Medicare:

Action Needed to Address Higher Use of Anatomic Pathology Services by Providers Who Self-Refer

GAO-13-445: Published: Jun 24, 2013. Publicly Released: Jul 15, 2013.

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What GAO Found

Self-referred anatomic pathology services increased at a faster rate than non-self-referred services from 2004 to 2010. During this period, the number of self-referred anatomic pathology services more than doubled, growing from 1.06 million services to about 2.26 million services, while non-self-referred services grew about 38 percent, from about 5.64 million services to about 7.77 million services. Similarly, the growth rate of expenditures for self-referred anatomic pathology services was higher than for non-self-referred services. Three provider specialties--dermatology, gastroenterology, and urology--accounted for 90 percent of referrals for self-referred anatomic pathology services in 2010.

Referrals for anatomic pathology services by dermatologists, gastroenterologists, and urologists substantially increased the year after they began to self-refer. Providers that began self-referring in 2009--referred to as switchers--had increases in anatomic pathology services that ranged on average from 14.0 percent to 58.5 percent in 2010 compared to 2008, the year before they began self-referring, across these provider specialties. In comparison, increases in anatomic pathology referrals for providers who continued to self-refer or never self-referred services during this period were much lower. Thus, the increase in anatomic pathology referrals for switchers was not due to a general increase in use of these services among all providers. GAO's examination of all providers that referred an anatomic pathology service in 2010 showed that self-referring providers of the specialties we examined referred more services on average than non-self referring providers. Differences in referral for these services generally persisted after accounting for geography and patient characteristics such as health status and diagnosis. These analyses suggest that financial incentives for self-referring providers were likely a major factor driving the increase in referrals.

GAO estimates that in 2010, self-referring providers likely referred over 918,000 more anatomic pathology services than if they had performed biopsy procedures at the same rate as and referred the same number of services per biopsy procedure as non-self-referring providers. These additional referrals for anatomic pathology services cost Medicare about $69 million. To the extent that these additional referrals were unnecessary, avoiding them could result in savings to Medicare and beneficiaries, as they share in the cost of services.

Why GAO Did This Study

Questions have been raised about self-referral's role in Medicare Part B expenditures' rapid growth. Self-referral occurs when providers refer patients to entities in which they or their family members have a financial interest. Services that can be self-referred under certain circumstances include anatomic pathology--the preparation and examination of tissue samples to diagnose disease. GAO was asked to examine the prevalence of anatomic pathology self-referral and its effect on Medicare spending. This report examines (1) trends in the number of and expenditures for self-referred and non-self-referred anatomic pathology services, (2) how provision of these services may differ on the basis of whether providers self-refer, and (3) implications of self-referral for Medicare spending. GAO analyzed Medicare Part B claims data from 2004 through 2010 and interviewed officials from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and other stakeholders. GAO developed a claims-based approach to identify self-referred services because Medicare claims lack such an indicator.

What GAO Recommends

CMS should identify self-referred anatomic pathology services and address their higher use. The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees CMS, agreed with GAO's recommendation that CMS address higher use of self-referral through a payment approach, but disagreed with GAO's other two recommendations to identify self-referred services and address their higher use. GAO believes the recommended actions could result in Medicare savings.

For more information, contact James C. Cosgrove at (202) 512-7114 or cosgrovej@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In June 2013, we recommended that the Administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) insert a self-referral flag on Medicare Part B claim forms and require providers to indicate whether the anatomic pathology services for which the provider bills Medicare are self-referred or not. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) did not concur with this recommendation, noting that CMS does not believe that this recommendation will address overutilization that occurs as a result of self-referral. We continue to believe that such a flag on Part B claims would likely be the easiest and most cost-effective way for CMS to identify self-referred anatomic pathology services and monitor the behavior of those providers who self-refer these services. As of June 2017, CMS has not provided any additional information about actions to address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: In order to improve CMS's ability to identify self-referred anatomic pathology services and help CMS avoid unnecessary increases in these services, the Administrator of CMS should insert a self-referral flag on Medicare Part B claim forms and require providers to indicate whether the anatomic pathology services for which the provider bills Medicare are self-referred or not.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In June 2013, we recommended that the Administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) implement an approach to ensure the appropriateness of biopsy procedures performed by self-referring providers. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) does not concur with this recommendation and does not believe it would address overutilization that occurs as a result of self-referral. HHS noted that it would be difficult to make recommendations regarding whether anatomic pathology services are appropriate without reviewing a large number of claims. We continue to believe that it is important for CMS to monitor the self-referral of anatomic pathology services on an ongoing basis and determine if those services are inappropriate or unnecessary. We also continue to believe this can be achieved without reviewing a large number of claims. CMS could, for example, consider performing targeted audits of providers that perform a higher average number of biopsy procedures compared to providers of the same specialty treating similar numbers of Medicare beneficiaries. As of June 2017, CMS has not provided any additional information about actions to address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: In order to improve CMS's ability to identify self-referred anatomic pathology services and help CMS avoid unnecessary increases in these services, the Administrator of CMS should determine and implement an approach to ensure the appropriateness of biopsy procedures performed by self-referring providers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In June 2013, we recommended that the Administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) develop and implement a payment approach for anatomic pathology services under the Physician Fee Schedule that would limit the financial incentives associated with referring a higher number of specimens--anatomic pathology services--per biopsy procedure. Although health care providers have discretion in determining the number of tissue samples from biopsy procedures that become specimens (anatomic pathology services), CMS's current payment system under the Physician Fee Schedule provides a financial incentive for providers to refer more specimens per biopsy procedure. Specifically, CMS pays for each specimen that a provider submits to be analyzed. HHS indicated that it concurred with our recommendation and that it had addressed this recommendation by reducing payment for the most commonly furnished anatomic pathology service (Current Procedural Terminology [CPT] code 88305) by approximately 30 percent in calendar year 2013. However, CMS's payment reduction did not change the financial incentive providers have to refer more specimens per biopsy procedure because they will still be paid separately for each specimen submitted. We continue to believe that CMS should develop a payment approach that addresses this incentive. As of June 2017, CMS had not provided any additional information about actions it has taken to address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: In order to improve CMS's ability to identify self-referred anatomic pathology services and help CMS avoid unnecessary increases in these services, the Administrator of CMS should develop and implement a payment approach for anatomic pathology services that would limit the financial incentives associated with referring a higher number of specimens--or anatomic pathology services--per biopsy procedure.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

 

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