Be careful what you wish for.  The law of unintended consequences.  I'm from the government and I'm here to help

These were the nostrums that the Population Health Blog considered when the Senate passed House Bill 2 and killed the walking budgetary undead known as the Sustainable Growth Rate or SGR

As PHB readers know, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 law attempted to use the SGR to substitute medical inflation with general inflation adjustments to the Medicare physician fee schedule.  Since the costs of CAT scans have risen faster than cat food, Congress periodically had to pass catch-up "fixes."

As the PHB understands it, the just-passed "Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015" undoes the SGR by substituting 0.5% increases for the next five years.  Medicare payment cuts that were scheduled to kick in immediately have been averted - just in time.

The PHB will review what the bill does.  Then it will look at some downsides.

What does the bill do?

During the five year period, Medicare will transition to two new payment models.

In 2019 the Physician Quality Reporting System (PQRS), Value-Based Modifier and electronic record Meaningful Use (MU) will be consolidated into single program dubbed the Merit-Based Incentive Payment System (MIPS).

Physicians who choose to participate in MIPS will be assessed on a consolidated measure of quality, cost/utilization and electronic record MU.  They will also have to report on participation in quality improvement activities. CMS will offer technical assistance for QI. Medical organizations will be able to provide input into quality. The quality data will be collected and housed in certified registries. More research will be applied to emerging science of risk adjustment for cost/utilization.

The MIPS composite performance score will range from 0 to 100 (it's on page 40 of the Bill). MIPS incentive payments will be adjusted based on change from baseline using the mean as a performance threshold. Physicians who fail to report or participate will automatically be assigned a score of zero.  Physicians participating in a medical home (as defined by Medicare) will automatically be assigned the highest score.

Physicians falling below the mean will experience percentage-based payment cuts.  Payment incentives for the winners will be budget based. Physician-specific data will be made publicly available.

MedPAC will be charged with monitoring MIPS impact on Medicare beneficiary access to care.

There are also incentives for physicians to leave MIPS behind and participate in alternative payment models (APMs). The incentives will be greater than the MIPS program, giving physicians another reason to join an ACO.  If successful, fee-for-service will eventually go away.

The PHB's take on the legislation? 

Something is better than nothing, but the PHB readers need to be aware of the potential downsides:

0.5% increases may not keep up with physician costs.  While the SGR was repugnant, the patches were tied to medical cost inflation. 

As Congress continues to "reform" health care, uncertainty will continue to abound.  Never mind the continued vulnerability of a fifth of our economy to partisan rancor, this particular bipartisan exercise in legislation still went to the wire.  That's success?

Congress - which admittedly knows little about health care - is still outsourcing considerable administrative judgment to the Secretary of HHS. This is a political appointee who presides over a vast and largely unaccountable bureaucracy.  That is, unless, you have pull like this.

While it's called "APS," it doubles down on ACOs, which still have an uncertain impact on cost and quality. We still do not know how to reconcile the theoretical efficiencies of large provider systems with the real world need for antitrust enforcement.

If - emphasis on the word if - MIPS and APS don't work out, more physicians will flee the Medicare program.  They'll cater to credit-card wielding patients, further reducing access to socioeconomically vulnerable persons who have no other options.  While the legislation charges MedPAC with monitoring access to care, they may not spot problems in time.

As for MIPS:

The economic upside incentives are based on an assumption that the money will be there and that Congress will fund it.

PQRS and MU programs, which are still based on dubious evidence (here and here), are alive and well.

Because there's a mean or median on a 0 to 100 scale, 50% of participating docs are guaranteed to be economic losers.  That information will be in the public domain.  And that's only part of the problem.

Gaming may still be possible. Examples include avoiding high risk patients, questionable links between reporting vs. outcomes and moving the goalposts by changing reporting thresholds

Reporting MIPS data may turn out to be odious; similar tone-deaf hassles and their associated costs led to the rebellion against specialty society maintenance of certification.

Medicare will provide technical assistance? Really?

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