Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Letter from the RUC, and My Reply

The vast amounts spent in the US on health care have not translated into access for many patients, consistently excellent quality of care, and signiticantly improved outcomes. While we spend all this money, the primary care and generalist practitioners on the front lines are increasingly embattled and disgruntled, and their numbers are rapidly thinning. One problem may be the pattern of fees paid to physicians. Fees paid to physicians not only influence costs directly, but provide incentives for physician decision making about what tests and treatments patients receive. We have posted several times, most recently in February, 2009, here, about how the US Medicare system sets fees paid to physicians.

Since health care reform is now a hot topic in the US, there has been increasing discussion of the plight of primary care and generalist practitioners, but little consideration of how it arose. What we wrote in February was (with updated links):

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.

The next month, Dr William L Rich III, and Dr Barbary Levy, the Chair and Chair-Elect of the RUC, wrote me a letter to "point out several blatant inaccuracies within your blog entry that severely misrepresent the nature and work of the AMA / Specialty Society RVS Update Committee (RUC)." They then asked me to "retract or correct the inaccurate statements within the aforementioned blog immediately." However, the letter did not specify the supposedly inaccurate statements within the blog post. So, my email response noted that "the letter contains no detail about the alleged 'inaccurate statements.' If you define them, we will certainly consider your views." I never got a reply to this message, therefore thinking the matter to be closed, and I saw at that time no reason to make the exchange public.

Apparently, the matter was not closed. A few days ago, two anonymous comments were appended to the post. They stated that my letter had appeared on the AMA web-site, here. So it is now public. The comments did not say, and I have so far not been able to find out when the letter was posted, and what its context is within the AMA web-site, including any indication that I had already replied to it in private.

Despite these irregularities, however, given that the AMA apparently has chosen to make the letter public, I believe I ought to respond publicly.

"Blatant Inaccuracies?"

Dr Rich and Dr Levy wrote:

We would like to take this opportunity to point out several blatant inaccuracies within your blog entry that severely misrepresent the nature and work of the AMA / Specialty Society RBRVS Update Committee (RUC). We request you retract or correct the inaccurate statements within the aforementioned blog immediately.

First, as I noted above, the letter never specified which of my statements the letter writers considered "blatant inaccuracies." If there are any specific statements of fact in the post above (or any other post I write) that can be shown to be inaccurate, I will correct or retract them. However, I do not believe the letter by Dr Rich and Dr Levy demonstrated any particular statements of mine to be blatantly inaccurate.

The Obscurity of the RUC Membership

The letter stated:

The RUC does not operate in the shadows.

One of my major criticisms of the RUC was that it is opaque. Before I wrote my first post on the RUC, I tried to determine its membership by searching the AMA web-site, easily available AMA publications, and the web. I could find lists of past members, but no current list. In addition, I asked RUC staff by email whether they could provide me the list, or an easy way to access it. They would or could not do so, and the highest ranking staffer I contacted wrote, "we do not give out the RUC members' contact information. We attempt to shield the RUC from lobbying by industry or others." Only after these inquiries did I dub the RUC membership "secret."

Dr Rich and Dr Levy suggested that it is not quite secret. It 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.

Additionally, although the letter stated, "any individual may solicit AMA staff directly or a specialty society to learn the names of the members of the RUC," the letter was not accompanied by any communication from AMA staff containing this information.

Thus, to date, I still do not know who the members of the RUC are. If the letter authors had wanted to show that the membership of the RUC was not meant to be obscure, they could easily have sent me the list with their letter, appended a copy of the pages of the book which contained the list, or asked their staff to provide this information. They chose not to do so. So, while the RUC membership may not be exactly secret, it remains obscure, only barely public, and relatively inaccessible.

The Secrecy of RUC Proceedings

Furthermore, to support its contention that "the RUC does not operate in the shadows," the letter stated that

any individual may attend a RUC meeting upon: (1) the invitation of and notification by a relevant specialty society; (2) an express invitation by the chair of the RUC; or (3) the approval of a written request to attend; and a review of conflicts and potential conflicts of interest.

