May
26

Generalists v specialists

Roy Poses MD has posted an insightful, brief, and trenchant look at the trend for new physicians to select specialties other than internal medicine, family practice and the like.
To quote Dr. Poses,
“However, as demonstrated by the issues discussed on this blog, not only are generalists at the bottom of the economic pecking order, they seem particularly impacted by the huge rise in health care bureaucracy, and particularly vulnerable to challenges to physicians’ professional values instigated by large organizations lead by leaders with conflicting interests. They will need more than new “chronic care models” to survive these threats.”
The continued trend to more highly compensate specialists is driving physicians to select specialties. The root of this is compensation, followed closely by the hassles inherent in today’s managed care bureaucracy.
What does this mean for you?
For once, this is simple – the more specialists, the more specialty care, the more expensive the care, the higher the medical expense.


May
16

Ambulatory Surgical Centers’ future

So-called “specialty hospitals“, facilities typically owned by for-profit firms and/or practicing physicians, have been the subject of much debate by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Now, it looks like CMS will continue their ban on new facilities at least until the end of the year (and just possibly till 1/1/2007) while they study their impact on cost, quality, and the full service hospitals they compete with.
Specialty facilities focus on a relatively narrow branch of medicine (e.g. spine, cardiac, orthopedics, cancer), are often owned by a partnership including the physicians admitting patients and a for-profit corporation, and rarely have an Emergency Department, overnight stay capacity, or trauma units. What they do have is state-of-the-art facilities, excellent “customer service”, efficient management, and lots of profit potential for the owners.
At issue with CMS is the definition of hospital and whether the specialty facilities meet the CMS definition. This is important because reimbursement is typically better for “hospitals” than for non-hospital facilities (many of these specialty hospitals would likely be classified as ambulatory surgery centers which receive lower reimbursement).
According to Congressional Quarterly,
“The (CMS specialty hospital internal) review also could lead the agency to require some specialty facilities to add emergency departments, which “ten[d] to attract Medicaid and other low-income patients,” CQ HealthBeat reports (CQ HealthBeat, 5/12).
California HealthLine also reports “In addition, CMS is expected to adjust Medicare reimbursement rates for all providers to better reflect the severity of patients’ illnesses, which could lower reimbursement rates for some specialty services.”
Congress appears to favor allowing new specialty hospitals into the CMS provider world, with House Energy and Commerce Cmte Chair Barton (R TX) noting he considers McClellan’s action to be a reasonable compromise.
“The rise of specialty hospitals will press traditional community hospitals to become leaner, faster and better,” he said (AP/Las Vegas Sun, 5/12). Speaking in response Democrats’ concerns about physician self-referrals, Barton said, “The real fight … here is not about quality of care,” adding, “It’s about control and ownership.” He said that banning specialty hospitals goes “against everything in the American culture that says specialization is good.”
What does this mean for you?
As the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) goes, so go commercial payers. The moratorium on specialty hospital construction has served to halt, or at the least reduce, the number of new facilities seeking licensure throughout the country. If CMS moves forward and allows new construction, watch for changes in reimbursement.
It is possible, and some say likely, that reimbursement levels for these facilities will be lower than for full-service hospitals. As many commercial and state (e.g. workers’ comp and auto liability) fee schedules and reimbursement contracts are based on CMS’ Medicare rates, there will likely be a significant impact on the volume of services delivered through these facilities and the price as well.


May
13

More on cheating docs

Gary Schwitzer has posted a quick item in his blog providing more detail about the financial benefits to physicians of “leasing” imaging services. For those who missed the article in the Wall Street Journal, Schwitzer’s blog has a link and excerpts.
The net – a physician referring two MRIs per day would net over $120,00 annually.
What does this mean to you?
Hmmmmm, some perverse incentives to increase imaging utilization, perhaps? A more subtle way to cost-shift, to capture more income to offset lost income due to reduced Medicare reimbursement? Outright fraud? or all of the above?


