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.

Kusserow on Compliance: Controls working to prevent Medicare Advantage capitation payments after beneficiaries’ death

The OIG released a report that stated CMS policies and procedures were generally effective in ensuring that capitation payments to Medicare Advantage (MA) organizations for Medicare Parts A and B services were not made on behalf of deceased beneficiaries after their death. The Medicare Access and Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2015 requires CMS to establish policies to ensure that payments are not made for Medicare services rendered after death of beneficiaries. In prior audits, the OIG identified problems in controls to prevent these kinds of Medicare payments. In this case, the OIG conducted an audit to determine effectiveness of CMS’s policies and procedures to prevent capitation payments to Medicare Advantage (MA) organizations for Medicare Parts A and B services after individuals’ dates of death.

Details of the audit report noted that during calendar years 2012 through 2015, CMS received updated beneficiary date-of-death information and then made approximately 1.8 million adjustments to capitation payments, thereby recouping $2.96 billion from MA organizations for Parts A and B capitation payments that had been made on behalf of beneficiaries who had died.  However, the OIG found that CMS did not identify and recoup all improper capitation payments. As of March 7, 2017, CMS had not recouped $2.4 million associated with 1,817 capitation payments that were made on behalf of 978 beneficiaries. The OIG noted these improper payments represented .0004 percent of the total capitation payments made to MA organizations and .08 percent of the total adjustments that CMS made after receiving information on beneficiaries’ dates of death.

The OIG recommended CMS (1) move to recoup the $2.4 million in capitation payments made to MA organizations on behalf of deceased beneficiaries and (2) implement system enhancements to identify, adjust, and recoup improper capitation payments in the future. CMS concurred with both of these recommendations and described corrective actions that it had implemented.

 

Richard P. Kusserow served as DHHS Inspector General for 11 years. He currently is CEO of Strategic Management Services, LLC (SM), a firm that has assisted more than 3,000 organizations and entities with compliance related matters. The SM sister company, CRC, provides a wide range of compliance tools including sanction-screening.

Connect with Richard Kusserow on Google+ or LinkedIn.

Subscribe to the Kusserow on Compliance Newsletter

Copyright © 2017 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.

Report finds flaws in proposals for premium support programs in Medicare

The Urban Institute issued a report titled “Restructuring Medicare: The False Promise of Premium Support,” in which the authors attempt to point out the potential flaws in the proposed premium support program in Medicare. The report states that the proposals attempt to model the program off of the arguably successful Medicare Advantage (MA) program, but fail to account for the features of MA that actually make it work. According to the Urban Institute, the proposals also ultimately shift the burden of the rising cost of the Medicare program to the beneficiaries, who are not in a position to shoulder the increased costs.

The proposal

Current Medicare beneficiaries can choose between traditional Medicare, where they have defined benefits covered by specified providers, or MA, where the beneficiary picks from a selection of private plans that have been approved by Medicare and charge close to traditional Medicare costs. A premium support program would allow beneficiaries a fixed-dollar contribution that they could take and apply to the insurance plan they choose in a health insurance marketplace. Beneficiaries could choose a plan that costs more than their Medicare contribution amount, but they would be responsible for paying the difference out of their own pocket. Supporters of this proposed program argue that setting a fixed cost for each beneficiary would reduce government spending and the marketplace would create competition, which would in turn drive down prices.

Burden shifting

Proponents of the premium support plan argue that without the plan, the Medicare program will run out of money, noting that the “CBO projects that between 2017 and 2047, Medicare spending will grow from 3.1 percent to 6.7 percent of GDP.” However, the report argues that the proponents of are focusing on the wrong problem. The aging-in of the baby boom generation is expected to increase Medicare enrollment by about 50 percent by 2030. By focusing on the cost of premiums and restructuring the program to force more beneficiaries to pay more out of pocket, they are shifting the burden of the increase in incoming enrollees to the beneficiaries. Medicare beneficiaries reported an annual median income of about $25,000 in 2012. “Medicare households spent nearly three times as much of their household budgets on out-of-pocket spending as non-Medicare households did” in 2012. A premium support plan could potentially increase the financial burden on those low-income beneficiaries, and force them into plans that they wouldn’t choose otherwise just to alleviate some of that financial burden.

