Readmission for Life

Readmissions. A term that has become ingrained in the lexicon of governmental agencies, elected officials, healthcare policy analysts, healthcare provider institutions – and even care providers. The case is made simply enough: it is far less costly to care for someone at home or in a congregate setting than in a hospital. More nuanced, the logic follows that both efficiency and quality can be maximized by utilizing the setting that costs just enough to provide quality outcomes.

And so a lot of money is being spent – by the government in the form of research and testing grants, as well as both for profit and nonprofit healthcare providers, all wanting to better understand how to keep people out of the hospital without impacting their health. Of course, Medicare’s Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program is also providing an incentive as hospitals seek to avoid up to a 3% reduction in Medicare reimbursement.

The Internet is replete with articles and stories on the how and why of reducing readmissions. I have written about the topic extensively on this blog. It has captured my attention because that is where Artower Advisory Services, positions itself: at the intersection of acute and post-acute/long-term care.

I have a growing concern that the dialogue over readmissions is becoming increasingly academic and pedantic. The measures of programming success have not been clearly defined because of the simple reality that success needs to be defined differently for each patient.

People react to environmental stimuli in different ways. Two patients with the same condition and otherwise similar health may be better served in different settings. One patient might have great comfort in being at home – to the extent where their mental state promotes healing faster than in an institutional setting. Another patient may need the real or perceived sense of security from being at the hospital where immediate attention is just down the hall.

In more than a few ways the initiative to reduce hospital readmissions has been an effort to pick the low-hanging fruit. Anecdotally, I am convinced from spending years working with healthcare providers that patients needlessly end up in the hospital because of poor communications, silo operations and the practice of defensive medicine.

There are tremendous opportunities for performance improvement. Along with reducing costs and improving outcomes, however, we must be diligent in developing outcome measures that reflect the subjective reality that every patient is unique.



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.


Update: Hospital Readmissions

Hospital Readmissions continues to be a driving topic of concern, debate and contention in the healthcare industry.  It also continues to be an area of great interest for potential partnerships between acute and post-acute care organizations.  Whether that interest is warranted based upon expected improvement in outcomes and cost reductions remains to be seen.

JAMA Study: Assessing Program Risk
On Tuesday of this week the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study, which looked at the relationship between risk-adjusted mortality and 30-day hospital readmissions.  The reasons for testing this relationship are because of concern that artificial incentives will drive behaviors with unintended consequences.

First, the concern is that hospitals may invest resources to lower readmissions for targeted conditions at the expense of quality care for other conditions.  Second, there is concern that patients may not cared for in an environment that is determined by clinical needs and requirements, but instead by financial considerations.  For those who believe these concern are overstated the results of this research will serve to reinforce their perception. 

Data was analyzed for Medicare beneficiaries admitted to hospitals between July 2005 and June 2008 with a heart attack, heart failure and pneumonia. These are the three conditions hospitals are now being penalized for 30-day readmissions under the Medicare Hospital Readmissions Reduction ProgramAccording to the study, “risk-standardized mortality rates and readmission rates were not associated for patients admitted with an acute myocardial infarction or pneumonia and were only weakly associated, within a certain range, for patients admitted with heart failure.”

RWJ Foundation: Revolving Door
Another report released this week, by the Ro
bert Wood Johnson Foundation, found that hospitals and their partner relationships made little progress from 2008 to 2010 at reducing hospital readmissions for elderly patients.  Using new Medicare data from the Dartmouth Atlas Project, researchers found , “one in eight Medicare patients were readmitted to the hospital within 30 days of being released after surgery in 2010, while one in six patients returned to the hospital within a month of leaving the hospital after receiving medical care. Patients were not significantly less likely to be readmitted in 2010 than in 2008.”

The report also shares findings from interviews with patients and providers that sought to better understand the root causes of patient readmissions.  While some portion of those readmissions were either anticipated or necessary, there were also a significant number of readmissions that could primarily be attributed to non-clinical considerations, such as discharge planning, the individual’s support system, care coordination and the availability of primary care post-discharge.

So what to make of this? Research is continuing to support the hypothesis that cost savings are achievable by creating better alignment of care requirements and care settings without sacrificing quality.  The ways in which providers achieve such savings, however, are no clearer today than they were several years ago.  Also up for debate is whether the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program is providing a meaningful incentive to drive innovation – or whether providers are reacting to market realities (likely some combination thereof).

What does not seem to be up for debate is the reality that proactive healthcare providers are pushing integrated delivery models that seek to facilitate better resource alignment.  Are you one of those organizations?


The Trouble with Avoidable Readmissions

183911-vlcsnap_2010_05_16_21h56m32s5As a Scot (my name is spelled with one, “t” because my father wanted to be sure I never forgot), I remember with both amusement and annoyance a line from the movie, Braveheart: “The trouble with Scotland is that it’s full of Scot’s.” As I see it, the trouble with trying to address healthcare costs through reducing avoidable readmissions is that there are too many readmissions. Bear with me . . .

