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Is Medicare readmission policy counter-productive?

 

F. Perry Wilson, M.D., of the Yale Medical School, in this video and text commentary, poses the question of whether Medicare’s hospital-readmission penalty policy is counter-productive.

His answer: Apparently not so far so far it’s vital to consider readmission policies’ off-target effects.

To hear and read his comments, please hit this link.


Nursing-home companies entering insurance business

By JORDAN RAU

For Kaiser Health News

Around the country, a handful of nursing-home companies have begun selling their own private Medicare insurance policies, pledging close coordination and promising to give clinicians more authority to decide what treatments they will cover for each patient.

These plans are recent additions to the Medicare Advantage market, where private plans have become an increasingly popular alternative to traditional fee-for-service coverage. Unlike other plans, these policies offered by long-term care companies often place a nurse in the skilled-nursing facility or retirement village, where they can talk directly to staff and assess patients’ conditions. Some provide primary-care doctors and nurses to residents in the homes or in affiliated assisted living facilities or retirement villages with the aim of staving off hospitalizations.

“The traditional model is making decisions based on paper, and in our model, these decisions are being made by clinicians who are really talking to the staff and seeing the patient,” said Angie Tolbert, a vice president of quality at PruittHealth, which began offering its plan to residents in 10 of its nursing homes in Georgia last year. “It’s a big shift in mindset.”).

Not everyone finds such plans superior. Some patients who are in disputes with the insurers have faulted the nursing home staff — who work for the same company — for not helping challenge decisions about coverage. They complain that the company holds an unfair advantage over Medicare beneficiaries.

“There’s a conflict there,” said Toby Edelman, a senior attorney with the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

In an Erickson Living retirement village in Silver Spring, Md., Faith Daiak signed up for an Erickson Advantage plan sold by a nurse whose office was in the main village building, according to her son, J.J. Daiak. After a bout with the flu last February weakened her enough to need a 10-day hospitalization, she was sent to her village’s skilled-nursing facility. There, the insurer repeatedly tried to cut short her stay.

Erickson Advantage first said it would stop paying for Daiak, 88, because she wasn’t getting healthier in the nursing facility. Her son appealed by pointing out that Medicare explicitly said as part of the 2014 settlement of a class-action lawsuit that patients do not have to be improving to qualify for skilled-nursing care.

Daiak’s appeal was denied, but the issue was sidelined in March when her rapid weight loss in the nursing home sent her back to the hospital, he said.

After Daiak returned to the nursing home with a feeding tube in her stomach, the insurer again tried to curtail her time there, saying she did not need that level of care. The family successfully appealed that decision after noting that Medicare’s manual said feeding-tube maintenance required the skilled care of a nursing facility.

In April, Erickson Advantage again said it would not continue paying for Daiak’s stay. It reversed that decision after Kaiser Health News asked the company about the case, J.J. Daiak said. He said the plan did not explain its turnaround.

Dolphine Williams (left) and Rita Coopersmith visit Faith Daiak in the Riderwood-ArborRidge Skilled Nursing Facility in Silver Spring, Md., on May 12, 2017. (Courtesy of the Daiak family)

While this Medicare Advantage plan touts its “team that knows you personally and wants to help,” J.J. Daiak said he found the registered nurse at Erickson’s Silver Spring community not helpful. “All I see is her trying to get Erickson out of having to pay for the nursing home,” he said. He subsequently switched his mother to traditional Medicare coverage with a supplemental Medigap policy, which she had until this year.

Erickson Living, the parent company of the nursing home and insurer, declined to discuss individual cases but noted that Medicare has given its insurance plans the best quality rating of five stars. In a written statement, the company said that “medical service determinations for Erickson Advantage members are based on reviews by licensed clinical staff and clinical guideline criteria. Our primary focus is always on ensuring that the healthcare being provided for our residents matches a patient’s needs and established clinical treatment protocols.”

Edelman said the dispute was particularly troubling because Erickson’s retirement villages are marketed on the promise that the company will care for seniors in all stages of aging. “They don’t tell you what they won’t pay for,” she said.

Popular Alternative

There are nearly 18 million enrollees in the overall Medicare Advantage market. Medicare pays private insurers a set amount to care for each beneficiary. In theory, this payment method gives the insurers motivation to keep patients from needing costly medical services such as hospitalizations.

