VP, Government Affairs & Consulting Services at SRS Health
Lynn Scheps is a leading resource on MACRA, MIPS, and Meaningful Use. She is the SRS liaison with government policy makers. Representing the voice of specialists and other high-performance physicians, she develops strategies to respond effectively to government initiatives.
Last 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.
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
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.
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.
Yesterday, the Proposed Rule defining Meaningful Use Stage 2 was officially posted in the Federal Register. This means that the clock has begun ticking on the 60-day comment period, and the opportunity to influence the decision makers will end on May 6. It is critical that physicians speak up, particularly now that some will be able to respond from the perspective of their experiences in—or familiarity with—Stage 1.
In upcoming posts (after we have had the time to read, re-read, and analyze the lengthy Proposed Rule), I will discuss specific measures that I believe require modification due to their limited practicality and/or potentially adverse impact on physician workflows. Today I want to provide some high-level observations drawn from an initial evaluation of the Rule and highlight a few major implications that immediately come to mind:
The bar has definitely been raised! The emphasis on interoperability, patient engagement, and more extensive quality measure reporting impose very demanding requirements that represent a huge step up in capability and effort. The term “more stringent”—which is used in the ARRA legislation to characterize successive stages of meaningful use—does not begin to describe the relative intensity of Stage 2.
Expectations are very high, despite the fact that a vast number of physicians have not even begun to participate in Stage 1. Although CMS claims that the number of core and menu measures remains steady at a total of 20 (through some sleight-of-hand counting magic!), the actual requirements have expanded in number, complexity, and depth.
The proposed leap forward in the exchange of clinical data is monumental in scope. Although this is an important long-term program goal, it must be reconsidered in light of the dismal experience in this area in Stage 1. The requirement to simply test the ability to exchange clinical data met with such confusion and failure that the measure has been retroactively eliminated for 2013—the second year of Stage 1.
Patient engagement is another area of focus in Stage 2. Again, this is a noble goal, and physicians should be rewarded for doing everything possible to encourage patient and family involvement in care. The Proposed Rule, however, defines meaningful use to include specific patient actions, such as e-mailing their physician and accessing their information on a portal. It is unacceptable to make a provider’s incentive payment dependent upon actions by patients over which he or she has no ultimate control.
The Rule proposes some appealing options for streamlining clinical quality measure (CQM) reporting and harmonizing the various CMS programs that involve CQMs. However, the number of measures has exploded, and the administrative aspects of the various options will be very difficult for providers to discern.
Those are my first impressions. I will follow up with more information on these and other issues and on the procedure for submitting comments to CMS. In the meantime, I am interested in hearing your thoughts and/or concerns about the Proposed Rule and how it could impact your practice.
HHS has made it official—Stage 2 of meaningful use will be pushed back to 2014. The announcement by HHS Secretary Sebelius came as no surprise, following as it did the recommendation made by the HIT Policy Committee and the endorsement by ONC head Farzad Mostashari. The change only affects providers whose first incentive payment year is 2011, since they are the only providers who would be subject to Stage 2 regulations in 2013 had the delay not been implemented—everyone was already entitled to 2 years of meaningful use at Stage 1.
What I find interesting about all the hoopla that has accompanied the announcement is the spin the government put on the decision. According to the press release from HHS, “To encourage faster adoption, the Secretary announced that HHS intends to allow doctors and hospitals to adopt health IT this year, without meeting the new standards until 2014. Doctors who act quickly can also qualify for incentive payments in 2011 as well as 2012.”
Isn’t it a bit late for a provider to decide to adopt health IT this year? In reality, this announcement is too last-minute to change any adoption-related behavior or to accelerate EHR adoption. The announcement continued, “Perhaps most importantly, we want to provide an added incentive for providers attesting to meaningful use in 2011.” Apparently, the goal is to accelerate attestation rather than adoption—to encourage physicians who were already using certified EHR technology in a “meaningful way” to attest and to collect an incentive payment this year, instead of holding off attesting until 2012. This would create a potential PR benefit for the incentive program, which currently boasts nearly 115,000 registered providers, but reports that only 10,155 (9%), have successfully attested.
