AHA: MedPAC's 2024 Medicare payment recommendation is 'out of touch with reality'

MedPAC's recommendation that acute care hospitals don't need a significant increase in 2024 Medicare rates is "totally insufficient and out of touch with reality," according to the American Hospital Association.

"This view is one-sided, inaccurate and misleading," Ashley Thompson, AHA's senior vice president of public policy analysis and development, wrote in a March 23 blog post. "After years of once-in-a-lifetime events in the form of a global pandemic and record inflation, hospitals across the country are struggling to continue to fulfill their mission to care for their patients and communities."

In its annual March report to Congress, MedPAC recommended an update to hospital payment rates of "current law plus 1 percent," which the AHA says is not enough for many hospitals to keep their doors open. 

The commission found that most indicators of sufficient Medicare rates for providers were positive or improved in 2021, though it acknowledged that hospitals saw more volatile cost increases in 2022 compared to years prior. Hospital margins were also lower last year than in 2021, according to preliminary data, driven in part by providers facing higher than expected costs and capacity and staffing challenges.

The report also said that its 2024 payment recommendations "may not be sufficient" to sustain some safety-net hospitals with a low number of commercially insured patients, and proposed $2 billion in add-on payments.

Across the U.S., a total of 631 rural hospitals — or about 30 percent of all rural hospitals — are at risk of closing in the immediate or near future.

MedPAC's recommendations for 2024 differ from how some health economists have recently described hospitals' finances. In January, hospitals had a median operating margin of -1 percent according to Kaufman Hall, a finding that arrived on the heels of 2022 being named the worst financial year for hospitals since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It is also important to realize that MedPAC's report and data has limitations," Ms. Thompson wrote, referring to a misalignment in the calendar year MedPAC chose to analyze and how hospitals can differ in how they report their individual financial earnings.

MedPAC said its report reflects 2021 data, preliminary data from 2022, and projections for 2023, along with recent inflation rates.

"...cost reports are filed for hospitals' own specific fiscal years, and because surges, relief payments, and eventual expense increases happened at different times for different hospitals, these calculated margins don’t necessarily provide a fully accurate picture of the financial reality in 2021," Ms. Thompson wrote.

The AHA stressed that hospitals' finances in 2023 face much different challenges compared to 2021, when the industry was more supported by strong investment returns and federal pandemic relief. 

"The fact that massive numbers of hospitals are not currently closing due to financial pressures should be seen as positive for patients and communities," Ms. Thompson said. "Instead, some observers seem to be disappointed that more hospitals are not failing financially."

A detailed response from the AHA to the MedPAC report is available here.

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