Friday, January 09, 2009

What, The RUC? - A Prominent Health Care Policy Blog Leaves Some Important Things Out

A new US President, health care costs that continue to rise despite declining access and questionable quality, even during an unprecedented global economic crisis all have made health care reform a hot topic once again in the US. This has even lead to discussion of some topics that formerly rarely merited polite discussion, sort of.

Last week, writing in the New York Times Economix blog, Professor Uwe Reinhardt, a noted health care economist at Princeton University, took on the topic of payments to physicians. His main point was:

America’s health care spending issues might have something to do with our fee-for-service payment system.

Studies have shown that physicians are not impervious to the financial incentives inherent in fee-for-service payments. For example, on average, physicians who have a direct financial interest in the use of imaging services, like CAT scans or M.R.I. scans, recommend far more such services for their patients than do physicians without such financial interest....

He noted some possible solutions:

In recognition of the conflict of interest inherent in fee-for-service payment, there is now a worldwide movement to replace the system with so-called 'evidence-based case reimbursement'. Under this approach, one single payment would cover all of the supplies and services that are needed, under best, evidence-based clinical practices, to respond adequately to well-defined medical conditions.

Not all health care, of course, can be categorized into neat, episodic bundles for this purpose. For chronic conditions, for example, payment may shift from fee-for-service to annual or monthly fees per patient, and care for such patients might be organized by clinically integrated health systems or by managed care companies procuring health care from different systems on an integrated basis. And for some patients with very complicated conditions, fee-for-service would still persist. One would think, however, that a move toward these alternative payment systems would not only reduce the geographic variations in per-capita health spending, but help control the annual growth of health spending over all.

What is missing from this picture?

Positive Incentives for Procedures, Negative Incentives for "Cognitive" Services, Especially Primary Care

First, Reinhardt suggested that the major problem with the current way the US pays for physicians is that it gives excess incentives for physicians to order diagnostic tests provided by facilities in which they have financial interests. This is, in my humble opinion, a real problem. But it is hardly the biggest problem with our current system of physician payments.

I submit that the biggest problem with our current system is that it provides big and increasing incentives to do procedures. This may lead to the over-use of some procedures in some instances. Moreover, it promotes high prices for the devices, drugs and support services required by the physicians to do these services. Thus, the current system pays many people well, and makes some people very rich. However, its enormous costs come out of other peoples' wallets, decreasing access and quality. Furthermore, the current system has provided disincentives to provide "cognitive care," especially primary care. Payments to physicians who do primary care do not cover all that they do on behalf of patients. Payments have not even kept up with inflation, nor with the increasing overhead costs of providing primary care, most of which are produced by the demands of government and insurance company bureaucracies. Thus, primary care in the US is dying. It is increasingly difficult for patients to find physicians who will take care them as whole patients, not as a set of different organs.

The Shadowy RUC

These biased incentives that lead to so much mischief are not the product of divine intervention or the laws of physics. They are the result of the actions of people, a few people operating in the shadows.

As we have discussed, the US Medicare system determines what it pays physicians using the Resource Based Relative Value System (RBRVS). This system determines the pay for every kind of medical encounter according to a complex formula that is supposed to account for physicians' time and effort, physicians' practice expense, and the cost of malpractice insurance. The components of physicians' effort assessed are, in turn, technical skill and physical effort; the required mental effort and judgment; and stress due to the potential risk to the patient.

To keep the system, which was started in 1990, current, requires addition of new kinds of encounters, which means encounters involving new kinds of procedures, and updating of the estimates of various components, including physicians' time and effort. To do so, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) relies almost exclusively on the advice of the RBRVS Update Committee (RUC). 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 secret, as are the proceedings of the group.

This opaque and unaccountable process has resulted in increases outstripping inflation in fees paid for procedures, while fees paid for "cognitive"medicine, i.e., for primary care, and for services that involve diagnosis, management of acute and chronic disease, counseling, coordination of care, etc, but not procedures, have lagged inflation. The effects of the RUC have been amplified by the unexplained tendency of commercial managed care and health insurance to track the RBRVS system when making their own payments to physicians.For further details about the RUC, see these posts on Health Care Renewal (here, here, here, here, and here) and important articles by Bodenheimer et al,(1) and Goodson.(2)

By the way, why the US Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) relies de facto exclusively on the RUC to control the RBRVS system, and why the AMA made the RUC into a secret organization apparently beholden only to the organization's proceduralist members are unanswered questions.

What Reinhardt Left Out, and Why?

Professor Reinhardt, one of our most distinguished health care economists, barely touched on the biggest problems with how the US fee-for-service payment system works, and why these problems occurred. Thus, it is not surprising that the few solutions he recommended seem irrelevant to these problems.

As an aside, his discussion is not atypical of what is seen in most writings about health care policy that have to do with costs. It appears that it is politically incorrect to say that incentives are skewed, that this skewing appears to have resulted from the acts of a few individuals, and that these acts occurred with little outside attention or accountability. Why do health care policy experts follow these dictates of political correctness?

I don't know, but one possible explanation is that they are themselves biased by their own incentives. So let us further consider the case of Professor Reinhardt.

Professor Reinhardt's Conflicts of Interest

Not listed in the NY Times official bio of Professor Reinhardt are the following relationships:

- Professor Reinhardt is a member of the board of directors of Amerigroup, a health insurance company specializing in providing Medicaid and Medicare managed care. The company's 2008 proxy statement said that Professor Reinhardt owns the equivalent of 134,482 shares of stock, current value, $3,859,633 (at its current price, $28.70 per Google Financial), and got $221,422 total compensation in 2007.

