The U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs Medical Center is shown in Portland, Ore., March 31, 2015.

The U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs Medical Center is shown in Portland, Ore., March 31, 2015. Don Ryan/AP

US Hospitals Could Save Billions If They Took This Lesson from the VA

Most hospitals don’t have good ways of measuring the complex costs associated with an individual patient’s stay in the hospital. The VA is one surprising exception.

The success of health reform in the US depends on finding ways to control the growth of costs. Hospital care is expensive. And when patients have to be readmitted unexpectedly after discharge, it can really crank up spending.

As we strive to keep health care costs in line, reducing hospital readmissions is drawing a lot of attention. Reducing preventable readmissions could reduce health care spending and improve quality of care at the same time.

But very little research on readmission costs has been done. An exception is a study that found that one in five elderly Medicare patients is readmitted to the hospital within 30 days of being discharged, at an estimated cost of $17.4 billion in 2004.

Most hospitals don’t have good ways of measuring the complex costs associated with an individual patient’s stay in the hospital.

But there is, however, a hospital system that does a very good of job of tracking these costs: the Veterans Health Administration.

Veterans Affairs could provide a blueprint

The Veterans Health Administration (the VA) operates 119 acute care hospitals across the US, and has created an unparalleled comprehensive patient-cost accounting system, its Decision Support System (DSS).

The DSS works from the bottom up by summing the individual resources and costs each individual patients winds up needing during their hospital stay. Unlike most other hospital accounting systems, the VA DSS also can separate costs that are fixed regardless of the volume of services provided, such as administrative overhead, from costs that vary with service volume, such as lab tests or imaging. All of this means that the VA can track patients’ costs with greater precision than most hospitals, and can more easily see the cost of readmissions.

There are other reasons why VA is a good setting for studying readmission costs. VA hospitals have a simpler set of incentives around readmitting patients. Under Medicare, hospitals face a trade-off between receiving payments for readmitting Medicare patients and avoiding payment penalties for not readmitting patients under the new ACA regulations.

But in the VA system, budgets are set annually, so there is no financial incentive to readmit patients. It will not increase the amount of money VA hospitals get. And physicians who work in VA hospitals are salaried VA employees. They do not gain financially when they readmit patients, so they have no incentive to provide unnecessary care.

How much money does preventing readmission save?

In a recent study, Theodore Stefos and I used 2011 Decision Support System data to examine the component of cost that varies with a readmission, to provide hospital managers with a more realistic estimate of how much they could save by reducing readmissions.

We found that managers could expect to save $2,140 for the average 30-day readmission prevented. For heart attack, heart failure, and pneumonia patients, expected readmission cost estimates were higher: $3,432, $2,488 and $2,278 respectively.

We also found that patients’ risk of illness was the main driver of expected readmission cost. This is an important finding for managers. Even though this is a factor they cannot control, they can expect that patients with a greater risk of illness might be at greater risk after controlling for other factors such as age. Men also were much more likely to be readmitted than women, as were lower income and unmarried vets. Understanding this information can help hospital managers better predict which patients are at risk for readmission, and to take steps to address this proactively.

(Related: Despite Scandal, the VA Has Actually Fired Very Few for Misconduct)

While the VA has some processes of care that differ from other health care systems, its experience has important lessons for private sector hospitals, especially for those that treat a high share of chronically ill or low-income patients.

Why it is important to know what readmissions cost

Today hospitals are under increasing pressure to curb readmissions. For instance in 2013 Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) started to financially penalize hospitals for 30-day readmissions that exceed national averages for heart attack, heart failure and pneumonia. As of October 2014, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and elective knee and hip replacements are also being targeted and the penalty has increased up to 3% of the total Medicare reimbursement to the hospital.

Hospital managers would like to know what actual cost savings are when a readmission is avoided, so they can understand how readmissions affect their overall budgets.

This post originally appeared at The Conversation. Follow@US_conversation on Twitter. 

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.