Friday, February 25, 2011

"Replace the RUC!"

We have frequently posted, first here in 2007, and more recently here and here, about the little-known group that controls how the US Medicare system pays physicians, the RBRVS Update Committee, or RUC.

Since 1991, Medicare has 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 they 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, and 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 (although now with the notation that the product has been "discontinued.") 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 is 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 it. 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 2010, after the US recent attempt at health care reform, the RUC seemed to remain the great unmentionable. Even the leading US medical journal seemed reluctant to even print its name.

That changed in October, 2010.  A combined effort by the Wall Street Journal, the Center for Public Integrity, and Kaiser Health News 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 covered 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 became less anechoic.  Now, four months later, there is more news.  A new site called "Replace the RUC!" has now appeared, with the following introduction:
This site has been developed - see here for our backgrounds - to help primary care physicians and other interested individuals obtain verifiable background from reputable sources on:

* The evolution and structure of the US' medical payment system.
* How it came to devalue primary care and favor specialty services.
* How that has translated to lower quality care at far greater expense in the US.

We believe the overwhelming majority of American primary care physicians are deeply frustrated with the differences in how primary and specialty care are valued by the current system, and the havoc that system has wrought throughout health care and the nation.

The first step to remedying this situation is for the primary care medical societies to visibly and loudly withdraw from participation in the RUC, de-legitimizing the process.

That said, this effort is most decidedly NOT primarily about getting primary care physicians more money, but bringing our health system back into homeostasis.

We have previously noted that there are many unanswered questions about the RUC:
  • 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 of 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?
We welcome this new site as a way to answer these questions, and more importantly, as a way to develop more rational incentives within the health care system.

Note that "Replace the RUC!" will be added to our link list.


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.)


Afraid said...

Wow you must have hit a nerve, no echo at all!

Paul Levy said...

Right on target.

(I wrote about this, too, here:

It is amazing that this persists as a way of setting prices.

Anonymous said...

This article is featured in the March 3rd edition of the Health Wonk Review. Thanks for your submission!