A subset of Medicare Advantage plans are designed exclusively for people who either require or are expected to require at least 90 days of skilled services from nursing homes, assisted living facilities or other long-term care institutions. UnitedHealthcare directly offers three-quarters of these plans with about 40,000 enrollees, far more than those offered by nursing-home companies. Matthew Burns, a UnitedHealth spokesman, said the majority of the company’s plans are rated four stars or better on Medicare’s five-star quality scale.

“Our plans offer members quality and peace of mind — and they are considered above average to excellent by CMS quality and performance standards,” he said in a statement.

United also underwrites Erickson’s policies, which have around 200 enrollees, and were the first Advantage plans offered by a long-term care operator. Under the arrangement, Erickson Advantage decides when a nursing home stay is covered.

Nick Williams, PruittHealth’s care integration officer, said its Medicare insurance plan has resulted in 30 percent fewer hospitalizations among residents since it began last year. The company intends to expand the insurance coverage to residents at 42 of its other nursing homes in Georgia. Other nursing-home chains are experimenting with this model in Missouri, South Carolina, Virginia and elsewhere.

Anne Tumlinson, a Washington healthcare industry consultant who specializes in long-term care, said that when a nursing home’s company is on the hook for the cost of hospitalizations of their patients, it is more likely to make efforts to prevent them.

“It gets them out of hospitalizing people at the drop of the hat,” she said. “If you live in a nursing home or are living in assisted living and they have one of these plans going, they’re going to be investing heavily in 24/7 access to primary care.”

She said big insurers have so many different types of enrollees that they are less focused on the particular needs of nursing-home patients. “They’re too big, they’re bureaucratic, and they are insurers, not providers,” she said.

The Costs Patients Face

In Hingham, Mass., Suzanne Carmick has been frustrated with the Erickson plan’s unwillingness to pay for most of her mother’s prolonged stay. Last October, 98-year-old Lorraine Carmick went into Erickson’s nursing home after a hospitalization. Eleven days later, Erickson Advantage notified Suzanne Carmick it would stop paying for the facility because it said her mother was strong enough to move with the help of a rolling walker. Under Medicare’s rules, nursing home stays are not covered if a patient does not need daily physical therapy. Erickson said two or three days was sufficient for Carmick.

Suzanne Carmick appealed the decision, saying Erickson exaggerated her mother’s recovery, noting that she had dementia, an infection and was wearing two stiff leg braces. She said getting therapy five days a week provided in the nursing home would help her mother recover faster.

“She still cannot stand up or sit down or go anywhere … without an aide helping her by pulling her up or setting her in a chair,” Carmick wrote. “She is improving but is now supposed to stop or decrease PT [physical therapy], and she must start paying out-of-pocket?”

After a week’s extension, the nursing home began billing her mother at its daily rate of $463, which rose to $483 this year as Lorraine Carmick remained in the nursing home. A Medicare appeals judge subsequently ruled Erickson’s action was justified, based on the testimony from the nursing-home staff — all Erickson employees. If the insurer had covered a maximum stay, Carmick would have avoided more than $30,000 in bills she now owes. Suzanne Carmick said her mother has been on a wait list for six months for a bed on a less expensive floor in the nursing facility.

“It is a closed system where the skilled-nursing facility, physicians and Medicare Advantage plan are all one and the same,” she said. “The Erickson Advantage plan is turning out to be quite a disadvantage at this point.”

 


Healthcare delivery, not just insurance, must be transformed

A rather simple delivery system.

— Photo by Rudiger Wolk

Beyond the sound and fury over Republican efforts to kill the Affordable Care Act, some providers are renewing calls for healthcare-delivery reform, says a piece in Health Affairs by Robert Pearl, M.D., and Norman Chenven, M.D.  They have led, respectively,  two of the nation’s highest-performing healthcare systems: Kaiser Permanente and the Austin Regional Clinic.  Dr. Pearl is chairman and Dr. Chenven vice chairman of the Council of Accountable Physician Practices.

