Dialysis patient Roger Anderson, 68, a retired welder from Black River Falls, Wis., had to drive more than 50 miles three times a week for six months to get to his life-or-death dialysis treatments.
Those logistics became a major challenge five years ago when his kidneys failed just after he had bypass surgery. Family members often stepped in to drive him on the hourlong trek. Other times, he relied on volunteers.
So he was relieved when a spot opened up at a nearby facility and his drive was reduced to two blocks. And fortunately for Anderson, both locations were part of La Crosse, Wis.-based Gundersen Health System, whose six end-stage renal disease facilities all received five stars, the highest possible designation on a new CMS rating system.
Anderson wasn't familiar with the CMS' newly posted ratings, but now that he knows, he said they might have made a difference if his local facility was poorly rated. One star means “there's questions about what kind of service they give,” he said. “I could possibly see switching out of concern.”
The ultimate test of the star ratings, which became public Jan. 22, will be the response from patients like Anderson. Already, critics say the system is too complicated for the average consumer because of how ratings are assigned. And in areas with few choices of facilities, they may be meaningless since consumers have no easily accessible alternatives.
The stars, applied to 5,580 U.S. kidney-care centers, are meant to help patients determine quality of care. But dialysis groups say the ratings, which are based on a bell curve, do not accurately reflect the quality of care. Even centers achieving five stars have been reluctant to celebrate the results.
“We're not out there shouting it from the rooftops,” said Bridget Pfaff, administrative director for infection control, nephrology and renal care at Gundersen. The time and physical demands of treatment often require patients to choose whichever is closest. “I'm not certain a star rating is really going to impact their choice. In many communities, there is not much choice.”