As HHS Turns to the Seasoned Donald Rucker, Health IT Leaders Breathe a Sigh of Relief | Healthcare Informatics Magazine | Health IT | Information Technology Skip to content Skip to navigation

As HHS Turns to the Seasoned Donald Rucker, Health IT Leaders Breathe a Sigh of Relief

April 10, 2017
by Rajiv Leventhal
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Health IT policy wonks see the government’s hiring of Rucker and John Fleming as a signal that the feds are serious about enhancing health technology

Although the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has yet to make an official statement regarding the appointment of Donald Rucker, M.D., as the next National Coordinator for Health IT, industry experts and leaders have not made secret their praise for the reported next head of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC).

On March 31, media reports confirmed that Dr. Rucker, who has worn many healthcare hats over the years, including that of Siemens Healthcare senior executive, ER doctor, health IT architect, and clinical informatics champion, had his name listed on an HHS employee directory with the job title ONC National Coordinator. Politico’s eHealth was the first to report this news, though it should be noted that his name is not currently in the agency’s employee directory. When asked, federal officials continue to tell Healthcare Informatics that they cannot comment on personnel at this time.

Update 4/11/17: According to a source close to Healthcare Informatics, Rucker has very recently started his job as National Coordinator, but the agency is waiting for things to settle down in D.C. before making an official statement.

But despite the non-confirmation from the government, it didn’t take long for health IT groups to praise the appointment of Rucker, currently an adjunct professor at Ohio State University’s college of medicine in the biomedical informatics department and emergency medicine, and probably best well-known for the 13 years he was an executive at Siemens. As Healthcare Informatics Associate Editor Heather Landi reported on March 31, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) released a statement noting, "As we move into the next critical stages of assessing the Meaningful Use program, we are pleased to see the administration rounding out its health IT policy team. Rucker's appointment [assuming official confirmation] comes on the heels of news that John Fleming, a former U.S. representative, will serve as deputy assistant secretary for health technology.”

Indeed, in recent weeks, speculation began to fuel regarding the cloudy future of ONC, the health IT branch of the federal government within HHS. With the appointment of Dr. Fleming to HHS deputy assistant secretary for health technology, a new position was created in the federal agency, thus leading folks to ponder if this would signal a diminishing of ONC’s future responsibilities. Adding to this speculation was a Politico report that revealed Fleming thought he was interviewing for the National Coordinator position at ONC when he met with HHS Secretary Tom Price, M.D. a few weeks back.

But now, the hiring of Rucker, along with that of Fleming, creates a leadership core with a strong resume. As Farzad Mostashari, M.D., former ONC chief in the Obama administration, puts it, “The administration seems to taking [health IT] seriously and seems to be appointing someone serious with longstanding experience who is qualified to lead this next phase of the work of the office. And that’s a relief.” Arien Malec, vice president of data platform and acquisition tools for RelayHealth (an Alpharetta, Ga.-based McKesson business unit), and formerly an ONC staffer, adds, “In aggregate [with Fleming and Rucker], what you have in this administration is a solid health IT leadership team that covers the basis of understanding the needs of providers, the perspective of vendors, and also the needs of policymakers, both at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services [CMS] and on the Hill. And in general, that’s a strong set of assets to bring to bear on this challenge.”

And, regarding the new position created for Fleming, and the report that he allegedly didn’t know what exactly he was interviewing for, Mostashari, who was National Coordinator for Health IT from 2011 to 2013 and thus has insider knowledge of policy nuances, notes that the assistant secretary for health technology, like ONC, is a function that crosses over between public health and healthcare. “We saw Karen DeSalvo wear both hats, so the idea that you would want health technology to be baked into how we think about both healthcare and public health, how they come together, and how they support each other, is an important issue.” And Malec even brings up Mostashari’s tenure, recalling that he was a “special advisor” when he was first brought on to ONC. Malec says, “There is an art to how you title people’s jobs in the interim. Some of this might be explained by this administration pulling together the right people, putting them in the right seats and then clarifying titles roles and responsibilities later.”

Farzad Mostashari, M.D.

