Medicare Physician Payment Rates:

Better Data and Greater Transparency Could Improve Accuracy

GAO-15-434: Published: May 21, 2015. Publicly Released: May 21, 2015.

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What GAO Found

The American Medical Association/Specialty Society Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC) has a process in place to regularly review Medicare physicians' services' work relative values (which reflect the time and intensity needed to perform a service). Its recommendations to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that administers Medicare, though, may not be accurate due to process and data-related weaknesses. First, the RUC's process for developing relative value recommendations relies on the input of physicians who may have potential conflicts of interest with respect to the outcomes of CMS's process. While the RUC has taken steps to mitigate the impact of physicians' potential conflicts of interest, a member of the RUC told GAO that specialty societies' work relative value recommendations may still be inflated. RUC staff indicated that the RUC may recommend a work relative value to CMS that is less than the specialty societies' median survey result if the value seems accurate based on the RUC members' clinical expertise or by comparing the value to those of related services. Second, GAO found weaknesses with the RUC's survey data, including that some of the RUC's survey data had low response rates, low total number of responses, and large ranges in responses, all of which may undermine the accuracy of the RUC's recommendations. For example, while GAO found that the median number of responses to surveys for payment year 2015 was 52, the median response rate was only 2.2 percent, and 23 of the 231 surveys had under 30 respondents.

CMS's process for establishing relative values embodies several elements that cast doubt on whether it can ensure accurate Medicare payment rates and a transparent process. First, although CMS officials stated that CMS complies with the statutory requirement to review all Medicare services every 5 years, the agency does not maintain a database to track when a service was last valued or have a documented standardized process for prioritizing its reviews. Second, CMS's process is not fully transparent because the agency does not publish the potentially misvalued services identified by the RUC in its rulemaking or otherwise, and thus stakeholders are unaware that these services will be reviewed and payment rates for these services may change. Third, CMS provides some information about its process in its rulemaking, but does not document the methods used to review specific RUC recommendations. For example, CMS does not document what resources were considered during its review of the RUC's recommendations for specific services. Finally, the evidence suggests—and CMS officials acknowledge—that the agency relies heavily on RUC recommendations when establishing relative values. For example, GAO found that, in the majority of cases, CMS accepts the RUC's recommendations and participation by other stakeholders is limited. Given the process and data-related weaknesses associated with the RUC's recommendations, such heavy reliance on the RUC could result in inaccurate Medicare payment rates. CMS has begun to research ways to develop an approach for validating RUC recommendations, but does not yet have a specific plan for doing so. In addition, CMS does not yet have a plan for how it will use funds Congress appropriated for the collection and use of data on physicians' services or address the other data challenges GAO identified.

Why GAO Did This Study

Payments for Medicare physicians' services totaled about $70 billion in 2013. CMS sets payment rates for about 7,000 physicians' services primarily on the basis of the relative values assigned to each service. Relative values largely reflect estimates of the physician work and practice expenses needed to provide one service relative to other services.

The Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014 included a provision for GAO to study the RUC's process for developing relative value recommendations for CMS. GAO evaluated (1) the RUC's process for recommending relative values for CMS to consider when setting Medicare payment rates; and (2) CMS's process for establishing relative values, including how it uses RUC recommendations. GAO reviewed RUC and CMS documents and applicable statutes and internal control standards, analyzed RUC and CMS data for payment years 2011 through 2015, and interviewed RUC staff and CMS officials.

What GAO Recommends

CMS should better document its process for establishing relative values and develop a process to inform the public of potentially misvalued services identified by the RUC. CMS should also develop a plan for using funds appropriated for the collection and use of information on physicians' services in the determination of relative values. HHS agreed with two of GAO's recommendations, but disagreed with using rulemaking to inform the public of RUC-identified services. GAO clarified that the recommendation is not limited to rulemaking.

