MACRA News: CMS Yields to Pressure with “Pick Your Pace”

yieldAs everyone is in the midst of anxiously trying to prepare for MACRA while awaiting the Final Rule, (due November 1), CMS announced yesterday that it is stepping back the requirements and the timetable to make it easier for providers to avoid the 2019 negative payment adjustments set out in the Proposed Rule. This decision comes in the wake of 4,000 comments and subsequent pressure from professional groups and from Congressmen/women pleading for relief from the rushed implementation of a complex and overly aggressive set of requirements that would negatively impact many practices, particularly small groups.

Andy Slavitt, Acting Administrator of CMS, published a blog that gave an overview of the new options that allow providers to “pick their pace” of complying. It appears that the only way a provider would receive a negative adjustment in 2019 would be if they do almost nothing in 2017. He outlined 4 options for participation:

  1. Do something! Avoid a negative payment adjustment in 2019 by submitting some data in 2017. This begs the question: what constitutes “some data?” Does this mean some data in each MIPS category, some data in one category, quality data only? (To me, the wording in Slavitt’s blog is reminiscent of CMS’ past MU shift to “capability enabled” or “met for 1 patient”.)
  2. Report for a short reporting period (“a reduced number of days”) could qualify you for a “small” positive payment adjustment.
  3. Comply with MIPS as defined in the Proposed Rule—or I assume, as it will be defined in the Final Rule— for the full calendar year and you could qualify for a “modest” positive payment adjustment.
  4. Participate in MACRA’s Advanced Alternate Payment Model option. CMS is hinting that it may broaden the definition of an APM.

This news will no doubt be greeted with relief and cheers by most providers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are left feeling more uncertain now of what will be required in 2017 than they did before the announcement! What constitutes sufficient reporting in options 1 and 2 above? How many days are in a short reporting period—90 perhaps? How do the revised “small” and “modest” payment adjustments compare to the potential 4% proposed for 2017 and to each other? Will performance still be evaluated relative to other providers? And what happened to budget neutrality, i.e., where is this money coming from if hardly anyone will receive a negative adjustment?

Please let us know what you think of this latest MACRA news, and stay tuned as we learn more!

MIPS: 5 Things You Can Do Now to Prepare

5-things-mips-blogEven though the final MACRA rule is not expected until November 1, 2016, you would be well advised to start putting an action plan in place now. As proposed, the first performance year begins on January 1, 2017, a mere 2 months after the expected release of the Final Rule—you won’t have sufficient time to prepare if you wait until then. Yes, CMS has hinted about a possible delay or a shortened reporting period (in response to numerous concerns expressed in the 4,000 comments to the proposed rule), but you cannot bank on that until it is finalized. There are things you can do to start planning your strategy and improve your chances of success when this first regulatory foray into value-based payment begins:

  1. Focus on 2016 PQRS reporting: Quality reporting carries a 50% weighting next year, which makes it the most important of the 4 MIPs performance targets, (the others being Advancing Care Information, aka MU; Clinical Practice Improvement Activities; and Resource use, aka cost). Take advantage of the next 4 months to improve your quality measure workflow and reporting.
  1. Think about whether to report MIPS as individual physicians or as a group: It’s important to look at your practice’s current MU and PQRS performance as a predictor of which option might be more beneficial. You may already be reporting PQRS as a GPRO—success here makes a strong argument for reporting all categories as a group. (Remember, as proposed, you must report consistently across all 4 MIPS categories.)
  1. Develop workflows to support success: Identify the ACI patient engagement and health information exchange (HIE) measures that are of most interest or relevance to your practice. Analyze and try to enhance the workflows that support these measures. Ask your EHR vendor for a professional services evaluation—they may be able to offer assistance in this regard.
  1. Review the list of Clinical Practice Improvement Activities: Review the list provided in Table H of the Proposed Rule. Are there activities that fit your practice or possibly some that you were considering, even before MACRA?
  1. Evaluate your current technology resources: Is your EHR up to the job—or is it killing your productivity, particularly when you use it to meet the government requirements? If you are not satisfied, now is a good time implement new technology.

