Oct 14, 2016

Ready for MACRA? TMA Can Help

Earlier today, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released its final rule implementing the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA). Physician practices across the country now have a busy two and a half months trying to get ready to begin collecting and reporting data on Jan. 1.

TMA will continue to work with CMS and the Texas congressional delegation to rewrite and reform many of the problems we identified in CMS’ draft regulations. Although CMS granted physicians a reprieve from 2019 Medicare payment penalties if they attempt to report some data next year, practices still face a host of decisions about what path they will take to try to comply with the biggest change in Medicare payment policies in more than a generation.

TMA is here to provide guidance:

For all the latest, visit TMA's online MACRA Resource Center regularly.

Sep 15, 2016

Does the government know what it’s doing to physicians?

By Don R. Read, MD
President, Texas Medical Association

(This article first appeared in the KevinMD.com blog. Reprinted with permission.)

Physicians spend almost twice as much time each day typing on computers and filling out paperwork as they do seeing patients. That astonishing conclusion comes from research published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Just think about that. How would you feel if you spent two hours documenting every hour of work that you do? How would your boss feel about it? You’d be depressed and frustrated; your boss would probably be angry as hell.

Patients should be up in arms over this report. Taxpayers should be up in arms. Physicians already are up in arms because we already knew this was true — and we know it’s just going to get worse.

We know it’s going to get worse because we know what’s causing it in the first place.

And that’s what’s missing in this study. Why? Why do physicians spend just 27 percent of their time “on direct clinical face time with patients” and 49.2 percent on electronic health records (EHRs) and “desk work”? From my nearly 50 years in medicine and thousands of conversations I’ve had with my colleagues, I can guarantee you it’s not a willing choice.

But again, the question is “why.” Why is this happening? Part of it has to do with EHR systems that appear to have been designed by someone who never set foot in a physician’s exam room. They’re clunky, not intuitive, and don’t fit the flow of how we examine, diagnose, and interact with our patients.

But the bigger issue is why we have to enter all of this data into a computer system in the first place. It comes back to an alphabet soup of government regulations that definitely were written by someone who’s never been in the exam room with a patient. The Physician Quality Reporting System (PQRS), Meaningful Use (MU), and the Value-Based Payment Modifier (VBM) program all aim to “capture” the quality of care we’re providing and score us on the cost of that care. MU — the worst-named government program ever — actually cuts our Medicare payments if we don’t use an EHR.

A study published in Health Affairs earlier this year estimates the cost in physician time to comply with just one of those programs, PQRS, exceeds $50,000 per primary care physician per year. That’s a lot of money; but it’s also a lot of our time. That’s time the government has stolen from our patients.

And — as I mentioned earlier — it’s only going to get worse. The Merit-Based Incentive Payment System (MIPS), part of the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA), begins in January. MIPS is supposed to replace PQRS, MU, and VBM. But, as I wrote in this space in June, the new program looks to be far more costly, complex, and confusing than the costly, complex, and confusing programs it is replacing.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) estimates MACRA will add $128 million a year in compliance costs above the costs of complying with the programs it is replacing. Texas Medical Association analysis finds that “official” number woefully low.

And all of that brings us to one more, even bigger question: Does the government know what it’s doing to physicians?

We went to medical school and dedicated our lives to helping people heal and stay healthy, not to become data entry operators. But that’s what we have become, and that’s taking a toll on physicians, our patients, and the entire health care system. Physicians are burned out and unhappy, patients have less time with their doctors, and everyone has to pay more to get less care.

I’ve been a patient — a seriously ill patient — and I owe my life to the physicians who helped me recover from West Nile virus encephalitis. Like every patient, I don’t want a burned-out, unhappy doctor who’s enslaved by his computer. I want a bright-eyed, engaged, and satisfied physician who has the time and energy to put me — and my health — first.

