February 24, 2015

The Starbucks Method for Primary Care

Whether you like it or not health care financing is transitioning from payment for discrete services to global payment for value. Whether you agree with this trend, or comprehend its meaning, if it has one, is largely irrelevant in the short term. The government of the United States, the Chamber of Commerce, both political parties, all health care stakeholders, and even your own medical associations are fervently supporting, and actively promoting, paying you for value instead of work.

Value is defined by a set of statistical metrics calculated across the spectrum of services you provide, and some that you don’t. So for example, if Starbucks were to be paid for value, they would get say, $2 for a venti latte, plus a fluctuating amount based on the average temperature of their lattes, the ratio of espresso to milk, the percent of air in the foam, the time from door to latte, etc., over a representative period of say 90 days in year one and maybe 12 months in subsequent years. To enable latte valuation, all espresso machines would be fitted with special monitors interfaced to local cash registers and to centralized centers of value. The exact value-based bonus would be calculated by analyzing the statistical distribution of metrics across all coffee shops in the country, adjusted for regional and demographic variation of their clients.

If Howard Schultz would be notified tomorrow morning of a transition to value-based payment for coffee, he would most likely protest loudly, but at the same time he would find a way to get $10 for his lattes while the coffee debates are raging across the nation. And so would every independent coffee shop still in existence. Health care is of course much more complicated than making espresso drinks, but the principle is the same. Unless you find a way to keep your doors open during bad times, you will not be around to enjoy the fruits of your efforts to bring about the good times. Assuming you wish to continue selling coffee, there are two (legal) options to consider: sell fake lattes for less than $2, like they have in every self-respecting gas station, or do what Howard Schultz would do in a similar situation.

The Howard Schultz option for independent primary care could be summarized as the answer to the following question: what do I need to do in my practice, so that I can collect enough revenue to continue providing the excellent care my patients are accustomed to? Below are some suggestions that may allow you to do just that. You could look at these suggestions as encouragement to sell your soul to the devil, or you could look at them as an optimal way for creating enough breathing room for you, and your patients, until common sense prevails. If you are tempted to dismiss this, in view of the recent (partial) success of grassroots efforts to beat back the ABIM MOC, please keep in mind that by and large those who fought ABIM were board certified physicians in good standing. Fighting for a good cause does not mean that you first have to commit financial and professional suicide.

Beginning on January 1st, 2015, Medicare will be paying physicians for chronic care management (CCM) services, if and only if, a certified EHR is used in the practice. This is the first time Medicare is tying payment for a CPT code, to the use of specific technology, and it may very well be a harbinger of things to come. Medicare is essentially stating that unless you buy and use a government certified EHR (not just any EHR), it will refuse to pay you for any work (other than face to face visits) that you do for your chronically ill patients. It is fascinating to note that Medicare acknowledges that certified EHRs cannot help much with CCM services, and you may need other software products for this purpose. Nevertheless you must also purchase a certified EHR.

On February 12th, 2015 the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation Center (CMMI) has announced a new payment model for cancer care, the Oncology Care Model (OCM), modeled after the CCM, but paying four times as much to oncology practices only. The OCM is going to enter pilot phase in 2016, and chances are it will be elevated to an official CPT code shortly thereafter.  Taking the CCM one step further, the oncology care management fee will be paid exclusively to practices that attest to currently mandated meaningful use levels (Stage 2 for now), although meaningful use has practically nothing to do with oncology care.

It is not implausible to assume that these are just the first steps in making collection and dissemination of clinical data, along with kickbacks to the tech and certification industry, a condition for practicing medicine. If you think you can somehow “escape” these mandates by dropping public insurance plans, you should note that the OCM pilot mandates participation of commercial insurance plans in this form of payment. Unlike the puny meaningful use incentives/penalties, both CCM and OCM fees can add up to large amounts of recurring revenues for a complex set of services. If you don’t have a certified EHR, your choices are to either continue performing these services for free, or cease to provide them altogether. Strangely enough, nobody seems to question the legality of such scheme.

Bottom Line

Go ahead and get yourself a (cheap) certified EHR, and use it sparingly if you so desire. Make sure you know how to get all the data out of the EHR, because chances are you will want to dump it when things get better. Keep in mind that even under the best case scenario, technology will not improve overnight. It takes several years to build (or refurbish) a good EHR, and EHR vendors are now operating within a regulatory pay for performance mentality, i.e. studying for the (certification) test and cheating to survive. Even if Medicare drops its ill-conceived meaningful use program tomorrow, it will take time to return to a competitive culture of excellence and customer service, yielding beneficial technology tools for your practice.

It is not likely that value-based payment models will disappear, or be reconfigured to measure benefits to your patients, because there are hundreds of billions of dollars in shareholders profits, and fabulous round trips to Davos, riding on this one simple innovation. It is equally unlikely that physician payments will grow in the near future, and there is every reason to assume that payments will decline sharply, as the system adjusts itself to serving increasing numbers of underinsured poor people. It will be very important for you to strike an optimal balance between keeping your costs down, and increasing your value-based revenues.

Finally, for those insisting that their practice is doing just fine without all this unsolicited advice, this may be so for now. And for a few fortunate physicians, it may be so for long enough to reach comfortable retirement. Perhaps a handful more would be able to extricate themselves from this mess by catering exclusively to the few that need not concern themselves with costs of anything.  Everybody else should find a way to collect $10 for their lattes.

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