Proposed SGR Fix – It’s Different This Time

Year after year, physicians live for months with the uncertainty and angst of threatened, often draconian, Medicare reimbursement cuts born out of the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) budgeting formula.  And every year, intense lobbying and complex negotiations lead to short-term patches that maintain or slightly increase reimbursement rates—these solutions are commonly referred to as the Doc Fix. This year’s fix is set to expire at the end of March, which would leave physicians facing a 23.7% reduction—but on Thursday, a bipartisan piece of legislation proposed a repeal of the SGR and the creation of a new payment model that would reward quality, rather than volume of care provided. All that’s left now is to figure out how to fund the $128 billion price tag over the next 10 years.

Although I haven’t read the 200-page bill, the following is a summary of its major provisions:

  • The SGR fix would increase Medicare physician reimbursement rates by 0.5% annually for the next 5 years, i.e., through 2018. This would provide income predictability and stability for providers.
    • 2018 rates would be maintained through 2023.
    • From 2024 on, physicians who participate in Alternate Payment Models would see a 1% annual increase; non-participants would receive 0.5% increases.
  • It would create a new payment system called MIPS (Merit-Based Incentive Payment System) by 2018, which would roll up meaningful use, PQRS, and the Value-Based Payment System into one program that would tie physician reimbursement to quality and cost. Physicians would be assessed in 4 areas:
    • Quality: based on current and future quality measures from the PQRS and Meaningful Use programs
    • Resource use: assessment of cost structure using a method similar to that currently in use in the Value-Based Payment Program
    • Meaningful Use: satisfying current meaningful use requirements demonstrated by use of a certified EHR
    • Participation in practice improvement activities: a new area of measurement related to clinical improvement.
  • Physicians would receive a composite score on all of the above.  Based on total score relative to other physicians, they would receive either:
    • A negative adjustment of up to 4% in 2018, 5% in 2019, 7% in 2020, and 9% in 2021
    • No adjustment
    • A positive adjustment of as much as 3 times the maximum negative adjustment for that year.
  • The new payment system would provide additional incentives (5% per year from 2018 to 2023) to providers who derive a substantial part of their income from alternative payment models that base payment on quality assessment and financial risk sharing rather than volume of services provided, (e.g., ACOs, Medical Homes, or other new healthcare delivery models).
  • It would encourage cost savings by incentivizing care coordination and adherence to Clinical Decision Support (CDS) mechanisms and Appropriate Use Criteria (AUC) aimed at reducing unnecessary testing—specifically in the area of advanced diagnostic imaging:
    • Effective 2017, physicians would be paid for advanced diagnostic imaging only if the claim shows consultation with CDS mechanisms and AUC.
    • Effective 2020, the 5% of physicians with the lowest adherence rates would require prior authorization for such tests.
  • Beginning in 2015, patients would have access to quality and cost data regarding individual physicians that would be made available on the Physician Compare Site.

MIPS would rely heavily on quality measurement, data sharing, and interoperability, so one thing is abundantly clear:  Robust EHRs and extensive data management capabilities will be critical tools for physician success in the future, even more so than they are today.

 

 

Physicians Cry “Uncle” Over Meaningful Use

Physicians Cry 'Uncle' over Meaningful UseThe increasingly unrealistic demands of meaningful use are leading to a groundswell of resistance. While 96,000 physicians have demonstrated meaningful use and earned EHR incentives, the majority did so while complaining about the negative impact that the Stage 1 “minimal” set of requirements had on their practice workflows. (See the results of a physician survey and read physicians’ comments in my last EMR Straight Talk post.) As Stage 2 approaches, those who have previewed the increasingly complex and demanding requirements are consumed by trepidation. Many are already considering abandoning meaningful use after they collect their $30,000 for Stage 1. Despite the fact that no one has yet had experience with the Stage 2 requirements, the Stage 3 proposal from the HIT Policy Committee is already out for public comment. Physicians and the professional organizations that represent them—already close to the breaking point—are crying “Uncle!”

The following is only a partial list of organizations that have commented: the American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Practice, College of Healthcare Information Management Executives, American College of Physicians, and the American Hospital Association. You can read their comments by googling the organization name and “Stage 3 comments” or “Letter to Mostashari.”

Although they phrase it in slightly different ways, all of these organizations are pleading with the powers that be to slow down what is perceived as a runaway train. Their comments center around several problems: lack of EHR usability, unrealistic and excessively complex requirements, the undue speed with which they are being imposed, and a lack of evidence of the program’s success. Physicians see the program as a massive data collection and reporting project with no proven quality improvement outcomes attached to it. Unless the government pays heed to the concerns and recommendations being voiced, the EHR incentive program is doomed to failure. Physicians will simply toss in the towel.

The following is a description of the most common sentiments expressed in the letters and formal comments:

  • Stage 3 should not even be considered until the experience of Stages 1 and 2 can be evaluated to see what was actually accomplished and what the cost is to physicians. Many are calling for an independent assessment of the program. It is not sufficient to merely gloat about how successful the successful meaningful users were—an analysis must be conducted to investigate why other physicians were either not successful or chose not to even attempt to achieve meaningful use.
  • In addition, Stage 3 should not occur until at least 3 years after Stage 2, giving physicians and vendors sufficient time to move forward.
  • EHR usability is identified as a major issue in every set of comments. EHR de-installs are increasing in number as physicians abandon legacy systems. The impact of a lack of usability is compounded when physicians attempt to use an already challenging system to meet an overwhelmingly challenging set of requirements. When workflow is negatively affected, the costs to physicians can quickly exceed the benefits.
  • The AMA suggests that the government conduct user-satisfaction surveys—by practice type, size, and specialty—and incorporate the results into the certification requirements going forward.
  • Meaningful use remains a primary-care program that, despite the addition of a few specialist-focused measures, does not adequately recognize specialists’ unique workflows. They resent being asked to report on measures that have minimal, if any, value to their practices.
  • As the requirements become increasingly complex, it may be time to modify the “all or nothing” approach, and reward physicians for reasonable levels of success. Penalties should be eliminated, or at a minimum, significantly delayed.

Don’t sit back and wait for the Stage 3 rules to be finalized. Express your opinions either by writing to your professional organization or directly to Dr. Farzad Mostashari. It is critical to keep up the pressure on the decision makers.

Dear Farzad Mostashari, M.D.:

I am writing to express my deep concern about the future of the EHR incentive program. I am alarmed to see that the program is plagued by rampant dissatisfaction among physicians. My fear is that at your level of involvement—as the very passionate but national leader at the top of the program—you may be insulated from what physicians in the trenches are saying. As lofty and admirable as the goals identified in the initial legislation are, I worry that the regulations are evolving in a way that will lead to the program’s undoing.

You were recently quoted as wanting physicians to “really embrace meaningful use as not just one more thing that they’re doing. . .now that the financial barriers [to EHR adoption] have largely been removed.” However, for the program to accomplish its long-term goals, it is critical that physicians find it meaningful for reasons beyond the incentives. Financial incentives alone cannot sustain meaningful use—particularly as they diminish sharply over the next few years. One would expect that physicians’ initial objections to the meaningful use requirements would soften a bit as they cash their $18,000 EHR incentive checks. But the results of a recent survey show the opposite. Physicians are angry—and if their anger is tempered at all, it is only by the fact that they are receiving significant reimbursement for their Stage 1 efforts.

The voice of the ambulatory physician is not being heard. To understand what is really on the minds of front-line physicians, I commissioned a reputable, independent survey firm to investigate. 684 physicians responded to an open-ended question regarding their perceptions about meaningful use. The physicians’ comments are disheartening, and must be viewed as a wake-up call to ONC, CMS, and the advisory committees to rethink where the program is heading.

I urge you to read the comments yourself—they are presented uncensored, exactly as submitted. The vehement tone does not bode well for the future of the program. The tables below summarize the prevailing sentiments. First, the comments were categorized according to the messages conveyed. The results speak for themselves.

Dawn of a New and Improved Consult Letter

  • Nearly one third of the physicians cited wasted time and unnecessary work, with an additional 11% mentioning unrealistic expectations and extreme difficulty. This was based on their experience in Stage 1—the increased complexity of Stage 2 will cause these numbers to increase.
  • 12 physicians described the requirements as “hoops” through which they are being required to jump.

To quantify the qualitative data, a relative rating was assigned to each comment using a scale of 1 to 5 (from very negative to very positive).

Dawn of a New and Improved Consult Letter

  • Only 10% offered positive responses, and most of those cited the financial compensation as the reason.
  • 82% provided negative comments, the majority of which used terms similar to those summarized in the first table above.
  • A common complaint was the perceived disconnect between entering data and improving care and outcomes.
  • Specialists commented on the lack of relevance to their practices.
  • Responders felt that the requirements were created without sufficient input from practicing physicians.

