Emergency Department Inpatient Practice Medical Economics

It’s Time To Do Away With Observation Status

“Observation status” was originally conceived of as a way to watch patients presenting to the emergency department for a few hours in order to determine whether or not they needed to be admitted to the hospital. The purpose was to reduce unnecessary inpatient hospitalizations and thus reduce overall healthcare costs. But there has been a creep in the use of observation status as well as the healthcare bureaucracy to administrate it. The result is that observation status has now increased overall healthcare costs. It is time to consider eliminating observation status in the United States.

Summary Points:

  • In observation status, hospital admissions are considered to be outpatient rather than inpatient admissions
  • As an outpatient visit, patients are responsible for more of the hospital charges than they would be for an inpatient visit
  • Medicare will not pay for skilled nursing facility care for patients in observation status
  • Observation stays reduce Medicare costs by transferring costs to the individual patient
  • Overseeing observation status is expensive for hospitals
  • Overall per capita U.S. healthcare costs can be reduced by eliminating observation status

How did we get here?

Prior to 1960, emergency departments were staffed by residents and general practitioners. The doctor who saw you in the ER was generally the same doctor who took care of you in the hospital. Emergency medicine became a specialty in 1968 with the creation of the American College of Emergency Medicine. The first emergency medicine resident began training in 1970 and the first board examination in emergency medicine was offered in 1980. The result was that the doctor that took care of a patient in the ER was no longer the same doctor who took care of them once they were admitted to the hospital. In 1983, DRGs were first used to determine the amount of money that Medicare would pay hospitals for inpatient admissions for any given diagnosis. After the introduction of DRGs, it became immediately clear that there needed to be some way of determining which patients were sick enough to warrant admission to the hospital from the emergency room, otherwise, the hospitals would be incentivized to admit as many people as possible, even if they were not very sick.

Initially, that determination was left to the emergency room physician. But that ER doctor needed to find an inpatient physician who would agree to admit the patient. During my residency, we had a designated “medical admitting resident” each day who would make the decision about which patients were sick enough to require admission. Some residents got the reputation of being “sieves”, meaning that they would admit everyone that the ER physician called them about whereas other residents got the reputation of being “walls”, meaning that they would block admissions from the ER unless the patients were at death’s door. You always wanted to be on-call at night with a resident who was a “wall” because that meant you would have to do fewer history and physical exams, your inpatient service census would be lower, and you might actually get a few hours of sleep that night.

In order to provide some rules for which patients warranted inpatient admission, Medicare directed that patients who could be sent home within 24 hours should be observed in the ER rather than admitted to the hospital. However, keeping a lot of patients in ER beds for 24 hours was impractical so hospitals started putting those observation patients in regular hospital beds to avoid congestion in the emergency department. The unintended consequence was that this simply led to keeping patients in the hospital for longer than 24 hours, just so they could be classified as inpatients. This was especially a problem with outpatient procedures when many hospitals kept patients overnight for procedural recovery and then billed Medicare for both the outpatient procedure plus an inpatient hospital admission. Medicare countered in 2002 by agreeing to pay hospitals specifically for observation stays in order to provide an alternative to inpatient admission for those patients who were only mildly ill or who needed extra time to recover from an outpatient procedure. Initially, the only diagnoses that could be billed as observation stays were heart failure, chest pain, and asthma. In 2008, Medicare began paying for observation stays for all diagnoses.

In parallel with the development of reimbursement policies for observation stays, Medicare began policing hospital admissions by using the RAC (recovery audit contractors). RAC auditors would review the charts of patients who had been admitted to the hospital and if the auditor determined that there was not sufficient documentation in the chart to justify inpatient admission, Medicare would collect penalties from the hospital for overpayment. By 2014, the RAC program had collected $2.3 billion from hospital overpayments. One of the most common reasons by RAC auditors when denying an inpatient admission was that “…the patient could have safely and effectively been treated as an outpatient.” The auditors were often incentivized to deny admissions since more denials often led to bigger bonuses for the auditors. As a result, the denials were frequently capricious and arbitrary. 25 years ago, a coder for a commercial insurance company confided in me that her supervisors told her to randomly deny every 10th hospital admission because hospitals usually found that it was too expensive to contest denials. Fear of RAC audits resulted in physicians and hospitals increasing the use of observation status in order to avoid the risk of being penalized for an unnecessary inpatient admission.

