(UPDATE) What does all of the talk in the media about the “SGR” mean for physicians?

By Mary Holloway Richard. View her attorney profile here.


Mary Richard is recognized as one of pioneers in health care law in Oklahoma. She has represented institutional and non-institutional providers of health services, as well as patients and their families. She also has significant experience in representing providers in regulatory matters.

Mary Richard is recognized as one of pioneers in health care law in Oklahoma. She has represented institutional and non-institutional providers of health services, as well as patients and their families. She also has significant experience in representing providers in regulatory matters.

(Updated 4/14/15)

What does all of the talk in the media about the “SGR” mean for physicians?

One of the important issues identified in the health care industry “crisis” and reform is the cost of providing services.  Focus has been on shifting payment from charges for visits and procedures to reimbursement according to certain metrics such as outcome and quality.  In addition, a ceiling on physician reimbursement has been much debated.  The Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) included the Medicare sustainable growth rate (“SGR”) formula for doing just that, although the SGR was actually created as part of the 1997 deficit reduction law designed to contain federal spending  by tying physician payments to an economic metric or growth target.

On Tuesday, March 24, 2015, Democrats and Republicans revealed the result of their negotiation and cooperation to offer an alternative to Medicare’s SGR formula.  The proposal calls for repeal of the SGR formula.  House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) have arrived at this compromise to strengthen the financial picture for Medicare and to end the continuing threat of payment cuts to physicians.  According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, although medical school applications are up slightly since 2011, the United States faces a physician shortage of between 46,000 and 90,000 by 2015.  www.aamc.org/newsroom/aamcstat/,a=427828.  The economic incentives to the professional are an integral component in stabilizing the health care system in this country.  The House overwhelmingly approved the proposal on Thursday, March 26, 2015.

What does the SGR mean to physicians?  There is still great divergence between the Boehner (repeal Washington’s most famous gimmick) and Pelosi (Medicare payments for doctor services to seniors facilitating continuation of physician-patient relationship) perspectives.

What does the bipartisan proposal mean to physicians?  This will halt the cut that was to be implemented on April 1, 2015.  When the ACA was signed five years ago, that seemed like a long time away but was nonetheless worrisome.  It puts in place a 21.2% reduction in Medicare payments making it virtually impossible for many providers to support the operations of their practices or clinics.

This proposal is very similar to the one proposed in 2014 , and it includes a system of rewarding physicians based upon quality standards rather than output or number of services provided and fosters a focus on coordination of care, prevention and quality and key cost containment strategies.  All of these elements are part of a new accountability that is the cornerstone for allowing payment increases for doctors for the next five years during this period of transition.  In addition, if approved by the Senate, the bipartisan proposal would extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program (“CHIP”) with full funding through September 30, 2017.  It also provides for $7.2 billion funding for community health centers.  The cost of the House package is $200 billion

On Friday, March 27, 2015, the Senate adjourned without approving the Doc fix.  It apparently will take up the issue upon its return in mid-April.  In the meantime, CMS is poised to delay processing provider claims as of April 1, 2015, when the 21.2% cut was to go into effect.  However, CMS is warning that the cut will go into effect if the Senate fails to pass an SGR fix by April 15.  One complication may exist in the form of legislation introduced by a bipartisan Senate team, Senators Cardin (D-MD) and Collins (R-ME), to permanently repeal the caps on how much the program spends on rehabilitation therapy.  This unresolved issue may arise as an amendment to the legislation to be considered after the break and provides a reminder of how single issues or senators can ultimately frustrate the passage of legislation that has support from both parties.  Others in the Senate are critical that spending cuts will offset only a portion of the costs.  Conservatives have characterized this element of the plan as irresponsible.  The AARP is focused on increased costs to Medicare beneficiaries and will continue to lobby for changes to lower these costs.

Democrats may want amendments to extend the CHIP program four years, to remove the Hyde Amendment (abortion-related language), and to repeal the Medicare therapy cap.  Any amendments would, of course, send the legislation back through the House, and this appears to be an unattractive alternative to all concerned because of the remarkable support for this resolution from both parties.  A perhaps more significant complication is presented by the report issued last week by the Office of the Actuary of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) indicating that physician payments in which the 0.5% increases in Medicare payments over the next four years would come to a halt in 2020.  In that year a two-tiered system is phased in which is designed to encourage physicians to shift greater numbers of patients into risk-based models.  For physicians continuing to work within the traditional payment system, but who are scoring well on the quality metrics, remuneration will be awarded from a separate appropriation.  After 2024, the alternative payment track would increase annually by 0.75% which will be three times greater than the rates of other physicians. CMS is predicting that 2024 is the time when there will be a shortfall and payments will lag behind inflation.

On the one hand, Congress is fed up with required annual intervention for the past seventeen years to avoid scheduled cuts to physicians.  On the other hand, Congress is forced to rely on estimates to predict costs which places the federal government at risk of future payments not keeping up with the either the chosen formulae or with inflation.