Describe the importance of nursing to the delivery of high-quality health care has been recognized since the inception of the practice of nursing.
Describe the importance of nursing to the delivery of high-quality health care has been recognized since the inception of the practice of nursing.
Taken as a whole, the inclusion in the Affordable Care Act of these carrots and sticks aimed at different types of providers suggests a tension over whom to pay and how to pay them to improve care transitions. On the one hand, the payment cuts that high-readmission hospitals nationwide will soon face create an expectation that hospitals take responsibility for improving care transitions using existing resources. But the fact that another program will provide new care transitions payments to hospitals and community-based organizations suggests that they may require additional resources to provide these services.
And although physicians’ performance on care transitions quality measures will be reported on Physician Compare, no provision in the Affordable Care Act requires hospitals to alert physicians when their patients are discharged, typically the needed first step before a physician can become involved in a care transition.
Other Policy Options
If these Affordable Care Act provisions fail to improve care transitions or if CMS decides to pursue other policies, the agency’s statutory authority gives it some additional options, as follows:
• Pay physicians for care transition services. Under the Medicare physician fee schedule, CMS could create a new billing code that would enable physicians to bill for delivery of care transition services. In a proposed rule issued in July 2012, CMS would create a code to bill for care transition services delivered to Medicare beneficiaries in the 30 days following a discharge from a hospital, skilled nursing facility, or community mental health center. The code would apply to Medicare patients whose medical or psychosocial problems, or both, require moderate or high complexity medical decision making.
To qualify for the new payment, physicians would have to obtain and review a patient’s hospital discharge summary, update the patient’s medical records to reflect changes in health conditions and ongoing treatments, and establish or adjust a patient’s care plan. Physicians would be required to communicate with a beneficiary or their caregiver within 2 business days of discharge to resolve medication discrepancies and inform them about possible complications. Whether physicians will consider the payment level assigned to this billing code adequate for the effort required, however, remains unclear.
• Track whether hospitals transmit records to physicians. Another policy option would be to add a care transitions measure to Medicare’s Hospital Inpatient Quality Reporting program, a pay-for-reporting program. Adding such a measure would create a modest incentive for hospitals to better communicate with physicians about patients’ hospitalizations, especially if CMS chose to include that measure in the subset that is displayed on the Hospital Compare website (www.medicare.gov/physiciancompare/search.html?AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1).
If CMS wanted to further elevate hospitals’ focus on this measure, it could include it in the subset of measures it uses in the Hospital Value-Based Purchasing Program, the new pay-for-performance program for hospitals created in the Affordable Care Act and scheduled to go into effect in October 2012.
A hospital-related care transitions measure has been developed by a group of physician specialty societies and endorsed by the National Quality Forum, a nonprofit organization that works with providers, consumer groups, and governments to establish and build consensus for specific health care quality and efficiency measures. This indicator, called Timely Transmission of Transition Record (measure no. 0648), measures how often a hospital sends a transition record to a patient’s physician within 24 hours of discharge. Having this information would allow primary care physicians to identify which patients needed follow-up care.
However, hospitals may not welcome this additional reporting burden because transmittal of such records to outpatient physicians is not a billable hospital service, which means claims data cannot be used to easily calculate how often such transmittals occur. Instead, for hospitals that don’t have good electronic health record systems, labor-intensive chart reviews would be required to calculate such a measure.
If CMS were to pay hospitals to develop discharge plans, discuss them with patients, and transmit them to outpatient physicians for follow-up care, the hospitals would have a greater incentive to perform these crucial activities. CMS could also then use the hospitals’ billing records for these services to calculate quality measures assessing how often the hospitals performed these important services.
However, in the current strained federal fiscal environment, offering a new carrot to hospitals may have little appeal for policymakers. Indeed, because Medicare already gives hospitals lump-sum payments to cover all the costs associated with a hospitalization and because Medicare’s conditions of participation require hospitals to have a discharge planning process in place, policymakers may feel hospitals are already being paid for care transition services but are simply not performing them as routinely as they should be.
