It was only a couple of weeks ago that I was lamenting a slow health IT news cycle. Now I’m up to my eyeballs in things I want to write about.
The physician lounge is buzzing about the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015, also called the “SGR bill” or “Doc Fix” bill. Unfortunately, most of them didn’t read beyond the AMA headline — “Medicare payment formula bites the dust” — to see what is really heading their way. Although they won’t be threatened frequently with Medicare payment cuts, the entire Medicare payment game is changing. For those who participate, there will be annual payment increases of 0.5 percent through 2019 and then a variety of other changes.
Although that’s certainly better than a cut, it doesn’t even keep up with inflation. Physicians can’t ask their suppliers to limit their price increases to 0.5 percent. Many hospitals and health systems that only offered employees that level of salary increase would see feet moving towards the door. AMA leadership is lauding it as historic legislation that “finally brings an end to an era of uncertainty for Medicare beneficiaries and their physicians.” Based on the discussion around the physician lunch table, anyone who thinks this is going to end uncertainty about physicians and Medicare might be confused.
I have to admit I haven’t read the whole thing, but rather several strategic digests and quite a few chest-thumping press releases. Colleagues who are savvier about the actual contents of the legislation are appropriately skeptical. Those that were considering a departure from Medicare haven’t changed course, and today, additional physicians were jumping into the discussion. Although Medicare’s quality reporting programs should be streamlined, many physicians still are not on board with pay for quality if physicians will continue to be graded on outcomes beyond their control.
Although the new payment models are voluntary, I can see employed physician organizations immediately heading in that direction. Administrative bloat will increase as teams are hired to review and comply with what will undoubtedly be reams of new CMS requirements and regulations. While physicians around the table were initially applauding the end of MU as we know it, the room became quiet when the detail-oriented ones pointed out its replacements. The more unified incentive program will be based on quality metrics, resource and cost utilization, practice improvement, and also Meaningful Use. Physicians in the so-called “Alternative Payment Models” will also have to continue using certified EHR technology, so vendors aren’t off the hook either.
Physicians are particularly leery of metrics that include untested patient satisfaction or engagement metrics. A piece in The Atlantic this week addresses the issue. My favorite quote: “Patients can be very satisfied and be dead an hour later.” It cites research by a professor at the University of California-Davis that concluded the physicians may be reluctant to have difficult conversations with patients due to fears of lower patient satisfaction scores. There’s not a tremendous amount of data looking at patient satisfaction scores compared to morbidity and mortality data. We all know of patients who continue to go to physicians that we know have horrendous disciplinary records and poor clinical skills, yet when a change is suggested, they profess happiness with their care.
I’m encouraged that legislators included some level of protection so that plaintiff’s attorneys can’t use Medicare quality data to support a standard of care, but there are plenty of other organizations collecting and analyzing the data and where no such protections exist. As CMS goes, so go the commercial payers and eventually we’ll all find ourselves dealing with all kinds of different flavors of payment schemes from the large health insurance companies.
Interoperability is also a key feature of the legislation. HHS will have to figure out how to measure whether national priorities are being met and determine how providers will be evaluated. This means additional rulemaking and additional burdens on providers and vendors. As specified in the title, the bill also extends the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) as well as community health center funding for another two years.
The good news is that the bill didn’t include anything delaying ICD-10, so those of us making plans can get on with it. I had a good laugh reading an AMA fluff piece on prepping for ICD-10. “Spend your time in the month ahead identifying the changes you need to make in your practice for ICD-10. For example, you’ll need to update your systems, forms, and work flow processes.” Just a couple of small things you can do in your spare time, right? The next sentence was even better. “Pull together a group of all staff members involving coding, billing, claims processing, revenue management, and clinical documentation, then figure out each task necessary to bring your practice in line with the new code set.” That’s pretty much everyone in a typical physician practice. If practices are just figuring out what they need to do now, they’re way behind and oversimplification doesn’t help things.
The bill also includes provisions on competitive bidding; Medicare face-to-face documentation requirements; chronic care management services; funding for the National Quality Forum; and requirements that Medicare Administrative Contractors establish “improper payment and outreach education” programs. It also includes a section on what happens to monies recovered by Medicare Recovery Audit Contractors. The Secretary of Health and Human Services is required to use that money for alternative payment model incentives, additional Medicare Administrative Contractor functions, reducing payment errors, prior authorization for repetitive scheduled non-emergency ambulance trips, and improving chiropractic documentation.
You never know what you’re going to find in a piece of legislation this size, which illustrates the old adage about the devil being in the details.
What’s your take on this recent legislation? Email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.