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CMS “Never Events” Incentivize Physicians To Avoid Caring For High Risk Patients

In 2008, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced it would no longer pay for the treatment of “never events,” i.e., certain medical conditions in hospitalized patients which the Feds deem to be universally avoidable under all circumstances. These conditions included:

* Decubitus ulcers
* Two kinds of catheter-associated infections
* Air embolism
* Mediastinitis after coronary bypass surgery
* Transfusing patients with the wrong blood type
* Leaving objects inside surgery patients
* In-hospital falls

Then, having been delighted with the results of its original list (or dismayed that healthcare costs continued to skyrocket despite its original list) CMS subsequently proposed declaring several new conditions as “never events,” including:

* Surgical site infections following certain elective procedures
* Legionnaires’ disease
* Extreme blood sugar derangement
* A collapse of the lung resulting from medical treatment
* Delirium
* Ventilator-associated pneumonia
* Deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism
* Staph infection in the bloodstream
* Disease associated with Clostridium difficile infection

Numerous commentators have expounded on the advisability of declaring these particular conditions to be “never events.” All agree that while certain of them clearly should never be permitted to happen (e.g., leaving sundry tools inside a patient’s abdomen, or transfusing the wrong blood), certain other ones are going to continue happening to some patients no matter how high the quality of the institution and the medical professionals.

Because this topic has been so well-covered in the medical blogosphere, DrRich does not need to comment any further on the unfairness of insisting that doctors prevent every single instance of conditions that are often not particularly preventable; or on the fact that insurance companies quickly followed Medicare’s lead and now also refuse to pay for these “never events;” or that hungry attorneys have voraciously begun suing doctors and hospitals for unavoidable complications because those complications have been federally designated as avoidable; or even the fact that, having so deftly expanded the horizons of what can be considered a “never event,” the feds have cleared the path for defining virtually any medical condition they choose as a “never event.”

(As a case in point, DrRich notes that the feds’ own guidelines on preventing delirium, referred to in their own “fact sheet” that purports to justify the expanded list of “never events” admits that there are no effective means of reliably preventing delirium.)

There’s also no point in physicians complaining publicly about this expanded list of “never events,” since the public is foursquare behind the notion that no medical complications should ever occur, and if they do occur it is somebody’s fault, and equally behind the notion that the Feds can squeeze quality into the system simply by demanding it to be so. Therefore, any doctors who openly objects to these new, tough quality measures will reveal themselves to be both anti-quality and low-quality doctors.

Rather, DrRich will refer back to the true mission of this blog, and simply explain to his readers how this new “never event” strategy furthers the true mission of Medicare and the insurers, which is to say, the covert rationing of healthcare.

For covert rationing is the chief operating principle of both the Feds and the private insurers. Indeed, their behavior resembles nothing more than the behavior of the closet, white-collar narcotic addict: while smiling their pasty smiles and desperately pretending to us that all of their new initiatives are only concerned with quality and nothing else, in reality, with every ounce of their being, their devious minds are constantly inventing new schemes to manipulate, deceive and twist each and every opportunity into some means of scoring their next covert-rationing “hit.”

Consequently, we cannot go wrong if we ask, every time we see some new healthcare program ostensibly aimed at quality improvement: Where’s the rationing?

One might think the rationing in this case is easy to spot. After all, if the feds stop paying for “never events” that actually cannot be avoided, they will save dollars right up front simply by refusing to pay for services rendered. But Medicare itself has estimated that its up-front annual savings from its original list of “never events” will be only about $20 million. And that seems hardly worth the effort.

The real savings will come from a place far more sinister than that.

The “never events” initiative – just as the Feds insist to us – is aimed at changing physicians’ behavior. But quite predictably, that behavioral change will not be in the arena of quality improvement (since no amount of quality improvement can stop “never events” that are inevitable). Rather, the behavioral change will be in the arena of risk avoidance.

While it is unlikely that doctors will ever refuse to care for high-risk patients who are experiencing genuine medical emergencies, it is quite likely they will stop recommending elective medical therapy for high-risk patients. Patients who seem particularly prone to infection, bed sores, falls, blood sugar abnormalities, blood clots, delirium, or who seem likely to need intravenous antibiotics (which predispose to C. difficile) will be particularly targeted. Roughly speaking, these patients will include diabetics, the elderly, anyone with a clotting abnormality or a history of blood clots, the obese, people with immune disorders, and the chronically ill. Physicians know by experience and instinct the sorts of patients to whom they ought to avoid offering elective medical services.

But in an era of evidence-based medicine, it is inevitable that savvy doctors will not want to rely on instinct and experience in this important matter. In order to conduct their risk avoidance in the most cost-effective way, they will want to base it on firm statistical evidence.

Accordingly, it is notable that investigators reporting in the Archives of Surgery last year began the important work of providing the kind of evidence-based risk avoidance which today’s physician actually needs. They published a large study designed to show which sorts of patients are most likely to experience post-operative “never events.” To the authors’ credit, their article was not written with the overt goal of providing a roadmap for risk avoidance. Instead it was written to show that “never events” are not really “never events” at all, but rather, are sometimes unavoidable complications; and that in certain readily-identifiable and (and obvious) subpopulations of patients, the incidence of “never events” is particularly high. That is, the authors were trying to convince the Central Authority that its policy on “never events” is far too Draconian, and that some leeway ought to be made for doctors who care for these higher-risk patients.

But of course the Central Authority already knows this, and also knows that the public fully supports its “never events” policy just as it is. The Central Authority, DrRich suspects, will see the Archives article for what it will end up becoming – a roadmap for surgeons who want to avoid the risk of encountering career-threatening “never events.” DrRich thinks Central Authority is quite satisfied with this study, and hopes to see more like it.

Conducting a risk/benefit analysis is nothing new to doctors. Doctors have always computed a risk/benefit analysis before recommending elective services to their patients (such as hip replacement, coronary artery bypass grafting, back surgery, gall bladder surgery, anti-obesity surgery, &c.) And in making those risk/benefit estimates, they have always taken into account the increased risk of complications faced by the elderly, the sick, the fat, and the malnourished.

But now, the “risk” part of the risk/benefit analysis suddenly must include three important new risks, and this time they are risks to the doctor him/herself, and not to the patients: 1) If any of these complications occur, no payment will be made for the (often very expensive) treatment the complication will require; 2) If a complication occurs, another “never event” will be tabulated in the federal database next to the doctor’s (and the hospital’s) name, which will inevitably show up in a public report card; and 3) Such a complication, previously considered a predictable risk, will now engender malpractice suits, based on the declaration by the Feds that these “never events” always constitute, by definition, grievous examples of poor-quality medicine.  The Archives article serves to place this new variety of risk analysis on firmer ground, and as such is an important new addition to the medical literature.

Lest anyone think that doctors would not really stop recommending clinically indicated care to patients just because of the personal risk it would entail, remember that it’s already happened, and is well documented. The government and the insurance companies have already conducted that experiment; it’s been completed, the results have been tabulated, reported, and duly noted. It turns out that doctors, like most other people, respond quite logically to negative incentives.

CMS knows exactly what it’s doing here.

*This blog post was originally published at The Covert Rationing Blog*

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