Jul 12, 2016

"We have deliberately set the game so that you cannot win"

Shortly before a senior Medicare official came to visit his Dallas office in late June, Texas Medical Association President Don R. Read, MD, shared with Texas Medicine his thoughts on the agency's draft rules implementing the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA). Dr. Read compared changing complexity of Medicare rules to a progression from a simple game of checkers to a new game no one understands, whose rules are written in Mayan hieroglyph, and which "you cannot win."

Listen to the short audio clip, or read the full transcript below.



“This is how MACRA comes across to me. With original Medicare, we were playing checkers. There were some rules we didn’t agree with, some that were truly stupid, like you couldn’t pay for a TPN outside the hospital, which was much cheaper so we had to keep them in the hospital which was much more expensive, but you pretty much understand the rules. Then with PQRS and MU, we started playing chess. Kind of easy chess, but we were starting to play chess.

“And now you say, well we’re going to change the game. It’s not checkers; it’s not chess; it’s something new. The board’s got two more columns and two more rows. Some of the chess pieces are the same, but we’ve put new ones out there. And we’ve written rules. We started to write them in Mandarin Chinese, but we figured you’d be able to get an interpreter and interpret them, so we’ve written them in Mayan hieroglyphs to make sure you don’t understand.

“But you have to start playing right away, and don’t worry about the fact that you don’t understand the rules because we have deliberately set the game so that you cannot win.

“And by the way, two years from now you’re going to get penalized because you did not win.”

Jul 1, 2016

Medicare Man Enters the Maw of MACRA Malcontent

To hear Dallas physician leaders Don Read, MD, and Rick Snyder, MD, tell it, if they can’t make it, no one can. And right now, Drs. Read and Snyder are extremely pessimistic about their practices being able to “make it” under Medicare’s proposed new quality regulations.

A top Medicare official, who made the trek to Dallas at the invitation of the Texas Medical Association, appeared to be listening.

Dr. Read: Without big changes, small practices
"are going to fail" under MACRA
“We are light years ahead of small practices, who are in survival mode all the time, in terms of reporting quality,” Dr. Read, the current TMA president, and head of a the 14-physician Texas Colon & Rectal Specialists, told Tim Gronniger, the deputy chief of staff at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

“We are going to fail on the quality measures, which is something this practice prides itself on,” added Nancy Bowman, executive director for the practice.

Despite the practice’s large investment in health care information technology – about $300,000 on software alone in 2015 – Ms. Bowman said neither the group nor its advanced electronic health record (EHR) system vendor will be ready when it’s time to collect the new MACRA data on Jan. 1, 2017.

Dr. Read followed up with a theme that permeated TMA’s 26-page official comment letter to CMS on the proposed rules implementing the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA).

“All these small practices are doomed to fail under this system,” he told Mr. Gronniger. “It's not worth their spending money to participate in a system where they're going to fail.”

Tim Gronniger, deputy chief of staff,
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services
Mr. Gronniger acknowledged that CMS has heard that complaint from many quarters, including TMA’s official comment letter. “I hear your concern that it's too complicated,” he said “We're getting feedback that there’s too many things to think about.” He also promised that CMS would provide physicians with “bite-sized” instructions on how to comply with the MACRA requirements.

The agency is reviewing all of the feedback it has received on the draft rule, and will issue a final regulation around Nov. 1.

An hour later, Mr. Gronniger walked down the hall to hear from Dr. Snyder, whose 70-physician practice is the state’s largest independent cardiology group and one of the largest in the nation.

“We pride ourselves on being cutting edge on regulatory compliance,” Dr. Snyder told him. “There's no way in the world we are going to be ready Jan 1. Our goal is just not to lose money.”

Dr. Snyder presses Mr. Gronniger for an "independent practice pathway."
Dr. Snyder said his big-picture concern is that the rule as written will “accelerate the consolidation” of independent physician practices into hospital systems. That, he said, would increase costs to Medicare and give patients fewer choices.

