A working paper published Monday proposes one possible fix. In the 1980s, Congress carved out a small group of hospitals from its normal rules for payment. These “long-term care hospitals,” which treated patients with tuberculosis and chronic diseases, could earn far more money than traditional hospitals and nursing homes if they cared for patients who stayed with them for an average of 25 days. Since then, the number of these hospitals has mushroomed, from a few dozens to more than 400, most run by two for-profit chains.
For years, analysts and policymakers have wondered about the value of these hospitals, which tend to treat very sick patients who need a lot of care, such as mechanical ventilation or dialysis. Several analyses have suggested that Medicare may be overpaying for their services. And Congress has made some small changes to limit the number of patients who are eligible for such care.
The study, covering 1990 to 2014, found that when such a hospital opened, the odds increased that very sick patients leaving a normal hospital would end up going next to a long-term care hospital, generating a growing bill for both Medicare and the patients themselves. But the researchers found no benefit when it came to patients’ chances of dying or going home within 90 days.
The researchers concluded that the healthcare system could probably save a lot of money — around $5 billion a year — by paying the long-term care hospitals the same prices that are paid to skilled nursing facilities, the places that most long-term patients end up in when there is no long-term care hospital nearby.