Tag Archives: medicare

Obama’s Latest Bait and Switch for Docs: Medicaid Payments to be Cut by 40%

As we enter year two of the Affordable Care Act, we have seen many issues arise during implementation.  Through both executive order and executive memorandum, President Obama has unilaterally changed the law more than 100 times in order to advance his own political agenda.  When it became important to publicize enrollment and increased coverage of the uninsured, the President and the ACA provided for an increased payment scale for patients with Medicaid.  With the rapid increase of Medicaid insured patients due to the implementation of the ACA, the administration utilized the increased payments as an incentive to attract more physicians to participate in Medicaid programs.  According to the New York Times, the ACA has resulted in the largest increase in Medicaid covered patients in history–now nearly 20% of all Americans are covered under this plan.  Attracting physicians to cover Medicare patients has been critical in order to meet the demand for access to care and  to adequately cover the newly insured.  Now, unless changes are made this week, Medicaid reimbursements will be cut once again leaving many physicians to wonder if they can continue to treat the increasing numbers of Americans covered thru these programs.

Traditionally, Medicaid has reimbursed physicians at rates significantly lower than Medicare–making practices with large numbers of Medicaid patients financially non viable.  As the ACA was rolled out, a provision provided for significantly better Medicaid payment rates to physicians in order to help provide larger networks of care for the newly insured.  Now, there looms an automatic payment rate cut of nearly 43% for Medicaid payments to primary care physicians–many of these are the same physicians who agreed to expand Medicaid within their practices in order to meet demand.  According to Forbes, traditional Medicaid reimbursement averages just 61% of Medicare reimbursement rates (which is often significantly lower than private insurance rates).  In addition, many Medicaid patients require a disproportionate amount of time and resources from the office–doctors are caught between a “rock and a hard place”–between a moral obligation to treat these patients and a desire to avoid financial ruin.  These patients tend to be sicker, have multiple medical problems and have suffered from a long time lack of preventive care.

Finances are not the only piece of the Medicaid puzzle. Government regulation and paperwork and processing often delays payments to physicians and impacts their ability to run a financially sound business.   Interestingly, a study from 2013 published in Health Affairs suggested that while physicians welcomed an increase in reimbursement rates as incentive to treat Medicaid patients that quicker payment times, reduced paperwork and simplified administrative processes would also need to be a part of any type of reform.  (of course, none of these items were included in the incentive package).

Many primary care physicians stepped up to answer the call for increasing coverage of Medicare patients when the ACA was initially rolled out.  Now, these same physicians are contemplating the need to drop these patients from their clinics with the pending change in reimbursement.  As mentioned above, in addition to lower reimbursement rates, the Medicaid program requires an enormous amount of administrative work in order to file claims and these claims are often paid very late–those running a small practice are forced with more work for less pay and often have to make difficult budgetary decisions in order to  payroll for their staff each week.   While the administration touts the swelling numbers of Medicaid covered patients–nearly 68 million currently–I suspect access to quality care will soon become an issue.  Just as with every other manipulation of the ACA over the last two years, legacy and political agendas have taken precedent over what really should matter–providing quality medical care AND prompt, easy access to care for the formerly uninsured.  In an effort to tout swelling numbers of “covered” Americans, the Obama administration has failed to anticipate the impact of short term financial incentives for primary care physicians to accept increasing numbers of Medicare patients.  Even in states such as California, officials are bracing for a large number of physicians who have announced that they will likely drop out of Medicaid plans if the planned cuts are implemented as scheduled.

It is time for the Obama administration to stop playing political games with our healthcare.  If the mission of the ACA is to provide affordable quality healthcare for all Americans, then we need to ensure that there are quality, dedicated physicians available to provide that care.  The Medicaid “bait and switch” is just one example of our President’s shortsightedness and lack of connection to those dedicated physicians who work tirelessly to ensure that ALL patients have access to care (regardless of insurance type).  It is my hope that the new Congress will engage with the physician community and find real solutions to the US healthcare crisis–and no longer allow the President to place his perceived legacy over the healthcare of those Americans who are in need.

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Image adapted from The Peanuts comic strip by Charles Shultz

The Electronic Medical Record Mandate and Managing Fraud: More Government Ineptness?

The Obama administration has clearly mandated that Electronic Medical Records (EMR) will be necessary in order to comply with Federal regulations for reimbursement for both hospitals and physicians.  The transition to EMR is an important step towards streamlining patient care–however, the current implementation of EMR is fraught with complications, workflow issues and system wide “bugs”.  At this point in the US there are numerous EMR systems and no absolute standard which continues to make communication between different hospital systems and physicians difficult at times.  I realize that the EMR mandate has spanned more than one administration and let me state at the very outset that I am 100% FOR the implementation of an electronic medical record system–However, I would like to see the transition be done in a stepwise, intelligent way that allows for universal portability within the US.   Moreover, the EMR should be electronically available to all patients via smartphone and tablet download from the mysterious (and hopefully secure) “cloud”.

