Nearly a year ago President Obama signed the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) into law. MACRA, among other things, repeals the 1997 Balanced Budget Act’s Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula for calculating annual updates to Medicare Part B physician and other eligible professionals’ payment rates.1 The bill received overwhelming support in both the House and Senate, only 45 out of 529 total votes cast opposed the bill despite the fact the legislation is estimated to add $141 billion to the federal deficit by 2025.2 Support for the legislation can, in part, be attributed to the Congress having grown tired of rescinding SGR mandated payment cuts or passing nearly 20 “doc fix” “patches,” over 18 years. Presently, Medicare physicians are awaiting CMS’s proposed rule that will define how the agency intends to implement the six sections of MACRA Title I, or how the agency will annually update physician performance beginning in 2019 based on the use of the law’s Merit-Based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) and its Alternative Payment Models (APMs) pathway. The proposed rule, expected to be published in the next few weeks, is highly anticipated because the rewards and penalties under either MIPS and APMs can be significant.
Last week, I was riveted to the deliberations on the Senate floor, as the fate of the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA – so far, more commonly called the “SGR fix”) was decided. One amendment after another failed to pass; the legislation ultimately passed by a vote of 92-8, and was signed into law shortly thereafter.
To date, much of the coverage of MACRA has focused on how it has fixed the “doc pay” problems of the last 18 years – rescuing us from a yearly round of negotiations about how to temporary avoid painful cuts in Medicare’s physician reimbursement rates.
It’s true that MACRA wiped out (and only partially paid for) the accumulated burden of postponed pay cuts. But it also took a huge step in ending the volume-based “fee-for service” payment system that the pay cuts were trying to restrain in the first place. In a volume-based health care world, the only way for the government and other payers to control runaway medical inflation is to make it harder for doctors to get paid (through rejected claims, paperwork, and prior authorizations), and to reduce the price they pay for each office visit, test, or medical procedure. Providers, paid less and less for each visit and service, can try to maintain their income by further increasing volume — seeing more and more patients in less and less time — or routing patients through increasingly questionable services, tests, and procedures. That is the dysfunctional state of US health care today, with patients caught in the middle of the arms race between those who pay the bills, and those who bill them– collateral damage.Continue reading…