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.

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

Will Anyone Listen When Former CMS Chiefs Call For More Objective Physician Payment?

Brian Klepper

Posted 7/7/12 on Medscape Connect’s Care & Cost

On May 10th, the US Senate Finance Committee, co-chaired by Senators Max Baucus (D-Mont) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), convened a remarkable panel of four former Administrators of the Health Care Finance Administration (HCFA) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS): Gail Wilensky, Bruce Vladeck, Thomas Scully and Mark McClellen. (See the video here.) Against a backdrop of intensifying budgetary pressures, the roundtable was to provide perspectives on Medicare physician payment, including several controversial issues: the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula, the Resource-Based Relative Value Scale (RBRVS), and the RVS Update Committee (RUC).

Ironically, the day before, a Maryland Federal District judge dismissed a suit brought against HHS and CMS by six Augusta, GA primary care doctors over CMS’ longstanding relationship with the RUC, based on a procedural technicality and without weighing the substance of the complaint. The physicians challenged CMS’ refusal to require the RUC to adhere to the public interest rules of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) that typically apply to federal advisory bodies. The suit described the harm that has accrued to primary care physicians, patients and purchasers as a result of the RUC’s highly politicized process. To a large extent, the plaintiffs’ concerns closely reflected those of the former CMS Chiefs.

This was a deeply experienced and dedicated group, all with long government-involved careers. Surprisingly, independent of their divergent political perspectives, there was broad agreement on the direction that physician payment should go. All believe we need to move away from fee-for-service (FFS) reimbursement and toward alternative reimbursement paradigms, like capitation or bundled payments. All agreed that FFS would likely remain present in various forms for many years. There was a general sense that the RBRVS system was built on a series of errors, and that CMS’ relationship with the RUC started off, to use Dr. Wilensky’s term, “innocently enough,” but has become increasingly problematic over time.

Here is Dr. Wilensky’s description of how the CMS-RUC relationship came about.

It [the RUC’s formation and relationship with HCFA] happened innocently enough. Once you had the Relative Value Scale in place you needed to have a way to update relative values and to allow for a change. The AMA, as best we can tell…- sometime after I left to go to the White House, after he -[Bruce Vladeck] was sworn in, there was a lot going on, it was relatively new, in its first year – the AMA approached the Agency about whether it would allow it or like to have the AMA be the convener that would include all physician groups and make some recommendations which initially were very minor adjustments that hardly affected the RBRVS at all. The Agency accepted the offer.

Tom Scully, CMS’ Administrator under George W. Bush, took responsibility for helping facilitate the AMA’s involvement and was perhaps the most passionate that it had been an error.

One of the biggest mistakes we made … is that we took the RUC…back in 1992 and gave it to the AMA. …It’s very, very politicized. I think that was a big mistake…When you go back to restructuring this, you should try to make it less political and more independent.

I’ve watched the RUC for years. It’s incredibly political, and it’s just human nature…the specialists that spend more money and have more time have a bigger impact…So it’s really, it’s all about political representation, and the AMA does a good job, given what they are, but they’re a political body of specialty groups, and they’re just not, in my opinion, objective enough. So when you look at the history of it, CMS is starting to push back more, which is a good thing, I think it would be much better to have an arms-length transaction where the physician groups have a little more of an objective approach to it. And, look, that is the infrastructure of $80 billion of spending. It’s not a small matter. It’s huge.

But perhaps the most striking statement was made by Bruce Vladeck, HCFA Administrator during the Clinton Administration. In speaking about the problems generated by RBRVS (and by inference, the broader issues of SGR and the RUC as well) in the face of severe economic stresses, he called for the leadership and will required to simply do the necessary course correction.

I’m hopeful that some combination of the need to address overall deficit reduction strategies more generally and a different kind of political climate in the relatively near future will create the opportunity for people to say, “We made a mistake in 1997. We created a formula that produces irrational and counterintuitive results, and we’re just going to abolish it and start all over again in terms of some kind of cap on Part B payments. It’s the only way we’re going to get out of this morass.”

In a policy environment less susceptible to influence and more responsive to real world problems, the gravity of consensus on display at this roundtable would justify a call to action. As it was, it validated what many know: that we are rushing headlong down a catastrophic path, steered by forces other than reason and responsibility. The best we can hope for is that someone with authority and courage is listening.

The Need for a Level Playing Field for Physician Pay

Paul M. Fischer

Everyone in medicine knows that some physicians are overpaid for the services they provide and some are underpaid. The list of specialties in each category is no secret, though we don’t talk about it much.  It’s part of the same ethic that teaches us not to criticize another doctor’s care.

But the sad fact is that in medicine, money is tied to prestige, power, public credibility, and medical student interest.  If we don’t deal with this problem, medicine will continue to fall hopelessly into the “haves” and the “have nots,” that is, those who “own” lucrative CPTcodes and those who don’t. So the question is how did this inequity come to be and how can it be remedied?

