Since 1991, Medicare as set physicians' payments using the Resource Based Relative Value System (RBRVS), ostensibly based on a rational formula to tie physicians' pay to the time and effort the expend, and the resources they consume on particular patient care activities. Although the RBRVS was meant to level the payment playing field for cognitive services, including primary care, vs procedures, over time it has had the opposite effect, as explained by Bodenheimer et al in a 1997 article in the Annals of Internal Medicine.(1) A system that pays a lot for procedures, but much less for diagnosing illnesses, forecasting prognoses, deciding on treatment, understanding patients' values and preferences, when procedures and devices are not involved, is likely to be very expensive, but not necessarily very good for patients.
As we wrote before, to update the system, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) relies almost exclusively on the advice of the RBRVS Update Committee. The RUC is a private committee of the AMA, touted as an "expert panel" that takes advantage of the organization's First Amendment rights to petition the government. Membership on the RUC is allotted to represent specialty societies, so that the vast majority of the members represent specialties that do procedures and focus on expensive, high-technology tests and treatments. However, the identities of RUC members are opaque, and the proceedings of the group are secret.
To expand on the penultimate point, the current page on the AMA web-site that describes the RUC only lists its members in terms of their specialties and organizational affiliation. Their names do not appear. A response to a previous post by me on the subject by the then Chair and Chair-Elect of the RUC suggested that the RUC membership is not quite secret. They stated that "a list of the individual members of the RUC is published in the AMA publication, Medicare RBRVS 2009: The Physicians Guide." This publication is available from the AMA here for a mere $71.95. However, the book is not on the web, or in my local or university library, and I have no other way to easily access it. Thus, the RUC membership as at best relatively opaque.
To expand on the ultimate point, as Goodson(2) noted, RUC "meetings are closed to outside observers except by invitation of the chair." Furthermore, he stated, "proceedings are proprietary and therefore not publicly available for review."
The fog surrounding the operations of the RUC seems to have affected many who write about. We have posted (here, here, here, and here) about how previous publications about problems with incentives provided to physicians seemed to have avoided even mentioning the RUC. Up until now in 2010, after the US recent attempt at health care reform, the RUC seems to remain the great unmentionable. Even the leading US medical journal seems reluctant to even print its name.
That has just changed. A combined effort by the Wall Street Journal, the Center for Public Integrity, and Kaiser yielded two major articles about the RUC, here in the WSJ (also with two more spin-off articles), and here from the Center for Public Integrity (also reprinted by Kaiser Health News.) The articles cover the main points about the RUC: its de facto control over how physicians are paid, its "secretive" nature (quoting the WSJ article), how it appears to favor procedures over cognitive physician services, etc.
So the RUC has suddenly become less anechoic.
However, despite the best efforts of some very good investigative reporters, there still are important unanswered questions, questions we have raised before:
- How did the government come to fix the payments physicians receive? Government price-fixing has not been popular in the US, yet this has caused no outcry.
- Why is the process by which they are fixed allowed to be so opaque and unaccountable? Why are there no public hearings on the updates, and why is there no input from practicing physicians or organizations other than those related to the RUC?
- How did the RUC become de facto in charge of this process?
- Why does the AMA keep the membership on the RUC so opaque, and give no input into the RUC process to its general membership?
- Why is the RUC membership so dominated by procedural specialists? Why were primary care physicians, who made up at least a sizable minority of physicians when the update process was started, not represented according to their numbers?
- Why has there been so little discussion of the RUC and its responsibility for an extremely expensive health care system dominated by high-technology, expensive, risky and invasive procedures?
See also comments on other blogs: DBs Medical Rants, GoozNews, and Managed Care Matters.
ADDENDUM - Additionally, see comments on the Retired Doc's Thoughts blog, and the Running a Hospital blog.
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.)