WASHINGTON Congress should establish a quality incentive payment policy for Medicare physicians, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission recommended.
In light of the challenges facing Medicare, "nothing is more important" than distinguishing between providers based on performance, MedPAC Chairman Glenn Hackbarth said at a commission meeting.
"Providers are not all created equalthere's abundant evidence that some providers do a better job than others. To continue to pay them as if they're all performing equally well is a tragic situation," he said.
And that was just one of several of the commission's recommendations aimed at establishing a pay-for-performance system across health care channels, using information technology in Medicare initiatives to financially reward providers on the basis of quality.
At press time, the recommendations were scheduled to appear in MedPAC's March report to Congress.
"Physicians are ready for a pay-for-performance program," Karen Milgate, a MedPAC research director said at the meeting.
Those participating in such a program could use various facets of information technology to manage patients, such as registries to track patients and identify when they need certain preventive services, or systems for detecting drug interactions, Ms. Milgate said.
These types of information have the potential to improve important aspects of care, and increase physician ability to assess and report on their care.
"Without information technology, it would be difficult for physicians to keep up with and apply the latest clinical science and appropriately track and follow up with patients," she said.
"This is true for primary care and especially for patients who have chronic conditions. But [it is] also true for surgeons and other specialists, to ensure follow-up after acute events and coordination with other settings of care," she commented.
Considering that it is the only information collected on physicians, Ms. Milgate pointed out that claims-based measures could be used to determine whether beneficiaries received appropriate follow-up care.
The claims-based process puts no burden on physicians and research shows it's widely available for a broad group of beneficiaries and physicians, she said. "However, the depth of information on each kind of physician is unclear and we do know that claims based measures are not available for every single type of physician."
Because these actions would redistribute resources that are already in the system, they would not affect spending relative to current law, although they may increase or lower payments for providers, depending on the quality of their care, she indicated.
Nicholas Wolter, M.D., a MedPAC commissioner from Billings, Mont., cautioned that physicians may be reluctant to embrace yet another change that would limit their revenue, after the sustainable growth rate. Pay for performance might be "another irritation, rather than an incentive."
Are all physicians equally ready for such a system? "I'm not sure that's true," he added.
Smaller practices in particular may not be ready to provide the clinical information necessary for a mature pay-for-performance initiative, Alan Nelson, M.D., a commissioner who represents the American College of Physicians, said in an interview.
"However, the insistence of payers for incentives to promote quality is something that can't be ignored," he told this newspaper.
Although a differential payment system that rewards higher quality "is almost certainly in our future," Medicare should proceed with caution on this initiative, taking care to not increase the administrative burdenand always being aware of unintended consequences, Dr. Nelson said.
Most of these information technology developments "seem to apply more to primary care physicians than other specialties," observed commissioner William Scanlon, Ph.D., a health policy consultant from Oak Hill, Va. "The question is how we would differentiate the rewards for different specialties even on the structural measures."
He suggested that Congress create a project to test these rewards on an ongoing basis, to accumulate evidence that it was working effectively among the various specialties.
Mandating use of information technology could accelerate use, but "providers could find such a requirement to be overly burdensome," MedPAC analyst Chantal Worzala said. Such requirements could become appropriate as the health care market develops.
The panel also recommended that prescription claims data from Medicare's Part D program be available for assessing the quality of pharmaceutical and physician care.
"Linking prescription data with physician claims could help identify a broader set of patients with certain conditions, and help determine whether they filled or refilled a prescription and received appropriate pharmaceutical care," Ms. Milgate said.
Financial rewards could also be given to providers who improve outcomes in care for their patients in other settings, such as physicians whose patients do better in hospitals, or home health agencies that manage their patients' care transition to nursing homes, MedPAC analyst Sharon Bee Cheng told commissioners at the meeting.