The National Alliance of Safety-Net Hospitals has submitted formal comments to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in response to the latter’s proposed hospital payment plan for FY 2020.
Responding to the proposed inpatient prospective payment system published by CMS in April, NASH primarily addressed a CMS proposal to change how it calculates Medicare disproportionate share (Medicare DSH) uncompensated care payments and proposed changes in the Medicare area wage index system.
In this first of three parts, the NASH blog presents the alliance’s written comments about proposed changes in Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments. Tomorrow the blog presents a more detailed look at NASH’s alternative proposal for calculating Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments. On Thursday the blog presents NASH’s response to proposed changes in the Medicare area wage index system. The complete NASH response to the proposed CMS regulation can be found here.
The Calculation of Medicare DSH Uncompensated Care Payments
The Present Challenge
When the Affordable Care Act divided Medicare DSH payments into two components, one of which was a Medicare DSH uncompensated care payment that was to be based entirely on how much uncompensated care hospitals provide, it created a major challenge for policy-makers: how to determine how much uncompensated care hospitals provide. Lacking a clear, credible source of uncompensated care data to use for this purpose, CMS for three years – from 2014 through 2016 – used a proxy for hospital uncompensated care based on two low-income variables: eligible hospitals’ Medicaid patients and their SSI patients.
In 2017, CMS announced that it would move away from this proxy and begin a three-year transition into a different source of data for hospital uncompensated care: line 30 of the S-10 worksheet of the Medicare cost report, where hospitals report their uncompensated care. At that time CMS also announced that it would begin calculating hospitals’ Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments based on three years worth of data. The purpose of using three years of data was to reduce undue fluctuations in hospitals’ Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments from one year to the next.
For years, NASH (previously the National Association of Urban Hospitals) and others have urged CMS to prepare for future use of S-10 data for this purpose in two ways:
- By improving the instructions for completing the form, which have widely been viewed as confusing and have led to hospitals reporting their uncompensated care in many different ways – including ways it is virtually inconceivable that CMS ever intended. Representatives of NASH met with CMS officials on several occasions in recent years to share examples of hospitals reporting uncompensated care data that totally lacked credibility and to discuss specific aspects of the S-10’s instructions that give rise to inconsistent and inaccurate data reporting.
- By auditing hospitals’ reported S-10 data to ensure that they are reporting this data accurately and in compliance with the S-10’s instructions. NASH has been urging CMS to audit S-10 data for nine years – ever since passage of the Affordable Care Act created the new Medicare DSH uncompensated care payment and it appeared inevitable that the S-10 would eventually be used in the calculation of that payment. Auditing is necessary because NASH’s reviews of the uncompensated care data hospitals reported on their S-10 in recent years revealed that some hospitals are reporting enormous amounts of uncompensated care that simply cannot be believed in the context of their size, their operating expenses, and their other patient revenue. NASH has shared these reviews with CMS officials on a number of occasions. If left unaddressed, this inaccurate reporting would greatly skew the distribution of the limited pool of Medicare DSH uncompensated care money, inappropriately rewarding some hospitals for their inaccurate data and unfairly penalizing others.
Now, NASH is concerned that while work on both of these tasks is under way, that work remains incomplete at this time. CMS has made progress in improving the S-10’s instructions, as can be seen by what NASH believes are improvements in the quality of the data hospitals are reporting. Despite this, further improvements may still be needed. The auditing is not nearly as far along: as described below, the very limited auditing that has been undertaken so far has been troubled and insufficient.
CMS Proposes Using Flawed Data for FY 2020
In its proposed FY 2020 Medicare inpatient prospective payment system regulation, CMS calls for using uncompensated care data from hospitals’ FY 2015 S-10 forms when calculating FY 2020 Medicare DSH uncompensated care and also asks interested parties to share their view on the possibility of using FY 2017 S-10 data instead of the 2015 data. NASH believes that neither FY 2015 data nor FY 2017 data is suitable for this purpose.
