Policies Like the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program are Killing Patients & Harming Care. It’s Time to End Them.

By STEPHEN SOUMERAI and KIP SULLIVAN (29)

Federal programs designed to cut costs and improve health by penalizing doctors and hospitals are failing at an alarming rate. Some of them actually harm patients, and many don’t cut costs. One in particular, the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP), may have caused thousands of deaths instead of preventing them, and probably hasn’t saved money during its seven years in operation.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services began reviewing the safety of this program on Jan. 19. It shouldn’t take CMS nearly four months to err on the side of caution and pull the plug on it.

The HRRP was imposed upon Medicare by the Affordable Care Act. Its goal makes sense: reduce the number of patients readmitted to hospitals soon after being discharged. But its approach — penalizing hospitals millions of dollars if their rate of readmissions within 30 days exceeds an arbitrary threshold — makes no sense at all.

The HRRP and other federal “pay for performance programs” were under fire before they began. Evidence suggested that some hospitals would try to avoid penalties by not readmitting patients within the 30-day window, or if they showed up in the emergency department during that time would treat them there and send them home or place them in so-called observation units rather than admitting them to the hospital. There were also indications that these kinds of programs would disproportionately harm socially disadvantaged individuals.

Influential health policy experts either ignored this evidence or downplayed it.

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