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.

Better Than Printing Money

Paul Levy

Posted 12/22/11 on Not Running A Hospital

John McDonough, one of the health care experts in Massachusetts, writes on his blog about the three-year renewal of the state’s Medicaid waiver.  John presents a history of the waiver and notes that it provides the “green glue,” i.e., the infusion of federal cash, that makes possible the health care reform process approved by this state several years ago.

Continue reading “Better Than Printing Money”

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.

Continue reading “Who Will Pay For the Doc Pay Fix?”

MedPAC’s SGR Solution: Bad Medicine For A Chronic Problem

Jeff Goldsmith

Posted 11/16/11 on The Health Affairs Blog

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

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) is the closest thing Congress has to adult supervision on important health policy questions. The Commission commands bipartisan respect both for its record of sound policy advice and for its leadership.

With its October recommendations, MedPac attempted to solve the sustainable growth rate (SGR) physician payment formula budget crisis by spreading its more than $300 billion cost beyond the physician community.  More than two-thirds of the burden would fall on hospitals, pharmaceutical and device manufacturers and, significantly, on Medicare beneficiaries themselves. Clearly MedPac’s intent was to widen the circle of pain.

Continue reading “MedPAC’s SGR Solution: Bad Medicine For A Chronic Problem”

The 2012 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule is Finalized

David Harlow

Posted 11/7/11 on Health Blawg

CMS issued the final MPFS — the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule for 2012 — this past week. The key feature of the rule, for many folks, is the Sustainable Growth Rate-(SGR)-mandated 27.4% cut in Medicare professional serivces reimbursements. We now get to watch the drama unfold over the next eight weeks, as the MedPAC proposal to replace the SGR is bandied about, and the machinations of the supercommittee tasked with brokering a budget fix either do or do not get us closer to a reasoned approach to doing more with less.  The MedPAC idea is to drop the RBRVS conversion factor for specialty care payments 5.9% per year for two years, then hold it steady for 8 years, while keeping the primary care conversion factor flat for 10 years.  The net effect: physician payments will “only” double over the next 10 years.  (One clever idea squirreled away in the MedPAC report is that savings in the Medicare Shared Savings Plan (ACO) should be measured against a baseline of what Medicare would have spent on the care absent the changes in the proposed SGR fix — i.e., a higher baseline, with greater potential savings.  Another 50 clever ideas like this and we’ll be talking about saving some real money.)

Continue reading “The 2012 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule is Finalized”

Quick Medicare Factoids

Joe Paduda

First posted 9/08/11 on Managed Care Matters

There’s going to be a LOT coming out in the next two months about Medicare, so it may help to know a few things about the program to help put it in context.

– We spent over a half-trillion dollars on Medicare in 2010.

– That’s fifteen percent of total Federal expenditures.

– 48 million people were covered in 2010.

Continue reading “Quick Medicare Factoids”

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.

Continue reading “Physician Payment Reform: An Opportunity to Bolster Primary Care”