While Medicare’s readmissions reduction program has produced a decline in the number of Medicare readmissions within 30 days of discharge, critics – among them the National Association of Urban Hospitals – argue that the program is unfair to hospitals that serve especially large numbers of low-income patients whose distinct needs pose a greater risk of requiring readmission to address.

In a new report, the journal Health Affairs notes that such arguments have given rise to a number of proposals for possible changes in the readmissions reduction program. Among them, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission

…has proposed a revision to the method for calculating readmissions. Rather than including patient SES [note: socio-economic status] in the risk-adjustment step, which MedPAC argues would take years to develop empirically and could mask true quality disparities, MedPAC suggests grouping hospitals into peer groups based on their share of low-income Medicare patients and then set readmissions targets for each peer group. Put another way, hospitals with similar shares of low-income patients would be compared with each other instead of all hospitals.

health affairsOther suggestions for modifying the readmissions reduction program include shortening the window on readmissions, which might better reflect the quality of care a hospital provides rather than the nature of the patients it serves; changing the quality measures on which hospitals are judged, choosing new measures that might be less sensitive to socio-economic factors; and providing additional financial or other support to hospitals that serve especially large numbers of low-income patients.

To learn more about the kinds of challenges Medicare’s hospital readmissions reduction program pose and what might be done to address them without discarding the program entirely, go here for the Health Affairs article “The Challenges Of Rewarding Value Over Volume Without Penalizing Safety-Net Hospitals.”