Practice Economics

Financial Risk


When I started writing this, Congress hadn’t settled the issue of the 21% cut in Medicare reimbursement for services called for by the sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula. Fortunately, Congress stepped up and passed another extension with a 2.2% pay increase; however, the quick fix only lasts until November.

The process is all too routine: The deadline for these reimbursement cuts looms, Medicare instructs its fiscal intermediaries (the organizations that actually write the checks to providers) to hold claims rather than pay at the lower rate, and, within a few days of the deadline passing, Congress decides to pass an extension, which allows Medicare to continue paying the historical (higher) rate for the time being.

Imagine Medicare reimbursement rates dropping 21% overnight. I suspect it would be cataclysmic. But I hear remarkably little chatter about this possibility. In fact, while with 2,500 other hospitalists for several days at HM10 in April, I didn’t hear a single person bring up the SGR issue.

One reason there isn’t more handwringing about the looming, draconian cuts is that we’ve been there before. In fact, reimbursement cuts required by the SGR have come up every year since 2001. Each time, Congress has chosen not to implement the cuts; and in some years it has approved reimbursement increases instead. So most in healthcare circles basically have come to expect Congress to pass last-minute legislation to avoid the drastic cuts. (SHM and most other medical societies want a repeal of the flawed SGR formula. Visit SHM’s Legislative Action Center,, to write your legislators and urge repeal of the SGR. It only takes about two minutes, and you don’t even need to remember who your representatives are; you just need to know your ZIP code.)

I doubt we’ll ever see a 21% reduction in Medicare rates, but over time we could see ever-increasing pressure to limit the growth in our incomes.

Don’t Be Too Smug

There is another reason many hospitalists, and other doctors who are employed and salaried by a large entity like a hospital, might not be more concerned about proposed cuts: They probably think their own salaries will be unaffected by decreases in reimbursement from Medicare and other payors. My experience is that a lot of hospitalists are so unconcerned about payor reimbursement rates that they aren’t even aware of the threatened Medicare cuts.

Their thinking goes something like this: “I’m paid mostly via a fixed annual salary with a small productivity and quality incentive. None of this is connected to the payor mix or collection rates from the patients I see. So if the portion of uninsured patients I see goes up, my compensation is unaffected. Or if payors decrease their rates, my compensation is unaffected. So I don’t need to sweat the possibility of a 21% decrease in Medicare rates. The hospital will have to make up the difference, so my salary is unaffected, and it will be up to bean counters at the hospital to get the numbers to work out.”

In fact, this is true, in theory, for the majority of hospitalists. But I think it is a mistake to assume your salary is untouchable. If Medicare were to cut rates by 21%, you’d better run to your hospital CEO’s office right away, because a long line will form immediately. Every doctor who sees patients at your hospital will be in that line asking the CEO to provide some money to offset the Medicare cuts, and I doubt any hospital will be able to satisfy their doctors without spending so much money that the hospital goes bankrupt or out of business.

Even if you have a valid contract that calls for your compensation to be paid independent of the amount of professional fee collections, a dire shortage of money could lead a hospital to lay off hospitalists or cancel the contract (most contracts would allow the hospital to do this simply by giving a 90-day notice).

I suggest that no hospitalist feel too smug about how well their employment contract protects the group from broader market forces like reimbursement rates. I doubt we’ll ever see an overnight 21% reduction in Medicare rates, but over time, we could see ever-increasing pressure to limit the growth in our incomes.

I believe every hospitalist should spend at least a little time following broader financial issues like this one, and get involved in the political process to let your legislators know your thoughts. For the record, I think the financial underpinnings of our healthcare system are disastrously messed up and something has to be done. And I don’t think anyone’s salary, including mine, is untouchable. But I also believe the SGR is an ineffective way to make the system more financially sound. That said, you don’t need to agree with me; I only recommend that you have a reasonably informed opinion.

One approach might be for your HM group to appoint a “political” or “marketplace” watchdog. This person could be charged with following issues closely and reporting back to the whole group during regular meetings.

“Marketplace” Risk

Medicare rates are only one part of the complex financial ecosystem on which we depend. It is awfully common, and I think pretty reasonable, for hospitalists to have a contractual arrangement with hospitals. The majority of the time, the hospital has most—or all—of the risk for the financial performance of the practice. In fact, most prospective hospitalists, especially those seeking their first jobs out after residency, say one of the most attractive reasons for choosing work as a hospitalist is that many practices provide a salary that is nearly fixed. Any variable components to the salary, such as those based on production or quality, are typically very small.

A hospitalist might think, “I want a practice that pays a fixed salary so I don’t have to worry about any business and financial issues other than when to show up to work.” In fact, a lot of recruitment ads trumpet this very idea (i.e., “you handle the doctoring and get to enjoy the wonderful recreational opportunities and schools our locale provides, and we’ll worry about all the business issues”). That may sound nice, but I worry it is a little short-sighted.

Here is another point of view, which is only slightly more complicated. In most cases, you should try to negotiate a contract that insulates you from “payor risk” (e.g., changes in payor mix and rates paid by payors don’t flow through to your compensation). But you should think twice before asking your employer to assume all the risk for staffing and scheduling decisions, such as whether you get the work done with 10 hospitalists or 11, or whether you have an evening admitter (“swing”) shift. If the employer holds all the risk, then the hospitalists give up nearly all their autonomy to decide how hard they want to work and how they want to schedule themselves. This causes problems for many practices, and is the No. 1 reason I’m called in as a consultant. Contrary to being very risky and stressful, many hospitalists find it liberating to assume financial risk for their staffing and workload decisions.

You should realize that if your employer pays you a fixed compensation, then someone has to ensure that you do enough work to justify that compensation. This can mean that the employer “issues decrees” (i.e., “we won’t add another provide to the practice until we’ve averaged ‘X’ encounters per month for 6 months”). A hospitalist might see this as unreasonable, yet the group has limited recourse since the employer has already guaranteed the compensation.

If you’d rather have more autonomy in your staffing and workload, then you will need to connect your paycheck to these decisions. Although it might sound terribly risky, those who make the switch often say they wouldn’t have it any other way. Most importantly, it ensures hospitalists have much more say in big decisions. TH

Dr. Nelson has been a practicing hospitalist since 1988 and is co-founder and past president of SHM. He is a principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants, a national hospitalist practice management consulting firm ( He is also course co-director and faculty for SHM’s “Best Practices in Managing a Hospital Medicine Program” course. This column represents his views and is not intended to reflect an official position of SHM.

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