Government and Regulations

A Bundle of Nerves


In a single year, one health system saved itself more than $2 million on orthopedic, cardiology, and cardiovascular surgery procedures. Another hospital saved Medicare an estimated $750,000. Supply costs dropped, scores on quality metrics rose, and bonus payments were distributed to participating doctors.

A runaway success? Not so fast.

Encouraging, if early, results from Medicare’s Acute Care Episode (ACE) Demonstration might have strengthened the case for bundling payments around episodes of care as an effective way to rein in spiraling healthcare costs and transition from a volume-based to a value-based payment system. But broad skepticism persists over the wisdom of binding together the fates of hospitals and doctors, and critics are far from ready to drop their argument that bundling will be unworkable across wider, less-well-defined swaths of healthcare.

The current bundling and gain-sharing duo differs only superficially from the despised capitation model of the 1990s, argues Adam Singer, MD, CEO of North Hollywood, Calif.-based IPC: The Hospitalist Company. “It’s capitation in a different dress, except that instead of over a patient population, it’s done over an individual patient’s case,” he says.

Not so, says Lisa Kettering, MD, SFHM, vice president of medical affairs and CMO at Exempla St. Joseph Hospital in Denver.

“I’ve been around in medicine long enough to have been around when there was capitation,” she says. “I think the current bundling project is a vast improvement and I think it’s a very different animal from old capitation … and pivots absolutely critically on the physician involvement at the heart of quality, at the heart of decision-making. That’s never happened before.”

Amid the swirling expectations and apprehensions, what has the ACE demo taught us so far about bundling, and what does it mean for the future of hospital medicine? In essence, bundling lumps Medicare Part A and Part B reimbursements into a single payment aimed at encouraging hospitals and doctors to work together to improve efficiency, maintain high-quality care, and reduce overall expenses. Hospitals participating in the ACE Demonstration provide a roughly 5% discount to Medicare for a specific list of diagnosis-related groups (DRGs), and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) passes on half of the savings to beneficiaries who use participating hospitals for the covered procedures.

After submitting their claims, the hospitals receive a bundled Medicare payment, from which they pay doctors 100% of their Part B fees. As an incentive, some providers are eligible for bonus payments in the form of gain-sharing. CMS rules preclude any payments for referrals, cap all payments at 25% of the physician fee schedule, and mandate that any payment be based on reductions in patient care costs due to ACE activities. But participating hospitals are otherwise free to devise their own formulas and specific quality metrics that doctors must meet to gain the bonus.

SHM repeatedly has signaled its support for exploring bundling as a way to better align financial incentives among providers and reward them for quality and efficiency instead of quantity. The 10,000-member society strongly supports further testing of payment bundling methodologies prior to a national rollout, however, and has called for the integral involvement of hospitalists in developing and implementing bundling projects.

With its main focus on cardiologists, orthopedic surgeons, and cardiovascular surgeons, the ACE Demonstration has had little direct impact on hospitalists’ jobs or bank accounts—so far. That could change with an expanded pilot mandated by healthcare reform legislation. Slated to begin by Jan. 1, 2013, the project will redefine covered episodes of care to include all medical services administered three days before a hospital admission through 30 days after discharge.

CMS hasn’t yet decided which procedures will be covered, but officials say they’ve learned from past experience to begin with well-defined episodes of care. “Back in the ’90s, we did a bundled demonstration for bypass procedures and also for cataract procedures,” says Cynthia Mason, project manager with the CMS Medicare Demonstrations Group. “What we learned from that is obviously it’s easier both for Medicare, as well as for the providers, to predict utilization when you have a more standardized package of services. You also need a variety and large number of services in order to give you opportunities for looking at efficiencies and improvements in the system.”

Upfront Investment, Immediate Savings, Improved Quality

Early opinions have been mostly positive among the ACE participants. Hillcrest Medical Center in Tulsa, Okla., was first out of the gate in May 2009. Over the project’s first year, Hillcrest CEO Steve Dobbs estimates that the 490-bed hospital has saved CMS about $750,000; half of that sum has been passed along to patients. The hospital itself has spent about $550,000 in marketing, start-up costs, corporate support, and paying third-party claims. But recent investments have led to double-digit gains in patient volume (24% in cardiology and cardiovascular surgery, and a whopping 37% in orthopedics), margins in orthopedics are up, and direct negotiations between participating doctors and national vendors have netted additional savings. As a reward for help with cost-cutting, Hillcrest recently passed along two gain-sharing checks totaling $130,000 to be split among six independent orthopedists.

