Medicare Clinical Laboratory Price Cuts and Cost-cutting Predicted to be 2018’s Two Biggest Trends for Medical Laboratories in the United States
To offset the loss of revenue from the price cuts to Medicare Part B clinical laboratory tests, labs will need to aggressively—but wisely—slash costs to balance their budgets
Any day now, Medicare officials will announce the Medicare Part B Clinical Laboratory Fee Schedule (CLFS) for 2018. Both the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG) have issued reports indicating that these fee cuts will total $400 million just during 2018, which Dark Daily reported on in July.
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:
- Lean Six Sigma Yellow Belt Training and Certification, led by Maureen Harte, MT(ASCP), LSSBB, Master Black Belt, of HartePro Consulting.
- Mastering Strategic Leadership in Pursuit of Clinical Lab 2.0, led by Karan Arora, Senior Global Marketing Director, Digital Health, Abbott Laboratories.
- Getting More from Lean for Lab Leaders: Henry Ford Production System Lean Gold Certification, led by Richard J. Zarbo, MD, DMD, System Chairman, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Henry Ford Hospital.
Sessions will address proven ways to:
- Use real-time analytics to improve workflow in molecular laboratories;
- Introduce automation in microbiology; as well as
- New breakthroughs in core lab automation; and
- Success stories in reducing lab test utilization.
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:
- Value-stream mapping;
- Achieving standard work; and
- 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.
Reserve your place today and register now http://www.labqualityconfab.com/register.
—Robert L. Michel, Editor-in-Chief