• Strengthen hospital do-not-pay policies. Another policy stick would be to further limit payment for hospital readmissions. For example, CMS could extend its current policy of not paying for Medicare readmissions that occur within 24 hours of a hospital discharge for the same condition to 72 hours, or even 15 or 30 days, postdischarge. Doing so would require carefully defining which readmissions would be ineligible for payments and how to account for co-occurring conditions. Already, hospitals as a group are upset about CMS’s decision to penalize them for certain planned readmissions because they do not think it adequately distinguishes between readmissions that are truly necessary compared to readmissions that are truly preventable.
Given the current budgetary environment and the fact that Medicare is estimated to spend $12 billion per year on potentially preventable hospital readmissions, interest in improving care transitions to reduce Medicare spending is likely only to grow.
Although some care transitions interventions have generated cost savings, uncertainty remains over how best to encourage providers to use these approaches. Evaluation of the changes brought about by the Affordable Care Act will begin filling gaps in our knowledge. And if the health care law’s approaches fail to make a strong enough case for providers to pay attention to care transitions, policymakers may want to explore bigger carrots and sticks.
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The Women’s and Children’s Health Policy Center.
1Health Policy Brief: Care Transitions, Health Affairs, September 13, 2012. Written by Rachel Burton, Research Associate, Urban Institute. Editorial review by Eric Coleman, Division Head Health Care Policy and Research, University of Colorado Medical Campus; Debra J. Lipson, Senior Researcher, Mathematica Policy Research; Ted Agres, Senior Editor for Special Content, Health Affairs; Anne Schwartz, Deputy Editor, Health Affairs; and Susan Dentzer, Editor-in-Chief, Health Affairs. Health Policy Briefs are produced under a partnership of Health Affairs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Reprinted with permission.
Nurse Staffing Ratios
“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities.”
John F. Kennedy
The importance of nursing to the delivery of high-quality health care has been recognized since the inception of the practice of nursing. Various factors contribute to the quality of nursing care including the expertise of nursing staff, availability of supportive personnel and other health professionals, good communication among the care team, and the nurse/patient ratio. It was not until the early 2000s that high-quality empirical research found consistent relationships between licensed nurse staffing and the quality of patient care (Lang et al., 2004; Kane et al., 2007).
Concerns about the effects of changes in nurse staffing levels in the 1990s, combined with the increasing influence of nursing unions, resulted in the passage of California Assembly Bill (AB) 394 in 1999, the first comprehensive legislation in the United States to establish minimum staffing levels for registered nurses (RNs) and licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) in hospitals. This bill required that the California Department of Health Services (DHS) establish specific staffing ratios. These were announced in 2002 and implemented beginning in 2004. Since then, other states and the federal government have considered developing regulations for nurse staffing in hospitals. In 2014, for example, Massachusetts passed legislation mandating a ratio of one or two patients per nurse in intensive care units (Associated Press, 2014).
The Establishment of California’s Regulations
Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was substantial debate about the changes in hospital staffing that had occurred in the 1990s and the effects of such changes on the quality of care (Aiken, Sochalski, & Anderson, 1996; Spetz, 1998; Unruh & Fottler, 2006; Wunderlich, Sloan, & Davis, 1996). In some states, legislators and regulatory agencies considered staffing requirements with an aim to increase the numbers of nurses and other health care personnel working in hospitals and other settings. As the 1990s ended, a shortage of RNs emerged, and concern about poor staffing in hospitals continued (Kilborn, 1999). It was in this environment that AB 394 was passed by the California legislature. Previous Republican governors had vetoed similar legislation, but union-friendly Democratic Governor Gray Davis signed AB 394, satisfying union efforts to pass minimum-ratio legislation. AB 394 charged the California DHS with determining specific unit-by-unit nurse/patient ratios.
