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Post SGR battle, still tough realities for physicians


David Cutler, a healthcare economist at Harvard, writes in JAMA that while physicians are relieved that the fight over the Sustainable Growth Rate for Medicare payments is over, they should know that the pressure on them is far from over. He says at the end of his essay:

“When the SGR was repealed, physicians may have thought they were going back to the good old days of Medicare, before the SGR was introduced. But that is not in the cards. To paraphrase the old expression that war is too important to be left to the generals,’ healthcare payers have concluded that medicine is too important to be left to physicians alone.

“Physicians may not like living under alternative payment systems or being judged on outcomes for patients who avoid necessary care because of cost-sharing. But they will have to accept these new realities.  Over time, they may even come to embrace them. After all, what is the alternative?”

Explaining the Senate’s SGR delay


Discussion between Mary Agnes Carey, of Kaiser Health News, where this originated, and Jennifer Haberkorn, of Politco Pro:


MARY AGNES CAREY:  Welcome to Health on the Hill, I’m Mary Agnes Carey. The troubled Medicare Physician payment formula is one step closer to repeal. After 17 short-term fixes over the last decade, the House of Representatives voted overwhelming to scrap Medicare’s Sustainable Growth Rate, or SGR, and replace it with a system that pays doctors based on the quality of care rather than the quantity.

The Senate is expected to act on the measure next month. Jennifer Haberkorn of Politico Pro joins us now with the latest. Thanks, Jen.


AGNES CAREY:  The House voted 392-37 to pass an SGR overhaul. President Obama supported this plan and there was a lot of pressure on the Senate to act, but it didn’t. Why didn’t the chamber vote on the SGR bill before it left town for a two-week recess?

JENNIFER HABERKORN, POLITICO PRO:  The Senate was wrapping up its “vote-o-rama,” which is a purely Washington term for 15 hours of straight voting on amendments to the budget. Some hoped, and some thought that they would then move to this and pass this Sustainable Growth Rate repeal immediately. But the Senate feels like they have some time – the Obama administration can delay Medicare payments, essentially delaying the cuts to doctors, for two weeks. So they have time to return to this and pass it before physicians would actually see a cut in their rates.

Also the Senate really wanted to amend this policy. It was passed by the House, they were kind of miffed that they weren’t involved. So they want to be able to vote on making some changes to policy. Those amendments are unlikely to be approved, but they want to be able to make a point. There was also some concern that they didn’t have enough time to read the legislation and then all of the budget votes, and they were skeptical of passing this at about 4 in the morning.

MARY AGNES CAREY:  The Senate doesn’t come back until April 13, and that leaves a lot of time for lobbying on this package – maybe people who like it, people who don’t. What are you expecting?

JENNIFER HABERKORN, POLITICO PRO:  Traditionally in Washington, the more time you have, the more opportunity there is for opposition to fester. That should be a concern in this case because it is two weeks before the Senate returns, but the House vote, as we said, was overwhelming: 392 votes. Advocacy groups are pretty overwhelmingly supportive of it. And I don’t see any real opposition brewing unless something new comes out – something unexpected like there’s a provision in the bill that no one realizes was there or something really significant like that. So I see the next two weeks – physician groups putting some lobbying time into ensuring the Senate vote is as strong as possible.

MARY AGNES CAREY:  You mentioned Senate amendments a moment ago. What sort of amendments are we likely to see when the Senate takes up this package?

JENNIFER HABERKORN, POLITICO PRO:  The Senate really wants four years of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The policy right now is only two years and they want to be able to vote on doubling that to four. I don’t think that is likely to pass, particularly because it is a pretty expensive policy change. We are also likely to see an amendment on a budget point of order, which is really just acknowledging that this policy is not fully paid for, so it would add to the deficit in the first ten years and particularly conservative budget hawks would like to be able to voice opposition to adding to the deficit.

MARY AGNES CAREY:  Let’s go back to that House vote for a minute. Just want to get your impressions, I mean I found it so interesting that House Speaker John Boehner could convince many conservative Republicans to vote for this, even though as you say it wasn’t fully paid for. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader, also got her troops mostly to go along, even though they had concerns, same concerns as Senate Democrats about the Children’s Health Insurance Program funding, there were some concerns that beneficiaries are picking up too much of this package. How did that all come together?

JENNIFER HABERKORN, POLITICO PRO:  I think a couple really strategic decisions by leadership were key. Conservatives were able to get the early support of Americans for Tax Reform, which is really influential with conservatives who are concerned about the budget. That kind of quelled some of that opposition. Nancy Pelosi very early on made it clear that she wanted more money for the CHIP program, but just wasn’t going to be able to get it in this deal.  And so, that really tapped down opposition from the far ends of both sides, Republicans and Democrats.  Also, this policy was just so widely hated that there was a lot of support for getting rid of it even if you had to accept some things that you didn’t like.

MARY AGNES CAREY:  Do you think that House vote, coupled with the likely Senate action on the sustainable growth rate scrapping this formula once and for all, is this a sign that we are going to see more bipartisan cooperation on healthcare in the future?

