Category Archives: Medicare

Mad Dog Attacks Public Transport

Tom Lynch of LynchRyan’s Workers’ Comp Insider blog, wrote an article this morning that follows on the heels of my post from yesterday about the Justice Department not defending portion of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

According to Tom, the GOP finally figured out how to fight the ACA, and he discusses three events beginning with February of last year in which the GOP-led Congress attacked the ACA. The three events are:

February 2017 – tax cut law that zeroed out the penalty for not having insurance.

February 2018 – getting 20 states to sue the federal government and contend that repeal of the penalty obviates the individual mandate making the entirety of the ACA unconstitutional.

And just last month, as I wrote yesterday, got the Justice Department to not defend the government in the suit.

Tom continues to say that if the 20 states win, pre-existing conditions, which the ACA protects, goes out the window. There are about 133 million Americans under the age of 65 who fall into that category. I am one of them.

Insurance companies are not happy either, Tom reports, and the trade association for the health insurance companies, America’s Health Insurance Plans, supports the provision under the ACA, and is quoted thus: “Removing those provisions will result in renewed uncertainty in the individual market, create a patchwork of requirements in the states, cause rates to go even higher for older Americans and sicker patients, and make it challenging to introduce products and rates for 2019,” according to a statement released by AHIP.

Finally, Tom asks the question — what happens if the 20 states win their suit? His answer, the 1.25 million Americans with Type 1 diabetes are waiting for an answer.

Yet, they and others don’t really have to wait for an answer, because the answer is staring us right in the face, but we refuse to see it, or even acknowledge its presence. Instead, we keep doing the same things over and over again, thinking the free market has the answer.

That is patently not true. A real, comprehensive, universal single payer system or an improved Medicare for All system that does not force those who are ill and don’t have a lot of money to pay for parts of the coverage, either the medical portion, or the 20% not now covered by Medicare, is the answer. Anything less is just a dog chasing a bus, catching that bus, and the dog and bus getting hurt.

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Justice Dept. Says Crucial Provisions of Obamacare Are Unconstitutional – The New York Times

The following article should alarm every decent American, especially those who wants to see every American have health care that does not eat into their life savings or cause them to go into debt.

Your humble author is one of them and may also be affected if this draconian decision is upheld by the courts and the Supreme Court. Thanks Bernie Bots and Steiners…thanks for giving us Justice Gorsuch by not voting or not voting for the Democratic candidate two years ago.

For what this will mean to Americans, here is Dr. Don McCanne’s take on it:

“Amongst the more important provisions of the Affordable Care Act were the requirements for guaranteed issue and community rating. For individuals with preexisting conditions, insurers could not deny them coverage nor could they charge them higher premiums than are charged for others in the same age group. This corrected two of the most serious defects in the individual insurance market that existed before enactment of ACA and made insurance available to many who otherwise could not purchase the plans.

Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions says that he will no longer defend these provisions. If the courts uphold his position, individuals with significant health care needs may find insurance with adequate benefits to be either unaffordable or not even available to them. Then concepts such as “universal” or “affordable” become moot.

How does this compare to our traditional Medicare program? The courts have already ruled that Part A of Medicare – the hospital benefit -is mandatory and must be accepted if the individual also accepts Social Security benefits. However, this does not apply to Part B – the physician benefits – nor to Part D – the drug benefits. Thus the courts have ruled that the government can require certain mandates in health care, but it also demonstrates that our current Medicare program needs to be improved, for this and for a great many other reasons. So a single payer, improved Medicare for all should be able to pass constitutional muster.

Once we have an improved Medicare that covers everyone, instead of thinking of it as some sort of unwanted government mandate, most of us would think of it as an automatic program ensuring health care financing for all of us – one that we have earned though our individual contributions based on ability to pay – guaranteed, affordable health care forever.”

CMS to consolidate Medicare quality reporting programs | Healthcare Dive

As readers of this blog have noticed in the past, I have been very critical of CMS’ introduction of myriads of models, programs, and schemes to improve quality reporting and physician performance, so it is no surprise that I look upon this new initiative with a bit of skepticism. But I’ll let you the reader decide if this is just another wasted effort by CMS or if it has a chance to actually work this time. After all, after forty years of tinkering, the American health care system is no better off than it was before CMS got involved.