“Please come up with an independent practice pathway,” Dr. Snyder told Mr. Gronniger. “Make it friendly so we can increase quality, reduce costs and remain independent, because we think that's the best model.”

Mr. Gronniger said he liked that idea and would work to modify the rule to make that happen.

Jun 21, 2016

MACRA Rule: Not What Congress Ordered

By Don Read, MDPresident, Texas Medical Association

(This article first appeared in the KevinMD.com blog. Reprinted with permission.)

I joined physicians nationwide last year in cheering when Congress passed the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA). Not only did it eliminate the congressional budgetary fiction known as the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula, it also promised to simplify and improve Medicare’s costly and complex programs that purport to measure the quality of care we provide to our patients.

Unfortunately, as we review the draft implementing rule, it appears that the net result will be neither simplified nor improved. Frankly, while we see the need for some legislative tweaks, this proposed rule is not what Congress ordered.

MACRA already has accomplished two of its intended goals. It reauthorized the Children’s Health Insurance Program for two years, and it removed the constant threat of SGR-driven Medicare payment cuts. The SGR’s faulty assumptions would have forced annual fee cuts for physicians for every one of the past 15 years. The obvious folly of that policy drove Congress to override each of those cuts since 2002, often in desperate, last-minute or retroactive circumstances. The associated financial threats and uncertainty about business viability created continuously hazardous conditions for physicians.

MACRA also promised to simplify the ever-tightening thicket of federal regulations that strangle physicians’ practices. The draft regulations that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) published on May 9 fall far short of that promise. If implemented as written, they would dump additional bureaucratic work on physicians and their practices, and would continue to impose onerous federal controls on physicians and their practices — with no data to show that they would improve the quality of or access-to-care for patients. The system devised by CMS is far more costly, complex, and confusing than the costly, complex, and confusing programs it is replacing. Compliance would be especially difficult for small practices who may end up with Medicare payment penalties even if they spend the time and money to jump through all the new regulatory hoops. The budget-neutral system of bonuses and penalties pits physician practices against each other, so that there will be annually anointed winners and losers regardless of how well all practices “perform” on these new quality standards.

When MACRA legislation was enacted, TMA had no reason to expect CMS would propose to continue flawed concepts from the current quality programs along with plans to diminish a physician’s worth down to a complex point system. More disappointing is to learn that CMS proposes to design a program that is stacked against solo physicians and small group practices in its first year of implementation.

CMS and proponents of the agency’s proposed plan say it will streamline the current quality reporting systems and simplify the transition to value-based care. CMS Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt says “we have to get the hearts and minds of physicians back,” and he claims MACRA will “put physicians back in control.” Our analysis of the proposed regulations reveals something much to the contrary.

We found:
  • Costly Reporting and Compliance:
    The compliance, documentation, and reporting requirements related to the new combined incentive programs are inordinately costly for many physicians. CMS’ own figures show the new programs will add additional compliance costs of $128 million above the cost of the programs it is replacing.
  • Disjointed Timelines and Perverse Incentives:
    CMS has failed to properly engage physicians and guide them to successful participation since the current program began in 2007. The replacement does little to reverse the problems in the current systems, and in fact immediately increases the requirements for “success.” The first year of implementation is not the time to raise the bar and increase the degree of difficulty in meeting quality reporting requirements.
  • Metrics Outside of Physician Control:
    Vendors and patients, not physicians, have control over meeting MACRA’s standards and requirements. Physicians should not be penalized for the failures of their electronic health record (EHR) vendors or for the demographic or socioeconomic status of their patients.
  • Two Years Too Late:
    CMS plans to use two- year-old data to determine whether physicians receive a bonus or penalty. Data from 2017 will be used in 2019, 2018 data in 2020, and so on. At no point in the process will physicians be provided feedback on their current performance data or insights within the current performance year on how to improve their status, and no objective standard will exist for physicians to target. Physicians should be given real-time and correct information on their practices.
  • Arbitrary Incentives to Create Massive Changes in Physician Practice Type:
    The need for sophisticated support systems, the inflexibility of the measurement standards, and the lack of realistic incentives to change all create pressures for physicians to abandon small practices to join large ones — or to sell out to hospitals. In fact, CMS’ published data shows that payment penalties could decimate small practices, still the majority in Texas.
  • Cost Without Benefit to Medicare:
    There is no evidence that the incentives in the draft MACRA regulations are likely to be effective in improving care quality or increasing efficiency. Requirements should include only activities proven to actually enhance care quality, or to reduce cost with no adverse impact on quality, access, or productivity.
The nearly 50,000 physician and medical student members of the Texas Medical Association urge the leadership of CMS to chart a different course of action. We call on them to take the time necessary to ensure that this new law supports and enhances the physicians who provide the medical care to our nation’s 54 million Medicare beneficiaries. We urgently request that CMS stop moving down a path that threatens to plow under tens of thousands of physician practices and needlessly create an access crisis for patients covered by Medicare.

