Blog | Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Making a RUCkus over doctor's pay

Medical economics is more confusing than advanced derivatives and the entire banking industry collapse. Have you ever wondered how doctors get paid? I will try to give a brief tutorial. Consider it "Doctor Reimbursement 101."

First of all, all payments made by Medicare or insurance companies are based on a weird rating called the Relative Value Scale. A group of mainly specialty dominated physicians have been appointed to an "expert panel" called the Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC) and they assign value ratings to the work a physician does.

For example, the RUC might proposed that an office visit is worth 2.53 value units while placing a catheter is worth 23.5 units. Each procedure gets a value rating and through a complicated formula these value ratings are converted to actual money.

This committee meets three times a year and their work is secret. Their recommendations are accepted, rejected or modified by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Only 13% of the members of the RUC represent primary care or cognitive specialties. The remainder, 87% are made up of specialists like urologists, radiologists, heart surgeons and anesthesiologists. With a fixed annual budget from Medicare, how the shrinking pie is divided is decided upon by this specialty dominated committee.

Is it any wonder primary care is so grossly underpaid in the United States?After the RUC recommends the value scale for a piece of work, CMS assigns a dollar amount based on a complicated formula that includes location, malpractice fees and presumed office expenses. Medicare has determined that in 2012 the fee for a routine office visit for a Medicare provider is $84.30. The Medicare reimbursement for a hip replacement is $1,459.34. The Medicare physician fee schedule is 1,235 pages long. Most doctors in a specialty have no idea how much another doctor in a different specialty gets paid by Medicare.

Medicare fee schedules are important because private insurers based their payments to physicians on these fees. Some pay more and some less. Large groups or hospital consortia have more bargaining power with insurers than does an isolated doctor. Consequently solo or small group practices are fast becoming dinosaurs in the U.S. The trend for physicians to join large groups or become employees of hospitals is on a rapid upward trajectory.

A few primary care physicians have opted out of the Byzantine payment structure by going "concierge." In this structure a patient pays an upfront annual fee to cover office visits, prescription refills, phone calls and access to medical care. The patient still needs insurance to cover tests, surgeries, medications and hospitalization, but the preventive and routine visits are usually covered by the fee, as is the coordination of care. The primary care doctor gets out of the "billing" side completely.

The fee for concierge medicine can range between $1500 to $20,000 a year. At the higher range, the concierge physician limits his practice to a few hundred patients.

Hospital charges do not include physician charges so patients often get bills separately from the radiologist, the surgeon, the hospitalist, the emergency room physician and the anesthesiologist. Some of them contract with your insurance company and take an assigned fee. Some do not and the charges can be quite a shock on top of the hospital bill. Is it any wonder that our payment scheme is unsatisfactory for both patients and doctors?

This post originally appeared at Everything Health. Toni Brayer, MD, FACP, is an ACP Internist editorial board member who blogs at EverythingHealth, designed to address the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st Century.