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.
The heretical thought that the salaries of physicians who treat Medicare patients could be held in check dates from the mid-1990s. The optimistically entitled 1997 Balanced Budget Act created a “sustainable growth rate” (SGR) for physician reimbursement that said any increase in total pay for physicians could not exceed the growth rate of the rest of the economy.
That was wishful thinking, as it turned out. Health care costs and physician pay far exceeded economic growth, largely because of Medicare’s fee-for-service system. While the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services could fix the reimbursement rate for the 7,000 price-controlled services offered by physicians, it could not put a brake on the quantity that physicians ordered.
“This system, which ties annual updates to cumulative expenditures, has failed to restrain volume growth and, in fact, may have exacerbated it,” the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) noted in its non-binding recommendations to Congress in mid-October.
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.
However, a significant portion of the burden, over $100 billion, would still be borne by the physician community through 17 percent reductions in specialists’ fees and a ten-year freeze on primary care fees. If implemented, MedPac’s policies will give rise to a festival of unintended consequences: weakening multi-specialty group practices (which rely upon specialist comp to cross-subsidize their primary care services); winding down private practice-based primary care medicine; accelerating the hospital roll-up of medical practices while widening hospitals’ losses on the practices they already own; and triggering a further wave of ill-timed cost shifting to private insurers.
A little over two weeks ago, while most of you were paying attention to the debate about how to raise the debt ceiling, those of us who study health care policy were following hearings before the House Budget Committee. The purpose of the hearings was to scrutinize the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a commission that the Affordable Care Act created as part of its apparatus to control health care costs. And the hearings produced some genuinely interesting testimony on everything from the scope of the board’s authority to the limits of its legal power. If we were in the middle of a dialogue about how to improve the board’s structure and function, that testimony would be extremely useful.
But we’re not having a discussion about whether to reform the IPAB. We’re having a discussion about whether to repeal it. Opponents of the Affordable Care Act see the IPAB as an instrument of, and metaphor for, everything that is wrong with the new health care law. The problem with this law, they keep saying, is that it tries to solve the health care cost problem through “central planning.” At best, they say, this strategy will misallocate resources in ways that stifle innovation and make access to care more difficult. And at worst? It will ration care in ways that deny life-saving treatment to people who need it. As one Republican lawmaker put it recently, “It will destroy the very core of what has made our medical system the best in the world.”
Yes, these arguments should sound familiar. They are the same ones critics began making in the summer of 2009, when enactment of the law first seemed imminent. And since neither the argument nor the people making it are going away, maybe it’s a good time to take a step back and remind everybody what the IPAB is; how it will work; and why it (or something very much like it) is essential to making health care accessible to all seniors and, eventually, all Americans.