An Interview with a former Medicare administrator
Health Affairs just published an interview(3) with Kerry Weems, a recent administrator of the US Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) under the Bush administration, who had some remarkable criticism for the RUC.
Iglehart: The last question I wanted to ask you relates to the Specialty Society Relative Value Scale Update Committee [RUC] of the American Medical Association. The AMA formed the RUC to act as an expert panel in developing relative value recommendations to CMS. The twenty-nine-member committee essentially determines, through the relative values it establishes for the codes that form the basis of Medicare payments, how much doctors will earn from providing services to beneficiaries. In recent years the RUC has come under criticism based on the view that its specialty- dominated composition undervalues primary care services and, in some instances, overvalues specialty services. I have two questions, Kerry, regarding the RUC. You have been in government for twenty-six years; have you ever heard of an administration that has seriously questioned the RUC process, and whether CMS ought to somehow internalize it or delegate it to another body?
Weems: I think there is a general consensus that the RUC has contributed to the poor state of primary care in the United States. In many ways the supposition behind the RUC process, behind the whole relative value scale, is incredibly flawed. It's an input measurement system, so it asks, What's the cost of my inputs, and that's how I'm going to price my outputs. It has no relationship to perhaps the market value of what you might buy. So because it's highly procedure based, it's prejudiced against just standard primary care evaluation and management [E&M] visits, because in an E&M visit it's hard to document what happens in the same way that it is when you remove a mole, or perform some other procedure.
So the process itself is flawed. I don't think that we can make a change without a statutory change giving us the ability to do that. But it's something that is drastically needed. You know, it's funny that we talk about better coordination of care and creating the medical home. Well, the place where this can occur is in an E&M visit, which has been highly undervalued by the RUC.
Iglehart: You say that the RUC process is seriously flawed and needs to be overhauled. Was there ever any discussion during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration about doing that?
Weems: There were a number of discussions, but it's a hard nut to crack. Those discussions never ripened to the point where we could say we've got something better.
Iglehart: But you'd anticipate under the Obama administration that those discussions will continue?
Weems: Sure. And, you know, you can even see the early attempts at trying to crack that. Representative [Pete] Stark [D-CA] introduced last year the so-called CHAMP [Children's Health and Medicare Protection Act] bill, in which he proposed to develop a new payment approach that would have provided more money to primary care physicians. He split it up into several different categories. This probably wasn't the right approach, but again, he was trying to work through the problem, trying to provide more money for primary care. His heart was in the right place.
There are a number of important points here.
First, a former CMS administrator charged that the RUC has a substantial role in the decline of primary care in the US. Such charges have been made by well-reputed academics who have analyzed the role of the RUC from the outside. But as we have said before, aspects of what the RUC does are obscure, especially because the proceedings of RUC meetings are not made public. But now someone more directly involved has made the same charges.
Second, a former CMS administrator has called the "RUC process ... incredibly flawed." Even the second Bush administration felt these flaws were sufficient to have "a number of discussions," but found "it's a hard nut to crack." Hence he said that although there is something fundamentally wrong with the "RUC process," the government could not easily fix it.
Yet RUC leadership has repeatedly said that the RUC is merely a private advisory committee which gives recommendations to CMS using its rights to free speech and to petition the government. (Note also that above, Inglehart first said that the RUC was formed as "an expert panel" to make "recommendations." But then he said the committee "determines ... how much doctors will earn.") If the RUC is simply an advisory committee, and CMS did not like the advice the RUC was giving, why couldn't CMS leaders simply ignore the RUC?
Weems' remarks do not make sense if the RUC is merely an outside private group providing advice. But they do make sense if the RUC is acting like a government agency.
So this interview once again raises the question: why does CMS rely exclusively on the RUC to update the RBRVS system, apparently making the RUC de facto a government agency, yet without any accountability to CMS, or the government at large?
A response by the Chair of the Board of the AMA
Within days of this interview, Dr Rebecca Patchin, the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the American Medical Association (AMA), wrote a response to the Weems interview. (Amazingly, the response appeared as a blog post on the Health Affairs Blog.)
First, she implied that a former CMS administrator did not know what he was talking about when it came to the RUC.
In the interview, inaccurate statements were made about the role of the AMA/Specialty Society RVS Update Committee (RUC), which advises CMS regarding the relative levels of reimbursement for different medical procedures performed by physicians.
Now I feel like I am in good company. The leaders of the RUC have charged that I made inaccurate statements about the RUC as well (see post here).
However, Dr Patchin failed to identify any particular statements by Kerry Weems or his interviewer as inaccurate, much less provide any evidence to that effect. Note that while the RUC leaders also charged me with making inaccurate statements, they did not specify any particular statements as inaccurate, much less produce evidence in support of their contentions.
Next, Dr Patchin wrote:
Every time the RUC has been asked to review payments for E&M (evaluation and management) codes, the RUC has sent CMS recommendations that would lead to higher payments.
This may be so, but it ignores an important issue. While the RUC may have made some recommendations to increase payments for cognitive services, it has made many more recommendations to increase payments for procedural services. Furthermore, while payments for individual procedures went up, and the volume of procedures also went up, the global budget for physicians' services, called the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR), resulted in across the board cuts. Since raises for procedures were larger and more frequent than raises for cognitive services, the net effect was that payments for procedures increased relative to cognitive services.
Even more important, it begs that question: what has the RUC done at times when no one asked it "to review payments for E&M ... codes?" After all, the RUC leadership has argued again and again that it is only a private advisory committee (and see below for another such argument). As such, it should be able to choose how often it deals with payments for cognitive services. It should not have to wait to be asked to review them. So why wasn't the RUC reviewing these payments more frequently?
Then, Dr Patchin reiterated:
To clarify: The RUC makes recommendations to CMS, and then CMS makes its payment decisions.
Bottom line: the RUC makes recommendations, CMS makes payment decisions.
This, once more, begs the questions. Why didn't the RUC make more recommendations to improve payments for cognitive services? Why doesn't CMS get recommendations about payments to physicians from sources other than the RUC? Why doesn't CMS make the process for setting physicians' payments, and updating and revising the RBRVS system more broad-based and transparent? Why did the administrator of CMS feel unable to change or ignore the "RUC process?"
I don't have the capacity to find out the answers to these questions. Answering them might take some investigative reporting, or even a Congressional investigation. Given that physicians' payments are key incentives driving the health care system, and that payments favoring procedures are likely to be a major cause for rising volume and costs of procedures, which, in turn, is likely to be a major reason our health care system is so expensive, why do we know so little about how these payment rates are set?
1. Bodenheimer T, Berenson RA, Rudolf P. The primary care-specialty income gap: why it matters. Ann Intern Med 2007; 146: 301-306. Link here.
2. Goodson JD. Unintended consequences of Resource-Based Relative Value Scale reimbursement. JAMA 2007; 298(19):2308-2310. Link here.
3. Iglehart JK. Doing more with less: a conversation with Kerry Weems. Health Aff 2009; http://content.healthaffairs.org/cgi/content/full/hlthaff.28.4.w688/DC1