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

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: To help improve the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service's (CMS) process for establishing relative values for Medicare physicians' services, in May 2015 we recommended that the Administrator of CMS better document the process, including the methods used to review recommendations from the American Medical Association/Specialty Society Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC) and the rationale for final relative value decisions. CMS concurred with this recommendation, stating that CMS establishes relative values for new, revised, and potentially misvalued physicians' services based on its review of a variety of sources of information, including the RUC. CMS officials told us the agency continues to improve the transparency of its process by proposing and finalizing changes to the process in the annual rule for the Physician Fee Schedule. Officials also told us that the agency is developing a means of displaying the direct practice expense inputs component of relative values in a consistent manner that will allow for greater transparency and documentation of the process, since currently the RUC recommends direct practice expense inputs to CMS through inconsistent formats that are not conducive to public transparency. Officials estimated that this process will take several years to complete. In order to close this recommendation as implemented, CMS will need to demonstrate that it has improved its internal and external documentation of its process for establishing relative values.

    Recommendation: To help improve CMS's process for establishing relative values for Medicare physicians' services, the Administrator of CMS should better document the process for establishing relative values for Medicare physicians' services, including the methods used to review RUC recommendations and the rationale for final relative value decisions.

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

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: To help improve the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service's (CMS) process for establishing relative values for Medicare physicians' services, in May 2015 we recommended that the Administrator of CMS develop a process for informing the public of potentially misvalued services identified by the American Medical Association/Specialty Society Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC), as CMS already does for potentially misvalued services identified by CMS or other stakeholders. CMS did not concur with this recommendation, asserting that the RUC is completely independent of CMS, and as such CMS has no authority to set the RUC's agenda for which services are reviewed. CMS officials noted that they recognize that some stakeholders, including those who are not participants in the RUC process, may not be aware of the new, revised, and potentially misvalued services that are under review by CMS prior to the establishment of interim final values in a final rule. For this reason and others, CMS proposed and finalized a change in its process for establishing or revising relative values for new, revised, or potentially misvalued services. Beginning in 2016, CMS will begin including proposed values for some of services in the annual proposed rulemaking for the Physician Fee Schedule, which means that the changes in values for these services will be open for public comment prior to them being finalized. In 2017, changes in values for almost all services will be included in the proposed rule for the Physician Fee Schedule. We continue to believe that CMS needs to inform the public of potentially misvalued services identified by the RUC, as the agency does for potentially misvalued services identified by other stakeholders for review. While the elimination of most interim final values in 2017 will allow stakeholders to comment on values before they become effective, we believe it is still important for CMS to inform stakeholders of those services identified by the RUC as potentially misvalued before CMS received RUC recommendations for these services and subsequently publishes the values in the proposed rule each year. Doing so would give stakeholders more time to provide input on values for services if they so choose before CMS included its proposed values in the annual proposed rulemaking, and we worded our recommendation to allow CMS to determine how to inform stakeholders of these services without delaying the timing of its revision of misvalued services.

    Recommendation: To help improve CMS's process for establishing relative values for Medicare physicians' services, the Administrator of CMS should develop a process for informing the public of potentially misvalued services identified by the RUC, as CMS already does for potentially misvalued services identified by CMS or other stakeholders.

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

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: To help improve the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service's (CMS) process for establishing relative values for Medicare physicians' services, in May 2015 we recommended that the Administrator of CMS incorporate data and expertise from physicians and other relevant stakeholders into the process, as well as develop a timeline and plan for using the funds appropriated by the Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014 (PAMA). CMS concurred with this recommendation, stating that stakeholders have the opportunity each year to nominate potentially misvalued services for review through a public nomination process. In order to develop a timeline and plan for using the funds appropriated by PAMA, CMS is assessing the research conducted by two external contractors to determine the most effective and fiscally responsible way to use the funds. This work is ongoing, and CMS is using this work to understand the data collection limitations that exist and help inform the development of a timeline for the use of PAMA funds. CMS anticipates releasing a contract solicitation prior to the end of the calendar year. In order to close this recommendation as implemented, CMS will need to demonstrate that it has incorporated data and expertise from relevant stakeholders and has developed a timeline and plan for using the funds appropriated by PAMA.

    Recommendation: To help improve CMS's process for establishing relative values for Medicare physicians' services, the Administrator of CMS should incorporate data and expertise from physicians and other relevant stakeholders into the process as well as develop a timeline and plan for using the funds appropriated by the Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014.

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

 

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