A second strategy employed by Medicare was to create a list of surgical procedures that were classified as “Medicare Inpatient-Only Procedures”, meaning that those operations required an inpatient admission. Any surgical procedure not on the list was to be classified as an outpatient procedure unless there were extenuating circumstances that uniquely required a patient to be admitted to the hospital. Medicare pays much more if a surgery is performed as an inpatient (Medicare Part A) than if it is performed as an outpatient (Medicare Part B). Over time, the Medicare Inpatient-Only list shrank as more and more surgical procedures were reclassified as being appropriately done as outpatient and not requiring of hospital admission. Thus, knee and hip replacement surgeries were initially considered to require inpatient admission  but are now considered to be outpatient procedures.

Medicare also changed its definition of observation stays to be any condition that requires the patient to be in the hospital for “less than 2 midnights”. Although it could be argued that this gave hospitals longer than 24 hours to treat an observation status patient and send them home, the 2-midnight definition was somewhat arbitrary. For example, a patient presenting to the emergency department at 11:00 PM would spend 25 hours in the hospital before crossing 2 midnights but a patient presenting at 1:00 AM would spend 47 hours in the hospital before meeting the 2-midnight definition. However it is not how many midnights a patient actually spent in the hospital that Medicare auditors used when deciding whether to deny a hospital admission. Instead, it is whether the auditor believed that had the patient been managed appropriately, that patient could have been sent home before 2 midnights have elapsed. For example, if a patient came to the emergency department on Saturday evening with chest pain but the hospital could not do a cardiac stress test until Monday morning (2 midnights later), the auditor would still deny an inpatient admission since if the hospital offered 7-day a week stress tests, they could have sent the patient home on Sunday (after 1 midnight).

The observation vs. inpatient status bureaucracy


In order to avoid losing money from admission denials, hospitals started to go to great lengths to insure that the medical record contained sufficient documentation to justify every hospital admission. This was greatly facilitated by the development of electronic medical records that permitted realtime review of each patient’s hospital stay to ensure that the patient’s chart had appropriate documentation to meet Medicare’s requirements to bill that hospital stay as an inpatient admission. Some of the measures that hospitals now take in order to oversee their hospital admission practices include:

