Hospitals ramp up hyperbaric therapy for diabetics
The Villages Regional Hospital did not sweat its decision to add hyperbaric oxygen therapy in 2013.
Hyperbaric treatment, increasingly given to diabetics — many of them elderly with persistent wounds — involves breathing pure oxygen inside a pressurized air chamber typically for two hours each weekday, often for more than a month. Twenty outpatient sessions can bring a hospital $9,000 in revenue.
Villages serves a central Florida retirement community that supplied nearly half of the hyperbaric patients at another hospital 30 minutes away. Hospital officials knew their clientele preferred their medical appointments only a golf-cart’s ride from home.
“Wound care was a service line we saw as low-hanging fruit,” said Todd Powell, who oversees hyperbaric therapy at Villages hospital.
Many hospitals seem to agree. Enticed by healthy Medicare payments — about $450 for a two-hour session — and for-profit management companies that do much of the work, nearly 1,300 U.S. hospitals have installed hyperbaric facilities. That’s triple the number that an industry group says offered the service in 2002, when Medicare first decided to pay for the therapy for certain diabetic wounds.
Medicare — the largest payer of hyperbaric services — has flagged evidence of overuse in at least some parts of the country. Medicare officials declined to comment for this story, but they have retained coverage for more than 15 years, even as studies have questioned the therapy’s effectiveness.
The American Diabetes Association does not recommend the treatment. After an ADA committee of experts in diabetes care reviewed the available research last year, it concluded there was “not enough supporting data on the efficacy of this treatment to recommend its use,” said William Cefalu, the association’s chief medical officer.
Some experts say hyperbaric therapy’s increased use for diabetic wounds owes more to hospitals’ pursuit of Medicare revenue than to the treatment’s proven value.
“The science remains poor to support its use, but it is being widely used (in the United States), and one possible explanation to this may be related to reimbursement,” explained Dr. Andrew Boulton, an internationally recognized expert on hyperbaric therapy, and a professor of medicine at University of Manchester medical school in Great Britain.
“Some folks are chasing the money. It’s seen as a money grab because reimbursement has been favorable,” acknowledged John Peters, executive director of the Undersea & Hyperbaric Medical Society, which accredits 200 hyperbaric oxygen facilities nationally and has inspected 500 for accreditation in the past 15 years.
Offered at a handful of hospitals in the last decades of the 20th century, hyperbaric chambers were a niche treatment for deep-sea divers suffering with the bends — a painful and potentially fatal condition where gas bubbles accumulate in the bloodstream during too-rapid ascents from depth. In 2002 — after industry lobbying and some suggestive research — Medicare approved hyperbaric therapy for certain diabetic wounds that did not respond to conventional treatments.
That decision drove a building boom in outpatient wound care centers over the next halfdecade, featuring hyperbaric therapy. Medicare covers the treatment for more than a dozen conditions in which skin fails to heal, such as failing grafts and tissue damage from anti-cancer from radiation, but the USA’s rising diabetic population supplies much of the demand.
It costs about $500,000 to install a hyperbaric unit with two chambers. With Medicare’s lucrative reimbursement policies, “hospitals can generate cash almost immediately,” Peters said. During hyperbaric sessions, patients merely lie on a bed in a glass-enclosed tube containing high-pressure oxygen under a physician’s supervision.
The business model is so compelling that management companies typically pay for the equipment and staff. Hospitals provide space for the chamber, make patient referrals and handle billing. The companies and the hospitals split revenue from insurers.
Because of poor blood circulation, diabetics are susceptible to developing ulcers in their lower legs and feet that heal poorly and can sometimes lead to amputations. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy, in theory, works by stimulating the body’s creation of new blood vessels and aiding the formation of new skin around a wound. Side effects are uncommon but include ear and sinus pressure, paralysis and air embolisms.
In 2015, Medicare imposed stricter billing procedures in three states where its expenses for hyperbaric services were 21 percent above the national average — possible evidence of overuse or overbilling. Providers in Illinois, Michigan and New Jersey must get regulators’ preauthorization of expenses before treating Medicare patients for the most commonly approved conditions in non-emergency cases. Elsewhere, Medicare requires documentation supporting hyperbaric therapy’s need only after services begin.
A patient is placed in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va.