JENNIFER HABERKORN, POLITICO PRO:  You know, it’s certainly a sign that it’s possible. Whether we are going to see more of this, it’s really hard to say at this time.  This deal seemed to come out of nowhere. You know, we’ve been doing “doc fixes” like you mentioned earlier for a decade. No one thought the policy would going to get repaired anytime soon. And it was perhaps less about healthcare and more about just this recurring, very Washington, problem of fixing this budget problem.  But I will say, this was the number one policy concern of just about every physician organization, a lot of the hospital organizations because they were always taxed to pay for these doc fixes. So it kind of clears the plate of health advocacy organizations and helps health policy people on Capitol Hill.

MARY AGNES CAREY:  We’ll see were it goes. Thanks so much Jennifer Haberkorn of Politico Pro.


What’s in the House Medicare ‘doc fix’

By MARY AGNES CAREY, for Kaiser Health News


It’s make-or-break time for a Medicare “doc fix” replacement.

The House is likely to vote this week on a proposal to scrap Medicare’s troubled physician payment formula, just days before a March 31 deadline when doctors who treat Medicare patients will see a 21 percent payment cut. Senate action could come this week as well, but probably not until the chamber completes a lengthy series of votes on the GOP’s fiscal 2016 budget package.

After negotiating behind closed doors for more than a week,  Republican and Democratic leaders of two key House committees that handle Medicare unveiled details of the package late Friday. According to a summary of the deal, the current system would be scrapped and replaced with payment increases for doctors for the next five years as Medicare transitions to a new system focused “on quality, value and accountability.”


There’s enough in the wide-ranging deal for both sides to love or hate.

Senate Democrats have pressed to add to the proposal four years of funding for an unrelated program, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP. The House package extends CHIP for two years. In a statement Saturday, Senate Finance Democrats said they were “united by the necessity of extending CHIP funding for another four years.”

Their statement also signaled other potential problems for the package in the Senate, including concerns about asking Medicare beneficiaries to pay for more of their medical care, the impact of the package on women’s health services and cuts to Medicare providers.

Still some Democratic allies said the CHIP disagreement should not undermine the proposal. Shortly after the package was unveiled Friday, Ron Pollack, executive director of the consumers group Families USA, said in a statement that “while we would have preferred a four-year extension, the House bill has our full support.”

Some GOP conservatives and Democrats will balk that the package isn’t fully paid for, with policy changes governing Medicare beneficiaries and providers paying for only about $70 billion of the approximately $200 billion package.

For doctors, the package offers an end to a familiar but frustrating rite. Lawmakers have invariably deferred the cuts prescribed by a 1997 reimbursement formula, which everyone agrees is broken beyond repair. But the deferrals have always been temporary because Congress has not agreed to offsetting cuts to pay for a permanent fix. In 2010, Congress delayed scheduled cuts five times. In a statement Sunday, the American Medical Association urged Congress “to seize the moment” to enact the changes.

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about the proposal and the congressional ritual known as the doc fix. 

Q: How did this become an issue?

Today’s problem is a result of efforts years ago to control federal spending – a 1997 deficit reduction law that called for setting Medicare physician payment rates through a formula based on economic growth, known as the “sustainable growth rate” (SGR). For the first few years, Medicare expenditures did not exceed the target and doctors received modest pay increases. But in 2002, doctors were furious when their payments were reduced 4.8 percent. Every year since, Congress has staved off the scheduled cuts. But each deferral just increased the size of the fix needed the next time.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), which advises Congress, says the SGR is “fundamentally flawed” and has called for its repeal. The SGR provides “no incentive for providers to restrain volume,” the agency said.

Q. Why haven’t lawmakers simply eliminated the formula before?

Money is the biggest problem. An earlier bipartisan, bicameral SGR overhaul plan produced jointly by three key congressional committees would cost $175 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. While that’s far less than previous estimates for SGR repeal, it is difficult to find consensus on how to finance a fix.

For physicians, the prospect of facing big payment cuts is a source of mounting frustration. Some say the uncertainty has led them to quit the program, while others are threatening to do so. Still, defections have not been significant to date, according to MedPAC.

In a March 2014 report, the panel stated that beneficiaries’ access to physician services is “stable and similar to (or better than) access among privately insured individuals ages 50 to 64.” Those findings could change, however, if the full force of SGR cuts were ever implemented.

“The flawed Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula and the cycle of patches to keep it from going into effect have created an unstable environment that hinders physicians’ ability to implement new models of care delivery that could improve care for patients,” said Dr. Robert M. Wah, president of the American Medical Association. “We support the policy to permanently eliminate the SGR and call on Congress to seize the moment and finally put in place reforms that will foster innovation and put us on a path towards a more sustainable Medicare program.”

Q: What are the options that Congress is looking at?

The House package would scrap the SGR and give doctors a 0.5 percent bump for each of the next five years as Medicare transitions to a payment system designed to reward physicians based on the quality of care provided, rather than the quantity of procedures performed, as the current payment formula does.