The EMR when properly managed can provide detailed notes that are easily applied to templates for billing medicare and medicaid documentation (it allows MDs to correctly bill the level of service based on comparison of the patient’s newly created chart note to standards for required components).  However, the time involved in documenting via EMR (especially in the transition phase in a busy practice) can be overwhelming.  Physicians and other providers are already overwhelmed with offices full of patients–longer hours, more appointments and loads of new paperwork. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) promises to add loads of newly insured sick patients to the practice workload.  Add to that a cumbersome computer system and it is likely that errors will occur.

This week in the New York Times, Abelson and Creswell report on the new Department of Justice focus on EMR fraud activities.  The Office of Inspector General (OIG) for HHS released a report on Tuesday (the second in two months) warning of the potential widespread fraud and abuse occurring as a result of EMR implementation.  The warning specifically cites a lack of oversight and safeguards in the Federal government to prevent these from occurring.  The government has already spent nearly $22 Billion dollars on the push for conversion from paper to EMR in the US.  (sound familiar?  rapid roll out of new technology without proper evaluation).

According to the New York Times report, the central issue with the EMR and potential fraud has to do with the lack of regulations surrounding the common practice of “copy and paste” known as “cloning”.  For many physicians, the ability to cut and paste data and information from one place to another in a note or within a patient’s particular chart can significantly improve efficiency and reduce the amount of time that is spent inputting redundant data into a patient’s record.  Critics of this practice, including the OIG, suggest that in many cases the importation of data from note to note or chart to chart results in “overbilling” for services that were not in fact rendered.  For example, if a chart note from a follow-up visit of moderate complexity  is “cloned” with data from a previous visit where the level of service was more extensive than the current visit, then charges may be filed for an level of complexity that was not, in fact, provided.  The OIG statement goes on to warn that their “level of involvement in EMR cases [will] increase” and that dealing with documentation “fraud” via cloning in EMR will become a “top priority”.  In a survey conducted by HHS and released in a previous report, the OIG found that very few hospitals and medical practices have any guidelines or restrictions on “cloning” notes for documentation.

Once again, in my opinion, our government has missed its mark.  Instead of carefully creating a universally acceptable and streamlined EMR that allows for responsible and efficient data entry AND migration of data to subsequent encounters, federal regulators have issued yet another mandate without a clear vision of its implications.  As I stated earlier, I believe EMR is vital for patient information management and will ultimately help us provide more streamlined care that is evidenced based.  Unfortunately, the current EMR systems that are in place do not place a priority on ease of use, efficiency or portability.  Although I am sure that there is some intentional documentation fraud occurring, I would suggest that the majority of physicians and other providers are simply trying to “get the job done” and move on to more important patient care activities.  EMR documentation can be slow and arduous.  During transition phases, many providers report 2-3 extra hours added to their days for documentation activities.  No physician wants to continually take a practice laptop home in order to finish entering EMR notes during family time night after night.  Cloning data is a simple way to carry over information such as medication lists, past medical histories and other information in order to improve efficiency while at the same time providing adequate documentation.  As with most things, this type of data migration is easy to abuse if physicians do not pay special attention to ensure that the migrated data is both accurate and representative of the work that was performed.

As the current administration has clearly demonstrated with the rollout of the  ACA,  as well as with the new ICD-10 coding system and the EMR mandates, sweeping reform that is rushed to completion without a full understanding of its implications is doomed to fail.  Putting politics and power ahead of good sense has resulted in increased cost for these government mandated programs.  As a nation we must certainly work to prevent fraud and abuse as part of our efforts to curtail healthcare costs.  However, as we initiate reforms, we must do a much better job of anticipating issues with new technologies and work to deal with them on the front end–if we do not, we can expect costs to continue to rise.

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The Doctor Shortage of Tomorrow: Fact or Fiction?

This week in the New York Times, Drs Scott Gottlieb and Ezekiel Emanuel make the case in an Op Ed piece that there will NOT be a physician shortage as a result of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Both have extensive experience in policy and have held respected positions in government.  Based on a projected need of nearly 90,000 more physicians by 2020, I have difficulty seeing how a shortage will not occur.  The Affordable Care Act has already demonstrated the ineptness of government to manage healthcare–the laughable website rollout, newly discovered “backend” issues with signups, inaccurate quotes and information and questionable security (and this is all since October).  Now, as the mandates loom, consumers are beginning to wonder where exactly they will be able to get care and who may be providing it…

How can there NOT be a physician shortage?