Avoidable hospital readmissions are the lowest of low hanging political fruit in the Healthcare Reform debate, representing an immediacy of opportunity to impact aggregate healthcare spending for very little political capital in exchange. The means of cost reduction is directly controlled by the Federal government – in the form of Medicare payment reductions. And the organizations identified as the culprit deserving of such reductions are those behemoth institutions of waste and inefficiency: the hospitals (yes, that’s sarcasm).

To be sure, there is substantial evidence where individuals discharged from a hospital stay wind up back in the hospital because of factors and events that could have been avoided. But avoided by whom – how – and at what cost? Healthcare providers of all types that will be impacted by the readmission penalty had better begin to understand the economic ramifications of how these questions are going to be answered.

As has been rather widely publicized – yet from my personal observation, up until just recently still largely ignored – the Affordable Care Act (ACA) included Section 3025: Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program. Section 3025 amended the Social Security Act such that it now requires CMS to reduce payments to IPPS hospitals with excess readmissions, effective for discharges beginning on October 1, 2012 (i.e., in a few weeks). Initially, the Program has established readmission measures for Acute Myocardial Infarction (AMI), Heart Failure (HF), and Pneumonia (PN).

Excess readmission ratios are calculated by comparing national average rates of readmission for patients discharged to a hospital’s individual experience while relying on a methodology endorsed by the National Quality Forum (NQF). I recognize this is a gross oversimplification, but all of the detail you could hope to find is now widely available – whether on the CMS site referenced above or many other organizations that have made such information available on their web sites.

For FY 2013, determination of the excess readmission ratio is based on actual discharges having occurred during the 3-year period of July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2011. According to a Kaiser Health News report, more than 2,000 hospitals will begin to see payment penalties under the program due to patients being readmitted within the 30-day threshold.  The overall anticipated impact of these penalties is approximated to be $280 million over the next year.

Not surprisingly, as with many aspects of the ACA, the Readmissions Program carries with it a great deal of controversy.  Many clinicians, including physicians, who are directly responsible for the care of those individuals represented by the statistics entering into the determination of a readmission penalty feel that readmissions are ultimately driven by acute medical needs – and patients that need to be in a hospital, well, they need to be in a hospital. Simple as that. Better to pay a relatively small penalty than have a patient die trying to avoid it goes the thinking.

Yet those involved in healthcare delivery on all sides (the clinical, the social, the community and the administrative) understand first-hand the reasonable and plausible goal that the Readmissions Program is seeking to address: a reduction in readmissions that are caused by insufficient and/or improper assistance and care available to the individual after being discharged from a hospital; i.e., the avoidable readmission.

Readmissions resulting from the natural progression of a disease state, comorbidities, unexpected and/or negative reactions to post-discharge treatment – there is legitimate concern that the Readmissions Program will interfere with clinicians’ ability to effectively manage their patients’ health in lieu of what are being considered unwarranted and unwelcomed outside influences and distractions. On the other hand, readmissions that result from a decline in condition owing to non-clinical factors, such as personal trauma associated with transferring and transitioning, the failure to follow a prescribed post-discharge treatment regimen (e.g., diet, exercise, medication), the inability to keep medical appointments – these are significant contributors to readmissions that PA/LTC organizations can have a significant impact upon.

But being able to determine cause in individual cases is going to be a monumental challenge that neither the ACA, nor the regulations promulgated for the Readmissions Program, adequately address. It is going to result in a lot of finger pointing on ward floors – and underneath the tables in board rooms. So we are left with two choices: do some more complaining and hope that the ACA is repealed (and replaced by an ultimately very similar Republican approach two or three years from now), or roll up our sleeves and be innovative in spite of the regulatory challenges.

For those PA/LTC organizations wishing to pursue the latter, I suggest they begin to invest immediately in the development of an operational infrastructure that will facilitate their ability to record, monitor and report the requisite data elements that can be used to evidence all of the contributing factors leading to hospital readmissions of the individuals under their care – clearly and unequivocally. Though, in theory, a large part of the impetus for the Readmissions Program is to engage hospitals in having accountability and responsibility for patients’ welfare post-discharge, as a PA/LTC provider I would interpret that reality as being given responsibility without authority.

Remember this: knowledge is power.  Before engaging in any type of contractual agreement with a hospital that ascribes financial responsibility for hospital readmissions, the PA/LTC organization must be in a position of negotiating strength.  That strength will come from the ability to know and understand – before the hospital does – the nature and root cause of a readmission.  Power will also come from the ability to support that understanding with evidentiary support.

The other integrated concept here, of course, is risk management.  The same knowledgebase that can be used to build negotiating strength can be used to mitigate the risks  – market, operational and financial – associated with hospital readmissions.

PA/LTC provider organizations stand to benefit in several ways from the Hospital Readmissions program.  The inherent demand generated by hospitals seeking to have greater control of post-discharge outcomes should be welcomed in light of trends away from institutionalized care.  The stronger voice many PA/LTC clinical staff have sought in dealing with hospital staff is getting a well-deserved boost.  And done wisely, there are new revenue opportunities available at a time when reimbursement is being ratcheted down at every turn.

As discussed above, however, there are also substantial performance risks that will ultimately bring down some organizations before all is said and done.  Don’t be one of those organizations.

  ~ Sparky