The benefit of the schedule delay accrues only to the early adopters, who now can earn 3 years of incentives under the less stringent requirements of Stage 1 (only, however, if they are willing to forego their 2011 Medicare ePrescribing bonuses—not a worthwhile trade-off for high-revenue physicians with large Medicare volumes). In its statement, HHS acknowledged the pushback from providers regarding how challenging even the Stage 1 requirements are. Perhaps, it would truly spur program participation and EHR adoption if all providers—not just the early adopters—were entitled to 3 years of meaningful use under Stage 1 rules. Also, if CMS has so little confidence that physicians will succeed at Stage 2, shouldn’t it reconsider how much it plans to raise the bar?
Half of the physician group practices recently surveyed expected to buy an EHR system within the next 2 years. In the rush to purchase, however, it is imperative that physicians take the time to carefully assess how each of the EHRs they are considering will impact their productivity. Productivity has always been a major concern in EHR adoption, but demographics and financial factors now conspire to make it increasingly critical. Physicians can no longer afford even the slightest decrease in productivity. Consider the following projections that affect specialists:
The demand for joint replacement surgery will soon outstrip the supply of orthopaedic surgeons available to provide it, according to studies presented to AAOS. This is partly the result of an aging population with increasing rates of obesity and arthritis, but the growing demand will also come from a younger population. A full 50% of joint replacements will be sought by people under 65—the physically active baby boomer generation with a high level of physical activity. Not only will first-time joint replacements increase astronomically (rising 673% to 3.48 million knee replacements, and 174% to 572,000 hip replacements by 2030), but the demand for revision joint replacements, (i.e., repair or replacement of artificial joints) will also increase—doubling by 2015.
The situation is similar for ophthalmologists. Higher life expectancy will create a demand for 30 million cataract surgeries by 2020. Combined with the downward pressure on Medicare reimbursement rates that will lead some ophthalmologists to limit their practices to medical ophthalmology, the result will be a greater caseload for the remaining surgeons—but these physicians will need a high-volume, highly productive practice to remain financially viable.
Dermatologists will see a two- to three-fold increase in skin cancer patients as the population ages, and the demands for their medical services will grow rapidly. Not only will dermatologists be called upon to perform more surgical procedures in their offices, but increased awareness will lead to a higher demand for screening and preventive-care services.
Physician productivity will be critical in the office as well as the operating room, since the number of surgeries performed is directly proportional to the number of office visits conducted. A physician-focused, specialist-oriented, efficient EHR will be key to a physician’s ability to meet the increased demands, satisfy patient needs, and run a financially successful practice. Given the above statistics, it would be fiscally and socially irresponsible to implement an EHR that negatively impacts physician productivity. Now, more than ever, productivity is king.
The response to last week’s Meaningful Use IQ Test revealed a tremendous thirst for information and a fair amount of confusion about the facts and realities of meaningful use. Neither was terribly surprising, given the recent hype surrounding the program’s launch and the complexity of the regulations.
Since the quiz was posted last week, 534 people have taken the test. The average score was 56% (see chart below and the breakdown of responses at the bottom of the page). These results mean that physicians will need a great deal of assistance from consultants, Regional Extension Centers, and vendors to succeed in their pursuit of the EHR incentives. If that aid is not forthcoming, there could be a large number of very disappointed providers when the incentives are distributed.
The following are some observations:
Only a small minority of our test-takers (9%) appear to truly understand the regulations and the requirements in their entirety. (Inga, from HIStalkPractice.com is one of the few who just might—based on her perfect score!)
Many people find the intricacies of the regulations baffling—as indicated by more than half of the respondents (300 of 534) knowing half or less of the information.
The fact that over one-third of the respondents did not know that providers cannot collect Medicare EHR incentives and Medicare ePrescribing incentives in the same year—no “double dipping” allowed—means that they have likely not analyzed their options to maximize the total revenue from the two incentive programs.
I thought it was interesting that nearly half of the respondents thought that the program requires reporting on only Medicare and Medicaid patients, when, in reality, the government is requiring providers to submit data on all patients.
Clearly, the message has come through that the program has been made more specialist-friendly, as physicians will be able to exclude measures that are not relevant to their practices. However, many do not understand how these exclusions factor into the demonstration of meaningful use.
The Meaningful Use IQ Test is still active, so if you haven’t accepted the challenge yet, you can still do so. I’m glad that it is raising awareness and providing valuable education. That was precisely its purpose!