April 20, 2009

Follow the Money?

Most Americans have probably never heard of it, but MedPAC is arguably one of the most influential organizations in the health care arena. The Medical Payments Advisory Commission is a non-partisan, independent Congressional agency established by Congress in 1997 to advise on issues relating to the Medicare program. That translates mainly into advice on reimbursement policies, but MedPAC’s mandate also includes addressing access and quality of care.

What is MedPAC and just what does it do? It is comprised of 17 commissioners, including a chairman, who serve staggered 3-year terms. They are appointed by the Comptroller General—another important position that most of us have never heard of. While the 17 members of MedPAC are a distinguished group of professionals who come from diverse fields including medicine, nursing, health policy, and economics, they all have other jobs and could not possibly carry out their mission without a strong staff to do the heavy lifting. In fact, MedPAC’s website lists an executive director, an associate director, a deputy directory, 8 principal policy analysts, 9 senior analysts, 2 analysts, and 2 research assistants, along with miscellaneous other aides and consultants. Based on my experience as a member of the Massachusetts Public Health Council, the supposed seat of health care policy in the state, it is the staff that does most of the work and holds the real power.

The work of MedPAC is evident in its “Reports to Congress,” which appear in March and June of each year, as well as in an annual Data Book. The most recent Report, released in March 2009, all 424 pages of which are available on the web, gives some indication of the breadth and depth of MedPAC’s work. The introduction by Chairman Glen Hackbarth (who incidentally is a founding member of the multi-specialty group practice where I work, Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates), sets the scene. Hackbarth identifies 5 major imperatives for Medicare reform: redesigning and rebuilding primary care, moving beyond fee for service to a more integrated and coordinated model of care, revamping the Medicare Advantage program to reward excellent performance, working to constrain costs by modifying the reimbursement system, and investing in comparative effectiveness research.

To get a flavor of just how far MedPAC goes in its recommendations, consider just 3 of its specific suggestions, those dealing with updating the payment system, revising the Medicare Advantage Program, and modifying the reimbursement system for hospice. Every year, MedPAC tells Congress what changes to make in how much Medicare pays for a variety of services. One of the areas the report addresses this year is payments for expensive imaging services—payments for MRI and CT and PET scan studies. Hidden behind its very dry language, MedPAC does something quite radical: The Commission recognizes that its system for deciding how much to pay for such procedures has been based on the assumption that the equipment is operated 25 hours/week. As a result, providers have an incentive to purchase expensive machinery, even if they have only modest needs, but then to use it as much as possible. The latest report advises modifying the reimbursement formula by assuming that equipment is in operation many more hours each week, thus decreasing the per scan reimbursement and potentially slowing the rapidly rising number of imaging studies ordered each year.

A second area tackled by MedPAC is the Medicare Advantage program. To encourage older individuals to sign up for a private plan rather than the government program, third party payers have been encouraged to come up with capitated plans as alternatives to conventional fee for service Medicare. Some of these plans offer coordination of care and a truly integrated model of health care, which are widely held to be desirable for older patients. Others don’t offer such a comprehensive program but nonetheless receive roughly 14% more from Medicare than do fee-for-service plans providing comparable care. MedPAC wants to make sure that it’s getting value for its money by eliminating what it sees as the windfall offered to capitated programs.

Finally, the report discusses Medicare hospice reimbursement, which has been essentially unchanged since the hospice benefit was introduced in 1982. Between 2000 and 2007, about 1000 new hospice providers entered the market, almost all of them for-profit agencies. The Commission recognizes that many of these hospices are making a sizable profit by enrolling lots of long stay patients: Hospices are paid a fixed per diem rate, so if they care for many low-maintenance patients over an extended period of time, they make money. The new proposal is to pay hospices a higher daily fee initially, when the hospice spends a disproportionate amount of time and effort evaluating a patient and providing whatever medications and equipment the patient needs, then pay a lower fee for intermediate days, and pay a higher fee for the last few days of life, when resource utilization goes up. While this approach is entirely rational as a way to prevent hospices from bilking Medicare by, for example, enrolling nursing home patients with dementia for long periods of time, it has the potential to further discourage hospices from enrolling cancer patients who are interested in pursuing palliative but expensive treatments such as radiation therapy or oral chemotherapy.

MedPAC’s suggestions are based on an extensive analysis of Medicare data—data which are published in its annual data book. They are often very reasonable strategies to improve the existing system of care. But while the Commission has an excellent grasp of the context within which reimbursement occurs and professes interest in developing a correspondingly broad set of recommendations, its concrete proposals tend to deal fairly narrowly with payment issues. The main job of the Commission, after all, is to advise on Medicare payment.

Proposals for reforming America’s health care system are multiplying faster than any other type of innovation in medicine—in fact, I haven’t had written a blog posting in some time because each time I prepare to respond to one plan, another one appears. The New England Journal of Medicine, Health Affairs, and the Annals of Internal Medicine have all featured numerous articles on health care reform. One piece just published this month, emanating from something called the FRESH-Thinking Project, boasts a record 50 authors. Most of these articles, like MedPAC, focus on reforming the reimbursement system. They assume that financial incentives drive medical practice. And they are of course right to follow the money, as Deep Throat famously told journalist Bob Woodward. But important as finances are, and insightful and pragmatic as MedPAC is, there is more to health care reform than modifying the payment system. The payment system is essentially the same throughout the country and yet there is enormous variation in the way medicine is practiced. Very little of that variation is due to differences in how sick people are in New Jersey (the highest spending area of the country) and North Dakota (the lowest spending area). The root cause of variation is differences in the culture of medicine. It is the sociology of medicine that we must understand before turning to MedPAC to implement change in the reimbursement system.