When a patient must remain in the acute care hospital setting—despite being well enough to transition to a lower level of care, costs continue to mount as the patient receives care at the most expensive level.
“But policymakers must understand that reducing support for essential hospitals might save dollars in the short term but ultimately threatens access to care and creates greater costs in the long run,” says Beth Feldpush, DrPH, senior vice president of policy and advocacy for America’s Essential Hospitals in Washington, D.C. The group represents more than 250 essential hospitals, which fill a safety net role and provide communitywide services, such as trauma, neonatal intensive care, and disaster response.
“Our hospitals, which already operate at a loss on average, cannot continue to sustain federal and state funding cuts,” Dr. Feldpush says. “Access to care for vulnerable patients and entire communities will suffer if we continue to chip away at crucial sources of support, such as Medicaid and Medicare disproportionate share hospital funding and payment for outpatient services.”
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) makes many changes to the healthcare system that are designed to improve the quality, value of, and access to healthcare services.
“While many are good in theory, they have faced challenges in practice,” Dr. Feldpush says.
For example, the law’s authors included deep cuts to Medicaid and Medicare disproportionate share hospital (DSH) payments, which support hospitals that provide a large volume of uncompensated care. They made these cuts with the assumption that Medicare expansion and the ACA health insurance marketplace would significantly increase coverage, lessening the need for DSH payments. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to give states the option of expanding Medicaid has resulted in expansion in only about half of the states, however.
“But the DSH cuts remain, meaning our hospitals are getting significantly less support for the same or more uncompensated care,” Dr. Feldpush says.
Likewise, the ACA put into place many quality incentive programs for Medicare, including those designed to reduce preventable readmissions and hospital-acquired conditions and to encourage more value-based purchasing.
“The goals are obviously good ones, but the quality measures used to calculate incentive payments or penalties fail to account for the sociodemographic challenges our patients face—and that our hospitals can’t control,” she says. “So, these programs disproportionately penalize our hospitals, which, in turn, creates a vicious circle that reduces the funding they need to make improvements.”
Access to equitable healthcare for low-income, uninsured, and other vulnerable patients is a national problem, Dr. Feldpush continues. But the severity of the problem can vary by community and region—in states that have chosen not to expand their Medicaid programs, for example, or in economically depressed areas. TH