By now, nearly all hospitals are developing networks of postacute facilities for some or all of their patients, such as those in ACOs, bundled payments, or other value-based programs. Commonly referred to as preferred providers, performance networks, narrow networks, or similar, these networks of skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) and other entities that provide postacute care (like home health agencies) are usually chosen because they have demonstrated that they provide high quality, cost-effective care for patients after they leave the hospital.
While case managers are often the ones who counsel patients and caregivers on the details of the network, hospitalists should have at least a high-level grasp of which facilities are on the list and what the network selection criteria are. I would argue that hospitalists should lead the discussion with patients on postacute facility selection as it relates to which facilities are in the network and why going to a network facility is advantageous. Why? Because as hospitalist practices begin to share clinical and financial risk for patients, or at least become eligible to share in savings as MACRA encourages, they will have a vested interest in network facilities’ performance.
Postacute care network selection criteria
There is a range of criteria – usually incorporating measures of quality and efficiency – for including providers like SNFs in networks. In terms of quality, criteria can include physician/provider availability, star ratings on Nursing Home Compare, care transitions measures, Department of Public Health inspection survey scores, Joint Commission accreditation, etc.
The most notable efficiency measures include readmission rates (we won’t debate here whether this should be a quality measure), cost, and length of stay in the facility. Another key driver of inclusion can be ownership status. If a SNF or other postacute provider is owned by the hospital, it may be included for that reason alone. Also, if the hospitalist group is creating the network, it may include facilities that are staffed by the group or by affiliated physicians/providers.
A few caveats regarding specific selection criteria:
Star ratings on Nursing Home Compare
These are derived from nursing staffing ratios, health inspections, and 16 quality measures. More than half of the quality measures pertain to long-stay residents who typically are not in the ACO or bundled payment program for which the network was created (these are usually short-stay patients).
SNF length of stay
High readmission rates from a SNF can actually lower its length of stay, so including “balancing” measures such as readmissions should be considered.
What about patient choice?
Narrow postacute networks are not only becoming the norm, but there is also broad recognition from CMS, MedPAC, and industry leaders that value-based payment programs require such networks to succeed. That said, case managers and other discharge planners may still resist networks on the grounds that they might be perceived as restricting patient choice. One approach to balancing differing views on patient choice is to give patients the traditional longer list of available postacute providers, and also furnish the shorter network list accompanied by an explanation of why certain SNFs are in the network. Thankfully, as ACOs and bundles become widespread, resistance to narrow networks is dying down.
What role should hospitalists play in network referrals?
High functioning hospitalist practices should lead the discussion with patients and the health care team on referrals to network SNFs. Why? Patients are looking for their doctors to guide them on such decisions. Only if the physician opts not to have the discussion will patients look to the case manager for direction on which postacute facility to choose. A better option still would be for the hospitalists to partner with case managers to have the conversation with patients. In such a scenario, the hospitalist can begin the discussion and cover the major points, and the case manager can follow with more detailed information. For less mature hospitalist practices, the case manager can play a larger role in the discussion. In any case, as value-based models become ubiquitous, and shared savings become a driver of hospitalist revenue, hospitalists’ knowledge of and active participation in conversations around narrow networks and referrals will be necessary.
Dr. Whitcomb is chief medical officer at Remedy Partners in Darien, Conn. He is a cofounder and past president of SHM.