May
10

Medicare cuts in MD reimbursement

California HealthLine has an excellent roundup of Medicare news. Most significant is their take on physician reimbursement, which is slated to be cut by 4% on 1/1/2006. Lawmakers appear to be interested in rescinding the cut, which would be consistent with their actions the last time Medicare physician reimbursement cuts were slated to take place.
Expect changes late in the year or early next – I know, early next year would be after the cuts are scheduled to take effect. The political winds are moving in that direction, with the AMA and AARP staking out positions (no surprises there)
What does this mean for you?
1. With most state WC and other fee schedules tied to Medicare rates, cuts in physician reimbursement will directly affect payouts in these lines of insurance.
2. If Congress does not act until early next year, companies tasked with implementing fee schedule changes will find themselves burning the midnight oil to build fee schedule tables that can meet either eventuality -cut or no cut.
3. PPO discounts are often pegged to Medicare, so their revenues will either increase or stay the same, depending on what Congress does.
4. And most important, a decrease in reimbursement will lead to more physicians dropping out of Medicare, Medicaid, and any reimbursement program tied directly to Medicare. Today physicians ask for, and receive, reimbursement higher than the state fee schedule in WC in Massachusetts. Florida raised its fee schedule from 87% of Medicare (on average) to 114% in large part due to physicians refusing to take the lower reimbursement. Early evidence is physicians are returning to the system, and utilization has not increased.
Editorial statement – price controls simply do not work. When will the politicians, managed care “experts” and PPO companies learn this?


May
2

Cheating docs

One of the more distasteful practices in the medical profession is the subject of an article in today’s Wall Street Journal. The practice is so-called self-referral of patients by a physician to an imaging facility where they stand to gain financially. Yes, there are laws against this. Yes, physicians and business folks make lots of money thinking up creative ways to circumvent these practices.
This is one of the more creative I have heard of. To quote the Journal;
Imaging centers “structure referral deals as leases, under which physicians, each time they send over a patient, are renting the scan center’s facilities and employees.” The physician then bills the insurance company whatever rate they deem appropriate, and receives payment directly.
Imagine what they could accomplish if they worked to create value and better health, instead of thinking up ethically-challenged ways to generate even more physician income.
What does this mean for you?
If you are contracting with physicians, be very careful about the language re self-referrals; although many tend to turn up their noses at the mention of contract law, this is a great example of why the details are critical.
If you are evaluating an upsurge in diagnostic imaging, tie the referrals back to referring physicians, and look for any sudden increases. Then, have a talk with the doc.


Mar
18

Medicare pay for performance gets a push

Even though it’s just a small one, it is stilll significant. Rep Nancy Johnson (R) CT (my home state) is promoting a drastic change in the way Medicare pays physicians. Rep. Johnson is calling for a pay-for-performance scheme to replace Medicare’s fee schedule arrangement.
Details below, but in case you can’t read that far, think of this.
1. many state workers comp fee schedules are based on Medicare’s. What are the implications for state programs?
2. Group health reimbursement is often tied to Medicare as well…
3. Medicare is based on paying for services needed for and delivered to a population that is over 65. If the reimbursement arrangement changes, and it factors in some kind of “performance” metric, will it even be possible to adapt that to younger populations?
Now that your head hurts, here’s the details…
According to California HealthLine;
“Johnson said that, although physician performance measures and systems to collect data on performance are not perfected, lawmakers must move to address the issue because of scheduled reductions in Medicare physician reimbursements over the next several years. Elimination of the SGR (Sustainable Growth Rate) system “is the only possibility,” Johnson said, adding, “It’s unfortunate that we have to do this two years in advance of the technology.”
Johnson also indicated that lawmakers could enact “a one-year fix of physician payment while a more permanent system is being designed,” although she hopes to enact permanent revisions to the Medicare physician reimbursement system this year, CQ HealthBeat reports. She estimated that the replacement of a 1.5% reduction in Medicare physician reimbursements for fiscal year 2006 with a 1.5% increase would cost $11 billion over five years.”


