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.
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.