MedPAC Issues June 2016 Report to the Congress with Chapter on Improving Efficiency and Preserving Access to Emergency Care in Rural Areas
Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC or the Commission) has issued its June 2016 Report to the Congress. The June report includes recommended refinements to Medicare payment systems and identifies issues affecting the Medicare program, broader changes in health care delivery, and the market for health care services.
Chapter 7 focuses on preserving access to emergency care in rural areas. The Commission recognizes that access to inpatient and emergency services in rural areas is threatened because of the dwindling populations. Declining populations can lead to fewer hospital admissions and reduced efficiencies that can create financial and staff problems for hospitals. The Report notes that “[d]eclining volume is a concern because low-volume rural hospitals tend to have worse mortality metrics and worse performance on some process measures.” In addition, “low-volume CAHs have the difficult job of competing with each other for a shrinking pool of clinicians who want the lifestyle of operating an outpatient practice during the day, covering inpatient issues that arise at night, and covering the emergency department.”
Under current policies, most rural hospitals are critical access hospitals (CAHs). They receive a cost-based payment for providing inpatient and outpatient services to Medicare beneficiaries. To receive these payments, a hospital must maintain acute inpatient services. In rural areas, many small towns do not have a sufficient population to support such a model. Yet eliminating these services would mean giving up the supplemental payments that their hospitals receive through the CAH cost-based payment model.
The hospital prospective payment system serves as the payment model for other hospitals. Rural providers receive supplemental payments, which are also linked to providing inpatient services.
MedPAC highlights the concerns with cost-based payment models:
- Cost-based payments do not direct payments toward isolated hospitals having the greatest financial difficulty, but rather reward hospitals in high-income areas with higher non-Medicare margins by providing them with higher Medicare payments.
- Cost-based payments encourage providers to expand service lines with high Medicare and private-payer shares rather than primarily focus on services that are needed on an emergency basis.
- Cost-based models reduce the incentive for hospitals to control their costs, which can lead to unnecessary growth in capital costs, despite declining volumes.
In light of these challenges, MedPAC sets forth a two of options that would give isolated rural hospitals the option of converting to an outpatient-only model while maintaining their special payment arrangements. These models seek to ensure access to essential services:
- Establishing a 24/7 emergency department model; and
- Adopting a clinic with ambulance services model.
Under the 24/7 emergency department model, the hospital would be paid under the outpatient prospective payment rates and would receive an annual grant/fixed payment from Medicare to cover the standby costs associated with 24/7 emergency services. The current supplemental payments would be redirected to support this annual grant/fixed payment amount. If a hospital chose to use inpatient beds as skilled nursing facility (SNF) beds, it would be reimbursed under the Medicare SNF prospective payment system. The hospital could be required to use the fixed payment for emergency standby capacity, ambulance service losses, telehealth capacity, and uncompensated care in the emergency department.
Under the clinic and ambulance model, hospitals could convert their existing inpatient facilities into primary care clinics. These clinics would be “affiliated” with an ambulance service. Medicare would pay the prospective rates for primary care visits and ambulance transports. Medicare would provide an annual grant/fixed payment to support the capital costs of having a primary care practice, the standby costs of the ambulance service, and uncompensated care costs.
The Commission recognizes that the “low population density would also make it difficult to retain primary care providers and support an ambulance service.” It could also be difficult to describe the exact level of primary care and ambulance access that is required to receive the fixed Medicare payment.
MedPAC reiterates its position that “supplemental payments beyond the standard PPS rates should be targeted to isolated rural providers that are essential for access to care.” Thus, it states that a program to support stand-alone emergency departments should be limited to facilities that are a minimum distance in road miles from the nearest hospital.