CHRONIC CONDITION The Waste in Medicare Spending

Bad Practices Net Hospitals More Money

"The way Medicare is set up, it actually punishes you for being good," Mary Brainerd said. (By Janet Hostetter For The Washington Post)
By Gilbert M. Gaul
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 24, 2005

First of three parts

As far back as 1999, federal and state regulators began to receive complaints that the heart surgery unit at Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center in Florida was a breeding ground for germs.

Dust and dirt covered some surgical equipment. Trash cans and soiled linens were stored in hallways. IV pumps were spattered with dried blood. One patient's wife said she saw a medical assistant tear surgical tape with his teeth.

State inspectors in 2002 found "massive post operative infections" in the heart unit, requiring patients to undergo more surgery and lengthy hospital stays.

In a four-year period, 106 heart patients at Palm Beach Gardens developed infections after surgery, according to lawsuits and government records. More than two dozen were readmitted with fevers, pneumonia and serious blood infections. The lawsuits included 16 patients who died.

How did Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly, respond?

It paid Palm Beach Gardens more.

Under Medicare's rules, each time a patient comes back for another treatment, a hospital qualifies for an additional payment. In effect, Palm Beach Gardens was paid a bonus for its mistakes.

Medicare's handling of Palm Beach Gardens is an extreme example of a pervasive problem that costs the federal insurance program billions of dollars a year while rewarding doctors, hospitals and health plans for bad medicine. In Medicare's upside-down reimbursement system, hospitals and doctors who order unnecessary tests, provide poor care or even injure patients often receive higher payments than those who provide efficient, high-quality medicine.

"It's the exact opposite of what you would expect," said Mary Brainerd, chief executive officer of HealthPartners, a nonprofit health plan based in Bloomington, Minn. Her Medicare HMO ranked among the top 10 in the nation last year for quality but was paid thousands of dollars less per patient by Medicare than lower-performing plans.

"The way Medicare is set up," Brainerd said, "it actually punishes you for being good."

As Medicare approaches its 40th anniversary on Saturday, much of the debate about the nation's largest health insurance program revolves around whether it will remain solvent for aging baby boomers. Yet another critical question is often overlooked: whether taxpayers and patients get their money's worth from the $300 billion Medicare spends each year -- now about 15 percent of federal spending and projected to grow to nearly a quarter of the budget in a decade.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company