The most important step to take now and in the coming months is to keep yourself educated and up to date as the regulations evolve and the start date approaches, (But you clearly know that, since you’re reading this post!) On, you will find Quality Payment Program Resources pages. You can also consult your professional societies/academies for specialty-specific guidance or reach out to your EHR vendor for training. I invite you to watch (or watch again) my webinar titled, “MACRA/MIPS: 962 Pages in 30 Minutes”, which is available on demand.

90-Day MU Reporting: Deja-Vu All Over Again!

flag-money-stethLast week, in keeping with what seems to have become a mid-year tradition, CMS issued a proposed rule that—amidst its 700-plus pages related to hospital payments—reduces the 2016 MU reporting period from the full calendar year to any 90 consecutive days. (Note that this applies only to providers participating in the Medicare, not Medicaid, EHR Incentive Program, and has no effect on PQRS reporting.) Would it have been better if the announcement had come in a more timely fashion—i.e., at the beginning of the year instead of the middle? Absolutely! But don’t let that keep you from taking advantage of this opportunity.

This is good news for providers who had given up on MU for 2016—or who got off to a slow start on the program this year. Here’s an opportunity to get back in the game and avoid the 2018 payment adjustment (3% or 4%, to be set at the discretion of the Secretary of HHS). It also provides a bit of a breather for those who are successfully demonstrating meaningful use and may be able to identify an already-completed 90-day period during which they met all the requirements. These providers can now turn their attention to preparing for MACRA, which is proposed to be effective on January 1 and in which MU (renamed “Advancing Care Information”) is only one of the four components.

So, what accounted for this change? Is it an indication of a kinder and gentler CMS to come? The CMS Fact Sheet states that CMS is trying to “assist health care providers by increasing flexibility in the program.” Was it in response to the deluge of comments to the MACRA rule that screamed “Help!,” or to the repeated requests for relief submitted by providers, organizations, and members of Congress? Let us know below what you think brought about this change of heart.

MACRA and MIPS: They Promised Simpler!

open-book-formulaThe proposed MACRA rule is here. With the goal of changing the way physicians are paid, this rule proposes how CMS intends to move toward increasingly rewarding value—meaning high quality care at a cost-effective price—over volume.

CMS claims that MACRA will simplify life for providers, (although I’m a little suspicious since it took 962 pages to explain the “simplification”). However, there is no question that the world is about to change. These proposed regs are scheduled to be finalized in November and then be effective on January 1, 2017—a rather ambitious schedule which leaves little time for planning your approach to compliance.

While I haven’t read the entire rule yet, MACRA—Medicare Access and Chip Reauthorization Act—provides two paths for physicians and other clinicians. In the long-term, APMs (Alternate Payment Models, like ACOs) will be a popular route—higher risk/higher reward—but for now, most physicians will participate in the MIPS (Merit-Based Incentive Program) option. So let me provide a few teasers about MIPS, as currently proposed:

  • If you expected an end to Meaningful Use, PQRS, and the Value-Based Payment Program, you will be disappointed for certain. MIPS just changes the names, rolls them up into one program, and adds (yet another) set of required activities.
  • Providers will be scored on a 100-point scale and compared to other providers—this year’s weighting would be 25% MU-type measures, 50% quality measures, a la PQRS, 10% cost, and 15% Clinical Practice Improvement Activities. (The rule spells out how a provider’s score is calculated and the payment adjustment is determined, but you might need an advanced math degree to follow that discussion!)
  • MU is now “Advancing Care Information”. It will have fewer required measures (proposing to eliminate CPOE, CDS, and multiple Public Health reporting requirements), no longer be all or nothing, and will provide some choices to clinicians for how they demonstrate success. CQM reporting will not be part of this component.
  • Quality measure reporting (like PQRS) will be the bulk of the score, but only 6 measures will be required. Like under the Value-Based Payment Program, performance will count, i.e., impact the provider’s score.
  • Assessment of cost will be done by CMS—providers won’t have to report anything. This is similar to how CMS currently attributes a cost factor to providers in calculating the V-BPM.
  • The new category, Clinical Practice Improvement Activities, offers providers a choice of approximately 90 activities from which to choose to earn points in that category.
  • MIPS would be reportable as an individual provider or as a group.

