The Houston Medicare Problem – Formulating Better Instructions on Paying for EMS

I’ll admit it. I’m kind of a nerd with Microsoft Excel.

I don’t have the programming skills needed for other database programs and I’m only taking baby-steps in MS Access, but with Excel I’m pretty darn good at making it do cool things. I think Excel is widely underused for being as powerful of a data analysis tool as it is. It’s one of those programs that everybody knows how to use… but nobody *knows* how to use. People learn parts of it and are able to do the kind of work that they do in it without touching the thousands of other tools that it offers them. It’s an insanely powerful system.

I use Excel quite a lot in my various jobs for data aggregation and analysis. Lots of my coworkers do too. Since most everyone knows that I’m an Excel nerd, some people ask me to help troubleshoot their spreadsheets for them. Some problems are quick fixes while others are maddeningly complex. Most problems, however, seem to have a common theme:

Computers always do what we TELL them to do but not necessarily what we WANT them to do.

Computers run programs. They don’t think for themselves. They don’t make their own instructions. They simply look at a list of instructions and run them. They don’t judge the instructions for merit, correctness, or morality (See: 99.9999% of the internet), they just do what they’re told without being able to think about it. When computers appear to be thinking, they’re simply running complex programs with multiple variables. Excel is no different. In fact, excel is very good at doing exactly what we tell it to do with no regard to what we may want it to do.

I sometimes agonize for hours on Excel problems when I can’t get my numbers to add up correctly. Usually these problems involve complex groups of numbers where I know the answers for a certain part of the problem, but want to use Excel to contain and crunch numbers for the parts I don’t know. I’ll write my calculations on what I know already to prove my theory, and then use those theories to expand the spreadsheet. Sometimes the formulas work the first time… and sometimes they don’t. When fixing the problems I have to keep reminding myself that Excel is doing exactly what I told it to do, not what I’m thinking I want it to do. If it’s giving me the wrong answer, it’s because I asked it the wrong question or gave it bad instructions on how to arrive at the answer. It can’t do anything but that.

I use Excel as a metaphor for a lot of systems in life. To be sure, humans have free will (we think) and are very complex in both our actions and motivations, but on the larger scale our systems affect our behaviors in predictable patterns. Just like we predictably follow the lines on the highway when we’re driving most of the time, with the outliers among us creating a need for EMS, our systems affect us predictably. Small changes to the systems we operate within can cause big changes to our behaviors on the large scale. Think of a small change to the width of a highway traffic lane causing more or less accidents, or daylight savings time creating savings in energy costs overall. While there will always be outliers when dealing with humans… the systems we create are instructions that society is given. Society will follow those instructions for both the benefit and detriment of our goals. The overall system will do just what Excel does, by doing what we tell it to do and not necessarily doing what we wanted it to do when we created it.

This Headline out of The Houston Chronicle made me think of this. Take a look at it:

“Private ambulances take Medicare, taxpayers for a ride – Companies make millions off the poor, vulnerable – whether passengers need services or not

I want you to read the article when you have time (it’s a long one – here’s the link) but the salient point they assert is that unscrupulous private EMS organizations, in near criminal collaboration with the operators of unscrupulous “healthcare” organizations, are bilking Medicare for millions via unnecessary ambulance transports. According to the pretty well-written article there does indeed seem to be a problem. While I don’t like the fact that in my opinion, the article unfairly vilifies some of these ambulance services and shows a bias against private EMS providers as a whole, I can’t say if it’s my own stated bias as a proponent of well-ran private EMS that’s causing me to feel that way. However, even the headline “Private ambulance services take Medicare, taxpayers for a ride” shows a bias. My thought is that the headline should read “Medicare Rules allow people to take advantage of the system although most don’t” but I digress…

I would like you to look at the headline of an article I wrote recently that published as my April column, it reads:

“Medic Suggests Reimbursement Change – A different payment model helps EMS & Medicare”

In his article which includes references to Barbecue, I talk about the Medicare reimbursement rules as well, but from a different perspective. (Here’s the link if you haven’t read it). I offer a solution on how a small change to the Medicare rules (think: the instructions) could benefit all involved.

I think that the two extremes here show a poignant contrast. One extreme shows how the Medicare system can be abused due to its rules allowing for abuse and the other shows how the system can disallow beneficial services because of those same rules. It is a good example of how just like excel, the system does what we tell it to do rather than what we want it to do. Other than some unscrupulous people out there, nobody wants patients or ambulance services (*ahem* Private or otherwise) to be able to take advantage and get money in a way that is unfair to the rest of the system. However, I think there are few people out there that would rally against the change that I propose in my article. This is simply a case of the end result being a product of system design. Medicare, like any system, is a set of instructions that produce an end result. The instructions allow for the ambulance services in Texas to bilk the system in compliance with the rules while a different section of those same instructions disallow payment for treating and releasing patients who could clearly benefit. It’s simply a matter of the Medicare system producing results based upon the instructions it’s been given. In both cases, the system isn’t making a judgment, it’s just following the instructions it’s been given. There is no moral value assigned within the system.

Small, efficient changes need to be made here. Just like when troubleshooting an excel spreadsheet the smallest error in a formula can skew the whole result. The companies mentioned in the Houston article aren’t the product of private EMS being evil they’re the unintended result of a system that needs better instructions to act upon. The system is producing what we’ve told it to produce, not what we want it to. These problems wouldn’t exist if we would tweak the parameters of the system to disallow them.

So… what we need are some better instructions. Anyone got any ideas?

Here’s the link to the Houston Chronicle article again

Here’s the link to mine

Also, for more of my column on, here’s my page there with all of my articles listed.

  • Anonymous

    Medicare reimbursement guidelines for EMS are archaic, convoluted, and nonsensical, and should be overhauled.

    That said, the instructions on bed-bound patients are pretty clear, and the companies being investigated are committing fraud. Not “gaming the system,” or “playing Medicare rules for their benefit,” but outright lying to say that a patient is bedbound when they clearly are not.

    Of the 397 ambulance companies in Harris County, at last count 338 were being investigated for Medicare fraud. I have a friend who does nothing but this – assist with fraud investigations against EMS providers – and he tells me that the U.S. Attorney’s office wouldn’t even bother pursuing a fraud case for less than 2 million dollars, but that has begun to change over the past couple of years.

    I think we need to get away from the fee-for-transport model – having Medicare do what we want it to, rather than what we tell it to – but it’s not going to stop the fraud. They’ll just find a different means to perpetrate it, until we jail enough of the offenders to make it too risky a proposition.

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