The old doctors know. The practice of medicine has changed in a very basic way over the last 20 years. Physician relationships have lost their civility and have been replaced by a level of tension that takes the fun out of collegial interactions. I remember my first year of family medicine as the only doctor in Weeping Water, Nebraska. My personal medical community had gone from an entire medical school campus with limitless lectures and many physicians to share in “interesting cases” to an occasional phone call with a consultant in Omaha. These contacts became my primary source for medical education and updates for Weeping Water’s health care. The phone calls were collegial, respectful, and focused on what was best for my patients.
The RUC is the secretive committee of the AMA that has been CMS’s primary source of physician payment data over the past 20 years. It has elaborately articulated the complexity of medical procedures but ignores and confuses the cognitive work involved in patient care – collapsing it into a few evaluation and management codes. As a result, many medical specialties have found that their financial success is tied primarily to doing things TO patients, rather than caring FOR patients.
The RUC has shifted these physicians’ attention away from the hard work of knowing patients over time and fine-tuning their treatments based on subtle changes discovered by history and physical toward focusing on which procedure can be done to a patient and legitimized to an insurance company. Let the “primary” do that other stuff.
With the recent release of two mainstream exposes, one in the Washington Post and another in the Washington Monthly, the American Medical Association’s (AMA) medical procedure valuation franchise, the Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC), has been exposed to the light of public scrutiny. “Special Deal,” Haley Sweetland Edwards’ piece in the Monthly, provides by far the more detailed and lucid explanation of the mechanics of the RUC’s arrangement with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). (It is also wittier. “The RUC, like that third Margarita, seemed like a good idea at the time.
For its part, the Post contributed valuable new information by calculating the difference between the time Medicare currently credits a physician for certain procedures and actual time spent. Many readers undoubtedly were shocked to learn that, while the RUC’s time valuations are often way off, in some cases physicians are paid for more than 24 hours of procedures in a single day. It is nice work if somebody else is paying for it.
Two days after the Post ran its RUC article on the front page, it reported that the AMA is already visiting Congress in force, presumably to protect its role defining the value of medical services for Medicare. The question now is whether Congress will take steps to remedy the situation.
Excessive health care spending is overwhelming America’s economy, but the subtler truth is that this excess has been largely facilitated by subjugating primary care. A wealth of evidence shows that empowered primary care results in better outcomes at lower cost. Other developed nations have heeded this truth. But US payment policy has undervalued primary care while favoring specialists. The result has been spotty health quality, with costs that are double those in other industrialized countries. How did this happen, and what can we do about it.
American primary care physicians make about half what the average specialist takes home, so only the most idealistic medical students now choose primary care. Over a 30 year career, the average specialist will earn about $3.5 million more. Orthopedic surgeons will make $10 million more. Despite this pay difference, the volume, complexity and risk of primary care work has increased over time. Primary care office visits have, on average, shrunk from 20 minutes to 10 or less, and the next patient could have any disease, presenting in any way.
By contrast, specialists’ work most often has a narrower, repetitive focus, but with richer financial rewards. Ophthalmologists may line up 25 cataract operations at a time, earning 12.5 times a primary care doctor’s hourly rate for what may be less challenging or risky work.
My typical Medicare patient expects me to deal with 5 or more problems in a single routine visit. There are usually around 3 old ones (e.g., diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia) and at least 2 new ones (e.g., low back pain, fatigue). For those who come with handwritten lists, there may be as many as 10, including every health question that has come to mind over the past 6 months (Should I take a holiday off of Fosamax? Should I add fish oil? Do I need another colonoscopy? Is the shingles shot any good?).
Physicians who do procedures get paid for each one done to a single patient on a particular day. Medicare’s rule for this – the Multiple Procedure Payment Reduction Rule (MPPR) – says doctors should be paid 100% for the first procedure and 50% for each subsequent procedure up to 5. However, for those of us whose work is primarily cognitive rather than procedural, there is an important exclusion: the multiple-payment rule does not apply to E/M codes. In fact, the definitions of 99213 and 99214 unambiguously state, “Usually the presenting problem(s) are of . . . complexity.” Note the “(s)”! It clearly creates a double standard that favors doing procedures and places thoughtful solving of patients’ problems at a disadvantage.
So in my case, 5 or 10 or more separate patient problems equal one payment. The “(s)” in the AMA’s CPT book is the most outrageous injustice to primary care of this generation. Because of it, the AMA’s CPT committee is accountable for even more damage to primary care than is their RUC! Think how different life in primary care would be if the “(s)” were removed and you were paid 50% for each additional patient problem you addressed in a single office visit!
