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Doctors decry inaction on physician-focused APMs


Doctors have expressed their displeasure at the lack of response by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to launch physician-focused advanced alternative payment models (APMs).

Dr. David Barbe, immediate past president of the AMA, testifies before the House Energy & Commerce Health Subcommittee. Courtesy Health Subcommittee

Dr. David Barbe, immediate past president of the AMA, testifies before the House Energy & Commerce Health Subcommittee.

As part of the MACRA law, Congress created a process by which physicians could seek to implement specialty-specific APMs that they had developed and tested. The purpose was to provide more avenues for specialist participation in the Quality Payment Program’s APM track.

The process goes like this: Doctors create and implement an APM that focuses on providing value-based care in their particular specialty arena. They submit the program and early outcomes to the Physician-Focused Payment Model Technical Advisory Committee or PTAC. The committee reviews the APM and, if it has merit, forwards it to the CMS. The CMS can either approve the APM or ask for additional testing.

So far, PTAC has sent at least 10 APMs to the CMS. To date, not a single one has been approved or even tested on a limited scale.

“Physicians want to be engaged and involved in this process,” David Barbe, MD, immediate past president of the American Medical Association, told members of the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee during a July 26 hearing. “PTAC was created for that very reason. They have received dozens of proposals that come from the ground level. Physicians that are practicing know what will work in their practices and perhaps in their specialty. And yet, none of these have been adopted by CMS or really, we think, given serious consideration.”

Frank Opelka, MD, medical director for quality and health policy at the American College of Surgeons, noted that a proposal they had submitted to PTAC appears to be the one that has gotten furthest along in the process.

Dr. Frank Opelka of the American College of Surgeons testifies before the House Energy & Commerce Health Subcommittee. Courtesy Health Subcommittee

Dr. Frank Opelka of the American College of Surgeons testifies before the House Energy & Commerce Health Subcommittee.

The model was “accepted in a letter by the Secretary for consideration by the [CMS Innovation Center],” Dr. Opelka testified at the hearing. “The innovation center had a few conference calls with us and one 2-hour in-person meeting on a product that we’d developed that took almost 5 years in the making. There are no resources and no capability in the innovation center to complete a design and then to create an implementation and have a sandbox or pilot area in which to test. The PTAC has done a fantastic job. The Secretary vetted us. I think [ours was] the only one that went from the Secretary and was recommended to the innovation center and it died in there because [the Center] is just not wired to really innovate and we really need to turn that on.”

The CMS issued a letter on June 13 essentially rejecting eight of the models that PTAC recommended. The AMA asked the agency to reconsider at least four of the proposals in a June 21 letter.

AMA leadership does not think that the CMS gave serious consideration to any of the PTAC recommendations, Dr. Barbe said. “These span from very focused proposals in GI medicine to reduce rehospitalization in Crohn’s patients all the way up to the end-stage renal disease that could have very broad effect on improving care and reducing cost for dialysis patients. We think there is great opportunity there if CMS will listen to us.”

The AMA is “especially concerned because the statute to reform Medicare physician payment provided only 6 years of bonus payments to facilitate physicians’ migration to APMs,” according to the group’s letter to the CMS. “We are approaching the 3-year mark for the initial implementation and there is still not a robust APM pathway for physicians.”

Dr. Barbe also expressed concern that physicians’ taste for innovation could wane, given 3 years without successful implementation or testing of a physician-focused APM.

The CMS “seems to be interested in coming up with ideas on their own and I think that’s not only reinventing the wheel potentially, but it is not taking advantage of some very creative and innovated proposals that have come forward,” Dr. Barbe said.

The AMA recognizes “that the APMs recommended by PTAC needed some refinement. Data and pilot test experience likely would help in addressing some of the concerns raised by both PTAC and HHS,” according to the letter. “PTAC has indicated in its recommendations to HHS that it felt the issues it had identified could be resolved with assistance from CMS. Moreover, PTAC concluded that the positive attributes of the APM proposals outweigh the concerns they had identified, but the department does not seem to agree.”

Dr. Opelka, in his written testimony to the subcommittee, suggested that “it may be invaluable to commission a study on these challenges, including CMS’ ability to measure the true quality of care provided by physicians of all specialties, the availability of cost measures that are meaningful and actionable in concert with these quality measures, physicians’ ability to access patient health information when they need it and in a standardized predictable format, and the availability of APMs that grant physicians of all specialties the opportunity to be creative in using their expertise to increase quality and value of care to the patient.”

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