Tagged Medicare

Countless Homebound Patients Still Wait for Covid Vaccine Despite Seniors’ Priority

Opening another front in the nation’s response to the pandemic, medical centers and other health organizations have begun sending doctors and nurses to apartment buildings and private homes to vaccinate homebound seniors.

Boston Medical Center, which runs the oldest in-home medical service in the country, started doing this Feb. 1. Wake Forest Baptist Health, a North Carolina health system, followed a week later.

In Miami Beach, Florida, fire department paramedics are delivering vaccines to frail seniors in their own homes. In East St. Louis, Missouri, a visiting nurse service is offering at-home vaccines to low-income, sick older adults who receive food from Meals on Wheels.

In central and northern Pennsylvania, Geisinger Health, a large health system, has identified 500 older homebound adults and is bringing vaccines to them. Nationally, the Department of Veterans Affairs has provided more than 11,000 vaccines to veterans who receive primary medical care at home.

These efforts and others like them recognize a compelling need: Between 2 million and 4.4 million older adults are homebound. Most are in their 80s and have multiple medical conditions, such as heart failure, cancer, and chronic lung disease, and many are cognitively impaired. They cannot leave their homes or can do so only with considerable difficulty.

By virtue of their age and medical status, these seniors are at extremely high risk of becoming seriously ill and dying if they get covid-19. Yet, unlike similarly frail nursing home patients, they haven’t been recognized as a priority group for vaccines, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only recently offered guidance on serving them.

“This is a hidden group that’s going to be overlooked if we don’t step up efforts to reach them,” said Dr. Steven Landers, president and CEO of Visiting Nurse Association Health Group, which provides home health and hospice care to over 10,000 people in New Jersey, northeastern Ohio and southeastern Florida. His organization plans to launch a pilot home vaccination program for frail patients this week.

Jane Gerechoff, 91, of Ocean Township, New Jersey, is waiting for the group to vaccinate her. She had a stroke more than a year ago and has difficulty breathing because of a serious lung disease. “I can’t walk; I’m in a wheelchair. There’s no way in the world I could get the vaccine if they didn’t come out to me,” she said in a phone interview.

Although Gerechoff doesn’t go out, she lives with an adult son who interacts with people outside the house and she receives help from physical and occupational therapists at home. Any one of them could bring in the virus.

Reaching homebound seniors presents many challenges. At the top of the list: Home care agencies and hospice organizations don’t have access to covid vaccines either for their staff or patients.

“There is no distribution of vaccines to our members, and there has been no planning surrounding meeting the needs of the people we serve,” said William Dombi, president of the National Association for Home Care & Hospice.

Organizations that administer vaccines also complain they’re not being paid enough by Medicare to cover their costs — primarily staff time and effort. (The shots are free because the federal government is paying for them.) Making a vaccine house call requires about an hour on average, including travel, time interacting with patients and post-vaccination monitoring of people for potential side effects, according to program leaders.

Medicare reimbursement for the first shot is $16.94; for a second shot, it’s $28.39, according to Shawna Ramey, a consultant who presented the data at a recent American Academy of Home Care Medicine webinar. “The actual cost of these visits is closer to $150 or $160,” Dombi said.

Then, there are issues with cold storage and transportation for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. Both vaccines are fragile after being thawed and need to be handled carefully, according to the new CDC guidance on vaccinating homebound adults.. Once vaccine vials are opened, shots need to be delivered within six hours, according to instructions from Pfizer and Moderna.

Those requirements have proved too burdensome for Prospero Health, which serves 9,000 seriously ill patients in their homes in 20 states, including nearly 2,000 homebound patients. Fewer than 10% have been vaccinated, said Dr. Dave Moen, Prospero’s medical group president.

Things will become easier if vaccines from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca receive approval, as expected, he suggested. Both of those vaccine candidates are more stable than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and would be easier to administer in the home, Moen said.

Palmer Kloster, 84, of Bradley, Illinois, receives care from Prospero under a contract with his Medicare Advantage insurer, UnitedHealthcare. He’s a largely immobile polio survivor who has undergone open-heart surgery and receives care from paid helpers for four hours a day.

“I really need someone to come here and give me a shot,” he told me in a phone conversation. “I don’t want that disease [covid-19]. At my age, it would be very detrimental.”

In Boston, Mary Gareffa, 84, is grateful that a physician she knows and trusts, Dr. Won Lee, came to her house in early February to vaccinate her. “I haven’t been out of the house in about eight years, except by ambulance,” said Gareffa, who has stomach cancer, weighs 73 pounds and broke her hip this summer after a bad fall.

It’s essential to reach out to patients like Gareffa, said Lee, a geriatrician who works with the Boston Medical Center’s home-based program. “It’s worth providing quality of life and reducing suffering, and covid-19 causes nothing but suffering,” she said. The Boston program has vaccinated 84 people as of Feb. 12.

