In an article for STAT, former FDA Commissioners Scott Gottlieb, MD (left), and Mark McClellan, MD, PhD (right), wrote, “The FDA is currently working from an outdated regulatory playbook that has left gaps in its oversight of safety and effectiveness and makes it more difficult to introduce new innovations. The [VALID Act] would strengthen protections for consumers and patients for both diagnostic tests and cosmetics and make it easier for manufacturers to introduce better products.” (Photo copyrights: FDA/American Well.)
Political Parties Negotiating
At press time, a draft spending bill had not yet been introduced to Congress as lawmakers from both political parties negotiate funding levels.
A source told The Dark Report that until legislators hammer out those details, add-ons such as the VALID Act or SALSA are stalled. There is no guarantee either lab measure will be added to the spending bill.
“We don’t have agreements to do virtually anything,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to reporters on Dec. 6, according to Reuters. “We don’t even have an overall agreement on how much we want to spend,” he added. Reuters reported that Democrats and Republicans in the Senate were $25 billion apart in their proposals.
Congress could also pass a continuing resolution to keep the government open for a short time, which would allow lawmakers more opportunity to negotiate.
Former FDA Chiefs Weigh In
Meanwhile, proponents of the VALID Act have publicly turned the heat up for the bill. For example, STAT recently ran two commentaries—including a joint piece from a pair of former FDA commissioners—in support of the VALID Act.
“The VALID Act would create a consistent standard for all tests, regardless of the kind of facility they were developed in or made in, as well as a modern regulatory framework that’s uniquely designed for the recent and emerging technologies being used to develop tests,” wrote Scott Gottlieb, MD, and Mark McClellan, MD, PhD, in STAT on Dec. 5.
Gottlieb and McClellan served as FDA commissioners from 2017-2019 and 2002-2004 respectively. They both currently serve on various boards for biotech and healthcare companies.
Pathologists, Clinical Lab Directors Express Concerns about VALID Act
Opponents of the VALID Act contend that LDT innovation will be stifled if clinical laboratories, particularly those at academic medical centers, need to spend the time and money to go through formal FDA approval. There is evidence that working pathologists in academic settings have legitimate concerns about the negative consequences that might result if the VALID Act was passed as currently written.
In “Might Valid Act Support Be Waning in Congress?” The Dark Report covered how on June 1 more than 290 pathologists and clinical laboratory directors sent a grassroots letter to a Senate committee asking for a series of concessions to be made for academic medical center labs under the VALID Act.
It is reasonable to assert that the majority of clinical laboratory professionals and pathologists are supportive of the SALSA bill, which would stop the next round of scheduled price cuts—as much as a 15% price reduction to many tests—to the Medicare Part B Clinical Laboratory Fee Schedule (CLFS). That is not true of support for the VALID Act, as currently written. Sizeable segments of the diagnostics industry have taken opposing positions regarding passage of that legislation.
For these reasons, both bills will be closely watched in coming weeks as Congress works to fund the federal government while, at the same time, incorporating a variety of other bills under the omnibus bill, which is a considered a “must pass” by many senators and representatives.
As PAMA brings estimated Medicare reimbursement cuts of up to 30% over the next three years to a range of typically high-volume tests and diagnostics, medical laboratories that wish to stay competitive must understand the needs of managed care payers and learn how to optimize collections, reduce denials, and communicate value effectively or risk their financial health
Recent years have seen major shifts in consolidation, automation, and efficiency analysis to help streamline both workflows and cashflows. However, the threat from the current and coming cuts to Medicare lab test prices will be particularly acute for smaller independent laboratories and hospital/health system lab outreach programs. These labs will continue to feel added strain due to reduced reimbursement across 25 of the most common tests billed to Medicare.
And, that doesn’t account for subsequent cuts, which are estimated to reach nearly 30% over the next three years.
Cost of Service Disparities/In-Network Status Further Impact Clinical Labs
If the CLFS reductions weren’t enough, labs face another threat—managed care and commercial payers aligning with big national laboratories and narrowing networks in an attempt to lower costs and provide maximum return for both patients and shareholders. For smaller and independent laboratories, this represents a double threat.
