Author Archives: Mary Ellen Schneider

ACA: Helping or Hurting Solo Practice?

It won’t surprise many to learn that the age of the solo practitioner has, for the most part, come to an end. Over the past several years, small and solo practices have closed, been sold to hospitals, or merged with larger groups. The reasons are fairly obvious. Declining payments, rising malpractice costs, increasing regulatory burdens, costly new health information technology requirements, and crushing medical school debt have made it difficult for physicians to operate the small practices that once were commonplace around the country.

Now add the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to the mix. At a July 19 hearing of the House Small Business Subcommittee on Investigations, Oversight and Regulations, lawmakers questioned whether the health reform law would help or hurt physicians looking to keep their practices small and independent. The answers from the expert panel were mixed.

Gone are the days of Marcus Welby. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain License

The emergence of accountable care organizations (ACOs) will drive more hospitals to buy up small physician practices, Mark Smith, president of the physician recruiting firm Merritt Hawkins, predicted. The health reform law heavily promotes the formation of ACOs, which call for physicians and hospitals to work more closely and to share in bundled payments for episodes of care. Mr. Smith said small practices aren’t well-positioned to enter the ACO world if they aren’t integrated with a hospital because the ACO model calls on practices to assume financial risk.

But Joseph M. Yasso, Jr., DO, a family physician in Independence, Mo., who sold his practice to a hospital group 20 years ago, said the ACA’s promotion of patient-centered medical homes could be a lifeline for small practices. Physicians are adapting to the new environment by becoming medical homes and participating in government pilots where they can share in the savings they generate by providing more efficient care, he said.

One thing everyone on the panel did agree on was the need to fix the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula used in setting physician payments under Medicare. No surprises there either.

— Mary Ellen Schneider

8 Comments

Filed under Health IT, Health Policy, health reform, IMNG, Litigation, Physician Reimbursement, Practice Trends, Primary care

Criticism of the AMA’s RUC Grows

Tom Scully, the outspoken former head of Medicare, recently said that one of the biggest mistakes policymakers made when redesigning the physician payment system in the early 1990s was giving the American Medical Association control over the Relative Value Scale Update Committee or the RUC.

The RUC, which is as controversial as it is unknown, is a 29-member panel that makes recommendations on how to value of thousands of physician services under Medicare. While Medicare officials are under no obligation to accept the panel’s decisions, most of the time that’s exactly what they do.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

Mr. Scully told members of the Senate Finance Committee that the current RUC structure, as run by the AMA, isn’t objective enough. There’s a lot on the line since the RUC’s decisions impact about $80 billion in Medicare spending each year, he said. As lawmakers consider how to reform the physician payment system, he urged them to also think about ways to make the RUC less political and more independent.

The comments in the Senate hearing room were just a sampling of the criticism that the AMA and the RUC have received recently. Over the past year or so, the RUC has been under near constant attack from a small group of primary care physicians who are suing the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services with the goal of getting the agency to dump the RUC. Their contention is that the RUC is biased toward subspecialists and that the panel’s recommendations have contributed to a significant gap between primary care and specialty pay.

The AMA has continued to support the RUC process, arguing that a group of physicians is best positioned to determine the value of medical services and that the panel has often championed payment increases for primary care services.

— Mary Ellen Schneider

Leave a comment

Filed under Health Policy, IMNG, Litigation, Physician Reimbursement, Practice Trends, Primary care

A Hospitalist’s Call to Action

Dr. Patrick Conway is the Chief Medical Officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, but he also happens to be a practicing pediatric hospitalist. So when he showed up at the Society of Hospital Medicine’s annual meeting earlier this week to deliver one of the keynote addresses, he got a warm welcome from fellow hospitalists happy to see one of their own in a real position to make decisions about Medicare’s policies.

Dr. Conway gave the standard speech about what CMS officials are doing to transform the health care system. Then he turned to his hospitalist colleagues and gave them some things to do, too. Hospitalists need to partner with the hospital administration and their quality improvement teams. They need to understand their hospital’s performance data. And they need to take charge, he said, by leading multidisciplinary teams.

“We’re at a unique time in health care where we can drive change,” Dr. Conway said. “My challenge to you would be, please don’t sit on the sidelines.”