The vaccines come from the medical center’s supply. Before going out, staff members call patients and address any concerns they might have about getting the shots. Most are African American and many families want to know whether the vaccine will make their frail parents or grandparents sick. “They need to hear that it’s safe to get a shot from someone who knows their medical issues,” Lee said.

Wake Forest’s house call program is sending out a doctor, nurse or physician assistant paired with a pharmacy resident to deliver vaccines. About 200 people are served through the program, most of them in their late 70s or early 80s with five or more medical conditions, said Dr. Mia Yang, the program’s director.

Wake Forest’s goal is to provide vaccine house calls to up to 40 patients a week and include family caregivers if there’s adequate supply, Yang said.

Robert Pursel, 69, who has severe osteoporosis and fluid retention in his feet and legs, and his wife Gail, 72, who has serious back problems, both received Pfizer vaccines in late January from Geisinger at their home in Millville, Pennsylvania. At first, Robert said he was skeptical, but now he’s glad he said yes. If a Geisinger nurse hadn’t come to them, he wouldn’t have been able to get out on his own.

Because of his swelling, “I can’t get my shoes on,” Robert said, and “I’d have to walk barefoot through the snow and ice out there.”

Medicare Cuts Payment to 774 Hospitals Over Patient Complications

The federal government has penalized 774 hospitals for having the highest rates of patient infections or other potentially avoidable medical complications. Those hospitals, which include some of the nation’s marquee medical centers, will lose 1% of their Medicare payments over 12 months.

The penalties, based on patients who stayed in the hospitals anytime between mid-2017 and 2019, before the pandemic, are not related to covid-19. They were levied under a program created by the Affordable Care Act that uses the threat of losing Medicare money to motivate hospitals to protect patients from harm.

On any given day, one in every 31 hospital patients has an infection that was contracted during their stay, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infections and other complications can prolong hospital stays, complicate treatments and, in the worst instances, kill patients.

“Although significant progress has been made in preventing some healthcare-associated infection types, there is much more work to be done,” the CDC says.

Now in its seventh year, the Hospital-Acquired Condition Reduction Program has been greeted with disapproval and resignation by hospitals, which argue that penalties are meted out arbitrarily. Under the law, Medicare each year must punish the quarter of general care hospitals with the highest rates of patient safety issues. The government assesses the rates of infections, blood clots, sepsis cases, bedsores, hip fractures and other complications that occur in hospitals and might have been prevented. The total penalty amount is based on how much Medicare pays each hospital during the federal fiscal year — from last October through September.

Hospitals can be punished even if they have improved over past years — and some have. At times, the difference in infection and complication rates between the hospitals that get punished and those that escape punishment is negligible, but the requirement to penalize one-quarter of hospitals is unbending under the law. Akin Demehin, director of policy at the American Hospital Association, said the penalties were “a game of chance” based on “badly flawed” measures.

Some hospitals insist they received penalties because they were more thorough than others in finding and reporting infections and other complications to the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the CDC.

“The all-or-none penalty is unlike any other in Medicare’s programs,” said Dr. Karl Bilimoria, vice president for quality at Northwestern Medicine, whose flagship Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago was penalized this year. He said Northwestern takes the penalty seriously because of the amount of money at stake, “but, at the same time, we know that we will have some trouble with some of the measures because we do a really good job identifying” complications.

Other renowned hospitals penalized this year include Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles; UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco; Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Tufts Medical Center in Boston; NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in New York; UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside in Pittsburgh; and Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

There were 2,430 hospitals not penalized because their patient complication rates were not among the top quarter. An additional 2,057 hospitals were automatically excluded from the program, either because they solely served children, veterans or psychiatric patients, or because they have special status as a “critical access hospital” for lack of nearby alternatives for people needing inpatient care.

The penalties were not distributed evenly across states, according to a KHN analysis of Medicare data that included all categories of hospitals. Half of Rhode Island’s hospitals were penalized, as were 30% of Nevada’s.

All of Delaware’s hospitals escaped punishment. Medicare excludes all Maryland hospitals from the program because it pays them through a different arrangement than in other states.

Over the course of the program, 1,978 hospitals have been penalized at least once, KHN’s analysis found. Of those, 1,360 hospitals have been punished multiple times and 77 hospitals have been penalized in all seven years, including UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, which reports to Congress, said in a 2019 report that “it is important to drive quality improvement by tying infection rates to payment.” But the commission criticized the program’s use of a “tournament” model comparing hospitals to one another. Instead, it recommended fixed targets that let hospitals know what is expected of them and that don’t artificially limit how many hospitals can succeed.

