Are CMS' Efforts Too Little and Too Late to Save the Collapsing US Rural Healthcare System?

Imagine you’re living in Brooklyn and you have a medical emergency. If the hospital nearest you, say Lutheran Medical Center, were to close, you could go to Maimonides or New York Methodist a short taxi or ambulance ride away.

Now, let’s say you’re badly injured and you live outside rural Tulare, California, in one of the most productive agricultural counties in the U.S. If Tulare Regional Medical Center went away, you might have to life flight to Bakersfield, Los Angeles or the Bay Area. (Really, Tulare may not even be representative given that there are more than 1,300 critical access hospitals in the U.S., some far more remote than Tulare.) 

The scenario is far from unrealistic. For the most part, non-urban healthcare organizations are not doing well. In fact, almost every rural hospital in the country is operating near the margin or in the red. According to iVantage Health Analytics Senior Vice President Michal Topchik, speaking to Health Data Management, 67 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, and 283 were vulnerable to closure last year. Already in 2016 iVantage has identified 673 vulnerable rural hospitals, with 210 at very high risk.

While only about 15 percent of the American population, roughly 46 million people, live in rural areas, they do some of the nation’s most essential work. Mostly, they grow food, produce energy or provide services to the people that grow food and produce energy.

Obviously, the rural healthcare situation matters in terms of food and energy security at home, but also in terms of economics—the United States is by far the largest global exporter of food, with roughly $40 billion separating America from number two, and is on the cusp of ending energy imports for the first time since 1950.

In reality, rural healthcare is transitioning, not disappearing, mostly because doing nothing is just bad economics. People in rural areas need care. If they can’t get it locally, they have to be flown to the nearest facility, which ends up being more expensive over the long term than funding a local hospital.

To their credit, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) are already aware of the situation in rural America and have been taking steps toward fixing it.

Speaking recently to the National Rural Health Association, CMS Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt explained that the agency is “establishing a CMS Rural Health Council to work across the entire agency to oversee our work in three strategic priority areas– first, improving access to care to all Americans in rural settings; second, supporting the unique economics of providing health care in rural America; and third making sure the health care innovation agenda appropriately fits rural health care markets.”

As Slavitt points out, rural Americans tend to be older, earn less money and they generally lack health insurance—more than 60 percent of citizens without health insurance live in rural areas in states that have not expanded Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act. Nearly 75 percent of government health insurance exchange users make less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level—currently a bit less than $12,000 a year for an individual and slightly more than $24,000 for a family of four.

So, if the argument could be made that rural America is home to the greatest number of healthcare challenges, then it also represents the greatest opportunity. If we can make affordable healthcare work outside urban areas, we may have a template applicable to other scenarios.

On Slavitt’s first two points—access and economics—CMS is working to sign rural Americans up for health insurance and adjusting requirements and payment models for rural care.

Which brings us to the “innovation agenda,” Slavitt’s term for the digitization of healthcare and the all-in bet the federal government has made on the benefits of health IT. The goal here is to transform rural hospitals and clinics into efficient, wired, lean operations that can absorb the realities of rural care and still operate in the black.

With 35 percent of rural hospitals losing money and almost two-thirds running a negative operating margin, there’s simply no way rural facilities can invest in health IT without help. From CMS, that help takes the form of several planned or in-process programs:

  • Medicaid State Innovation Model grants for technical support in smaller rural hospitals
  • Aggregation of services in rural communities creating benefits from population health
  • The Frontier Community Health Integration Project (summer 2016), developing and testing new models in isolated areas using telemedicine and integration approaches
  • The ACO investment model for hospitals that can’t invest in ACO infrastructure; the model now serves 350,000 rural beneficiaries through 1,100 rural providers
  • Incorporating telemedicine where appropriate; CMS is publishing a Medicaid final rule that for the first time allows for face-to-face encounters using telehealth

It’s clear that CMS understands we can’t leave rural hospitals to fend for themselves.

But it also seems clear that a lot of hospitals invested in electronic health records (EHRs) they could ill afford to qualify for Meaningful Use funds—dollars that seldom covered implementation costs for solutions that didn’t yield significant cost savings and required additional technical personnel. By and large, that MU money has been dispensed. The carrot has been eaten. What Medicare- and Medicaid-heavy hospitals can expect next is two sticks: more stringent reporting requirements necessitating EHR use and direct penalties (for now) related to Meaningful Use non-compliance.

“The high capital and operating costs associated with health IT, specifically EHRs, have put some hospitals in a difficult position,” wrote Becker’s Hospital CFO in a prescient January 2014 article. “Do they absorb the financial hit now, even if they know they can't afford it? Most organizations are doing so …”

Yes, CMS is trying to help lessen the impact of that metaphorical beating, but these rural hospitals also have to make decisions to help themselves. Too many are paying for systems they can’t afford to maintain. Moreover, they are unable to invest in necessary security, leaving them increasingly open to data breaches. Many are also still handicapped by the costs of ICD-10 transition, for which there was no federal reimbursement.

Rural hospitals need a comprehensive EHR platform that integrates with a revenue cycle system so they can properly capture charges and manage the billing process, and effectively collect on previously lost billing. These systems need to be available as a subscription service so that rural hospitals don’t have to come up with huge money down. And they can’t require the hiring of an additional 50 application specialists to make the new systems work.

“The benefits of IT are still to come,” Standard and Poor’s Marin Arrick told Becker’s Hospital CFO more than two years ago. Still the economic crisis in rural care rages on, certainly lessening access to care for millions of Americans and arguably impacting the labor force that produces food, energy, etc.

Despite all the fixes CMS is working diligently to implement, something more dramatic may be in order. Market-oriented reforms can be argued in urban areas where there is competition, but it’s difficult to advocate for similar approaches where there is no market. Also, Meaningful Use is coming to an end and the new regime is not yet clear, so it’s difficult to say what more might be necessary when we’re not able to predict how rural healthcare will be impacted.

Personally, I see the programs and plans CMS is putting together to assist rural healthcare as valuable and impactful, but they are not sufficient in and of themselves. What will transform rural care is the same thing that will revolutionize American healthcare in general—affordable, interoperable, comprehensive platforms that, when combined with application programming interfaces and robust security, enhance the care provided by knowledgeable, dedicated professionals.

Does that sound like a solution you’ve heard of before?

Are CMS' Efforts Too Little and Too Late to Save the Collapsing US Rural Healthcare System? was authored by Irv Lichtenwald and published in the HITInsight Blog. It is reprinted here with permission. The original post can be found here.