In general we are asking for time, fairness, simplicity, and flexibility. More precisely:
  • Exempt physicians who have no possibility of earning more than it costs them to report data, and do not force physicians into unacceptably risky payment models.
  • Establish objective and timely measurement and reporting systems that are simpler and less costly than those currently required. The focus should be improving care for all Medicare patients, not creating yearly physician winners and losers with payment affected two years after care has been delivered.

  • Use quality metrics that capture those activities that are under the physician’s control and have been shown to improve quality of care, enhance access-to-care, and/or reduce the cost of care. The focus should be on metrics that are most meaningful to a practice and its patients, not on what will result in the best “score.”
  • Allow physicians who want to shift to value-based care enough time to make this transition in a way that actually benefits their patients and does not cause undue collateral damage to their practices.
  • Require EHR vendors to build and maintain products that meet federal specifications rather than forcing physicians to purchase and constantly upgrade expensive and often-balky systems.
Last week I sat in the American Medical Association audience when Acting Administrator Slavitt said, “I am convinced that adding new regulations to an already busy health care system without improving how the pieces fit together just will not work.” He also said he wants to hear what practicing physicians think about this draft rule.

This practicing physician is telling Mr. Slavitt his plan just will not work. Change it.

Jun 12, 2016

VA Official Defends Proposed Scope of Practice Change

(CHICAGO) - The Department of Veterans Affairs’ plan to allow advance practice nurses (APRNs) to practice independently within the VA is “all about access,” a top official in the VA health care system told Texas physicians today.

"When we say independent practice for nurse practitioners, that's in the context of team-based care," a senior VA health official told the Texas Delegation to the American Medical Association. "I don't even know what an independent practitioner in the VA system would mean."

The official said VA “bet the farm around 2010 on the patient-centered medical home model” and depends on APRNs to help meet veterans’ growing demand for care within the VA system.

The Texas physicians, which included a number of military veterans, peppered the official with tough questions.

"Veterans deserve the highest and best care,” said Beaumont anesthesiologist Ray Callas, MD, a decorated U.S. Navy veteran of Operation Desert Storm. “In the most complicated cases, anesthesiologists should be in the lead."

Last month, the VA published a proposed rule that would allow APRNs — nurse anesthetists, nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and clinical nurse specialists — to practice independently within the VA health system. While this doesn't change state scope-of-practice laws for APRNs working outside the VA system, it overrides those laws for care being provided inside the VA.

Veterans' service organizations and more than 90 members of Congress are opposing this change on the grounds it jeopardizes veterans' safety. Comments on the draft rule are due July 25. TMA, the American Medical Association, the Coalition of State Medical Societies, and other medical societies will file formal comments in strong opposition.

The draft rule has stirred a storm of protest, particularly from anesthesiologists. The official said the VA already has received about 20,000 comments on the proposal, more than it has ever received on a proposed rule.

