Adding Seats: The RUC’s Sleight of Hand

Paul Fischer and Brian Klepper

Posted 3/14/12 on The Health Affairs Blog

©2012 Health Affairs by Project HOPE – The People-to-People Health Foundation, Inc.

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.

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Change Will Not Come From DC

Paul Levy

Posted 2/22/12 on Not Running a Hospital

A New York Times editorial — “A Real ‘Doc Fix’” — provides a wonderful example of how a dogmatic adherence to a particular policy prescription causes one to develop constructs that are politically impractical.  This editorial is about how to tackle Medicare costs.  The proposed solution:

  1. Cut fees for specialists and then hold them flat;
  2. Have the Secretary of HHS identify overpriced and overused services and reduce the fees paid for them;
  3. “Protect primary care doctors” by holding their fees flat for a decade; and
  4. Establish a fee schedule that pays doctors more if they leave fee-for-service and form organizations that will coordinate care or take on the financial risk of managing a patient’s care for a year at a fixed fee.

There are germs of good ideas in here, but it doesn’t hold together.  Let’s look at reality.

Continue reading “Change Will Not Come From DC”

Response To RUC Chair Barbara Levy’s Comment on the Health Affairs Blog

Brian’s Note: Last week David Kibbe and I posted a Health Affairs Blog column, Trusting Government: A Tale of Two Federal Advisory Groups, that compared the openness and transparency of the Health Information Technology Policy Committee (HITPC) and the AMA’s RVS Update Committee (RUC), as a way of showing how the behaviors of each engender public trust or distrust in government. HITPC, a Federal Advisory Committee, advises the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) on matters pertaining to the ARRA/HITECH legislation. The RUC has been CMS’ sole advisor for two decades on the value of medical services. As regular readers know, over the past year, we have been highly critical of CMS’ inappropriate reliance on the RUC, and believe this relationship has been a key driver of excessive health care cost.

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Trusting Government: A Tale of Two Federal Advisory Groups

David C. Kibbe and Brian Klepper

Posted 2/2/12 on the Health Affairs Blog

©2012 Health Affairs by Project HOPE – The People-to-People Health Foundation, Inc.

Americans increasingly distrust what they perceive as poorly run and conflicted government. Yet rarely can we see far enough inside the federal apparatus to examine what works and what doesn’t, or to inspect how good and bad decisions come to pass. Comparing the behaviors of two influential federal advisory bodies provides valuable lessons about how the mechanisms that drive government decisions can instill or diminish public trust.

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Why Only Non-Health Care Business Can Save America From The Health Care Industry

Brian Klepper

The attached PP deck is a presentation I’ve given several times that has received an overwhelmingly positive, if frightened, reception.

It is, perhaps, the most disturbing public argument of my career (which is going some), because it tries to document the health care industry’s “capture” of health care regulatory processes, particularly those that govern payment. The result, as many people understand, is that the health care industry, in its rapaciousness, is effectively driving the larger US economy off a cliff.

Only one group, the non-health care business community, has the heft, influence and motivation to save us, though health care has done a good job dividing and conquering this sector as well, insinuating itself into many of the most powerful institutions (e.g., the Chambers of Commerce). It remains very unclear that the business community can be galvanized/mobilized from its malaise to turn this problem around.

The argument goes like this:

  • The data are clear that the US’ health care economy is absorbing most gains in the larger economy, and driving the US economy toward collapse. For example, nearly all increases in total compensation have been directed at increasing health costs, which in turn flows into the health industry.

Primary Care Physicians are the New Backbone for Health Care. Has the Time Come to Abandon the CPT Code?

Thomas Schwieterman 

Primary care physicians (PCP) have been identified as a critical part of the future health care value chain. Yet, we know we have far too few of them. We also know that independent providers are struggling financially.  As a result, a large number of primary care docs, perhaps a majority, have chosen to become employees of larger health systems. Most physicians label ‘salary’ as the top reason for becoming an employed clinician rather than trying to compete as an independent practitioner. But, with a CPT driven foundation for reimbursement, can this marriage between primary care and large health system be a healthy one?

When a PCP joins a health system and begins to receive a regular salary, the payments are often above that physician’s prior experiences in private practice, perhaps higher than could be reasonably calculated from the their daily productivity.  CFO’s are willing to accept the scenario of primary care salaries exceeding productivity, because they are keenly aware that the primary care physician acts as a feeder for the more lucrative profit centers at the hospital. Specialists and their ancillary staff perform most of the profit generating procedures, imaging studies, pathology examinations. These high priced resources need patients (and their insurance cards) to generate the margin-rich revenue for the financial viability of the health system.

Continue reading “Primary Care Physicians are the New Backbone for Health Care. Has the Time Come to Abandon the CPT Code?”

Anti-RUC Suit Challenges Process for Setting Doc Pay Scales

Merrill Goozner

Posted 10/25/11 on Gooz News 

Whither CMS? That’s the issue raised by Brian Klepper and David Kibbe in their post on the Health Affairs website this morning. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services faces a November deadline for answering a complaint by six Georgia physicians that claims the American Medical Association’s Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC) violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The RUC periodically sends recommendations to CMS on how it should reimburse different physician services. As Klepper and Kibbe point out, this specialist-dominated committee, after what are the medical equivalent the early 20th century factory efficiency studies conducted by Frederick Winslow Taylor, decides that the value of cataract surgery, for instance, is 12.5 times the value of a primary care office visit.

