The RUC (Again): Is there a Light at the End of the Tunnel? A Conversation with Brian Klepper

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David Harlow

Posted August 13, 2013 on HealthBlawg

Tunnel of Light TJ Blackwell Flickr CC http://www.flickr.com/photos/tjblackwell/3362987463/

dharlow-headshot-0210-60kb-2Recently, there were a couple of breathless articles about the RUC (Relative Value Scale Update Committee) published in The Washington Post and The Washington Monthly, reporting as news the state of affairs that has prevailed for years in the realm of re-setting the relative values of physician services annually for purposes of the RBRVS — which is at the heart of the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule (MPFS) and which affects physician reimbursement well beyond Medicare, since the RBRVS is used as a touchstone in determining payment levels under commercial payor agreements as well.

I thought this confluence of publications was a good excuse to call up Brian Klepper, who is an expert critic of the RUC, to discuss the latest stories and talk about the prospects for meaningful reform.

Have a listen to our conversation (about 30 minutes long):

Brian Klepper on RUC HealthBlawg Interview with David Harlow 07262013

Brian Klepper – RUC – HealthBlawg

A transcript is appended to this post.

As detailed in our conversation, the RUC is a committee of the American Medical Association, and it operates behind a veil of secrecy. When it issues its annual update recommendations, CMS generally accepts the recommendation, and promulgates the update as a rule: the annual MPFS rule. The RUC is dominated by specialists, so the system tends to overvalue procedures and to undervalue “cognitive” services, or primary care.

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The RUC Is Bad Medicine: It Has To Go

Brian Klepper

Posted 8/12/13 on Medscape Business of Medicine

BK 711“One of the biggest mistakes we made … is that we took the RUC … back in 1992 and gave it to the AMA. … It’s incredibly political, and it’s just human nature…the specialists that spend more money and have more time have a bigger impact.”

This was Tom Scully, former Bush II Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), previously the Health Care Finance Administration (HCFA). He was a panelist in a May 10, 2012 Senate Finance Committee RoundTable discussion by former HCFA/CMS Administrators and has become one of the RUC’s most outspoken critics. He was explaining how the American Medical Association’s (AMA) Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC), a group that asked if it could help the government by overseeing a valuation process for medical services, came to dominate and distort the pricing used in Medicare, Medicaid and commercial health plans.

Mr. Scully echoed this sentiment recently.

“The idea that $100 billion in federal spending is based on fixed prices that go through an industry trade association in a process that is not open to the public is pretty wild. … Having the AMA run the process of fixing prices for Medicare was crazy from the beginning.”

Gail Wilensky, HCFA Administrator under Bush I, was wistful. “It happened innocently enough.”

It is remarkable and compelling to hear these federal health program ex-stewards express regret about a fiasco they had a hand in. Their “mea culpas” are almost palpable. Mr. Scully, in a recent Washington Post video interview, gave a quick aside, “It’s partially my fault.”

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Why Congress Should Pass The Accuracy In Medicare Physician Payment Act

Brian Klepper and Paul Fischer

Posted 8/09/13 on The Health Affairs Blog

ALP_H_BK_0010Paul FischerWith the recent release of two mainstream exposes, one in the Washington Post and another in the Washington Monthly, the American Medical Association’s (AMA) medical procedure valuation franchise, the Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC), has been exposed to the light of public scrutiny. “Special Deal,” Haley Sweetland Edwards’ piece in the Monthly, provides by far the more detailed and lucid explanation of the mechanics of the RUC’s arrangement with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). (It is also wittier. “The RUC, like that third Margarita, seemed like a good idea at the time.”)

For its part, the Post contributed valuable new information by calculating the difference between the time Medicare currently credits a physician for certain procedures and actual time spent. Many readers undoubtedly were shocked to learn that, while the RUC’s time valuations are often way off, in some cases physicians are paid for more than 24 hours of procedures in a single day. It is nice work if somebody else is paying for it.

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Strengthening Primary Care With a New Professional Congress

Brian Klepper

Posted 10/01/12 on Medscape Connect’s Care & Cost Blog

Three months ago a post on this blog argued that America’s primary care associations, societies and membership groups have splintered into narrowly-focused specialties. Individually and together, they have proved unable to resist decades of assault on primary care by other health care interests. The article concluded that primary care needs a new, more inclusive organization focused on accumulating and leveraging the power required to influence policy in favor of primary care.

The intention was to strengthen rather than displace the 6 different societies – The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), the American College of Physicians (ACP), the Society for General Internal Medicine (SGIM), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) – that currently divide primary care’s physician membership and dilute its influence. Instead, a new organization would convene and galvanize primary care physicians in ways that enhance their power. It would also reach out and embrace other primary care groups – e.g., mid-level clinicians and primary care practice organizations – adding heft and resources, and reflecting the fact that primary care is increasingly a team-based endeavor.

We have come to believe that a single organization cannot be serviceable. Feedback on the article suggested that several entities were necessary to achieve a workable design.

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Who Will Speak For Physicians and Their Patients?

Brian Klepper

Posted 8/29/12 on Medscape Connect’s Care and Cost Blog

Dr. George Lundberg has an important article on Medpage Today that deserves the thoughtful consideration of every American physician. He argues that the American Medical Association, a successful and representative organization for many decades, more recently “fails on both fronts” to fight for doctors and for the health of the American people. It has become, he says, “unsalvageable.”