Mar
10

Ban on specialty hospitals may be extended

Two reports on so-called “specialty hospitals” were released yesterday in hearings on Capitol Hill. The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission’s (MedPAC) report calls for an extension of the ban on construction of new specialty hospitals. For those who have not been keeping up on this rather esoteric (but critically important) issue, there has been a Federal ban in place preventing the construction of these facilities, which are typically for-profit and partially owned by the physicians practicing at the facilities.
The rationale behind the ban was a concern that these facilities were “skimming” the profitable patients, leaving tertiary and primary hospitals the indigent, Medicaid, and less-healthy patients. According to California HealthLine, the report addressed this concern directly, noting:
“The MedPAC report, presented to the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, states that physician-owned specialty facilities could “corrupt clinical decisions and lead to inappropriate care.” The report also said that, relative to full-service hospitals, specialty hospitals generally treat healthier patients, focus on higher-cost procedures, treat fewer Medicaid beneficiaries and do not have lower costs.
The report recommends that Congress recalculate Medicare prospective payments to acute care hospitals to more accurately reflect the cost of care and prevent financial incentives for hospitals to select healthier patients (CQ HealthBeat, 3/8).
MedPAC’s findings were not entirely echoed by a CMS report presented at the same hearing. (Source California HealthLine)
“CMS “unexpectedly released” its preliminary report on specialty hospitals. Thomas Gustafson, deputy director of the CMS Center for Medicare Management, said the CMS study shows “measures of quality at [physician-owned] cardiac hospitals were generally at least as good and in some cases better than the local community hospitals.”
In addition, “[c]omplication and mortality rates were lower at cardiac specialty hospitals even when adjusted” for patient-sickness levels, he testified. CMS conducted its study by examining six markets, which represent 11 of the 59 cardiac, surgery and orthopedic specialty hospitals approved in 2003 as Medicare providers.
The CMS report also found that doctors who have invested in specialty facilities do not refer patients exclusively to the specialty hospitals but they do refer a greater share of patients to specialty facilities than to full-service hospitals. ”
Out here in the real world, there is evidence that specialty facilities do skim the patient pool. A full-service, multi-hospital health care system (client of Health Strategy Associates) has been losing patients to a physician-owned ambulatory surgery center for over a year. Anecdotal information strongly indicates that the patients seen at the doc-owned ASC are more likely to be privately insured or covered by workers’ comp (a profitable payer in this state).


Mar
4

The Federal budget, the deficit, and provider reimbursement

Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s recent gloomy pronouncements about the potential impact of the federal deficit have focused even more attention on entitlement programs. Interestingly, Greenspan specifically mentioned governmental health programs, such as Medicaid and Medicare, noting that their contribution to the deficit may well outstrip that of Social Security.
Pres. Bush’s efforts to rein in Federal expenditures on Medicaid has focused on cutting drug reimbursements; eliminating some of the ways seniors have shifted assets to qualify for governmental funding of long term care; and closing “accounting loopholes. As of today, these recommendations have run into a stone wall, as Republican and Democratic governors alike have strongly resisted any Federal cuts to Medicaid funding. Their resistance, combined with less-than-overwhelming support from Congressional Republicans, make it unlikely that Mr. Bush will get all, or much, of what he desires.
If Bush is unable to cut Medicaid significantly, today’s $300 billion in annual costs will continue to escalate at near-double-digit rates. Combine that bad news with the Administration’s refusal to consider any changes to the new Medicare Prescription Drug program (slated to start next year), and it is clear that any progress in reducing governmental expenditures on health insurance programs will have to come from other sources.
So, who’s going to feel the pain?
In a word, providers.
Doctors are slated to receive an automatic 5% fee cut in 2006. Historically, Congress has eliminated or reduced these cuts in the past


Dec
9

Hospitals and purchasers

A very good discussion of the contentious relationship between (and among) hospitals, employers, and insurers can be found on healthsignals new york.
The article refers to recent developments in the Denver market that are worth reflecting upon.


Nov
10

Discounts and doctors

Why do doctors contract with large networks to provide care at a deep discount? Do they expect to get more business from those relationships? If so, does that additional business ever arrive at their examining room? How many other physicians in their area are also contracted with that network? If there are many, are they merely joining to maintain their patient base?
Have they actually done the math to determine the impact of the discount on their finances?
Here’s an admittedly simplistic analysis of the financial impact of a discounted patient visit.

  • The “non-discounted” price would be $100
  • The discount is 20%
  • The net profit on the average patient visit (non-discounted) is 30% (an unreasonably high number, but easier to work with for our purposes)

The doctor makes a profit of $10 per discounted patient visit, and therefore must see three times as many patients to justify that 20% discount. And that’s before one factors in the additional fixed costs associated with the larger patient load – more parking, more staff, a larger waiting room, more examining rooms, and more of his/her professional time.
Perhaps more physicians are “doing the math”, and that is why managed care firms are having a much tougher time getting discounts.
The network deep discount model has other fundamental flaws, flaws that are only now beginning to be fully appreciated.