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Companies Pan for Marketing Gold in Vaccines

For a decade, Jennifer Crow has taken care of her elderly parents, who have multiple sclerosis. After her father had a stroke in December, the family got serious in its conversations with a retirement community — and learned that one service it offered was covid-19 vaccination.

“They mentioned it like it was an amenity, like ‘We have a swimming pool and a vaccination program,’” said Crow, a librarian in southern Maryland. “It was definitely appealing to me.” Vaccines, she felt, would help ease her concerns about whether a congregate living situation would be safe for her parents, and for her to visit them; she has lupus, an autoimmune condition.

As the coronavirus death toll soars and demand for the covid vaccines dwarfs supply, an army of hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and long-term care facilities has been tasked with getting shots into arms. Some are also using that role to attract new business — the latest reminder that health care, even amid a global pandemic, is a commercial endeavor where some see opportunities to be seized.

“Most private sector companies distributing vaccines are motivated by the public health imperative. At some point, their DNA also kicks in,” said Roberta Clarke, associate professor emeritus of marketing at Boston University.

Among senior living facilities — which saw their largest drop in occupancy on record last year — some companies are marketing vaccinations to recruit residents. Sarah Ordover, owner of Assisted Living Locators Los Angeles, a referral agency, said many in her area are offering vaccines “as a sweetener” to prospective residents, sometimes if they agree to move in before a scheduled vaccination clinic.

Oakmont Senior Living, a high-end retirement community chain with 34 locations, primarily in California, has advertised “exclusive access” to the vaccines via social media and email. A call to action on social media reads: “Reserve your apartment home now to schedule your Vaccine Clinic appointment!”

Although the vaccine offer was a selling point for Crow, it wasn’t for her parents, who have not been concerned about contracting covid and didn’t want to forgo their independence, she said. Ultimately, they moved in with her sister, who could arrange home care services.

This marketing approach might sway others. Oakmont Senior Living, based in Irvine, reported 92 move-ins across its communities last month, a 13% increase from January 2020, noting the vaccine is “just one factor among many” in deciding to become a resident.

But some object to facilities using vaccines as a marketing tool. “I think it’s unethical,” said Dr. Michael Carome, director of health research at consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. While he believes that facilities should provide vaccines to residents, he fears attaching strings to a vaccine could coerce seniors, who are particularly vulnerable and desperate for vaccines, into signing a lease.

Tony Chicotel, staff attorney at California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, worries that seniors and their families could make less informed decisions when incentivized to sign by a certain date. “You’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to get moved in in the next week or otherwise I don’t get this shot. I don’t have time to read everything in this 38-page contract,’” he said.

An Oakmont Senior Living advertisement touts access to covid vaccines to attract new residents.(Oakmont Management Group)

Oakmont Senior Living responded by email: “Potential residents and their families are always provided with the information they need to be confident in a decision to choose Oakmont.”

Some people say facilities are simply meeting their demand for covid vaccines. “Who is going to put an elderly person in a place without a vaccine? Congregate living has been a hotbed of the virus,” said retired philanthropy consultant Patti Patrizi. She and her son recently chose a retirement community in Los Angeles for her ex-husband for myriad reasons unrelated to the vaccines. However, they accelerated the move by two weeks to coincide with a vaccination clinic.

“It was definitely not a marketing tool to me,” said Patrizi. “It was my insistence that he needs it before he can live there.”

The concept of using vaccines to market a business isn’t new. The 2009 H1N1 pandemic ushered in drugstore flu shots, and pharmacies have since credited flu vaccines with boosting storefront sales and prescriptions. Many offer prospective vaccine recipients coupons, gift cards or rewards points.

A few pharmacies have continued these marketing activities while rolling out covid shots. On its covid vaccine information site, CVS Pharmacy encouraged visitors to sign up for its rewards program to earn credits for vaccinations. Supermarket and pharmacy chain Albertsons and its subsidiaries have a button on their covid vaccine information sites saying, “Transfer your prescription.”