Using the Massachusetts healthcare plan as an example, Drs Gottlieb and Emmanuel argue that the shortage predictions are flawed.  However, Massachusetts is not at all representative of the entirely of the US–one cannot extrapolate the response in Massachusetts to the rural Midwest, or the Deep South or Sunny California.  Moreover, the provisions and funding of the legislation in Massachusetts are very different from those in the ACA.  (its like comparing apples to oranges).  They argue that the biggest driver of increased physician manpower needs is more related to an aging population rather than the impacts of Obamacare and the flood of new patients that are insured by either medicaid or the ACA Exchanges that are able to set reimbursement levels at new all time lows.  They state that the solution to shortage issues will come in the form of technology driven “remote medicine” and the use of non Physician extenders such as Advanced practice nurses and Physician assistants. Moreover, they go on to argue that the solution is NOT producing more doctors–rather it is getting those of us in current practice to become “more efficient”

Really?  We are already doing more every day with much much less than we have had in the past….

As doctors often do in clinical practice,  I respectfully disagree with their assessment.  Obamacare will soon flood the system with millions of newly insured patients.  As evidenced by the current climate in California, many physicians will choose NOT to participate in the exchanges due to very poor reimbursement rates.  Recent surveys in that state found that nearly 75% of doctors would not take the Exchange insurance or Medicaid due to the fact that the Exchange payments were far below the standard CMS Medicare rates.  Many practices are unable to maintain autonomy as payments continue to decrease–many are being integrated into hospital systems.  Overhead continues to increase in order to meet Federal requirements for electronic documentation and records as well as maintaining coding experts to keep up with the ever changing systems such as the newly minted ICD-10 to be implemented in 2014.   The concept of a completely free standing private practice will no longer exist within the next 3 years.  Whether in academic or private settings, all physician groups will be employees of health conglomerates.

What is ultimately going to drive the physician shortage and what are the potential solutions?

For starters…I certainly do not have all the answers….While I do agree that the aging population certainly presents a manpower challenge, I do not concede that this alone will be the driving force behind any potential physician shortage.  Medicine is becoming less attractive for young bright students considering a career in healthcare.  Training physicians is expensive–medical schools are pricey for potential students and post-graduate training (Internship, Residency and Fellowship) are costly for the academic centers where they learn.  Financially, students may no longer be able to incur the significant debt (in the hundreds of thousands of dollars) that continues to accrue when attending medical school when the job prospects promise declining financial rewards.  Once in practice, newly minted MDs will find that their hours are longer and the time that they spend with each patient will be more limited–increasing documentation requirements will result in more screen time and less time listening and bonding.

Physicians are essential to the delivery of care.  However, I also recognize the vital role that physician extenders play in healthcare today (and will in the future).  Nurse practitioners, Physician Assistants and Pharmacists are critical in ensuring that patient care is optimized.  These providers must work in concert with physicians–approaching the whole patient in a team care model will ultimately improve outcomes.  But, utilizing these allied health professionals in more independent and unsupervised roles as Drs Gottlieb and Emmanuel suggest is reckless.  Although well trained and expert in their scope of practice, these allied health professionals are not physicians–they have not completed the academic rigors of a four year medical school nor gained the experience of a 3-8 year Residency and Fellowship.  Replacing doctors with other provider types will NOT eliminate the need for physicians and will NOT forestall the expected physician shortage as we move into 2014 and beyond.  We must continue to work with physician extenders and other allied health professionals in order to meet the increasing demands of a busy medical practice–I do not advocate for the independent practice that is currently being considered in many states.

Remote medicine, telemedicine and remote monitoring are certainly complementary and extremely valuable in providing care.  In fact, as Drs Gottlieb and Emanuel suggest, these modalities may reduce the number of doctor visits and may play a major role in prevention.  While I am a real advocate for utilizing technology to engage patients and facilitate care, face to face interactions between doctor and patient must still be a part of the process.  We cannot rely on computers and other electronic devices in isolation–they can, however, enhance the delivery of care when carefully included in a comprehensive treatment plan.

Are We Simply Losing Our Way As Medicine Remains in crisis….

Ultimately, time will certainly determine the state of physician supply.  If we remain on our current course and continue to fund and implement (albeit haphazardly) the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, we will ultimately see the fallout of a significant physician shortage.  Long lines, significant wait times and scarcity of both newly trained primary care and specialty doctors will become reality.  Medicine in our country is at a crossroads. We must continue to advocate for our patients and protect our right to practice our noble profession in a way that provides the best possible outcomes for our patients today and in the future.

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