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Accountability Hits Home for Hospitalists

From: The Hospitalist, January 2013

While some hospitalists see the value-based payment modifier (VBPM) program as a penalty, others see an opportunity

by Bryn Nelson, PhD

Russell Cowles III, MD, lead hospitalist at Bergan Mercy Medical Center in Omaha, Neb., recalls the shock on the faces of hospitalists who attended his presentation to SHM’s Nebraska Area chapter meeting last spring. Dr. Cowles and co-presenter Eric Rice, MD, MMM, SFHM, chapter president and assistant medical director of Alegent Creighton Hospital Medicine Services, were introducing their fellow hospitalists to a forthcoming Medicare initiative called the Physician Feedback/Value-Based Payment Modifier (VBPM) program.

“And everyone in the audience was completely stunned,” Dr. Cowles says. “They had never even dreamed that any of this would come down to the physician level.”

They’re not alone.

“Unless you work in administration or you’re leading a group, I don’t think very many people know this exists,” Dr. Cowles says. “Your average practicing physician, I think, has no clue that this measurement is going on behind the scenes.”

Authorized by the Affordable Care Act, the budget-neutral scheme ties future Medicare reimbursements to measures of quality and efficiency, and grades physicians on a curve. The Physician Quality Reporting System (PQRS), in place since 2007, forms the foundation of the new program, with feedback arriving in the form of a Quality and Resource Use Report (QRUR), a confidential report card sent to providers. The VBPM program then uses those reports as the basis for a financial reward or penalty.

In principle, SHM and hospitalist leaders have supported the concept of quality measurements as a way to hold doctors more accountable and to help the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) take a more proactive role in improving quality of care while containing costs. And, in theory, HM leaders say hospitalists might be better able to adapt to the added responsibility of performance measurement and reporting due to their central role in the like-minded hospital value-based purchasing (VBP) program that began Oct. 1.

“If the expectation is that we will be involved in some of these initiatives and help the hospitals gain revenue, now we can actually see some dollars for those efforts,” says Julia Wright, MD, SFHM, FACP, president of the MidAtlantic Business Unit for Brentwood, Tenn.-based Cogent HMG. But the inverse is also true: If hospitals are going to have dollars at risk for performance, she says, CMS believes physicians should share in that risk as the providers of healthcare.

Dr. Seymann
Dr. Seymann

On that score, Dr. Rice says, hospitalists might have an advantage due to their focus on teamwork and their role in transitioning patients between inpatient and outpatient settings. In fact, he sees the VBPM as an “enormous opportunity” for hospitalists to demonstrate their leadership in helping to shape how organizations and institutions adapt to a quickly evolving healthcare environment.

But first, hospitalists will need to fully engage. In 2010, CMS found that only about 1 in 4 eligible physicians were participating in the voluntary PQRS and earning a reporting bonus of what is now 0.5% of allowable Medicare charges (roughly $800 for the average hospitalist). The stakes will grow when the PQRS transforms into a negative incentive program in 2015, with a 1.5% penalty for doctors who do not meet its reporting requirements. In 2016 and thereafter, the assessed penalty grows to 2% (about $3,200 for the average hospitalist).

“I think the unfolding timeline has really provided the potential for lulling us into complacency and procrastination,” says Patrick Torcson, MD, MMM, FACP, SFHM, director of hospital medicine at St. Tammany Parish Hospital in Covington, La., and chair of SHM’s Performance Measurement and Reporting Committee.

According to CMS, “physician groups can avoid all negative adjustments simply by participating in the PQRS.” Nonparticipants, however, could get hit with a double whammy. With no quality data, CMS would have no way to assess groups’ performances and would automatically deduct an extra 1% of Medicare reimbursements under the VBPM program. For groups of 100 eligible providers or more, that combined PQRS-VBPM penalty could amount to 2.5% in 2015.