Although federal officials have altered other ACA-created penalty programs in response to hospital complaints and independent critiques — such as one focused on patient readmissions — they have not made substantial changes to this program because the key elements are embedded in the statute and would require a change by Congress.

Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess said in a statement that “we employ a broad range of patient care quality efforts and use reports such as those from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to identify and address opportunities for improvement.”

UCSF Health said its hospital has made “significant improvements” since the period Medicare measured in assessing the penalty.

“UCSF Health believes that many of the measures listed in the report are meaningful to patients, and are also valid standards for health systems to improve upon,” the hospital-health system said in a statement to KHN. “Some of the categories, however, are not risk-adjusted, which results in misleading and inaccurate comparisons.”

Cedars-Sinai said the penalty program disproportionally punishes academic medical centers due to the “high acuity and complexity” of their patients, details that aren’t captured in the Medicare billing data.

“These claims data were not designed for this purpose and are typically not specific enough to reflect the nuances of complex clinical care,” the hospital said. “Cedars-Sinai continually tracks and monitors rates of complications and infections, and updates processes to improve the care we deliver to our patients.”

Look Up Your Hospital: Is It Being Penalized By Medicare?

Under programs set up by the Affordable Care Act, the federal government cuts payments to hospitals that have high rates of readmissions and those with the highest numbers of infections and patient injuries. For the readmission penalties, Medicare cuts as much as 3 percent for each patient, although the average is generally much lower. The patient safety penalties cost hospitals 1 percent of Medicare payments over the federal fiscal year, which runs from October through September. Maryland hospitals are exempted from penalties because that state has a separate payment arrangement with Medicare.

Below are look-up tools for each type of penalty. You can search by hospital name or location, look at all hospitals in a particular state and sort penalties by year.

Related Topics

Cost and Quality Health Industry Medicare States The Health Law

Montana’s Health Policy MVP Takes Her Playbook on the Road

Marilyn Bartlett might be the closest thing health policy has to a folk hero. A certified public accountant who barely tops 5 feet, Bartlett bears zero resemblance to Paul Bunyan. But she did take an ax to Montana’s hospital prices in 2016, stopping the state’s employee health plan from bleeding money.

“Marilyn is not a physically imposing person,” said Montana Board of Investments Executive Director Dan Villa, who worked closely with Bartlett in state government. “She is a blend of your favorite aunt, an accounting savant and a little bit of July Fourth fireworks.”

Bartlett, whose faith in data borders on fervent, hauls binders full of numbers everywhere she goes. “My focus has always been following the dollars,” she said. “You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and get down to the nitty-gritty detail, especially in health care.”

Bartlett’s success in Montana saved the state more than $30 million in three years by pegging hospital prices to a multiple of what Medicare pays. Now, she is an in-demand adviser to states, counties and businesses all trying to control health care costs. But as she’s hit the road, binders in tow, she’s found it difficult to replicate the Montana solution.

A Montana Miracle

Bartlett earned her reputation as administrator of the Montana state employee health plan, a role she assumed in 2014 as the plan hurtled toward insolvency. As Bartlett dug into the data, she discovered hospitals were charging the state as much as five times what they charge Medicare, the federal insurance program — for exactly the same services.

Historically, the state had accepted the seemingly arbitrary prices set by hospitals. Bartlett, staring down a $9 million shortfall, knew that had to change. She wanted the state to start dictating the rates they were willing to pay, but she needed a benchmark first.

She turned to Medicare. Unlike most payers, who bury prices in secret contracts, Medicare makes its payments public. Bartlett borrowed those rates and then more than doubled them — to 234% — knowing that hospitals often complain Medicare pays too little. This new kind of contract, known as reference-based pricing, was among the first attempted at this scale.

Bartlett expected the hospitals to chafe at the offer, but with Montana’s plan insuring 30,000 people, more than any other employer in the state, she had the upper hand. Despite what Bartlett described as “very, very tense” negotiations, all the state’s hospitals signed on.

Five years later, the state health plan regularly runs in the black. Villa, who was former Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget director, said governors dip into the plan’s reserves to fill budget gaps. “I now refer to the state health plan as the ATM,” he said.

The Player Becomes the Coach

Montana’s success became a small sensation, at least in health policy circles. Now, one big question remains — the same one that has deflated the highest hopes of so many health care leaders. Can it be replicated?

Many of the country’s employers are desperate to find out. Their costs have risen 50% in just the past decade. Employee spending on health care is also on the rise, growing two times faster than wages. Leading economics researchers point to high hospital prices as a key culprit.

Since retiring from Montana state government in December 2019, Bartlett said she has spoken at numerous conferences, given hours of free advice, and answered a seemingly endless stream of calls.

