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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Medicare Physician Payment Updates and the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) System

Jim Hahn
Analyst in Health Care Financing

Each year since 2002, the statutory method for determining the annual updates to the Medicare physician fee schedule, known as the sustainable growth rate (SGR) system, has resulted in a reduction in the reimbursement rates (or a "negative update"). With the exception of 2002, when a 4.8% decrease was applied, Congress has passed a series of bills to override the reductions. However, these actions have required almost yearly attention from the Congress. 

The SGR system was established because of the concern that the Medicare fee schedule itself would not adequately constrain overall increases in spending for physicians' services. While the fee schedule limits the amount that Medicare will pay for each service, there are no limits on the volume or mix of services. The SGR system was intended to serve as a restraint on aggregate spending. If expenditures over a period are less than the cumulative spending target for the period, the update is increased. However, if spending exceeds the cumulative spending target over a certain period, future updates are reduced to bring spending back in line with the target. 

In the first few years of the SGR system, the actual expenditures did not exceed the targets and the updates to the physician were close to the Medicare economic index (MEI, a price index of inputs required to produce physician services) in the first two years (2.3% in 1998 and 1999, compared with a MEI of 2.2% in 1998 and 2.3% in 1999). For the next two years, in 2000 and 2001, the actual physician fee schedule update was more than twice the MEI for those years (5.5% update vs. MEI of 2.4% in 2000, 5.0% update vs. MEI of 2.1% in 2001). However, beginning in 2002, the actual expenditure exceeded allowed targets and the discrepancy has grown with each year, resulting in a series of ever-larger cuts under the formula. 

Some criticisms of the SGR system point to purported flaws in the technical details behind the formula, while others have just expressed displeasure with the resultant outcome. Although modifications have been proposed to replace the SGR system, no proposal has garnered sufficient support and almost all proposals would be expensive to implement compared against the current baseline, which necessarily assumes that significant cuts to the fee schedule will occur. 

Legislative activity in the current session of Congress includes S. 1776, H.R. 3961, H.R. 3590, and H.R. 3326. S. 1776 would have (1) set the update to the conversion factor at 0% for 2010 and in subsequent years, and (2) sunset the SGR system immediately. On October 21, 2009, the cloture motion to proceed to the bill was not invoked by the Senate by a vote of 47-53. H.R. 3961 would create two categories of physician services (evaluation, management, and preventive services in one category with all other physician services in the other), each with its own separate target growth rate and conversion factor update. CBO has estimated that implementing the bill would increase direct spending by about $210 billion over the 2010-2019 period. On November 19, 2009, the House passed H.R. 3961 by a vote of 243-183, but the Senate has yet to take up the bill. The health care reform bill under consideration in the Senate, an amendment in the form of a substitute to H.R. 3590, no longer contains any provisions that address this issue after the manager's amendment repealed the original section. The FY2010 Defense Appropriations Act delays the implementation of the reductions for two months, until February 28, 2010. 

Date of Report: January 11, 2010
Number of Pages: 18
Order Number: R40907
Price: $29.95

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