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Nov 16 -- The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) publishes a final rule updating and refining requirements for the Hospital Outpatient Quality Reporting (OQR) Program, the Ambulatory Surgical Center (ASC) Quality Reporting (ASCQR) Program, and Hospital Price Transparency. The provisions of the final rule with comment are effective January 1, 2022. See https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2021/11/16/2021-24011/medicare-program-hospital-outpatient-prospective-payment-and-ambulatory-surgical-center-payment
 
Excerpts:
  
1) Requirements for the Hospital Outpatient Quality Reporting (OQR) Program
  
Significant and persistent inequities in health care outcomes exist in the U.S. Belonging to a racial or ethnic minority group; living with a disability; being a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community; living in a rural area; and being near or below the poverty level, are often associated with worse health outcomes. Such disparities in health outcomes are the result of number of factors, including social, economic, and environmental factors, but importantly for CMS programs, although not the sole determinant, negative experiences, poor access, and provision of lower quality health care can contribute to health inequities. For instance, numerous studies have shown that among Medicare beneficiaries, racial and ethnic minority individuals often receive lower quality of care, report lower experiences of care, and experience more frequent hospital readmissions and procedural complications. Readmission rates for common conditions in the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP) are higher for Black Medicare beneficiaries and higher for Hispanic Medicare beneficiaries with congestive heart failure and acute myocardial infarction. Studies have also shown that African Americans are significantly more likely than White Americans to die prematurely from heart disease and stroke. The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted many of these longstanding health inequities with higher rates of infection, hospitalization, and mortality among Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons relative to White persons. As noted by the CDC, “long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19.” One important strategy for addressing these important inequities is by improving data collection to allow for better measurement and reporting on equity across our programs and policies.
 
We are committed to achieving equity in health care outcomes for our beneficiaries by supporting providers in quality improvement activities to reduce health inequities, enabling them to make more informed decisions, and promoting provider accountability for health care inequities.
 
We have developed two complementary disparity methods to report stratified measure results for outcome measures. The first method (the Within-Hospital Disparity Method) promotes quality improvement by calculating differences in outcome rates among patient groups within a hospital while accounting for their clinical risk factors. This method also allows for a comparison of the magnitude of disparity across hospitals at a given point in time, so hospitals could assess how well they are closing disparity gaps compared to other hospitals. The second methodological approach (the Across-Hospital Disparity Method) is complementary to the first method and assesses hospitals' outcome rates for patients with a given risk factor, across facilities, allowing for a comparison among hospitals on their performance caring for their patients with social risk factors.
 
We are committed to advancing health equity by improving data collection to better measure and analyze disparities across programs and policies. As we described earlier, we have been considering, among other things, expanding our efforts to stratify data by additional social risk factors and demographic variables, optimizing the ease-of-use of the results, enhancing public transparency of equity results, and building towards provider accountability for health equity. Following potential confidential reporting using dual eligibility as an indicator of social risk, we are exploring the possibility of further expanding stratified reporting to include race and ethnicity.
 
Stratified facility-level reporting using indirectly estimated race and ethnicity would represent an important advance in our ability to provide accurate equity reports to facilities. However, self-reported race and ethnicity data remain the gold standard for classifying an individual according to race or ethnicity. The CMS Quality Strategy outlines our commitment to strengthening infrastructure and data systems by ensuring that standardized demographic information is collected to identify disparities in health care delivery outcomes. Collection and sharing of a standardized set of social, psychological, and behavioral data by hospitals, including race and ethnicity, using electronic data definitions which permit nationwide, interoperable health information exchange, can significantly enhance the accuracy and robustness of our equity reporting. This could potentially include expansion of stratified reporting to additional social risk factors, such as language preference and disability status, where accuracy of administrative data is currently limited. We are mindful that additional resources, including data collection and staff training may be necessary to ensure that conditions are created whereby all patients are comfortable answering demographic questions, and that individual preferences for non-response are maintained.  
 
