Sunday, February 16, 2020

Retrospective #365: Look at what’s happening to Medicare!

A 2016 article in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine begins, “Clinical practice guidelines abound. The recommendations contained in these guidelines are used not only to make decisions about the care of individual patients but also as practice standards to rate physician ‘quality.’” Did you know that? I have for awhile, and it concerns me. I first became aware of it during the funding cuts in Medicare (+/- $750 billion) during the “negotiations” leading up to the passage of the “Affordable Care Act” or ACA, aka Obamacare.
The Journal article continues, “Thus there is an inevitable aspect of guideline development that makes it subject to value judgments and can be unconsciously colored by intellectual, professional, or financial conflicts of interest.” These include biases such as “decisions colored by tunnel vision (job conditioning), ‘seeing what you want to see’ (confirmation bias), decisions limited to the tools at hand (Maslow’s hammer), or other inclinations that can affect judgment.” That last one especially concerns me. Why? Medicare Payment Reform.
We have all become aware of the movement towards Electronic Health Records (EHR). But did you know that there are financial incentives and disincentives for physician compliance? The EHR program, called Meaningful Use (MU), is now in the process of being itself re-reformed. According to a blog post from Impact Advisors, posted before the final rule was issued, “providers simply wanted to ‘check the box’ in order to reach MU thresholds (and thus avoid ‘adjustments,’ i.e., penalties, foregoing the larger opportunity to improve care.”
EHR was Part 1 of a larger reform program of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). It is still in place, but Part 2, described as “share data” and Part 3, “improve outcomes,” are now part of a new Medicare Payment program designed to overcome the “noted weaknesses of MU.” Part 1 will be transformed and phased in by stages starting in 2017. Parts 2 and 3, now the Merit-Based Incentive Payment System (MIPS), is part of the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) and implementation began in 2019.
Now, according to an AMA email “alert” that I received last fall, CMS has issued its final MACRA rule, detailing the new Merit-Based Incentive Payment System, now called the Quality Payment Program (QPP). In the email, AMA President Andrew Gurman thanked then CMS Acting Administrator Andrew Slavitt for being a “sincere partner” during the process. Gurman was very pleased at the influence the AMA’s comments had that “will allow for a reasonably paced progression into the program so that physicians can learn and adjust…”
He said, “The key elements of the proposed rule that CMS changed based on our recommendations are:”
     Physicians would not have to report in all four MIPS categories to avoid a negative payment adjustment. Instead, the only physicians who “will experience a negative 4% penalty in 2019 [increasing in steps to 9% by 2022] will be those who choose to report no data.”
     Participating in one of 4 options under “Pick Your Pace” will “help the physician avoid penalties.” At the very least if (s)he “chooses to report for only one patient on just one quality measure, one improvement activity, or the 4 required Advancing Care information measures, [(s)he] will avoid a negative payment adjustment.”
     The final rule established a 90-day reporting period, “a significant change over the proposed rule, full calendar-year requirement.” If the physician reports for at least 90 continuous days in 2017, (s)he will be eligible for a positive payment adjustment. This adjustment allows the physician to start later, to have more time to prepare.
     A reduction in the program-wide reporting burden from 11 reporting measures to 4 in 2017 and 5 thereafter.
     “An increase in the low-volume threshold to qualify for exemption from QPP participation.” CMS increased the threshold from $10k to $30k in Medicare payments, but kept the 100 Medicare patients per year limitation. So, your physician has been incentivized to not accept new Medicare patients, and to drop the old ones.
Does this give you a sense of why your relationship with your doctor has changed in recent years? I started this column feeling a bit angry at my doctor. I end it feeling sorry for him. Look what’s happening to Medicare! 

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