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Healthcare’s Monetary Musical Chairs: Seniors Most Likely To Lose

From “War on Specialists” in the Wall Street Journal:

Take a provision in the Baucus bill that would punish any physician whose “resource use” is considered too high. Beginning in 2015, Medicare would rank doctors against their peers based on how much they cost the program—and then automatically cut all payments by 5% to anyone who falls into the 90th percentile or above. In practice, this rule will only apply to specialists. ,
Since there will always be a missing chair when the music stops, every year one of 10 physicians will be punished if he orders too many tests, performs too many procedures or prescribes too many drugs—whether or not the treatments result in better patient outcomes. The 5% fine is substantial given that Medicare’s price controls already pay only 83 cents on the private dollar.

In Medicare, meanwhile, the Administration is using regulation to change how doctors are paid to benefit general practitioners, internists and family physicians. In next year’s fee schedule, they’ll see higher payments on the order of 6% to 8%. The loose consensus is that the U.S. does have too few primary care doctors—less than 5% of medical students are entering the field—in part because they’re underpaid.

Fair enough. But this boost for GPs comes at the expense of certain specialties. The 2010 rules, which will be finalized next month, visit an 11% overall cut on cardiology and 19% on radiation oncology. They’re targets only because of cost: Two-thirds of morbidity or mortality among Medicare patients owes to cancer or heart disease.

. . .

One priority of the Baucus bill is to require the executive branch to wreak this kind of devastation every year, not just when a Democrat is President. It directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to search out “potentially misvalued” RVUs, meaning those “for which there has been the fastest growth” or “that have experienced substantial changes in practice expenses.” In other words, any specialty that grows too much must be targeted.

It’s important to understand that these are “cuts” that don’t actually cut any spending; the RVUs merely redistribute it from one medical bucket to another. In this case, Team Obama is sending a message to the medical community about its political priorities. The fee schedule is designed to avoid wild year-over-year payment swings, but HHS justified its decision with a flimsy survey whose data it won’t release and whose results can’t be replicated. (The President of the American College of Cardiology) Dr. Lewin told us that both HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and budget director Peter Orszag refuse to meet with him to discuss the topic.

It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out. In the end, as dollars get pushed upstream to primary care physicians in favor of specialists and our older, experienced specialists retire, I wonder if the push to specialization will be as strong, leaving our seniors most affected by this policy. Yet, ironically, when the bean counters tally the health care cost tab at the end of the day, our policy makers will feel completely vindicated.

After all, it’s our seniors who drive most of the cost for health care anyway and in the game of monetary musical chairs, someone has to ultimately sit out.

*This blog post was originally published at Dr. Wes*

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