Another unresolved issue is how to pay for the long-term care of chronically ill patients, which in New York accounts for nearly half of its Medicaid spending. Kugler says the high incidence of chronic conditions, including mental illness, among patients in urban settings can contribute to the high readmission rates the new law is set to begin penalizing in 2012. Other studies have found that among Medicaid patients at high risk for frequent hospital admissions, substance abuse can be a major contributor.2
The difficult task, then, is to ensure that the hospitals serving these populations don’t lose even more resources through penalties due to subpar quality metrics. “Do the legwork now. Get your IT systems in place to be able to provide the coordinated care,” Kugler advises. Identifying efficiencies while maintaining the appropriate level of care will be key, whether in appropriate reductions in length of stay or in increased focus on communication with outpatient providers and other forms of outreach.
Hope for the Safety Net
Despite the financial and logistical challenges, Lenny Lopez, MD, MPH, a hospitalist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an assistant in health policy at Massachusetts General Hospital, both in Boston, says the situation is far from hopeless for safety-net hospitals. “The idea that if you’re a DSH hospital you’re somehow pegged and destined to provide low-quality care—that does not have to be the case,” he says. Nor do problems such as disparities in how patients are treated necessarily require expensive solutions.
In a recent paper in Academic Emergency Medicine, Dr. Lopez and his colleagues found that among patients with chest pain admitted to EDs, blacks, Hispanics, and those who lacked insurance or were on Medicare were less likely to receive urgent triage care.3 “These are problems that are fixable in a low-cost way,” he argues. “We don’t need another fancy machine to diagnose chest pain.” Rather, he suggests, the problem is really one of quality improvement that centers on boosting guidelines, not buying more equipment or involving more personnel.
Properly defining the problem, Dr. Lopez says, can lead to effective measures to boost quality. Amid the continuing budget crunch, pinpointing where interventions could provide the biggest bang for the buck also might prove enormously helpful.
Of the roughly 4,200 acute-care hospitals in the country, Dr. Lopez and his colleagues found that less than 10% care for the bulk of minority patients, and those on Medicaid or lacking insurance. That means such care is concentrated in about 400 hospitals, “which is a huge opportunity for intervention options for this kind of an issue,” he says. TH
Bryn Nelson is a freelance medical writer based in Seattle.
- 1. Benefits and burdens of Medicaid. The New York Times website. Available at: www.nytimes.com/2010/09/22/opinion/22wed2.html?_r=2&hp. Accessed Oct. 23, 2010.
- 2. Raven MC, Billings JC, Goldfrank LR, Manheimer ED, Gourevitch MN. Medicaid patients at high risk for frequent hospital admission: real-time identification and remediable risks. J Urban Health. 2009;86(2):230-241.
- 3. López L, Wilper AP, Cervantes MC, Betancourt JR, Green AR. Racial and sex differences in emergency department triage assessment and test ordering for chest pain, 1997-2006. Acad Emerg Med. 2010:17 (8):801-810.