Dr. Patrick Conway

He urged the audience – hospitalists gathered in San Diego for continuing education and networking – to make an effort to lead some type of system improvement in their hospital. “I don’t actually care what it is, but work on some broader system changes in your local setting,” Dr. Conway said.

If hospitalists are looking for a reason to get out in front when it comes to system change, there are plenty of financial carrots and sticks coming very soon from the Medicare program. Dr. Conway outlined many of them, from Accountable Care Organizations to the readmission reduction program to the hospital value-based purchasing program. But the best reason to be active in changing the way the health system works is for the benefit of patients, he said. That’s the reason that Dr. Conway still works as a hospitalist nearly every weekend for free. “It’s about those families that you take care of,” he said.

– Mary Ellen Schneider

Leave a comment

Filed under Health Policy, health reform, IMNG, Pediatrics, Physician Reimbursement, Practice Trends

What if the Supreme Court Tosses Out the ACA?

Opponents of the Affordable Care Act are hoping that the Supreme Court will soon invalidate the law and put a permanent end to the federal government’s expanded role in health care. But one Capitol Hill watcher says the defeat of the ACA by the high court could lead to something conservatives would like even less – single-payer health care. Well, not anytime soon. But tossing out the law could help nudge things in that direction over time.

Norman J. Ornstein, Ph.D., an author and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said he could imagine a scenario where if the ACA were defeated, over time, Democrats would move to expand Medicare beyond the 65 and older crowd. Mr. Ornstein, who has a new book coming soon on the growing dysfunction in Washington, offered his two cents while speaking to a group of physicians at the Society of Hospital Medicine’s annual meeting in San Diego this week.

Protesters outside the Supreme Court in March. Photo by FRANCES CORREA/ IMNG Medical Media.

Another way that single-payer health care could become a reality is at the state level. Individual states might experiment with single payer-type programs along the lines of the Green Mountain Care program in Vermont, Mr. Ornstein said. Lawmakers in that state have enacted legislation allowing them to phase in a single-payer health care system over the next several years. But they have yet to hammer out details on how to pay for the program and it’s unclear how long it will take to move from the current framework of public and private insurance to a single-payer system.

– Mary Ellen Schneider

2 Comments

Filed under Health Policy, health reform, IMNG, Practice Trends

Getting Ready for the Insurance Exchanges

There’s been a lot of talk about the state-based health insurance exchanges set to debut in 2014 as part of the Affordable Care Act. How will they work? Will all states participate? Will they be ready on time?  Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services released a series of rules that aim to answer some of those questions.

One set of federal guidance that hasn’t gotten much attention is a final rule outlining the workings of the reinsurance, risk corridors, and risk adjustment programs in the health law. The final rule will be published in the Federal Register on March 23, the 2-year anniversary of the ACA.

Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy.

The 127-page document isn’t exactly a quick read, but it does shed some light on how the government is trying to remove any incentives health plans might have to try to avoid enrolling people with high medical costs. The programs also are designed to make health plan costs are predictable under the exchanges so that premiums will be relatively stable.

The ACA relies on one permanent and two temporary programs to guard against the premium fluctuations that could result if some health plans were flooded with the sickest patients, while others had only healthy customers. Under the permanent risk adjustment program, HHS is seeking to spread the financial risk of the health plans by providing payments to plans that attract higher risk patients. That risk will be offset by funds from health plans that have enrolled lower risk patients. The program will apply to all non-grandfathered plans in the individual and small group markets both in and out of the exchanges.

HHS also released details on the temporary reinsurance program, which aims to stabilize premiums in the individual insurance market during the early years of the exchanges, when officials expect a lot of people with chronic or expensive medical needs to be insured for the first time. From 2014 through 2016, all health insurers and self-insurance group plans will contribute to the reinsurance program to help cover these patients.

Another temporary program is the risk corridors program. It too is designed to reduce health insurers risk of being in the exchange early on. From 2014 through 2016, exchange plans that have costs at least 3% lower than previous cost projections will pay a percentage of those savings to HHS. The government will then pass the money on to health plans whose costs were at least 3% higher than projected.

— Mary Ellen Schneider

Leave a comment

Filed under Health Policy, health reform, IMNG, Practice Trends

Innovation Center Seeks to Renovate Medicare

Government officials have stood before doctors many times and talked about the need to change the perverse incentives that pay them more for caring for sick patients than for keeping people healthy to start. Dr. Richard Gilfillan, who runs the new Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, had a similar pitch when he talked to more than 1,000 people who recently convened at a Washington, D.C. hotel for a day-long summit on health care innovation. The difference is, Dr. Gilfillan has some leverage.

Under the Affordable Care Act, his new center is charged with rapidly testing alternative payment and health care delivery models. If those pilot projects are proven to both improve the quality of care and bring down health care costs, the Secretary of Health and Human Services can roll out the program nationally. There’s a little more paperwork involved, but that’s the general idea.

Dr. Richard Gilfillan (R), with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and former head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Dr. Don Berwick, in November. HHS Photo by Chris Smith.

What that means is that in a relatively short amount of time, Medicare could fundamentally change the way it pays doctors. That is, if the pilot projects sponsored by the Innovation Center are successful.

Dr. Gilfillan offered an example: Let’s say the Innovation Center launches a project where it pays primary care physicians an extra $10 per patient per month to coordinate care. If officials at the Innovation Center can prove that the project improves outcomes and reduces costs, HHS can publish regulations to roll it out to primary care physicians around the country. “As you can see, this is a powerful tool for changing the way we deliver care,” Dr. Gilfillan said at the summit.

The Innovation Center has been around for about a year and officials there have been busy putting together a set of pilot projects that look at new ways to deliver primary care and home-based care. They are also testing other concepts like bundled payments and accountable care organizations. Check out the Innovation Center’s report on its first year for descriptions of all the projects.

One thing they are trying to do in each of the projects, Dr. Gilfillan said, is to work closely with private payers. The goal, he said, is to make life a little simpler for doctors by ensuring that when they find new payment mechanisms that work, all the payers, both public and private, will adopt it in the same way.

— Mary Ellen Schneider (on Twitter @MaryEllenNY)

Leave a comment

Filed under Family Medicine, Health Policy, health reform, IMNG, Internal Medicine, Pediatrics, Physician Reimbursement, Practice Trends, Primary care

HHS Cries Foul on Insurance Hikes

Nowhere in the thousands of pages of the Affordable Care Act does it give the federal government the power to stop insurance companies from charging excessive premiums. But the controversial health reform law does grant the Department of the Health and Human Services the right review some large rate increases and to tell consumers when they think health plans are charging too much.

HHS did just that today when it held a press conference to protest what it said were “unreasonable” rate hikes by Trustmark Life Insurance Company in five states. The company recently proposed premiums hikes of 13% or more for its plan members inAlabama, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wyoming.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/FBI Buffalo Field Office/Public Domain

Gary Cohen, the Acting Director of Oversight at the HHS Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, said it wasn’t just that the increases were so high. HHS officials, after consulting with a team of outside analysts, concluded the rates were unreasonably high because the health insurance company was spending only a small percentage of its premium dollars on medical care and quality improvements. Trustmark also based its increases on “unreasonable assumptions,” HHS said. You can read more about HHS rate review authority here.

In its challenge to Trustmark, HHS called on the company to immediately rescind the rates, issue refunds to consumers, or publicly explain why they are standing by such a large rate hike.

It looks like Trustmark is going to stand by its rate increase. Following the HHS press conference, Trustmark issued its own statement saying that they disagreed with the federal government’s assumptions and conclusions. “Our premiums are driven by the rising cost and increased utilization of medical services,” the company wrote. “As a smaller carrier, our loss ratios can vary significantly from year to year, and we take that volatility into consideration.” As for spending too little of its premium dollars on medical care, the company said it has been in compliance with the federal Medical Loss Ratio requirements in that area. However, if they should fail to meet the federal standards, they will offer rebates to consumers.

So is this an effective strategy for bringing down health insurance rates? Share your thoughts on whether rate review by HHS and public disclosure will be powerful enough to force companies to keep premiums low or if you think insurers will be willing to ride out some bad press.

— Mary Ellen Schneider

Leave a comment

Filed under Health Policy, health reform, IMNG, Practice Trends