Noteworthy News

NAUH Comments on Proposed Changes in Medicare Payments (Part 3 of 3)

In a letter to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the National Association of Urban Hospitals has offered extensive comments on CMS’s proposed regulation describing how it intends to pay hospitals for Medicare-covered services in FY 2019.  NAUH offered these comments in response to CMS’s request for stakeholder input.

In this space yesterday NAUH presented its comments on the Medicare Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program, quality reporting, multi-campus hospitals, and documentation required for Medicare cost reports.  On Wednesday NAUH presented its comments to CMS regarding how the agency proposes calculating Medicare disproportionate share (Medicare DSH) payments in the coming fiscal year.  Today, NAUH shares its views on aspects of the proposed regulation that address the Medicare hospital readmissions reduction program, Medicare’s quality reporting program, multi-campus hospitals, and documentation required when filing Medicare cost reports.

Today, NAUH shares its response to CMS’s request for comments on the Medicare area wage index system.

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Medicare Area Wage Index:   Response to Request for Comment

While acknowledging the challenges that the current Medicare area wage index poses at times, in general NAUH supports the current Medicare area wage index system and believes it superior to any alternative that has been proposed in recent years.  We believe wage adjustments based on the cost of labor in different parts of this country are absolutely essential for Medicare because those costs vary so greatly in different geographic areas.  The concerns periodically expressed by some that certain parts of the country are ill-served by the current wage index system are, in our view, based on sentiment and emotion rather than on fact; the data does not support their assertions, and when circumstances change, the current system gives those who feel ill-served by that system ample and fair opportunities to address what they perceive to be inappropriate treatment.

We are especially concerned about a proposal that appears to resurface every few years:  that the wage data upon which wage adjustments are made should come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) rather than from actual, real-time hospital wage data.  NAUH believes this is a bad idea.  We do not see the value of using broad categories of data that fail to reflect real employment markets and conditions when actual hospital wage data that does reflect actual hospital wage costs is available and verifiable.

One of the most important factors in wage index calculations, for example, is wages paid to nurses.  BLS data, however, does not capture important differences within the nursing profession, inappropriately lumping nurses who work in different settings into a single category.  In so doing, BLS data ignores the sometimes considerable differences in skill and education levels required of nurses in different settings – hospitals, nursing homes, doctors’ offices, public health facilities, and others – and the considerable differences in wages required to recruit nurses to these different settings and then retain them.  Hospital nurses, for example, require a different, higher level of skill and education than nurses in other settings.  They also work in a more stressful environment and work less desirable hours, including evening and overnight shifts.  As a result, hospitals must offer nurses more money than nursing homes, doctors’ offices, and others.  Some states, moreover, have legal nurse staffing requirements that increase the demand for hospital nurses, which in turn increases how much money hospitals must pay to ensure that they can meet their nurse staffing requirements.  BLS data reflects none of these distinctions and therefore would offer a poor foundation upon which to make broad policy decisions that would have a major impact on hospitals and, no less important, on the communities hospitals serve.  In addition, reporting wage data to BLS is voluntary, and in any geographic areas where BLS concludes that it did not receive enough responses to calculate average wage costs, it infers such data.  NAUH disapproves of this approach and again believes it is better to use actual hospital wage data than incomplete and possibly even inferred data.

NAUH strongly encourages CMS to reject any shift to the use of BLS data in the calculation of Medicare wage adjustments and instead urges CMS to continue to base hospital wage adjustments on real hospital wage costs as reported by hospitals and as audited periodically by CMS.  In addition, if CMS wishes to pursue possible changes in the wage index system, NAUH urges it subject the process to fresh analysis – many of the reviews that call attention to the system’s challenges are outdated – and to convene a broad-based group of providers and other stakeholders to evaluate the challenges and explore potential improvements or alternatives.

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