But the pandemic isn’t business as usual, said Alison Taylor, a business ethics professor at New York University. “This is a public health emergency,” she said. Companies distributing covid vaccines should ask themselves “How can we get society to herd immunity faster?” rather than “How many customers can I sign up?” she said.

In an email response, CVS said it had removed the reference to its rewards program from its covid vaccination page. Patients will not earn rewards for receiving a covid shot at its pharmacies, the company said, and its focus remains on administering the vaccines.

Albertsons said via email that its covid vaccine information pages are intended to be a one-stop resource, and information about additional services is at the very bottom of these pages.

Boston University’s Clarke doesn’t see any harm in these marketing activities. “As long as the patient is free to say ‘no, thank you,’ and doesn’t think they’ll be penalized by not getting a vaccine, it’s not a problem,” she said.

At least one health care provider is offering complimentary services to people eligible for covid vaccines. Membership-based primary care provider One Medical — now inoculating people in several states, including California — offers a free 90-day membership to groups, such as people 75 and older, that a local health department has tasked the company with vaccinating, according to an email from a company spokesperson who noted that vaccine supply and eligibility requirements vary by county.

The company said it offers the membership — which entails online vaccine appointment booking, second dose reminders and on-demand telehealth visits for acute questions — because it believes it can and should do so, especially when many are struggling to access care.

While these may very well be the company’s motives, a free trial is also a marketing tactic, said Silicon Valley health technology investor Dr. Bob Kocher. Whether it’s Costco or One Medical, any company offering a free sample hopes recipients buy the product, he said.

Offering free trial memberships could pay off for providers like One Medical, he said; local health departments can refer many patients, and converting a portion of vaccine recipients into members could offer a cheaper way for providers to get new patients than finding them on their own.

“Normally, there’s no free stuff at a provider, and you have to be sick to try health care. This is a pretty unique circumstance,” said Kocher, who doesn’t see boosting public health and taking advantage of an uncommon marketing opportunity as mutually exclusive here. “Vaccination is a super valuable way to help people,” he said. “A free trial is also a great way to market your service.”

One Medical insisted the membership trial is not a marketing ploy, noting that the company is not collecting credit card information during registration or auto-enrolling trial participants into paid memberships. But patients will receive an email notifying them before their trial ends, with an invitation to sign up for membership, said the company.

Health equity advocates say more attention needs to be paid to the people who slip under the radar of marketers — yet are at the highest risk of getting and dying from covid, and the least likely to be vaccinated.

Kathryn Stebner, an elder-abuse attorney in San Francisco, noted that the high cost of many assisted living facilities is often prohibitive for the working class and people of color. “African Americans are dying [from covid] at a rate three times as much as white people,” she said. “Are they getting these vaccine offers?”

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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Medicare Cuts Payment to 774 Hospitals Over Patient Complications

The federal government has penalized 774 hospitals for having the highest rates of patient infections or other potentially avoidable medical complications. Those hospitals, which include some of the nation’s marquee medical centers, will lose 1% of their Medicare payments over 12 months.

The penalties, based on patients who stayed in the hospitals anytime between mid-2017 and 2019, before the pandemic, are not related to covid-19. They were levied under a program created by the Affordable Care Act that uses the threat of losing Medicare money to motivate hospitals to protect patients from harm.

On any given day, one in every 31 hospital patients has an infection that was contracted during their stay, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infections and other complications can prolong hospital stays, complicate treatments and, in the worst instances, kill patients.

“Although significant progress has been made in preventing some healthcare-associated infection types, there is much more work to be done,” the CDC says.

Now in its seventh year, the Hospital-Acquired Condition Reduction Program has been greeted with disapproval and resignation by hospitals, which argue that penalties are meted out arbitrarily. Under the law, Medicare each year must punish the quarter of general care hospitals with the highest rates of patient safety issues. The government assesses the rates of infections, blood clots, sepsis cases, bedsores, hip fractures and other complications that occur in hospitals and might have been prevented. The total penalty amount is based on how much Medicare pays each hospital during the federal fiscal year — from last October through September.

