Blog | Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Ruckus over the RUC


There's an interesting legal case brewing in the medical world that's worth sharing. A group of six physician plaintiffs from Georgia are suing the government (the Secretary of Health and Human Services) in a federal district court claiming damages from the fact that Medicare, the massive program that covers the elderly and disabled, fails to execute due diligence by rubber-stamping a reimbursement structure that overvalues procedural medicine over cognitive services.

Huh?

Some background is in order.

It's no secret that specialists (radiologists, cardiologists, dermatologists, urologists, etc.) make higher incomes than primary care doctors (family doctors, internists and pediatricians). Obvious reasons include more training, differentiated skill, and an ability to handle specific technical and/or surgical procedures that generalists aren't able or authorized to provide.

But the non-obvious reason is a poorly publicized and shadowy body known as the Relative Value Scale Update Committee, or RUC. The RUC is a committee convened by the American Medical Association (AMA) and about two dozen medical specialty societies.

The RUC promulgates an annual report to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The update advises CMS on the "relative value" of an extraordinarily lengthy list of medical services, including both procedures (things done to patients) and cognitive services (those done for patients with a doctor's hands, stethoscope, and brain).

The RUC has 29 members, 23 of whom come from medical specialty societies. The list is publicly available.

Critics of the RUC point out that it's a little like the Senate, in that smaller specialties gain outsized importance since representation is not proportional. This has in effect, so the argument goes, perpetuated the overvaluation of procedural skill over cognitive service. The downstream effect of this is twofold: a disparity in doctor incomes between generalists and specialists, but more importantly, ever-increasing cost of delivering health care as the premium on procedures incentivizes them.

Early comments seem to suggest that the case will have meritorious legal standing. It certainly will be interesting to see what happens as the case wends its way through the judicial system.

There's an excellent synopsis of the suit and the issues surrounding it on the Health Affiairs blog by Brian Klepper and David Kibbe, which I recommend to anyone with further interest. Here's a key paragraph that may inspire you to click over: The policy community should keep a close eye on this case, because its target is the beating heart of the American health care cost crisis. Aside from the primary care community, the plaintiffs are unlikely to have many organized supporters within a health care industry that has benefited so handsomely from the current payment regime. But the employer community as well as anyone who cares about the larger economic issues facing America should see the opportunity to largely correct a tremendous wrong in our system.

This post by John H. Schumann, FACP, originally appeared at GlassHospital. Dr. Schumann is a general internist. His blog, GlassHospital, seeks to bring transparency to medical practice and to improve the patient experience.