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 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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An Open Letter To Primary Care Physicians

Paul M. Fischer and Brian Klepper

If you agree with this letter, please redistribute, particularly to other primary care physicians.

Friends:

As many of you know, we have developed an effort to shine a bright light on the Relative Value Scale Update Committee, or RUC. A new site, Replace the RUC, provides a wealth of expert background information, and we’re working now to get more visibility on this issue.

A specialist-dominated panel within the AMA, the RUC is little known and under-appreciated, but extremely powerful and opaque. More important, through its longstanding relationship with CMS, it is central to the explosion in health care costs over the past 20 years, why primary care physicians are paid so poorly compared to their specialist colleagues and why few medical students now choose to enter primary care as a career. Meaningfully address the RUC, and you relieve America of more health system waste than all the cost control measures in the health care reform law combined.

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