Workers Comp Zone


One area of potential cost savings that are clearly in the political crosshairs are spinal hardware costs.

The issue is currently hot a the legislature considers AB 959.

Spinal hardware costs have been under increased scrutiny since a 2005 report prepared for CHSWC by RAND, written by Barbara O. Wynn and Giacomo Bergamo, “Payment for Hardware Used in Complex Spinal Procedures Under California’s Official Medical Fee Schedule for Injured Workers”:

That study concluded that:
“Under current policies, the OMFS allowances for spinal surgeries essentially pay for the hardware used in spinal procedures twice: once through the DRG payment and again in the pass-through payment. Moreover, the cost-based payment plus handling provides no incentive for prudent purchasing and use of hardware. Also, there is considerable administrative burden involved in establishing the appropriate pass- through amount through pricing of each claim individually.”

RAND continued:
“The data analyzed in this study does not support a continuation of the pass-through. The comparison of Medicare and workers’ compensation discharges shows that on average injured workers are less costly than Medicare patients and have a shorter length of stay. The DRG-mix adjusted Medicare cost per discharge is about 14% higher than the cost per discharge for workers’ compensation patient. Although more hardware is used for workers’ compensation patients in certain DRGs (namely, DRGs 4, 497 and 498) than for Medicare patients, shorter length of stays for workers’ compensation patients in these DRGs generally offset the added costs. The comparison suggests that the 1.20 multiplier to the Medicare payment rate should be sufficient to assure that OMFS allowances on average for complex spinal surgeries are substantially more than the cost of providing care. This does not mean that the payment for every workers’ compensation discharge will be higher than the costs for that patient. The DRG system is built on a system of averages, where some discharges are more costly than others, and the goal is to assure that on average the payment is adequate.
The results of the payment simulation are based on an overall cost-to-charge ratio and should be interpreted with some caution since hospital markups may differ for spinal surgeries. The likelihood, however, is that the payment-to-cost ratios are understated rather than overstated since hospital markups tend to be relatively high for orthopedic cases. Not unexpectedly, the results indicate payment-to-cost ratios are lower when expensive hardware is used than when it is not. However, even when costly hardware is used, the payment-to-cost ratios on average are above 1.20 for most spinal surgery DRGs. The 1.20 is comparable to the average ratio for private payors.10 The only exception is DRG 496, where the payment-to-cost ratio is 1.09. Moreover, hospitals that use substantially more hardware than other hospitals still have payment-to-cost ratios that are comparable to the overall average for workers’ compensation patients and the concern that these hospitals might be underpaid is not supported by the data. While the payment simulation results are not definitive given the limitations of the methodology, they lend further support to the conclusion that a pass-through is unnecessary to assure payments are adequate for workers’ compensation spinal surgeries.
The OMFS has adopted Medicare’s temporary add-on for quality-enhancing costly hardware. This provision is intended to assure that FDA-approved high-cost quality-enhancing new technology is recognized before the higher costs are reflected in the charge data used to establish the DRG relative weights. If desired, a higher percentage of the estimated cost could be paid for technology qualifying for the add-on. After the expiration of the add-on payment, the high cost outlier policy provides some protection for hospitals that have a disproportionate share of procedures using high-cost technology.
Any special payment policy for hardware and instrumentation should be evaluated for its likely impact on financial incentives for appropriate utilization of these products during spinal surgery and on administrative burden. There is no support in the data for continuing to pay for relatively inexpensive hardware and instrumentation that is used during spinal surgical procedures. If there is a continuing concern that the payment-to-cost ratios are lower when hardware is used than when it is not, alternatives to the current pass-through could be considered. For example, the multiplier could be reduced for most spinal surgery discharges and increased when specific high cost technology is used, such as those examined in this study. This approach would minimize administrative burden by keeping any additional payment within the DRG per discharge payment and would eliminate the duplicate payment. While it retains an incentive to use hardware and instrumentation during spinal surgery, it creates an incentive to use less costly instead of more costly products of comparable quality. Establishing a separate fee schedule for the individual products that would be eligible for special payment would improve payment accuracy but would also add the administrative burden of maintaining the fee schedule and pricing the claims.”

Thus spake RAND.

But now we have the California Workers Compensation Institute weighing in, finding in a research study that current payment system for spinal hardware “pass-through payments added almost $67.5 million to the basic inpatient hospital facility fee payments for California workers’ compensation spinal surgeries.”

At a time when policymakers are focused on finding ways to free up money for benefit increases for workers in a way that does not drive rates significantly higher, $67.5 million becomes an inviting target for reform.

Readers can find the CWCI study by Alex Swedlow and John Ireland here:

Here is a link to information about AB 959 (Lieu): … uthor=lieu

Stay tuned.

Julius Young

Category: Medical treatment under WC