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.

Four VA facilities weak on controlled substance diversion protections

In recent years, diversion of controlled substances has occurred at several Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities. In fact, in a 2009 and 2014 report, the VA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) identified a number of weaknesses in VA medical facilities’ implementation of controlled substance inspection programs. For example, the VA OIG found that some VA medical facilities had not conducted the required monthly inspections, and when facilities did conduct the monthly inspections, the inspections were sometimes incomplete because they did not follow all of the required Veterans Health Administration (VHA) procedures.

GAO review

As a result of these deficiencies, Congress requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on VHA’s processes to reduce the risk of diversion of controlled substances at its medical facilities and VHA’s oversight of these processes. The report examined: (1) the extent to which selected VA medical facilities have implemented controlled substance inspection programs as required by VHA policies, and (2) VHA’s oversight of these programs at selected VA medical facilities.

Implementation of inspections

The GAO found weaknesses in the way four VA medical facilities were implementing their controlled substance inspection programs. Two of the four facilities did not conduct monthly inspections of controlled substances as required by the VHA. Between January 2015 and February 2016, one facility missed 43 percent of monthly inspections in critical patient care areas and the pharmacy. Further, inspections that three of the four facilities performed did not include or follow three or more of the nine VHA requirements. At two of the three facilities, inspectors did not properly verify that controlled substances had been transferred from VA pharmacies to patient care areas; nor did inspectors ensure that all controlled substances on hold for destruction were properly documented.

Contributing factors

GAO discovered that several factors contributed to the failure to adhere to VHA policy. First, the two facilities that missed inspections lacked an additional control procedure (such as the use of an alternate controlled substance coordinator) to help prevent missed inspections when inspectors could not conduct them due to professional or other personal responsibilities. Second, three of the four facilities did not ensure their written procedures included the nine VHA program requirements. Third, while the VHA relies on coordinators at the facilities to ensure that the inspections are completed appropriately, the GAO found that VHA’s training course for the coordinators does not focus on its required inspection procedures.

Inconsistent oversight

The GAO also found inconsistent oversight at the selected facilities of their controlled substance inspection programs by facility directors and the Veterans Integrated Service Networks to which the facilities report. Directors at two of the four selected VA medical facilities had not implemented corrective actions to address missed inspections identified in the monthly inspection reports. In addition, two of the four selected networks did not review their facilities’ quarterly trend reports, as required by VHA. One network that had reviewed the trend reports failed to follow up with a facility to ensure it had submitted missed trend reports. The GAO concluded that without effective oversight of the inspection programs by directors and networks, VHA lacks reasonable assurance that its programs are being implemented as required to prevent and identify diversion of controlled substances.

Recommendations

The GAO recommended that the Secretary of the VA direct the Under Secretary for Health to:

  • ensure that VA medical facilities have established an additional control procedure, such as an alternate controlled substance coordinator or additional inspectors, to help coordinators meet their responsibilities and prevent missed inspections;
  • ensure that VA medical facilities have established a process where coordinators, in conjunction with pharmacy officials, periodically compare facility inspection procedures to VHA’s policy requirements and modify facility inspection procedures as appropriate;
  • improve the training of VA medical facility controlled substance coordinators by ensuring the training includes the inspection procedures that VHA requires;
  • ensure that medical facility directors have designed and implemented a process to address nonadherence with program requirements, including documenting the nonadherence and the corrective actions taken to remediate nonadherence or the actions that demonstrate why no remediation is necessary; and
  • ensure that networks review their facilities’ quarterly trend reports and ensure facilities take corrective actions when nonadherence is identified.

The VA concurred with the GAO’s recommendations.