Thursday, February 21, 2008

Senate Hearing Links Physician Payment Rates to Primary Care Shortage

Several witnesses testified before a Senate committee on Feb. 12th that our nation's health care system continues to undervalue primary care services, and that this is leading to a skewed physician payment structure that is rapidly creating a shortage of primary care physicians throughout the nation.

Amazingly, although he agrees with and understands the data, the governments spokesman on this issue reaches an illogical conclusion, however. "When I say primary care services are undervalued, that does not mean that just increasing the prices paid to primary care is the solution," said Bruce Steinwald, director of health care for the United States Government Accountability Office, or GAO, during testimony before the Senate Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "As you are well aware, we face unsustainable trends in the Medicare program and in the health care system as a whole. And, just as payment incentives are misaligned in primary care, they are misaligned in specialty medicine as well."

Yes, that is all true, I guess, but retaining primary care physicians will involve paying them more!

Medicare operates under a fee-for-service system, which rewards doctors based on the volume of services they provide. Medicare is the prime example of "how the system undervalues primary care services," and this discourages medical school students from pursuing a career in the primary care field, and causesthose in practice to restrict who they will see and retire early. These payment disparities have been exacerbated by technological improvements that allow subspecialists to provide more procedure type services in a shorter period of time, which leads them to an increase in payments and income, making these specialities more attractive career options for medical school students. In contrast, primary care physicians rely primarily on face to face time during office visits for their income. This means their ony option to be "more efficient" is to reduce time with their patients, which leads to rushed care and compromised quality.

I agree with the director, when he said, "This undervaluing of primary care services appears to be counter productive given the vast literature describing the relationship between health care costs and quality".