- Professor Reinhardt is a member of the board of directors of Boston Scientific, a medical device company. The company's 2008 proxy statement said that Professor Reinhardt owns the equivalent of 51, 533 shares of stock, current value, $396,288 (at its current price, $7.69 per Google Financial) and got $118,885 total compensation in 2007.

In addition, per the above proxy statements, Professor Reinhardt is on the board of two funds from H&Q Healthcare Investors, and is a Trustee of Duke University and the Duke University Health System.

Boston Scientific, a device manufacturer, benefits from increased demand for its products due to physicians' pay incentives that favor the procedures for which they are used. As a director of the company, Professor Reinhardt has a duty to advance the financial interests of the company and its shareholders. Amerigroup may benefit from the current status quo in how physicians are paid. As a director the company, again Professor Reinhardt has a duty to advance the financial interests of the company and its shareholders. Thus, it seems that Professor Reinhardt's legal responsibilities to these companies might tend to bias him against actively questioning how physicians are currently paid, or proposing solutions that might upset the status quo.

Professor Reinhardt's leadership roles in US publicly traded corporations are public, but not easily found unless one knows where to look. (A previous post on Health Care Renewal did discuss Professor Reinhardt's previous failure to review relationships relevant at the time to a riposte Reinhardt wrote in response to an op-ed in the New York Times by a physician who decried the increasing commercialization of health care.)

However, the New York Times did not choose to make public these conflicts of interest. I should note that biographies of Professor Reinhardt on the Princeton web-site, and furnished by the Princeton Bioethics Forum, the Commonwealth Fund, and the Henry J Kaiser Foundation did not note these relationships. A transcript of an interview on the Public Broadcasting System Frontline show also did not reveal these relationships.

Without the knowledge of these financial relationships, one might suppose Professor Reinhardt's opinions are only based on his disinterested expertise as a well-known economic scholar. Without knowledge of these financial relationships, one might think that a secretive, opaque process skewing physicians' payments toward procedures is not an important problem for our health care system.

We have come to a critical time in the history of attempts to reform the US health care system. Whether reform occurs, and whether it does any good will depend on the quality of the debate that precedes it. Such a debate should be robust, but those involved ought to make clear where their biases and interests may lie.

Unfortunately, it may be that some of the most prominent voices in the debate are those of people with strong personal financial interests in having health care reform go in certain directions, not others. Furthermore, people with particular interests may not want certain issues to be even brought up. If these interests are not revealed, the debate becomes deceptive.

I fear that much of the debate up to now has been deceptive, and will not lead to good outcomes.


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


InformaticsMD said...

One would think, however, that a move toward these alternative payment systems would not only reduce the geographic variations in per-capita health spending, but help control the annual growth of health spending over all.

In fact, to my medical and mathematical mind I see nothing but cost increases to support the parasitic and often corrupt bureaucracy needed to support all these fancy alternatives.

This myth of "saving money" through increasing the bureaucracy needed to manage payment for healthcare must be opposed.

Next is the myth of health IT and "saving money," as opposed to transferring wealth from healthcare enablers and facilitators to yet another species of bureaucrat and non healthcare industry, IT - at least the way HIT is currently pursued, as if it were a subspecies of MIS (management information system a.k.a. business computing).

Anonymous said...

Now I understand why Professor Reinhardt was a managed care zealot as far back as the days of the clandestine H Clinton "task force" of the last decade.

With his background as a Professor of Economics at Princeton, no less, one would think that he would present a more sophisticated insight as to the reasons for the unprecedented inflation in medical care costs.

J. Thomas Russell, DDS said...

There was a time when, if you wanted to become a physician, the bankrolling required more than the velleity of simply making the making the choice and the financing appears.
Then in the 1950’s and 1960’s the (then) HEW came up with what seemed a simple solution to the health care conundrum: financial aid to medical schools. They planned to flood the market with new MD’s and so cause increased competition to lower the cost factor attributable to doctors’ incomes.
In the mid 1970’s I was a dinner guest of a brilliant couple of Washington health apparatchiks. He was (among other things) guiding the nascent EPSDT program. And she (the sister of one of the Brookings Institution’s leading economists) was eventually to become the Director of the National Center for Health Statistics. In short, not only were they broadly wired into the beltway health establishment, they had their hands on the steering wheel.
Another guest that evening was the wife of a health economist who had recently been jilted by her co-researcher husband. And she was getting back at him by blabbing about the results of their latest findings, before they had been published: financial support of medical education was having the opposite effect on health costs than they had anticipated!
Although the money given to Medical Schools had worked to increase the supply of physicians, there hadn’t been the expected depressive influence on doc’s incomes. They had found that wherever there were new MD graduates, they would produce medical care and make a handsome income while doing it. The equation was more docs=more procedures and higher medical costs—not lower fees.
By producing more Docs, Washington had increased the supply of costly medical care providers who continued to command a great return on the investment the government had made in their education.
There was amused consternation around the dinner table. Medical Economics had not responded to the “Law” of supply and demand. “Well, maybe we’ll do better with this new entity, The HMO.”

Anonymous said...

The AMA responded in a letter to this post. Did you all read it? You were actually invited to the next RUC meeting which occurred in April. Did you go?

Roy M. Poses MD said...

Anonymous, I still wonder how you found that letter on the web?
In any case, my response is here:

Fat Bastardo said...

The leading cause of death and injury in the US is our health care system.

The dollar cost of medical blunders will be over one TRILLION this year and that is based on the ones that get reported.

One can only guess to how much billing fraud there is.

Fix the above and health care will improve.