Among their observations:

“Policymakers who are focused predominantly on how to improve the health care system by providing health insurance coverage will fail unless they simultaneously focus on transforming and modifying the delivery system; otherwise, the cost of providing that care will erode any program they create, whether coverage is provided through private insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, or another method. For this reason, we encourage the new Administration and members of Congress to consult and rely on the nation’s physician leaders, in addition to health insurance executives, to help chart the course for American health care in the future.

“While there are many different ‘levers’ to pull for delivery system improvement, three are absolutely fundamental to bringing about positive change and enhancing the doctor-patient relationship: As a nation we will need to move rapidly from fee-for-service to value-based reimbursement, and from paper and stand-alone computer systems to comprehensive, integrated, and mobile electronic health records. At the same time, we will need to track quality and patient satisfaction in ways that improve clinical outcomes without overly burdening physicians. We believe that all three of these objectives can be accomplished, and that they need to be central to the approaches and legislation currently being contemplated by policymakers.”

They conclude:

“The impending crisis in health care in this country will not be averted, regardless of what happens to the Affordable Care Act, unless as a nation we move from fragmentation to integration, from volume- to value-based payment, and from paper records and stand-alone computers to interoperable and comprehensive electronic ones. If these delivery system issues are ignored in the rancorous debate about health care coverage, then no matter the outcome, the system will fail.”

To read the piece, please hit this link.


Medicare Advantage doesn’t look all that good to some sicker seniors

By FRED SCHULTE

For Kaiser Health News

When Sol Shipotow enrolled in a new Medicare Advantage health plan earlier this year, he expected to keep the doctor who treats his serious eye condition.

“That turned out not to be so,” said Shipotow, 83, who lives in Bensalem, Pa.

Shipotow said he had to scramble to get back on a health plan he could afford and that his longtime eye specialist would accept. “You have to really understand your policy,” he said. “I thought it was the same coverage.”

Boosters say that privately run Medicare Advantage plans, which enroll about one-third of all people eligible for Medicare, offer good value. They strive to keep patients healthy by coordinating their medical care through cost-conscious networks of doctors and hospitals.

But some critics argue the plans can prove risky for seniors in poor or declining health, or those like Shipotow who need to see specialists, because they often face hurdles getting access.ils).

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress, adds new weight to criticisms that some health plans may leave sicker patients worse off.

The GAO report, released this spring, reviewed 126 Medicare Advantage plans and found that 35 of them had disproportionately high numbers of sicker people dropping out. Patients cited difficulty with access to “preferred doctors and hospitals” or other medical care, as the leading reasons for leaving.

“People who are sicker are much more likely to leave (Medicare Advantage plans) than people who are healthier,” James Cosgrove, director of the GAO’s health care analysis, said in explaining the research.

David Lipschutz, an attorney at the Center for Medicare Advocacy, says the GAO findings were alarming and should prompt tighter government oversight.

“A Medicare Advantage plan sponsor does not have an evergreen right to participate in and profit from the Medicare program, particularly if it is providing poor care,” Lipschutz says.

The GAO did not name the 35 health plans, though it urged federal health officials to consider a large exodus from a plan as a possible sign of substandard care. Most of the 35 health plans were relatively small, with 15,000 members or fewer, and had received poor scores on other government quality measures, the report said. Two dozen plans saw 1 in 5 patients leave in 2014, much higher turnover than normal, the GAO found.

Medicare Advantage plans now treat more than 19 million patients, and are expected to grow as record numbers of baby boomers reach retirement age.

Kristine Grow, a spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group, says Medicare Advantage keeps expanding because most people who sign up are satisfied with the care they receive.

She says that patients in the GAO study mostly switched from one health plan to another because they got a better deal, either through cheaper or more inclusive coverage.

Grow says many Medicare Advantage plans offer members extra benefits not covered by standard Medicare, such as fitness club memberships or vision or dental care, and do a better job of coordinating medical care to keep people active and out of hospitals.

“We have to remember these are plans working hard to deliver the best care they can,” Grow says. Insurers compete vigorously for business and “want to keep members for the long term,” she adds.

Some seniors, wary of problems ahead, are choosing to go with traditional Medicare coverage. Pittsburgh resident Marcy Grupp says she mulled over proposals from Medicare Advantage plans but worried she might need orthopedic or other specialized health care and wanted the freedom to go to any doctor or hospital. She’s decided on standard Medicare coverage and paid for a “Medigap” policy to pick up any uncovered charges.