“What’s actually driving this program is the supply cost savings from all of our national partners,” Dobbs says. A big question is whether the negotiated savings—and hence the gain-sharing—could be maintained over a greatly expanded pilot project. “If this goes nationwide and everybody’s in it, do you get the same benefit? I don’t know the answer to that right now,” he says.

Dobbs is careful to point out that success is not measured by patient volume and supply costs alone. Hillcrest’s gain-sharing plan stipulates that physicians must reach the 90% threshold for a range of quality metrics. For one previously problematic category—stopping antibiotics 24 hours post-surgery—Dobbs says both the orthopedics and cardiovascular surgery departments have dramatically increased their compliance rates.

Baptist Health System in San Antonio, which began its own demonstration in June 2009, has reported savings of $2.2 million for its 1,275-bed, four-campus health system. So far, the roughly 20 hospitalists employed by IPC: The Hospitalist Company who work within the Baptist Health System have not directly participated in the project. But Felix Aguirre, MD, FHM, IPC’s vice president of medical affairs in San Antonio, says the demonstration has had a definite impact on efficiency.

Dr. Aguirre

“Since the demonstration project has come up, it seems like everybody is obeying the evidence-based guidelines now,” says Dr. Aguirre, a member of SHM’s Public Policy Committee and Team Hospitalist. “So it’s not keeping the hip replacement patient in for five days, it’s what the guidelines say: three days.”

Some kinks still need to be worked out. Baptist has had trouble with double payments and other claims-related issues, Dr. Aguirre says. Hillcrest’s Dobbs complains that he has heard virtually no feedback from CMS. Medicare’s Mason says officials have been “very pleased” with the project’s progress so far, but concedes that a delay in updating a claims processing system has pushed back the launch at two other demonstration sites until Nov. 1.

At one of those sites, 361-bed Exempla St. Joseph Hospital, the three-year demonstration will encompass only cardiology and cardiovascular surgery. Dr. Kettering, a former SHM board member who serves as executive sponsor and director of St. Joseph Hospital’s ACE demo, says the shared-savings program will be limited to cardiovascular surgery for the first year to ensure the system is running smoothly. In the second or third year, however, hospitalists who care for eligible patients could theoretically benefit from a similar gain-sharing agreement, if they meet certain agreed-upon, evidence-based metrics. In that circumstance, she says, hospitalists would begin to learn the ropes and become directly involved in quality outcomes. Extending the model beyond ACE, their primary role could expand dramatically to that of learning how to operate bundling across the continuum of care.

The eventual bundling experiences at all five demonstration sites will likely be positive, Dr. Aguirre says, given that they were carefully chosen to maximize the likelihood of success. “Where the rubber will hit the road is, how do you translate where you’re obviously going to be successful at five sites to implementing it across maybe a thousand sites and making it successful?” he asks.

I think the current bundling project is a vast improvement and I think it’s a very different animal from old capitation … and pivots absolutely critically on the physician involvement at the heart of quality, at the heart of decision-making. That’s never happened before.—Lisa Kettering, MD, vice president of medical affairs, CMO, Exempla St. Joseph Hospital, Denver, former SHM board member

All Eggs in One Basket?

One thing is certain: For bundling to expand, it will have to convince some fierce critics of its staying power. IPC’s Dr. Singer says so much emphasis has been placed on bundling that it has drowned out any discussion of other alternatives. “It seems like we as a society are hell-bent on putting this in as the method of payment, but I don’t really see all the elements that really would promote a higher-quality product that would reduce cost, which is what it should be about,” he says.

If not bundling, what? For some observers, payment-reform options follow a continuum arcing away from the fee-for-service system, though not everyone agrees on just how widely each might—or should—depart from the status quo. Some healthcare leaders, for example, contend that it would be easiest to simply devise new DRG categories for hospitalists or primary-care physicians (PCPs) to replace the existing fee-for-service CPT codes. “It’s a very simple way of aligning the doctor and the hospital without combining the doctor and the hospital into one entity, which is what bundling does,” Dr. Singer says.

Even some bundling advocates say the solution might ease some anxiety over who controls the purse strings, though such a system would need to account for critical-access hospitals, which currently don’t use the DRG system at all. Alternatively, some analysts see broadened gain-sharing rules as a good way to align incentives toward more efficient care, regardless of whether the incentive system accompanies bundling.

