Posts Tagged deferral of ED care

CMS and Washington State Conspire to Take Emergency Physician Services Illegally

In response to a suit by emergency physicians and hospitals in Washington State that led to a judicial injunction against the State’s plan to restrict Medicaid payment for ED visits, the State of Washington’s Health Care Authority has conspired with CMS to require emergency physicians to provide services to Medicaid enrollees for free. Emergency physicians are required by law (EMTALA) to provide medical screening services (and stabilizing care) to anyone who presents to an emergency department, and these physicians are subject to severe fines and penalties if they fail to provide these services.

CMS is well aware of this obligation, yet this agency has notified the State of Washington that the Medicaid program may ‘proceed under its existing authority to pay for only medically necessary Emergency Room visits’ based on a list of so-called ‘non-emergency diagnoses’ submitted on claims to the Medicaid program in that State (and presumably, other states that want to use the same process). Thus, the federal government is requiring emergency physicians to perform a medical screening evaluation (which can be as simple as a brief history and exam, or as complicated as a full and thorough evaluation to rule out subtle but potentially life threatening medical conditions), but is telling federally-funded state Medicaid programs that they need not pay the emergency physician for this service if it turns out the patient does not have a medical emergency, based on this list of final diagnoses. When a government mandates a service from private individuals, and refuses to pay for that service, this is tantamount an unconstitutional and illegal taking of services, and is surely a violation of the physician’s rights.

Curiously, CMS does not allow Medicaid Managed Care Plans in any state to use a list of final diagnoses to preclude payment to emergency physicians or hospitals for these screening and stabilization services. Many states explicitly require payment for medical screening services even when no medical emergency is detected. It is pretty clear that Washington State’s HCA is pushing back hard on emergency care providers for having the gall to use the courts to defy their authority. Resorting to this kind of abusive policy, knowing that it is likely to undermine the financial viability of the safety net and the ability of emergency care providers to meet the needs of all of Washington’s citizens, goes beyond the pale.

The list of so-called non-emergency diagnoses that WA HCA has come up with provides a clear indication of the extent to which this agency will go. This list includes such diagnoses as: hyposmolality (which can cause coma), hemopthalmos (hemorrhage in the eye), foreign body in the hand (often causes infection), multiple contusions (as in getting a beating), pregnancy, etc. Even if every single one of these diagnoses can be managed in a physician’s office, it is important to understand that to get to these diagnoses, it is often necessary to rule out other conditions that may look very similar, but are far more serious, even life-threatening. Performing a cursory medical screening exam in an ED is a prescription for a very expensive EMTALA violation, a hospital’s loss of the right to treat Medicare patients, and a malpractice suit that can end a career. Requiring emergency care providers to perform these evaluations on Medicaid enrollees, and then refusing to compensate them for the effort (and the risk), is just reprehensible.

This post was also published in The Fickle Finger (

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Medicaid Managed Care Does Not Provide Better Access than FFS Medicaid for Non-emergency Care

The folks who run Medicaid Managed Care Plans often gripe about their enrollees using emergency departments for non-emergency care. And of course, they do, and probably more so than commercially insured enrollees. Most state and federal government regulators and legislators believe that capitation and managed care models for Medicaid can reduce the inappropriate use of ED services by Medicaid patients by incentives that encourage primary care providers in managed care organizations to increase access for their enrollees to extended office hours or next-day appointments for urgently needed, non-emergency care. Recently, the Obama administration decided to kill a proposed plan to use ‘secret shoppers’ to determine whether, in fact, enrollees can get such appointments when they need them, in the face of considerable opposition from these very medical-home advocates. In the ED, we constantly hear from Medicaid Managed Care enrollees who come to the ED because they could not get a timely appointment from their PCP or clinic, but anecdote is not the best evidence, and there is not a lot of recent research about timely access for Medicaid patients (I think because no one in government or health care policy really wants to know). Therefor, we must look to indirect evidence of this phenomenon.

Recently, I had the chance to review claims data from 138,129 Medicaid Managed Care (MCMC) enrollees and 107,125 Medicaid Fee for Service (MFFS) patients seen consecutively in about 65 EDs in 6 states states over the first 4 months of 2010. Using ED physician charges (all under the same fee schedule) as a surrogate for ‘acuity’, all of these claims were stratified into 20th percentiles, from highest charges to lowest, for the MCMC and FFS patients. If you think about things like ‘deferral of ED care’, the patients who might be the least likely to require emergency care would fall into the bottom 20th percentile of ED physician charges, the least ‘acute’ patients using the least amount of ED physician services. These 20th percentile groupings offered an interesting comparison between MCMC and MFFS.

Here is how the comparison looked:

Medicaid Managed Care: 41.55% of all ED visits for these MC enrollees were in the lowest 20th percentile of charges (representing 26.57% of total ED MD charges for all MCMC enrollees)

Medicaid Fee-for Service: 36.72% of all ED visits for these FFS enrollees were in the lowest 20th percentile of charges (representing 21.14% of total ED MD charges for all MFFS enrollees)

Some of this discrepancy may be accounted for by the fact that the average charge for the MCMC patients was slightly (8%) higher than the average charge for the MFFS patients, but at best what this data suggests is that MCMC plans and capitated medical groups do not provide any better access to enrollees for urgently needed, non-emergency office or clinic appointments than their counterparts providing services to Medicaid patients on a FFS plan. If this were not the case, the numbers would be very different. So much for incentives. I guess as long as these MCMC organizations and plans can continue to underpay ED providers for after-hours urgent care to under-served Medicaid enrollees and not worry about ‘adequate access’ oversight, this isn’t likely to change.

