Healthcare industry watchdog Group Leapfrog says that if CMS suppresses the data “all of us will be in the dark on which hospitals put us most at risk”
For some time, hospitals and clinical laboratories have struggled with transparency regulation when it comes to patient outcomes, test prices, and costs. So, it is perplexing that while that Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) pushes for more transparency in the cost of hospital care and quality, the federal agency also sought to limit public knowledge of 10 types of medical and surgical harm that occurred in hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And even though the CMS announced in its August 1 final rule (CMS-1771-F) that it was “pausing” its plans to suppress data relating to 10 measures that make up the Patient Safety and Adverse Events Composite (PSI 90), a part of the Hospital-Acquired Condition (HAC) Reduction Program, it is valuable for hospital and medical laboratory leaders to understand what the federal agency was seeking to accomplish.
According to USA Today, medical complications at hospitals such as pressure ulcers and falls leading to fractures would be suppressed in reports starting next year. Additionally, CMS “also would halt a program to dock the pay of the worst performers on a list of safety measures, pausing a years-long effort that links hospitals’ skill in preventing such complications to reimbursement,” Kaiser Health News reported.
The proposed rule’s executive summary reads in part, “Due to the impact of the COVID-19 PHE on measure data used in our value-based purchasing (VBP) programs, we are proposing to suppress several measures in the Hospital VBP Program and HAC Reduction Program … If finalized as proposed, for the FY 2023 program year, hospitals participating in the HAC Reduction Program will not be given a measure score, a Total HAC score, nor will hospitals receive a payment penalty.”
In a fact sheet, CMS noted that its intent in proposing the rule was neither to reward nor penalize providers at a time when they were dealing with the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, new safety protocols for staff and patients, and an unprecedented rise in inpatient cases.
Groups Opposed to the CMS Proposal
Like healthcare costs, quality data need to be accessible to the public, according to a health insurance industry representative. “Cost data, in the absence of quality data, are at best meaningless, and at worst, harmful. We see this limitation on collection and publication of data about these very serious safety issues as a step backward,” Robert Andrews, JD, CEO, Health Transformation Alliance, told Fortune.
The Leapfrog Group, a Washington, DC-based non-profit watchdog organization focused on healthcare quality and safety, urged CMS to reverse the proposal. The organization said on its website that it had collected 270 signatures on letters to CMS.
“Dangerous complications, such as sepsis, kidney harm, deep bedsores, and lung collapse, are largely preventable yet kill 25,000 people a year and harm 94,000,” wrote the Leapfrog Group in a statement. “Data on these complications is not available to the public from any other source. If CMS suppresses this data, all of us will be in the dark on which hospitals put us most at risk.”
Leah Binder, Leapfrog President/CEO, told MedPage Today she is concerned the suppression of public reporting of safety data may continue “indefinitely” because CMS does not want “to make hospitals unhappy with them.”
“We agree with CMS that it would be unfair to base hospital incentives and penalties on data that have been skewed by the unprecedented impacts of the pandemic,” said Akin Demehin, AHA Senior Director, Quality and Safety Policy, in a statement to Healthcare Dive.
Though CMS’ plans to limit public knowledge of medical and surgical complications have been put on hold, medical laboratory leaders will want to stay abreast of CMS’ next steps with this final rule. Suppression of hospital harm during a period of increased demand for hospital transparency could trigger a backlash with healthcare consumers.
The Joint Commission opposed the Medicare proposal, and patient advocate groups say rescinding it is a setback for hospital transparency
Powerful interests arrayed against greater transparency in the performance of hospitals, physicians, and medical laboratories have stopped a proposed Medicare program that would have allowed the public to see the results of hospital inspections.
CMS originally called the proposal “groundbreaking” in a National Public Radio (NPR) article. That’s because it would have enabled consumers to view reports that private accreditation organizations, such as The Joint Commission, complete after each inspection. Inspection reports contain information on errors and problems found during hospital surveys. CMS’ push for more transparency in hospital inspections is consistent with the healthcare industry’s trend toward open sharing of healthcare quality, price, and other data.