Stay tuned to EMR StraightTalk for more in-depth analysis of MACRA in upcoming posts. We welcome your initial comments.


The End of MU… Oh, Never Mind!

chameleon-315pxAccording to a recent speech by Andy Slavitt, Acting Administrator of CMS, “The Meaningful Use program as it has existed will now be effectively over.” Not surprisingly, the media picked up this news—particularly the word “now”—and ran with it, gleefully proclaiming the “End of MU in 2016,” “CIOs Celebrate End of MU,” “MU on Deathwatch,” etc. It was easy to believe that Slavitt was predicting the demise of MU to be imminent since the stated topic of his talk was “policy areas that will affect the healthcare sector in 2016.” However, in Tuesday’s CMS Blog, Slavitt—writing with Karen DeSalvo—walked his statement back a bit. That said, this is still quite significant news: CMS has formally acknowledged what Slavitt himself referred to as the frustration and burden that physicians have been dealing with since the start of MU.

The key phrase in his statement about MU is “as it has existed.” MU is to be, in Slavitt’s words, “replaced with something better”—i.e., a new and improved version of itself. It is not going away. We already knew that MU had been identified as an integral part of a new program called MIPS under MACRA, the regulations for which are still being written by CMS. MACRA, the legislation that replaces the Medicare Fee Schedule’s SGR calculation, becomes effective in 2017, with a new schedule of payment adjustments (a.k.a. incentives and penalties) beginning in 2019.

Slavitt’s “announcement” was clouded by uncertainty, but was greeted, nevertheless, with great jubilation and high expectations, some of which were dashed by the clarifications published in the subsequent CMS Blog. In his speech, Slavitt had provided little insight into exactly how MU will be restructured. It begged the questions: Will the changes to the requirements be radical enough to be perceived by physicians as “something better?” What will become of the Stage 3 Rule, which is currently undergoing finalization and is due to go into effect in no later than 2018? And, will the MU penalties scheduled for 2017 and 2018 remain in effect or be eliminated? The CMS Blog answered some of these questions, to the disillusionment of many providers:

  • The current law requires that we continue to measure the meaningful use of ONC Certified Health Information Technology under the existing set of standards.
  • We encourage you to look for the MACRA regulations this year; in the meantime, our existing regulations—including meaningful use Stage 3—are still in effect.

Despite the myriad details yet to be determined, what we do know about the future is that physicians will increasingly be rewarded for quality over quantity of care. Therefore, a critical component of the new government programs will be the demonstration and reporting of improved patient outcomes (most likely in PQRS fashion). We can also be confident that MACRA (and any new version of MU it contains) will demand heightened interoperability and patient engagement, and physicians will have to meet requirements that support these goals.

The question of timing notwithstanding, should you be excited about this announcement? I would suggest cautiously so. We are optimistic that the anticipated changes will bring some relief from the unnecessary administrative burdens with which physicians have been struggling and let them get back to focusing on the practice of medicine. But unless concomitant changes are forthcoming on ONC’s side to streamline the excessive EHR certification requirements on the books for 2017/2018, EHR developers and vendors will still not have the necessary time or freedom to focus on innovations that would deliver the efficiencies and clinical benefits that would be of maximum value to physicians and their patients.

As always, SRS will keep you up to date on all developments in this area as they are revealed over the next few months. Please feel free to contact Lynn Scheps, Vice President, Government Affairs, if you have any questions.