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Much Ado About Very Little – the Deferral of ED Care Boondoggle

Boondoggle – a scheme that wastes time and money. Perhaps this is not the best way to describe the many efforts that are being made to try to keep patients with non-urgent problems from using the emergency department, but from where I sit, deferral of ED care is a cost-saving tactic that not only fails to deliver much in the way of cost savings, it also is a strategy that can be both risky and unethical. More importantly, the focus on deferral of care and ‘unnecessary ED visits’ as a cost-containment tactic is a distraction from efforts that would yield far more savings at far less risk to patients, and to our fragile emergency care safety net.

Recently, I worked with one of the major health plans to look at over 637,000 consecutive commercial and Medicaid California ED patient visits over a one-year period (excluding ED patients who were admitted to the hospital). Based on the data below, it is clear that those 20% of patient visits that represented the least costly visits (facility plus professional ‘allowable payments’) accounted for less than 4% of the total cost for all non-admitted ED patient visits.

Rank            Total Allowed             % of Total Allowed
1                 $520,314,096                       54%
2                 $195,156,385                       20%
3                 $129,376,962                       13%
4                  $84,949,393                          9%
5                  $33,929,559                          4%

Remember, this data just represents patients who were not admitted (facility costs for ED care of admitted patients are bundled into inpatient payments). Thus, it is likely that the bottom 20% of admitted, discharged, and transferred ED patient visits likely represented between 2 and 3% of the total cost of care for all ED visits. ACEP has been saying for a while now that (depending on the source of the data) ED care accounts for around 2% of the $2.4 trillion spent on all health care costs. Now the estimates of the percentage of ED patients who ‘don’t need to be there’ or have ‘non-urgent’ or ‘non-emergency’ problems is a bit more wide-ranging, depending on the agenda of the estimator; and numbers as low as 10% and as high as 50% get thrown around all the time. The Rand Corporation put the number at 17%, the CDC at 8%, and HCA Gulf Coast Hospitals put the number at 40% !!! Clearly, no one seems to be able to define this group in a standardized way, but it is clear that as the poster child for unnecessary and expensive care, the ED has become the target of many attempts to reduce costs by keeping patients out of the ED, or sending them away, based on screening criteria that may, or may not, meet EMTALA standards. Much has been written about the down-sides of the deferral of ED care strategy, and ACEP has a policy that opposes deferral of care, especially when it is not accompanied by adequate access to alternative care venues and carefully designed programs to arrange for timely and appropriate care for those whose care in the ED is deferred. Most ED physicians agree that the way to reduce unnecessary visits to the ED is by improving access for non-urgent care in clinics and primary care offices. However, my issue with all the hubbub about cost-containment through deferral (or denial) of ED care goes beyond the ethical and risk issues: it simply is not a cost-effective strategy.

Let’s assume that it is possible to accurately identify and screen the patients that do not need ED care without missing the patients who really do have an impending medical emergency in the early stages of presentation, and that we could reasonably eliminate the 20% of ED visits that use the least amount of ED resources. I don’t actually believe this is possible, but let’s make this assumption. If it were, we could reduce the US health care budget by something like 3% x 2%, or 0.06%. But wait- surely some money would have to be spent caring for most of these patients in the clinic or PCP’s office. So perhaps the actual savings from deferral of ED care might amount to 0.05% of the health care budget (50 cents for every $1,000). Probably, the number is even lower. Yes, I know, it is real money, but in relative terms, they call this ‘budget dust’.

The study on ED visits in CA that I mentioned above also looked at costs by procedure and costs by diagnosis for those 637,000 patients. I was surprised to learn that renal and ureteral stones accounted for $25 million of the $963 million spent on all these patients. So, roughly, the same amount of money was spent taking care of 7,900 patients with kidney stones as was spent on taking care of the 127,000 patients who might have qualified for deferral of ED care. In fact, the data from the Anthem study suggested that we could save as much money by reducing the number of CT scans done in the ED by 1 out of 12 scans as we could by barring the door of the ED to every single one of the 127,000 patients in this study who accounted for the lowest 20% of ED costs.  My point is that all sorts of legislators and health plan executives and government regulators are screaming about, and scheming about, reducing unnecessary ED visits, and distracting us all from focusing on where the real money gets spent, and the real savings could be achieved. You want to talk about saving health care dollars: let’s look at back surgery, depression, end of life care, obesity. But no, the focus of TENCare and HCA and the Dr. Thompson’s in Washington State and elsewhere is on the ‘imprudent’ parent who takes their screaming, vomiting, febrile 2 year old child into the ED at 3 AM, only to be diagnosed with a lowly ear infection. And to top it off, the solution to this problem that many Medicaid program directors and legislators have lit upon, the best way to keep these patients out of the ED, is simply to decide, after the fact, not to pay the ED physician for having provided this care. Yep, that makes a lot of sense.

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