“Everything is already in place,” says Grupp, a former administrative assistant who turns 65 this month.

The GAO report on Medicare Advantage comes as federal officials are ramping up fines and other penalties against errant health plans.

In the first two months of this year, for instance, the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services fined 10 Medicare Advantage health plans a total of more than $4.1 million for alleged misconduct that “delayed or denied access” to covered benefits, mostly prescription drugs.

In some of these cases, health plans charged patients too much for drugs or failed to advise them of their right to appeal denials of medical services, according to government records. Industry watchers predict more penalties are to come.

Last month, CMS officials ended a 16-month ban on enrollment in Cigna Corp.’s Medicare Advantage plans. CMS took the action after citing Cigna for “widespread and systematic failures” to provide necessary medical care and prescription drugs, policies officials called a “serious threat to enrollee health and safety.”

A flurry of whistleblower lawsuits have surfaced, too. In late May, Freedom Health, a Florida Medicare Advantage insurer, agreed to pay nearly $32 million to settle allegations that it exaggerated how sick some patients were to boost profits, while getting rid of others who cost a lot to treat.


C.U.: Famed hospitals don’t fare that well in surgical outcomes

 

Consumers Union (C.U.)  has released figures that suggest that big, famous and expensive hospitals are not necessarily the best for  many surgical-patient outcomes.

The nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine released ratings of 2,463 U.S. hospitals in all 50 states  to rank the quality of surgical care using two measures: the percentage of Medicare patients who died in the hospital during or after their surgery, and the percentage who stayed in the hospital longer than expected based on  the usual standards of care for their conditions. Both are indicators of complications and overall quality of care, said John Santa, M.D., medical director of Consumer Reports Health.

Many nationally renowned hospitals earned only mediocre ratings. Consider that The Cleveland Clinic, some Mayo Clinic hospitals in Minnesota, and Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore, for instance, rated no better than midway between “better” and “worse” on the CU scale, worse than many small hospitals.

The ratings don’t explicitly incorporate such complications  as infections, heart attacks, strokes or other  post-surgical problems. However, Dr. Santa told Reuters that the length-of-stay data captures those problems.

Many teaching hospitals usually found at the top of rankings like those of U.S. News & World Report, fell in the middle.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this sort of surprise,”  Marty Makary, M.D., a surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital and author of the 2012 book, Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won’t Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care.

“For a complex procedure you’re probably better off at a well-known academic hospital, but for many common operations less-known, smaller hospitals have mastered the procedures and may do even better” with post-surgical care.

To read more, please hit this link.


Penn. looks at the hospital superuser challenge

 

In a report whose  substance would probably be  roughly replicated in other states, a Pennsylvania state panel reports that 3 percent of hospitalized patients in Pennsylvania consume a huge proportion of healthcare resources and at a huge total cost: about $1.25 billion a year.

These “superusers” — patients with five or more hospital admissions per year— accounted for 10 percent of all hospital payments in 2016, according to a new report (PDF) by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council (PHC4). They account for 12 percent of hospital admissions and 15 percent of hospital days.

Eighty percent of those payments were for Medicare and/or Medicaid patients.

The three biggest reasons for superusers’ frequent hospital stays were sepsis, heart failure and mental-health disorders. The last, of course, tend to be linked with other ailments. Consider the higher than average incidence of alcoholism, drug addiction and smoking by mentally ill people “medicating” themselves. These pathologies, of course cause many other ailments, especially various cancers and heart and circulatory ailments. And then there are the traffic and other accidents associated with addiction.

Still, there was a ray of good news: The number of superusers dropped  to 21,968 in 2016  from 24,045 in 2012.

Robert Shipp III, vice president for population health strategies for the Hospital and Health System Association of Pennsylvania, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that Keystone State hospitals  have moved to address the superuser problem by, for example advising such patients to visit their primary-care provider, not a hospital, for follow-up care. And increasingly nurses and pharmacists are checking up on patients by phone and visiting them at home.

FierceHealthcare commented:

“Organizations across the country have tried to tackle the problem of high-cost superusers. When the University of Illinois Hospital noticed that its most frequent superusers were chronically homeless patients, it launched an initiative to provide them with furnished apartments and support services. The organization’s $250,000 investment in the program has resulted in a 35% drop in monthly hospital visits and a 40% decrease in the annual cost of their care.”

