Who will assign the value of primary care services? Chuck the RUC!
How does Medicare determine physician payment rates? The answer to this question is a core element of the ongoing debate about health care reform. Changing how Medicare sets payment rates for physicians is especially critical since Medicare rates also guide the rates set by private insurers. Since 1992, Medicare has paid physicians according to the Resource Based Relative Value Scale (RBRVS), a fee schedule that multiplies relative values for physician services by a conversion factor to determine the amount of payment. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has historically used the Relative Value Scale Update Committee, or RUC, as the sole source of recommendations. This committee within the AMA performs broad reviews of the RBRVS every five years. Twenty three of the RUC's twenty nine members are appointed by major national medical specialty societies, including those that account for high percentages of Medicare expenditures for procedures. All meetings are closed and discussions are confidential. The over-representation of procedure-driven subspecialties and under-representation of generalist physicians in the RUC has contributed to the current undervalued cognitive services (especially for primary care) and over-valued reimbursement for procedures. In March 2007, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) identified the RUC process as a major reason for undervalued primary care services and a significant contributor to the crisis in primary care. MedPAC has recommended that an independent expert panel of economists, technology experts, physicians and private citizens be created to supplement the RUC's recommendations to CMS regarding fee schedules. Health reform discussions have included moving MedPAC into the executive branch and giving it authority to review and recommend Medicare payment policy, thus reducing the RUC's influence. Not surprisingly, both the AMA and the American College of Surgeons have opposed this proposal. Groups representing primary care physicians, including SGIM, are in favor of this proposal which could ensure fair and unbiased assignment of work RVUs to all the service codes used by physicians. We believe that this will correct the payment inequalities of the current fee scale and ultimately renew trainees' interest in primary care. In the coming weeks, SGIM may ask you to act on this issue and contact your legislators to urge them to support these transformative proposals for primary care. Please monitor your e-mail for action alerts and be prepared to act.
We have previously posted (most recently here in considerable detail) about the perverse incentives given US physicians by the payment schedule dictated by the US Medicare system. These incentives have been largely responsible for the increasingly dire status of primary care/ generalist care in the US. Revisions to the Resource-Based Relative Value System (RBRVS) disproportionately reward physicians for performing procedures and diagnostic tests instead of talking with, examining, thinking about, diagnosing, recommending decisions for, and counseling patients. The US Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) uses the RBRVS Update Committee (RUC) de facto as its sole source for advice on revising the system. The RUC is dominated by representatives of medical societies whose members predominantly perform procedures and do diagnostic tests. The RUC is secretive. The identities of its individual members are difficult to ascertain. Its proceedings are secret.
Thus, the RBRVS updating process run by the RUC is opaque, unaccountable, and not representative of patients and "cognitive" physicians. The result of this process has been perverse incentives that have driven up health care costs without obvious improvements in quality or outcomes.
I applaud SGIM for being the first medical society to challenge how the RUC controls payments to physicians, and the perverse incentives the RUC process has generated.
As the Update above says, meaningful health care reform in the US will not occur unless we address the perverse incentives that drive up costs without improving care.