One of the quality networks CMS wants to roll into a single contract concerns something your humble writer is going through, ESRD.

Here’s the article:

Quality Improvement Networks and Organizations, End Stage Renal Disease Networks and Hospital Improvement Innovation Networks are all being bundled into a single $25 billion contract.

Source: CMS to consolidate Medicare quality reporting programs | Healthcare Dive

Obamacare: The Last Stage of Neoliberal Health Reform

In my recent review of the Introduction to Health Care under the Knife, the term “neoliberalism” was discussed as one of the themes the authors explored in diagnosing the root causes of the failure of the American health care system.

For review, the term neoliberalism refers to a modern politico-economic theory favoring free trade, privatization, minimal government intervention in business, reduced public expenditure on social services, etc. (Source: Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014)

As defined in Wikipedia, and as I wrote in my review, neoliberalism refers primarily to the 20th-century resurgence of 19th-century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism. Those ideas include economic liberalization policies such as privatization, austerity, deregulation, free trade and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society. These market-based ideas and the policies they inspired constitute a paradigm shift away from the post-war Keynesian consensus which lasted from 1945 to 1980.

This recrudescence or resurgence gained momentum with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, and with the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in the 1994 midterm election, which made Newt Gingrich Speaker of the House, and implemented the Contract with America. (I’ve called it the Contract on America, for obvious reasons)

Yet, the full impact of neoliberalism was not felt until the rise of the TEA Party in the run-up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and that led to the Freedom Caucus in the House that has tried unsuccessfully multiple times to repeal and replace Obamacare with basically nothing.

Economist Said E. Dawlabani, in his book, MEMEnomics, describes the period from 1932 to 1980, which includes the post-war Keynesian consensus, as the second MEMEnomic cycle, or “Patriotic Prosperity” MEME. The current period, from 1980 to the present, represents the third MEMEnomic cycle, or the “Only Money Matters” MEME.

It is in this period that the American health care system underwent a radical transformation from what some used to call a “calling profession” to a full-fledged capitalist enterprise no different from any other industry. This recrudescence of 19th century economic policies did not spring forth in 1980 fully formed, but rather had existed sub-rosa in the consciousness of many American conservatives.

In the early 1970’s, Richard Nixon’s administration came up with the concept of the Managed Care Organizations, or MCOs, as the first real attempt to apply neoliberalism to health care. As we shall see, this would not be the first time that neoliberal ideas would be implemented into health care reform.

In Chapter Seven, of their book, Health Care under the Knife, authors Howard Waitzkin and Ida Hellander, discuss the origins of Obamacare and the beginnings of neoliberal health care reform. They point to the year 1994 as a significant one for reform worldwide, as Colombia enacted a national program of “managed competition” that was mandated and partially funded by the World Bank. This reform replaced their prior health system and was based mostly on public hospitals and clinics.

1994 was also the year when then First Lady, Hillary Clinton spearheaded a proposal like the one Colombia enacted that was designed by the insurance industry. I am sure you all remember the Harry and Sally commercials that ran on television that sank her proposal before it ever saw the light of day?

What ultimately became Obamacare was the plan implemented in 2006 in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney, but that was later disavowed when he ran for President in 2012. Waitzkin and Hellander write that even though these programs were framed to improve access for the poor and underserved, these initiatives facilitated the efforts of for-profit insurance companies providing “managed care.”

Insurance companies, they also said, profited by denying or delaying necessary care through strategies such as utilization review and preauthorization requirements; cost-sharing such as co-payments, deductibles, co-insurance, and pharmacy tiers; limiting access to only certain physicians; and frequent redesign of benefits.

These proposals, the authors state, fostered neoliberalism. They promoted competing for-profit private insurance corporations, programs and institutions based in the public sector were cut back, and possibly privatized. Government budgets for public-sector health care were cut, private corporations gained access to public trust funds, and public hospitals and clinics entered competition with private institutions, with budgets determined by demand rather than supply. Finally, prior global budgets for safety-net institutions were not guaranteed, and insurance executives made operational decisions about services, superseding the authority of physicians and other clinicians.

