Either way, if Medicare is allowed to run dry, millions of patients (most among the elderly) may be unable to receive critical care, including clinical laboratory testing and pathology.
“The Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund, or Medicare Part A, which helps pay for services such as inpatient hospital care, will be able to pay scheduled benefits until 2028, two years later than reported last year. At that time, the fund’s reserves will become depleted,” the 2022 Medicare Trustees Report states, which draws its data from a US Treasury Department fact sheet.
“The progressively worse imbalance of expenditures versus revenues will exhaust the trust funds in 2028,” Weems wrote, adding that one of two payment scenarios will likely happen:
Medicare may pay bills on a “discounted basis,” which means if expected revenues are 85% of expenditures, then Medicare would pay bills at 85% of the amount, or
Medicare may put bills aside until it has the money from tax dollars.
“And then (Medicare would) pay them on a first-in-first-out basis,” Weems wrote, adding, “At the time of insolvency, that current Administration would have to pick its poison.”
For hospital clinical laboratory leaders and pathologists who provide care to Medicare beneficiaries, neither approach would be satisfactory. And a solution for funding Medicare Part A beyond 2028 needs to be crafted to ensure hospitals are paid on a timely basis.
But what should it be?
Medicare Funding Scheme is ‘Flawed’
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), the amount of money Medicare needs to cover the deficit between 2028 through 2031 (the period studied in the trustees’ projections), is estimated at $247.4 billion.
Medicare is supported by employers and employees, who each pay a 1.45% tax on earnings, KFF explained. Balancing the fund supporting Medicare Part A requires either an increase of .70% of taxable payroll or a 15% reduction in benefits, KFF estimated.
“Medicare will not cease to operate if assets are fully depleted, because revenue will continue flowing into the fund from payroll taxes and other sources,” KFF noted.
However, the current set-up of Medicare trust funds (one for Part A and another funded differently for Medicare Part B, which includes outpatient coverage such as medical laboratory tests), is “flawed” and needs updating to enable reform.
“Medicare beneficiaries whose deaths were identified as related to COVID-19 had costs that were much higher than the average Medicare beneficiary prior to the onset of the pandemic,” the 2022 Medicare Trustees report noted.
“The surviving Medicare population had lower morbidity, on average, reducing costs by an estimated 1.5% in 2020 and 2.9% in 2021. This morbidity effect is expected to continue over the next few years but is assumed to decrease over time before ending in 2028.”
In his 4Sight Health article, Weems suggested that the Medicare reform deadline was bumped to 2028 from 2026 due to fewer people living and able to access Medicare in coming years.
“Let’s honor those seniors by using the time for real Medicare reform,” Weems wrote.
Hospital laboratory managers and pathologists will want to keep a watchful eye on Congress’ handling of the 2022 Medicare Trustees Report. Though it is unlikely the nation’s decision-makers will act on the report during an election year, pressure to develop a solution to meet the funding needs of Medicare Part A hospital care beyond 2028 will start to build in 2023.
Medical laboratories and anatomic pathologists may need to squeeze into narrow networks to be paid under value-based schemes, especially where Medicare Advantage is concerned
Pathologists have likely heard the arguments in favor of value-based payment versus fee-for-service (FFS) reimbursement models: FFS encourages providers to order medically unnecessary procedures and lab tests. FFS removes incentives for providers to order patient services more carefully. Fraudsters can generate huge volumes of FFS claims that take payers months/years to recognize and stop.
Studies that favor value-based payment schemes support these claims. But do hospitals and other healthcare providers also accept them? And how is value-based reimbursement really doing?
To find out, Chicago-based thought leadership and advisory company 4Sight Health culled data from various organizations’ reports that suggest value-based reimbursement shows signs of growth as well as signs of stagnation.
“Physician compensation continues to emphasize volume more than value.
“Availability and use of data-driven tools to support physicians in practicing value-based care continue to lag.
“Existing care models do not support value-based care.”
Deloitte analysts wrote, “Physicians increasingly recognize their role in improving the affordability of care. We repeated a question we asked six years ago and saw a large increase in the proportion of physicians who say they have a prominent role in limiting the use of unnecessary treatments and tests: 76% in 2020 vs. 57% in 2014.
“Physicians also recognize that today’s care models are not geared toward value,” Deloitte continued. “They see many untapped opportunities for improving quality and efficiency. They estimate that even today, sizable portions of their work can be performed by nonphysicians (30%) in nontraditional settings (30%) and/or can be automated (18%), creating opportunities for multidisciplinary care teams and clinicians to work at the top of their license.”
Hospital CFOs Also See Opportunities for Value-based Care
This could be problematic for clinical laboratories, according to Robert Michel, Editor-in-Chief of Dark Daily and our sister publication The Dark Report. According to Guidehouse, “Nearly 60% of health systems plan to advance into risk-based Medicare Advantage models in 2022.”
Medicare Advantage (MA) enrollments have escalated over 10 years: 26.4 million people of the 62.7 million eligible for Medicare chose MA in 2021, noted a Kaiser Family Foundation brief that also noted MA enrollment in 2021 was up by 2.4 million beneficiaries or 10% over 2020.
“The shift from Medicare Part B—where any lab can bill Medicare on behalf of patients for doctor visits and outpatient care, including lab tests—to Medicare Advantage is a serious financial threat for smaller and regional labs that do a lot of Medicare Part B testing. The Medicare Advantage plans often have networks that exclude all but a handful of clinical laboratories as contracted providers,” Michel cautioned. “Moving into the future, it’s incumbent on regional and smaller clinical laboratories to develop value-added services that solve health plans’ pain points and encourage insurers to include local labs in their networks.”
Medical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups need to be aware of this trend. Michel says value-based care programs call on clinical laboratories to collaborate with healthcare partners toward goals of closing care gaps.
“Physicians and hospitals in a value-based environment need a different level of service and professional consultation from the lab and pathology group because they are being incented to detect disease earlier and be active in managing patients with chronic conditions to keep them healthy and out of the hospital,” he added.
Value-based reimbursement may eventually replace fee-for-service contracts. The change, however, is slow and clinical laboratories should monitor for opportunities and potential pitfalls the new payment arrangements might bring.