This does not mean that RUC meetings are open, or that their proceedings are public. Instead, 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 letter also personally invited me to attend "the next meeting of the RUC, which will take place April 23-26, 2009 in Chicago." In retrospect, this invitation did not appear serious, since it was never repeated or expanded after my email reply to the March letter.

Nor did the invitation include any assurance that I could make anything about this meeting public. I had learned from a previous RUC attendee who will remain anonymous that attendees are obligated to sign non-disclosure agreements. Signing such an agreement might jeopardize my further ability to write anything of substance about the RUC. Furthermore, making all meeting attendees sign non-disclosure agreements effectively makes the meeting secret.

The RUC and Primary Care

Dr Rich and Dr Levy asserted that:

Your publication irrationally and unreasonably paints the RUC as the perpetrator of all physician payment policies that have negatively affected primary care.

Furthermore, they argued that the RUC has been good for primary care and cognitive practice:

The RUC has made several recommendations that positively benefit cognitive and non-procedural physician specialties.

My opinions about the RUC's influence on payments to physicians, and the decline of primary care and generalist and cognitive practice are hardly original. My previous posts were clearly based on evidence and discussion from references 1-4. Let me summarize these arguments, using direct quotes from these references, which perusal of the original articles would reveal are not taken out of context.

Primary and generalist practice is threatened by the current payment system.

From Bodenheimer et al(1):

Incomes of primary care physicians are well below those of many specialists, and the primary care–specialty income gap is widening.

... the lower income of primary care physicians is a major factor leading U.S. medical students to reject primary care careers.

Primary care practice is not viable without a substantial increase in the resources available to primary care physicians.

From Goodson(2):

Medicine's generalist base is disappearing as a consequence of the reimbursement system crafted to save it—the resource-based relative value scale.

Current reimbursement incentives substantially favor procedures and technical interventions and offer financial advantages for expensive care, thereby encouraging specialty services.

The continued and sustained incentives for medical graduates to choose higher-paying specialty careers and for those physicians in specialty careers to increase income through highly compensated professional activities have been associated with the dwindling of the generalist workforce. The lack of incentives for medical graduates to choose generalist careers in internal medicine, family medicine, and pediatrics has had a profound effect on the workforce mix and, ultimately, US health care expenditures.

The RUC has been the major influence on the physician payment system leading to these problems.

From Bodenheimer et al(1):

In summary, the RUC process favors increases in procedural and imaging reimbursement for 3 reasons: specialty society influence in proposing RVU increases, the specialist-heavy RUC membership, and the desire of RUC specialists to avoid increases in evaluation and management RVUs. With their ability to create new codes and influence RVU updates, many procedural specialists can influence fees in a way that observers find to substantially overvalue procedural and imaging services. Moreover, high fees may encourage physicians to increase the volume of profitable services, leading to even higher income gains and greater spending growth.

From Goodson(2):

The RUC has powerfully influenced CMS decision making and, as a result, is a powerful force in the US medical economy. Furthermore, by creating and maintaining incentives for more and more specialty care and by failing to accurately and continuously assess the practice expense RVUs, the decisions of CMS have fueled health care inflation. Doing so has affected the competitiveness of US corporations in the global market by contributing to years of double-digit health care inflation that have consistently increased the costs of manufacturing and business in the United States over the last decades.

The current mechanism fails to provide sufficient checks and balances and is skewed and dysfunctional.

The resource-based relative value scale system originally developed to achieve full value for cognitive services currently threatens the sustainability of the generalist base. As a result, a large portion of the population will lose access to the continuous and personalized care provided by generalist physicians whose repertoire of clinical skills and interventions coupled with access to specialty and diagnostic services are essential for ensuring efficient and effective health care delivery.

Dr Rich and Dr Levy are entitled to their opinions, but I would argue that there is considerable evidence and opinion suggesting that the current dysfunctional physician payment system is a major cause of the decline of primary care and cognitive practice, and simultaneous rise in health care costs and decline in health care access in the US. Furthermore, there is also considerable evidence and opinion suggesting that the RUC has singular responsbility for the dysfunctionality of the payment system and how it is skewed in favor of procedures as opposed to cognitive services and primary care.