PQRS participants have more leeway and a smaller downside. Starting January 2015, eligible provider groups who meet the reporting requirements can choose either to have no adjustments at all or to compete in the VBPM program for a performance-based bonus or a penalty of 1%, based on cost and quality scores. In January 2017, the program is expected to expand to include all providers, whether in individual or group practice.

A Measure of Relevance

Based on the first QRURs, sent out in March 2012 to providers in four pilot states, SHM wrote a letter to CMS that offered a detailed analysis of several additional concerns. The society followed up with a second letter that provided a more expansive critique of the proposed 2013 Physician Fee Schedule.

One worry is whether the physician feedback/VBPM program has included enough performance measures that are relevant to hospitalists. A Public Policy column in The Hospitalist (“Metric Accountability,” November 2012, p. 18) counted only 10 PQRS measures that apply routinely to HM providers out of a list of more than 200. Even those 10 aren’t always applicable.

“I work at a teaching hospital that’s large enough to have a neurology program, so most acute-stroke patients are admitted by the neurologists,” says Gregory Seymann, MD, SFHM, chief of the division of hospital medicine at the University of California at San Diego and a member of SHM’s Performance Measurement and Reporting Committee. “Five of the 10 measures are related to stroke patients, but my group rarely admits stroke patients.” That means only five PQRS measures remain relevant to him.

On paper, the issue might be readily resolved by expanding the number of measures to better reflect HM responsibilities—such as four measures proposed by SHM that relate to transitions of care and medication reconciliation.

Patrick Torcson, MD, MMM, FACP, SFHM I am very confident that self-reporting or self-nomination as a hospitalist is going to be in place by the time those negative incentives kick in. And I’m also very confident that we’re going to have other, very creative options for quality measurement and performance reporting.

—Patrick Torcson, MD, MMM, FACP, SFHM, director, hospital medicine, St. Tammany Parish Hospital, Covington, La., chair, SHM’s Performance Measurement and Reporting Committee

Other groups, though, have their own ideas. A letter to CMS signed by 28 patient and healthcare payor groups calls for the elimination of almost two dozen PQRS measures deemed unnecessary, duplicative, or uninformative, and for the addition of nine others that might better assess patient outcomes and quality of care. Jennifer Eames Huff, director of the Consumer-Purchaser Disclosure Project at San Francisco-based Pacific Business Group on Health, one of the letter’s signatories, says some of those potential measures might be more applicable to hospitalists as well.

But therein lies the rub. Although process measures might not always be strong indicators of quality of care, the introduction of outcome measures often makes providers nervous, says Gary Young, JD, PhD, director of the Center for Health Policy and Healthcare Research at Northeastern University in Boston. “Most providers feel that their patients are sicker and more vulnerable to poorer outcomes, and they don’t want to be judged poorly because they have sicker patients,” he says. Reaching an agreement on the best collection of measures may require some intense negotiations, he says.

Win Whitcomb, MD, MHM We’re going to have to think outside the box in terms of working toward an identifier for hospitalists.

–Win Whitcomb, MD, MHM, medical director of healthcare quality, Baystate Medical Center, Springfield, Mass.

Fairer Comparisons

Dr. Cowles cites two de-identified QRURs received by Alegent Creighton Health back in March—one for a hospitalist and one for an office-based general internist—to illustrate another major concern shared by many HM providers. The reports broke down each doctor’s relative healthcare contributions, using predetermined percentages of the total care and costs to conclude whether that doctor directed, influenced, or contributed to a patient’s care.

Hospitalists, by the nature of their jobs, seldom direct the care of any patient. But because their influence or contribution is almost always within the inpatient environment, HM providers account for proportionately higher costs than office-based physicians. The result can be a rather ugly curve: For healthcare costs incurred, the general internist was at the 65th percentile, while the hospitalist was at the 96th percentile.

The point, Dr. Cowles says, is that hospitalists and clinic-based physicians see patients with remarkably different acuities. “We just need to make sure that we’re comparing apples to apples, that you’re going to compare someone who sees a high-acuity patient with someone else who sees a high-acuity patient,” he says.

