The release of the list of Illinois hospitals penalized for avoidable readmission of Medicaid patients in a was interesting reading! While the list was led by two brand name hospitals, Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Rush University Medical Center, the list also included John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County, University of Illinois, University of Chicago, St. Mary, St. Catherine, and others with long histories of treating the poor and disadvantaged.
Policy wonks argue that the only way to reduce delivery system fragmentation, which is known to cause quality gaps, is by creating penalties that force changes in the structure of the delivery system. Development of metrics that force hospitals to be responsible for care beyond their current control has become much more common. Why? Because it’s the hospital that has the staff and financial resources to make changes in the delivery system across the community. If the penalty is high enough, the hospitals will innovate to avoid the penalties, ultimately transforming the healthcare system.
Transformation requires innovation, trial, and error, and the ability to rapidly correct error. Setting policies that attempt to drive innovation in the delivery system via stiff penalties is innovative itself! This approach might be reasonable if government could act fast enough to adjust for error inherent in the innovation process. However, in a democracy, government is deliberative by definition, and therefore slow to act. It is especially unfortunate that states are piling on to extend avoidable readmission penalties without taking into account socio-economic conditions of patients. Both state and federal government could simply exempt or reduce the impact of the penalties on safety net hospitals now. There are existing socio-economic adjustment methodologies that have been used for over a decade by health systems like Dignity Health. Neither solution is perfect, but fast action is necessary to reduce safety net hospital financial harm that is being exacerbated by the state “pile on.”
There is no doubt that the government is trying to innovate, and I applaud those efforts. Using hospital penalties to drive innovation and delivery system structural change might even work well in some cases. But the risk of government’s inadvertent commission of “avoidable error” is too great, given its slowness to act. It would be better to run a few small pilots first to get the kinks out. Then, when the piling on occurs, it will not hurt those that are already hurting.
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Senior Vice President, Performance Improvement and 100 Top Hospitals