Expert Commentary

Win Whitcomb: Spotlight on Medical Necessity


EDITOR’S NOTE: An incorrect version of Win Whitcomb’s “On the Horizon” column was published in the July issue of The Hospitalist. We deeply regret the error. The correct version of Dr. Whitcomb’s column appears this month, with proper attribution given to hospitalist Brad Flansbaum, DO, SFHM, who contributed to the column.

Assigning the appropriate status to patients (“inpatient” or “observation”) has emerged as a front-and-center issue for hospitalists. Also known as “medical necessity,” many HM groups have been called upon to help solve the “status” problem for their institutions. With nearly 1 in 5 hospitalized patients on observation status in U.S. hospitals, appropriately assigning status is now a dominant, system-level challenge for hospitalists.

This month, we asked two experts to shed light on the nature of this beast, with a focus on the impact on the patient. Brad Flansbaum, DO, SFHM, hospitalist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, and Patrick Conway, MD, FAAP, MSC, SFHM, chief medical officer at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), were kind enough to participate in the interview. We start with Dr. Flansbaum.

Dr. Whitcomb: It appears that patients are caught in the middle of the observation status challenge, at least as it relates to footing the bill. Explain the patient perspective of being unwittingly placed on observation status.

Dr. Flansbaum: Recall your last credit card statement. On it is the hotel charge from your last out-of-town CME excursion. Below the total charge, which you were expecting, is a separate line item for a $75 “recreational fee.” You call the hotel, and they inform you that, because you used the hotel gym and pool—accessed with your room key, they levied the fee. No signs, alerts, or postings denoted the policy, so you expected inclusive use of the facilities as a price of your visit. Capture the emotion of the moment, when you see that bill, feel your heart race, and think to yourself, “Get me the manager!”

WW: Why has assigning appropriate status captured the attention of hospitals?

BF: Out of vigilance for penalties and fraud from recovery audit contractor (RAC) investigations, as well attentiveness to unnecessary readmissions, hospitals increasingly are categorizing patients under observation, rather than inpatient, status to avoid conflict with regulators. Beneficiaries are in the crosshairs because of this designation change, and much in the same way of our hotel charge, our patients experience sticker shock when they receive their bill. It is leading to confusion among providers and consternation within the Medicare recipient community.

WW: Why is there so much confusion around appropriate patient status?

BF: The dilemma stems from Medicare payment, and the key distinction between inpatient coverage (Part A) and outpatient coverage, including pharmaceuticals (Parts B and D). When a patient receives their discharge notification—without an “official” inpatient designation, sometimes staying greater than 24 to 48 hours in the ED or in a specially defined observation unit, beneficiary charges are different. This could result in discrete—and sometimes jolting—enrollee copayments and deductibles for drugs and services.

WW: I’ve heard observation status is having a big, adverse impact on patients who go to skilled nursing facilities. Why?

BF: If a patient requires a skilled nursing facility stay (the “three-day stay” inpatient requirement), Medicare will not pay because the patient never registered “official” hospital time. Patients and caregivers are not prepared for the unexpected bills, and consequently, tempers are rising. The rules for Medicare Advantage enrollees (Part C—commercial payers receive a fixed sum from CMS, and oversee parts A, B, and D for an individual beneficiary), which comprise 25% of the program, differ from conventional Medicare. However, commercial plans often shadow traditional, fee-for-service in their policies and, consequently, no exemplar of success in this realm exits.

WW: Why is the number of patients on observation status growing?

BF: Hospitals have significantly increased both the number of their observation stays, as well as their hourly lengths (>48 hours). Because the definition of “observation status” is vague, and even the one- to two-day window is inflating, hospitals and hospitalists often are navigating without a compass. Again, fear of fraud and penalty places hospitals and, indirectly, hospitalists—who often make judgments on admission grade—in a precarious position.

The responsibility of hospitals to notify beneficiaries of their status hinges on this murky determination milieu, which may change in real time during the stay, and makes for an unsatisfactory standard. Understandably, CMS is attempting to rectify this quandary, taking into account a hospital’s need to clarify its billing and designation practices, as well as the beneficiaries’ desire to obtain clear guidance on their responsibilities both during and after the stay. Hospitalists, of course, want direction on coding, along with an understanding of the impact their decisions will have on patients and subspecialty colleagues.

Let’s now bring in Dr. Conway, a pediatric hospitalist. I thank Dr. Flansbaum, who formulated the following questions.

BF/WW: Is it tenable to keep the current system in place? Would it help to require payors and providers to inform beneficiaries of inpatient versus observation status at time zero in a more rigorous, yet to-be-determined manner?

Dr. Conway: Current regulations only require CMS to inform beneficiaries when they are admitted as an inpatient and not when they are an outpatient receiving observation services. There are important implications for beneficiary coverage post-hospital stay, coverage of self-administered drugs, and beneficiary coinsurance from this distinction. As a hospitalist, I think it is best to inform the patient of their status, especially if it has the potential to impact beneficiary liability, including coverage of post-acute care. CMS prepared a pamphlet in 2009, “Are You a Hospital Inpatient or Outpatient? If You Have Medicare, Ask,” to educate beneficiaries on this issue. (Download a PDF of the pamphlet at

BF/WW: Due to the nature of how hospital care is changing, are admission decisions potentially becoming too conflicted an endeavor for inpatient caregivers?

PC: We want admission decisions to be based on clinical considerations. The decision to admit a patient should be based on the clinical judgment of the primary-care, emergency medicine, and/or HM clinician.

BF/WW: Before the U.S. healthcare system matures to a more full-out, integrated model with internalized risk, can you envision any near-term code changes that might simplify the difficulties all parties are facing, in a budget-neutral fashion?

PC: CMS is currently investigating options to clarify when it is appropriate to admit the patient as an inpatient versus keeping the patient as an outpatient receiving observation services. We understand that this issue is of concern to hospitals, hospitalists, and patients, and we are considering carefully how to simplify the rules in a way that best meets the needs of patients and providers without increasing costs to the system.

With growing attention to observation status coming from patients and provider groups (the AMA is requesting that CMS revise its coverage rules), we will no doubt be hearing more about this going forward.

Dr. Whitcomb is medical director of healthcare quality at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass. He is a co-founder and past president of SHM. Email him at [email protected].

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