The roots of neoliberal health reform emerged from the Cold War military policy, and the authors cite economist Alain Enthoven providing much of the intellectual framework for those efforts. Enthoven was the Assistant Secretary of Defense under Robert S. McNamara during both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. While he was at the Pentagon, between 1961 and 1969, he led a group of analysts who developed the “planning-programming-budgeting-system” (PPBS) and cost-benefit analysis, that intended to promote more cost-effective spending decisions for military expenditures. Enthoven became the principal architect, the authors indicate, of “managed competition”, which became the prevailing model for the Clinton, Romney, and Obama health care reforms, as well as the neoliberal reforms around the world.

The following table highlights the complementary themes in the military PPBS and managed competition in health care.

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Sources: See note 11, page 273.

Enthoven continued to campaign for his idea throughout the 1970s and 1980s and collaborated with managed care and insurance executives to refine the proposal after being rejected by the Carter administration. The group that met in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which included Enthoven and Paul Ellwood, was funded by the five largest insurance corporations, as well as the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign, and wife Hillary’s Health Security Act.

The authors state that Barack Obama, while a state legislator in Illinois, favored a single payer approach, but changed his position as a presidential candidate. In 2008, he received the largest financial contributions in history from the insurance industry, that was three times more the contributions of his rival, John McCain.

The neoliberal health agenda, the authors write, including Obamacare, emerged as one component of a worldwide agenda developed by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other international financial institutions. The agenda to promote market-driven health care, facilitated access to public-sector health and social security trust funds by multinational corporations, according to Waitzkin and Hellander. The various attempts in the US by the Republican Party to privatize Social Security is an example of this agenda.

An underlying ideology claimed that corporate executives could achieve superior quality and efficiency by “managing” medical services in the marketplace, but without any evidence to support it, the authors contend. Health reform proposals from different countries have resembled one another closely and conform to a cookie-cutter template. Table 2 describes the six features of nearly all neoliberal reform initiatives.

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† Sources: patients, employers, public sector trust (“solidarity”) funds (the latter being “contributory” for employed workers, and “subsidized” for low income and unemployed).
‡ Sources: patients, public sector trust funds – Medicaid, Medicare.

The six features of neoliberal health reform are as follows:

  1. Organizations of providers – large, privately controlled organizations of health care providers, operate under direct control or strong influence of private insurance corporations, in collaboration with hospitals and health systems, may employ health care providers directly, or may contract with providers in a preferred network. In Obamacare, they are called Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), supported only in Medicare, but Obamacare accelerated organizational consolidation in anticipation of broader implementation.

In this model, for-profit managed care organizations (MCOs) offer health plans competitively. In reality, competition is restrained by the small number of organizations large enough to meet the new laws’ financial and infrastructure requirements, as well as by the consolidation in the private insurance industry. They contract with or employ large numbers of health practitioners. Instead, physicians and hospitals are absorbed into MCOs.

  1. Organizations of purchasers – large organizations purchasing or facilitating the purchase of private health insurance, usually through MCOs. Under Obamacare, the federal and state health insurance “exchanges”—later renamed “marketplaces” to reflect reality of private, government-subsidized corporations—fulfill a similar role.
  2. Constriction of public hospitals and safety net providers – public hospitals at the state, county, or municipal levels compete for patients covered under public programs like Medicaid or Medicare with private, for-profit hospitals participating as subsidiaries or contractors of insurance companies or MCOs. With less public-sector funding, public hospitals reduce services and programs, and many eventually close. Under Obamacare, multiple public hospitals have closed or have remained on the brink of closure. Note: This is a subject I have written about in prior posts about Medicaid expansion.
  3. Tiered benefits packages – defined in hierarchical terms, minimum package of benefits viewed as essential, individuals and employers can buy additional coverage, poor and near poor in Medicaid eligible for benefits that used to be free of cost-sharing, but since Obamacare passed, states have imposed premiums and co-payments. Under Obamacare, various metal names—bronze, silver, gold, platinum, identify tiers of coverage, where bronze represents the lowest tier and platinum the highest.
  4. Complex multi-payer and multi-payment financing – financial flows under neoliberal health policies are complex (see Chart 7.1). There are four sources of these various financial flows.
    1. Outflow of payments – each insured person considered a “head” for whom a “capitation” must be paid to an insurance company or MCO.
    2. Inflow of funds – funds for capitation payments come from several sources. Premiums paid by workers and their families, contributions from employers is a second source. Public-sector trust funds are a third source, co-payments and deductibles constitute a fourth source, and taxes are a fifth source.
  5. Changes in the tax code – neoliberal reforms usually lead to higher taxes because they increase administrative costs and profits, Obamacare reduces tax deductions and imposes a tax for so-called Cadillac insurance plans. In addition, it calls for penalties for those who do not purchase mandatory coverage, administered by the IRS. I was unable to get on the ACA because I had not filed a return in several years due to long-term unemployment because of the financial collapse of 2007/2008, and the subsequent jobless recovery.

