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Some hospitals send patients to nightmare nursing homes




For Kaiser Health News

At age 88, Elizabeth Fee looked pregnant, her belly swollen after days of intestinal ailments and nausea. A nurse heard a scream from Fee’s room in a nursing home, and found her retching “like a faucet” before she passed out.

The facility where she died in 2012 was affiliated with a respected San Francisco hospital, California Pacific Medical Center, and shared its name. Fee had just undergone hip surgery at the hospital, and her family, pleased with her care, said they chose the nursing home with the hospital’s encouragement.

Laura Rees, Fee’s elder daughter, said she was never told that the nursing home had received Medicare’s worst rating for quality — one star. Nor, she said, was she told that state inspectors had repeatedly cited the facility for substandard care, including delayed responses to calls for aid, disrespectful behavior toward patients and displaying insufficient interest in patients’ pain.

“They handed me a piece of paper with a list of the different facilities on it, and theirs were at top of the page,” Rees said in an interview. “They kept pointing to their facility, and I was relying on their expertise and, of course, the reputation of the hospital.”

Fee had an obstructed bowel, and state investigators faulted the home for several lapses in her care related to her death, including giving her inappropriate medications. In court papers defending a lawsuit by Fee’s family, the medical center said the nursing home’s care was diligent. The center declined to discuss the case for this story.

The selection of a nursing home can be critical: 39 percent of facilities have been cited by health inspectors over the past three years for harming a patient or operating in such a way that injuries are likely, government records show.

Yet many case managers at hospitals do not share objective information or their own knowledge about nursing home quality. Some even push their own facilities over comparable or better alternatives.

“Generally hospitals don’t tell patients or their families much about any kind of patterns of neglect or abuse,” said Michael Connors, who works at California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, a nonprofit in San Francisco. “Even the worst nursing homes are nearly full because hospitals keep sending patients to them.”

Hospitals say their recalcitrance is due to fear about violating a government decree that hospitals may not “specify or otherwise limit” a patient’s choice of facilities. But that rule does not prohibit hospitals from sharing information about quality, and a handful of health systems, such as Partners HealthCare in Massachusetts, have created networks of preferred, higher-quality nursing homes while still giving patients all alternatives.

Such efforts to help patients are rare, said Vincent Mor, a professor of health services, policy and practice at the Brown University School of Public Health in Providence. He said that when his researchers visited 16 hospitals around the country last year, they found that only four gave any quality information to patients selecting a nursing home.

“They’re giving them a laminated piece of paper” with the names of nearby nursing facilities, Mor said. For quality information, he said, “they will say, ‘Well, maybe you can go to a website,’” such as Nursing Home Compare, where Medicare publishes its quality assessments.

The federal government may change this hands-off approach by requiring hospitals to provide guidance and quality data to patients while still respecting a patient’s preferences. The rule would apply to information not only about nursing homes but also about home health agencies, rehabilitation hospitals and other facilities and services that patients may need after a hospital stay.

“It has a substantial opportunity to make a difference for patients,” said Nancy Foster, a vice president at the American Hospital Association.

But the rule does not spell out what information the hospitals must share, and it has yet to be finalized — more than a year after Medicare proposed it. The rule faces resistance in Congress: The chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., has included it on a list of regulations Republicans should block early next year.

The government has created other incentives for hospitals to make sure their patient placements are good. For instance, Medicare cuts payments to hospitals when too many discharged patients return within a month.

“Hospitals didn’t use to care that much,” said David Grabowski, a professor of healthcare policy at Harvard Medical School. “They just wanted to get patients out. Now there’s a whole set of payment systems that reward hospitals for good discharges.”

But sometimes hospitals go too far in pushing patients toward their own nursing homes. In 2013, for instance, regulators faulted a Wisconsin hospital for not disclosing its ties when it referred patients to its own nursing home, which Medicare rated below average. In 2014, a family member told inspectors that a Massachusetts hospital had “steered and railroaded” her into sending a relative to a nursing home owned by the same health system.