The DHS began an extensive effort to determine the new minimum nurse staffing ratios, with little research to guide them (Kravitz et al., 2002; Lang et al., 2004; Spetz et al., 2000). To help develop the proposed ratios, the DHS commissioned a study by researchers at the University of California, Davis (Kravitz et al., 2002). It also received recommendations about the ratios from stakeholders, ranging from the California Hospital Association (CHA) proposal of a ratio of 1 licensed nurse per 10 patients in medical-surgical units and the California Nurses Association recommendation of 1 517licensed nurse per 3 patients in medical-surgical units. The ratios established by DHS were between those recommended by the CHA and the unions, with a 1 : 6 ratio in medical-surgical units starting January 1, 2004, and a 1 : 5 ratio in medical-surgical units commencing in January 2005. Other units have higher minimum-ratio requirements. The minimum ratios do not replace the requirement that hospitals staff according to a patient classification system (PCS); if a hospital’s PCS indicates that higher staffing is needed, the hospital should staff accordingly.
What Has Happened as a Result of the Ratios?
The implementation of California’s minimum nurse staffing ratio legislation led to legal challenges and state government efforts to expand RN education. It also drove increases in hospital nurse staffing and wages in California. Several studies have found that the ratios are linked to higher nurse satisfaction, but there is little evidence that the regulations improved patient outcomes. Some research has found that there may have been negative impacts on hospitals’ finances and ability to provide charity care.
Two days before the ratios went into effect, the CHA filed a lawsuit arguing that the staffing ratios should not apply if a nurse takes a scheduled break or unscheduled restroom visit. The DHS contended that if the ratios were to have any meaning, they must be effective at all times. The judge hearing the case agreed with the DHS in a May 2004 ruling (Berestein, 2004). The second major legal challenge to the ratio regulations came from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who sought to delay the implementation of the stricter ratio of one licensed nurse to five patients scheduled for January 2005 due to the severe shortage of licensed nurses (Rapaport, 2004). The CHA filed suit against the DHS in December 2004 alleging that the emergency order had illegally bypassed the legislature (LaMar, 2005). In early March, a Superior Court judge tentatively ruled that the DHS had indeed not followed the law when issuing the emergency regulation (Salladay & Chong, 2005), and the judge’s decision was finalized in May 2005 (Benson, 2005a, 2005b; Gledhill, 2005).
Expansion of Nursing Education
To assist hospitals in meeting the staffing ratio rules, both former Governor Davis and Governor Schwarzenegger dedicated funds to expanding nursing education and reducing attrition from nursing programs. Between 2004 to 2005 and 2009 to 2010, nursing graduations in California increased by 72%, reaching over 11,500 new RN graduates per year (Spetz, 2013).
Are Hospitals Meeting the Ratios?
The inspection and enforcement mechanisms of the DHS are relatively weak. The DHS does not have the authority to impose fines or monetary penalties on hospitals that are found to violate the ratios, but instead requests and monitors plans submitted by hospitals to remedy the problem. However, other mechanisms do exist to ensure that hospitals adhere to the ratios. First, government payers such as Medicare and Medi-Cal (the state Medicaid program) require that hospitals meet all state and federal regulations and can deny payment to violators. Second, California’s cap on malpractice awards does not apply in cases of negligence, and a hospital could be deemed negligent if it consistently did not adhere to minimum nurse staffing regulations (Robertson, 2004). Third, unions draw public attention to hospitals that do not meet the staffing requirements, resulting in negative publicity for hospitals and increased scrutiny from DHS inspectors. Fourth, labor organizations that represent nurses have sought to incorporate staffing standards in their contract negotiations, with some success (Gordon, 2005; Osterman, 2005).
