When Medicare’s Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement (CJR) program was implemented in 2016, the health care community—especially orthopaedic surgeons— had 2 major concerns. First, would the program actually demonstrate the ability to decrease the costs of total joint replacements while maintaining the same, or improved, outcomes? Second, would CJR promote the unintended consequence of participating hospitals and surgeons ”cherry picking” lower-risk patients and steering clear of higher-risk (and presumably higher cost) patients? Both of these questions were at the heart of the study by Barnett et al. in a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
The authors evaluated hip and knee replacements at 75 metropolitan centers that were mandated to participate in the CJR program and compared the costs, complication rates, and patient demographics to similar procedures at 121 control centers that did not participate in CJR. The authors found significantly greater decreases in institutional spending per joint-replacement episode in institutions participating in the CJR compared to those that did not. Most of these savings appeared to come from CJR-participating institutions sending fewer patients to post-acute care facilities after surgery. Furthermore, the authors did not find differences between centers participating in the CJR and control centers in terms of composite complication rate or the percentage of procedures that were performed on high-risk patients.
While this 2-year evaluation does not provide the level of detail necessary to make far-reaching conclusions, it does address two of the biggest concerns related to CJR implementation from a health-systems perspective. There may be individual CJR-participating centers that are not saving Medicare money or that are cherry picking lower-risk patients, but overall the program appears to be doing what it set out to do—successfully motivating participating hospitals and healthcare facilities to look critically at what they can do to decrease the costs of a joint-replacement episode while simultaneously maintaining a high level of patient care. The Trump administration shifted CJR to a partly voluntary model in March 2018, and I hope policymakers consider these findings if further changes to the CJR model are planned.
Chad A. Krueger, MD
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