Physicians in the United States have been affected by significant changes in the patterns of medical practice evolving over the last several decades. The recently passed affordable health care law, termed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (the ACA, for short) affects physicians more than any other law. Physician services are an integral part of health care. Physicians are paid in the United States for their personal services. This payment also includes the overhead expenses for maintaining an office and providing services. The payment system is highly variable in the private insurance market; however, governmental systems have a formula-based payment, mostly based on the Medicare payment system. Physician services are billed under Part B.
Since the inception of the Medicare program in 1965, several methods have been used to determine the amounts paid to physicians for each covered service. Initially, the payment systems compensated physicians on the basis of their charges. In 1975, just over 10 years after the inception of the Medicare program, payments changed so as not to exceed the increase in the Medical Economic Index (MEI). Nevertheless, the policy failed to curb increases in costs, leading to the determination of a yearly change in fees by legislation from 1984 to 1991. In 1992, the fee schedule essentially replaced the prior payment system that was based on the physician’s charges, which also failed to live up to expectations for operational success. Then, in 1998, the sustainable growth rate (SGR) system was introduced. In 2009, multiple attempts were made by Congress to repeal the formula – rather unsuccessfully. Consequently, the SGR formula continues to hamper physician payments. The mechanism of the SGR includes 3 components that are incorporated into a statutory formula: expenditure targets, growth rate period, and annual adjustments of payment rates for physician services. Further, the relative value of a physician fee schedule is based on 3 components: physician work, practice expense (PE), and malpractice expense that are used to determine a value ranking for each service to which it is applied. On average, the work component represents 53.5% of a service’s relative value, the fee component represents 43.6%, and the malpractice component represents 3.9%.
The final schedule for physician payment was issued on November 24, 2010. This was based on a total cut of 30.8% with 24.9% of the cut attributed to SGR. However, as usual, with patchwork efficiency, Congress passed a one-year extension of the 0% update, effective through December 2011. Consequently, CMS issued an emergency update of the 2011 Medicare fee schedule, with multiple revisions, resulting in a reduction of the conversion factor of $36.8729 from December 2010 to $33.9764 for 2011.