Meaningful use has overstepped its intended mission. Exploding complexity, along with a corresponding lack of physician support, will result in the failure of the program. I fear that this downward spiral will be accelerated by the increased complexity of Stage 2 and what is being envisioned for Stage 3. Private practice physicians see this program very differently than academic and informatics-driven physicians do. The average physicians are drowning in the details and feel that their ability to practice is being hampered, rather than enhanced. They will likely abandon what they perceive to be a distracting, box-checking exercise after Stage 1, once they have earned the first—and “easiest”—$30,000.

All is not lost—there is a path toward success. The requirements must be simplified! Focusing on the three initial goals as stated in ARRA—ePrescribing, quality reporting, and interoperability—rather than presenting a complex maze of 23 separate measures on which physicians have to report, would go a long way toward making meaningful use meaningful to physicians.

Physicians Benefit from CMS’ Harmonization of Program Rules

Physicians Benefit from CMS’ Harmonization of Program Rules width=Kudos to CMS for making good on its promise to align quality measure reporting and incentives across the various government programs with which physicians must contend. With the publication last week of the 2013 Medicare Professional Fee Schedule final rule, CMS delivered on the harmonization promised in the Meaningful Use Stage 2 final rule in August.

This is very good news for physicians. Without the compromises that CMS made in both rules, physicians would be confronted with the challenge of trying to participate in a minimum of 3 government programs that involve quality measure reporting—ePrescribing under MIPPA, meaningful use under ARRA, and PQRS—each with its own set of intricate requirements, timetables, populations on which to report, reporting mechanisms, and incentive/penalty schedules. Not only would this be incredibly complicated, but it could give rise to incongruous situations in which a physician might, for example, successfully ePrescribe as part of demonstrating meaningful use, and yet still be subject to a penalty for inadequately ePrescribing under MIPPA.

Among the key areas of alignment are the following:

  • Reporting for PQRS using the EHR reporting option (as opposed to claims or registry reporting) will satisfy the clinical-quality-measure-reporting component of meaningful use. PQRS EHR-based measures will be aligned with the measures available for reporting under the EHR incentive program.
  • Meaningful use clinical-quality-measure reporting via PQRS will only be on Medicare patients, while all other meaningful use measures will continue to apply to all patients, regardless of payer.
  • PQRS reporting will be done using the CEHRT (Certified EHR Technology) that is required for meaningful use, eliminating the current requirement to use a separately certified “PQRS-Qualified” system.
  • Successful ePrescribing under meaningful use will protect physicians from ePrescribing penalties under MIPPA.

The government programs remain complex—but there is no question that aligning them as the recent rules do will decrease the reporting burden on physicians, spare related administrative costs, and eliminate the costs associated with duplicate EHR certification requirements. Valuable physician resources will be better allocated to providing the quality of care these programs seek to measure.

Stage 2 Meaningful Use: The Public Has Spoken

CMS asked for comments on its Proposed Rule for Stage 2 Meaningful Use, and it got them—1,131 of them, to be exact. While the comments that have drawn media attention are those from major stakeholder organizations, the vast majority of comments were submitted by individuals—and CMS is obligated to read and consider each and every one of them as they formulate the Final Rule.

 

I thought it would be interesting to see whether the comments from those in the trenches—those whose everyday lives are impacted by the meaningful use regulations—are in line with the sentiments expressed by groups like the AMA, AHA, MGMA, EHRA, etc. In a review of the first 25% of the comments by individuals, (over 250 comments), a consensus clearly evolved around a few major points, and the results remained fairly consistent as we read. The graph above illustrates the prevailing sentiments.

