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.
Brian Klepper, PhD, is an independent health care analyst, Chief Development Officer for WeCare TLC Onsite Clinics and the editor of Care & Cost. His website, Replace the RUC, provides extensive background on the issue.