CMS Offers Welcome Relief for Transition to ICD-10

reliefIt’s time for those still advocating a delay of ICD-10 to abandon the fight—but they can take heart in the recent concessions offered by CMS. The AMA, concerned about the complexity of ICD-10, has asked for some measure of protection from potential adverse financial impacts of the transition to the new code set, and CMS recently agreed to a one-year compromise.

Recognizing the challenges for providers, CMS has agreed:

  • Not to deny claims based on the (lack of, or incorrect) specificity of the ICD-10 code, as long as the reported code is a valid code from the right family of codes.
  • Not to subject providers to penalties under 2015 quality reporting programs, (Meaningful Use, PQRS, or the Value-Based Payment Modifier), as long as a valid code from the right family is reported for the measure(s).
  • To create an ICD-10 Ombudsman to help negotiate solutions to ICD-10 related problems.

CMS has also acknowledged realistic challenges on its side, and is insulating providers from resulting financial harm by agreeing:

  • To authorize advance payments if Medicare contractors are unable to process claims in a timely fashion (as defined by CMS) due to problems with ICD-10.
  • Not to penalize providers under MU, PQRS, or the V-BPM if CMS “experiences difficulty calculating the quality scores.”

You can read about the above in CMS’ own words in its FAQ document.

Notwithstanding the above, it’s time to get serious about preparing for the transition to ICD-10, if you have not already begun that process. Fortunately, there are some ICD-10 solutions embedded in EHRs and PM systems that make code selection easier than others, but regardless of the particular system you employ, there is a learning curve for physicians, clinical teams, and billing staff members.

90-Day MU Reporting: Just What the Doctor Ordered

Rules & RegulationsJust as physicians were considering abandoning Meaningful Use and surrendering to future Medicare penalties, CMS issued a proposed rule for 2015 that breathes new life into the program. If full-year reporting was perceived as the insurmountable obstacle, the proposed reduction to a 90-day reporting period should recapture interest.

Although a proposed rule is not final until it is codified as a final rule—not anticipated until August—past experience has demonstrated that the major structural features typically survive as proposed. The shortened reporting period was announced as CMS’ intention in January and formally proposed last Friday. I think it is fair to say that one can be reasonably confident in this particular provision of the rule.

As for the other features of this proposed rule: In a former EMR Straight Talk post, I wrote, “Even more intriguing to me than the change in reporting period is . . . the intention to “modify other aspects of the program to match long-term goals, reduce complexity, and lessen providers’ reporting burdens.” CMS has come through in this regard and proposed changes for 2015 through 2017. The revisions encourage a focus on the advanced use of EHR technology to support health information exchange, consumer/patient engagement, public health reporting, and quality improvement. This is the narrowed focus that stakeholders, (including SRS on behalf of physicians), have been demanding since the program’s inception.

The following are some other highlights of the proposed rule for 2015 through 2017:

  1. Reporting would be streamlined: Many Stage 2 measures would not be individually reportable, particularly the paper-based or box-checking measures. Caveat: this does not, however, mean that the data would no longer be required–the information would still be necessary for the patient portal, for the summaries exchanged between providers, and for CQM reporting.
  2. Patient engagement measures would be dramatically revamped:
    • The threshold for “VDT”, (View, Download, or Transmit), would be reduced from 5% to “one patient.”
    • Secure messaging would have to “be enabled,” but there would be no threshold to meet.
  1. To simplify the overall MU structure for practices that have physicians in different stages, all physicians would report on the same measures—a modified set of Stage 2 requirements. Stage 1 providers, however, would be able to exclude measures which go beyond the requirements they were expecting to report.

If you want to ensure that the above changes are included in the final rule, submit a comment to CMS by June 15. CMS receives plenty of comments opposed to particular components of its rules, but specifically asks for positive comments on the features that stakeholders do support.