Wind of Change

Over 440,000,000 views on Youtube?!  The Scorpions’ Wind of Change music video (below) has been viewed a lot. It’s probably not the best anthem for the post-acute world, but the title sure seems to fit.  If there’s anything that’s constant for skilled nursing providers, it’s that things are always changing.


BPCI/CJR Loses Steam

Last year, I wrote about how the best operators are able to adjust or “change tack” to shifting winds/regulations. (mixing boating metaphors)

I also wrote specifically about one such shift that was causing a lot of concern for providers (and investors), Bundled Payments.

In recent days, we’ve seen the wind change direction again.  And, while nobody should be surprised, I think most of us are surprised.

  1. CMS is Overhauling the Medicare Fraud Audit Process
  2. CMS is canceling the expansion of CJR
  3. CMS is eliminating the Mandatory nature of CJR
  4. CMS is reducing the number of CJR markets from 67 to 34

It’s critical that operators who are currently being affected by the CJR program to get in touch with their hospitals to discuss what, if any, impact this will have on how the hospital is operating or is preparing to operate vis-a-vis these patients.

Skilled Nursing groups are applauding the news.  IF this gives providers more time to get their BPCI act together, then that’s great.  But, the point is … they still need to act like BPCI is coming.  BPCI behavior that better health plans and hospitals are looking for is:

  • Proactive communication around readmission and outcomes
  • Integration of hospital’s modalities into the SNF
  • Strong reporting systems
  • Proactive cost containment (shortening length of stay if possible)
  • Partnering with the best home health agencies who understand BPCI as well

Investors are looking for operators who are not just fluent in BPCI but has already (or is actively) implemented those BPCI Behaviors.


RUG IV to RCS1

In my opinion, a much bigger wind of change, if implemented on October 1, 2018 as targeted, is the shift from RUG IV to RCS1.  I attended a conference on that last week by Zimmet Healthcare Services Group in Atlantic City, NJ.

According to Mark Zimmet (https://www.zhealthcare.com/), the announced pre-rule for RCS by CMS (https://www.cms.gov/Medicare/Medicare-Fee-for-Service-Payment/SNFPPS/therapyresearch.html) earlier this year will dramatically change the way SNFs are operated — specifically replacing the REHAB/Minutes economic engine of operations with a Patient Characteristics economic engine.  Now, Medicare A reimbursement is driven mostly my rehab minutes (type and quantity).  In the proposed RCS 1 model, rehab minutes are completely excluded from the calculation. There is a PT/OT and an ST component in the formula.  But, minutes are NOT part of it.  In other words, under RCS 1, the facility will be paid the same amount for Patient John Doe whether the SNF provides 10 minutes of therapy or 1,000 minutes.  Panelists predict therapy spend will shrink AT LEAST 50%.

The driver of reimbursement shifts away from rehab minutes to patient clinical characteristics. RCS starts with WHY is the patient here.  Which of the 10 categories?

  1. Major Joint or Spinal
  2. Non-Orthopeadic
  3. Acute Neurologic
  4. Non-surgical orthopedic/Musculoskeletal
  5. Orthopedic Surgery (Except Major Joint)
  6. Cancer
  7. Acute Infections
  8. Pulmonary
  9. Cardiovascular & Coagulations
  10. Medical Management

Then, it looks at the functional and cognitive scores, co-morbidities, non-therapy ancillaries.

Remember …

  1. The change isn’t final and may very well change before it’s implemented.
  2. There’s time to recalibrate your structure and competency to hit the ground running if/when the change is made.
  3. I would be talking now with your rehab provider about this.  The message from this conference is that Rehab Co’s in skilled nursing are Dead Man Walking.
  4. Stay up to date on the CMS conference calls, updates.

Goodbye Therapy?

If RCS 1 is implemented as structured today, I would expect the use of therapy services to change and be reduced.  In a word, I believe therapy will be more EFFICIENT. Unfortunately, CMS now incentivizes inefficiency since providers are paid for the minutes they take to deliver therapy.  Does this get abused?  Sadly, yes.  Do we sometimes see a patient who needs rest to recover from illness get dragged into the rehab gym to get our minutes in?  Sadly, yes. I’m totally open to viewpoints on this …  Is this better for the patient or worse?  Can you see operators cutting the newly labeled “cost center” of rehab and giving less than what the patient could benefit by since Medicare isn’t paying for minutes anymore?  I can.  But, I can also see operators providing a lot of therapy (but still less than before) under RCS 1 since they’re ultimately judged based on outcomes.  Almost all admissions to SNFs now are for short-term rehab to get strong enough to go home.  If you cut rehab to save money, you might benefit in the very short-run, but after a couple months, your readmission rate and patient satisfaction and length of stay will suffer.  I can’t imagine a world without Rehab being an essential part skilled nursing, RCS 1 or not.