“We are proposing changes relating to transparency of accrediting organizations survey reports and plans of correction of providers and suppliers,” CMS officials wrote in a proposed rule published on April 28.
CMS Pulls Back Proposal to Make Hospital Survey Reports Public
But it was not to be. After receiving comments, CMS officials stated in early August that the agency had pulled back the proposal.
“CMS is committed to ensuring that patients have the ability to review the findings used to determine that a facility meets the health and safety standards required for Medicare participation. However, we believe further review, consideration, and refinement of this proposal is necessary to ensure that CMS establishes requirements, consistent with our statutory authority, that will inform patients and continue to support high quality care,” noted a CMS fact sheet.
Agencies Find Problems in Hospitals That Accreditors Do Not, CMS Declares
It’s against federal law for CMS to release data related to hospital inspections, Becker’s Hospital Review reported. And, as part of the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA), clinical laboratories must participate in inspections to ensure they qualify for Medicare and Medicaid payments. However, the inspection reports of the nation’s medical laboratories are not made public.
So, what motivated CMS to make healthcare organizations’ inspection information public? CMS noted that private accreditation organizations miss serious provider problems that state inspectors find in follow-up visits to hospitals, ProPublica explained.
In fact, state agency reviews of 103 hospitals in 2014 found 41 serious deficiencies, including 39 missed by the accreditors, noted the NPR article.
The chart above based on Johns Hopkins research was compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics and reported by The Washington Post. It shows that medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the US. (Photo copyright: The Washington Post.)
“Right now, the public has very little information about the places where they’re putting their life on the line, and that’s just not acceptable. If [they are] a good place, what are they afraid of?” Rosemary Gibson, Senior Advisor at The Hastings Center, stated in the NPR article.
Reaction from Accreditors and Consumer Groups Differs
The Joint Commission opposed the CMS proposal. And, now, patient safety advocacy groups are disappointed about the decision by Medicare officials to rescind the proposed program.
“We believe the proposal will have significant detrimental consequences on our nation’s ability to continually improve the delivery of healthcare services,” stated Mark Chassin, MD, FACP, MPP, MPH, Joint Commission President and Chief Executive Officer, in a June letter to CMS published partially in an HCPro blog post.
HCPro, a firm that aids organizations in accreditation, credentialing, and other needs, noted the following Joint Commission concerns about publicly shared survey reports in the blog post:
Providers may be less likely to be open about opportunities for improvement;
Accreditors could struggle to create new standards;
The number of non-accredited facilities may increase;
Accreditation may be devalued; and,
Costs to providers and accreditors would likely rise.
“Knowing that survey [inspection] reports are public knowledge will only incentivize hospitals and other healthcare entities to go back to the days of ‘hiding’ quality of care issues from accreditors, rather than working with us to improve the quality and safety of care rendered to patients,” CIHQ advised in the ProPublica article.
The Leapfrog Group, which bills itself as an advocate of hospital transparency, called the reversed proposal “a disappointing setback for healthcare transparency.”
In a statement, Leah Binder, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Leapfrog Group, noted, “We are disappointed to learn that the agency that runs Medicare (CMS) has reversed course on its proposal to require private accrediting organizations, such as the Joint Commission, to publicly release reports of problems they found in hospitals and other healthcare facilities. The public deserves full transparency on how the healthcare industry performs.”
So, for the time being, it appears that what is found during hospital inspections will stay within the inspection report and will not become available to the general public. However, with consumers expecting greater transparency and higher levels of service in all aspects of healthcare, the interest in public access to the quality performance of hospitals, physicians, clinical laboratories, and anatomic pathology groups will only increase.
While multiple studies show reference pricing is an effective approach to reduce the cost of testing and procedures, medical laboratories and consumers alike must continue to focus on quality to ensure positive outcomes
That issue of The Dark Report also highlights a similar use of reference pricing by CalPERS (California Public Retirement System) that involved hip and knee replacement surgeries. CalPERS saw a 30% reduction in the cost of these surgeries after 12 months.