To read the Pennsylvania panel’s report, please hit this link.

To read The Philadelphia Inquirer’s story, please hit this link.

To read FierceHealthcare’s comment, please hit this link.


Senate panel clears bill to help chronically ill Medicare patients

The Senate Finance Committee has unanimously approved a bill aimed at improving care for Medicare beneficiaries with chronic conditions.

Med Page Today reports that the Creating High-Quality Results and Outcomes Necessary to Improve Chronic (CHRONIC) Care Act of 2017 {whew!} would increase access to telehealth for Medicare beneficiaries with chronic illnesses — including those in Medicare Advantage plans — as well as provide more incentives for enrollees to receive care through accountable care organizations (ACOs). It also would extend the Independence at Home demonstration program to keep people in their homes rather than hospitals, allow reimbursement for more non-health and social services, and extend permanently MA Special Needs plans that target chronically ill beneficiaries.”

“One thing we hear a lot from ACOs is they have trouble keeping beneficiaries in-house rather than going to a provider outside the ACO, and that makes it harder to coordinate their care,” a committee aide told the publication. “This bill says that if you go to a primary care doctor in the ACO, we’ll reduce or eliminate your cost-sharing for that primary care service. That will make beneficiaries stick to the ACO, and bring down their costs.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D.-Ore.), the committee’s ranking member, told MedPage that the measure is “transformative.”

“This is a formal recognition that this package of services — the focus on care at home, the focus on new technology, the expanded role for primary care and prevention, which inevitably leads to more non-physician providers — is the beginning of our push to update the Medicare guarantee. That’s why it’s transformative.”

To read more, please hit this link.


Feds: UnitedHealth overcharged Medicare by $1 billion

By FRED SCHULTE

For Kaiser Health News

The Justice Department on Tuesday accused giant insurer UnitedHealth Group of overcharging the federal government by more than $1 billion through its Medicare Advantage plans.

In a 79-page lawsuit filed in Los Angeles, the Justice Department alleged that the insurer made patients appear sicker than they were in order to collect higher Medicare payments than it deserved. The government said it had “conservatively estimated” that the company “knowingly and improperly avoided repaying Medicare” for more than a billion dollars over the course of the decade-long scheme.

“To ensure that the program remains viable for all beneficiaries, the Justice Department remains tireless in its pursuit of Medicare fraud perpetrated by healthcare providers and insurers,” said acting U.S. Attorney Sandra R. Brown for the Central District of California, in a statement announcing the suit. “The primary goal of publicly funded healthcare programs like Medicare is to provide high-quality medical services to those in need — not to line the pockets of participants willing to abuse the system.”

Tuesday’s filing is the second time that the Justice Department has intervened to support a whistleblower suing UnitedHealth under the federal False Claims Act. Earlier this month, the government joined a similar case brought by California whistleblower James Swoben in 2009. Swoben, a medical data consultant, also alleges that UnitedHealth overbilled Medicare.

The case joined on Tuesday was first filed in 2011 by Benjamin Poehling, a former finance director for the UnitedHealth division that oversees Medicare Advantage Plans. Under the False Claims Act, private parties can sue on behalf of the federal government and receive a share of any money recovered.

UnitedHealth is the nation’s biggest Medicare Advantage operator, covering about 3.6 million patients in 2016, when Medicare paid the company $56 billion, according to the complaint.

Medicare Advantage plans are private insurance plans offered as an alternative to traditional fee-for-service option.

Medicare pays the health plans using a complex formula called a risk score, which is supposed to pay higher rates for sicker patients than for people in good health. But waste and overspending tied to inflated risk scores has repeatedly been cited by government auditors, including the Government Accountability Office. A series of articles published in 2014 by the Center for Public Integrity concluded that improper payments linked to jacked-up risk scores have cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars.

Tuesday’s court filing argues that UnitedHealth repeatedly ignored findings from its own auditors that risk scores were often inflated — and warnings by officials from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) — that it was responsible for ensuring the billings it submitted were accurate.

UnitedHealth denied wrongdoing and said it would contest the case.