Researchers have found that hospital-owned homes are often superior to independent ones. Still, a third of nursing homes owned by hospitals in cities with multiple facilities had lower federal quality ratings than at least one competitor, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis.

The Lowest Rating
But state inspectors found shortcomings in seven visits to the nursing home between August 2009 and October 2011, records show. Inspectors found expired medications during two visits and, at another, observed a nurse washing only her fingertips after putting an IV in a patient with a communicable infection. Medicare’s Nursing Home Compare gave the nursing home where Elizabeth Fee died one star out of five, meaning it was rated “much below average.” The hospital’s case managers told Fee’s family that the nursing home was merely an extension of the hospital and that “my mother would receive the same excellent quality of care and attention,” said Rees, her daughter.

Just four months before Fee arrived, inspectors cited the nursing home for not treating patients with dignity and respect and for failing to provide the best care. One patient told inspectors that her pain was so excruciating that she couldn’t sleep but that nurses and the doctor did not check to see whether her pain medications were working.

“Nobody listens to me,” the patient said. “I was born Catholic, and I know it’s not right to ask to die, but I want to die just to get rid of the pain.”

Fee ate little and had few bowel movements, according to the state health investigation. Fee’s family had hired a private nurse, Angela Cullen, to sit with her. Cullen became increasingly worried about Fee’s distended belly, according to Cullen’s affidavit taken as part of the lawsuit. She said her concerns were brushed off, with one nurse declining to check Fee’s abdomen by saying, “I do not have a stethoscope.”

On the morning of her death, an X-ray indicated Fee might have a bowel obstruction or other problem expelling stool, the inspectors’ report said. That evening, after throwing up a large quantity of matter that smelled of feces, she lost consciousness. She died of too much fluid and inhaled fecal matter in her lungs, the report said.

Bills Of More Than $150,000
Sutter Health, the nonprofit that owns the medical center and the nursing home, emphasized in court papers that Elizabeth Fee arrived at the facility with a low count of platelets that clot blood. Sutter’s expert witness argued that the near-daily visits from a physician that Fee received “far exceeds” what is expected in nursing home care.In a court ruling, Judge Ernest Goldsmith of the San Francisco Superior Court wrote that Nancy Fee’s younger daughter, Nancy, “observed her mother drown in what appeared to be her own excrement.” Kathryn Meadows, the family’s attorney, said in a court filing that the nursing home’s bills exceeded $150,000 for the three-week stay.

The physician and his medical group have settled their part of the case and declined to comment or discuss the terms; the case against Sutter is pending. California’s public health department fined Sutter $2,000 for the violations, including for delaying 16 hours in telling the physician about Fee’s nausea, vomiting and swollen abdomen. Last year, Sutter closed the nursing home.

A week or so after Fee died, a letter addressed to her from California Pacific Medical Center arrived at her house. It read: “We would appreciate hearing about your level of satisfaction with the care you received on our Skilled Nursing Rehabilitation Unit, the unit from which you were just discharged.”


Outpatient joint replacements pose big threat to hospitals


In the past, people getting total hop or knee replacements have usually been operated on in a hospital inpatient surgical unit, then they remain a few days in the hospital and finally they are are moved to a skilled-nursing or rehab facility or get home health care.

“{T}hat’s starting to change, and tensions are rising between hospitals and orthopedic surgeons as a result. Building on advances in surgical technique, anesthesia and pain control, a small but growing number of surgeons around the country are moving more of their total joint replacement procedures out of the hospital, performing these lucrative operations in outpatient facilities. Some are sending their patients home within a few hours, while others have their patients recover overnight in the surgery center or hospital during 23-hour stays. These surgeons say very few of their patients require skilled nursing, rehab or home healthcare. ”

The publication then  states what might be obvious:

“Moving these procedures to outpatient settings poses a major threat to hospital finances, since total joint replacements are one of the largest and most profitable service lines at many hospitals….The financial threat will be even greater if the CMS changes its rules and allows Medicare and Medicaid payment for these outpatient procedures, which observers expect will happen in the next few years.”
“The migration of total joint replacements to outpatient settings also raises questions about the future of Medicare’s mandatory bundled-payment initiative for inpatient procedures in 67 markets around the country, called the Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement program, which began in April. If the CMS decides to pay for ambulatory procedures, that could undercut the hospital bundling initiative.”


MH TAKEAWAYSThe migration of lucrative joint-replacement surgeries to outpatient settings will cause friction between surgeons and hospitals and raises questions about the premise of Medicare’s new bundled-payment initiative for hospital-based procedures.

Critics ask, so what? “Why would we not encourage the migration to outpatient if the outcome is the same and the cost is lower?” said Jeff Goldsmith, a national adviser to Navigant Healthcare. Goldsmith, a Medicare beneficiary, recently underwent a hip replacement and recovered so quickly he thinks it could have been done on an outpatient basis. “Why preserve the (inpatient bundling) program if the whole point is to save money for Medicare?” he said.

Until recently, outpatient total joint replacements were rare. Most providers and patients thought a several-day hospital stay was needed because of the pain, mobility and infection risks associated with these major surgeries. Now, when patients’ health plans allow it, leading surgeons in this field say they are doing many or most of their joint replacements on an outpatient basis—except for patients who are extremely obese or have unstable chronic conditions. They say even healthy patients in their 70s or 80s can be candidates for outpatient surgery, but careful patient selection is essential.

Many more surgeons are eager to learn these improved clinical processes and start doing joint replacements outside the hospital. “Dr. Hoffman has surgeons and administrators from all over the country come tour and watch our processes two or three times a month,” said Michael Patterson, CEO of the Mississippi Valley Surgery Center, who recommends slow, careful adoption of outpatient procedures. “We advise surgeons that first they need to be able to get patients in and out of the hospital within 24 hours. They can’t go straight from three- to five-day stays to 23 hours.”

The emerging outpatient delivery model is driven by both patients’ and payers’ desire to reduce their costs, increase convenience and satisfaction and diminish the risk of hospital-acquired infections. Orthopedic surgeons say doing joint replacements on an outpatient basis cuts costs nearly in half, although reimbursement is also lower. “People want quality at a reduced cost,” said Dr. Patrick Toy, who has done nearly 250 hip and knee replacements at the outpatient Campbell Clinic in Memphis, Tenn., which he partially owns. “This hits the nail on the head.”

Despite the looming financial threat, many hospitals have not settled on a strategy to address the outpatient migration, particularly where local surgeons have not yet adopted this new practice pattern. In some markets, hospitals and surgeons are starting to collaborate, while in others there may be conflict over who will capture the big dollars from joint replacements, which are surging as the baby boomers move into their creakier years.

“This is coming whether we like it or not, and we have to figure out how to better partner with physician practices to deliver the best care for patients and hopefully protect patient volume for the hospital,” said Kyle Armstrong, CEO of Baptist Memorial Hospital-Collierville, a suburb of Memphis served by Toy’s free-standing surgery center. “I can imagine there will be some areas where it is contentious.” His system has considered buying or partnering in a Memphis outpatient surgery center.

In 2014, 23% of 354 hospitals surveyed by the Advisory Board Co. performed at least some outpatient knee replacements, while 7% performed at least some outpatient hip replacements. Experts say those numbers likely have increased in the past two years as more surgeons and their teams gain confidence with new and improved clinical protocols, making it possible to release patients more quickly.

“More hospitals are starting to move joint replacement into outpatient settings to compete with (free-standing) ambulatory surgery centers,” said Shruti Tiwari, a senior consultant at the Advisory Board. “Patients are warming up to the idea, particularly younger and healthier patients who don’t have time for a three-day hospital stay and a protracted recovery process.”