  • By far, the predominant concern is that the proposed requirements are far too demanding, i.e., the bar is being set too high. An overwhelming 82 of the comments identified the sheer number of measures and components, challenging thresholds, the cost of compliance, and overly aggressive timetables—even in light of the delay to 2014—as being unrealistic.
  • On a similar note, another 14 addressed the complexity of the requirements, describing them as difficult to understand, ambiguous, and overly complicated. When combined with the above, approximately 40% of the 250 comments reviewed maintained that the Stage 2 requirements are simply too demanding.
  • As anticipated, there was a resounding concern (56 comments) about holding physicians responsible for actions by any third parties over whom they have no real control. Most comments referred to the requirement that patients view or download their charts and communicate to the physician by secure e-mail, but some asked that providers be insulated from any failure by vendors to meet the requirements or the client upgrade schedules.
  • The limited relevance for specialists remains an issue in Stage 2, as the program is still viewed as primary-care focused. There were 23 comments that addressed the paucity of meaningful use measures and clinical quality measures that are relevant to specialists, and some went so far as to claim that trying to meet requirements that are geared towards primary care could actually distract specialists from their own priorities and be detrimental to the quality of care they would be able to deliver.
  • Some comments addressed the penalties and suggested that the rules provide for a broader range of exemptions and more leeway. The suggestion that the first year of Stage 2 only require 90 days of reporting—which was suggested for other reasons as well—was supported by providers concerned with the penalties.
  • In response to a plea from CMS that people report what they like in the proposal, in addition to what they don’t, some commenters expressed general support for the Stage 2 recommendations, and a small number argued that the bar wasn’t raised high enough. Some—likely specialists—applauded the change in exclusions for reporting of vital signs; several approved of ensuring patient access to their clinical information; and there was support for the proposed harmonization of clinical quality measure reporting under the various government programs (meaningful use and PQRS).

Perhaps what is most interesting about the comments is the emotion and passion behind many of them—whether expressing favorable or unfavorable opinions. If you would like to browse through the public comments yourself, go to www.regulations.gov and enter “CMS-2012-0022” in the search bar.

EHR Adoption: The Tipping Point Has Been Reached

EHR Adoption: The Tipping Point Has Been Reached
Regardless of your feelings about the particular pros and cons associated with meaningful use—and you know that I have not been shy about expressing my opinions in that regard—it is impossible to deny the EHR Incentive Program’s positive impact on the implementation of healthcare IT. Meaningful Use has brought us to the tipping point, where EHRs are perceived as a necessity rather than an option for a successful medical practice. The enduring impact of ARRA is that it pushed the EHRs across the chasm, changing the profile of the EHR user from innovative, tech-savvy physician to mainstream physician.

We have reached the point where a critical mass has adopted EHRs, and paper charts are no longer acceptable. Practices that are not digital will find it hard to attract new physicians. Referrals will be affected as primary care physicians will prefer to deal with specialists in the community with whom they can share clinical data electronically, rather than bear the unnecessary costs incurred by the alternatives of faxing, printing, or mailing. These benefits can only be accomplished via an EHR, a fact reinforced by Stage 2’s increased emphasis on interoperability.

I still maintain that the decision to purchase an EHR should not be driven by potential government incentives but rather by the value delivered to a practice—improved patient care and service, productivity/efficiency gains, and cost savings. In fact, I would argue that participation in the meaningful use program is optional—but clearly, EHR adoption no longer is.

EHR Incentive Program Financed on the Backs of Physicians

I was shocked to read the following paragraph, buried on page 379 of the 455-page Proposed Rule for Stage 2 Meaningful Use, (page 13812 in the Federal Register). The paragraph also appears verbatim in the Final Rule for Stage 1:

Explanation of Benefits and Savings Calculations:

In our analysis, we assume that benefits to the [EHR Incentive] program would accrue in the form of savings to Medicare, through the Medicare EP payment adjustments [penalties]. Expected qualitative benefits, such as improved quality of care, better health outcomes, and the like, are unable to be quantified at this time.

While the second sentence is disappointing, I do respect CMS’s candor in acknowledging the ongoing paucity of hard data on the quantification of the assumed qualitative benefits of EHR adoption. The first sentence, however, left me short of breath because it points to the following inescapable, disheartening conclusion: The economics of the EHR Incentive Program is predicated upon physician failure!

EHR Incentive Program Financed on the Backs of Physicians

In fact, the government’s projections for physician participation from 2014 through 2019 are rather pessimistic. Meaningful use among Medicare EPs is estimated to grow, in the less optimistic (“low”) scenario, from 18% to a mere 36%, and in the most optimistic (“high”) scenario, only from 49% to 70%.¹ Even these high projections are low enough—incidentally—to give the Secretary of HHS the option to increase the penalties from the statutory 3% in 2017 to a potential 4% in 2018 and 5% in 2019.

What kind of program have we created that over a period of 9 years will likely take almost as much money from physicians as it gives them?

The government giveth and the government taketh away!

¹Source: Proposed Rule, Stage 2 Meaningful Use, page 13804, Table 19.