News, Analysis, Trends, Management Innovations for
Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

Hosted by Robert Michel

News, Analysis, Trends, Management Innovations for
Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

Hosted by Robert Michel
Sign In

Even Medicare Advisors Recognize the Trend to Treat Patients in Settings Other than Hospitals with New Recommendations to Congress

Shifts to new types of facilities where patients are treated provide clinical laboratories and pathology groups with new opportunities to add value to providers and patients

Two important trends have serious implications for the nation’s traditional hospitals. One is the ongoing shift of patient care from inpatient settings to outpatient providers. The other trend is to proactively manage patients so as to avoid the need for hospitalization. Both trends create challenges and opportunities for medical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups.

Thus, it is significant that one advisory group to the federal government on Medicare and health policy recognizes these trends with the recommendations it made to Congress. In June, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) released its “Medicare and the Health Care Delivery System” report to Congress. It includes proposals that support healthcare’s shift toward outpatient settings and away from in-hospital care. It also makes two recommendations that impact EDs based on their locations (rural versus urban) and proximity to parent hospitals.

MedPAC believes that shifting money/reimbursement toward different sites of care and for different services improves the ability of providers to be proactive and manage patients in ways that support earlier diagnosis and more active management of conditions—all in ways that help avoid acute events that would otherwise send patients to hospitals.

Thus, for clinical laboratories, the message with MedPAC is that other sites of service would get better reimbursement for the above reasons and would want lab services that support the objectives of their providers. And the recommended enrichment of reimbursement for ambulatory evaluation and similar management services would encourage providers to do a better job of ordering the right test and doing the right thing with the results. This gives labs an opportunity to add value.

Ensuring Access to ED Services in Rural Environments

MedPAC is a nonpartisan legislative branch agency that provides the US Congress with analysis and policy advice on the Medicare program. Most of the points the June report makes pertain to the Medicare program in general. However, chapter two of MedPAC’s report addresses payments to emergency departments specifically, including:

  • Increasing Medicare payment rates to isolated rural stand-alone EDs; and,
  • Decreasing payment rates to urban stand-alone EDs located near hospital-based emergency departments.

To ensure rural residents have access to ED services, MedPAC recommends allowing hospitals located more than 35 miles from another ED to convert to stand-alone EDs that would bill under the Outpatient Prospective Payment System (OPPS). Effectively they would become “outpatient-only” hospitals and would receive annual payments to assist with their fixed costs.

In contrast, MedPAC noted an oversupply of emergency services in urban areas, where stand-alone EDs—particularly those affiliated with nearby hospitals—may be shifting services from lower cost urgent care centers and physicians’ offices to higher cost 24/7 stand-alone EDs.

MedPAC reported that outpatient Medicare ED payments increased 72% per beneficiary between 2010 and 2016. A MedPAC press release attributed the growth in off-campus EDs in certain urban locations to “Medicare payment policy [rather] than unmet need for ED services.”

“I think [the MedPAC proposal] is a move in the right direction,” Renee Hsia, MD, MSc, Professor of Emergency Medicine and Institute of Health Policy Studies at the University of California-San Francisco, told Leaders in Health Care. “We have to understand there are limited resources, and the fixed costs for stand-alone EDs are lower.” Hsia co-authored a report titled, “Don’t Hate the Player; Hate the Game,” published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine. In it she argues that “freestanding EDs will continue to proliferate in areas in which there are few restrictions, potentially creating more supply than demand.” (Photo copyright: University of California San Francisco.)

75% of Freestanding EDs within Six Miles of Hospital EDs

In April, MedPAC published an analysis of five healthcare markets—Charlotte, Cincinnati, Denver, Dallas, and Jacksonville, Fla. In “Using Payment to Ensure Appropriate Access to and Use of Hospital Emergency Department Services,” MedPAC showed that 75% of the freestanding EDs were located within six miles of a hospital emergency room. The average drive time to the nearest hospital was 10.3 minutes.

In that report, MedPAC proposed cutting payment rates 30% for off-campus stand-alone EDs located within six miles of an on-campus hospital emergency room. This proposal means off-campus EDs, which have lower standby costs and typically treat patients with less acute medical problems, would receive Medicare payment rates on par with ED facilities open less than 24/7. If the rate change is enacted, MedPAC estimates Medicare would save between $50 million and $250 million annually.

MedPAC’s recommendation drew the ire of the American Hospital Association (AHA) and other hospital industry stakeholders who believe a payment cut could result in off-campus stand-alone EDs closing. The AHA in March submitted a “comment letter” to MedPAC Executive Director James E. Mathews, PhD, calling the proposal “unfounded and arbitrary.”

