Jan 232013

By Dr. Joanne Lynn

The latest issue of JAMA features our paper describing   an exciting and successful initiative from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and fourteen of its quality improvement organizations (QIOs).  Grounded in quality improvement methodology—plan-do-study-act–this unusual project offers many insights for those aiming to reduce avoidable readmissions.  And its raises a number of important question about how we measure progress in reducing readmissions. (For more on that topic, see our earlier MediCaring blog, https://medicaring.org/2013/01/07/readmissions-count-should-cms-revise-its-calculations/ )

A Medicare patient’s ability to receive successful treatment during care transitions from one setting to another has a crucial effect on the overall cost and efficiency of the Medicare system. Errors in information transfer, care planning or community support can cause hospitalizations, rehospitalizations and unnecessary costs to the Medicare program.

This project involved a three-year, community-based effort to improve the care transition process for fee-for-service Medicare beneficiaries. Participating QIOs facilitated cooperation among providers, health care facilities, and social services programs, such as Area Agencies on Aging. They centered their efforts around each community’s unique needs.   QIOs worked with communities to understand their own particular causes of readmissions, and to implement appropriate, evidence-based models to address them.  Communities analyzed results of the intervention along the way, and changed course to stick with interventions most likely to work.

The results, when compared to 50 comparison communities, showed significant reductions in hospitalizations and rehospitalizations, both by an almost 6% average, saving Medicare $3 million in hospitalization costs per average community per year.

This correlation has already led to new national efforts such as Partnership for Patients and the Community-based Care Transitions Program. In addition, in the 10th Scope of Work, all 53 QIOs are leading community projects nationwide (so far, in more than 400 communities).

This paper may be the first time one of America’s leading medical journals has published a report based on QI methods. Doing so represents a profound change in the openness of American medicine to learn not only what works for a patient, but works for the delivery system, too.

key words: quality improvement, care transitions, CMS, CFMC, Joanne Lynn, readmissions, community coalitions, JAMA

Feb 232012

CJE SeniorLife, a community-based organization that serves some 18,000 older adults annually, is among the first cohort of recipients for  Section 3026 or  Community-Based Care Transition Program (CCTP) funding from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. One of seven early awardees, CJE will anchor a project that includes three large hospitals in Northern Chicago, as well as long-term services and supports organizations that serve frail older adults.

Medicaring talked to Heather O’Donnell, JD, LLM, CPA, then CJE’s Director of Planning for Healthcare Reform. She said that the process that led to funding has been underway for more than a year, and began when the group first began to consider opportunities that were arising as a result of health care reform, and how it might further its effort to bridge gaps between social services and medical care.

CJE, which had already been involved in care transitions improvement efforts, began to reach out to hospitals in its community, approaching them to find out whether they would be interested in partnering for the CCTP opportunity. Ultimately, three hospitals were selected:  Northwestern Memorial Hospital (a major academic medical center), Provena-Resurrection Saint Joseph Hospital, and Provena-Resurrection Saint Francis Hospital. The team also includes Telligen, the Illinois Quality Improvement Organization and local Care Coordination Units. These state-run units, housed in communities throughout Illinois, address the needs of older adults who have complex, ongoing health care needs. Patients who have  diagnoses of pneumonia, congestive heart failure, or AMI are targeted, as well as those who have complex conditions or take multiple medications.

The intervention is based on Eric Coleman’s model, which focuses on coaching patients and families to improve self-management skills for chronic conditions and medication management. The 30-day intervention aims to help people access home and community-based services and features a follow-up home visit by a transitional care nurse within 72 hours of discharge. These nurses, who have participated in the Care Transitions Intervention training program, help patients and families to set 30-day post-discharge goals, and to make and keep followup appointments. In addition, CJE received foundation funding which is enabling it to include a social work intervention; very high risk patients are identified and receive followup with a social worker for six months post-discharge.

