Conference Coverage

Clinicians, CMS confer over heart failure–readmission penalty



– Mounting evidence shows that heart failure patient mortality increased as an unintended consequence of a Medicare program that penalizes hospitals with too many 30-day readmissions of heart failure patients. This has prompted discussions among cardiologists, Medicare officials, and other stakeholders in an attempt to modify the penalty program so it no longer considers just readmissions but instead bases penalties on broader and more nuanced measures of patient outcomes.

Dr. Gregg C. Fonarow, professor of medicine, University of California, Los Angeles. Mitchel L. Zoler/MDedge News

Dr. Gregg C. Fonarow

Staffers at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the federal agency that manages Medicare, “said that they take this seriously and will look into it, and they are interested in next-generation measures that are more patient centered” than simply the 30-day readmission rate, Gregg C. Fonarow, MD, said in an interview at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology. “This is a case where there is credible evidence of increased mortality that is consistent, reproducible, and strongly associated with the penalty and cannot be otherwise explained,” said Dr. Fonarow, professor of medicine and cochief of cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He is among the most active researchers to document that, while CMS’s Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP) led to significantly reduced readmission rates in patients with heart failure, this came at a cost of a significant increase in mortality among the same patients. For example, an article he published in 2018 that analyzed more than 115,000 Medicare beneficiaries during 2006-2014 showed that during the penalty phase, which began in 2012, readmissions fell after adjustment by a relative 8%, but adjusted mortality rose by a relative 10%, compared with how patients had fared prior to launching the HRRP (JAMA Cardiol. 2018 Jan;3[1]:44-53). Recent reports from other research groups have had similar findings, such as a study of more than 3 million Medicare beneficiaries with heart failure during 2005-2015 that also showed significantly increased mortality after the penalty phase for readmissions began (JAMA. 2018 Dec 25;320[24]:2542-52). In a commentary that accompanied this report, Dr. Fonarow cited the multiple analyses that show consistent findings and the need for CMS to “initiate an expeditious reconsideration and revision” of their current approach to penalizing hospitals for heart failure readmissions (JAMA. 2018 Dec 25;320[24]:2539-41).

The groups recently in discussion with CMS about this issue include the American College of Cardiology, the American Heart Association, the Heart Failure Society of America, the American College of Physicians, the American Hospital Association, and several other medical professional groups, said Biykem Bozkurt, MD, who has worked with Dr. Fonarow and representatives from these organizations in talks with CMS.

Dr. Biykem Bozkurt

“We are trying to find a harmonized approach with patient-centric outcomes that reflect true improvements in quality of care,” she said in an interview. One possibility up for consideration is a combined measure of heart failure readmissions, mortality, and a patient-reported outcome. The measure would go to CMS directly from each patient’s electronic medical record, making data collection less burdensome to clinicians, said Dr. Bozkurt, professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and cardiology section chief at the VA Medical Center in Houston. She expressed hope that a change in the CMS metric might happen later this year.

“CMS can’t simply stop the HRRP, so the discussion is on how to get a meaningful change. I’m increasingly optimistic, because the findings of harm [from current policies] are impossible to ignore,” Dr. Fonarow said. “There will be increasing pressure on CMS to develop a pathway to make modifications. It’s egregious to continue a policy that’s been associated with harm” to heart failure patients.

Dr. Fonarow and Dr. Bozkurt had no relevant commercial disclosures.

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