Chart 7.1 Financial Flows under Neoliberal Health Reform

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*Purchase of insurance policies for employers and patients mediated by large organizations of health care purchasers.

What is the outlook for single payer in the US, the authors ask?

They cite national polls that show that about two-thirds of people in the US favor single payer. See Joe Paduda’s post here.

If the US were to adopt single payer, the PNHP proposal would provide coverage for all needed services universally, including medications and long-term care, no out-of-pocket premiums, co-payments, or deductibles; costs would be controlled by “monopsony” financing from a single, public source, would not permit competing private insurance and would eliminate multiple tiers of care for different income groups; practitioners and clinics would be paid predetermined fees for services without and need for costly billing procedures; hospitals would negotiate an annual global budget for all operating costs, for-profit, investor-owned facilities would be prohibited from participating; most nonprofit hospitals would remain privately owned, capital purchases and expansion would be budgeted separately, based on regional health-planning goals.

Funding sources would include, they add, would include current federal spending for Medicare and Medicaid, a payroll tax on private businesses less than what businesses currently pay for coverage, an income tax on households, with a surtax on high incomes and capital gains, a small tax of stock transactions, while state and local taxes for health care would be eliminated.

From the viewpoint of corporations, the insurance and financial sectors would lose a major source of capital accumulation, other large and small businesses would experience a stabilization or reduction in health care costs. Years ago, when I first considered single payer, I realized that if employers no longer had to pay for health care for their employees, they could use those funds to employ more workers and thus limit the impact of recessions and jobless recoveries.

So how do we move to single payer and beyond?

According to the authors, and to this reporter, the coming failure of Obamacare will become a moment of transition in the US, where neoliberalism has come home to roost. This transition is not just limited to health care. The theory of Spiral Dynamics, of which I have written about in the past, predicts that at the final stage of the first tier, or Existence tier, the US currently occupies, there will be a leap to the next stage or tier, that being the Being tier, where all the previous value systems have been transcended and included into the value systems of the Being tier.

We will need to address, the authors contend, with the shifting social class position of health professionals and to the increasingly oligopolistic and financialized character of the health insurance industry. The transition beyond Obamacare, they point out, will need to address also the consolidation of large health systems. Obamacare has increased the flow of capitated public and private funds into the insurance industry and extended the overall financialization of the global economy.

The authors conclude the chapter by declaring that as neoliberalism draws to a close, and as Obamacare fails, a much more fundamental transformation needs to reshape not just health care, but also the capitalist state and society.

To sum it all up, all the attempts cure the ills of health care by treating the symptoms and not the cause of the disease will not only fail, but is only making the disease worse, and the patient getting sicker. We need radical intervention before the patient succumbs to the greed and avarice of Wall Street, big business, and those whose stake in the status quo is to blame for the condition the patient is in in the first place.

Therefore, Obamacare is the last stage of neoliberal health care reform.

Three Strategies for Improving Social Determinants of Health

A shoutout to Irving Stackpole for bringing this to our attention today on LinkedIn. This is an important topic that can address the serious issue of poverty in our inner cities.

The topic of food deserts first gained national attention thanks to the efforts of former First Lady, Michelle Obama, who not only created a vegetable garden on the White House grounds, but championed the creation of other gardens in inner city elementary schools.