“We had to adapt the Coleman protocols,” says O’Donnell. “We felt that for some patients, those with chronic conditions and psychosocial problems, thirty-days of followup were insufficient. We found that about 10 percent of the patients in our program would need more support services. That part of our program is not covered by CMS but is funded with private foundation funds.”

O’Donnell says that pulling the project together has taken a great deal of collaboration with the participating hospitals—from the on-the-ground work of finding the right contact people to developing specific strategies for the intervention. “But we felt that this was a good fit with what the hospitals were already doing,” she said. “It is very exciting work, getting every provider in the community to think about the quality of care from the standpoint of preventing an unnecessary readmission.”

Asked whether there had been any problems in bridging the divide between social services agencies and hospitals, O’Donnell said there had not. “This isn’t about us versus them. This is about everybody pulling together and undertaking a new initiative that’s good for everybody—good for the hospital, the nursing home, the patient. It’s a new approach.”

CJE meets regularly with its partners at each participating hospital, although the three are some miles apart and there is no reason to try to pull them all into one meeting. Orchestrating such a meeting, O’Donnell said, would be quite difficult, given how busy people are, and how hard it is to accomplish specific tasks when so many people are involved. “We’ve found it’s more effective to address each hospital and their concerns and our strategies individually.” CJE is, however, convening quarterly meetings of participating nursing homes, at which it hopes participants will talk about their successes, challenges, and processes. CJE is also mindful of the role to be played through partnerships with its local AAA (Area Agency on Aging), which is in the midst of applying for separate CCTP funding. It is also keeping the Department of Health Care and Family Services apprised of its work.

The process of actually launching the program took several months of work with CMS to address questions and concerns and finalize a contract. The application, submitted in August, received final approval in November. The first wave of projects will begin in one hospital on March 1, with other hospitals launching in April and May; ultimately, the project anticipates serving some 2,700 people each year.  As O’Donnell notes, “It is a significant undertaking, and there are lots of details to be sorted out.”

She also noted that the relatively quick launch can be attributed in part to ongoing planning for implementation, addressing in advance issues that were likely to come up as the project rolled out. “We had these conversations internally and with hospitals before the application was even approved.” 

Key words: care transitions, Section 3026, CCTP, CMS, Coleman model, CJE


Jul 112011

Since many potential applicants are now figuring out how to use the financial template for Community-Based Care Transitions Program (CCTP) funding (as mentioned in our previous blog at: https://medicaring.org/2011/07/08/community-based-care-transitions-program-%e2%80%93-section-3026-funding/), here are some suggestions on mapping out a successful care transition model utilizing blended rate.  First, realize that all payments are to the Community-Based Organization, and must be paid “per eligible beneficiary.” Second, the worksheet provided by CMS must be used to convey the proposed blended rate. You’ll need to have enough experience in providing care transition services to estimate your population and costs in order to be successful in getting the funding.

Some applicants might want to focus on a particular illness or transition type (e.g., to Skilled Nursing Facilities), but we would encourage you to consider taking all Medicare fee-for-service discharges, but then using a stratified model to deliver services and estimate financials. Using just one intervention on all patients (e.g., the Care Transitions Intervention at Dr. Coleman’s site at: http://www.caretransitions.org) will meet the terms of the solicitation. However, a more sustainable model seems to have you divide the target population into three groups: low-complexity transitions, medium-complexity transitions and high-complexity transitions. Then, estimate the N, the acceptance rate, and the total costs for each of the three populations over a year.  Remember that CMS has said that initial training of staff and trips to meetings in Baltimore are not included in the budget (they must be covered from other funds or from indirects).

If a community finds it appealing to stratify as we suggest, then the blended rate is set by the number of people in the population segment, the likely complete refusal rate, and the costs of serving this population. In order to be effective, you will want to drive down the refusal rate wherever possible, and again, experience will be helpful.

One possibility for increasing patient compliance is by creating a patient-centered and patient-friendly intervention by improving cultural competency of all staff workers. Getting endorsement of relevant community leaders could also help mitigate refusal rate. We also recommend incorporating maximum family input to optimize care transitions, and thereby, reducing not only avoidable hospital readmissions but also generating Medicare savings.

