Reg's Blog

Senior and Post-Acute Healthcare News and Topics

Medicaid Case-Mix States: A Reader Question

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.


  1. Washington
  2. Minnesota

Transitioning to RUGs IV (either upcoming, very recent or at this point in time)

  1. Vermont
  2. Wisconsin
  3. Illinois
  4. Maryland (last cost based state in the country, transition in July of 2014)
  5. Indiana (2015)

RUGs III (some may be in the process of developing a transition)

  1. Montana
  2. Idaho
  3. Nevada
  4. Utah
  5. Colorado
  6. North Dakota
  7. South Dakota
  8. Nebraska
  9. Kansas
  10. Texas
  11. Iowa
  12. Louisiana
  13. Mississippi
  14. Kentucky
  15. Ohio
  16. Maine
  17. New Hampshire
  18. New York
  19. Pennsylvania
  20. West Virginia
  21. Virginia
  22. North Carolina
  23. Georgia

Again, if anyone knows more specifics about any of the above mentioned states, please feel free to comment to this post.

April 7, 2014 Posted by | Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SNF Caution: Medicare and End of Life Billing

While this isn’t a de novo trend, it is one that I am seeing again with frequency and thus, it bears/requires CAUTION. This trend is commonly referred to as Skilled until Death or End-of-Life Skilled.  The reference in “skilled” is Medicare; delivering qualified skilled nursing or skilled therapy services (or combination thereof) with sufficient frequency and intensity to qualify the resident for Medicare coverage, post a three-day qualifying hospital inpatient stay.  The genesis of this trend lies in the differences between the Medicare benefits found in the SNF/traditional Part A program and the Medicare Hospice benefit. The logic for families/residents is as follows (why or why not hospice, etc.).

A patient in a hospital, likely terminal in a short time period and incapable (for a myriad of reasons) of returning home, is approaching discharge.  The inpatient stay length in the hospital is sufficient to meet the three-day rule for Medicare A coverage in the nursing home.  The patient’s condition likewise is such, that he/she will meet the eligibility test for coverage under the Medicare Hospice benefit.  Here’s the nuance.   If the patient elects the Medicare Hospice benefit and requires an inpatient stay in an institutional setting, such as an SNF, prior to his/her death, the patient must pay the prevailing cost of the room and board component. The caveat is unless the patient is eligible or qualified for Medicaid and then, the Medicaid program would pay the SNF for the room and board cost.  The Hospice benefit does not cover such a cost unless the inpatient stay was respite or qualified as General Inpatient for advanced symptom management, etc.  Under the Medicare Part A SNF benefit, the patient may discharge to the SNF, receive the first 20 days of covered care essentially free and then, if still qualified, pay a lower cost per diem co-pay for any covered days past the initial 20.  In this simplistic fashion, it seems logical for most parties that unless the patient was Medicaid eligible, the best route is to remain on traditional Medicare and access the Part A SNF benefit.  For families and patients, this makes sense but for providers; SLOW DOWN!  Showing my age and “borrowing” from a TV favorite in my past, “Danger Will Robinson … Danger”.

The Medicare Part A SNF benefit does not contain any RUG related to End of Life or Palliative Care.  In fact, there is no presumption of payment for any end of life care under the Part A SNF benefit as the same was never meant to be used for any reason other than a post-acute transfer style payment up and until, the patient could re-transition to his/her permanent residence, off of the Medicare coverage.  Thus, the only aspects of coverage determination/eligibility (sans the 3 day prior rule) is the medical necessity of daily skilled services defined as professional nursing (RN), rehabilitative therapies (PT, OT, ST) or some combination between nursing and other related skilled disciplines such as respiratory therapy, dietitians, etc.  Many of the traditional end-of-life hospice/palliative type services would not, meet any of the Medicare Part A SNF “skilled” coverage criteria.  Simple management of pain or symptoms without necessitating routine RN assessment and dosage changes isn’t a skilled SNF service.  IV’s in and of themselves, don’t engender lots of skilled nursing coverage.  If someone is likely to die in a reasonably short time, therapies are unwarranted for any length of time, save perhaps a day or two to develop other care plans for swallowing, positioning, etc.

How  this subject rises to the CAUTION level is driven by two separate but inter-operative elements in government today.  First, the heightened focus from the OIG on SNF care, its appropriateness, its billing issues, etc.  The industry is watched closer today than ever and RAC and Other audits are heating up.  Second, the government’s vigilance and determination today in finding fraud, particularly acts/violations of the False Claim Act.  Now, lest anyone thinks I am being too alarmist, I have a long list of clients within my consulting practice work that are using us to help with post-payment reviews and claims denials for SNF Part A claims.