One in particular was created at a Washington, DC school, and Mrs. Obama invited Chef Robert Irvine of Restaurant: Impossible to cook for inner city school children at Horton’s Kids, a local community center that provides after-school meals for kids.

So an article last week in Managed Care magazine, discussed the three strategies health care systems and payer organizations are trying to address patients’ social needs.

The first strategy, Tackle a neighborhood, focuses on the work ProMedica, a 13-hospital not-for-profit system in Toledo, Ohio is undertaking.

In the UpTown neighborhood of Toledo, the average median household income is less than $21,000 a year, and more than a quarter of all adults have not completed high school. Few residents have homes or vehicles, and healthy food options are hard to come by.

One way they are dealing with the food deficit in the neighborhood is by opening a grocery store called Market on the Green, and is a joint project of ProMedica and the Ebeid Institute.

They also initiated a job-training program, a financial opportunity center, and personal-finance advice and programs.

Last year, ProMedica doubled down and announced a 10-year plan to invest $50 million to create a national model for neighborhood revitalization. In March, they announced a partnership with a New York City-based nonprofit to invest additional capital to spur further economic growth.

Lastly, they expanded their screened 4,000 Medicaid patients who use the food clinic, and found that emergency department utilization decreased by 3%, and 30-day readmission by 53%, with a modest increase in utilization of primary care.

They also expanded screening  to include housing, transportation, and other social needs.

The second strategy is Tackle the top problems.

Here, Humana has been working on its Bold Goal, a population health strategy to improve the health of the communities it serves by 20%.

Humana wants to increase the number of “healthy days” in seven markets: Louisville, KY; Knoxville, TN; San Antonio, TX; Broward County, Fl; Baton Rouge, La; New Orleans; and Tampa Bay.

In the first year, the San Antonio market showed a 9% increase in healthy days, which was attributed to several initiatives, namely a telepsychiatry pilot to increase access to behavioral health services, food insecurity screening at primary are offices, and a collaboration with other organizations to improve diabetes management,

Finally, the third strategy is Develop a social determinants workforce.

Trinity Heatlh, a 93-hospital health care system in Michigan, and one of the largest Catholic systems in the country, has been addressing their patients’ social needs through a series of small experiments.

Trinity’s strategy is to develop a cadre of community health workers who will use pathways, regimented, evidence-based multistep protocols to help individuals address their specific needs.

Trinity found that by focusing on patients covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or both, and assisted by community health workers, they reduced their emergency department and hospital utilization considerably.

Trinity also hired AmeriCorps workers to serve as community health workers in nine markets. They focused on the social determinants of health of a narrow group of patients: high-utilizing eligibles in an ACO or other at-risk contract.

The strategies these organizations are undertaking are bold initiatives that show some promise of success, but time will tell just how successful they will be.

Yet, in an era of huge tax cuts going to the wealthy, and budget cuts  eliminating many government programs or severely limiting them, these companies are taking decisive action to reverse decades of neglect and despair in our inner cities.

But they won’t be effective unless there is greater cooperation from the communities they wish to serve, and from the rest of the health care community, and those in other institutions.

There is an accompanying story here: Social Determinants of Health: Stretching Health Care’s Job Description.

Federal Spending Increased Due to Medicare ACO’s

Once again, a topic previously discussed here has raised its head.

This time, it is the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP), Medicare’s largest alternative payment model (APM).

Readers of this blog will recall previous posts about this topic. The first, from September 2015, Shared Savings ACO Program Reaps the Most for Primary-care Physicians reported that primary-care physicians were benefiting the most from the shared savings.

The next post, Challenges Remain in Physician Payment Reform, which followed on the heels of the first, discussed the challenges that remained in reforming physician payment, after then President Barack Obama (the good ole’ days) signed the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) back in April.

MACRA repealed the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) mechanism of updating fees to the Physician Fee Schedule (PFS), and had been blamed for causing instability and uncertainty among physicians for over a decade, and that led to 17 overrides of scheduled fee cuts, at a cost of over $ 150 billion.