Summarizing: the Opacity of the RUC, and its Negative Effects on Primary Care and Cognitive Services

So, I stand by my statement that the RUC process is opaque. Instead of saying "the identities of RUC members are secret, as are the proceedings of the group," I would be willing to now say, "the identities of the RUC members are obscure and difficult to ascertain, and the proceedings of the group are secret." That is not much of an improvement.

If the RUC leadership wants to make its membership transparent, all it needs to do is post it on the web. If it wishes to make its proceedings transparent, all it needs to do is publish them as well. If it makes such changes, I would happily and publicly applaud them.

If the RUC leadership wants to show that their members are not influenced by individual conflicts of interest, transparency about the committee's membership would inspire more trust than making the information as obscure as possible.

Furthermore, there may be more reason to be concerned about the effects of institutional rather than individual conflicts of interest on the RUC. Most RUC members appear to represent specialty societies. Rothman et al claimed that industry funding of professional medical societies is "pervasive."(5) If the RUC leadership wants to show that their committee as a whole is not affected by institutional conflicts of interest of its specialty societies, it ought at least to disclose the relationships of those societies and their leaders with companies that stand to profit from increasing utilization of the specific services whose use is influenced by the incentives which the RUC largely determines.

Finally, if there is a "wedge between cognitive and procedural specialties" it was driven a long time ago, particularly by a payment system that progressively favored the latter over the former, and by a bureaucratic burden that fell disproportionately on the former. But blaming the messenger is a time-honored, if not necessarily honorable tactic.


1. Bodenheimer T, Berenson RA, Rudolf P. The primary care-specialty income gap: why it matters. Ann Intern Med 2007; 146: 301-306. Link
2. Goodson JD. Unintended consequences of Resource-Based Relative Value Scale reimbursement. JAMA 2007; 298(19):2308-2310. Link
3. Ginsburg PB, Berenson RA. Revising Medicare's physician fee schedule - much activity, little change. N Engl J Med 2007; 356: 1201-1203.
4. Newhouse JP. Medicare spending on physicians - no easy fix in sight. N Engl J Med 2007; 356: 1883-1884.
5. Rothman DJ, McDonald WJ, Berkowitz CD et al. Professional medical associations and their relationships with industry: a proposal for controlling conflict of interest. JAMA 2009; 301: 1367-1372. Link


Anonymous said...

A tour de force, even by the very high standards of this weblog.

Anonymous said...

This post is a call to arms. I was at a recent conference that included both internists and orthopedic surgeons. A few of the latter made more than a $million per year. I can guarantee readers of this blog that there are legions of primary care people who work harder and under more emotional stress than these individuals.

The disparity of income is not just profane it has created a fault line in our profession. This is not an issue of envy. It is an issue of fairness.

Anonymous said...

The supposed availability of the RUC membership list reminds me of the scene in Douglas Adams' book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which the plans for the new highway going right through Arthur Dent's house were located in a locked file cabinet in an disused women's lavatory down a dark staircase in the basement of the planning office, behind a sign stating, "Beware of the Leopard."

Anonymous said...

I shared this post with friends at Firedoglake. It would be nice if some of the legal eagles that frequent THAT site might think creatively about diminishing the power or at least attempting to regulate a "prestigious" association that has long served some of its membership--but not American patients.


APeticola said...

Dynamite post. The speciousness of their protests is absolutely jaw-dropping.

Keep up the good work; at least they noticed enough to offer a few lame excuses. You must be making progress; and this is vitally important! We need to get others to notice (including Congress) and get others to hold their feet to the fire (or yank away their power), instead of letting them do their dirty work in obscurity.

Cheers to you!

PookieMD said...

Hysterical that they took the time to send you a letter, but never followed up. I remember some of the original posts you did on RUC, and it was actually the beginning of my education on this entity. I find it interesting they posted your letter, but never pointed out exactly what they wanted retracted. Keep up the posts as this is an important issue that most physicians don't eveb know about.

Christopher M. Hughes, MD said...

Just found this today.

Posted it to firedoglake:

and my blog:

really terrific!