The take-away here is very simple….if it walks like a duck, quacks and has feathers, call it a duck.  If the patient’s prognosis and plan is death, even if one can gin-up Part A coverage, don’t do it.  First, the act of providing non-medically necessary care or care not warranted (inverse coding) is an act of fraud and a violation under the False Claims Act.  Similarly, over-treatment and unnecessary care may bring professional sanctions for licensed individuals as well.  Essentially, an ethical problem of a large degree is present.  Of course, if the patient has consented to a course of curative  or interventional care as a last shot at improvement or in an effort to re-build strength/stamina prior to a wedding, family event, etc., the services are warranted and should be properly billed to the Part A SNF benefit.  Quite honestly, what I see routinely is the latter is the outlier. The “skilled until death” driven by cost is the norm and this one is perilous for those who play the game.  Auditors are out there and this “phenomenon” is known to the OIG and as it grows, scrutinized.  Remember, coverage is determined by the legitimate medical needs of the patient, as determined by assessment and framed by the goal/determination and consent of the patient (and/or his legal surrogate).  If this does not warrant the use of daily skilled services/interventions to achieve the goal of the patient and meet his/her legitimate care needs as assessed, no coverage is available under Part A.  Going beyond this prior point in search of coverage is an act of achieving payment for non-warranted, non-necessary services and as such, a violation of the False Claims Act.




April 2, 2014 Posted by | Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Medicare Advantage Plans and HIPPS (SNF PPS) Codes

A topic that I receive queries about from time to time concerns the payment practices of Medicare Advantage (MA) plans as the same relates to traditional Med A coverage under the PPS system.  Recently (earlier this year and then again in October, CMS issued some fairly vague guidance to the MA world regarding a requirement to include the HIPPS codes (PPS codes) for any SNF stays utilized by enrollees.  The same communication was scare to SNFs.  Initially, CMS targeted implementation for July of this year, then backed-off in October to December implementation.  This week, CMS postponed this requirement until July 2014.

The take-away and caution for SNFs with MA contracts is this.  Regardless of how the contract is structured for payment between the SNF and the MA (groups, levels, per diem, etc.), the CMS requirement for MA plans to report HIPPS will alter the SNF’s billing cycle, now encompassing an assessment schedule (MDS) identical to the cycle for traditional Part A covered residents.  My firm has many SNF clients with MA patients that presently aren’t required via their contracts to follow the traditional PPS/RUG and assessment schedule for this payer type.

On the same theme, this impact is separate from how the MA plan pays the SNF.  It will clearly be less onerous for MA contracts that are paying the SNF per diem rates, though this type is less typical than the group or level payment schedule.  My advice to SNFs is as follows;

  • Open dialogue ASAP with your MA contracts, letting them know you are aware of this upcoming requirement.  You have time as the requirement is now delayed to July of next year.  December implementation was clearly unrealistic.
  • If possible, I recommend working with your MA contract to negotiate a different payment methodology.  My firm has had success in re-negotiating these agreements.  The desire methodology is per diem and going forward, per diem following the RUGs determined via the MDS.  SNFs will have to report this data to the MA plan regardless come July.  It is to the MA’s advantage and the SNF to align payment systems accordingly.
  • For SNFs with therapy contracts (outsourced), make sure your therapy provider is aware of this forthcoming change.  Such a change, especially if the SNF seeks to modify its payment agreement with the MA, will alter how therapy is billed to the SNF.  Further, your therapy contractor will need to know that MA patients must soon be included in your reporting to the MA plan (EOTs, COTs, etc.).

While we know July 2014 seems distant, don’t expect much guidance or heads-up from your MA contractors or CMS.

November 8, 2013 Posted by | Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CMS Announces Medicare SNF Cuts: The Implication

On Friday, CMS released its Final Rule regarding FY 2012 SNF PPS reimbursement.  The Final Rule implements a reduction or “cut” in SNF PPS payments equal to 11.1% or $3.87 billion.  The 11.1% reduction is based on 2011 rates and spending/outlays.  In their proposed final rule published in May, CMS alluded to the real possibility that it would seek to reduce SNF payments via some element of program/technical correction as well as rate reductions.  Their reasoning stemmed from claim and resulting outlay experience that was significantly greater in dollar amounts than originally forecasted when MDS 3.0 and RUGs IV was devised and implemented.  Summarized, CMS had intended the conversion from RUGs III to RUGs IV to be expenditure neutral for Medicare.  Per recent figures and analysis from the OIG, expenditures under RUGs IV are running 16% higher than the “neutral” target.  For more information, see my recent post on this same topic at .

Given that the text of the Final Rule won’t be published until August 8 and as of Friday, CMS was still working on recalibrating the CMIs under RUGs IV, it isn’t possible to provide direct analysis of the actual rate scenario for FY 2012.  What I do know however, is that the “bark” in this case is definitely worse than the “bite”.  While overall spending is set for reduction, this doesn’t necessarily correlate directly to rate.  Briefly, here’s why:

