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Medicare faces calls to stop physician pay cuts in E/M overhaul


Medicare officials must soon decide whether to kick off next year with a shift of money away from specialties centered around procedures and toward primary care and other fields more focused on office visits.

A planned overhaul of reimbursement for evaluation and management (E/M) services emerged as perhaps the most contentious issue connected to Medicare’s 2021 payment policies for clinicians.

A nurse holding up a sign that says Medicare roobcio/Thinkstock

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) included the planned E/M overhaul — and accompanying offsets — in the draft 2021 physician fee schedule, released in August. The draft fee schedule drew at least 45,675 responses by October 5, the deadline for offering comments, with many of the responses addressing the E/M overhaul.

The influential Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) “strongly” endorsed the “budget-neutral” approach taken with the E/M overhaul. This planned reshuffling of payments is a step toward addressing a shortfall of primary care clinicians, inasmuch as it would help make this field more financially appealing, MedPAC said in an October 2 letter to CMS.

In contrast, physician organizations, including the American Medical Association (AMA), asked CMS to waive or revise the budget-neutral aspect of the E/M overhaul. Among the specialties slated for reductions are those deeply involved with the response to the pandemic, wrote James L. Madara, AMA’s chief executive officer, in an October 5 comment to CMS. Emergency medicine as a field would see a 6% cut, and infectious disease specialists, a 4% reduction.

“Payment reductions of this magnitude would be a major problem at any time, but to impose cuts of this magnitude during or immediately after the COVID-19 pandemic, including steep cuts to many of the specialties that have been on the front lines in efforts to treat patients in places with widespread infection, is unconscionable,” Madara wrote.

Madara also said specialties scheduled for payment reductions include those least able to make up for the lack of in-person care as a result of the uptick in telehealth during the pandemic.

A chart in the draft physician fee schedule (Table 90) shows reductions for many specialties that do not routinely bill for office visits. The table shows an 8% cut for anesthesiologists, a 7% cut for general surgeons, and a 6% cut for ophthalmologists. Table 90 also shows an estimated 11% reduction for radiologists and a 9% drop for pathologists.

The draft rule notes that these figures are based upon estimates of aggregate allowed charges across all services, so they may not reflect what any particular clinician might receive.

In total, Table 90 shows how the E/M changes and connected offsets would affect more than 50 fields of medicine. The proposal includes a 17% expected increase for endocrinologists and a 14% bump for those in hematology/oncology. There are expected increases of 13% for family practice and 4% for internal medicine.

This reshuffling of payments among specialties is only part of the 2021 E/M overhaul. There’s strong support for other aspects, making it unlikely that CMS would consider dropping the plan entirely.

“CMS’ new office visit policy will lead to significant administrative burden reduction and will better describe and recognize the resources involved in clinical office visits as they are performed today,” AMA’s Madara wrote in his comment.

Changes for the billing framework for E/M slated to start in 2021 are the result of substantial collaboration by an AMA-convened work group, which brought together more than 170 state medical and specialty societies, Madara said in his comment.

CMS has been developing this plan for several years. It outlined this 2021 E/M overhaul in the 2020 Medicare physician fee schedule finalized last year.

Madara urged CMS to proceed with the E/M changes but also “exercise the full breadth and depth of its administrative authority” to avoid or minimize the planned cuts.

“To be clear, we are not asking CMS to phase in implementation of the E/M changes but rather to phase in the payment reductions for certain specialties and health professionals in 2021 due to budget neutrality,” he wrote.

Other groups asking CMS to waive the budget-neutrality requirement include the American College of Physicians, the American College of Emergency Physicians, the American Society for Radiation Oncology, and the American Society of Neuroradiology.

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) asked CMS to temporarily waive the budget-neutrality requirement and pressed the agency to maintain the underlying principle of the E/M overhaul.

“Should HHS [Department of Health and Human Services] use its authority to waive budget neutrality, we also recommend that CMS finalize a reinstatement plan for the conversion factor reductions that provides physician practices with ample time to prepare and does not result in a financial cliff,” wrote John S. Cullen, MD, board chair for AAFP, in a September 28 comment to CMS.

Owing to the declaration of a public health emergency, HHS could use a special provision known as 1135 waiver authority to waive budget-neutrality requirements, Cullen wrote.

“The AAFP understands that HHS’ authority is limited by the timing of the end of the public health emergency, but we believe that this approach will provide Congress with needed time to enact an accompanying legislative solution,” he wrote.


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