One of the first calls came from Trish Riley, executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP). Riley hired Bartlett in 2019 to serve as “a coach, cheerleader and mentor” for officials from dozens of states trying to cut costs, including New Jersey, which passed a bill in 2020 overhauling the state’s health coverage for teachers and estimated to save the state $30 million annually.

Bartlett is also advising regional business coalitions stretching from Houston to Maine and seeing early signs of progress.

In Colorado, Bartlett is coaching a group of public employers, including city, county and state health plans, that have come together to negotiate with hospitals. The group recently notched its first win, signing one hospital to a Medicare-benchmarked contract.

In Indiana, Bartlett is advising the Employers’ Forum of Indiana, a coalition that recently pressured insurer Anthem to renegotiate its contract with a notoriously expensive health system.

Bartlett is even shaping legislation, including recent failed attempts in the Montana legislature to more broadly control hospital prices and in the U.S. Senate to increase transparency.

‘A Hard, Hard Thing to Tackle’

Bartlett has learned over the past five years just how difficult her model is to export. “It’s a hard, hard thing to tackle,” she said.

Opposition from hospitals is often fierce. In Montana, the deal Bartlett negotiated has actually boosted some hospitals’ bottom lines, but the Montana Hospital Association still criticizes it. MHA President Rich Rasmussen faults the contract for focusing on prices and largely neglecting issues of quality and access. “It doesn’t connect all the dots,” he said. Rasmussen also argued Medicare rates are an “inadequate” starting point for negotiations because they fall short of covering the full cost of care.

That opposition pales in comparison to what Bartlett has seen crisscrossing the country. “What I faced in Montana was nothing like North Carolina faced,” she said, her eyes widening as she described the sheer power of the “mega systems” she encountered while advising North Carolina officials.

North Carolina’s plan to pay hospitals roughly twice Medicare rates fell short in 2019 after just five hospitals agreed to the deal and several giant health systems refused to budge.

Bartlett understands that, as a result of decades of mergers, more states face hospital landscapes like North Carolina’s, with its immense consolidation, than Montana’s, with its more than 40 rural hospitals. And the insurance industry nationwide also is highly concentrated, leaving employers with fewer alternatives.

Saying No to Employees

For employers to have any chance at the negotiating table, Bartlett said, they must be willing to make tough calls. In practice, that might mean dropping a hospital that delivered an employee’s twins or a surgeon who cured a CEO’s cancer. “That’s pretty damn hard,” she acknowledged.

“Employers don’t want to disrupt their employees’ care,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, CEO of Purchaser Business Group on Health, which represents Fortune 500 companies like Walmart and Microsoft. “It takes a lot of fortitude to carve a marquee-brand hospital out of a network.”

A 2020 KFF survey found only 4% of employers had dropped a hospital from a network in order to cut costs. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

Bartlett is quick to remind cold-footed employers that continuing to contract with expensive hospitals and doctors has a price, too. “You’re going to disrupt members when they get less and less benefits and pay more and more,” she said. High health care costs also eat up wage increases in the private sector and school funding in the public sector.

Will Covid-19 Be a Catalyst?

Bartlett’s work has hit a crossroads during the pandemic. It is harder to criticize hospitals and their business practices as they play such a vital role. Meanwhile, employers and workers are hurting financially.

“Many large employers are facing economic pressures they frankly haven’t had for a while. They’re laying off tens of thousands of employees,” said Mitchell. “There’s a new sensitivity to costs.”

Bartlett sees an opportunity and is hustling to help employers meet it. She has teamed up with researchers at Rice University on a NASHP project called the Hospital Cost Tool.

“It breaks open this black box and lets you ask where these dollars are going and why,” said Riley of NASHP. The tool aims to automate the kind of forensic accounting of hospitals’ finances that Bartlett had been doing on a one-off basis.

‘You’re Not Going to Be Liked’

There’s one final test Bartlett has tried to prepare employers for — one for which numbers won’t help. It’s the personal toll that comes with challenging the status quo.

While working for the state health plan and before her work delivered results, Bartlett lost close friends, was cut out of meetings and even discovered her co-workers had created a Facebook group to criticize her. “You’re not going to be liked. You’re going to be ridiculed.”

She reminds employers they have a moral and fiscal duty.

“The reality is this is hard work, and it became harder than I ever anticipated,” said Bartlett. “But employers have been given this money, by the taxpayer, by the member, for these benefits. They are responsible for every penny spent. You can’t turn your back on that.”

In Montana, the premiums and copays state workers pay have not increased a single cent since Bartlett and colleagues renegotiated with the hospitals. Over that same time, the average premium paid by American families with employer-based insurance rose 13%.

Dan Gorenstein is the creator and host of the Tradeoffs podcast and Leslie Walker is a senior producer on the show. Their Feb. 18 episode profiles employers’ efforts to purchase health care in new ways.