In a companion piece earlier this month, he called on all physicians to become lifelong members of the AMA, as a way to gain professional impact and to make the AMA more reflective of American physicians’ concerns. “If you are an American physician and you don’t like what the AMA has done and is doing, if you are not a member, shut your mouth, you have no right to complain.”

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Should Family Physicians Leave the RUC?

Brian Klepper

Posted 3/30/12 on KevinMD

Last June the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) sent a letter to the AMA’s Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC) demanding specific changes to the ways that the RUC conducts its business. Primary care has been severely compromised by the RUC’s recommendations, and there was an implicit threat that the nation’s largest medical society would withdraw if the demands were ignored.

I co-authored a Kaiser Health News article in January 2011 calling on AAFP and other primary care societies to quit the RUC. The campaign was given real teeth when six Augusta, GA primary care physicians filed suit last June in a Maryland federal court against the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The complaint charges that those agencies have refused to require the RUC to adhere to the stringent requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which ensures that policy is formulated in the public rather than the special interest.

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Who Will Pay For the Doc Pay Fix?

Merrill Goozner

Published 11/25/11 in the Fiscal Times

Holiday cheer and bipartisan bonhomie are still possible on Capitol Hill.

For evidence, one need only look at the so-called “doc fix,” where Congress every year overrides a previous effort at health care cost control to ensure physicians get paid at least as much as they did the year before.  Expect another present to arrive at physicians’ offices sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, now that the Super Committee has failed to permanently resolve the issue as part of Medicare’s contribution to long-term deficit control.

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Rethinking the Value of Medical Services

Brian Klepper and David C. Kibbe

First posted 8/1/11 on The Health Affairs Blog

Copyright ©2011 Health Affairs by Project HOPE – The People-to-People Health Foundation, Inc.

One of American politics’ most disingenuous conceits is that health care must cost what we currently pay. Another is that the only way to make it cost less is to deny care. It has been in industry executives’ financial interests to perpetuate these myths, but most will acknowledge privately that the way we value and pay for medical services is a deep root of America’s health care cost explosion.

When the Resource-Based Relative Value Scale (RBRVS) became the framework for Medicare payment nearly twenty years ago, it equated a medical service’s “value” with four categories of physician work inputs: time, mental effort and judgment, technical skill and physical effort, and psychological stress. The assessment process, handled from the outset by the American Medical Association’s (AMA) secretive, specialist-dominated Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC), delineates and quantifies a service’s inputs in terms of its Relative Value Units (RVUs) which, with a monetary multiplier, define its worth.

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Dealing Strategically With the RUC to Boost Family Physician Payment

Lori Heim

First posted 7/13/11 on AAFP News Now

Brian’s Note: Regular readers will recall that in January, David C. Kibbe and I wrote a piece calling on America’s primary care societies to quit the RUC, the secretive, specialist-dominated AMA committee that has been the sole advisor to CMS on medical services valuation and reimbursement for the past 20 years. It is not unreasonable to assert that the RUC’s relationship with CMS is one of the deep roots of America’s health care cost crisis, an extraordinarily destructive mechanism that has had severely negative impacts on patients, purchasers and, of course, primary care physicians.

The AAFP initially rejected our suggestion, but has thought better of it over time. As Dr. Heim describes in this explanation to AAFP’s members, they issued a series of requests to the RUC: more primary care seats, a permanent seat for Gerontology, the sunsetting of some rotating sub-specialty seats, and the addition of some non-physicians (e.g., consumers, purchasers, health economists) to the committee. Obviously, the real question remaining is whether, if the RUC rejects these changes, the AAFP Board will have the will to walk.

All that said, her comments below are a good description of how they’re approaching this very complicated set of dynamics. 

Lori J. Heim, M.D., F.A.A.F.P.

Improving payment for the cognitive services we family physicians provide is, undoubtedly, the most crucial and challenging issue the Academy must resolve. The payment disparity between primary care and procedural specialties undermines every family physician who struggles to redesign and improve his or her practice in this economy, and it also drives medical students away from primary care.

The Academy has been working on many fronts to rectify this payment disparity. One important part of that effort is to make sure CMS receives recommendations on the relative values of CPT codes from experts who understand primary care. Unfortunately, that’s not happening now to the extent necessary. The only body making recommendations to CMS is the AMA/Specialty Society Relative Value Scale Update Committee, commonly called the RUC.

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The AMA’s Spin

Brian Klepper

In case you don’t believe the AMA takes challenges to its role as CMS’ sole advisor on medical procedure valuation seriously, check out this letter that was sent by 2009 RUC Chair William Rich MD and RUC Chair-Elect (now Chair) Barbara Levy MD to Roy Poses MD, then Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine at Brown University Medical School.

Dr. Poses is a long time crusader who writes at the always controversial and scrupulously factual Health Care Renewal. On a van carrying us both to the Aspen Health Forum campus in 2007, Roy asked if I knew about the RUC. I didn’t, but he explained the basics, and then I researched and learned more when I returned home. We’ve been on the same page on this issue since.

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The RUC’s Defense

Brian Klepper

On Wednesday, 47 American medical specialty societies sent Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) a letter, with copies to all members of Congress, containing a detailed defense of the American Medical Association’s (AMA’s) Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC). For 20 years, the RUC has exclusively advised the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) on physician procedure valuation and reimbursement. On its face, the letter responds to a seemingly minor piece of legislation introduced by Rep. McDermott, H.R. 1256, the Medicare Physician Payment Transparency and Assessment Act, that would require CMS to use processes outside the RUC to verify the RUC’s recommendations on medical services values.

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