If primary care physicians have a bigger enemy than the RUC, Brian Klepper, PhD, hasn’t heard about it.
The American Medical Association’s (AMA) Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC) is a 31-physician panel that wields enormous influence with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) in setting the relative values of medical procedures, which are then used to determine reimbursement levels. CMS has historically accepted about 90% of the panel’s recommendations.
Posted 11/21/12 on Medscape Connect’s Care & Cost Blog
Here a link on SlideServe to my plenary presentation on CMS’ relationship with the AMA’s Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC), and how/why it has undermined American primary care. I delivered this overview at the Medical Home Summit in Philadelphia earlier this year.
Meanwhile, the team – led by Paul Fischer MD, a primary care physician in Augusta, GA – that sued CMS and HHS over their failure to require the RUC’s to adhere to the requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act is awaiting the appeal court’s ruling that will determine whether the case is at an end or whether it moves forward into discovery.
Given the seriousness and far-reaching impacts of the problem, it is shameful that America’s primary care medical societies have shrunk from supporting this action. In doing so, and in yearning to continue to align and participating with the AMA and the RUC, they have become complicit with them. They have not only compromised the primary care physicians who are their members, but ignored the much larger problems of patients who are too often put at unnecessary risk through care they don’t need, and purchasers – individuals, businesses and governments – who have been exploited for more than 2 decades with costs that are double those in other industrialized nations.
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.
Posted 9/20/12 on Medscape Connect’s Care and Cost Blog
This week the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) issued a new report describing its vision of primary care’s future. Not surprisingly, the report talks about medical homes, with patient-centered, team-based care.
More surprisingly, though, it makes a point to insist that physicians, not nurse practitioners, should lead primary care practices. The important questions are whether nurse practitioners are qualified to independently practice primary care, and whether they can compensate for the primary care physician shortage. On both counts the AAFP thinks the answer is “no.”
AAFP marshals an important argument to bolster its position. Family physicians have four times as much education and training, accumulating an average of 21,700 hours, while nurse practitioners receive 5,350 hours.
Posted 9/12/12 on Medscape Connect’s Care and Cost Blog
Early in the new documentary, Escape Fire, which provides detailed portraits of US health care’s craziness, we meet Erin Martin MD, a young primary care physician in The Dalles, OR, who ultimately abandons her practice with low income patients. Time and financial constraints have frustrated her efforts to provide the care she believes is necessary to make a difference in people’s lives. Later, we see her in a business meeting with other primary care physicians in her new practice, reviewing financials. To maintain the practice’s revenues, they’ll need to see more patients, which means shorter patient visits. The defeat is palpable to her, to her colleagues and to the audience.
A few days ago, Rob Lamberts MD, 18 years into his practice, announced on The Health Care Blog that he was dropping out, leaving to go solo in a Direct Primary Care (DPC) practice catering to patients who can pay out-of-pocket rather than through insurance. Dr. Lamberts, a regular and characteristically sunny columnist, is workmanlike but chilly in his explanation.
A reporter called the other day to tell me that several local health systems now had medical homes. “I don’t think so,” I said. She was emphatic. “They just told me they do.” I asked whether their medical homes take fee-for-service reimbursement. “I guess so,” she said. “Doesn’t everyone?” “Almost everyone,” I said. “But if they do, that means they have a financial stake in delivering unnecessary care.” By definition, that’s counter to the idea of a medical home, which provides the right care at the right time in the right context. You can’t have it both ways.
Virtually every organization remotely related to primary care now wraps itself in the mantle of patient-centered medical homes (PCMH), and many flaunt their Recognition by the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) as proof that they’ve met a standard. Presumably employers and other purchasers, enthused by the buzz surrounding medical homes, assume these credentials translate organically to better care at lower cost.
Posted 8/06/12 on Medscape Connect’s Care and Cost Blog
Excessive health care spending is overwhelming America’s economy, but the subtler truth is that this excess has been largely facilitated by subjugating primary care. A wealth of evidence shows that empowered primary care results in better outcomes at lower cost. Other developed nations have heeded this truth. But US payment policy has undervalued primary care while favoring specialists. The result has been spotty health quality, with costs that are double those in other industrialized countries. How did this happen, and what can we do about it.
American primary care physicians make about half what the average specialist takes home, so only the most idealistic medical students now choose primary care. Over a 30 year career, the average specialist will earn about $3.5 million more. Orthopedic surgeons will make $10 million more. Despite this pay difference, the volume, complexity and risk of primary care work has increased over time. Primary care office visits have, on average, shrunk from 20 minutes to 10 or less, and the next patient could have any disease, presenting in any way.
How can primary care’s position be reasserted as a policy leader rather than follower? Even though it is a linchpin discipline within America’s health system and its larger economy – a mass of evidence compellingly demonstrates that empowered primary care is associated with better health outcomes and lower costs – primary care has been overwhelmed and outmaneuvered by a health care industry intent on freeing access to lucrative downstream services and revenues. That compromise has produced a cascade of undesirable impacts that reach far beyond health care. Bringing American health care back into homeostasis will require a approach that appreciates and leverages power in ways that are different than in the past.
But primary care also has complicity in its own decline. It has been largely ineffective in communicating and advocating for its value, and in recruiting allies who share its interests. Equally important, it has failed to appreciate and protect primary care’s foundational role in US health care and the larger economy, as well as the advocacy demands of competing in a power-based policy environment.