In Models, Models, Have We Got Models!, I suggested, rather strongly that all these models were not living up to their promise and was only creating more complexity, confusion, and dysfunction in an already dysfunctional health care system.

A post from January 2017, Illogical!, reported on yet another asinine model introduction by CMS at the Health Care Payment Learning and Action Network (LAN) Fall Summit by Adminstrator Seema Verna.

So when I received an email today from Dr. Don McCanne, former president of the Physicians for a National Health Plan (PNHP) that mentioned a press release from Avalere Health indicating that Medicare ACO’s have increased federal spending despite projections that said they would produce net savings.

According to the press release, the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) has performed considerably below the financial estimates from the CBO that was made in 2010 when the MSSP was enacted as part of the ACA.

Avalere’s press release said that this has raised questions about the long-term success of Medicare’s largest alternative payment model (APM).

The MSSP has grown from 27 ACO’s in 2012 to 561 in 2016, and most of them continue to select the upside-only Track 1, the release continued, which does not require participants to repay CMS for spending above their target.

As seen in the figure below, Avalere’s research found that the actual ACO net savings have fallen short of initial CBO projectios by more than $2 billion.

However, in 2010, the CBO projected that the MSSP would produce $1.7 billion in net savings from 2013 to 2016. Yet, it actually increased federal spending by $384 million over that same period, a difference of more than $2 billion.

Josh Seidman, senior vice president at Avalere said, “The Medicare ACO program has not achieved the savings that CBO predicted because most ACO’s have chosen the bonus-only model.”

Avalere also found that while the MSSP was overall a net cost to VMS in 2016, there is evidence that individual ACO performance improves as they gain years of experience. Avalere found that MSSP ACO’s in their fourth year produce net savings to the federal budget totaling $152 million, as shown in the next figure.

Avalere’s analysis also showed that the downside-risk models in the MSSP experienced more positive financial results overall. This indicates that there is potential for greater savings over time to CMS as the number of downside-risk ACO’s increase.

The upside-only model increased federal spending by $444 million compared to the downside-risk ACO’s $60 million over 5 years.

“While data do suggest that more experienced ACO’s and those accepting two-sided risk may help the program to turn the corner in the future, the long-term sustainability of savings in the MSSP is unclear. ACO’s continue to be measured against their past performance, which makes it harder for successful ACO’s to continue to achieve savings over time,” said Avalere’s director, John Feore.

The weird part is that despite the MSSP increasing federal spending, ACO’s are still reducing spending compared to projected benchmarks.

If you are increasing spending, then how can you at the same time be reducing spending? Isn’t this a health care oxymoron?

Which brings me back to my previous posts. CMS is a clusterfudge of programs, models, rules, regulations, and schemes that have done nothing to improve the health care system in the US. In point of fact, it has only added to the confusion, complexity, dysfunction, and wastefulness of a system no other nation has.

When are we going to wake up from this nightmare and deep six the market-driven disaster that is the American health care system? There are saner alternatives, but we are so mentally ill and obsessed with profiting from people’s illnesses that nothing changes.

Einstein was right. The definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We are crazy to continue with this mess.

CMS Greenlights Outpatient Total Knee Replacement: What it Could Mean for Medical Travel

According to an article in MedCityNews.com, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) removed total knee arthroplasty (TKA) from the Inpatient-only list in November.

This will effectively allow eligible Medicare patients to have the surgery in outpatient departments of local hospitals beginning this month.

The article also mentioned that CMS did not add TKA’s to its list of payable procedures at ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs).

This will give hospitals an important head start on a growing outpatient competitor lobbying hard for the agency’s blessing, the article stated.

CMS will continue to review ASCs safety and feasibility of total joint replacement, which is a signal that change is coming. If it does so, it will pose a threat to hospital revenue.

What this may mean for medical travel is that if the cost savings are significant from allowing outpatient, and eventually ASC total knee replacement, then outbound medical travel facilities catering to such clients will see a drop in patients choosing to go abroad for such surgeries.

To that end, the industry must monitor CMS’ position on ASCs and knee replacement, as well as determine if domestic hospitals are drawing away customers because the procedure can be done on an outpatient basis.