Although still in their formative stages, accountable-care organizations (ACOs) and patient-centered medical homes (PCMHs)—and the implicit bundling of medical services across patient populations—are being advanced as longer-term reforms. Even then, analysts argue over whether such models will be sufficiently free from a fee-for-service foundation. Despite the vigorous debate, most observers agree that Medicare officials are keen to offload more of the risk, whether onto physicians or onto hospitals. “They’re saying, ‘Here’s the dollar. You administer it. And if you end up in the negative, you do, but if it’s in the positive, you get a share of everything,’ ” Dr. Aguirre says.

Six Pieces of Bundling-Related Advice for Hospitalists

The Hospitalist surveyed a range of HM leaders and other healthcare experts on how best to prepare for a future that might include bundling. Their advice:

  1. Develop a rapport among other providers and hospital leaders, and begin looking at how care is delivered and where it can be improved, whether in the supplies used or in the length of stay.
  2. Join the quality- and process-improvement efforts within your hospital, and know them well; these areas will drive any bundling system.
  3. If your hospital is chosen as a site for the expanded bundling pilot program, get involved early at the facility level so you can have your voice heard and provide input into how the process will work and payments will be made.
  4. In conjunction with the hospital, help formulate appropriate benchmarks and reimbursement structures for you and your colleagues that relate to quality outcomes and effective movement of patients along the continuum.
  5. Look to become a leader in your physician-hospital organization (PHO) to ensure continued representation in discussions of how bundling or other payment reforms will be instituted.
  6. Engage in the debate to more fully understand the consequences of bundling, and take a more serious role in the search for other viable payment-reform options.—BN

HM: Front and Center

Hospitalists might be uniquely well positioned to bring more efficiency and value, as well as help hospitals manage that risk. With bundling, though, the big question is how they’ll be paid for their services amid the demands of multiple providers. “I’ve heard it described as a big potential food fight,” says Kirk Mathews, CEO of St. Louis-based Inpatient Management Inc. and a member of SHM’s Workforce Summit Committee.

In the scenario relayed to him by fearful hospitalists, a hospital administrator is seated at the table with pie in hand, with the various providers clamoring for a slice. “Everyone will be sitting there saying, ‘Here’s why we deserve this percent of the bundled payment,’” Mathews says. “Whether that’s an accurate portrayal or not, that’s the fear.”

Taken a step further, the scenario envisions hospitalists struggling to hold their own at the table against high-powered and higher-paid specialists. Some of the ACE Demonstration sites, however, have used physician-hospital organizations, or PHOs, to help decentralize the decision-making and ensure that stakeholders are represented. Similarly, if patient referrals to hospitalists from other providers drop—as they did for some of the ACE Demonstration bundles at Baptist and Hillcrest—could hospitalists lose their bargaining power through an erosion of recouped professional fees?

If bundling expands, Hillcrest’s CEO says hospitalists are instead likely to assume a more central role (see “Six Pieces of Bundling-Related Advice for Hospitalists,” right). “If we truly go to bundled payments on everything,” Dobbs says, “then I think everybody’s got to be at the table and contributing, and especially the hospitalist, because the medical DRGs, that’s going to be where the hospitalists drive the equation, and that’s going to be a huge part of this.”

As SHM’s CEO Larry Wellikson, MD, SFHM, wrote in The Hospitalist last year (see “Bundling Bedlam,” July 2009, p. 46), the bundling of Medicare Part A dollars that subsidize HM with Part B physicians’ payments might actually pave the way for a more professional discussion of the value that hospitalists deliver. With bundling, he wrote, “the need for subsidies or support could diminish or vanish.”


But that doesn’t resolve the issue of how to fairly size each bundle. Stuart Guterman, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Common-wealth Fund’s Program on Payment and System Reform, says one lesson from the capitation scheme of the ’90s is that an overemphasis on cost savings can lead to payments that are frequently insufficient to cover the costs of appropriate care.

“So there’s got to be more collaboration on what an appropriate amount is, and that’s a very important feature,” Guterman says. “Clearly, if you don’t pay enough, it doesn’t bode well for the success of any kind of payment approach. If you pay too much, it means you’re wasting money.”