NASH opposes the use of hospitals’ FY 2015 data as the single source of data in the calculation of FY 2020 Medicare DSH uncompensated care reports because while this was the first such uncompensated care data CMS audited, that auditing so far has been not sufficient to give hospitals – and taxpayers – confidence that federal Medicare DSH uncompensated care funds will find their way to the hospitals providing the greatest verified amount of uncompensated care. Among the problems that arose during the first round of auditing were inadequate time frames for hospitals to submit data to auditors; rushed auditing; the use of different auditing methodologies in different parts of the country, between the different Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), and even within individual MAC regions; and the lack of comprehensive auditing, with only about 20 percent of affected hospitals actually audited. In its proposed FY 2020 Medicare inpatient prospective payment system regulation, CMS revealed that “approximately 10 percent of audited hospitals have more than a $20 million difference between their audited FY 2015 data and their unaudited FY 2016 data.” CMS also observed that some hospitals have suggested that had the S-10 instructions developed for FY 2017 – instructions that clearly represented an improvement over past instructions – been in place when they completed their FY 2015 S-10 reports, those 2015 reports would have had fewer errors and been more accurate. Together, these problems lead NASH to oppose the use of S-10 data from hospitals’ FY 2015 Medicare cost reports in calculating hospitals’ FY 2020 Medicare DSH payments, even when that data has been audited, because auditing was only undertaken for a relatively small proportion of hospitals.
NASH also opposes CMS’s suggested alternative to using FY 2015: using FY 2017 data as the single source of data in the calculation of Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments. That data remains entirely unaudited, and while the instructions that guided hospitals during completion of their S-10 forms for FY 2017 are generally thought to be clearer and better than those used in FY 2015, there is, at least at this time, little reason to believe this unaudited data as a whole is any more accurate and any more credible than FY 2015 data. Upon reviewing this data, NASH found evidence of some improved data but also numerous examples of reported uncompensated care data that simply lack credibility – generally, hospitals reporting so much uncompensated care that it seems inconceivable that their doors could remain open. In addition, while hospitals that did undergo auditing of their FY 2015 data undoubtedly learned lessons that will improve their ability to complete future S-10 reports, 80 percent of DSH-eligible hospitals have not yet undergone those audits and therefore are not better prepared to complete future S-10s worksheets.
One Year of Data is Insufficient
The proposed FY 2020 regulation also calls for another change: calculating FY 2020 payments based on one year of data instead of three, as has been the case in recent years. NASH opposes this shift in approach. With so little auditing completed and the auditing that has been done of questionable value, NASH opposes any methodology for calculating hospitals’ Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments that relies on data from just a single year. In addition to the problems specific to 2015 and 2017 data, outlined above, NASH objects to using data from just one year because the possibility of aberrant data from any one year skewing the distribution of Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments is too great.
CMS is on record expressing this same view, writing in the final FY 2017 regulation that
…because the data used to make uncompensated care payment determinations are not subject to reconciliation after the end of the fiscal year, we believe that it would be appropriate to expand the time period for the data used to calculate Factor 3 from one cost reporting period to three cost reporting periods. We stated that using data from more than one cost reporting period would mitigate undue fluctuations in the amount of uncompensated care payments to hospitals from year to year and smooth over anomalies between cost reporting periods.
We stated that we believe that computing Factor 3 using data from three cost reporting periods would best stabilize hospitals’ uncompensated care payments while maintaining the recency of the data used in the Factor 3 calculation. We indicated that we believe using data from two cost reporting periods would not be as stable while using data from more than three cost reporting periods could result in using overly dated information.
Until now, CMS had insisted on basing these payments on three years of data even after it shifted from basing payments on the low-income proxy to uncompensated care data as reported on the S-10. Now, however, it proposes changing its approach and basing the payments’ calculation on just a single year of data, leaving hospitals potentially vulnerable to precipitous declines in their Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments because of either one unusual year of their own activity or questionable reporting by other hospitals.
