MOON Over Medicare Or MOONed By Medicare?

Moon: verb; to expose one’s buttocks to someone to insult or amuse them, see also the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

So the good people at CMS have developed a new program designed to reduce the national unemployment rate for hospital case managers. It’s called “MOON”, or the Medicare Outpatient Observation Notice. This is the latest rule in the Observation Game, which was created and brought to you by Medicare.

In the Observation Game, the players are the patients, the hospitals, and Medicare, each of whom try to avoid paying as much money as possible when a patient gets sick. Unlike most games, in the Observation Game, the goal is not to win the most money but rather the winner is decided by who loses the least money. When the game gets too predictable to the point that all of the players understand how to pay the game, CMS changes the rules to make the game more interesting, sort of like the character President Snow in the movie The Hunger Games.

The basic premise of the Observation Game is that Medicare tries to pay as little as possible when a person becomes ill or injured and needs hospitalization. If that person has an illness that would normally require less than 48 hours in the hospital, then Medicare defines that hospital stay as “observation status” and the patient is considered an outpatient. It is only for an illness that would normally require a hospital stay greater than 48 hours that the hospital stay is considered inpatient. The important differences are:

  1. Inpatient status:
    1. Covered by Medicare Part A
    2. Medicare covers the cost of the hospitalization
    3. Medicare covers the cost of any drugs given during the hospitalization
  1. Observation status:
    1. Covered by Medicare Part B
    2. The patient has a 20% co-pay for the hospitalization
    3. The patient is responsible for the cost of any drugs through their Medicare Part D plan, or if they do not have a Medicare Part D plan, then the patient pays for them out of pocket

In the Observation Game, Medicare tries to get as many admissions into observation status as possible whereas the hospitals try to get as many admissions into inpatient status as possible. The patients end up being sort of by-standers in the Observation Game – they can reduce the amount of money that they lose when they get sick and need to come into the hospital by buying supplemental insurance and Medicare Part D plans but the only way that they can control whether their illness is going to result in inpatient status is by waiting until their illness gets so bad that it is going to take more than 48 hours of hospitalization to treat it.

In order to ensure that the hospitals are not cheating by declaring too many patients requiring hospitalization as inpatient, Medicare uses Recover Audit Contractors, or the RAC, which are sort of like the referees in the Observation Game. The RAC are companies that can review medical records of patients who have been hospitalized and then determine based on the documents whether or not the patient’s hospitalization qualified as inpatient status or not. If the RAC determines that a patient whose hospitalization was billed to Medicare as inpatient status did not meet the rules for being an inpatient (and instead should have been observation status), then the hospital has to pay back the money from that hospitalization to Medicare and then the RAC gets a commission based on the amount of money returned to Medicare. This is kind of like the referee in a basketball game getting paid more for every foul that they call.

In the past, Medicare found that just defining observation status as being hospitalized for less than 48 hours was not challenging enough for the Observation Game so it changed the definition of observation status to be hospitalization for less than 2 midnights. Therefore, a patient who is admitted to the hospital for 36 hours starting at 6:00 AM would be considered observation status (i.e., one midnight passes before discharge) whereas a patient who is admitted to the hospital for 36 hours at 11:00 PM would be considered inpatient status (i.e., two midnights pass before discharge). The hospital players of the Observation Game have pretty much figured out how to play the game with the 2-midnight definition of observation status versus inpatient status so Medicare has decided to change the rules a bit in order to keep the Observation Game from getting too dull.

So here is where MOON comes in. When a hospitalized patient is in observation status, the hospital has to have a patient sign a form notifying them that they are in observation status and therefore considered as being an outpatient with all of the addition costs that the patients will have to pay. This notice is called the Medicare Outpatient Observation Notice or MOON. On the surface, that sounds like a pretty simple rule but Medicare wanted to make the Observation Game more interesting so beginning on August 6, 2016, the MOON has to be given to the patient after 24 hours of hospitalization but before 36 hours of hospitalization. In other words, the hospitals have a 12-hour window during which time they have to have the patient sign the MOON. If hospitals don’t follow this rule, then they don’t get paid.

But here is the sad reality of the Observation Game. When a person gets sick or injured, it costs money to treat him or her. By using the rules of the Observation Game, if Medicare doesn’t have to pay for that treatment, then either the patients or the hospitals do. And if the hospitals have to pay for that treatment, then the hospitals are going to charge more to everyone else so that the hospitals can eventually cover their costs.

So think back to the definition: moon: verb; to expose one’s buttocks to someone to insult or amuse them. The next time you are hospitalized, if you get MOONed, were you insulted or amused?

July 23, 2016

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