“We are confident our company and our employees complied with the government’s Medicare Advantage program rules, and we have been transparent with CMS about our approach under its unclear policies,” UnitedHealth spokesman Matt Burns said in a statement.

Burns went on to say that the Justice Department “fundamentally misunderstands or is deliberately ignoring how the Medicare Advantage program works. We reject these claims and will contest them vigorously.”

A spokesman for CMS, which has recently faced congressional criticism for lax oversight of the program, declined comment.

Central to the government’s case is UnitedHealth’s aggressive effort, starting in 2005, to review millions of patient records to look for missed revenue. These reviews often uncovered payment errors, sometimes too much and sometimes too little. The Justice Department contends that UnitedHealth typically notified Medicare only when it was owed money.

UnitedHealth “turned a blind eye to the negative results of those reviews showing hundreds of thousands of unsupported diagnoses that it had previously submitted to Medicare, according to the suit.

Justice lawyers also argue that UnitedHealth executives knew as far back as 2007 that they could not produce medical records to validate about 1 in 3 medical conditions Medicare paid UnitedHealth’s California plans to cover. In 2009, federal auditors found about half the diagnoses were invalid at one of its plans.

The lawsuit cites more than a dozen examples of undocumented medical conditions, from chronic hepatitis to spinal cord injuries. At one medical group, auditors reviewed records of 126 patients diagnosed with spinal injuries. Only two were verified, according to the complaint.

The Justice Department contends that invalid diagnoses can cause huge losses to Medicare. For instance, UnitedHealth allegedly failed to notify the government of at least 100,000 diagnoses it knew were unsupported based on reviews in 2011 and 2012. Those cases alone generated $190 million in overpayments, according to the suit.

While Medicare Advantage has grown in popularity and now treats nearly 1 in 3 elderly and disabled Medicare patients, its inner workings have remained largely opaque.

CMS officials for years have refused to make public financial audits of Medicare Advantage insurers, even as they have released similar reviews of payments made to doctors, hospitals and other medical suppliers participating in traditional Medicare.

But Medicare Advantage audits obtained by the Center for Public Integrity through a court order in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit show that payment errors — typically overpayments — are common.

All but two of 37 Medicare Advantage plans examined in a 2007 audit were overpaid — often by thousands of dollars per patient. Overall, just 60 percent of the medical conditions health plans were paid to cover could be verified. The 2007 audits are the only ones that have been made public.

CMS officials are conducting more of these audits, called Risk Adjustment Data Validation, or RADV. But results are years overdue.

 


Medicare didn’t follow up on many hospital infection cases

Pathogenic_Infection

By CHRISTINA JEWETT

For Kaiser Health News

 

Almost 100 hospitals reported suspicious data on dangerous infections to Medicare officials, but the agency did not follow up or examine any of the cases in depth, according to a report by the Health and Human Services inspector general’s office.

Most hospitals report how many infections strike patients during treatment, meaning the infections are likely contracted inside the facility. Each year, Medicare is supposed to review up to 200 cases in which hospitals report suspicious infection-tracking results.

The IG said Medicare should have done an in-depth review of 96 hospitals that submitted “aberrant data patterns” in 2013 and 2014. Such patterns could include a rapid change in results, improbably low infection rates or assertions that infections nearly always struck before patients arrived at the hospital.

The IG’s study  was designed to address concerns over whether hospitals are “gaming” a system in which it falls to the hospitals to report patient-infection rates and, in turn, the facilities can see a bonus or a penalty worth millions of dollars. The bonuses and penalties are part of Medicare’s Inpatient Quality Reporting program, which is meant to reward hospitals for low infection rates and give consumers access to the information at the agency’s Hospital Compare website.

The report zeroes in on a persistent concern about deadly infections that patients develop as a result of being in the hospital. A recent British Medical Journal report identified medical errors as the third-leading cause of death in  U.S. hospitals. infections particularly threaten senior citizens with weakened immune systems.

Rigorous review of hospital-reported data is important to protect patients, said Lisa McGiffert, director of the Consumers Union’s Safe Patient Project.

“There’s a certain amount of blind faith that the hospitals are going to tell the truth,” McGiffert said. “It’s a bit much to expect that if they have a bad record they’re going to ’fess up to it.”

