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: Inappropriate denial of services and payments in the Medicare Advantage program

In an update to its Workplan, the HHS office of Inspector General (OIG) added a new project in June. The OIG Office of Evaluation and Inspection will be reviewing and evaluating the question of inappropriate denial of service and payment in the Medicare Advantage program. Medicare Advantage Plans must cover all of the services that original Medicare covers. Capitated payment models are used for these plans. It is based on payment per person rather than payment per service provided. A central concern about the capitated payment model used in Medicare Advantage is that there may be an incentive to inappropriately deny access to, or reimbursement for, health care services in an attempt to increase profits for managed care plans. There have been questions raised as to whether some of the plans may be inappropriately denying service claims as a means to increase their profits.  The OIG plans to conduct medical record reviews to determine the extent to which beneficiaries and providers were denied preauthorization or payment for medically necessary services covered by Medicare. To the extent possible, we will determine the reasons for any inappropriate denials and the types of services involved.

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.

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Copyright © 2018 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.

CY 2019 Medicare Part C and D policy changes and updates finalized

CMS has issued a Final rule making revisions to the Medicare Advantage (MA) (Part C) and prescription drug benefit (Part D) programs based on its continued experience in the administration of these programs and to implement certain provisions of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016 (CARA) (P.L. 114-198) and the 21st Century Cures Act (P.L. 114-255). The major provisions of the Final rule include: (1) the implementation of the CARA provisions governing the establishment of drug management programs, (2) revisions to timing and method of disclosure requirements for MA and Part D plans, and (3) preclusion list requirements for prescribers in Part D and individuals and entities in MA, cost plans, and Programs of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) (Final rule, 83 FR 16440, April 16, 2018).

On November 28, 2017, CMS published the Proposed rule (see Proposed CY 2019 Part C and D changes address opioid misuse and numerous other policy concerns, Health Law Daily, November 17, 2017). While this Final rule finalizes several of the provisions from the Proposed rule, there are a number of provisions from the Proposed rule that CMS intends to address later and a few that it does not intend to finalize. These provisions are discussed in the Final rule.

CARA provisions

CARA includes new authority for Part D plans to establish drug management programs effective on or after January 1, 2019. This Final rule establishes a framework under which Part D plan sponsors may establish a drug management program for beneficiaries at risk for prescription drug abuse or misuse, or “at-risk beneficiaries.” Specifically, under drug management programs, Part D plans will engage in case management of potential at-risk beneficiaries, through contact with their prescribers, when such beneficiary is found to be taking a specific dosage of opioids or obtaining them from multiple prescribers and multiple pharmacies who may not know about each other. Sponsors may then limit at-risk beneficiaries’ access to coverage of controlled substances that CMS determines are “frequently abused drugs” to a selected prescribers or network pharmacies after case management with the prescribers for the safety of the enrollee.

CMS also limits the use of the special enrollment period (SEP) for dually- or other low income subsidy (LIS)-eligible beneficiaries by those LIS-eligible beneficiaries who are identified as at-risk or potentially at-risk for prescription drug abuse under such a drug management program. Finally, these provisions will codify the current Part D Opioid Drug Utilization Review (DUR) Policy and Overutilization Monitoring System (OMS) by integrating this current policy with drug management program provisions.

The purpose of these CARA drug management program provisions is to create a lock-in status for certain at-risk beneficiaries. In addition to the benefits of preventing opioid and benzodiazepine dependency in beneficiaries, CMS estimates, in 2019, a reduction of $19 million in Trust Fund expenditures because of reduced opioid scripts. This $19 million reduction modestly increases to a $20 million reduction in 2023.

Timing and method of disclosure requirements

CMS is finalizing changes to align the MA and Part D regulations in authorizing CMS to set the manner of delivery for mandatory disclosures in both the MA and Part D programs. CMS will use this authority to allow MA plans to meet the disclosure and delivery requirements for certain documents by relying on notice of electronic posting and provision of the documents in hard copy when requested, when previously the documents, such as the Evidence of Coverage (EOC), had to be provided in hard copy. CMS is also changing the timeframe for delivery of the MA and Part D EOC to the first day of the Annual Election Period (AEP), rather than 15 days prior to that date.

Allowing MA and Part D plans to provide the EOC electronically will alleviate plan burden related to printing and mailing and reduce the number of paper documents that enrollees receive from plans. In addition, changing the date by which plans must provide the EOC to enrollees will (1) allow plans more time to finalize the formatting and ensure the accuracy of the information in the EOC, and (2) separate the mailing and receipt of the EOC from the Annual Notice of Change (ANOC), which describes the important changes in a patient’s plan from one year to the next.

CMS estimates that 67 percent of the current 47.8 million beneficiaries will prefer use of the internet versus hard copies. This will result in a savings to the industry of $54.7 million each year, 2019 through 2023, due to a reduction in printing and mailing costs.

Preclusion list requirements for prescribers and providers

The Final rule rescinds the current regulatory requirement that prescribers of Part D drugs and providers of MA services and items must enroll in Medicare in order for the drug, service, or item to be covered. Instead, a Part D plan sponsor will be required to reject, or require its pharmacy benefit manager to reject, a pharmacy claim for a Part D drug if the individual who prescribed the drug is included on the “preclusion list.” Similarly, an MA service or item will not be covered if the provider that furnished the service or item is on the preclusion list.

The preclusion list will consist of certain individuals and entities that are currently revoked from the Medicare program under 42 CFR sec. 424.535 and are under an active reenrollment bar, or have engaged in behavior for which CMS could have revoked the individual or entity to the extent applicable if they had been enrolled in Medicare, and CMS determines that the underlying conduct that led, or would have led, to the revocation is detrimental to the best interests of the Medicare program.

CMS estimates that for 2019, the preclusion list provision will save providers $34.4 million. For 2020 and future years, there will be no savings. The $34.4 million in savings to providers arises because of removal of the requirement of MA providers and suppliers and Part D prescribers to enroll in Medicare as a prerequisite for furnishing health care items and services. Part C providers and suppliers will save $24.1 million in reduced costs while Part D providers will save $10.3 million in reduced costs.

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.