Five years ago, Dr. Ira Kirschenbaum, an orthopedic surgeon in the Bronx who replaces more than 200 knees each year, would have considered it crazy to send a patient home the same day as a knee replacement operation.
And yet there he was this year, as the patient, home after a few hours. A physician friend pierced his skin at 8 a.m. at a Seattle-area surgery center. By lunch, Kirschenbaum was resting at his friend's home, with no pain and a new knee.
"I'm amazed at how well I'm doing," Kirschenbaum, 59, said recently in a phone interview, nine weeks after the operation.
What felt to Kirschenbaum like a bold experiment may soon become far more standard. Medicare, which spends several billions of dollars a year on knee replacements for its beneficiaries -- generally Americans 65 and over -- is contemplating whether it will help pay for knee replacement surgeries outside the hospital, either in free-standing surgery centers or outpatient facilities.
The issue is sowing deep discord in the medical world, and the debate is as much about money as medicine. Some physicians are concerned that moving the surgeries out of hospitals will land vulnerable patients in the emergency room with uncontrolled pain, blood clots or other complications.
But proponents of the change say it can give patients more choice and potentially better care, as well as save Medicare hundreds of millions of dollars. Already, an "overwhelming majority" of commenters said they want to allow the surgeries out of hospitals, according to recent rule-making documents.
The final decision, which could come within a year, would also act as a test of sorts for Donald Trump and his new administration. They will weigh whether to limit government controls, as Trump has often suggested, or to bend to pressure from hospitals and doctors, many of whom oppose the change.
"I think the question will come down to two things," said David Muhlestein, senior director for research at Leavitt Partners, a leading health consulting firm. "It's the balance of trying to reduce regulations and let the market function -- and the competing interest of vested parties."
Demand for total knee replacements is growing -- 660,000 are performed each year in the United States. That number is likely to jump to two million annually by 2030, making this complex and expensive operation one of surgery's biggest potential growth markets.
Even if the policy change is made, Medicare would still pay for patients to get traditional inpatient surgery. But with the agency also paying for the bulk of outpatient procedures, there would be a huge shift in money -- out of hospitals and into surgery centers. Medicare could save hundreds of millions of dollars if it no longer needed to pay for multiple-day stays at the hospital. Investors at the outpatient centers could profit greatly, as could some surgeons, because doctors often have an ownership stake in the outpatient centers where they operate.
Whether the shift is beneficial for patients remains an open question. Medicare patients tend to spend nearly three days in a hospital, data shows. Forty percent of Medicare patients also spend time in a rehabilitation facility for further recovery. The data, which reflects knee replacement operations from 2014, suggests that Medicare patients are taking advantage of the post-operation support at hospitals and aftercare centers. Given that, it is unclear the percentage of eligible patients who would choose outpatient care.
But improvements in surgery -- from new medicines to control bleeding to better pain management techniques -- mean that, for some patients, the days of close medical supervision are no longer necessary.
Kirschenbaum, who is in favor of the change, acknowledged that outpatient surgery would be the right move for only a small subset of his Medicare patients -- perhaps 10 to 15 percent -- who have good caretaking at home and few chronic health issues. But it would not be for the people who are frail, live alone or in a dwelling with stairs, he said. The decision about whether an outpatient surgery should be done instead of an inpatient one tends to be made by the physician and patient.
"We want to make sure patients -- when they go home, they're safe, no question," said Kirschenbaum, the chairman of orthopedics at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center and a founder of SwiftPath, a company that offers technical support to outpatient joint replacement centers.
Perhaps of equal concern to patients are the financial consequences, because even though less care is given, outpatient procedures require higher out-of-pocket costs for patients. Medicare covers inpatient procedures 100 percent, with no patient copayment. Outpatient procedures, though, require patients to contribute a 20 percent copayment, which would easily add up to thousands of dollars in the case of knee surgery.
The battle lines over outpatient knee replacements began forming in 2012, when Medicare first considered removing the surgeries from its "inpatient only" list of invasive and complicated medical procedures. Many orthopedic doctors and hospitals rose up in protest, calling the proposal "ludicrous" and "dangerous" and prompting Medicare to abandon the idea.
Dr. Charles Moon, who has performed knee replacement surgeries at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, fired off a letter at the time saying that knee replacement patients stayed at his hospital for 2.5 days on average, and that that was "considered borderline safe" given the need to monitor patients' response to clot-busting medications.
Other objectors cited research showing that patients who received knee replacements as outpatients were twice as likely to die shortly afterward, and that even one-day-stay hospital patients were twice as likely to need a follow-up surgery, compared with those who remained inpatients longer.
"While we realize this can be good for some patients, it's not for all patients and all locations," said Dr. Thomas C. Barber, the chairman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons' advocacy council.
Yet the proposal has gained renewed momentum, backed aggressively by some surgeons and surgery center investors who say that their accumulating experience justifies the change. In recent months, Medicare has signaled a strong interest in outpatient knee replacements, noting the potential for "overall improved outcomes" as well as the potential savings for the government program.
The final decision is made by Medicare officials in the annual course of proposing changes, seeking public input and announcing a final rule. If Medicare does decide to make a change, it would probably not be put into effect until a year or so later.
In an interview, Thomas Wilson, the chief executive of the for-profit Monterey Peninsula Surgery Centers, an outpatient clinic, said his doctors have replaced knees of hundreds of adults -- 59 years old on average, but up to 82 -- with low complication rates and sky-high satisfaction rates. He said advances in surgical technique, anesthetics and patient education make it possible.
Presented with such evidence, a panel that recommends hospital outpatient payment policies to Medicare officials unanimously recommended in August that Medicare remove the procedure from the "inpatient only" payment list.
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Wilson said that as a first step, doctors should use strict criteria for choosing which patients are good candidates, like a low to moderate body mass index and a healthy heart and lungs.
Patients who meet the criteria are teamed with a friend or family member who works as a coach. The patient and coach attend an educational session before the operation, and the coach is also there to help after.
The patient is typically discharged after 23 hours in the outpatient center, and a home health service or private nurse follows up. Patients also go on to physical therapy.
"Our mix is like our regular mix of patients," said Wilson, whose center advertises a knee replacement surgery for $17,030. "It's not what we call unicorns, not 49-year-old marathon runners. These are average folks who need to have a knee or hip replaced and they're generally not sick."
But Barber and others worry that moving the procedure outside the hospital could become a norm or an expectation, even though some patients, especially those with complicating conditions like diabetes and heart disease, need the added support of a hospital team. Patient safety could be compromised, they warned.
Kirschenbaum said undergoing surgery has changed the way he approaches patients. Now he can roll up his pant leg, show a scar and tell them: "You can do this, too."
In the operating room, "with a knife in my hand, nothing has changed," he said. "But what has changed is how we treat them before and after. The education, support and being available -- it's very important."
KHN's coverage related to aging & improving care of older adults is supported by The John A. Hartford Foundation.