Several studies of all California hospitals have found that annual average numbers of RN productive hours and nurse staffing ratios in medical-surgical units increased markedly between 2001 and 2006 (Conway et al., 2008; Cook et al., 2012; Mark et al., 2012; Munnich, 2013; Spetz et al., 2009; Spetz et al., 2013). Spetz and colleagues (2009) found that statewide average RN hours per patient day increased 16.2% from 1999 through 2006, to an average of 6.9 hours per patient day. Interviews 518conducted with hospital leaders by a research team at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) revealed that many chief nursing officers and other managers said they had hired nurses to meet the ratios, and most noted that it is challenging to adhere to the ratios at all times, including during scheduled breaks (Chapman et al., 2009).
Aiken and colleagues (2010) surveyed nearly 80,000 RNs in California, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to learn their experiences with staffing, the work environment, and patient care. They found that nurse workloads, measured according to the average number of patients per shift, were lower in California than in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and that over 80% of California nurses reported that their assigned workloads were in compliance with the state’s regulation.
Has the Mix of Staff Changed?
There have been concerns that hospitals may have eliminated support staff positions because of the minimum licensed nurse staffing requirements (Spetz, 2001). Analyses of staffing data collected by the Collaborative Alliance for Nursing Outcomes (CALNOC) suggest that the substitution of licensed nurses for unlicensed staff may be widespread as the increase in RN staffing was much larger than the overall staffing increase among their hospitals (Bolton et al., 2007; Donaldson et al., 2005). In a series of qualitative interviews, some hospital leaders reported that they had laid off ancillary staff to use budgets to hire more RNs (Chapman et al., 2009), and the survey conducted by Aiken and colleagues found that nurses perceived reductions in LVN and aide use (Aiken et al., 2010). However, more recent analyses have measured only a slight decline in LVN staffing (Cook et al., 2012; Spetz et al., 2009; Spetz et al., 2013) and aide staffing (Cook et al., 2012; Spetz et al., 2009).
Have Hospitals Reduced Services and Charity Care?
The California Hospital Association warned that strict minimum nurse/patient ratio requirements would force hospitals to reduce their services. To maintain the minimum ratios, hospitals might reschedule procedures, close selected units and beds, or shut their doors entirely. However, there have been few verified reports of the minimum nurse/patient ratios causing permanent closures of inpatient hospital units or beds. There is some indication that there was lower growth in the provision of uncompensated care services among hospitals on which the regulations had the greatest impact on staffing levels (Reiter et al., 2011).
Have Hospitals Suffered Financial Losses?
Since 1999, California hospitals have been financially buffeted by numerous factors, including changes in Medicare and Medicaid payment policy and requirements that hospital facilities meet seismic standards through retrofitting or new construction (Spetz et al., 2009). Thus, it is difficult to determine whether the staffing regulations had any discernable effect on hospital finances. Qualitative evidence reported that hospital CEOs absorbed the costs of the ratios by reducing other budget areas, and some hospitals were able to obtain higher insurance reimbursement rates to cover additional staff expenses (Spetz et al., 2009). However, one analysis found that hospital prices rose even more between 1999 and 2005 than could be explained by labor cost increases that resulted from the nurse staffing ratios alone (Antwi, Gaynor, & Vogt, 2009).
In an analysis of hospital financial data, Cook (2009) found no significant change in total annual labor costs for licensed nurses, total annual hospital costs, or hospital prices. Reiter and colleagues (2012) used data from Medicare cost reports to explore whether changes in financial status differed between California hospitals that had higher versus lower preregulation staffing levels, and between California and other states. They found that relative to hospitals outside California, operating margins for California hospitals with lower preregulation staffing levels declined, and operating expenses increased significantly.
Did Wages for Nurses Increase?
In theory, when the demand for workers rises more rapidly than the supply, wages should rise. Two studies have examined whether growth in the hiring of RNs caused by the staffing regulations is linked 519to more rapid growth in RN wages. One study found that wage growth among urban RNs in California was as much as 12% higher than in other states (Mark, Harless, & Spetz, 2009). A more recent analysis measured a 4.9% increase in RN wages between 2000 and 2007 with one dataset, and no increase at all with a different dataset (Munnich, 2013).