The size and complexity of healthcare networks will influence how those bundle-related payments are negotiated. And in this case, several analysts say bigger isn’t necessarily better. “My own view is that it’s easier for a handful of hospitalists and a few community doctors in the hospital to come to an agreement on how they’re going to work within a bundle,” says Robert Berenson, MD, a senior fellow in the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center and vice chair of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC).

Dr. Berenson

“My experience is that in rural communities, there’s a greater alliance of interests between the doctors and the hospitals, whereas in big urban areas they’re often competing with each other. So I don’t see that as the problem, frankly. I think this is probably better designed for smaller places where there’s already reasonably good relationships.”

L. Scott Sussman, MD, a hospitalist at Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center in Windsor, Vt., agrees that bundling likely wouldn’t negatively affect the day-to-day operations of the 25-bed critical-access hospital. Almost all admitted patients have PCPs in the affiliated Mt. Ascutney Physicians Practice, aiding communication during hospitalizations and care transitions. Dr. Sussman thinks bundling fits well with the mission of hospitalists to provide quality care and help smooth their patients’ transition back to community providers. “From the reading that I’ve done on bundling, it does seem to me that if implemented properly, it really could achieve cost savings while maintaining quality care,” he says.

Nevertheless, he has plenty of questions and concerns. Bundling would be more complicated, he concedes, if most admissions were referred from private-practice physicians in the community. And because Mt. Ascutney is a critical-access hospital, patients who develop complications or require a higher level of care are transferred to a tertiary-care facility—in this case, a 22-mile drive over the state line to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. “How would the payment be divided up at that point?” he asks.

To make bundling work, healthcare leaders will clearly need to blaze a trail through uncharted territory.

But if the goal is getting more from the trillions spent annually on healthcare, advocates like Guterman say it provides an important step toward a better-functioning system.

Among hospitalists, at least some observers are betting that bundling will ultimately find its way. “I think bundled payments are here to stay,” Dr. Aguirre says. “I think our goal now is to see how we can modify it or create it so it can have the best impact for us and we can have the best impact for it.” TH

Bryn Nelson is a freelance medical writer based in Seattle.

Hospital Efficiency: More Than One Way to Skin That Cat

You can learn a lot from Toyota. But can it help you run a more efficient hospital? Pat Hagan, CEO of Seattle Children’s Hospital, is a believer after the manufacturer’s philosophy of Continuous Performance Improvement, or CPI, helped his institution increase admissions while decreasing medication error rates, average length of stay, and wait times for appointments. In the process, the hospital has netted an estimated $23 million in annual savings, and avoided another $200 million in capital costs.

By directly involving hospitalists and other staff members in a range of efficiency efforts, the hospital is now able to run smoothly at 85% occupancy, up 50 beds from its normal peak of 70% occupancy. It’s just one example of how hospitals around the country are calling upon hospitalists to assist with ambitious initiatives to raise quality, increase efficiency, and rein in costs. Don’t call it bundling, but many of the efforts are achieving the same goals and priming doctors for a future in which bundled-payment systems might feature more prominently.

To learn the principles of CPI, a team of doctors and administrators from Seattle Children’s traveled to Japan and observed factories for Yamaha pianos, mattresses, and, yes, Toyota automobiles. “For us, we had to get past the fact that it was manufacturing, so what we talked a lot about is not what Toyota did or does, it’s how they did it,” Hagan says. How they do it, his team discovered, is through a core philosophy of focusing on the customer and supporting employees in their work and problem-solving.

An efficient supply system taken right out of Toyota’s playbook now saves time, money, and confusion among Seattle Children’s Hospital staff. Color-coded boards provide updates on patients. And the hospital recently hired more hospitalists to be its eyes and ears on the midnight shift. “If we’re going to have uniformly consistent practices around the clock,” Hagan says, “we need to have our resources and our people effectively allocated around the clock as well.”

Similar to the goals of bundling, Hagan says, Seattle Children’s is bringing staff together to jointly figure out how best to provide care for a patient or group of patients. To do that, the hospital is using the concept of “value streams” to map the value of care delivered throughout each patient’s hospital experience, from the patient’s perspective. By approaching such work through the eyes of the patient, “it literally forces us to think in terms of what are known now as bundles,” Hagan says. “It also forces us to look beyond our four walls, because it’s very clear that what we’re doing here has an impact on what occurs to the patient and family after they’ve left the hospital.”—BN

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