Hospitals can be punished even if they have improved over past years — and some have. At times, the difference in infection and complication rates between the hospitals that get punished and those that escape punishment is negligible, but the requirement to penalize one-quarter of hospitals is unbending under the law. Akin Demehin, director of policy at the American Hospital Association, said the penalties were “a game of chance” based on “badly flawed” measures.

Some hospitals insist they received penalties because they were more thorough than others in finding and reporting infections and other complications to the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the CDC.

“The all-or-none penalty is unlike any other in Medicare’s programs,” said Dr. Karl Bilimoria, vice president for quality at Northwestern Medicine, whose flagship Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago was penalized this year. He said Northwestern takes the penalty seriously because of the amount of money at stake, “but, at the same time, we know that we will have some trouble with some of the measures because we do a really good job identifying” complications.

Other renowned hospitals penalized this year include Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles; UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco; Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Tufts Medical Center in Boston; NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in New York; UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside in Pittsburgh; and Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

There were 2,430 hospitals not penalized because their patient complication rates were not among the top quarter. An additional 2,057 hospitals were automatically excluded from the program, either because they solely served children, veterans or psychiatric patients, or because they have special status as a “critical access hospital” for lack of nearby alternatives for people needing inpatient care.

The penalties were not distributed evenly across states, according to a KHN analysis of Medicare data that included all categories of hospitals. Half of Rhode Island’s hospitals were penalized, as were 30% of Nevada’s.

All of Delaware’s hospitals escaped punishment. Medicare excludes all Maryland hospitals from the program because it pays them through a different arrangement than in other states.

Over the course of the program, 1,978 hospitals have been penalized at least once, KHN’s analysis found. Of those, 1,360 hospitals have been punished multiple times and 77 hospitals have been penalized in all seven years, including UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, which reports to Congress, said in a 2019 report that “it is important to drive quality improvement by tying infection rates to payment.” But the commission criticized the program’s use of a “tournament” model comparing hospitals to one another. Instead, it recommended fixed targets that let hospitals know what is expected of them and that don’t artificially limit how many hospitals can succeed.

Although federal officials have altered other ACA-created penalty programs in response to hospital complaints and independent critiques — such as one focused on patient readmissions — they have not made substantial changes to this program because the key elements are embedded in the statute and would require a change by Congress.

Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess said in a statement that “we employ a broad range of patient care quality efforts and use reports such as those from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to identify and address opportunities for improvement.”

UCSF Health said its hospital has made “significant improvements” since the period Medicare measured in assessing the penalty.

“UCSF Health believes that many of the measures listed in the report are meaningful to patients, and are also valid standards for health systems to improve upon,” the hospital-health system said in a statement to KHN. “Some of the categories, however, are not risk-adjusted, which results in misleading and inaccurate comparisons.”

Cedars-Sinai said the penalty program disproportionally punishes academic medical centers due to the “high acuity and complexity” of their patients, details that aren’t captured in the Medicare billing data.

“These claims data were not designed for this purpose and are typically not specific enough to reflect the nuances of complex clinical care,” the hospital said. “Cedars-Sinai continually tracks and monitors rates of complications and infections, and updates processes to improve the care we deliver to our patients.”

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Look Up Your Hospital: Is It Being Penalized By Medicare?

Under programs set up by the Affordable Care Act, the federal government cuts payments to hospitals that have high rates of readmissions and those with the highest numbers of infections and patient injuries. For the readmission penalties, Medicare cuts as much as 3 percent for each patient, although the average is generally much lower. The patient safety penalties cost hospitals 1 percent of Medicare payments over the federal fiscal year, which runs from October through September. Maryland hospitals are exempted from penalties because that state has a separate payment arrangement with Medicare.

Below are look-up tools for each type of penalty. You can search by hospital name or location, look at all hospitals in a particular state and sort penalties by year.

Related Topics

Cost and Quality Health Industry Medicare States The Health Law

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