  1. Physician training. When a patient is admitted to the hospital from the emergency room, the admitting physician has to enter an order directing that the patient is an “inpatient” or “observation” admission. This means that the physician has to estimate how long the patient will need to be in the hospital at the very beginning of the hospital stay and that estimated length of time dictates whether a patient will be inpatient or observation status. We now train residents in how to correctly estimate length of stay. For example, patients admitted for chest pain, syncope, and dehydration are generally observation status unless there are extenuating circumstances.
  2. Nurse admission reviwers. Hospitals will generally hire a group of nurses or other healthcare workers to review every patient’s chart on a daily basis to determine if the medical record documentation justifies inpatient admission. These nurses get special training in the Medicare inpatient admission requirements. If the patient’s chart does not contain the proper documentation, the nurse’s first step is usually to contact the physician since frequently, all that is needed is an extra sentence or two in the medical record describing how sick the patient actually is. If that does not resolve the issue, the next step is to contact a physician admission advisor.
  3. Physician admission advisors. Many times, the admitting physician is uncertain whether or not a patient’s illness justifies an inpatient admission order. Or the nurse reviewer’s determination is different from the physician’s admitting order for observation vs. inpatient status. For this reason, hospitals employ physicians whose main job is to arbitrate inpatient and observation orders. Often, this will be a private physician review company where the physician reviewers can access patient charts on a daily basis. Larger hospitals usually do this internally by hiring some of its own emergency medicine physicians or hospitalists to dedicate a certain number of hours per day reviewing admissions.
  4. Hospital medical directors. When another layer of physician review of how to classify a patient’s admission is required, it then goes to the hospital medical director. Even for a small hospital, this is usually several charts to review every week. It takes about 15-20 minutes to do one of these reviews and then contact the admitting physicians to try to talk them into changing an admission order from inpatient to observation or vice-versa. Frequently, it requires the medical director to either enter an administrative note in the electronic medical record or to send the hospital utilization review office a letter so that the hospital has a documentation  paper trail in the event of a Medicare denial. More often, the medical director is sent charts for patients who had an inpatient admission order but were discharged before 2 midnights had elapsed. This is a red flag for Medicare auditors. We then have to provide written documentation for why the patient should be billed as an inpatient. Sometimes, this is easy, for example, when a patient dies from their condition in the hospital before 2 midnights elapse. But more frequently, it is because the admitting physician legitimately believed that the patient would need to be in the hospital for at least 2 midnights when that patient first arrived at the hospital. Several years ago, I attended a Medicare seminar and one of the medical administrators from Medicare told us that when this happens, we should use the phrase “The patient had an unexpectedly rapid recovery and was able to be discharged after less than 2 midnights”. Pretty much every time a patient in inpatient status was discharged before 2 midnights, one of our hospital medical directors would review that chart and send the billing office a letter using that phrase.
  5. Pre-admission testing consultation. Patients who are planned to undergo a surgical procedure will frequently be sent for pre-operative medical consultation by an internist, family physician, or specially trained advance practice provider. Although designed to identify medical co-morbidities that could increase the risk of complications during surgery, these consultations are increasingly being used to determine whether or not a given patient’s surgery should be classified as an inpatient or an outpatient surgery. And most importantly, these consultations ensure that there is sufficient documentation in the electronic medical record to justify an inpatient procedure. For example, most knee replacement surgeries are now considered outpatient procedures. But if the chart documents that the patient has sleep apnea requiring CPAP, brittle diabetes, COPD requiring supplemental oxygen, and a history of vomiting after anesthesia, then that patient’s knee replacement can be done as an inpatient and the hospital gets paid considerably more. Surgeons are trained to be experts in surgery but are not trained in the nuances of co-morbid medical illnesses that they do not normally manage. Consequently, the surgeon’s outpatient notes often do not contain documentation of the significance of those medical co-morbidities and whether they are severe enough to warrant an inpatient admission for the surgery. That is why the pre-op medical consultation is so highly valued. If the surgeon admits the patient as an inpatient to do the surgery and then discharges that patient before 2 midnights pass, the chart once again gets sent to the medical director so that a letter containing the phrase “The patient had an unexpectedly rapid recovery and was able to be discharged after less than 2 midnights” is sent to the utilization review and billing offices for a documentation paper trail in the event of an admission denial by Medicare.
  6. Utilization review staff. Every hospital employs a large number of personnel devoted solely to coding, billing, and utilization review. Before a bill goes out to Medicare or a commercial insurance company, these staff will do a final review to ensure that all of the proper documentation justifying an inpatient admission is present in the chart, including physician admission advisor notes and hospital medical director correspondence.There will also usually be personnel whose only job is to work denials when Medicare or an insurance company denies an inpatient admission. These personnel will then prepare and submit documentation contesting that denial in hopes of overturning the denial and getting paid for the hospital stay.
  7. Attorneys and peer reviewers. When Medicare or an insurance company refuses to overturn an admission denial after the billing staff contest the denial, the next step is to turn to the legal system. This usually starts by paying an independent physician reviewer to opine whether the patient’s hospital stay should be classified as inpatient or observation. Next, hospital attorneys get involved by contacting Medicare attorneys about the denial. Sometimes, contested denials require adjudication, requiring more attorney time.
  8. Medicare staff. On the other side of the bill, Medicare and commercial insurance companies employ large numbers of staff to review charts to decide whether they think that hospitalizations should be inpatient or outpatient.

So, for any given patient’s hospitalization, there is an army of Medicare nurse reviewers, physician reviewers, utilization review staff, and attorneys that face off against an army of the hospital’s  nurse reviewers, physician reviewers, utilization review staff, and attorneys. In the end, more money is sometimes spent battling an admission denial than is actually paid to the hospital for the admission. Hospitals are willing to occasionally spend the excessive cost to contest a denial since it sends Medicare or the insurance company a signal that the hospital will not go down easily for future admission denials. It is kind of like a basketball coach throwing a tantrum about a penalty call in order to try to dissuade the referee from calling future penalties.

The net result of all of this is that the United States has created an enormous bureaucracy devoted to preventing and contesting hospital admission denials.  So, why don’t hospitals just classify more patients as being in observation status and avoid all of the expense of justifying inpatient status? The reason is money.