Yet there are no uniform standards for reviewing the data that hospitals report, said Dr. Peter Pronovost, senior vice president for patient safety and quality at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

“There are greater requirements for what a company says about a washing machine’s performance than there is for a hospital on quality of care, and this needs to change,” Pronovost said. “We require auditing of financial data, but we don’t require auditing of [health care] quality data, and what that implies is that dollars are more important than deaths.”

In 2015, Medicare and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a joint statement cautioning against efforts to manipulate the infection data. The report said CDC officials heard “anecdotal” reports of hospitals declining to test apparently infected patients — so there would be no infection to report. They also warned against overtesting, which helps hospitals assert that patients came into the hospital with a preexisting infection, thus avoiding a penalty.

In double-checking hospital-reported data from 2013 and 2014, Medicare reviewed the results from 400 randomly selected hospitals, about 10 percent of the nation’s more than 4,000 hospitals. Officials also examined the data from 49 “targeted” hospitals that had previously underreported infections or had a low score on a prior year’s review.

All told, only six hospitals failed the review, which included a look at patients’ medical records and tissue sample analyses. Those hospitals were subject to a 0.6 percent reduction in their Medicare payments. Medicare did not specify which six hospitals failed the data review, but it did identify dozens of hospitals that received a pay reduction based on their reports on the quality of care.

The new IG report recommended that Medicare “make better use of analytics to ensure the integrity of hospital-reported quality data.” A response letter from Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma says Medicare concurs with the finding and will “continue to evaluate the use of better analytics … as feasible, based on [Medicare’s] operational capabilities.”

Questions about truth in reporting hospital infections have percolated for years, as reports have trickled out from states that double-check data.

In Colorado, one-third of the central-line infections that state reviewers found in 2012 were not reported to the state by hospitals, as required. Central lines are inserted into a patient’s vein to deliver nutrients, fluids or medicine. Two years later, though, reviewers found that only 2 percent of central-line infections were not reported.

In Connecticut, a 2010 analysis of three months of cases found that hospitals reported about half — 23 out of 48 — of the central-line infections that made patients sick. Reviewers took a second look in 2012 and found improved reporting — about a quarter of the cases were unreported, according to the state public health department.

New York state officials have a rigorous data-checking system that they described in a report on 2015 infection rates. In 2014, they targeted hospitals that were reporting low rates of infections and urged self-audits that found underreporting rates of nearly 11 percent.

Not all states double-check the data, though, which Pronovost said underscores the problem with data tracking the quality of health care. He said common oversight standards, like the accounting standards that apply to publicly traded corporations, would make sense in health care, given that patients make life-or-death decisions based on quality ratings assigned to hospitals.

“You’d think, given the stakes, you’d have more confidence that the data is reliable,” he said.


Looking at the link of payer type and low-value care

Researchers from The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice examined the connection between payer type and low-value care to determine what effect that insurance design (commercial insurance vs. Medicare) may have on medical overuse and waste.

Among their findings:

  • “The tendency to deliver or avoid low-value care appears largely independent of payer type (Medicare or commercial) and patient population attributes. (Researchers note that the finding suggests that either the difference in anticipated reimbursement is unimportant to providers or that they are ‘unwilling or unable to discriminate by payer type at the point of care.’)
  • “Regions with a high specialist to primary care ratio have more overuse.
  • “Some Hospital Referral Regions may deliver more overuse either as a direct result of higher physician group competition or as an indirect result (more competition results in more fragmentation and redundancy).
  • “The use of the seven low-value services remained relatively consistent over time. However, Vitamin D screening increased substantially during the study period (perhaps as a result of increased public awareness and the promotion of Vitamin D deficiency as a medical concern). In contrast, the use of cervical cancer screening in the over 65 population decreased substantially.
  • “The rate of prescription of opioids for migraine patients is similar in both commercially insured and Medicare populations, but is much more commonly provided than the other Choosing Wisely services examined in the study. (The study’s authors note that study data may not reflect the slight decline in prescription opioid use in response to growing concerns over opioid abuse.)
  • “Finally, the study found that the use of low-value services in both payer types was greater among {groups with} higher proportions of black patients. The researchers note that their finding suggests a concerning ‘potential for double jeopardy in health services receipt among black Americans.’”

To read more, please hit this link.

 


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