TMA urges Texas doctors to take a few minutes to tell VA officials what they think of the plan. Submit comments on the government's rulemaking website or through the American Society of Anesthesiologists' Safe VA Care website.

Despite the official's talk of team-based care, Fort Worth pediatrician Gary Floyd, MD, said an important phrase is missing in the VA’s draft rule. “It needs to be ‘physician-led,’” he said. “Please put that language back in.”

If the VA adopts the rule as written, Dr. Floyd said, groups like TMA will find it more difficult to protect physician-led team-based care in state legislatures.

“It needs to be a physician-led team, whether it's CRNAs or primary care,” he said. “That is the hallmark of quality care.”

Mar 2, 2016

Wednesday Morning Memo: Election Day Turns Out Great for Doctors, Patients – and #TEXPAC

By Steve Levine
TMA VP – Communications

While much of the state was engrossed in the obviously engrossing Super Tuesday presidential primary results last night, the Texas Medical Association and TEXPAC teams were studying the legislative and congressional races that will have a big impact on medicine going forward. 

Bottom line: we liked what we saw in the party primaries for the Texas House and Senate and U.S. Congress. The candidates who support patients and physicians, by and large, did well – some surprisingly well.

We have a few important runoffs coming up on May 24, and the November general elections will be important at the top of the ballot and for some local races. But most of the makeup of the 2017 Texas Legislature and the 2017 Texas delegation in Congress was decided yesterday.

As TEXPAC Board Chair Brad Holland, MD, pointed out last month, “With so few competitive districts around the state, the action is now, in the party primaries. The men and women who win their party’s nominations in the next few weeks very likely will be the people who will be making the final decisions in the legislature and in the courtrooms next year.”

See all of TEXPAC's endorsed candidates in the March 1 races and a description of how TEXPAC decides who to endorse.

Here’s our wrap-up of key TEXPAC victories:

Texas House of Representatives:

  • Speaker Joe Straus won easily against an onslaught of money and words from outside his San Antonio district.
  • State Affairs Committee Chair Byron Cook of Corsicana, Insurance Committee Chair John Frullo of Lubbock, and Insurance Committee Vice Chair Sergio Muñoz of Palmview all defeated strong challengers.
  • Former State Rep. High Shine of Temple ousted Rep. Molly White of Belton, who had medicine's second-worst voting record in the 2015 legislative session.
  • Key allies of doctors and patients – Reps. J.D. Sheffield, DO, of Gatesville; Jason Villalba of Dallas; Sarah Davis of West University Place; and Cindy Burkett of Sunnyvale – all came home winners.
  • There will be another doctor in the House: Anesthesiologist Tom Oliverson, MD, of Houston won his primary and is unopposed in the fall.
  • TEXPAC-endorsed candidates won in three other open House seats. In a fifth open seat to replace retiring Public Health Committee Chair Myra Crownover of Denton, the TEXPAC-supported candidate is leading going into the May 24 runoff.

Texas Senate

  • In Senate District 24, we couldn't ask for anything better. Both of TEXPAC’s endorsed candidates -- one an active TMA leader (ophthalmologist Dawn Buckingham, MD, of Lakeway) and one a nurse married to a TMA past president (Rep. Susan King of Abilene) – are headed to the May 24 runoff.
  • The TEXPAC-endorsed candidate in Senate District 1 in East Texas is leading big going into the other Senate open seat runoff.

U.S. House of Representatives

  • Ways and Means Committee Chair Kevin Brady of The Woodlands defeated three opponents to win. His committee has primary jurisdiction over Medicare.
  • Medicine’s champion – Rep. Michael Burgess, MD, of Denton, the only TMA member in Congress, architect of the bill that repealed Medicare’s hated Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula -- won handily.
  • Rep. Gene Green of Houston – ranking member of the Subcommittee on Health – won his race.