One silver lining could be increased momentum toward establishing HM as its own Medicare-recognized specialty. Hospitalist leaders who say the process is likely to be difficult but not impossible cite the successful effort to win recognition of HM as a focused practice by the American Board of Internal Medicine.

“We’re going to have to think outside the box in terms of working toward an identifier for hospitalists,” says Win Whitcomb, MD, MHM, medical director of healthcare quality at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass., and a member of SHM’s Performance and Measurement Reporting Committee. “But that’s going to happen—it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when and how.”

As one potential interim solution, SHM has suggested a self-identification designation by which hospitalists would distinguish themselves from the larger, general internal-medicine category and thereby avoid unfair comparisons.

A Question of Attribution

Of the concerns raised by SHM, the question of attribution might be among the thorniest. Dr. Young says the “big-time issue” is pitting many consumer groups, payors, and employers against healthcare providers. The consumer groups want accountability at the individual provider level, while the providers strongly prefer group accountability, setting up a major clash over how responsibility will be parceled out.

Hospitalists have been taught to embrace responsibility while viewing healthcare delivery as a team sport. And the contributions of individual HM providers aren’t easily untangled. “If somebody has a bad outcome and they’ve been under the care of three different hospitalists, it’s virtually impossible to attribute that outcome to one of those three hospitalists,” Dr. Whitcomb says. “We really need to think about attribution differently, and it’s going to need to be across groups of hospitalists.”

SHM has suggested that CMS include an option for group rather than individual evaluation. “You’re just making it explicit that you can’t assign some of these measures to individual physicians. We can assign some of these measures to groups,” Dr. Whitcomb says.

Win Whitcomb, MD, MHM If the expectation is that we will be involved in some of these initiatives and help the hospitals gain revenue, now we can actually see some dollars for those efforts.

—Julia Wright, MD, SFHM, FACP, president, MidAtlantic Business Unit, Cogent HMG, Brentwood, Tenn.

In its 2013 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule final rule, CMS opted to alter the doctor comparison methodology used for upcoming QRURs and the 2015 application of the VBPM. The agency also agreed to consider hospitalists’ concerns about fair attribution, relevant measures, and proper designation as it develops future proposals. Regardless of how those issues are ironed out, Dr. Torcson says, it’s clear to him that sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option for any physician group. Nor is it acceptable “to say this won’t work for me. We’re having to come up with proactive proposals for what will work to be part of the CMS quality agenda.”

SHM’s thorough analysis and realistic feedback, he says, has been well received by Medicare officials, raising hopes that many of the remaining differences can be resolved. “I am very confident that self-reporting or self-nomination as a hospitalist is going to be in place by the time those negative incentives kick in,” Dr. Torcson says. “And I’m also very confident that we’re going to have other, very creative options for quality measurement and performance reporting.”

One idea under consideration by CMS would allow hospitalists or other doctors to designate their hospitals’ quality data as a surrogate measure of their own performance. “I think that’s going to be a really great option for hospitalists who self-nominate,” Dr. Torcson says.

For many hospitalists, the option would effectively get around the issue of individual versus group attribution and instead align doctors’ fates with that of their institutions. SHM, Dr. Torcson says, has endorsed the proposal and offered to work with CMS to help institute it. He’s also confident that the reporting requirements for multiple, overlapping CMS programs will be more streamlined over time.

Some health professionals believe that hospitals and doctors already are devoting too much time and energy to measuring and recording the proliferating set of mandatory metrics. But Dr. Whitcomb says payors and patients are unlikely to have much sympathy.

“We as a profession are accountable to society at large. And that argument, that there are too many measurements and that we shouldn’t be held accountable as physicians for our performance, is a nonstarter when you’re trying to explain that to consumers,” he says. “The status quo is not tenable, and so it’s going to be a long journey and we need to be able to move in that direction.”


Bryn Nelson is a freelance medical writer in Seattle.


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