In the first situation, larger laboratories can offer services at lower costs due to increased automation, batch processing, and other scale advantages. This means that while the lower CLFS rates will impact the financial integrity of larger labs, the actual margin lost is less than that of smaller laboratories and facilities that face higher costs to perform tests and provide services.
Compounding the situation, commercial and managed care payers searching out the best value for their patients and shareholders tend to narrow their networks by excluding many independent clinical lab companies and hospital lab outreach programs, amplifying this inherent disparity and skewing the advantage away from independent providers yet again.
Higher cost providers without a clear understanding of promoting their value to payers could have trouble obtaining in-network status. Yet, failing to obtain in-network status may reduce overall test quantities, further raise prices, and make smaller labs less competitive with larger national laboratories—a dangerous cycle with today’s competitive laboratory landscape.
Shifting Focus and Optimizing Managed Care Reimbursements
As the financial stability of Medicare reimbursements wanes, it is imperative that laboratories look to new methods to further increase efficiency and stabilize cashflows. Once a smaller portion of laboratory revenue, managed care organizations and commercial payers will be of increased importance as overall reimbursement rates continue to shrink in the face of healthcare reform and value-based care.
Special June 26 Webinar: Improving Managed Care Reimbursement Efficiency
Understanding not just what these payers are attempting to achieve for their organization—but also how they structure requirements and processes to support their goals—is an essential element of succeeding in this previously smaller share of the marketplace.
For those interested in learning more about critical concerns regarding managed care payers in the post-2018 CLFS landscape, Pathology Webinars is hosting a 90-minute webinar on Tuesday, June 26, 2018, at 2:00 PM Eastern.
The webinar will include presentations from two experts on a range of topics including:
Actionable steps to absorb the loss of Medicare revenue due to the impact of the 2018 CLFS reductions;
How managed care payers process network status and payments;
Who in the managed care chain of command should receive your value proposition;
How to better align your value propositions, policies, and workflows with the requirements of managed care and commercial payers; and,
Understanding the roles managed care payers expect clinical laboratories and anatomic pathologists to play in managing and reducing unnecessary testing.
The first speaker, Frank Dookie, MBA, will provide an inside look at:
How managed care payers function;
Their requirements and workflows; and,
What they look for when considering network status for a laboratory.
Dookie is a laboratory professional who has worked on the payer side for 28 years. He is passionate about the role that diagnostics play or can play in healthcare, and has spent his career working for instrumentation providers, clinical laboratories, the intermediary space between laboratories and managed care companies, and managed care companies.
The second speaker, Michael Snyder, will bring the entire payment process into sharp focus. He will cover:
Optimizing the collection process;
Identifying the purpose of each step, each review, and each team member involved; and,
Critical points laboratories must address to ensure payment.
Snyder is the Senior Vice President of Network Operations for Avalon Healthcare Solutions, LLC, a firm that provides comprehensive benefit management services to the health plan industry and has more than 30 years’ experience in clinical laboratory management.
Frank R. Dookie, MBA (left), Contracting Executive with a major managed care company in Woodbridge, N.J.; and Michael Snyder (right), Senior Vice President with Avalon Healthcare Solutions in Flemington, N.J., will provide critical insights and actionable details for clinical laboratory and anatomic pathology group leaders who want to ensure future revenues.
An Essential Opportunity to Improve Your Reimbursements
This critical webinar offers anatomic pathology groups and medical laboratory managers essential information and actionable next steps to immediately leverage the potential of managed care payers. Additionally, it provides insider insight to laboratories straining to retain financial integrity as reduced reimbursements and increased regulatory burdens strain budgets and cashflows.
To register for the webinar and see further details about discussion topics, use this link (or copy and paste the URL into your browser: https://pathologywebinars.com/current/managed-care-an-insiders-guide-to-improving-your-reimbursement-efficiency-with-strategies-that-work-626/).
As further Medicare payment reductions over the next three years drive reimbursements even lower, understanding how to capture the positive attention of payers—while working within the rules and policies driving their reimbursement decisions—will be an essential element of successful laboratory management and growth. Register now!