These highly publicized efforts have fueled interest in how reference pricing might work for other businesses, insurers, and the US government. The 2014 Protecting Access to Medicare Act (PAMA) is already collecting private payer rates paid to laboratories for tests. This data will then be used to create new rate-based fee schedules in 2018.
Speaking with Joseph Burns, Managing Editor of The Dark Report, about the outcome and potential rise of reference pricing, study author James C. Robinson, PhD, of University of California Berkeley noted that, “Any discussion about how to contain inappropriate healthcare utilization is challenging. By contrast, significant price variation is the low-hanging fruit. Employers would much rather save money by having patients travel to cheaper clinical labs than get into some esoteric discussion about whether a clinical procedure is appropriate or not.”
Quality is Key to Both Avoiding Price Erosion and Improving Patient Outcomes
“Differences among providers in quality can eliminate any cost advantages,” stated Binder in the Forbes article. “Some purchasers assume they can get around this problem by targeting reference pricing only for procedures that don’t vary in quality. When quality is all the same, decisions can pivot on price alone. Unfortunately, no such procedures exist. Extreme variation is the hallmark of our healthcare system.”
As reference pricing continues to force more consumers to shoulder a portion of medical laboratory testing costs, prices for more expensive laboratories are likely to continue eroding unless they can convince consumers that their services are higher quality or produce better results. (Graphic copyright: California Public Retirement System.)
Binder cites a study in Spine Journal’s April 2017 issue regarding diagnostic error rates for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The study involved a 63-year-old woman seeking relief from low back pain. Over a three-week span, she received 10 different scans. These scans resulted in 49 different findings. Of these findings, none were repeated across all 10 scan reports provided to her physician.
“As a result,” the study’s authors concluded, “where a patient obtains his or her MRI examination, and which radiologist interprets the examination, may have a direct impact on radiological diagnosis, subsequent choice of treatment, and clinical outcome.”
Binder reinforced this, stating, “Purchasers should still pursue reference pricing and try to incorporate considerations of utilization and quality to the extent they have the data. Never assume any procedure is like a commodity—largely the same quality everywhere.”
High-Cost Medical Laboratories Likely to Face a Decision Between Volume or Price Erosion
Thus, for pathology groups and medical laboratories in the upper percentiles for their region, referencing pricing is likely to impact volume. Even if adoption of reference pricing by payers or self-insured business groups remains stable, price cuts due to PAMA loom on the horizon. As reported by Dark Daily in December 2016, price cuts to the Part B clinical laboratory fee schedule could add up to $400 million in reduced Medicare payments in 2018 alone.
This is particularly troublesome for hospital laboratory outreach programs, where Medicare patients commonly represent 40% to 70% of outreach lab volumes. The combination of reduced volume and reduced Medicare pricing could have dire financial consequences.
It will remain essential for medical laboratories to differentiate their services from those of lower-cost competitors to avoid volume and price erosion. Continuing to optimize test utilization, improving laboratory efficiency, and emphasizing the value of services rendered will help to further strengthen lab positions and reduce the impact of coming change.
“Clinicians have a choice: Seize the momentum of the value movement to finally get rewarded for excellence, or recite tired political talking points that minimize your life’s work,” Binder stated in an editorial she penned for Modern Healthcare. “Value will succeed either way, but it will be so much better infused with the knowledge and gifts of practicing providers.”
Many clinical laboratory managers and pathologists know that the Leapfrog Group carries quite a bit of clout in healthcare. Its members include some of the largest corporations in the United States. Collectively, Leapfrog’s members provide health benefits to more than 37 million Americans in all 50 states, and spend tens of billions of dollars on healthcare each year, according to this 2009 Leapfrog Group Fact Sheet. This is why health insurers, hospitals, and physicians pay attention to Leapfrog’s programs and public statements.
“If all hospitals implemented just the first three of Leapfrog’s four ‘leaps’ (our recommended quality and safety practices): over 57,000 lives could be saved, more than 3 million medication errors could be avoided, and up to $12.0 billion could be saved each year,” states the fact sheet.
Physician Opposition to Value-based Reimbursement Models Will Backfire
Leapfrog’s Binder argues the value-based reimbursement movement will succeed for three reasons:
2. Private insurers also are transitioning their payment models, with 40% of commercial payments linked to value, up from 9% a year earlier. In addition, consumers, who are paying more out of pocket, are increasingly sensitive to value.
