Medicare Physician Payments:

Spending Targets Encourage Fiscal Discipline, Modifications Could Stabilize Fees

GAO-02-441T: Published: Feb 14, 2002. Publicly Released: Feb 14, 2002.

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Laura A. Dummit
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Congress implemented a physician fee schedule and a fee update formula to moderate spending growth relative to specified Medicare spending targets. These spending targets increase annually to reflect higher costs for physician services, the growth in the overall economy, and changes in the number of Medicare beneficiaries. Physician fees are adjusted for changes in the costs of providing services and on actual cumulative spending compared to the cumulative targets. Physician fees are updated to reflect higher costs to provide services. These updates are adjusted up or down on actual spending either falling below or exceeding the targets. In November 2001, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid announced that updating Medicare's fees will decline 5.4 percent from what was paid in 2001, despite an estimated 2.6 percent increase in the cost of physician inputs. This reduction accounts for historical cumulative spending that exceeded the target by $8.9 billion, or 13 percent of estimated 2002 spending. Several factors contributed to the disparity between actual and targeted spending, including the correction of substantial errors in past spending estimates and the revision of targets for prior years. The current update mechanism could be modified to moderate fluctuations in physician fees and to ensure adequate payments, while retaining the fiscal discipline created by having a spending target. Such modifications would need to balance concerns about preserving fiscal discipline on physician spending with the need to maintain adequate payment rates to ensure that beneficiaries have access to physician services. Because the paramount consideration in setting payment rates is ensuring appropriate beneficiary access to services, timely and detailed data on Medicare beneficiary service use are essential to achieving this balance.

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