Hospital administrators are shifting patients who need knee replacement surgery into the outpatient setting rather than risk audits by Medicare contractors, surgeons warn, adding that the practice could be jeopardizing more frail patients.
The fear of audits comes despite the CMS banning Medicare contractors from reviewing inpatient total knee arthroplasty procedures after regulators last year began paying for procedures performed in the less expensive outpatient setting. But Dr. James Huddleston, chair of the American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons, says the CMS previously has allowed Medicare auditors to ignore these bans, potentially setting hospitals up for denials.
"The CMS has explicitly stated it was suspending all audit activities in the past and didn't stay true to their word," Huddleston said. He cited an up tick in claims denials for coronary stents placed in inpatient settings once the CMS allowed the procedures to take place in outpatient settings. Like joint procedures, there was supposed to be a ban on audits for inpatient stent procedures.
A CMS spokesman said it will enforce a two-year ban on recovery audit contractors reviewing inpatient knee replacements. However, quality improvement organization (QIOs), another type of Medicare auditor, can review and deny such claims. However, RACs are the more frequently used auditor. Between 2011 and 2013, for example, RACS recovered $6.2 billion through hundreds of thousands of claims. QIOs review around 20,000 claims each year and have recouped $32 million since they started reviewing inpatient claims in 2016.
Hospitals prefer QIOs review claims instead of RACs because QIOs include clinicians who better understand medical decision-making.
The CMS's original intent was to give doctors more autonomy over cost by determining which setting was best for patients based on their health. The only requirement was that documentation show the inpatient stay was warranted and met the two-midnight standard.
"We expect providers to carefully develop evidence-based patient selection criteria to identify these patients," a CMS spokesman said. "Nothing in the final rule requires total knee replacements to be performed in the hospital outpatient setting."
But Huddleston said he's been told by doctors that hospital administrations are overruling those decisions and shunting patients into outpatient units.
In fact, a survey of AAHKS members released this week Monday found nearly 60% of them said their hospitals have instructed them to assign all Medicare knee replacements to outpatient centers.
Hospitals are making this decision despite it harming their bottom line. An individual knee replacement performed in a hospital can generate up to $20,000 more in Medicare payments than the same procedure in an outpatient setting.
The CMS should more clearly specify when it believes it will still be necessary for a knee replacement patient to be admitted to the hospital or how it would exempt knee replacement surgeries from the two-midnight rule, Huddleston said.
The agency hasn't yet responded to that suggestion, so the AAHKS will lobby Congress, Huddleston said.
The nation's largest hospital lobbying group disagreed with the AAHKS survey.
"The decision to admit a patient has traditionally been up to the judgment of the treating physician, with oversight from the hospital and input from the patient," said Joanna Hiatt Kim, the American Hospital Association's vice president of payment policy.
Others questioned how wide spread the phenomena AAHKS described is.
"Anecdotally I am seeing the exact opposite," said Dr. Ronald Hirsch, a vice president at R1 Physician Advisory Services, a consulting firm on billing matters for providers. "Surgeons are insisting on inpatient status and not budging."
That insistence is because of bundled pay models, which do not include outpatient surgeries and provide bonuses when doctors control costs for certain episodes of care.
"That means there is little chance of savings at the end of the year," he said.