So, look at Nursing under the RUGs system.  Nursing minutes/hours are not currently reimbursed — like rehab won’t be in the future.  The way operators staff their nursing departments, I believe, will be a predictor of how they staff their rehab departments under RCS 1.  Some Medicaid shops run as lean as possible b/c there simply isn’t enough revenue to support more.  Yet, short-term rehab shops, staff way higher than state minimums because quality care/outcomes/readmission rates/etc. demand it. I believe that will be the case for Rehab.

CMS is infamous for unintended consequences.  They consistently underestimate operators ability to quickly adapt to the moving goal posts.  So, while CMS predicts this will be budget neutral, I wouldn’t be surprised if it resulted in an increase in Medicare spend (and bottom line performance for SNFs), resulting in quick adjustments like we saw in 2011 and 2012.


Here are 3 videos I took of the presenter going through the calculator that shows the new formula at work (note: no input in the new calculator for minutes):

IMG_4619.jpg
This ballroom was packed for both days of presentations. Highly recommend Zimmet for learning about the latest changes to reimbursement & regulation in LTC
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McKnight’s Guest Column: Bundled Payments

McKnight’s is a leading skilled nursing industry news source that I’ve written for in the past.  This is my first guest column since moving to the REIT side of the business.  We meet with investors and analysts a lot and one of their most pressing questions lately is around bundled payments/comprehensive care for joint replacements (CJR) so I wrote about my take on it for McKnight’s.  Click on the article below to read the full text.

Dave Sedgwick McKnight's CJR Skilled Nursing article

 

Or read it below …

“What’s your take on bundled payments?”

About a year ago, investors and analysts would occasionally ask us some form of that question. Now, virtually every time we talk with investors, analysts, and bankers, they ask. At the end of answering questions on the topic for 45 minutes during one of these recent meetings, the investor laughed and incredulously said, “So, basically you’re the only ones saying, ‘No big deal. Nothing to see here. Business as usual.” Well, yes. And, no.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing in the post-acute world these days as observers try to predict just how material the constant changes to reimbursement will be for the operators. It seems generally believed that bundled payments expansion is a net-negative for the industry since it partly exists to lower Medicare payments. There will be “losers” who don’t adapt to the changes. But, there will also be “winners.” There always have been. As a former operator and current investor in the space, I have a positive view on what these changes mean for the profession.

Context Is Key

Viva-La-Evolution

I entered the skilled nursing profession as an administrator-in-training at The Ensign Group in California in 2001. Back then, one of the first themes I picked up on from the seasoned ED/DNS/DORs around me was that, “this isn’t your grandmother’s nursing home anymore.” “No, you see, while we still provide long-term custodial (I will always hate that term) care, we now specialize in providing short-term rehabilitation for Medicare and HMO patients.”

For the last 15 years, the best operators have been adapting to the demands of the hospitals (higher acuity, readmission rates), CMS (MDS/RUGS changes, 5 star ratings, compliance), and HMOs (shorter length of stay, case management, collaboration).

“So are you worried about this Joint Replacement thing?

On April 1, 2016, the Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement (CJR) went into effect in 67 markets. Briefly, the CJR holds the participating hospitals financially responsible for the episode of care from the day of admission until 90 days later for major joint replacement or reattachment of lower extremity joint replacements (LEJR), hips and knees. If a hospital can lower the cost of that 90 day episode of care below targets set by CMS, they will reap the financial rewards with a bonus. The opposite is also true. Some warn that allowing hospitals to waive the required three night hospitalization before discharging CJR patients to SNFs rated 3 star or better will crush the 1-2 rated facilities. Others warn that hospitals will be incentivized to send CJR patients directly home with Home Health, bypassing SNFs altogether, because of the cost savings. In my opinion, these predictions have been overblown. The sky is not falling.