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A Legal Challenge to CMS’ Reliance on the RUC

Brian Klepper and David C. Kibbe

First posted 8/09/11 on The Health Affairs Blog

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

This week in a Maryland federal court, six physicians based at the Center for Primary Care in Augusta, GA filed suit against HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and CMS Administrator Donald Berwick. The complaint, spearheaded by Paul Fischer MD with DC-based lead counsel Kathleen Behan, alleges that the doctors have been harmed by the Medicare payment structure developed through the agencies’ reliance on the American Medical Association’s Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC).

The suit also claims that the agencies have functionally treated the RUC as a federal advisory committee. But they have not required the RUC to adhere to the Federal Advisory Committee Act’s (FACA) stringent management and reporting rules – e.g., balanced representation, transparent proceedings, and scientifically valid analytical methodologies – that keep the proceedings in the public interest. The plaintiffs request injunctive relief, which would freeze the relationship between CMS and the RUC until the advisory group complies with FACA’s requirements. Of course, compliance would drastically change the way the RUC conducts its affairs, something it is almost certainly loathe to do.

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A Legal Challenge to American Health Care’s Payment System

Late yesterday afternoon, six primary care physician from Augusta, GA filed suit in a Maryland federal court against HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and CMS Administrator Don Berwick. Here is the press release associated with the filing.

Contact: Melody Collins                                                              FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

706-922-8242, mcollins@cpcfp.com

GEORGIA PRIMARY CARE PHYSICIANS SUE MEDICARE AGENCY

Government’s AMA RUC Relationship Illegal, Hurts Primary Care, Wastes Medicare Dollars

Six physicians from the Center for Primary Care in Augusta, GA, have filed suit in a Maryland federal court against HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and CMS Administrator Donald Berwick, charging that the payment system arising from their agencies’ longstanding relationship with the American Medical Associations’ specialist-dominated Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC) is illegal, compromising primary care physicians’ abilities to ensure the best care possible, driving up cost and harming their financial interests.

The suit alleges that, for nearly 20 years, HHS and CMS have let the RUC, their primary advisor on physician payment, evade the Federal Advisory Committee Act’s requirements for representation, transparency, and methodological rigor. Kathleen Behan, the physicians’ lead counsel, said, “We’re filing this suit to bring America’s physician payment system into accord with law.” The plaintiffs seek injunctive relief that would freeze the relationship until the agencies comply.

The suit notes that the RUC has systematically overvalued many specialty procedures while undervaluing primary care. CMS has historically accepted more than 90 percent of their recommendations. The resulting higher income for specialist physicians has discouraged medical students from primary care, explaining the US shortage of generalist physicians. Worse, as Medicare reimbursement has dwindled, visit times have shortened while patients’ medical concerns have mushroomed and intensified. Plaintiff Rebecca Talley MD noted, “By favoring procedural over cognitive work, the RUC has made general medicine unappealing to our youngest colleagues, created mistrust between doctors and confused patients about who has their best interests in mind.”

While the suit must show the payment system’s harm to primary care physicians, it also hurts patients, purchasers and the larger American economy. Paul Fischer, MD, who spearheaded the group’s effort, said “Medicare lets a financially-conflicted AMA committee set physician pay, stifling primary care while promoting the overuse of expensive procedures that often provide little value. It threatens affordable care as well as the federal budget. We decided to challenge this.”

An article in The Hill quotes a RUC spokesperson as saying that “any increase in Medicare payments for primary care doctors will hurt specialists.”

The doctors have financed the suit themselves, for the sake of the public interest. Supporters can learn more and contribute to the legal defense fund at Save Primary Care.

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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The AAFP’s Bold Valuation Initiative

Brian Klepper

This morning, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the largest and “purest” of the major primary care societies – the American College of Physicians (ACP), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) are all heavily influenced by sub-specialists – announced that it has convened a national task force charged with identifying new, better approaches to value primary care services.

This initiative is nationally significant for several reasons. By definition, it challenges the methodology used for nearly two decades by the American Medical Association’s Relative Value Scale Update Committee (AMA RUC), which has drastically under-valued primary care services while over-valuing many specialty services. By taking on this effort, it not only announces that the fruits of the AMA RUC’s labors are unacceptable, but also points out that the methodology the RUC uses to value medical services – this is founded on the Resource-Based Relative Value Scale (RBRVS) “input” taxonomy developed by William Hsaio’s team in the late 1980s – is incomplete and outdated. For example, the RUC’s methodology for calculating value doesn’t consider whether a service produced a worthwhile benefit to the patient or society, whether it was evidence-based or even necessary. More on this in a future article.

Continue reading “The AAFP’s Bold Valuation Initiative”