Twenty-thousand physicians in four Midwest states received a glimpse into their financial future last month. Landing in their e-mail inboxes were links to reports from Medicare showing the amount their patients cost on average as well as the quality of the care they provided. The reports also showed how Medicare spending on each doctor’s patients compared with their peers in Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska.
The “resource use” reports, which Medicare plans to eventually provide to doctors nationwide, are one of the most visible phases of the government’s effort to figure out how to enact a complex, delicate and little-noticed provision of the 2010 health-care law: paying more to doctors who provide quality care at lower cost to Medicare, and reducing payments to physicians who run up Medicare’s costs without better results.
Making providers routinely pay attention to cost and quality is widely viewed as crucial if the country is going to rein in its health-care spending, which amounts to more than $2.5 trillion a year. It’s also key to keeping Medicare solvent. Efforts have begun to change the way Medicare pays hospitals, doctors and other providers who agree to work together in new alliances known as “accountable care organizations.” This fall, the federal health program for 47 million seniors and disabled people also is adjusting hospital payments based on quality of care, and it plans to take cost into account as early as next year.
But applying these same precepts to doctors is much more difficult, experts agree. Doctors see far fewer patients than do hospitals, so making statistically accurate assessments of doctors’ care is much harder. Comparing specialists is tricky, since some focus on particular kinds of patients that tend to be more costly.
Plus, properly assessing how a doctor affects costs must include not just the specific services she directly provides, but also care other providers may give, either because the patient was referred to them or because the original doctor didn’t take the right preventive steps to avoid more expensive treatments later on. And without properly adjusting for patients’ health problems, paying bonuses to physicians who use fewer Medicare resources might encourage doctors to stint on care or shun patients with expensive-to-treat ailments.
“It may be the most difficult measurement challenge in the whole world of value-based purchasing,” said Dr. Donald Berwick, former administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS. “We do have to be cautious in this case. It could lead to levels of gaming and misunderstanding and incorrect signals to physicians that might not be best for everyone.”
Dr. Michael Kitchell, a neurologist and chairman of the board at the McFarland Clinic in Ames, Iowa, one of the state’s biggest multi-specialist practices, predicted the Medicare reports “will be a huge surprise to almost every physician.” That’s because the calculations of how much those doctors’ patients cost Medicare include not just the services of the individual doctor but of all the doctors that provided any treatment to the patient. Kitchell said his patients saw on average 13 physicians besides himself.