This piece was written in collaboration with Dr. Joanne Lynn.


We are very interested in your experience and thoughts – and in some real examples to share.  Please respond to this blog, or send along info to [email protected].

Key words: care transitions, blended rate, Medicare savings, 3026, Coleman model, hospital readmissions

Jun 142011

In a complex system such as  transitions of sick and fragile patients from one setting to another, we are often so grateful for the few carefully done and reported research endeavors that funders and researchers easily fall into the trap of insisting upon slavish replication, assuming that this is the way to achieve the same results. If we were working with a highly standardized “system,” such as how heart cells respond to a drug, then we could reasonably assume that the curve of responses in Maine would be just about the same as the curve of responses in Arizona, and that what works for a dozen will work as well for a hundred.  Sometimes, of course, even those assumptions are wrong, but it is rare for an unmeasured characteristic of the population to greatly alter drug effects or metabolism.

However, there is every reason to assume that carefully done research on small numbers in a few settings will not be enough to guide practical implementation of process redesign.  There are two main reasons for this.  First, our paradigm for good studies is the randomized controlled trial (RCT), but some of its characteristics actually undercut the utility of the findings for guiding replication.  Specifically, the effective restrictions (stated and unstated) for eligibility make it likely that only a small sub-set of actual patients will be eligible for the trial.  Second, the fact that one is willing to randomize within one setting is good for blinded trials, but undercuts the galvanizing of the will that is often essential in fueling system reform. Consider this example – could you really generate the outrage that allows  a nursing unit to make changes to stop repeated mistakes in transitions to stop the suffering of their discharged patients — and simultaneously be expected to continue to do it wrong for all but a few of the patients?

Another challenge in the usual RCT is that the numbers affected are small — often only a small subset of the patients in the test site.  While this works for a proof of concept, improvement experts quickly note that scaling up is never just a matter of applying the same changes to a lot more people!  Instead, scaling up poses its own problems.  As one scales up improvements in care transitions, one has to work on incorporating many elements of the work into job descriptions and job routines so that the workflow is smooth.  One has to figure out fail-safe strategies, develop broad consensus in the community as to standards, train a populace to take a more active role in managing transitions for themselves and their loved ones, right-size the community’s supportive services, and a dozen additional elements.  The research model is usually a discrete “add-on” patch to a dysfunctional system.

Indeed, an RCT relies upon not changing the underlying dysfunctional system.  As one tries to implement the improvement approach more broadly, efficiency dictates that it become part of the system wherever possible.  Often, this also means that the highly skilled and motivated people involved in the research are replaced by less skilled, and, often, less motivated personnel providing routine services, with lower pay and more stresses.  Adapting the work of a research nurse practitioner to a regular home care RN, or of a skilled professional to a retiree volunteer, is real work that takes testing, innovation, and creativity.  In the work of the Quality Improvement Organizations (QIOs), for instance, as they implemented evidence-based interventions, many substantial adaptations were required.  One team trained certain nurses in a home health agency to be the bridging nurses in an adaptation of Naylor’s model. One team used senior volunteers as trained coaches for patient activation in an adaptation of the Coleman model. I don’t believe that any of the 14 communities were able to implement a research-based intervention exactly as it had been done in the research report.  The research was still quite important for laying down the path, but following the path with larger numbers in varied contexts required adaptations.

Perhaps the most substantial challenge in our work is that small numbers do not threaten the hospitals’ overall patient flow, while broad implementation could cut into occupancy rates and cause serious financial problems, especially if done too quickly for the system to adapt and right-size its services.  Scaling up requires considering the financial impact. The good news is that there are usually good reasons to absorb this impact, including the fact that most rehospitalizations and medical hospitalizations of Medicare patients do not make the hospital money, or at least not much money.

Keywords: quality improvement, model adoption, evidence-based, eldercare, community-based, Naylor Model, Coleman Model