Many experienced industry executives expect this to be the single most financially disruptive event to hit the clinical laboratory profession in more than 20 years. This will not only have a substantial negative financial impact on all labs—large and small—but two sectors of the clinical lab industry are considered to be so financially vulnerable they could cease to exist.
At Greatest Risk of Financial Failure are Community Laboratories
The first sector is comprised of smaller community lab companies that operate in towns and rural areas. These labs are at the greatest risk because they are the primary providers of lab testing services to the nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities in their neighborhoods. And because they have a high proportion of Medicare Part B revenue.
Thus, the expected Medicare price cuts to the high-volume automated lab tests—such as chemistry panels and CBCs (complete blood count) that are the bread-and-butter tests for these labs—will swiftly move them from minimal profit margins to substantial losses. Since these labs have a cost-per-test that is significantly higher than the nation’s largest public lab companies, they will be unable to financially survive the 2018 Medicare fee cuts.
The second sector at risk is comprised of rural hospitals and modest-sized community hospitals. What officials at CMS and their consulting companies overlooked when they created the PAMA (Protecting Access to Medicare Act) private payer market price reporting rule is that these hospitals provide lab testing services to nursing homes and office-based physicians in their service areas.
Because of the low volumes of testing in these hospital labs, they also have a larger average cost-per-test than the big public labs. Thus, the 2018 cuts to Medicare Part B lab test prices will erode or erase any extra margin from this testing that now accrues to these hospitals.
Rural and Small Community Hospitals Rely on Lab Outreach Revenue
The financial disruption these Medicare lab test price cuts will cause to rural and community hospitals is a real thing. These hospitals rely on outreach lab test revenues to subsidize many other clinical services within the hospital. One rural hospital CEO confirmed the importance of lab outreach revenue to her organization. Michelle McEwen, FACHE, CEO of Speare Memorial Hospital in Plymouth, N.H., spoke to The Dark Report in 2012 about the financial disruption that was happening when a major health insurer excluded her hospital’s laboratory from its network.
Speare Memorial is a 25-bed critical access hospital in the central part of the state between the lakes region and the White Mountain National Forest. McEwen was blunt in her assessment of the importance of clinical laboratory outreach revenues to her hospital. “The funds generated by performing these [outreach] lab tests are used to support the cost of providing laboratory services to all patients 24/7, including stat labs for emergency patients and inpatients,” McEwen explained. “These funds also help support other services in the hospital where losses are typically incurred, such as the emergency room and obstetric programs.” (See “Critical Access Hospitals Losing Lab Test Work,” The Dark Report, April 2, 2012.)
All Medical Laboratories Will Suffer Financial Pain from Medicare Price Cuts
But it is not just community lab companies and rural hospitals that are at risk of financial failure as the Medicare Part B cuts are implemented by CMS on Jan. 1, 2018. Any clinical laboratory serving Medicare patients will experience a meaningful drop in revenue. Many larger hospital and health system laboratories are recasting their financial projections for 2018 to identify how big a drop in revenue they will experience and what cost-cutting strategies will be needed to at least break even on their lab outreach business.
This explains why the first big trend of 2018 will be substantial revenue cuts from the Medicare program. It also explains why the second big trend of 2018 will be smart cost-cutting as labs attempt to balance their books and lower spending proportional to the reduced income they project.
Labs Have a Decade of Successful Cost-Cutting, More Cuts are Difficult
Aggressive cost-cutting, however, puts the nation’s medical laboratories at risk for a different reason. For the past decade, most well-run labs have already harvested the low-hanging fruit from obvious sources of cost reduction. They installed latest-generation automation. They re-engineered workflows using the techniques of Lean, Six Sigma, and process improvement.
During these same years, most medical laboratories also reduced technical staff and trimmed management ranks. That has created two new problems:
First, there are not enough managers in many labs to both handle the daily flow of work while also tackling specific projects to cut costs and boost productivity. Basically, these labs are already at their management limit, with no excess capacity for their lab managers to initiate and implement cost-cutting projects.