The measure, which builds upon last year’s legislation from the House Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means Committees and the Senate Finance Committee, would encourage better care coordination and chronic care management, ideas that experts have said are needed in the Medicare program. It would give a 5 percent payment bonus to providers who receive a “significant portion” of their revenue from an “alternative payment model” or patient-centered medical home. It would also allow broader use of Medicare data for “transparency and quality improvement” purposes.

“The SGR has generated repeated crises for nearly two decades,” Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., one of the bill’s drafters, said in a statement. “We have a historic opportunity to finally move to a system that promotes quality over quantity and begins the important work of addressing Medicare’s structural issues.”

The package, which House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., began negotiating weeks ago, also includes an additional $7.2 billion for community health centers over the next two years.  NARAL Pro-Choice America denounced the deal because the health center funding would be subject to the Hyde Amendment, a common legislative provision that says federal money can be used for abortions only when a pregnancy is the result of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

In a letter to Democratic colleagues, Pelosi said the funding would occur “under the same terms that Members have previously supported and voted on almost every year since 1979.” In a statement, the National Association of Community Health Centers said the proposal “represents no change in current policy for Health Centers, and would not change anything about how Health Centers operate today.”

The “working summary” of the House plan says the package also includes other health measures – known as extenders – that Congress has renewed each year during the SGR debate. The list includes funding for therapy services, ambulance services and rural hospitals, as well as continuing a program that allows low-income people to keep their Medicaid coverage as they transition into employment and earn more money. The deal also would permanently extend the Qualifying Individual, or QI program, which helps low-income seniors pay their Medicare premiums.

Q. What is the plan for CHIP?

The House plan would add two years of funding for CHIP, a federal-state program that provides insurance for low-income children whose families earned too much money to qualify for Medicaid. While the health law continues CHIP authorization through 2019, funding for the program has not been extended beyond the end of September.

The length of the proposed extension could cause strains with Senate Democrats beyond those on the Finance panel who have raised objections to the House package. Last month, the Senate Democratic caucus signed on to legislation from Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, calling for a four-year extension of the current CHIP program.

Q: How would Congress pay for all of that?

It might not. That would be a major departure from the GOP’s mantra that all legislation must be financed. Tired of the yearly SGR battle, veteran members in both chambers may be willing to repeal the SGR on the basis that it’s a budget gimmick – the cuts are never made – and therefore financing is unnecessary. But that strategy could run into stiff opposition from Republican lawmakers and some Democrats

Most lawmakers are expected to feel the need to find financing for the Medicare extenders, the CHIP extension and any increase in physician payments over the current pay schedule. Those items would account for about $70 billion of financing in an approximately $200 billion package.

Conservative groups are urging Republicans to fully finance any SGR repeal. “Americans didn’t hand Republicans a historic House majority to engage in more deficit spending and budget gimmickry,” Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action for America, said earlier this month.

Q. Will seniors and Medicare providers have to help pay for the plan?

Starting in 2018, wealthier Medicare beneficiaries (individuals with incomes between $133,500 to $214,000, with thresholds likely higher for couples) would pay more for their Medicare coverage, a provision impacting just 2 percent of beneficiaries, according to the summary.

Starting in 2020,   “first-dollar” supplemental Medicare insurance known as “Medigap”  would not be able to cover the Part B deductible for new beneficiaries, which is currently$147 per year but has increased in past years.

But the effect of that change may be mitigated, according to one analysis.

“Because Medigap policies would no longer pay the Part B deductible, Medigap premiums for the affected policies would go down. Most affected beneficiaries would come out ahead — the drop in their Medigap premiums would exceed the increase in their cost sharing for health services,” according to an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. “Some others would come out behind. In both cases, the effect would be small — generally no more than $100 a year.”

Experts contend that the “first-dollar” plans, which cover nearly all deductibles and co-payments, keep beneficiaries from being judicious when making medical decisions. According to lobbyists and aides, an earlier version of the “doc fix” legislation that negotiators considered would have prohibited “first dollar” plans from covering the first $250 in costs for new beneficiaries.

Post-acute providers, such as long-term care and inpatient rehabilitation hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and home health and hospice organizations, would help finance the repeal, receiving base pay increases of 1 percent in 2018, about half of what was previously expected.

Other changes include phasing in a one-time 3.2 percentage-point boost in the base payment rate for hospitals currently scheduled to take effect in fiscal 2018. The number of years of the phase-in isn’t specified in the bill summary.

Scheduled reductions in Medicaid “disproportionate share” payments to hospitals that care for large numbers of people who are uninsured or covered by Medicaid would be delayed by one year to fiscal 2018 but extended for an additional year to fiscal 2025.

Q. How quickly could Congress act?

Legislation to repeal the SGR is expected to move in the House this week. The House is scheduled to begin a two-week recess March 27.

Senate Democrats and Republicans may want to offer amendments to the emerging House package, which could mean that the chamber does not resolve the SGR issue before the Senate’s two-week break, which is scheduled to begin starting March 30.

If the SGR issue can’t be resolved by March 31, Congress could pass a temporary patch as negotiations continue or ask the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees Medicare, to hold the claims in order to avoid physicians seeing their payments cut 21 percent.


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