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, Dr. Kirschenbaum was resting at his friend’s home, with no pain and a new knee.
“I’m amazed at how well I’m doing,” Dr. Kirschenbaum, 59, said recently in a phone interview, nine weeks after the operation.
What felt to Dr. 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 older — is contemplating whether it will help pay for knee replacement surgery outside the hospital, in either 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 surgery 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 operations 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 J. Trump and his new administration. They will weigh whether to limit government controls, as Mr. 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.”