Second, technical staffs are already working at near peak capacity. Increased use of automation at these labs has reduced lab costs because labs were able to do the same volume of testing with fewer staff. However, the reduced staffs that oversee the lab automation are now working at their own peak capacity. Not only are they highly stressed from the daily routine, they also do not have spare time to devote to new projects designed to further cut costs.
Each Year Will Bring Additional Cuts to Medicare Part B Lab Prices
This is why all clinical laboratories in the United States will find it difficult to deal with the Medicare Part lab test fee cuts that will total $400 million during 2018. And what must be remembered is that, in 2019 and beyond, CMS officials will use the PAMA private payer market price reporting rule to make additional fee cuts. Over 10 years, CMS expects these cuts will reduce spending by $5.4 billion from the current spending level.
Taken collectively, all these factors indicate that many medical laboratories in the United States will not survive these Medicare fee cuts. The basic economics of operating a clinical laboratory say that less volume equals a higher average cost per test and higher volume equals a lower average cost per test.
Medical Labs with Highest Costs Most at Risk of Failure from Price Cuts
What this means in the marketplace is that labs with the highest average cost per test make the least profit margin on a fee-for-service payment. The opposite is true for labs with the lowest average cost per test. They will make a greater profit margin on that same fee-for-service payment.
Carry this fundamental economic principle of medical laboratory operations forward as Medicare Part B lab test fee cuts happen in 2018. Labs with the highest average cost per test will be first to go from a modest profit or break-even to a loss. As noted earlier, the clinical lab sectors that have the highest average cost per test are smaller community labs, along with rural and community hospitals. That is why they will be first to go out of business—whether by sale, bankruptcy, or by simply closing their doors.
Learning How to Cut Lab Costs While Protecting Quality
Every pathologist and lab administrator seeking the right strategies to further cut costs in their lab, while protecting quality and enhancing patient services, will want to consider sending a team from their laboratory to the 11th Annual Lab Quality Confab that takes place in New Orleans on October 24-25, 2018.
Anticipating the greater need for shrewd cost-cutting that also protects the quality of the lab’s testing services, this year’s Lab Quality Confab has lined up more than 51 speakers and 39 sessions. Of particular interest are these extended workshops that come with certifications:
Lab Quality Confab is recognized for its use of lab case studies—taught by the nation’s early adopter lab organizations. Certification classes are available to gain proficiency in the use of Lean methods and Six Sigma tools, such as:
Developing single-piece and small batch workflow to cut TAT and lift productivity.
Given the strong interest in smart ways to cut costs, boost productivity, and balance revenue-versus-cost, registrations for this year’s Lab Quality Confab is running at a record pace. The full agenda can be viewed at this link (or copy this URL and paste into your browser: http://www.labqualityconfab.com/agenda).
Of special interest to lab leaders preparing to stay ahead of the financial impact of the Medicare Part B fee cuts, Lab Quality Confab offers deep discounts for four or more attendees from the same lab organization. This allows your lab’s most effective cost-cutters to see, hear, and learn together, so that when they return they can get a flying start helping you align your lab’s costs to the expected declines in revenue that will happen on Jan. 1, 2018.
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.
Another big question is whether the lobbying of medical laboratory and pathology societies can educate and convince members of Congress to delay and reform the PAMA Final Rule that uses the market price study of what private payers pay for lab tests
The bad news doesn’t stop there. Lab industry observers say that significant numbers of hospital laboratories and independent lab companies are unprepared for the drop in revenue they will experience once the Medicare price cuts take effect. And, with only 157 days remaining before Jan. 1, 2018, medical laboratory executives and pathologists have precious little time to prepare their labs to operate on significantly less Medicare revenue.
PAMA Market Study of What Private Payers Pay for Clinical Laboratory Tests
Blame it on the Protecting Access to Medicare Act (PAMA) of 2014! PAMA directed CMS to conduct a market study of the lab test prices paid by private health insurers, and then use this data to set the prices of the CLFS. As many lab professionals know, CMS spent the last 24 months publishing a final price reporting rule that defined which medical laboratories must report the prices they are paid by private payers, and then collecting that data.