The finances of inpatient vs. observation status

The genesis of observation status was to reduce Medicare costs by eliminating unnecessary hospital admissions. For any given diagnosis, hospitals get paid much less if a patient is designated to be in observation status than if that same patient is designated to be in inpatient status. Overall, the reimbursement is about 1/3 less for observation stays. In other words, Medicare can reduce overall Medicare costs by pressuring hospitals to put more patients in observation status. The same holds for commercial insurance companies.

Until several years ago, Medicare also paid doctors less if patients were in observation status. However, it became clear to Medicare that this was incentivizing doctors to preferentially use inpatient status rather than observation status. And since doctors are the ones who write the admission orders, Medicare realized that it could reduce inpatient admissions by removing the physician financial incentive to put patients in inpatient status. Because the physician professional fees are much, much less than the hospital fees, by paying physicians the same whether a patient was in observation or inpatient status, Medicare would pay a little more to the doctors but would pay a whole lot less to the hospitals.

But the biggest savings to Medicare in observation status is that it transfers much of the cost of the hospital stay from Medicare to individual patients. This is because Medicare considers observation stays as outpatient visits. Outpatient services are billed to Medicare Part B but inpatient services are billed to Medicare Part A. This is hugely important to patients because patients have much higher co-pays and deductibles for their Part B charges than their Part A charges.

  • Medicare Part A covers inpatient admissions including a semi-private room, nursing care, medications, meals, and tests done during inpatient admissions. Part A also covers skilled nursing facility care, home health care, and hospice care. Medicare Part A is free to Americans over age 65 who have previously worked at least 10 years (or have a spouse who worked 10 years). There are no monthly premiums and no annual deductible. The amount that Medicare covers depends on the length of stay of the hospital admission:
    • $1,600 deductible per admission
    • Days 1-60: Part A covers in full
    • Days 61-90: patients are responsible for $400 per day co-pay, either by co-insurance or out of pocket if the patient lacks co-insurance
    • Days 91-lifetime reserve limit days: patients are responsible for $800 per day co-pay, either by co-insurance or out of pocket if the patient lacks co-insurance
    • After lifetime reserve limit days (total of 60 over the entire lifetime): Part A pays nothing and patients (or their co-insurance) are responsible for the entire costs
  • Medicare Part B covers hospital outpatient charges and physician professional charges. Unlike Part A, there is a monthly premium for Part B of $165/month with higher premiums for those with higher incomes. There is an annual deductible amount of $226. Patients also have additional deductibles and co-pays that are either paid by secondary insurance or out of pocket if there is either no secondary insurance or the insurance policy has limited benefits:
    • 20% co-pay for all physician charges
    • 20% co-pay for hospital outpatient charges (hospital room, nursing care, meals)
    • 20% co-pay for x-rays and procedures
    • Part B does not cover medications so the patient (or their Part D insurance) is responsible for medication charges during observation stays

The net result of these differences is that the patient will have greater out of pocket expenses for an observation stay than for an inpatient admission. This is especially true for the 7.5% of Americans over age 65 who are enrolled in Medicare Part A only and do not enroll in Medicare Part B – these patients pay the entire cost of their observation stay out of pocket.

Another financial implication of observation vs. inpatient stays is in skilled nursing facility (SNF) coverage. Medicare Part A pays for 100% of SNF charges for up to 20 days (there is a $200/day co-pay for days 21-100). However, Medicare will only pay for SNF care if a person first has an inpatient hospital stay of at least 3 days. Medicare will not pay for SNF care after an observation stay. If a patient is in observation status (or has an inpatient stay of < 3 days) and gets transferred to a SNF, the patient is responsible for all of the SNF charges.

Why observation status is really, really dumb

CMS absolutely loves observation status. It reduces Medicare costs by paying the hospitals less for any given diagnosis and it also reduces Medicare costs by transferring much of the costs directly to the patient. This allows CMS officials to report to Congress that they are reducing federal spending on healthcare. Congressional representatives can then report to voters that they are reducing government spending. But there is no such thing as free healthcare… the cost of healthcare does not go away, it just gets transferred to the patient. The individual American ends up with more out of pocket costs for co-pays, medication charges, and SNF costs that would have otherwise been covered by Medicare Part A had their hospital stay been inpatient status as opposed to observation status. So, in the long run, the average American does not save any money by being in observation status.

