infections, etc.).  Inpatient Rehab Facilities provide 11% of post-acute inpatient therapy services and growth over the past decade or so has been consistent and steady.  Questions however have arisen regarding the actual value of such care compared to the care received in an SNF. The SNF is reimbursed substantially lower than the IRF even though many SNFs staff sufficiently to provide the same level of therapy services (up to 3 hours per day).  Similar concerns have risen within the LTAcH setting as to cost vs. outcome and quality, particularly as compared other setting comparable, lower cost settings such as SNF.  There continues in Washington, a generalized view that post-acute payment reform is overdue, particularly given the rapid expansion of the sector.  Within the payment reform movement is the growing view that setting differentiation and thus payment differentiation at the inpatient level is no longer warranted and consolidation is required to rid the excess capacity and reward economically efficient providers that demonstrate higher quality outcomes (SNFs in particular as well as rural swing bed hospitals and to a lesser extent, home health providers and outpatient providers).

December 10, 2014 Posted by | Home Health, Hospice, Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CMS, Proposed ACO Regulations and a Post-Acute Analysis

Late last week, CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) issued the proposed regulations for Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). As is typical with CMS and all things PPACA related, the document is nearly 500 pages. I have read and begun to digest (creating of course, indigestion) the entirety of the document. As I have prepared copious notes and questions more than answers, it will take me another day or so to formulate a coherent analysis, particularly as the information pertains to post-acute providers. Given my workload at the moment, I will endeavor to have a post up by Friday at the latest.

Hearing also from lots of sources continued questions on RUGs IV, questions regarding new hospice requirements, and of course, questions regarding the latest budget release from House Republicans and implications for Medicare, Medicaid, and the PPACA, I have more than a bunch to sift through and ultimately, post thoughts on and hopefully, some guidance. Suffice to say, these are interesting times for health care providers and the sands are shifting constantly. A significant shift toward a faster death for the PPACA will undoubtedly reform what we “think” we know today about ACOs, Medicaid and even Medicare. Stay tuned and feel free as many of you do, to drop me a note regarding a topic, your insights, or a question that I may be able to answer or steer you to an answer/resource.

April 6, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment