Rural hospitals hit hard by reductions in Medicare disbursements, declining population

Approximately 3 percent of all rural hospitals closed in the period between 2013 and 2017, which can affect rural residents’ access to health care services. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) did a study to determine how HHS supports and monitors rural hospitals’ financial viability and rural residents’ access to hospital services. The study also details the number and characteristics of rural hospitals that have closed as well as what is known about the factors that contributed to those closures. According to the GAO report, Medicare Dependent Hospitals and for-profit hospitals were some of the hardest hit by reductions in Medicare disbursements, while hospitals in Medicaid expansion states and states with higher enrollment under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148) were the least affected (GAO Report, GAO-18-634, September 30, 2018).

Rural hospitals

In 2017, 2,250 general acute care hospitals in the United States met the definition of rural. Rural hospitals represented approximately 48 percent of hospitals nationwide and 16 percent of inpatient beds. Rural hospitals spread across 84 percent of the United States land area that is classified as rural and served 18 percent of the United State population that lived in those areas. Rural areas tend to have a higher percentage of elderly residents than urban areas, a higher percentage of residents with limitations in activities caused by chronic conditions, and a lower median household income. Rural areas also face a decreasing population and slow employment growth.

Payment policies and programs

HHS provides key financial support to rural hospitals to provide rural residents access to hospital services through a number of payment policies and programs. CMS administers five rural hospital payment designations, in which rural or isolated hospitals that meet specified eligibility criteria receive higher reimbursement for hospital services than they otherwise would have received under Medicare’s standard payment methodology. The Federal Office of Rural Health Policy (FORHP) administers multiple grant programs, cooperative agreements, and contracts that provide funding and technical assistance to rural hospitals. CMS’s Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation tests new ways to deliver and pay for healthcare. There are also the broader HHS payment policies and programs such as Medicare and Medicaid base payments, Medicare and Medicaid uncompensated care payments, the state innovation models initiative, as well as other targeted HHS payment policy and programs.

Rural hospital closures

An analysis of data shows that from 2013 through 2017, 64 rural hospitals closed. This is more than twice the number of rural hospitals that closed during the prior 5-year period and accounts for more than the share of urban hospitals that closed and more than the number of rural hospitals that opened. Rural hospitals in the South represented 38 percent of the rural hospitals in 2013 but accounted for 77 percent of the rural hospital closures from 2013 through 2017. Medicare dependent hospitals represented 9 percent of the rural hospitals in 2013 but accounted for 25 percent of the rural hospital closures.

For-profit hospitals are twice as likely to experience financial distress relative to government-owned and non-profit hospitals and represented 11 percent of rural hospitals in 2013 but accounted for 36 percent of closures. Bed size also seems to be a factor as rural hospitals with between 26 and 49 inpatient beds represented 11 percent of the rural hospitals in 2013 but accounted for 23 percent of the closures. While critical access hospitals (CAHs), which have 25 acute inpatient beds or less and make up a majority of the rural hospitals, were less likely than other rural hospitals to close. This may be due, in part, to the CAH payment designation.

Contributing factors

Data shows that rural hospital closures were generally preceded and caused by financial distress. This is partially due to a decrease in patients seeking inpatient care at rural hospitals. There are an increasing number of federally qualified health centers or newer hospital systems outside of the area that create increased competition for rural hospitals. Technological advances have also allowed for more services to be provided in outpatient settings. There is also data showing that the years 2010 through 2016 marked the first recorded period of rural population decline.

Rural hospitals are sensitive to changes in Medicare payments because, on average, Medicare accounted for approximately 46 percent of their gross patient revenues in 2016. Reductions in nearly all Medicare reimbursements and reductions in Medicare bad debt payments have contributed to negative margins for rural hospitals.

Medicaid expansion

According to stakeholders that were interviewed and literature that was reviewed, the strongest factor that likely strengthened the financial viability of rural hospitals was the increased Medicaid eligibility and enrollment under the ACA. A 2018 study showed that Medicaid expansion was associated with improved hospital financial performance and a substantially lower likelihood of closure, especially in rural markets. Drops in uninsured rates in 2008 through 2009 and 2014 through 2015 corresponded with states’ decisions to expand Medicaid, with small towns and rural areas seeing the largest increase in Medicaid coverage and decline in uninsured. Data shows that from 2013 through 2017, rural hospitals in states that had expanded Medicaid as of April 2018 were less likely to close compared with rural hospitals in states that had not expanded Medicaid.

Hospitals pay nearly $1 million over ABC television documentary

After allegations that the privacy of patients was compromised by inviting film crews for an ABC television documentary series without first obtaining authorization, three hospitals in Boston have agreed to pay nearly $1 million to settle potential violations. The HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has reached separate settlements with Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), and Boston Medical Center (BMC) for compromising the privacy of patients’ protected health information (PHI) by inviting film crews for an ABC television network documentary series, without first obtaining authorization from patients. Collectively, the three entities paid OCR $999,000 to settle potential violations of the HIPAA Privacy Rule. HHS has also provided specific guidance about the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (P.L. 104-191) and media coverage, including direction that blurring or pixilation is insufficient to protect patient privacy (Resolution Agreement, August 3, 2018; Resolution Agreement, September 6, 2018; Resolution Agreement, September 6, 2018).

Settlements 

To resolve potential HIPAA violations, MCH agreed to pay $515,000, BWH agreed to pay $384,000, and BMC agreed to pay $100,000. Each entity also agreed to provide workforce training as part of a corrective action plan that will include OCR’s guidance on disclosures to film and media. HHS initiated the investigation of BWH based on information in a Boston Globe newspaper article that indicated BWH permitted ABC News to film a medical documentary program at BWH. HHS also initiated of an investigation of MGH based on a news story posted to MGH’s website indicating that ABC News would be filming a medical documentary program at MCH.

This is the second HIPAA case involving an ABC medical documentary television series. In 2016, New York-Presbyterian Hospital entered into a settlement in association with the filming of “NY Med.” “Patients in hospitals expect to encounter doctors and nurses when getting treatment, not film crews recording them at their most private and vulnerable moments,” said Roger Severino, OCR director. “Hospitals must get authorization from patients before allowing strangers to have access to patients and their medical information.”

Guidance on media coverage

HHS reaffirmed that health care providers cannot invite or allow media personnel, including film crews, into treatment or other areas of their facilities where patients’ PHI will be accessible. This includes any written, electronic, oral, or other visual or audio form, or otherwise make PHI accessible to the media, without prior written authorization from each individual who is or will be in the area or whose PHI otherwise will be accessible to the media. It is not sufficient for a health care provider to request or require media personnel to mask the identities of patients. Using techniques such as blurring, pixelation, or voice alteration software for whom an authorization was not obtained is insufficient.

Only in very limited circumstances does the HIPAA Privacy Rule permit health care providers to disclose protected health information to members of the media without a prior authorization signed by the individual. For example, a covered entity may seek to have the media help identify or locate the family of an unidentified and incapacitated patient in its care. The HIPAA Privacy Rule does not require health care providers to prevent members of the media from entering areas of their facilities that are otherwise generally accessible to the public, which may include public waiting areas or areas where the public enters or exits the facility. A health care provider may also utilize the services of a contract film crew to produce training videos or public relations materials on the provider’s behalf if certain protections are in place.

Healthcare.gov enrollment declines; plan affordability a factor

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that in 2018, 5 percent fewer people enrolled in healthcare.gov individual market health insurance plans available on the exchanges than in 2017, most attributable to plan affordability. The GAO noted that premiums increased more than expected in 2018, detracting from enrollment. Conversely, larger tax credits helped exchange enrollment. Additionally, the report found that HHS reduced its consumer outreach for the 2018 open enrollment period (GAO Report, GAO 18-565, July 24, 2018).

Background

The exchanges, established by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-149) allow consumers to enroll during an annual open enrollment period. HHS, along with other agencies, conduct outreach for the open enrollment period to encourage enrollment. The GAO report examined both outreach and enrollment for the exchanges using healthcare.gov.

According to the report, about 8.7 million consumers enrolled in heathcare.gov plans during the open enrollment period for 2018 coverage, five percent less than the 9.2 million enrolled for 2017 coverage. This decline represents a trend from the 2016 plan year, when 9.6 million consumers enrolled in these plans. Moreover, in 2018, enrollees new to healthcare.gov coverage comprised a smaller proportion of total enrollees in 2018 compared to 2017.

Affordability

Plan affordability likely played a “major role” in 2018 exchange enrollment. For example, in 2018, premiums across all healthcare.gov plans increased by an average of 30 percent. The GAO stated that because of the premium increases, plans were less affordable as compared to 2017 for exchange consumers without advance premium tax credits. Most stakeholders interviewed chalked up lower enrollment to decreased affordability of plans.

Although premium affordability reportedly played a role in enrollment, interviews with shareholders revealed that other factors likely affected 2018 healthcare.gov exchange enrollment. Many reported that there was consumer confusion about the ACA and its status, including the possibility or repeal or replace. As a result, the confusion played a “major role” in detracting from 2018 healthcare.gov enrollment. Other shareholders, however, dismissed this viewpoint, pointing to other factors for the decline.

As for consumer outreach, the report revealed that HHS drastically reduced the amount it spent on paid advertising, a 90 percent reduction, compared with advertising spending for the 2017 open enrollment period. Notwithstanding, HHS declared its advertising campaign in 2018 success. The GAO found that HHS reduced navigator funding by 42 percent for the 2018 open enrollment period compared to 2017. According to HHS, this was the result in a shift in its priorities, specifically HHS using a narrower approach and with “problematic data.” This included some consumer application data HHS acknowledged was unreliable and some “navigator organization-reported goal data that were based on an unclear description of the goal, and which HHS and navigator organizations likely interpreted differently.”

No targets

HHS did not set numeric enrollment targets for open enrollment in 2018, as it had in the past. According to the report, the lack of these numeric targets hampered HHS’ ability to evaluate its performance related to the specific open enrollment period, which in turn made it more difficult for HHS to make informed decisions related to its resources.

The GAO recommended that the HHS ensure that the data it uses to determine navigator organization awards is accurate, and recommended that HHS set numeric enrollment targets. Additionally, the GAO recommended that the HHS assess other aspects of the consumer experience. HHS agreed with all but the recommendation to set numeric enrollment targets

Prohibition on paid referrals not limited to ‘relevant decisionmakers’

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the conviction of an individual under the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) (42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b) whose referral agency had provided referrals to a home health company in exchange for $500 per referral. In affirming the lower court’s decision, the Seventh Circuit found that criminal liability under the AKS is not limited to relevant decisionmakers and that no safe harbors applied (U.S. v. George, August 14, 2018, Rovner, I.).

Referrals for money

The referrer was a certified homemaker employed by Help at Home, a home healthcare agency, beginning in 2007. In 2010, she decided to start a referral agency and signed a work for hire agreement with another home health service, Rosner Home Health Care, Inc. (Rosner), in which she agreed to convince providers, including doctors, case managers, discharge planners, and social workers, to refer patients to Rosner. In exchange, Rosner paid the referrer $500 for each patient referred. In 2015, the referrer was indicted and then found guilty of two counts of violating the AKS and one count of violating the general conspiracy statute (see Receipt of per-patient referrals, knowledge of illegality enough to overcome doubt, Health Law Daily, March 25, 2016).

Appeal

Under the AKS, the government must demonstrate that the referrer knowingly and willfully solicited or received remuneration in return for referring an individual to Rosner to provide or arrange services paid at least in part under Medicare. The referrer appealed her conviction arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support the substantive counts of her conviction falling under the AKS. According to the court, rather than merely demonstrate that evidence could have supported a finding of innocence, the referrer must demonstrate on appeal that the evidence could not have allowed a reasonable trier of fact to find her guilty.

Relevant decisionmakers

The referrer argued that she could not be held liable, as the statute applied only to “relevant decisionmakers,” which she was not. In making this argument, the referrer relied on a previous Fifth Circuit decision in which the court held that payments to a marketing firm distributing advertisement brochures of a provider to physicians did not fall within the AKS because they were not payments made to the relevant decisionmaker in exchange for sending patients to the provider. However, the court cited a subsequent case rejecting an interpretation of that case limiting criminal liability to persons would could be deemed relevant decisionmakers.

Safe harbors

The referrer also argued that she had a reasonable basis to believe she fell within the safe harbor provision of the AKS applying to “any amount paid by an employer to an employee (who has a bona fide employment relationship with such employer) for employment in the provision of covered items or services. However, her written agreement with Rosner specifies that she was acting as an independent referral agency, not an employee. The court also noted that the referrer was paid for referrals, not for the provision of items or services covered by Medicare. Thus, the safe harbor provision did not apply.