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CMS’ Opportunity: A Lawsuit Offers A Chance To Reform Physician Payment

Brian Klepper and David C. Kibbe

Posted 10/25/11 on the Health Affairs Blog

By mid-November, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) must respond to the legal complaint filed in a Maryland federal court by six Augusta, Georgia family physicians.

These doctors are not asking for money, but for relief from the negative effects brought about by CMS’ twenty year reliance on the American Medical Association’s Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC) for valuing doctors’ work. They are asking CMS to enforce the Federal Advisory Committee Act(FACA), which requires that regulatory agencies shield themselves from undue special interest influence. In the process, they are asking CMS to rethink Medicare’s approach to physician payment, with a mind toward recognizing and valuing primary care’s ability to treat the whole patient within a larger system of care. They are asking CMS to develop payment policy that supports the needs of patients over those of professional groups.

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AMA: Pay Docs For Care Coordination

Merrill Goozner

Posted 10/10/11 on Gooz News

The little-known American Medical Association committee that recommends physician pay scales to Medicare’s fee-for-service program today asked the agency to reimburse physicians for coordinating care for their chronically-ill patients. In a letter to administrator Donald Berwick, the Relative Value Scale Update Committee (better known as the RUC) recommended the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services pay for phone calls, counseling sessions and other services that help their patients wend their way through the complicated health care system.

Good idea, and long overdue. But what I didn’t see in the letter from RUC committee chairwoman Barbara Levy was any reference for how to pay for these new services. How about a reduction in the “relative value” of back surgery or conducting angioplasty on patients complaining of persistent chest pains? These are among the most expensive and overused procedures in medicine, incentivized by the extraordinarily high fees earned by the surgeons who do them. These surgeons often earn two or three times what primary care physicians earn.

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The Math of E/M Coding: When Does 5=1?

Paul M. Fischer

My typical Medicare patient expects me to deal with 5 or more problems in a single routine visit.  There are usually around 3 old ones (e.g., diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia) and at least 2 new ones (e.g., low back pain, fatigue).  For those who come with handwritten lists, there may be as many as 10, including every health question that has come to mind over the past 6 months (Should I take a holiday off of Fosamax? Should I add fish oil? Do I need another colonoscopy? Is the shingles shot any good?).

Physicians who do procedures get paid for each one done to a single patient on a particular day. Medicare’s rule for this – the Multiple Procedure Payment Reduction Rule (MPPR) – says doctors should be paid 100% for the first procedure and 50% for each subsequent procedure up to 5. However, for those of us whose work is primarily cognitive rather than procedural, there is an important exclusion:  the multiple-payment rule does not apply to E/M codes.  In fact, the definitions of 99213 and 99214 unambiguously state, “Usually the presenting problem(s) are of . . . complexity.” Note the “(s)”! It clearly creates a double standard that favors doing procedures and places thoughtful solving of patients’ problems at a disadvantage.

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Residents and Medical Students Should Support Efforts to Revalue Cognitive Services

Kevin Bernstein

First posted 9/17/11 on The Future of Family Medicine

The numbers do not lie.  As stated in a previous post and its referenced links, the payment gap between primary care and specialists has increased since the American Medical Assocation started the Resource-Based Relative Value Scale (RVS) Update Committee (“RUC”) in the early 1990s.  It is difficult to separate the two when the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) has accepted over 90% of the RUC’s recommendations throughout the years.  This can be interpreted in a number of different ways but let’s be honest – I am a current intern and do not have enough time to go through the different interpretations –  I will leave that up to your comments.

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Physician Payment Reform: An Opportunity to Bolster Primary Care

James Rickert

First posted 9/07/11 on The Health Affairs Blog

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

With the Budget Control Act of 2011 now signed into law, health care lobbyists are preparing to fight any changes to federal programs that affect their constituents.  One particular concern for physicians is the scheduled 30 percent cut to Medicare reimbursement mandated by the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula.

Any attempt to waive these cuts will need to be offset by lower spending elsewhere in the federal budget.  While no one can predict what action will occur, it appears that Congress is in no mood for increased health care spending, and some cuts are inevitable. Thoughtful and strategic changes in physician reimbursement  could meaningfully improve health care in our country while  reducing our health care spending.

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Primary Care in Revolt

Brian Klepper

Last Thursday Anna Wilde Mathews of the Wall Street Journal ran an article detailing the activities surrounding primary care’s gradual awakening and mobilization. With Tom McGinty, Ms. Mathews authored a damning expose on the RUC last October that precipitated our efforts on against CMS’ 20 year reliance on the AMA’s RVS Update Committee (RUC) for valuation of medical services.

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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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Why Medical Specialists Should Want to End the Reign of the RUC

Paul M. Fischer, MD

The old doctors know.  The practice of medicine has changed in a very basic way over the last 20 years.  Physician relationships have lost their civility and have been replaced by a level of tension that takes the fun out of collegial interactions.  I remember my first year of family medicine as the only doctor in Weeping Water, Nebraska.  My personal medical community had gone from an entire medical school campus with limitless lectures and many physicians to share in “interesting cases” to an occasional phone call with a consultant in Omaha.  These contacts became my primary source for medical education and updates for Weeping Water’s health care.  The phone calls were collegial, respectful, and focused on what was best for my patients.

Continue reading “Why Medical Specialists Should Want to End the Reign of the RUC”