3. Big data is enabling quality to be quantified. Binder pointed to the leadership of the National Quality Forum (NQF) and others in showing “we can defensibly measure the quality side of the value equation.”
Binder warns that arguments made in the name of clinicians to denounce specific quality measures can backfire. In particular, she pointed to a studypublished in the BMJ that concluded clinicians have little impact on the “standardized mortality ratio,” therefore they should not be held accountable for it.
“Here’s the damaging assumption in the study: The only way physicians or nurses improve patient survival is by avoiding killer mistakes. Surely clinical skill impacts mortality more than that,” Binder stated in her Modern Healthcare editorial.
Similarly, Binder pointed to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that also minimized the impact of clinicians. The study compared how United States hospitals scored on CMS composite safety measures versus alternative measures the researchers invented based on process quality composites. She summarized the findings as stating, “Some hospitals excel on the invented quality composites but fail on the CMS safety composite. Illogically, the researchers conclude that the CMS safety composite is flawed. One might just as well conclude that the researchers’ composites are flawed.”
“Ultimately, this paints a dismal portrait of individual clinicians. … If you excel on some but not all measures, the measures are wrong and you don’t excel at anything,” she stated.
Leapfrog Group CEO Leah Binder is urging healthcare professionals to embrace the move toward value-based reimbursement and rethink their opposition to quality measures that reward high-quality patient care. “Clinicians have a choice: Seize the momentum of the value movement to finally get rewarded for excellence, or recite tired political talking points that minimize your life’s work,” Binder says. (Photo copyright: Aaron Eckels/Crain’s Detroit Business.)
Leapfrog Group Advocates Transparency for Both Insurers and Patients
The Leapfrog Group was formed in 2000, a year after the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM’s) landmark report on medical errors, “To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System,” in which the IOM estimated that preventable medical errors caused 44,000 to 98,000 deaths annually, with an associated cost of $17 billion to $29 billion.
The watchdog organization operates out of Washington, D.C. and is made up of more than 170 of the nation’s largest purchasers of healthcare, including:
Through its annual hospital surveys and research, the non-profit urges insurers and patients to use transparency to improve the safety and quality of the healthcare system.
The Leapfrog Group’s movement for transparency has grown to include more than 1,700 hospitals that participate in its annual survey on safety, quality, and resource use. In 2015, a record 1,750 hospitals submitted a survey, representing 46% of hospitals nationwide. It also has focused attention on reducing early elective deliveries, launched a pay-for-performance program, and designed a Hospital Safety Score to help consumers to make better healthcare decision.
Providers Should Seek Transparency
While negotiations about quality measures have reached a fever pitch, Binder would like to see providers insist on transparency and accountability for their patients, a step she says would validate clinicians’ work and expertise.
“While thoughtful critiques of measures are important, politically-motivated denial of measures is destructive in unintended ways,” Binder stated in her editorial for Modern Healthcare. “It often follows the unfortunate pattern of these studies in assuming that providers perform at essentially the same level of quality and/or their actions can’t be linked to patient survival or healing,” she observed.
“If all physicians and nurses believed their work had such modest impact, the burnout problem might be even worse,” continued Binder. “People who choose a career in healthcare tend to be bright, competitive and caring, and they won’t last long if they believe their talents make virtually no difference.”
As noted above, since the Leapfrog Group represents many of the major purchasers of healthcare, Binder’s recent comments should grab the attention of pathologists and clinical laboratory executives. They would do well to anticipate continued calls for more quality and more measurement of quality in healthcare as the movement toward value-based reimbursement marches on. Contributing value to hospitals, physicians, and payers is quickly becoming the new paradigm for clinical laboratories and pathology groups.
That’s not news to pathologists, who often see how physicians mis-order or mis-interpret clinical laboratory tests
Each month, one out of seven Medicare patients is injured or killed by their healthcare providers. These medical errors cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year. And, that doesn’t even include the cost of follow-up care for the injured patients who survive.