The data reporting period ended on May 31. In coming months, CMS will publish the new CLFS test prices and allow time for public comment.
First Opportunity to See What Private Payers Pay for Medical Laboratory Tests
The first expert to speak is Lâle White, Executive Chairman and CEO of XIFIN, Inc., a health information technology (HIT) company headquartered in San Diego. Annually, White and her colleagues handle as many as 300 million lab test claims for hundreds of their clinical laboratory clients. Also, XIFIN is electronically interfaced with every health insurance plan in the US. These two facts mean that White has essentially the same data their lab clients reported to CMS.
During her presentation, White will show you how her company analyzed the real information from hundreds of millions of medical lab test claims that were reimbursed by thousands of private payers. You are in for a big surprise!
Learn Why Medicare Lab Test Fee Cuts Will Be Deep and Painful
XIFIN’s conclusions are based on real-world data. They demonstrate how the CMS final rule was written to direct the way federal officials calculate and set the 2018 Part B clinical laboratory test prices, and reveal why the fee cuts will be deep and painful for the lab industry’s highest-volume tests. You’ll hear facts about XIFIN’s analysis and learn to use that knowledge to model and predict precisely how deep Medicare’s revenue cuts to your lab will be when the new price schedule becomes effective on Jan. 1.
Lâle White (above left), CEO of XIFIN, Inc., spoke at the Executive War College on Laboratory and Pathology Management last May, where she shared insights about the coming price cuts to the Medicare Part B Clinical Laboratory Fee Schedule (CLFS). Julie Scott Allen (above right) is Senior Vice President of the District Policy Group, Drinker Biddle, and represents the National Independent Laboratory Association (NILA) in Washington, DC. White and Allen will be speaking at a special Dark Daily webinar later this week on the current status of the Medicare fee cuts and how lab executives should respond to protect the financial integrity of their labs. (White photo copyright: The Dark Report. White photo by Linda Reineke. Allen photo copyright: Drinker Biddle.)
Because it is generally agreed that CMS officials will target the top 20 lab tests by volume for the deepest price cuts, the actual revenue drop will depend on your mix of tests and the volume of Medicare patients associated with each test. CMS says it will use the weighted median of the private payer lab test price data to determine its new Part B fees.
However, that is a flawed approach and the source of much criticism.
White will show why the weighted median generates a lower price than the use of a weighted average calculation. You’ll see the direct impact that CMS’ use of the weighted median will have on your lab’s Medicare revenue, beginning on Jan. 1.
Understanding Current Developments at CMS and Within Congress
Allen will give you an up-to-the minute perspective on efforts by the clinical laboratory industry to educate officials within Congress, HHS, and CMS about the consequences of allowing the PAMA final rule price cuts to become effective on January 1, 2018. This is important information you can use to craft strategies to protect your lab’s financial stability. You’ll also recognize opportunities to contact your elected officials in Congress at the time when your input can make an important difference.
The message of many in the Clinical Laboratory Coalition to members of Congress is that, if the PAMA Medicare fee cuts happen as planned, many hospital lab outreach programs and community lab companies in the states and districts of the various Senators and Representatives will probably end up going out of business, filing bankruptcy, or selling to a national lab company.
Behind the Scenes on PAMA Fee Cuts, ACA Repeal-and-Replace
Allen will take you behind the scenes of the inside-the-beltway developments that relate to the coming Medicare Part B clinical laboratory fee cuts. Different players from the clinical laboratory community are in discussions with CMS officials about the need to delay and reform the implementation of these price cuts.
Meanwhile, there are several developments unfolding within Congress that affect clinical laboratories. Yes, one of them is the PAMA final rule on lab price cuts. However, congressional efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are creating opportunities for different medical specialties—including the profession of laboratory medicine—to advocate for needed reforms in their areas of clinical services.
When clinical laboratory and anatomic pathology leaders are informed, they are more effective in two roles:
Protecting the clinical excellence and financial sustainability of their respective laboratories;
Advocating with government officials and lawmakers on the issues that are important to keeping the nation’s laboratories financially viable and key contributors to improving the quality of patient care.