How are hospitals supposed to reduce readmissions? Part II

The notion that hospitals can reduce readmissions, and that punishing them for “excess” readmissions will get them to do that, became conventional wisdom during the 2000s on the basis of very little evidence. The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) urged Congress to enact the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP) beginning in 2007, and in 2010 Congress did so. State Medicaid programs and private insurers quickly adopted similar programs.

The rapid adoption of readmission-penalty programs without evidence confirming they can work has created widespread concern that these programs are inducing hospitals to increase utilization of emergency rooms and observation units to reduce readmissions within 30 days of discharge (the measure adopted by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services [CMS] in its final rule on the HRRP), and this in turn may be harming sicker patients. Determining whether hospitals are gaming the HRRP and other readmission-penalty schemes by diverting patients to ERs and observation units (and perhaps by other means) should be a high priority for policy-makers. [1]

In Part I of this series I proposed to address the question of whether hospitals are gaming the HRRP by asking (a) does research exist describing methods by which hospitals can reduce readmissions under the HRRP and, in the event the answer is yes, (b) does that research demonstrate that those methods cost no more than hospitals save. If the answer to the first question is no, that would lend credence to the argument that the HRRP and other readmission-penalty schemes are contributing to rising rates of emergency visits and observation stays. If the answer to second question is also no, that would lend even more credence to the argument that hospitals are gaming the HRRP.

In Part I, I noted that proponents of readmission penalties, including MedPAC and the Yale New Haven Health Services Corporation (hereafter the “Yale group”), have claimed or implied that hospitals have no excuse for not reducing readmission rates because research has already revealed numerous methods of reducing readmissions without gaming. I also noted many experts disagree, and quoted a 2019 statement by the Agency for Healthcare Quality that “there is no consensus” on what it is hospitals are supposed to do to reduce readmissions.

In this article, I review the research MedPAC cited in its June 2007 report to Congress, the report that the authors of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) cited in Section 3025 (the section that instructed CMS to establish the HRRP). In Part III of this series I will review the studies cited by the Yale group in their 2011 report to CMS recommending the algorithm by which CMS calculates “excess” readmissions under the HRRP. We will see that the research these two groups relied upon did not justify support for the HRRP, and did not describe interventions hospitals could use to reduce readmissions as the HRRP defines “readmission.” The few studies cited by these groups that did describe an intervention that could reduce readmissions: