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Medicare - Changes In Payment Policies

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Medicare is first and foremost an insurer for elderly and disabled persons, setting rates of payment and contracting with private firms to process and pay claims. Originally, Medicare approved payments with little oversight of charges that providers of care submitted. However, restrictions soon began to be added, and by the mid-1980s, most of the payment systems for various Medicare-covered services had been modified. The most recent broad changes were contained in the 1997 Balanced Budget Act (BBA), which placed a particular emphasis on the post-acute care area. New ways of paying for care, as well as lower rates of payment were legislated, although implementation has taken considerably longer than expected.

These changes were built on similar reforms that date to the 1980s, when new payment systems for hospitals and physicians were developed. Medicare served as a leader with these reforms, fundamentally changing the way that hospitals and doctors are paid. The hospital payment system for Medicare now pays a flat rate to a hospital, based on the patient's diagnosis. While hospitals with varying characteristics may be paid somewhat different rates, this was a major move away from a system in which the costs reported by the hospital were simply reimbursed by Medicare. This new system has encouraged hospitals to be more efficient, although it has also resulted in some premature discharges. Over time, however, this payment system has been judged to be relatively successful. It has helped to encourage movement away from long inpatient stays and to more care being delivered outside of hospitals. Medicare has been credited with contributing to an array of changes that affect the health care system in general.

Physician payment changes in Medicare sought to rebalance the level of payments between primary-care physicians and specialists. Payments for procedures by specialists have been reduced relative to office visits to primary-care physicians, for example, in order to elevate the importance of basic care. Again, this has been relatively successful, although the level of payments is often criticized by physicians. Many other health care insurers now use Medicare's resource-based relative value scale (RBRUS). Both hospital and physician payments require periodic updating, and Medicare is sometimes criticized for falling behind in making adjustments in response to new procedures, but the program has been a major player affecting the delivery of care.

It remains to be seen whether the payment changes in post-acute care and hospital outpatient services will be as successful. Again, the goal has been to move away from a cost-based system and toward one that will provide incentives for "appropriate" levels of care. It has taken much longer than anticipated to develop these new payment systems, however, because there is much less consensus about the amount of care needed in particular circumstances. Not surprisingly, efforts to implement these new systems have been controversial.

Consider the case of home health care—how many home health visits should someone who has had hip replacement surgery need? Little careful research has been done to help address such issues, and without standards or norms of care it is difficult to devise a fair system. However, spending on Medicare's home-health benefit grew from $3.3 billion in 1990 to $19.6 billion in 1997, so it is not surprising that it became a target for change. This included an effort to introduce a new payment system in stages and to demand greater accountability from agencies to reduce fraud and abuse. As a consequence, home health care spending actually declined in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, just as policy in 1997 was not developed with a full understanding of its ultimate consequences, changes in the new payment system are also likely to be undertaken with little guidance.

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