Panel sets primary care standards for Medicare pay-for-performance
■ The new quality measures could make it easier for physicians to report performance to multiple health plans.
By Kevin B. O’Reilly — Posted Sept. 5, 2005
The group charged by Congress with endorsing the performance measures upon which Medicare payments will be based recently adopted 36 quality standards for physician-focused outpatient care of conditions such as asthma, hypertension, heart failure and depression.
The Washington, D.C.-based National Quality Forum drew two-thirds of those measures from the AMA's Physician Consortium for Performance Improvement. The other 12 measures were drawn from the National Committee for Quality Assurance, an employer- and pharmaceutical company-supported group known for rating health insurance plans.
Both of the pay-for-performance bills circulating in Congress task NQF, a collection of 200 stakeholder groups including the AMA, with endorsing the quality measures Medicare will use in determining physicians' pay.
"It's a major advancement that NQF has endorsed consortium measures," said Nancy H. Nielsen, MD, PhD, speaker of the AMA House of Delegates. "These are measures decided by the profession as the ones that matter. They measure what matters in terms of outcomes for patients."
Although the AMA and other physician groups don't have much objection to the NQF-endorsed standards, they still are unhappy with legislation in Congress that would penalize doctors for failing to report quality data and reward top-performing doctors by taking from the existing pool of funds rather than adding to the pot.
While private-sector programs such as the NCQA's Bridges to Excellence and California's Integrated Healthcare Assn. provide financial incentives to physician practices to help them offset the burden of adopting costly electronic health record systems, the bills circulating in Congress place that burden squarely on doctors' shoulders.
A Senate bill sponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chair Charles Grassley (R, Iowa) and ranking member Max Baucus (D, Mont.), the Medicare Value Purchasing Act of 2005, would reduce doctors' reimbursements by 2% if they fail to report quality data by 2007. By 2008, the Dept. of Health and Human Services would redistribute 1% of reporting physicians' payments to doctors who scored the best on NQF's quality measures, with the amount increasing by 0.25% each year until it hits 2%.
A competing bill sponsored by House Ways and Means health subcommittee Chair Nancy Johnson (R, Conn.), the Medicare Value-Based Purchasing for Physicians' Services Act of 2005, would cut doctors' payments by 1% in 2007 and 2008 for failing to report quality data. Under that bill, physicians could see an additional 1% cut for not meeting performance thresholds or failing to sufficiently improve quality of care.
The quality measures, endorsed by NQF under an expedited review process after pressure from employer groups frustrated by annual medical cost increases of up to 15%, previously have been used by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in its Doctor's Office Quality and Doctor's Office Quality Information Technology test projects.
Aside from pending legislation, the measures are timed for use in insurance contracts beginning January 2006, and are intended to reduce the redundancy of differing performance measures used by various health plans. They cover the areas of asthma and respiratory illness, behavioral health and depression, bone conditions, heart disease, hypertension, prenatal care, preventive care, immunization and screening.
No subspecialty standards yet
"I think these are good measures for the most part, because they've been tried and tested and seem to be valid," said Bruce Bagley, MD, medical director for quality improvement at the American Academy of Family Physicians. Dr. Bagley also sat on the steering committee for the NQF's outpatient measures project.
"The shortcoming is the variety," he said. "There are not enough measures for all the different specialties and conditions, but it's a place to start."
The push for quality-of-care measures is driven in part by cost concerns, but research also has shown that patients get recommended care slightly more than half of the time.
A widely cited study in the June 26, 2003, New England Journal of Medicine found that on 439 indicators of quality of care for 30 acute and chronic conditions as well as preventive care, patients received recommended care only 54.9% of the time.
The recently adopted measures are only the second phase of a three-stage process. For phase three, NQF already has identified more than 800 potential additional performance measures, and the group has received 167 other potential measures for comment. NQF's voluntary consensus standards process could take from as little as nine months to as long as four years, according to various sources.
"How we're going to adhere to that time frame when we've got bills in Congress demanding that we start collecting data in 2006 and subspecialty groups wanting to line up measures immediately, I'm not sure," said NCQA Executive Vice President Greg Pawlson, MD, MPH.
NQF is composed of four stakeholder councils representing physicians, nurses, hospitals and health plans, quality researchers, purchasers and consumers. All four councils voted in favor of the adopted measures, which can be appealed until Sept. 2 by any interested stakeholder that might be materially or adversely affected.
That kind of unanimity will be difficult to achieve when it comes to endorsing a set of efficiency and utilization standards. Though NQF does not have a funded project to develop efficiency measures, a spokesman for the group confirms it is "extremely interested" in tackling the issue.
"That's where the rubber's going to meet the road, because the rest is science," Dr. Nielsen said. "There's not a good evidence-based way for most conditions to measure what is exactly the right thing to do -- no less, no more. And that's where our profession really needs to be involved, because if we're not then, frankly, the bean counters are going to decide what these issues and measures are."
Making data public
Another question is how and when the collected quality data would be made public. NQF-developed standards for hospital, nursing home and home care have been used for comparative purposes via the HHS Web site.
"That's where we'd like to go, eventually," said Trent Haywood, MD, deputy chief medical officer at CMS. "At the individual practitioner level, we have a ways to go before we get there."
Health care consumers also favor such a move. "That definitely would respond to a need within the consumer community," said Reva Winkler, MD, MPH, the clinical consultant who shepherded the NQF ambulatory project through phase two and is working on phase three. "Whether that need is going to be met and in what way remains to be seen."
Dr. Nielsen objected to the idea on the grounds that for small group practices and solo physicians, tiny sample sizes would render the data statistically invalid.