Public Policy

Are Hospital Readmissions Numbers Fruit of an Imperfect Equation?


Many health-care-reform initiatives are so new that few data are available to assess whether they are working as intended. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), however, has touted the early numbers from its Hospital Readmission Reduction Program to suggest that the policy is making a difference in curbing bounce-backs. The overall impact, however, might be decidedly more nuanced and provides a telling example of the challenges that such programs can present to hospitalists and other health-care providers.

At a Senate Finance Committee Hearing in February, Jonathan Blum, deputy administrator and director for the Center of Medicare at CMS, released data suggesting that 30-day readmission rates for all causes dropped to 17.8% of hospitalizations near the end of 2012 after remaining at roughly 19% in each of the five previous years. The difference translates into 70,000 fewer readmissions annually.

During the first round of penalties, CMS dinged 2,213 hospitals for an estimated $280 million, or an average of about $126,500 per hospital, for excessive readmissions linked to heart attack, heart failure, and pneumonia care. Blum made the case that the penalties—or the threat thereof—are helping to improve rates.

Those arguing that the policy could disproportionately impact institutions caring for more vulnerable, high-risk patients also found new support in a recent New England Journal of Medicine perspective suggesting that academic medical centers and safety-net hospitals were more likely to be penalized.1 Among their suggestions, the perspective’s co-authors, from Harvard’s School of Public Health, suggested that the policy take patient socioeconomic status into account to provide a fairer basis of comparison.

A second recent study suggested that even the reduced readmission rates might not be telling the whole story. An analysis of patients released in 2010 from safety-net hospital Boston Medical Center showed that nearly 1 in 4 returned to the ED within a month of discharge.2 But more than half of those patients weren’t readmitted as inpatients, meaning that they wouldn’t show up under Medicare’s readmissions statistics.

Along with the mixed early reviews of EHR rollouts and the HCAHPS portion of the Hospital Value-Based Purchasing program, it’s another reminder that CMS metrics and incentives might not always add up as envisioned. In the near future, it seems, hospitals and health-care providers might have to contend with some imperfect numbers. TH

Bryn Nelson is a freelance medical writer in Seattle.


1. Joynt KE, Jha AK. Thirty-day readmissions–truth and consequences. N Engl J Med. 2012;366:1366-1369.

2. Rising KL, White LF, Fernandez WG, Boutwell, AE. Emergency department visits after hospital discharge: a missing part of the equation. Ann Emerg Med. 2013; in press.

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