In early April, Reed Smith hosted an enlightening, industry-leading conference on post-acute care in Washington, D.C. The conference, entitled “Reed Smith 2014 Washington Health Care Conference: Focus on Post-Acute Care,” brought together a panel of experts to discuss episodic care, bundling models, and alternative payment and delivery systems. The conference also featured other speakers who presented from the perspective of investors and Capitol Hill, along with a keynote address from American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Dr. Norman Ornstein.
Policy Discussion on Payment Models
The conference started with a panel discussing bundling initiatives and other alternative payment models. The panel featured Barbara Gage, Ph.D., Fellow and Managing Director of Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform at the Brookings Institution; Judy Feder, Ph.D., Professor at Georgetown University; Vincent Mor, Ph.D., Professor at Brown University School of Medicine; and James Michel, Director for Medicare Research & Reimbursement at the American Health Care Association (“AHCA”). The panel brought with them decades of experience in health care policy and research, and a deep knowledge of post-acute care providers’ current reimbursement systems, in addition to models expected to reform payment for post-acute services in the future.
Dr. Gage spoke first, and introduced bundling by discussing the triple aim adopted by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”): achieve better care for patients, better communities’ health, and lower costs by improving the health care system. She explained how new payment models—including bundled payment initiatives and accountable care organizations—strive to accomplish the above-mentioned triple aim. Gage discussed whether the post-acute setting in which a patient receives treatment distinguishes the patient’s outcome and the level of resources that different post-acute settings (e.g., home health, skilled nursing facilities (“SNF”), inpatient rehabilitation facilities (“IRF”), or long-term acute care hospitals (“LTCH”)) furnish to patients. Gage described in great detail the arguments in favor of bundled payments, emphasizing that one of the benefits of a bundled payment model is that it forces communication across all care settings.
Dr. Feder, on the other hand, urged caution as reimbursement moves to new models. She stressed that bundled payment models, for example, create powerful incentives to potentially reduce or limit the care furnished to patients, and therefore could result in reduced quality of care. Feder explained that bundling is not new, and that, e.g., payers have bundled in the inpatient hospital setting for 30 years. Feder pointed out that when Medicare implemented diagnosis-related groups in the inpatient hospital prospective payment system, hospital length of stay “dropp[ed] like a stone.” Feder underscored that the biggest challenges arise from patients whose health is deteriorating, and explained that the number of home health visits, for instance, are the lowest when patient acuity is the highest. In order to ensure adequate, appropriate, and high-quality care for patients, Feder suggested that policymakers thoughtfully develop and implement any new payment system over time, and incorporate quality mechanisms that serve to protect patients. Feder suggested that good patient data and strong accountability measures are essential to any bundled payment program.
After Feder spoke, Dr. Mor took the podium and analogized capitation versus fee-for-service as being “between the devil and the deep blue sea.” He further explained that fee-for-service reimbursement models have encouraged runaway costs and increased utilization, and that there is a lack of provider accountability and responsibility. In contrast, he explained that in capitation reimbursement models, there is an inherent incentive to deny care. Mor discussed how policymakers can ensure patients receive quality care from providers, and raised a number of thought-provoking questions, such as whether a SNF or other post-acute provider should be responsible for rehospitalization after the discharge of a patient, and whether low rehospitalization reflects overall high-quality care. Mor urged the development of a common assessment tool that includes hospital assessment data in order to more accurately measure post-acute quality and case-mix. He also recommended that CMS use the “Welcome to Medicare” assessment and other periodic beneficiary assessments to obtain risk profiles for patients. Mor ended his presentation by suggesting that while capitation models—such as bundling—are preferable to fee-for-service because one entity is responsible for patients’ care, capitation models face challenges as well, including how to properly measure case-mix and outcomes.
James Michel from AHCA noted the operational challenges associated with bundled payments. For example, it is difficult for post-acute providers to assume the responsibility for patients after the post-acute provider discharges a given beneficiary. Michel also stated that the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation Bundled Payments for Care Improvement initiative’s models incentivize low-cost providers to participate, but providers who recognize they have higher costs than the community average will not participate because of the risk that they will miss the spending target, resulting in a payment to the government. Michel noted that AHCA has developed its own bundled payment proposal, in part to preserve a process in which patients and their families can decide where the patient should be treated after an acute stay. The AHCA bundled payment proposal includes four proposed episodes (e.g., major respiratory condition and septicemia) that would account for approximately 60 percent of all SNF care and more than 50 percent of all post-acute care.
Wall Street Perspective
Jay Barnes, a Senior Vice President for Healthcare Investment Banking at Jefferies, LLC, spoke from the Wall Street perspective, addressing the current appetite for deals in the post-acute space. He described a tepid outlook for post-acute investment stemming from the uncertainty of the future payment models and the changing regulatory landscape, particularly with regard to LTCHs. He informed attendees that the private equity market has been non-existent in the post-acute space because it is challenging to create projection models when future reimbursement for post-acute care remains murky. He explained that the post-acute transactions occurring are largely driven by real estate. For example, Barnes described the recently announced Emeritus Senior Living and Brookdale Senior Living merger as driven by real estate.
Cate McCanless, Senior Policy Analyst at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, provided an insightful overview of Medicare activity on Capitol Hill. She explained that Congress has focused on post-acute care because of the perceived “comfortable” margins achieved by post-acute providers (according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission). McCanless also described the outlook for the discussion draft of the Improving Medicare Post-Acute Care Transformation (“IMPACT”) Act of 2014, released by the House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Ranking Member Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), along with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), March 18, 2014. The IMPACT Act draft includes one measure discussed by Mor during the bundling panel: the reporting of common data across post-acute providers, and the required reporting by acute-care hospitals of patient assessment data gathered in advance of discharge. McCanless also explained that while there has been some Congressional momentum in eliminating Medicare’s sustainable growth-rate (“SGR”) formula in order to move to an alternative payment model, such momentum may lose steam this year now that a temporary patch has been enacted, because eliminating the SGR would be expensive, and it is an election year. McCanless pointed out certain post-acute policy proposals that would result in cost savings, such as reducing the SNF payment update by 1.1 percent, which would save an estimated $12 billion, and equalizing certain payments for SNFs and IRFs, which would save an estimated $1 billion; these provisions could be targets for offsets for future Medicare reforms.
Impact of Political Polarization on Health Policy
Dr. Norman Ornstein, noted observer of Congress and politics, and keynote speaker at Reed Smith’s inaugural Health Care Conference, closed the session with a thoughtful discussion regarding the current state of American politics. He described not just the polarization, but also the tribalism, of American politics today, depicting a broken American political system where opposing parties have adopted a mantra of, “if you support it, I am against it.” Despite Ornstein’s bleak description of the current state of politics, he offered some suggestions for reform, including incentivizing citizens to vote. He argued that if more of the American public is engaged, politicians must meet in the middle on at least some policy debates.
In all, the inaugural Reed Smith Health Care Conference led to provocative discussions and a deeper understanding of the political climate and policy recommendations likely to impact—or even transform—post-acute care in the not-so-distant future. We look forward to next year’s conference.