Medicare reimbursement cuts threaten access to care

Published on March 29, 2013 at 1:26 PM · No Comments

Physicians and patients alike are feeling the impact of Medicare reimbursement cuts that went into effect on January 1, 2013. With an additional 2% sequestration cut to roll out on April 1, it's likely that physicians who treat Medicare patients will be faced with difficult decisions as operating margins continue to shrink.

The the 2% cuts may seem modest, but they come on the heels of much larger cuts to reimbursement for nerve conduction studies (NCSs) of 40-70% for Medicare beneficiaries. These cuts were announced November 1, 2012, and went into effect on January 1, 2013, allowing providers little time to prepare.

While all Medicare providers are feeling the squeeze, private practices are likely to experience the most impact. "These cuts may force private practice physicians to choose between seeing Medicare patients and keeping their practice open," said Catherine French, AANEM senior analyst of medical economic affairs. French is concerned that the sequestration cuts will be adopted by private insurers, too. "It is possible that private insurers will follow suit and reduce reimbursement by 2% because most model their payment rates on Medicare."

Cuts Threaten Access to Care
According to Kristi Snihurowych, MD, a spine interventionalist in Salt Lake City, UT, the cuts pose a serious risk to access to care. Snihurowych has decided to discontinue EMG and NCS testing, which previously made up an eighth of her total practice. "Given the cuts, it's no longer feasible to perform these tests in-house. The problem is, I cannot find anyone to do them for me," said Snihurowych. "It seems everyone has had to give them up, and not just for Medicare patients. Providers anticipate that other payers will soon follow suit, so many have stopped offering EMGs all together."

Snihurowych suspects unnecessary and costly procedures will be among the cuts' ripple effects. "I am seeing patients go to surgery without a definitive diagnosis of, for example, carpal tunnel syndrome because the surgeons cannot get confirmation by an EMG or NCS test."

Utah-based physiatrist Faisel M. Zaman, MD, PC, agreed, "People will pay with their health. Of course there will be financial costs associated with unnecessary surgeries, but the biggest cost will be to the patients with scars and pain from procedures they didn't need."

Zaman is a spine specialist who has had several cases where an EMG has prevented patients from undergoing major surgery. In one case, a healthy and active 70-year-old male patient was referred by a vascular surgeon who thought the patient was experiencing symptoms of peripheral vascular disease. But the surgeon wanted to rule out spinal problems before he did a major bypass operation. Following EMG testing, the man was diagnosed with spinal stenosis.

"EMG was critical in this case," said Zaman. "It turns out that he is a great candidate for nonvascular treatments that will improve his condition. Without the lower-extremity EMG, he would have undergone major surgery. It's scary to think of the consequences to patients if the availability of EMG testing becomes more limited. Ultimately, it would hurt patients the most."

Claire Wolfe, MD, AANEM past president, has similar concerns regarding access to care. Nearing retirement and working part-time, she is the only physician performing EDX studies for an office of 23 physicians, as well as some outside referrals. Before the cuts, two other physiatrists in her office performed EMGs.

"There will be greater uncertainty around diagnoses of upper and lower limb pain/numbness; neck surgeries rather than carpal tunnel releases and vice-versa; delayed diagnoses of motor unit diseases; and delayed recognition of folks with metabolic disorders like diabetes if patients don't have access to an electrodiagnostic study that may catch peripheral neuropathy changes before the diagnosis of the underlying disorder is made," Wolfe said.

Unfortunately, the impact of the cuts may be long-lasting. "These cuts will significantly impact Medicare beneficiary access to appropriate management of their disabling neurologic disorders, limit further the number of neurologists who are currently seeing Medicare patients, and discourage budding physicians from the field of neurology," said Mohammed Zafar, MD, in response to an AANEM survey about the Medicare reimbursement cuts for EDX procedures.

Looking Forward
With the cuts to Medicare reimbursement, AANEM members are asking what can be done to protect their practices and to ensure access to care for patients into the future.

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