For years, patients and advocates have been warning of the increasing use of the patient classification status known as “observation stays.”  A growing number of patients covered by Medicare, have spent days in the hospital, only to be surprised with large out-of-pocket costs and an inability to access long-term care because they were totally unaware the hospital never actually admitted them as a patient.  Legislation signed by President Obama this summer was designed to limit the use of “observation stays.”

“The Notice of Observation Treatment and Implication for Care Eligibility Act would require hospitals to notify beneficiaries receiving observation services for more than 24 hours of their status as an outpatient under observation. The written notification would have to explain that because the beneficiary is receiving outpatient rather than inpatient services, they will be subject to cost-sharing requirements that apply to outpatient services. The notice also must say that the beneficiary’s outpatient stay will not count toward the three-day inpatient stay required for a beneficiary to be eligible for Medicare coverage of subsequent skilled-nursing facility services.” …Modern Healthcare

Now, a new analysis by the Wall Street Journal shows that observation stays have been used even more than previously documented.  In fact, the WSJ reports observation stays at hospitals have increased 156% and explains why many hospitals have lowered their readmissions and thus the fines that come from too many Medicare patients returning to the hospital.  

“…at hospitals around the country, more patients are entering or re-entering hospitals under something called “observation status”—a category that keeps them out of the readmission tallies. Patients on observation status can remain in the hospital for days, and typically receive care that is indistinguishable from inpatient stays, experts say. But under Medicare billing rules, the stays are considered outpatient visits, and as such, don’t trigger penalties under the health law.

The Journal’s analysis of Medicare billing data shows that increases in observation stays can skew the readmission numbers, letting hospitals avoid penalties even if patients continue to have complications and return for repeat visits. Observation stays generally are cheaper for the government, but in some cases they can lead to big bills that are the patient’s responsibility.”

In other words, rather than managing care to reduce the costs of readmission, many hospitals are relying on an administrative sleight of hand to avoid penalties.

Across the roughly 3,500 short-term acute-care hospitals—often referred to as general hospitals—that face the penalty program, the Journal identified a drop in readmission rates of about 9% from 2010 to 2013 for penalty-program conditions. Follow-up observation-stay rates increased about 48%. The rise in observation stays accounted for about 40% of the decline in readmissions, by the Journal’s measure.

So while hospitals avoid paying penalties and Medicare pays less to beneficiaries, we all know who ends up footing the bill again — seniors and their families.