By Jordan Rau | Kaiser Health News
Amid all the turbulence over the future of the Affordable Care Act, one facet continues unchanged: President Donald Trump’s administration is penalizing more than half the nation’s hospitals for having too many patients return within a month.
Medicare is punishing 2,573 hospitals, just two dozen short of what it did last year under former President Barack Obama, according to federal records released Wednesday. Starting in October, the federal government will cut those hospitals’ payments by as much as 3 percent for a year.
Medicare docked all but 174 of those hospitals last year as well. The $564 million the government projects to save also is roughly the same as it was last year under Obama.
High rates of readmissions have been a safety concern for decades, with one in five Medicare patients historically ending up back in the hospital within 30 days. In 2011, 3.3 million adults returned to the hospital, running up medical costs estimated at $41 billion, according to the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
The penalties, which begin their sixth year in October, have coincided with a nationwide decrease in hospital repeat patients. Between 2007 and 2015, the frequency of readmissions for conditions targeted by Medicare dropped from 21.5 percent to 17.8 percent, with the majority of the decrease occurring shortly after the health law passed in 2010, according to a study last year in the New England Journal of Medicine conducted by Obama administration health policy experts.
Some hospitals began giving impoverished patients free medications that they prescribe for their recovery, while others sent nurses to check up on patients seen as most likely to relapse in their homes. Readmissions dropped more quickly at hospitals potentially subject to the penalty than at other hospitals, another study found.
“The sum of the evidence really suggests that this program is helping people,” said Dr. Susannah Bernheim, the director of quality measurement at the Yale/Yale-New Haven Hospital Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation, which measures readmission rates for Medicare.
But the pace of these reductions has been leveling off in the past few years, indicating that the penalties’ ability to induce improvements may be waning.
“Presumably, hospitals made substantial changes during the implementation period but could not sustain such a high rate of reductions in the long term,” the New England Journal article said.
An analysis by Bernheim’s group found no decrease in the overall rate of readmissions between 2012 and 2015, although small drops in the medical conditions targeted by the penalties continued.
“We have indeed reached the limits of what changes in how we deliver care will allow us to do,” said Nancy Foster, vice president for quality at the American Hospital Association. “We can’t prevent every readmission. It could be that there is further room for improvement, but we just don’t know what the technique is to make that happen.”
This year, the average penalty will be 0.73 percent of each payment Medicare makes for a patient between Oct. 1 and Sept. 30, 2018, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis. That too was practically the same as last year. Forty-eight hospitals received the maximum punishment of a 3 percent reduction. Medicare did not release hospital-specific estimates for how much lost money these penalties would translate to.
Continue reading and review readmission data at khn.org.
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