“The smart, strategic hospital management teams understand they need to get ahead of this, so that when volume shifts out of their buildings they won’t lose patients,” said Brian Tanquilut, a senior healthcare analyst at Jefferies & Co. “That’s why the investor-owned hospital companies are making a big push on surgery centers.”

Even at hospitals that are already collaborating with their surgeons on outpatient joint replacements, executives caution that there are problems making outpatient joint replacements financially viable.

“The current ambulatory reimbursement system isn’t really sufficient to cover the overall cost of care,” said Michael Dandorph, chief operating officer at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. He projects that up to 25% of joint replacements may be done on an outpatient basis within five years if Medicare starts paying for them. “On a single-case basis, we’re taking a revenue hit. But if it produces better outcomes and lowers the cost, that should attract more patients,” he said.

Orthopedic surgeons say that while they would like to collaborate with hospitals on outpatient joint replacements, institutional inertia makes it hard to implement innovative practices that better serve patients.

Dr. Richard Berger performs nearly 800 outpatient total joint replacement procedures a year, split between Rush University Medical Center’s ambulatory surgery unit and the Munster (Ind.) Specialty Surgery Center, a free-standing facility he partially owns. “Even at Rush, which is a great hospital, it’s hard to make changes and try new things,” he said. “At the surgery center, I make one phone call and anything I want to do, I can do.”

“You can control costs so much better in the ambulatory surgery center setting,” said Dr. Alexandra Page, who chairs the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons’ Health Care Systems Committee and whose practice partner has started doing joint replacements in a free-standing outpatient center in San Diego. “That works for everyone but the hospital.”

Some hospitals, such as Rush and CentraCare Health’s St. Cloud (Minn.) Hospital, are responding by working with surgeons to do same-day or

23-hour joint replacement procedures either in hospital-run surgical units or outpatient centers, depending on each patient’s needs. Dr. Joseph Nessler and his colleagues at St. Cloud Orthopedics, a 21-physician independent practice group, are doing more than 300 total joint replacements a year on an outpatient basis, divided between the physician-owned St. Cloud Surgical Center and the hospital. The chosen surgical setting is based on each patient’s medical condition and whether an overnight stay is needed

Coding and definitional issues sabotage ‘wellness visit’ reimbursement


Launched with considerable fanfare, much of Medicare’s seemingly promised payments for “wellness visits” go  unclaimed because of difficult coding and definition issues.

As MedPage Today noted:

“A huge victory in primary care doctors’ quest for better Medicare payment came Jan. 1, 2011, or so they hoped.

“That’s when six pages of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act kicked in, authorizing three novel billing codes so that as many as 33 million beneficiaries enrolled in Medicare Part B could receive ‘annual wellness’ visits to help them thwart disease. Nationally, the amounts are significant, paying from $118 to $174 for each code, and possibly more in some locations.”

“But despite this potential largess for primary care, physicians have been slow to submit claims. For the third year of the new codes, only 12% of eligible beneficiaries had Medicare billings for these services, according to 2013 data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“‘There’s a lot of money and services being left on the table because of the way Medicare has structured this,’ Joseph Scherger, M.D., vice president for primary care at Eisenhower Medical Center, a 48-physician practice in Rancho Mirage, Calif.,  told MedPage Today.

“{T}hese visits are different and separate, instead of being integrated into the flow of care. Now, there’s this awkward separatism that offices have to work around. Patients want to talk about their medical problems, but that ends up violating the intent of wellness visit.”







$39,000-$237,000 for same surgery


The price of a common joint-replacement surgery varies from $39,000 to $237,000 just in Los Angeles, in yet another display of how out of control the U.S. healthcare system is.

Joint-replacement surgeries are Medicare’s most common inpatient procedure. They cost federal taxpayers more than $6.6 billion in 2013.

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