Competitive markets

Proponents argue that forcing insurance plans to submit bids to participate similar to the way MA does would create competition and lead to lower premiums. The government contribution would then be set based on a weighted average of all of the bids for each region. However, premiums can drastically vary within a region and if premiums are higher in an area than the benchmark government contribution for the region, beneficiaries would be forced to pay the difference. The difference between earlier versions of the premium support plan and the current proposals show that the proponents have noted that there would not be an even playing field in all areas and they have attempted to come up with different ways to set the government contribution amount and increase it annually based on different factors. The MA program has an administratively set benchmark government contribution that is based on traditional Medicare spending in each area, which varies significantly compared to the bids.

Providers who bid to participate in MA are aware that there is a billing limit and they will be paid Medicare rates. The premium support plan does not take into account the impact this has on who submits bids and at what rate. In 2013, “CBO found that commercial insurance rates for inpatient hospital services were 89 percent higher than traditional Medicare rates, but Medicare Advantage plan rates for inpatient services were roughly equal to traditional Medicare’s rates.” Private insurers competing with one another in the bidding process are not likely to drop their prices down to Medicare level rates unless limits are placed on the billing of Medicare beneficiaries, similar to the limits in the MA programs. This leaves Medicare beneficiaries effectively priced out of these competing private insurance plans.

Kusserow on Compliance: EHR incentive program attestation is serious business

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) (P.L. 111-5) authorized providing incentive payments to eligible health care professionals, hospitals, and Medicare Advantage Organizations (“MAOs”) to promote the adoption and “meaningful use” of health information technology and electronic health record (“EHR”) systems. CMS established the Medicare and Medicaid Electronic Health Record Incentive Programs (EHR Incentive Programs) to make incentive payments to health care professionals and providers that meet specified requirements for the meaningful use of certified EHR technology (CEHRT). The EHR Incentive Programs are intended to bring about improved clinical outcomes and population outcomes, increase transparency and efficiency in health care, empower individuals to make decisions regarding their care, and generate additional research data on health systems. Program participants must report on their performance pertaining to certain clinical quality measures (CQMs) and objectives to CMS (for Medicare) or the authorized state agency (for Medicaid) through an attestation process. Since 2011, the EHR Incentive Programs have made incentive payments to numerous eligible professionals, eligible hospitals, and critical access hospitals (CAHs) that qualify as “meaningful users” by meeting the objectives and CQMs outlined in the various stages of the applicable programs.

Annual attestations required

Eligible providers must annually attest to meeting the specified objectives and measures in order to receive incentive payments under the EHR Incentive Programs. Once they have attested to meeting the identified objectives and measures, they are deemed to be meaningful users and eligible for incentive payments.  CMS, its contractor, and state Medicaid agencies conduct both random and targeted audits to detect inaccuracies in eligibility, reporting, and receipt of payment with respect to the EHR Incentive Programs.  Eligible hospitals may be selected for pre- or post-payment audits. CMS has required that eligible hospitals retain all supporting documentation used in completing the Attestation Module responses in either paper or electronic format for six years post-attestation. Eligible hospitals are responsible for maintaining documentation that fully supports the meaningful use and CQM data submitted during attestation. Those hospitals undergoing pre-payment audits will be required to provide supporting documentation to validate submitted attestation data before receiving payment.

Unsupported and false attestations

Making false statements, including attestations to the federal government, could implicate federal law (18 U.S.C. § 1001), which generally prohibits knowingly and willfully making false or fraudulent statements or concealing information. Although eligible hospitals receiving incentive payments under the Medicare and Medicaid EHR Incentive Programs are not required to follow any particular parameters when spending the payments, they must annually attest to meeting the relevant measures and objectives in order to be entitled to incentive payments. It is critical that eligible hospitals maintain documentation that supports their attestations.  Supporting documentation needs to make clear that the hospital is meeting the terms and conditions of the EHR Incentive Program. A checklist document by itself would be insufficient as supporting documentation. Failure to maintain such supporting documentation creates potential liability. Although no significant enforcement activity has taken place, compliance officers are advised to verify that proper supporting documentation is maintained.  In fact, the responsible program manager should be maintaining documentation as part of ongoing monitoring. As part of ongoing auditing, the compliance office should ensure that monitoring is conducted and validate that it is adequately meeting regulatory requirements.

Richard P. Kusserow served as DHHS Inspector General for 11 years. He currently is CEO of Strategic Management Services, LLC (SM), a firm that has assisted more than 3,000 organizations and entities with compliance related matters. The SM sister company, CRC, provides a wide range of compliance tools including sanction-screening.

Connect with Richard Kusserow on
Google+ or LinkedIn.

Subscribe to the Kusserow on Compliance Newsletter

Copyright © 2017 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.