AMA's Pay-for-Performance Pact Ruffles Feathers


Specialty organizations are concerned that the American Medical Association is unilaterally setting performance goals that doctors won't be able to meet.

A recent agreement between the AMA and leaders in Congress outlines an ambitious 2-year time line for establishing performance measures, “to improve voluntary quality reporting to congressional leadership,” AMA Chair Duane M. Cady said in a statement.

Dr. Cady signed the agreement at the end of last year, although the details weren't publicly disclosed until several months later. The terms were outlined in a Feb. 7 memorandum from AMA Vice President Michael Maves to the state medical associations and national specialty societies.

The agreement was cosigned by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the Senate Finance Committee; Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee; and Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health.

If the plan goes through, physician groups will work with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to agree on a starter set of evidence-based quality measures for a broad group of specialties, with a goal of developing approximately 140 physician measures covering 34 clinical topics by the end of 2006.

The AMA has been working on these quality initiatives for some time, Dr. Cady said. “For the past 5 years the AMA has convened the Physician Consortium for Performance Improvement, which includes more than 70 national medical specialty and state medical societies.”

To date, the consortium has developed more than 90 evidence-based performance measures, he said.

The consortium has not yet tested the physician measures; it has been working with several groups to do so, including the Ambulatory Care Quality Alliance, said Dr. Nancy Nielsen, speaker of the AMA's House of Delegates, at a press briefing. The alliance is receiving funding from the Agency for Health Research and Quality and CMS to test 26 measures at six clinical sites, beginning May 1. Those measures include some developed by the consortium, among others. The pilot is crucial, as it will bring to the surface any “unintended consequences,” Dr. Nielsen said. Then in 2007, doctors who report on three to five quality measures would see increased payments from Medicare. By the end of next year, physician groups should have developed performance measures “to cover a majority of Medicare spending for physician services,” the agreement said.

Other initiatives, such as working on methods to report quality data and implementing additional reforms to address payment and quality objectives, also were outlined in the agreement.

As far as Dr. Cady is concerned, nothing in the agreement with the congressional leaders should be a surprise. “It involved only [those] commitments we had previously outlined to our specialty society colleagues.”

All of these steps had been documented previously in public letters to Congress and the Bush administration and distributed to medical specialty societies, he said.

Yet some of the members of the consortium said they had no advance notice of the AMA's plans to sign this pact.

“This is an agreement signed with leaders on Capitol Hill on how pay for performance should be laid out, and some groups feel they should have been a part of it,” Cynthia A. Brown, director of advocacy and health policy at the American College of Surgeons, said in an interview.

The real problem is not about advocacy or the workings of the consortium. It's about meeting deadlines on clinical measures, Ms. Brown said.

“Not everyone is ready for [pay for performance],” she said.

Although many primary care quality measures have been written, it's a different story for subspecialties, “because their measures haven't even been developed yet. They're starting from ground zero,” she said.

With this latest agreement, subspecialties now feel pressured to find their own groups of doctors to propose measures to run through the consortium's process by year's end, she said.

The criteria on performance measurement also will be different by specialty, Ms. Brown said. “Surgeons in particular often like to be judged by outcomes, and primary care doctors don't want to be because they have a bigger problem with patient compliance. One size doesn't fit all.”

At the press briefing, Dr. Nielsen said “this is a dustup about nothing,” adding that the specialty societies had been included on the performance measure development from the start. The initial measures won't cover all the specialties, but it was necessary to show Congress that the profession was serious about quality improvement by getting something started quickly, she said.

The AMA has tried to work with the CMS on quality measures for some time now, and it is “very difficult” to get truly significant data and information that really makes a difference, Dr. Thomas Purdon, former president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said in an interview.


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