Kentucky hospitals say they’re losing money on Obamacare, as cost of treating new Medicaid patients exceeds reimbursements

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Kentucky hospitals are struggling financially because of the billions of dollars in cuts caused by the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and many aren’t sure they will survive, the Kentucky Hospital Association said at its annual meeting May 8.

KHA applauded the successful implementation of the federal health reform in Kentucky, which has extended health insurance coverage to approximately 500,000 more Kentuckians, mainly through expansion of Medicaid, but said that has come at a “significant cost to our commonwealth hospitals.”

“The expansion [of Medicaid] has infused money into some of our hospitals, which is good, but the rest of the story is the cuts,” KHA President Michael Rust said.

KHA Chair Dennis Johnson, CEO of Hardin Memorial Health in Elizabethtown, said  the revenue from the expansion “is less than the cuts Kentucky hospitals will experience in order to finance the ACA.”

Kevin Halter, KHA’s incoming chair and CEO of Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital in Ashland, said, “Much has been made about the fact that Kentucky hospitals have received an additional $506 million in Medicaid payments last year through the expansion, suggesting that hospitals’ bottom lines are healthier as a result, but what is often not mentioned is that hospitals lose money on every Medicaid patient they treat.”

The report says that changes in the way hospitals are paid under Obamacare are projected to result in the loss of almost $7 billion in federal cuts to Kentucky hospitals through 2024:

  • Lower-than-cost Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements, 82 percent and 86 percent respectively, with actual Medicaid and Medicare payment cuts from 2010 to 2024 projected to be $4.6 billion
  • Readmission penalties, which can be as much as 3 percent of Medicare payments, imposed on hospitals that readmit patients within 30 days of discharge, regardless of the reason
  • Medicare cuts to hospitals that have any increase in hospital-acquired infections
  • Cuts, delayed until 2017, in extra payments to hospitals that have a “disproportionate share” of Medicare and Medicaid patients.

KHA also cited impacts that aren’t associated with the reform law, such as sequestration, or automatic across-the-board federal budget cuts, and other cuts in Medicare.

Hospital officials said that rural hospitals have been hit hardest by these changes because 72 percent of their patients are on Medicaid or Medicare. A recent report by state Auditor Adam Edelen found that 68 percent of Kentucky’s rural hospitals have below-average of poor financial health, with 34 percent of the total in the latter classification.

Part of the problem is that the law was built on the nationwide presumption that about half of the newly insured would have private health insurance and the other half Medicaid, but in Kentucky, a poor state, 75 percent of the newly insured are covered by the Medicaid expansion, which covers those earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $33,000 for a family of four.

Halter said while hospitals got $506 million for treating patients covered by the expansion, that treatment costs the hospitals $617 million to deliver that care. While low Medicaid reimbursement is not a new problem, Johnson said, “There’s no question it’s been accelerated under the ACA.”

Gov. Steve Beshear said expanded Medicaid payments had “blunted the impact of other fiscal pressures on hospitals. . . . We are very aware of the challenges that medical providers face in Kentucky. Rather than trying to turn back the clock and return to old business practices, we are working directly with providers to help them develop new strategies for better, more efficient, quality health care delivery.”

The challenges are real.

A September 2014 survey found that more than 65 percent of the 109 responding Kentucky hospitals had reduced staff since June 2013, eliminating more than 7,700 positions, with more jobs lost in rural hospitals than the urban ones. About 44 percent had frozen or reduced wages, and 40 percent of had cut costs by reducing or eliminating programs, such as closing psychiatric units and outpatient clinics.

“The reality is that hospitals are being forced to reduce costs to deal with these financial pressures,” said Charles Lovell, CEO Caldwell Medical Center in Princeton. “This is the third year without our employees getting an increase.”

While Obamacare has reduced hospitals’ losses on patients who can’t pay, Halter noted that 12 percent of Kentuckians remain uninsured, and the report said hospital emergency rooms are still the first choice for many new Medicaid patients because they have’t found a regular physician. Many Kentucky counties are short of doctors.

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