On May 9, 2012, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services released proposed regulations to implement section 1202 of the Health Care and Education Reform Act of 2010. Section 1202 increases Medicaid payments made to primary care physicians for primary care services during the years 2013 and 2014 to Medicare payment rates, with the additional cost covered by the federal government.
To calculate physicians’ fees under Medicare—which in turn influence private payers’ decisions on how they will pay doctors—the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) relies on the recommendations of a controversial advisory panel known as the RUC (the Relative Value Update Committee), which mainly represents a broad group of national physicians’ organizations. In recent years physicians in primary care have expressed concerns that this committee has too little representation from their ranks and is partly responsible for increasing the pay gap between primary care providers and specialists. Other research has shown that increases in physician service prices brought about by committee recommendations contribute to increased costs of services used by Medicare enrollees.
Relative to their specialist colleagues, primary care physicians have been generally passive about the politics that shape their professional lives, and they have been big losers. It is important for them to consider whether their societies are genuinely acting in their interests. I believe the evidence overwhelmingly reflects poor judgment by the societies that has diminished primary care’s prospects and, more importantly, caused significant harm to patients and purchasers.
Over at the ACP Advocate Blog on Wednesday, ACP Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs and Public Policy Bob Dohertytook me to task for asserting that the American Academy of Family Physicians is the only “pure” primary care society. He’s right, of course, in the sense that the American College of Physicians (ACP), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) have done yeoman’s work in the past few years in promoting the value of primary care. He’s also right, and I stand corrected, on my statement that AAFP is the largest society. The information on Wikipedia shows that ACP has 130,000 members while AAFP has less at around 100,000.
One-half of physicians believe they’re not fairly compensated for their work – in particular, those working in primary care. Only 11% of doctors considering themselves “rich.”Medscape’s 2012 Physician Compensation Report compiled data from over 24,000 U.S. physicians across 24 specialties and found the bulk of physicians to see themselves working harder and 1 in 4 making less money than last year.
This has led to growing frustration and worry, where some physicians are resenting the large pay gap between specialists and primary care. That frustration looks poised to increase with doctors concerned that accountable care will further eat into incomes, and increased regulation and administrative hassle “take the joy out of medicine,” as Medscape coined the feeling.
In 2011, pediatricians earned on average about one-half of what radiologists took home in pay: about $150K versus $315K. The top physician earners along with radiologists were cardiologists, urologists and orthopedic surgeons. The lowest-earners were pediatricians, internists and family medicine doctors. Still, while they are top-earners, orthopods’ and radiologists’ income declined an average of 10% between 2010 and 2011.
Physicians in single and multispecialty group practices, and those within healthcare organizations, earn higher incomes compared with colleagues in academia, outpatient clinics and solo practitioners.
If they had to do it all again, would physicians choose to be physicians? 54% would still pick medicine as a career…the other 46? Not so much…
Health Populi’s Hot Points: Economics is driving physician discontent in the United States. Not only are at least half of medical specialties seeing falling incomes, but the future potential for money looks dire in at least two respects: accountable care is seen by at least one-half of physicians as a cause for income to decline; and, regulations and paperwork eat further into profit margins for physician practices.
One of the strange things about health care in America is the manner in which decisions are made about how different kinds of doctors should get paid for their services. It turns out that the system is controlled in a way most consumers would find unbelievable. As noted by the Wall Street Journal:
Three times a year, 29 doctors gather around a table in a hotel meeting room. Their job is an unusual one: divvying up billions of Medicare dollars.
The group, convened by the American Medical Association, has no official government standing. Members are mostly selected by medical-specialty trade groups. Anyone who attends its meetings must sign a confidentiality agreement.
Yet the influence of the secretive panel, known as the Relative Value Scale Update Committee, is enormous. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversee Medicare, typically follow at least 90% of its recommendations in figuring out how much to pay doctors for their work. Medicare spends over $60 billion a year on doctors and other practitioners. Many private insurers and Medicaid programs also use the federal system in creating their own fee schedules.
On February 1, the American Medical Association’s Relat ive Value Scale Update Committee (RUC), Medicare’s primary advisor on physician payment, announced the addition of two seats: a permanent one for geriatrics and a rotating one for primary care. The American Geriatrics Society and the American College of Physicians praised the move as a step forward that will amplify the RUC’s appreciation of their physicians’ contributions.
But the RUC’s maneuvers are a cynical sleight of hand. They attempt to assuage charges of sub-specialty bias while continuing the RUC’s sub-specialty dominance. The additions reduce proceduralists’ share of votes from 27 of 29 (93 percent) to 27 of 31 (87 percent), hardly a power shift. Primary care comprises about 35 percent of US physicians, but cognitive medicine would have only 13 percent of the votes.
I recently gave grand rounds at my hospital, and spoke on specialty over primary care dominance in the U.S. system. I focused on the difficulties of care coordination, i.e., “the stress” of ambulatory practice, and touched the third rail of reimbursement and salary. Surprisingly, on the latter point, I received little venom or push back from the specialists. I was shocked–literally, and staved off my own electrocution. Maybe we are accruing more evidence to support non-specialty practice and reality is setting in?
Despite that, at the annual AMA House of Delegates meeting, no other subject generates more sizzle than physician pay (putting the ACA aside). However, given the national budget, no new money will enter the system, and solving the primary care provider crisis will entail multiple fixes:
Stipends and financial support
GME incentives, including lifting training caps
Restructuring office practice to improve quality of life
Utilization of midlevels and other venues of care to offload low acuity patient volume