MACRA and the ethics of physician burnout

Medicare's New Physician Payment System

Health Affairs, Health Policy Briefs, April 21, 2016

An overwhelming body of research in recent years found that medical care in the United States was neither efficient nor as effective as it could be. Inappropriate and excessive care is common even as rising health care costs burden government, business, and families.

Against this backdrop, government and private-sector leaders have resolved to transform how physicians are paid in a way that holds them more accountable for the care they deliver. The latest salvo in this effort was the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) of 2015, signed into law April 16, 2015.

What's in the law?

Initially, physicians can choose a program called the Merit-Based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) or join an alternative payment model such as an accountable care organization or patient-centered medical home. If they make no choice or are deemed to be ineligible for an alternative payment model incentive payment, they will be assigned to MIPS.

At the same time, three existing payment incentive and quality improvement initiatives will be dissolved as separate programs and melded into MIPS. They are the Physician Quality Reporting System, Meaningful Use, and the Physician Value-Based Payment Modifier.

Physicians in MIPS must report performance measures to CMS. They'll then be graded on four factors: quality of care (30 percent); resource use (30 percent); meaningful use of EHRs (25 percent); and clinical practice improvement activities (15 percent).

High-scoring physicians will get a bonus, and low-scoring physicians will see their fees reduced.

Physicians choosing the alternative payment model path will have to join an accountable care organization or an approved patient-centered medical home, or otherwise be in an alternative payment model entity where payment is at least partly based on quality performance and on total spending. Payment tied to performance must be 25 percent of a doctor's or group practice's Medicare revenue in 2019, increasing to 75 percent in 2022.

'Volume to value'--slogan or sound policy?

Some critics argue that the volume-to-value movement is, for now, based more on faith than on strong evidence. For example, they cite the experience of countries in Europe that control spending primarily through regulating prices and fees in fee-for-service systems, instead of through performance measurement and payment incentives.

Critics also argue that "value" in medicine is an elusive concept and not one likely to be pinned down through a single composite score. As yet, these critics further allege, value has not been clearly pegged or produced by accountable care organizations, patient-centered medical homes, or integrated health care systems.


The Mess That is MACRA

By Kip Sullivan
The Health Care Blog, April 21, 2016

MACRA (the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act) is a mess. It is extremely difficult to comprehend, it is based on assumptions that defy commonsense and research, and it may raise costs.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) would never say what I have just said, but MedPAC definitely understands MACRA’s defects. The transcripts of MedPAC’s October 8, 2015 and January 15, 2016 meetings indicate that members and staff perceive daunting impediments to the implementation of MACRA. But those transcripts also suggest that MedPAC won’t tell Congress to rewrite or repeal MACRA. Rather, the evidence suggests MedPAC will mince words. It appears MedPAC will send CMS and Congress a few wishes dressed up as “principles” and wait for MACRA’s inevitable failure before offering more useful advice.

MIPS: Measuring the unmeasurable

The MIPS program was designed for doctors who can’t or won’t join the ACO-medical-home bandwagon. MIPS inflicts huge rewards and penalties (up to 9 percent of the average annual Part B payout per physician) based on a single “value” score (a score derived by the capricious jamming of crude quality and cost measures into one number) for each doctor. As commissioner Gradison put it, MIPS was designed for “the laggards, the people who stand for the status quo,” the knuckle-draggers who just won’t get with the Managed Care 2.0 program.

Sand castles on top of sand castles: The APM program

I suspect the reason Congress did not populate the APM compartment with clearly defined entities is that Boehner et al. knew full well that the first iteration of “value-based” entities – the ACOs and “medical homes” authorized by the Affordable Care Act – have not panned out. We know that MedPAC understands that. In its reports to Congress, and in statements by staff and members, MedPAC has clearly indicated they understand that ACOs and “homes” are saving little or no money and are having at best minor and mixed effects on quality.

It is fair to say, then, that MedPAC understands that Congress has essentially instructed CMS to build a new layer of undefined, unproven APMs on top of the existing layer of poorly defined and unproven ACOs and “homes,” in other words, a second layer of sand castles over an existing layer of sand castles.

Congress and CMS don’t need to hear any more abstract and wishful remarks about MACRA. They need to hear useful feedback. MedPAC should tell Congress MACRA is an unworkable mess and must be repealed or amended.


Physician Burnout Is a Public Health Crisis, Ethicist Says

By Arthur L. Caplan, PhD
Medscape, March 4, 2016

We've got a problem in this country with doctors. It's kind of an epidemic, but no one is talking about it. It is burnout. A recent study from the Mayo Clinic showed that in 2011, 45.5% of doctors reported that they felt burned out, and that number has now risen to 54.4% in 2014.

This is really trouble. It's trouble because a doctor who feels this way can commit more errors. They suffer from compassion fatigue, or just not being able to empathize with others because they have their own emotional issues. They may retire early, thereby reducing the workforce. They may have problems managing their own lives; 400 doctors committed suicide last year, which is double the rate of the population average. There's trouble for patients in having a workforce that's burned out. There's trouble for doctors in terms of their own health and well-being.

When we institute new software or when we have new bureaucratic regulations, I think somebody ought to ask what this does to the workforce. If one more doctor complains to me about Epic and other types of electronic record keeping and billing forms, it'll be one doctor too many. It takes a lot of energy. It makes people unhappy. A lot of the software and computer assistance that's out there doesn't seem to help the doctor; it makes more work or makes them frustrated. It also seems to me that if you look at what's going on with respect to regulations and administrative or bureaucratic requirements, nobody is saying, "Hey, is this user-friendly? What's the burden that it's putting on the doctor?" It's just done to save money or allow people to collect bills more reliably, but it's not asking what it's taking out of our workforce.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD is from the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Langone Medical Center.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

We now have an epidemic of physician burnout. It has become a crisis not only because of what it does to physicians’ well-being but also because of a deterioration in the all-important physician-patient relationship and in the medical practice environment.

A major contributor to burnout is the subversion of physician independence to the massive misdirected oversight interposed by public and private insurance bureaucracies. Little need be said about the private insurance bureaucracies that waste tremendous resources while creating havoc in our health care delivery system. We merely need to eliminate the private insurers and replace them with a single payer national health program.

Our government has established policies that result in Medicare gradually being shifted to the private Medicare Advantage insurers and Medicaid being shifted to private managed care organizations. In the past we’ve covered the reasons why privatization is a terrible idea, and we won’t go into that now. We’ll merely say that moving on to single payer should eliminate the privatization schemes.

Today’s message is more narrowly targeted to the problem that the public bureaucracies are creating, especially Medicare. MACRA with its MIPS (merit-based incentive payment system) and its APMs (alternative payment models) epitomize the bureaucratic interference of the federal government in our public programs. For more details, you should read the full articles cited today. These are concepts thought up by the policy community working with our government bureaucrats. They are relying on intuition since there is little in policy science to support MIPS and APMs. Initial results have been quite disappointing yet they are moving full steam ahead with these programs.

The burden on physicians and other health professionals will be great and can only exacerbate current trends leading to burnout. Public policies that make health care worse are unethical policies - the gist of today’s message.

We need to expand policies that serve the public in their need to have affordable access to health care. On May 5 we will be releasing an update of the Physicians’ Proposal which describes the policies we need to ensure comprehensive health care for everyone, in a pleasant environment that optimizes the health care experience. Watch for it.

Once we have that system in place it will be imperative for us to exercise continuing due diligence in ensuring that our political and policy stewards support the ideology of health care justice for all through public policies, while dismissing would-be stewards who support Randian you’re-on-your-own ideology that dominates the private arena.