SGR Repeal Bill Favors Primary Care

By Robert Lowes
Medscape Medical News, February 6, 2013

Two members of Congress today reintroduced an ambitious bill that would repeal Medicare’s sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula for setting physician pay and gradually phase out fee-for-service (FFS) reimbursement.

One major difference this time around for the bipartisan bill, originally introduced in May 2012, is that its price tag appears considerably lower, making passage more likely.

When Reps. Allyson Schwartz (D-PA) and Joe Heck, MD (R-NV), proposed this legislation last year, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) had estimated that repealing the SGR and merely freezing current Medicare rates for 10 years would cost roughly $320 billion.

Since then, the CBO has reduced that 10-year estimate on the basis of lower than projected Medicare spending on physician services for the past 3 years. In a budget forecast released yesterday, the agency put the cost of a 10-year rate freeze at $138 billion.

The immediate effect of the bill from Schwartz and Heck, titled the Medicare Physician Payment Innovation Act, would be to avert a Medicare pay cut of roughly 25% on January 1, 2014, that is mandated by the SGR formula. Instead, the bill maintains 2013 rates through the end of 2014.

After 2014, Medicare would begin to shift from FFS to a methodology that rewards physicians for the quality and efficiency of patient care. From 2015 through 2018, the rates for primary care, preventive, and care coordination services would increase annually by 2.5% for physicians for whom 60% of Medicare allowables fall into these categories. Medicare rates for all other physician services would rise annually by 0.5%.

Meanwhile, the bill calls on the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to step up its efforts to test and evaluate new models of delivering and paying for healthcare (experiments with medical homes, accountable care organizations, and bundled payments are already underway). By October 2017, CMS must give physicians its best menu of new models to choose from. Two menu options would allow some physicians unable to fully revolutionize to participate in a modified FFS scheme.

The year to transition from FFS to “high quality, high value care” will be 2019 under the legislation. Physicians will either operate in a new, CMS-approved delivery and payment model of their choosing or traditional FFS Medicare. The government would keep FFS rates in 2019 at 2018 levels.

After 2019, physicians still embracing traditional FFS Medicare would see their rates reduced until 2024, when they would be permanently frozen at 2023 levels. Physicians operating in the new models, in contrast, would have the opportunity to earn raises for high-quality, low-cost care.

A summary of the MEDICARE PHYSICIAN PAYMENT INNOVATION ACT OF 2013 can be downloaded by clicking on the link at the bottom of Rep. Allyson Schwartz’s press release:…

The Medicare sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula seemed to be an equitable method of slowing the non-sustainable increases in Medicare spending. What happened?

Health care spending continued to increase at very high rates, and these increases were funded by private commercial insurance plans. The funds paid pumped up the supply side in health care while having very little ameliorating impact on the demand side. As our health care system continued to be richly funded (too richly, when compared to other wealthy nations), the Medicare SGR formula fell further behind each year in meeting this ever-increasing demand for more funds.

It soon became apparent that if the SGR rates were imposed, physicians would likely restrict their participation in the Medicare program, first by not accepting new patients, and eventually many of them would drop out of the program altogether. For that reason the SGR reductions were deferred most years, and now they have grown to a deficit of about 26 percent.

When physicians are already dissatisfied with Medicare payment rates (cumulative increases have been less than the medical inflation rate), a further abrupt reduction of 26 percent would surely cause many physicians to bail – either limiting their practices to privately insured patients, or retiring early if the reductions wipe out net income.

Members of Congress do support Medicare, even if some would want to shift costs from the federal budget to the beneficiaries themselves. They do understand that the guillotine effect of imposing these reductions would likely severely impair access for patients due to a lack of willing providers. They know that they have to do something.

In defining this problem, members off Congress think in terms of the federal budget. By postponing the reductions, the money has already been spent, yet it is carried on the books as a deficit. What can Congress do to remove this deficit from the budget without having to increase federal revenues?

Quite simply, they need to find other ways to reduce the projected increases in spending. If you download the summary of the Medicare Physician Payment Innovation Act of 2013 (link above), you will see some of the schemes proposed. Most are already familiar, though many are unproven, and some ideas are innovative. Regardless, they are all methods of slowing the growth in Medicare spending while doing very little that would control spending in the private sector. We will still be faced with the same problem that we have now under SGR. In comparison with private insurance payments, Medicare will continue to trail, and the physicians will grow evermore restless.

Rather than taking one program – Medicare – and trying to make it comply with budget austerity, we need to have a financing system in which the entire health care delivery system complies with a single, universal global budget – a single payer national health program. Yes, there would continue to be turf issues between the factions competing for the funds and the public stewards of the funds, but at least the distribution would be equitable and adequate, which was the intent of SGR in the first place.

There are those who contend that we could never adhere to a budget, that it is impossible to fund all of the care that we need if we are limited by a budget. We need only to look at other nations to see that they, with their publicly supervised global or quasi-global budgets, have been able to provide quality care for everyone at an average of half of what we are spending. We can do it, and with a very rich budget at that.