Readmission Realities

The topic of Hospital Readmissions has evolved into a primary point of discussion and debate within the nation’s lexicon of Healthcare Reform, most notably through broadly accessed media outlets not typically associated with in-depth reporting on medicine and healthcare. As often happens, by the time such a topic traverses the tipping point of being newsworthy it will have actually been around for quite a while in  smaller though certainly no less important academic circles.

As an example, Dr. Elliott Fisher and colleagues were sharing their research findings on hospital readmissions back in 1994 in the New England Journal of Medicine. Using Medicare claims data they studied discharge patterns in Boston and New Haven between October 1987 and September 1989. What they found was that, “hospital-specific readmission rates varied substantially …” and that “no relation was found between mortality (during the first 30 days after discharge or over the entire study period) and <sic> either community or hospital-specific readmission rates.”

In their conclusions they noted that, “regardless of the initial cause of admission, Medicare beneficiaries who were initially hospitalized in Boston had consistently higher rates of readmission than did Medicare beneficiaries hospitalized in New Haven. Differences in the severity of illness are unlikely to explain these findings. One possible explanation is a threshold effect of hospital-bed availability on decisions to admit patients.”

In other words, despite what is  understandably a popular media association, identification, concern and debate over whether and how reducing hospital readmissions represents a prudent means of lowering healthcare expenditures without impacting quality or outcomes is not a phenomenon borne of the Affordable Care Act. More importantly for my purpose here, understanding the history of hospital readmissions as a policy topic is to understand and accept the challenges associated with developing public policy intended to incent reductions.  And of course, the primary case in point here is Section 3025 of the Affordable Care Act, the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP).

I believe there is justifiable concern with the HRRP, particularly in the realm of unintended consequences. But I also believe those concerns have thus far tended to be self-serving and inflated when compared to the potential benefits. I addressed these points just about a year ago in the post, Is Focus on Hospital Readmissions Misguided? That was in reaction to another article published in NEJM, Thirty-Day Readmissions – Truth and Consequence. Now fast forward to an article published this past week in the NEJM, A Path Forward on Medicare Readmissions. Are you getting the sense that the hospital readmissions topic is nothing if not complex and contentious?

In this latest contribution to the subject, authors Drs. Karen Joynt and Ashish Jha identify two recent developments that provide insights into how HRRP implementation appears to be playing out.  The first was a MedPAC report evidencing a decrease in national rates of readmission for all causes, from 15.6% in 2009 to 15.3% in 2011. The second is an emerging recognition, based on CMS reports, that hospitals most susceptible to financial penalties under the HRRP are also those most likely to provide care for individuals with complex and/or expensive healthcare needs. In other words, this suggests that HRRP implementation has the potential to provide a financial disincentive leading to disparities in care availability.

Rather than chucking the HRRP as a policy failure, however, the authors suggest an approach that is quite admittedly conceptually foreign to a government characterized by intransigence and stubbornness: they suggest modifying the program in reaction to what is learned during implementation. Specifically, they first suggest adjusting readmission rates for socioeconomic status. Second, they suggest weighting the HRRP penalties according to the timing of the readmission to better recognize the potential causes of that readmission. And finally, they suggest an offsetting credit be given for comparatively lower mortality rates in recognition of hospitals – e.g., large teaching hospitals – where readmission rates are more likely to be an expected consequence of keeping their sickest patients alive.

The authors correctly point out that, “no policy is ever perfectly designed at inception, and policies should be changed as new evidence emerges.” At the same time, we should be cognizant where policies reach too far or are impractical in their design. For example, the UK’s National Health System (NHS) Medical Director, Bruce Keogh, announced this past Friday that hospitals there will face future reduction in fees for failing to follow the latest clinical guidance (i.e., quality standards).

In my thinking, there is both a philosophical as well as practical difference between policies that provide financial incentive through measuring health outcomes versus measuring the means and methods of achieving those outcomes. But if our aim is to develop a healthcare system that leverages the productivity and efficiency advantages of market-based solutions, while guarding against the market failures inherent to healthcare, we will need to be vigilant in avoiding the slippery slope of policy dysfunction.


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