“The recommendation is not based on any analysis of Medicare beneficiaries, Medicare costs, or Medicare payments, and would make Medicare’s record underpayment of outpatient departments and hospitals even worse,” Joanna Hiatt Kim, Vice President of Policy at the AHA, told Modern Healthcare. “Even more troubling to us is that [the recommendation] has the potential to reduce patient access to care, particularly in vulnerable communities, following a year in which hospital EDs responded to record-setting natural disasters and flu infections.”

This latest report indicates MedPAC believes shifting reimbursement toward different sites of care and for different services improves the ability of providers to be proactive and manage patients in ways that support earlier diagnosis and active management of conditions.

Medical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups should use this opportunity to create lab services that support these objectives and add value to both providers and patients.

—Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

Report to the Congress: Medicare and the Health Care Delivery System

Medicare Payment Advisory Commission Releases Report on Medicare and the Health Care Delivery System

Using Payment to Ensure Access to and Use of Hospital Emergency Department Services

American Hospital Association Comment Letter

MedPAC Votes to Cut Payments for Free-Standing ERs

Congress Urged to Cut Medicare Payments to Many Stand-Alone ERs

Don’t Hate the Player; Hate the Game

MedPAC Issues June 2018 Report to Congress, Including Two Emergency Department Recommendations

More Hospital Closed Due to Empty Beds as Providers Succeed in Reducing Hospital Admissions: Pathologists Should Respond with Outpatient/Outreach Services

With patient care shifting to outpatient clinics and home-based medical care, clinical laboratory managers should beef up outreach lab testing services

Declining patient volume is shuttering hospitals across the United States as hospitals lose patients to ambulatory care centers and home-based medical care. This trend directly impacts the pathologists and medical technologists who work in the clinical laboratories of these hospitals.

Empty Beds Indicator of Failing Hospitals

Most pathologists are unaware that, between 2008 and 2013, nearly 130 community hospitals closed. That left 4,974 hospitals operating in the United States, according to American Hospital Association (AHA) 2015 Hospital Statistics, which are based on data from the 2013 AHA Annual Survey.

It is no surprise that below-average occupancy rates are a common denominator of most failed hospital, noted the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC). The 14 hospitals that closed in 2013 had an average occupancy rate of 34%. This is lower than the 48% average occupancy rate of the hospital nearest to the closing hospital, MedPAC stated in its March 2015 report to Congress. (more…)

As Medical Laboratory Test Utilization Grows, Health Insurers Develop Programs to Manage Rising Costs

After seeing a rise in the volume of clinical lab tests physicians order, managed care plans are develop a variety of strategies to manage utilization and costs

Health insurers are taking more aggressive actions to control the cost of clinical laboratory testing. For many years, clinical laboratories and pathology groups have been concerned about the strategies used by Medicare to control the utilization and costs of medical laboratory tests. Private health insurers usually follow the actions of Medicare, the nation’s largest health insurer. But today, managed care plans are developing their own lab-test-utilization strategies in addition to following those of Medicare.

Recently, Managed Care magazine explained many of the steps health insurers take to keep the costs of clinical laboratory tests under control. The cover story in the October issue of the magazine, “Health Plans Deploy New Systems To Control Use of Lab Tests,” outlined how health insurers Cigna, Group Health Cooperative, Priority Health, and UnitedHealthcare (UHC) are managing lab test utilization. (more…)

Why Congress Is Considering Deep Cuts to Medical Laboratory Test Fees

Nation’s clinical laboratories may see significant reductions in federal funding for medical laboratory tests in the 2012 federal budget

Unprecedented cuts in funding for clinical laboratory services are expected from Congress in coming months. That’s because federal legislators need deep cuts from many sources to cope with the current budget crisis. It is also why some Beltway insiders predict that fees for medical laboratory testing will be substantially reduced.

Although many lab industry associations have alerted their members to certain of these proposals—such as the proposed plan to reinstitute the patient co-pay/co-insurance requirement for Medicare Part B Medical Laboratory Tests—few clinical laboratory managers and pathologists know that there are at least three separate proposals to reduce funding for medical laboratory tests. Each proposal has a chance to make it through the legislative pipeline and become part of the final 2012 federal budget.

CMS Proposes Preauthorization Imaging Services, a Dangerous Precedent for Laboratory Testing

MedPAC recommendation targets high-cost imaging done in physician’s offices

Following the lead of some private insurers, Medicare may soon require preauthorization for high-cost imaging tests—including CT, MRI and PET scans—done in physician offices. This is one of two strategies aimed at reducing payments for Part B physician radiology services that was recommended by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) in its report to Congress in March.

The General Accounting Office (GAO) estimates that preauthorization could save the Medicare program $220 million by 2014 and about $1 billion by 2019. To make preauthorization work, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services would establish a panel of experts, to be known as a Radiology Benefits Managers (RBMs), to assist in evaluating and adjusting payment for potentially overvalued imaging services ordered by physicians with their own imaging facilities.