Nationwide, 16% of all hospital stays are observation stays and 84% are inpatient stays. But this percentage can vary widely from hospital to hospital. A tertiary care referral hospital will usually have a lower percentage of observation stays since its patients tend to be sicker with more complex medical problems. On the other hand, a community hospital, especially one that cares for underserved patients, will have a higher percentage of observation stays, typically 25% or more. About the best a hospital can hope for is to break even on observation patients – most hospitals actually lose money on observation stays.

It’s bad enough that observation status does not really save money by transferring the cost of care to the individual patient rather than Medicare. The worst part about observation status is that it actually increases U.S. healthcare expenses. Not only do hospitals have to spend an enormous amount of money justifying inpatient admissions and working inpatient denials, but Medicare spends an enormous amount of money paying staff who police admissions in order to deny inpatient admission charges.

The net result is that observation status represents the epitome of U.S. healthcare dysfunction. It has led to an enormous bureaucracy devoted entirely to deciding whether Medicare or individual patients should pay for hospital care. And that bureaucracy is enormously expensive.

How can we fix this?

Americans pay way more for healthcare than people in any other country. In 2021, the average per capita healthcare cost in the U.S. was $12,914. It will undoubtedly be much higher in 2023. One of the contributors to this is too much of the healthcare costs go into trying to decide whether Medicare or the individual American will be responsible for paying for healthcare. Getting rid of the observation status designation can reduce U.S. per capita healthcare costs. Here is how to do it:

  1. Create low-acuity DRGs. For conditions that are currently commonly managed by observation status (chest pain, syncope, dehydration, etc.), CMS can create inpatient DRGs that pay the hospital less, thus simulating the amount that CMS would have paid for an observation stay.
  2. Require a modest Part A co-pay for hospitalization. The biggest argument against eliminating observation status is that Medicare costs would go up since co-pay costs currently paid by patients would go back to Medicare. The solution to this would be to require a small co-pay for hospitalization days 1-60. The amount to keep Medicare’s annual budget neutral could be as little as $10 or $20 per day.
  3. Outpatient should mean outpatient. How in the world we ever got to the point that we define outpatient care as needing to be in the hospital for more than 2 midnights is baffling. Either a patient needs to be in the hospital or they don’t. I once had a admission denial for a patient in respiratory failure admitted from the ER to our ICU on a mechanical ventilator. The Medicare reviewer said that in his opinion, I should have been able to correct the respiratory failure, extubate the patient, and discharge her before 2 midnights passed. Really?
  4. Eliminate the SNF 3-day rule. The whole idea behind the 3-day rule was that Medicare wanted to see if a patient really needed SNF care before it would pay for it. But the unintended consequence is that if one of our patients needs to go to a SNF, we have to figure out a way to admit them to the hospital for at least 3 days first. This means that we have to wait until they fall at home and break their hip or wait until they get septic from an infected decubitus ulcer if they are unable to get out of bed. For patients undergoing surgery, such as a knee replacement, we have to keep them in the hospital for 3 days after their surgery before they can go to a SNF for rehabilitation, even if they live alone and cannot walk after their operation.
  5. Eliminate the observation industry. By eliminating observation status, hospitals would no longer have to spend money on nurse admission reviewers, physician admission advisors, and medical directors who laboriously review charts for inpatient justification. Hospitals could reduce their utilization management staff and Medicare could reduce its admission reviewer staff. Hospitals, patients, and Medicare would have less need for attorneys to contest admission denials. Yes, a lot of people would lose their jobs but the overall U.S. healthcare costs would drop.

Elimination of the observation status designation would make everyone happy. Patients would not be surprised by unexpectedly high hospital bills. Doctors would not have to spend time entering unnecessary documentation in their hospital notes to justify why a patient warrants an inpatient admission. Hospitals would not have to pay as much for staff to oversee admission determination. A fundamental concept of industrial engineering is that the more complex a process is, the more energy it takes to keep that process working. Observation status has created a terribly complex process. It is time to simplify the U.S. admission process.

January 22, 2023

By James Allen, MD

I am a Professor Emeritus of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University and former Medical Director of Ohio State University East Hospital