Accuracy in S-10 reporting is so important because Medicare DSH payments are made out of a single pool of federal funds, with hospitals drawing from that pool based on the amount of uncompensated care they provide in comparison to other DSH-eligible hospitals. As a result, every hospital’s reporting affects how much Medicare DSH uncompensated care money every other DSH-eligible hospital receives. Whether the result of misinterpreting the S-10’s instructions, placing the wrong data on the wrong line on the form, an accounting or mathematical error, or an attempt to maximize their potential Medicare DSH uncompensated care revenue, some hospitals could unfairly receive a windfall of Medicare DSH uncompensated care money – and they would do so at the expense of other hospitals, including those that reported their data exactly as CMS intended. Conversely, the same reporting mistakes could result in aberrant data in which some hospitals’ uncompensated care is under-reported, resulting in such hospitals not receiving the Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments to which they should reasonably be entitled.
An Alternative Approach: NASH’s Proposal
NASH proposes an alternative to CMS’s plan for calculating hospitals’ FY 2020 Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments: a three-year proposal that would cover FY 2020, FY 2021, and FY 2022. At the heart of this proposal is NASH’s belief – a belief CMS in the past made very clear that it shares – that these payments should be made based on more than one year of hospitals’ S-10 data. Using more than one year of data would help smooth the overall data and ensure that no single year’s aberrant data, whether the result of reporting error or just an unusual year in the life of a hospital, inappropriately skews calculations in ways that unfairly benefit or harm any hospitals or has wide-ranging effects that can be felt throughout the universe of the approximately 2,430 hospitals that will be eligible for Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments in FY 2020.
NASH has concluded that the more recent the data is, the more likely it will be reliable – or at least closer to reliable – for three reasons: first, CMS has improved the S-10’s instructions since 2015, suggesting that data reported after 2015 should be more reliable than it was that year or prior to that year; second, future auditing should uncover flaws in hospitals’ data reporting practices that hospitals will correct in the future, leading to more accurate reporting as time passes; and third, improved auditing will enable CMS to adjust hospitals’ reported uncompensated care totals, which also should make future data more accurate.
With this in mind – using more recent data, including audited data, and the value of using data from more than one year – NASH suggests that instead of adopting its proposed methodology, CMS instead use the following methodology for calculating Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments over the next three years:
For FY 2020 (year one of three):
Calculate Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments based on a blend that consists two-thirds of the Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments hospitals receive in FY 2019 and one-third on hospitals’ calculated share of the overall Medicare DSH uncompensated care pool for FY 2017.
For FY 2021 (year two of three):
Calculate Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments based on a blend that consists one-third of the Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments hospitals receive in FY 2019 and two-thirds on the average of hospitals’ calculated share of the overall Medicare DSH uncompensated care pool for FY 2017 and FY 2018.
For FY 2022 (year three of three):
Calculate Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments based on the average of hospitals’ calculated share of the overall Medicare DSH uncompensated care pool for FY 2017, FY 2018, and FY 2019.
By using this approach, CMS would reduce the importance of unreliable 2015 data in the calculation of Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments and instead use the most credible data available at the time of the calculation for each of the three years. Most important, adopting NASH’s alternative proposal would buy CMS time: time to improve its auditing, time to do more auditing, time to engage in additional provider education to ensure that hospitals understand how to comply with Medicare’s uncompensated care data reporting requirements, and time to refine the S-10’s instructions still further if the outcome of future auditing suggests that improvements are still needed. NASH’s proposed alternative also would eliminate the need for any auditing of hospitals’ FY 2016 S-10 data, which is not needed to implement this alternative approach. NASH’s proposed approach also takes advantage of the two major advances CMS has implemented in recent years: better S-10 instructions and a commitment to auditing. Together, these steps can help ensure that future uncompensated care data reporting is more accurate and can constitute an appropriate foundation for the calculation of Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments during the next three years and do so without the volatility inherent in potentially significant swings in hospitals’ annual Medicare DSH uncompensated care payments – swings that CMS made a point of expressing its concern about in the past. Until then, NASH believes our alternative approach to that calculation for the next three years would produce more appropriate payments to hospitals
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See NASH’s entire response to the proposed Medicare regulation here.
Tomorrow: more details about NASH’s alternative Medicare DSH uncompensated care proposal.