2) Requirements for the Ambulatory Surgical Center Quality Reporting (ASCQR) Program
 
We have not expanded disparities reporting to the ASC setting. Internally testing the two disparities methods (Within- and Across-Hospital Disparity Methods) on ASCQR Program quality measures calculated using Medicare FFS claims revealed several unique challenges to measuring disparities for dually eligible individuals in the ASC setting, principally, relatively low volumes of dual eligible patients in many facilities, and large diversity in the types and patient mix between ASCs as these facilities tend to specialize. In our initial analysis, few facilities met the minimum sample size required to yield technically feasible, adequately representative, and statistically reliable disparity results. We are considering social risk factors, including neighborhood-level social determinants of health, such as the poverty, education, and housing quality, which can adversely influence health outcomes, contributing to health inequities, in order to report more information regarding equity gaps in the care provided in the ASC setting. There are several different approaches for quantifying the health impacts of adverse neighborhood level socioeconomic factors. One approach is the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) neighborhood Socioeconomic Status (SES) Index, which uses information from the U.S. Census at the census block-group level to estimate the range of socioeconomic status in the beneficiary's neighborhood.  
 
3) Updates to Requirements for Hospitals To Make Public a List of Their Standard Charges
 
In the CY 2020 Hospital Price Transparency final rule, we indicated that we believe our policies requiring public release of hospital standard charge information are a necessary and important first step in ensuring transparency in health care prices for consumers, although we also recognized that the release of hospital standard charge information would not be sufficient by itself to achieve the ultimate goals for price transparency. The final regulations were designed to begin to address some of the barriers that limit price transparency with a goal of increasing competition among healthcare providers to bring down costs. In particular, the regulations sought to address the barriers related to lack of hospital standard charge data by requiring some uniformity in the release of hospital standard charge information. We also noted that more work would need to be done to ensure consumers have access to the information they need to make healthcare decisions, and therefore encouraged hospitals and other health care providers to go further in addressing barriers to price transparency.

We are finalizing the following policies in this final rule with comment period: (1) Increasing the dollar amount of penalties for noncompliance through the use of a scaling factor based on hospital bed count; (2) deeming state forensic hospitals that meet certain requirements to be in compliance with the requirements of 45 CFR part 180, and (3) requiring that the machine-readable file be accessible to automated searches and direct downloads. As indicated in the CY 2022 OPPS/ASC proposed rule, we believe these modifications to the hospital price transparency regulations (at 45 CFR part 180) are responsive to stakeholders and are necessary to ensure compliance with the hospital price transparency disclosure requirements. We are also clarifying the expected output of hospital online price estimator tools, where there may be issues with respect to a hospital that chooses to use an online price estimator tool in lieu of posting its standard charges for the required shoppable services in a consumer-friendly format. Finally, we appreciate the thoughtful comments submitted in response to our request for input on a variety of issues that we may consider in future rulemaking to improve standardization of the data disclosed by hospitals.
 
As discussed in the CY 2020 Hospital Price Transparency final rule, we believe there is a direct connection between transparency in hospital standard charge information and having more affordable healthcare and lower healthcare coverage costs (84 FR 65526). For purposes of displaying all standard charges for all items and services in a comprehensive machine-readable file, we proposed and finalized requirements for the file format, the content of the data in the file, and how to ensure the public could easily access and find the file. We acknowledged that the machine-readable file would contain a large amount of data; however, we indicated that we believe that a single data file would be highly useable by the public because all the data would be in one place. By ensuring accessibility to all hospital standard charge data for all items and services, we stated these data would be available for use by the public in price transparency tools, to be integrated into EHRs for purposes of clinical decision-making and referrals, or to be used by researchers and policy officials to help bring more value to healthcare.
 
We are finalizing, as proposed, an amendment to the regulations by adding paragraph (d)(3)(iv) to § 180.50 to specify that the hospital must ensure that the standard charge information is easily accessible, without barriers, including, but not limited to, ensuring the information is accessible to automated searches and direct file downloads through a link posted on a publicly available website. We believe that this additional requirement will serve to ensure greater accessibility to the machine-readable file and its contents and would prohibit practices we have encountered in our compliance reviews, such as lack of a link for downloading a single machine-readable file, using “blocking codes” or CAPTCHA, and requiring the user to agreement to terms and conditions or submit other information prior to access.

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