WASHINGTON -- If you or an elderly relative have been hospitalized recently and noticed extra attention when the time came to be discharged, there's more to it than good customer service.

As of today, Medicare will start fining hospitals that have too many patients readmitted because of complications within 30 days of discharge. The penalties are part of a broader push under President Barack Obama's health care law to improve quality while trying to save taxpayers money.

About two-thirds of the hospitals serving Medicare patients -- some 2,200 -- will be hit with penalties averaging around $125,000 each this coming year, according to estimates.

For now, hospitals are being measured on only three medical conditions: heart attacks, heart failure and pneumonia.

Medicare plans to post details online later this month, and people can look up how their community hospitals performed by using the agency's "Hospital Compare" website.

It adds up to a new way of doing business for hospitals, and they have scrambled to prepare for well over a year. Industry officials say they have misgivings about being held liable for circumstances beyond their control.

Consumer advocates say Medicare's nudge to hospitals is long overdue and not nearly stiff enough. -- AP

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