Now sing it with me … “You Tell Me That’s It’s Evolution”

evolution-darth-vader

I understand why outside observers worry that this as a seismic shift for skilled nursing (and HH for that matter). How, then is CJR not the end of the world for post-acute facility providers? Again, I see CJR as a positive step for post-acute care because it advances trends that level the playing field for stronger operators, ultimately benefiting the patients. Here’s what I mean.

  • Length of stay: HMOs have been pressuring SNFs to shorten length of stay for many years. The last facility I personally ran was 100% short-term rehab. Our combined Medicare/HMO average length of stay was in the mid-teens. Strong providers have been equipping themselves to shorten length of stay for years. They will employ similar practices on these LEJR Medicare patients that they have been using on HMO patients, thus gaining CJR market share from those who don’t.
  • Case Management/Data Reporting: Try competing in a market where your competitors employ the hospital Discharge Planners as part-time Social Workers on the weekend or pay kickbacks for referrals. What? It happens. Today. I’ve competed against it. The only way we could “level the playing field” was to be BETTER. We had to build strong, data-driven (readmission rates, satisfaction scores, survey results, clinical outcomes) relationships with the hospitals that earned our admissions. We had to reach out to hospitals years before ACOs or BPCI to “show them the data!” How does CJR impact this? It should put a vice on the unethically influenced placement of patients and make the market for post-acute patients more merit based. For the many hospitals that didn’t care about their post-acute discharge system, now they will. Stronger operators are poised to gain CJR market share because of it.
  • CMS Star Rating: As soon as the star ratings came out years ago, we complained because the system doesn’t necessarily reflect quality care. In the short-run, hospital may use star ratings in their discharge calculus. But, they’ll evolve as well. SNFs who are 1 or 2 stars can still receive joint-replacmenet patients. And, here’s the thing, patients who are ready to be DC’d from the hospital after a night or two have already been heading home with HH for years. Patients that have to go to the SNF have an initial hospital stay past 3 days anyway.
  • Readmission Rates: At the end of the day, the cost of caring for that patient for 90 days depends greatly on whether or not the patient is readmitted to the hospital. Hospitals are going to be very sensitive to which post-acute location gives them better odds of not having a re-hospitilization. Where would you send them? To the strong SNF provider with 24-hour RN coverage, a medical director, in-house therapists, wound care professionals, etc. or the patient’s home with her elderly husband to care for her in between the hour or so/day she gets from HH. Both graphics below from Avalere, show hospitals the need to partner with SNFs with the lowest readmission rates. It’s no wonder CMS is adding readmission rates to the star rating system this summer.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 3.09.39 PM Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 3.49.54 PMWhile there may be a slight tightening on the flow of LEJR patients for the general industry (only for 67 markets for now), the strong providers will be able to capture greater share of that theoretical smaller piece. But, let’s not forget the rest of the pie! Sometimes it seems that outside observers focus so much on the joint-replacement piece of the patient pie that they forget a few key points:

  • SNFs are taking care of sicker and sicker patients every year (the kind that absolutely require 24-hour nursing care)
  • Seniors demographics haven’t changed. The numbers of SNF-age patients is growing and will continue to grow for many years to come. While a piece of the pie might shrink, the overall pie will be expanding for years to come.
  • As a general rule, the highest Medicare reimbursement occurs at the start of the SNF stay, sometimes “stepping down” towards the end. So, as providers shorten length of stay, they may see a slight increase to their average medicare reimbursement rate.

So, What?

So, what does this all mean for investing in skilled nursing real estate? It has always been true that in healthcare real estate, the operator matters most. The playing field has been changing for the last 15 years. BPCI/CJR actually has the potential of slightly leveling the playing field in behalf of stronger operators. BPCI/CJR can’t be ignored and should be a factor in underwriting acquisitions. Higher lease coverages and cap rates are in order for facilities with lower star ratings and higher readmission rates as those metrics become more and more impactful on a provider’s ability to shift patient mix and capture short-term rehab market share.

Today (and tomorrow), more than ever before, your SNF real estate investment will hinge on the quality, sophistication, and culture of the operator running it.