Last October, the Wall Street Journal ran a damning expose about the Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC), a secretive, specialist-dominated panel within the American Medical Association (AMA) that, for the past two decades, has been the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS’) primary advisor on valuation of medical services. Then, in December, Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt followed up with a description of the RUC’s mechanics on the New York Times’ Economix blog. We saw this re-raising of the issue as an opportunity to undertake an action-oriented campaign against the RUC that builds on many professionals’ work – see here and here – over many years.
We have focused on rallying the primary care and business communities to pressure CMS for change, and are contemplating a legal challenge. But the obvious question is why these steps are necessary. Why doesn’t CMS address the problem directly? Why does it continue to nurture the relationship?
The Negative Consequences Of The RUC
There is overwhelming evidence that the RUC has used flawed and capricious methodologies. It has systematically under-valued primary care and operated without regard for financial conflicts of interest. Its influence has compromised care quality and facilitated the primary care labor shortage. The Chair of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) is on record before a Congressional Committee describing its harmful characteristics. We know that the valuations it recommends – and CMS accepts – are major contributors to unnecessary utilization and cost. Former CMS Secretary Tom Scully has publicly condemned it as “indefensible.”
In studying the RUC closely, we have come to believe that the structure of CMS’ relationship with the RUC has violated the management and reporting requirements of a “de facto” Federal Advisory Committee. Meanwhile, the nation generally and publicly funded health care programs specifically are under intense fiscal pressures that have resulted, at least in part, from the runaway health care costs associated with the RUC’s influence.Continue reading…
After an exciting and challenging day of caring for patients and teaching students, a third-year medical student on his family medicine rotation says to me, “I really like what you do, but I just cannot afford to go into family practice.” I realized that by “afford,” he was referring not only to finances but also to the expectations of his parents, friends, and medical school. After spending 35 wonderful years as a family doctor, I have been “dissed’ by a kid who wants to become a dermatologist.
So I am of two minds. Part of me is fulfilled by being needed, loved, and respected by my patients.
Over time, they have increasingly looked to me to diagnosis, advise, reassure, and guide them through a complex healthcare environment in which few others offer them help. Another part of me sees that what I do is increasingly devalued by forces outside the exam room ― those who pay for health care, those who question the “medical necessity” of each test I order or drug I prescribe, and those in medicine who are more likely to know a procedure’s CPT code than a patient’s name.
We are in this position because we have failed to define ourselves, instead allowing others to perpetuate myths about what we do. The first such myth is that what we do is easy. Nothing can be further from the truth. In about 15 minutes, we are asked to treat a long list of chronic problems (e.g., diabetes, obesity, hypertension), resolve a few new problems (eg cough, headache), address preventative health recommendations (eg, smoking, flu shot), integrate the psychosocial issues that impact the patient’s health, and figure out how to get it all paid for by an insurance company using codes that don’t really match either my patient’s problems or the care I provide. Oh, and by the way, can you look at this rash and fill this prescription for my husband? Recent research has shown that an average primary care visit is 50% more complex than a visit to a cardiologist and five times more complex than one to a psychiatrist. So no, it is not easy.
The second myth is that it requires less training than other medical specialties. This has resulted in some assuming that primary care can be left to “midlevel” clinicians. While physician assistants and nurse practitioners can work effectively in primary care settings, it is a mistake to believe that they provide equivalent care to patients with complex problems, and we have suffered by the wide acceptance of this assumption. OR techs can work effectively in an operating room, but no one suggests that they replace surgeons.
As a third-year medical student in 1977, I joined the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). In those culturally tumultuous years, it was a way to declare my belief that America needed physicians who cared for the whole person, family and community. It was also a declaration that, in choosing the primary care path in a field ripe with tempting medical specialties, money was not my primary goal.
For much of my 33-year membership, I have considered the AAFP to be “my” organization. However, there is a time when one must step back and declare independence from organizations that have lost touch with their members. The AAFP does much that supports my day-to-day life as a busy family doctor, but for 33 years, its leadership has failed to fix the central problem for primary care in America: poor reimbursement.
I deal every day with complicated health problems of complex patients who are insured by companies singularly focused on limiting even the smallest cost. In return for managing these patients, which often involves critical and life-or-death decisions, I am paid by Medicare 60% less per hour than is a dermatologist, who, for the most part, treats trivial disease that involves no nighttime emergencies and little intellectual challenge.Continue reading…