Back to the Future: CMS revives Obama-era proposed rule on critical access hospitals

Category: critical access hospitals, CMS, Medicare, Medicaid

Back to the Future: CMS revives Obama-era proposed rule on critical access hospitals


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Since the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, which created the designation for Critical Access Hospitals (CAH), the requirements for Medicare and Medicaid participation for these rural facilities have largely remained untouched.  But, a recent decision by CMS to revive and finalize an Obama-era proposed CAH rule will change certain Medicare participation requirements for CAHs. 

According to a recent rulemaking notice, CMS intends to issue a final version of the proposed CAH rule sometime in the next 17 months. 

The CAH designation was created to protect financially vulnerable rural hospitals that provide vital care to rural communities and combat a string of rural hospital closures. However, the intervening years since 1997 have brought many changes to healthcare in the United States, and in June 2016 CMS issued a proposed rule in an attempt to modernize Medicare participation requirements for CAHs and other hospitals.   

Highlights of the wide-ranging proposed rule include a requirement that CAHs maintain an infection prevention program, as well as an antibiotic stewardship program to promote the appropriate use of antibiotics.  CAHs would also be required to designate leaders for each of these programs. 

CMS hopes these programs will result in a reduction in hospital-acquired infections, including those that may be drug-resistant, which can lengthen inpatient stays and result in increased costs to the Medicare program. However, critics of these proposed requirements have noted that many drug-resistant organisms come into hospitals from other settings and have questioned whether these anti-infection requirements will improve patient care if care delivered outside of the hospital setting is not subject to similar requirements.

The proposed rule also establishes an explicit requirement that CAHs comply with federal anti-discrimination laws -- a requirement already applicable to Medicare providers.  The proposed rule would address this disparity and seek to address reports of discriminatory barriers to access by requiring CAH facilities to adopt and implement nondiscrimination policies. 

In addition, the proposed rule would clarify that each patient’s medical records must contain adequate documentation justifying the patient’s admission and continued hospitalization, support the patient’s diagnoses, and describe the patient’s progress and response to medications and services.  The proposed rule also clarifies that patients should be able to access their medical records in form and format requested by the patient, including electronically, if readily producible in that form and format. 

In light of recent findings in a Bipartisan Policy Center report that was published in January 2018, CMS may consider additional revisions to the proposed rule.

The report considered the rural communities of seven upper Midwest states and the relationship between local communities and CAHs. The report indicated that, while in many of the smaller localities studied, there were still barriers to access of critical primary care services, CAHs would not necessarily be helpful in addressing such access issues in each rural community.

The report found that, in some instances, CAHs are not financially sustainable due to low occupancy of patients requiring inpatient services. Proposals are wide-ranging to correct this issue, but many proposals include modifying the CAH designation to allow these facilities to include primary care and other outpatient services in addition to the inpatient care that they are already required to provide.

Although the extent to which the Trump administration will finalize the rule as initially proposed remains unclear, CAHs should closely monitor developments for any new CMS proposals addressing CAHs and a final rule implementing changes, because CAHs continue to be a focus of lawmakers and healthcare policy advisors. 

Thank you to Emmie Futrell, Belmont University College of Law, for her assistance in preparing this article.

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