On Skilled Nursing Headwinds & Tailwinds

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If you invest in skilled nursing operators or real estate, you’ve seen the almost automatic drop in stock prices with every new “headwind” headline.  And, they come frequently.  Most recently: RAC Audits, CJR, Bundled Payments, DOJ Investigations.  I gotta admit, it’s frustrating to see the stocks move as soon as the weathervane moves.  Frustrating, because the best post-acute companies are able to adapt and thrive, or to put int terms of headwinds, they change tack…”

A keel enables a sailboat to sail diagonally into the wind. As the sail moves into the wind, it “feels” a faster wind on its face. This is called the relative velocity of the wind with respect to the sail. A wind of larger relative velocity exerts a larger force on the sail, which accelerates the boat. The boat moves faster, which increases the relative speed of the wind, which increases the wind-force, which accelerates the boat, and on and on. However, the resistance of the water slows down the motion of the boat. Eventually, a balance is reached between the force of the wind and the force of the water, and the boat moves at a constant velocity, diagonally into the wind. That final constant velocity may be greater than the wind velocity with respect to the water. Whether a boat could reach such final velocity will depend on the characteristics of the boat. [source]

Can a sailboat sail forward against the wind?  Yes.  You need a great captain and crew who know how to adapt, “change tack,” and move forward.  In a boat race, is there a huge difference in the boats themselves?  Not so much.  It’s the captain and crew you’re betting on.  Not just the collection of their individual talents but their chemistry.  Headwinds in skilled nursing provide more opportunity for the best SNF crews to differentiate themselves from the also-rans .

Because of the risks (headlines, stroke of the pen, state budgets), investing in skilled nursing facilities commands a higher, risk-adjusted return than almost any other real estate investment.  It’s not for the faint of heart.  The security of the rents produced by skilled nursing is more a function of the culture, engagement, and sophistication of the operator than of the latest wind of change.

Does the size of the boat matter? Not as much as you might think. When there was a  seismic shift to the industry in 1999 with the move from a cost plus basis to a prospective payment system (PPS)  several of the very large, “more sophisticated” operators failed to move quickly. It appears that their size,  bureaucracy may have prevented them from changing tack quickly enough. On the other hand, often times smaller operators  lack the resources and sophistications to change tack as well. So, it is less about the size of the company and more about the management teams and the culture/structure of their companies that will predict their ability to move forward.

There are two headlines I saw today that would suggest some tailwinds are in store for a change.

Possible delay two of joint replacement bundle

Pilot program to pay skilled nursing more (site neutral)

No doubt stock prices will tack up, right?  Riiiiiiiiiiiiiight.

Tail wagging the dog …

A very troubling sign indeed.  For those of you well-versed in the CMS 5 star rating system for skilled nursing facilities, after reading this I’ll bet you say, ‘I didn’t see this coming.’

A nursing home administrator recently told me that his census was in the decline.  It didn’t fall off a cliff.  It’s been a gradual fall.  From an average occupancy rate of about 94%, he’s down to about 73%.  His Medicare census is also down about 33%.  His building is a leader in its market.  What happened?  A major side effect of the 5 star rating system.  Here’s the story …

A relatively new 50-ish bed, all private room facility in the market was unhappy with its low star rating.  The Quality Measure component was killing them. (For a 5 star rating system introduction, check this out.) They reasoned that since the 14 day MDS data was hurting their score, they would simply discharge their Medicare patients on day 14.  Their new message to the market, ‘We have beautiful private rooms and we get you home faster than anyone else.’

Of course they don’t mention …

  • the harm they cause by sending patients home too soon.
  • They don’t publicize what percent of their discharges end up in the hospital again.
  • They don’t emphasize that these medicare patients are being cheated out of their rightful benefit of receiving therapy/care so that they heal fully before going home.

Nope.  Instead, they are sucking the long-term care patients out of the market and everyone else is suffering.  What’s an administrator to do?  How do you compete with that?  We came up with a game plan to go on offense in his market.  The good news is there’s quite a bit he will do and he’ll be fine.  The point of this post is to call attention to UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES.  I’m sure CMS did not intend for this side effect of the 5 star rating system.  This story proves again that ‘we perform according to how we’re measured.’  A primary concern, therefore, as a leader is to be sure that your measures and rewards promotes the type of behavior you want.  Unfortunately, clairvoyance, isn’t bestowed with title of ‘Leader,’ so we have to be attentive and willing to change our measures/rewards as we discover these things.

Will CMS change the measure to avoid this side effect?  I hope so …