Skilled Nursing Facilities:

Medicare Payments Exceed Costs for Most but Not All Facilities

GAO-03-183: Published: Dec 31, 2002. Publicly Released: Dec 31, 2002.

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Laura A. Dummit
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Office of Public Affairs
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This report addresses (1) the relationship between Medicare skilled nursing facility (SNF) payments and the costs of treating Medicare patients in freestanding SNFs, as well as the effect of Medicare SNF payments on the financial condition of these facilities, and (2) the relationship between Medicare SNF payments and the costs of treating patients in hospital-based SNFs, as well as the factors that may account for cost differences between hospital-based and freestanding SNFs.

Under the prospective payment system (PPS), most freestanding SNFs Medicare payments substantially exceeded the costs of caring for Medicare patients, contributing to facilities' overall positive financial condition. In 1999, the first full year under the PPS, the median freestanding SNF Medicare margin--a measure that compares Medicare payments with Medicare costs--was slightly over 8 percent. By 2000, when the temporary payment increases authorized by the Congress started to take effect, the median Medicare margin had risen to almost 19 percent. However, nearly one-quarter of SNFs in 2000 had Medicare margins exceeding 30 percent, while about one-fifth had negative Medicare margins; that is, the payments they received from Medicare did not cover their costs of providing care. Medicare margins were higher for freestanding SNFs affiliated with large, for-profit nursing home chains and for those with high occupancy. The median SNF total margin--which reflects total revenues and costs across all patients--was 1.3 percent in 1999 and 1.8 percent in 2000. A SNF's total margin tended to be higher when its Medicare margin was higher despite the fact that, in most SNFs, Medicare's share of patient days was small. The total margins for freestanding SNFs tended to be lower when a higher proportion of a SNF's patients had their care paid for by Medicaid. Unlike freestanding SNFs, about 90 percent of hospital-based SNFs reported significantly negative Medicare margins after Medicare's new SNF payment system was launched. The median hospital-based SNF Medicare margin was --53 percent in 1999. Under the PPS, per diem payments to hospital-based SNFs dropped considerably, reflecting the change from payments based on a facility's own costs to fixed payments based on average costs for all facilities. At the same time, hospital-based SNFs reported per diem costs rose from 1997 through 1999. This is in contrast to the experience of freestanding SNFs, which had lower per diem Medicare costs than hospital-based SNFs prior to the PPS and reduced their costs further after the shift to the PPS. The higher Medicare costs reported by hospital-based SNFs may stem in part from differences in services provided to patients. The higher costs may also reflect the historical allocation of overhead costs to the SNF from the hospital, an accounting practice that, while consistent with the payment incentives under the prior cost-based reimbursement system, means that hospital-based SNFs reported costs should be treated cautiously.

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