  • CMS has factored into their projections of lower spending levels, a series of technical corrections such as changes in how minutes are allocated among participants in group therapy.  This change closes a loophole or as I have said, an area of oversight in the transition from III to IV.  Going forward, group therapy minutes must be divided in equal increments among all participants (e.g., one hour of therapy provided to a group of four equals four 15 minute therapy sessions; not an hour allocated to each participant as the system presently allows).  Additionally, CMS is tightening the Change of Therapy assessment requirements to more specifically, capture any changes in a patient’s therapy needs that would preclude re-classification to a different (presumably lower) RUG category.  This change is separate from any Change of Condition assessment.
  • Recalibration of RUGs categories via adjustment to the CMIs will occur based-off of 2011 utilization and projections.  The net result is change in category payments that will remain higher than experienced under RUGs III levels.  In short, the net “cut” will not be 11% across the board.  SNFs need to be astute as to how the CMIs work and translate into payments under each RUG.  Recalibration is designed to restore parity to the overall expenditure profile.  In order for CMS to do this, it will overlay utilization trends and patterns across the CMI continuum and adjust rates within the scope of its technical corrections, to forecast an overall program expenditure target that agrees (theoretically) with its original intentions in converting to RUGs IV.  In short, this doesn’t mean an 11% direct rate reduction.  If CMS were to impose and 11% cut to each category, overall outlays would reduce by more than 30% – that is not the target.
  • Based on what I see from most providers with a fairly balanced Medicare book of business (mix of clinical/nursing and rehab cases on par with 40% clinical, 60% therapy), the net to their per diem will be flat to a reduction of 2 to 5%.  This means that a facility with an average per diem today of $450 per day will see a 2012 per diem between $425 and $450 per day.  Providers that took advantage of the group therapy option to escalate or maintain their high rehab payments under IV will likely see a greater revenue shock.  In virtually all cases, providers that have a fairly balanced Medicare book should see a 2012 Medicare per diem that falls 6% to 8% higher than their FY 2010 per diem.

I will have a better idea of the actual impact when I see the final CMIs and resulting RUGs IV rates.  In the meantime and until the Final Rule and rates are implemented on 10/1 of this year, I don’t see much in the way of political intercession to change (positively) the rate and spending scenario.  Spending at the Federal level is a toxic subject and even with a potential debt ceiling deal looming, the microscope will remain directly on all areas of federal spending.  Entitlement spending (Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security) is rising substantially faster than discretionary or military spending and logically, presents a big target for deficit hawks.  Logically, it will be difficult to gain the support of any Congressional industry sympathisers to push more money back into a system that most acknowledge, was unintentionally overpaying for care.  Consider FY 2011 a bit of a windfall and the changes forthcoming, pretty darn modest; all things being equal.

July 31, 2011 Posted by | Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

RUGs IV Here to Stay!

The news we all hoped for came forth this afternoon, wrapped with a big bow just in time for the Holiday season – RUGs IV is here to stay.  The House this afternoon passed a companion version of the bill passed in the Senate yesterday.  President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law shortly.

The legislation calls for $19.2 billion in appropriations to make RUGs IV effective retroactively to October 1, 2010.  In addition, the legislation extends the Medicare Part B therapy cap exception provision presently in place, until the end of 2011.  Without such an extension to the exception process, the Part B therapy caps were set to be automatically reinstated with no exception on January 1, 2011.  As part of the extension of therapy cap exception process, the legislation also staves off pending cuts of approximately 25% in Medicare payments to physicians required by the current sustainable growth formula which drives the physician fee schedule (and related Part B services such as outpatient therapies) under Part B.  Without such a correction to the physician fee schedule, physician fees were set for the significant reduction on December 18 (Congress had already moved the date back to the 18th from the 1st of December).

The implementation of RUGs IV back to October 1 solves significant headaches for SNFs and CMS.  As difficult as it has been for providers to get up to speed on MDS 3.0 and RUGs IV, the process was significantly complicated by the unknown of how the planned RUGs Hybrid would work and whether CMS would seek to recoup potential overpayments from providers as a result of RUGs IV being used temporarily.  Many providers sought to establish liability accounts on their balance sheets for just such an event, even though estimating the liability was somewhat complex due to the lack of solid information regarding the Hybrid groups coming from CMS. 

Having spoken to a number of people within CMS, the implementation of RUGs IV back to October 1 is a true gift.  There were consistent difficulties in getting the Hybrid grouper to function in conjunction with MDS 3.0 and as such, a growing number of inquiries from the industry bombarded the agency expecting more information.  Even more troubling was the prospect of having to deal with payment recapture; a procedural boondoggle CMS was hoping to avoid.  In the end, I am confident that a number of people at CMS are rejoicing this evening.

On a final note, I wish to offer my personal congratulations to my industry colleagues and the trade associations who lobbied for this victory and to my readers, clients and business partners who required that I kept them informed and in many cases, helped me with additional information and of course, thoughtful inquiries that made me stay on top of this important issue.  This policy victory was long overdue but as the saying goes, “better late than never”.

December 9, 2010 Posted by | Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

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

RUGs III Hybrid

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

Retroactive Adjustments/Overpayment Collections

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

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

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

Establishing a Liability for Overpayments

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

Monitor Performance and Progress

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

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


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

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

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

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

Overview: Difference Between RUGs III and RUGs IV

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

Financial Impacts Under RUGs IV

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

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

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

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

Assessing the Impact of RUGs III to RUGs IV

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

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

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

Important Points to Consider/Remember

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

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

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