“The goal is to reduce patients from coming back to hospitals because it’s not good for patients and it’s not good for Medicare,” said Baicker.
Nationally, one in five Medicare patients are readmitted to hospitals annually at an estimated cost of $17.5 billion. Under its new program Medicare expects to save about $280 million in the first year alone.
In Massachusetts, of the 61 hospitals that accept Medicare payments, 54, or 88 percent, were penalized during fiscal 2012 under the readmission reduction program. That program targets seniors who are most likely to be re-hospitalized within 30 days for pneumonia, heart failure and heart attacks, the three ailments Washington claims are responsible for 30 percent of all elderly readmissions.
Of those 54 penalized hospitals, 12 received the severest penalties which require them to pay back between 0.90 and 1 percent of all Medicare funds received during fiscal 2012. Many of those penalties, critics said, were imposed against “safety net hospitals” that treat poor and minority communities and teaching hospitals, where mortality rates are often low.
“We all agree readmissions are an important thing we need to work on but the concern about the penalty is that it really penalizes hospitals for things that are out of their control,” said Karen Joynt a cardiologist and instructor in health policy at Harvard School of Public Health who has studied readmission rates.
The data, she says, shows outside factors such as access to outpatient care, patients with mental health or substance abuse issues, seniors with chronic health conditions and a transient patient population dramatically affect the number of patients hospitals readmit.
Yet, while many larger hospitals are feeling the pinch, others aren’t getting penalized at all, Joynt said.
“The bad part is that the penalties seem so unfair,” she said.
The Massachusetts Hospital Association agrees.
“The penalties are flawed,” said Gens, whose organization has been working with Bay State hospitals to reduce readmission rates since 2009. “The time has come for policymakers to realize this (policy) was not a good decision.”