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Analysis

Financial Penalties in Hospital Readmissions Linked to Higher Mortality

By John Commins  
   December 27, 2018

Nearly $2 billion in penalties have been imposed on hospitals since the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program began in 2012, but a growing number of researchers believe the program is doing more harm than good.

Using financial penalties to reduce hospital readmissions has been linked to a significant rise in post-discharge mortality for patients with heart failure and pneumonia, a new, large-scale study shows.

In an article published this week in JAMA, researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center examined the unintended consequences of the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program, a component of the Affordable Care Act that began in 2012.

Under the HRRP, hospitals have faced financial penalties for higher-than-expected 30-day readmissions for heart failure, pneumonia, and heart attack. Nearly $2 billion in penalties have been imposed on hospitals by the HRRP since 2012. 

"Policy makers had observed that hospital readmissions for these conditions were high and that many of these readmissions were potentially avoidable," study first author Rishi Wadhera, MD, said in comments accompanying the study.

To one extent, HRRP worked. Hospitals made changes to avoid readmissions rates among Medicare beneficiaries and readmissions rates for those three conditions fell. However, a growing chorus of researchers and physicians have raised concerns that the drop in readmissions has led to increased mortality.  

"Some policy makers have declared the HRRP a success because they believe that reductions in readmissions solely reflect improvements in quality of care," Wadhera said. "But the financial penalties imposed by HRRP may have also inadvertently pushed some physicians to avoid readmitting patients who needed hospital care, or potentially diverted hospital resources and efforts away from other quality improvement initiatives."

The researchers examined more than 8 million Medicare fee-for-service hospitalizations from 2005 to 2015. They evaluated mortality among Medicare patients who were hospitalized for heart failure, a heart attack or pneumonia before the establishment of HRRP in 2012.

Then, they compared those trends to determine if there was a significant change in mortality after the HRRP was announced in 2010 and then after the policy was implemented in 2012.

"Even though 30-day post-discharge mortality was increasing among patients hospitalized for heart failure in the years before HRRP was established, we found that the rise accelerated after the policy was implemented," said co-corresponding author Changyu Shen, PhD, senior biostatistician in the Smith Center for Outcomes Research in Cardiology at BIDMC.

The team also found mortality rates among patients with pneumonia were stable prior to HRRP, but began increasing after the HRRP. "Whether the HRRP is responsible for this increase in mortality requires further research, but if it is, our data suggest that the policy may have resulted in an additional 10,000 deaths among patients with heart failure and pneumonia during the five-year period after the HRRP announcement," Shen said.

Readmissions has become a controversial topic among physicians and researchers, with some studies indicating that it leads to a rise in mortality, and other studies indicating that HRRP has improved care delivery.

A study published last month in the American Journal of Medicine showed that HRRP is having a positive impact beyond Medicare beneficiaries and beyond the medical conditions targeted in the initiative.

The primary implication of the research is that health systems and hospitals have made broad improvements to quality of care rather than changes aimed only at Medicare beneficiaries treated for the conditions targeted by HRRP.

“The financial penalties imposed by HRRP may have also inadvertently pushed some physicians to avoid readmitting patients who needed hospital care, or potentially diverted hospital resources and efforts away from other quality improvement initiatives.”

John Commins is a content specialist and online news editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

The researchers examined more than 8 million Medicare fee-for-service hospitalizations from 2005 to 2015, and compared those rates before and after HRRP began in 2012.

They determined that 30-day post-discharge mortality was increasing among heart failure patients before HRRP, but the rise accelerated after HRRP was implemented.

The researchers also found mortality rates among patients with pneumonia were stable prior to HRRP, but began increasing after the HRRP.


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