So, what are the biggest challenges that lie ahead for Rucker, his ONC team, and Fleming? Both Mostashari and Malec say that enacting the health IT tasks involved with the 21st Century Cures Act, the certification of electronic health records (EHRs) and other health IT products, and linking health technology to value-based care are the biggest points of emphasis moving forward.

Mostashari notes that one of the big areas where folks will look for leadership from ONC will first and foremost be making use of the infrastructure that’s been built over the last eight years to solve real-world problems. One of these is around quality measurement, he says. “We can’t keep doing what we have been doing on quality measurement, and one of the real disappointments so far of HITECH [the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act], has been the idea that we would automatically be able to report on quality based on data in the EHR has not happened yet or come true. So [Rucker] would be sympathetic to that burden physicians feel, and understand it. We can work together to solve that problem, and in the world of value-based payment, it becomes imperative to reduce the burden and increase the meaning of those quality measures.”

Malec adds that making health IT easier for providers is a continuity of the mission in the Obama administration that started and adjusted the path of health IT based on lessons learned in the field. “I don’t expect a radical change in the mission of ONC, but rather I expect continued continuity and a continued evolution towards making the health IT adoption approach more flexible and amendable to physicians, and better aligned with the needs of delivery system reform,” Malec says.

Arien Malec

What’s more, Malec notes that there is “no question” that health IT products fraudulently claim to be certified but in reality they aren’t meeting the certification requirements in practice. So in this sense he think that ONC does need to have some level of oversight in order to correct and mediate. “I think ONC has better clarified the mission of oversight to be more of a force to help people work through that process and only using the heavy guns in the worst of circumstances,” he says.

Nonetheless, Malec continues, “We need to also think about the role of certification and the flexibility that we have relative to certification in a broader context. Why do many certified EHRs not meet doctors’ needs in practice? I would observe that there’s a lot of checklist-oriented certification where EHRs meet the certification rule but that certification rule might not be sufficient to meet interoperability in the real world.” He points to better success models in the form of public-private certification models, noting CommonWell, DirectTrust, and the Argonaut Project, in which there are organizations, vendors, and providers who are doing the work to make sure that products are interoperable in practices. Malec says, “That process is iterative, requires learning from the field and updating how you certify technology. That’s a poor fit for the regulatory framework. I have been an advocate for ONC delegating some of its authority to these public-private networks that may well do a better job in driving certification in practice.”

Regarding advice for Rucker as he settles into his new role in the coming days and weeks, Malec recalls a Health IT Policy Committee meeting years ago in which then-committee leaders put forth a timeline for the meaningful use program, moving all the way from technology adoption to a learning health system in four years. Malec says new policy leaders must learn from that as there needs to be a recognition that the U.S healthcare system “is a massive, safety-critical sector of the economy, so it doesn’t move as quickly as we want it to or expect it to. Defining clarity of where we’re going, aligning that with value-based payment, and tempering and driving reasonable expectations relative to the timelines to get there is critical,” he says.

And Mostashari, perhaps as good a person as anyone to give Rucker advice, simply says that he must play to his strengths. “ His strengths will be the ability to be go deep into the subject matter and to really understand and lead through confidence and knowledge. “He knows the issues more closely, more intimately and better than anyone else [who is] in a policymaking position, and that [will be] the influence around the debate,” Mostashari says. “That’s what I did and I think it will serve him well.”


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Healthcare Industry Could Save $12.4B With Full Adoption of Electronic Transactions

January 17, 2019
by Heather Landi, Associate Editor
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The healthcare industry continues to make progress automating business processes, but significant gaps remain, representing an opportunity for $12.4 billion in savings through further automation, according to new data from the 2018 CAQH Index.

Electronic adoption and transaction volume increased in 2018, with several common transactions reaching 80 percent electronic adoption across the sector, according to the latest CAQH Index. This progress resulted in a narrowing of the cost savings opportunity for the first time in CAQH Index history.

CAQH is a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit alliance of health plans and trade associations. The findings from the 2018 CAQH Index are based on voluntary nationwide surveys of providers, as well as commercial medical and dental health plans. Participating medical health plans represent over 160 million covered lives—nearly 49 percent of the commercially insured U.S. population—and 7.8 billion transactions conducted in 2018.

The sixth annual CAQH Index is an annual report tracking the adoption of HIPAA-mandated and other electronic administrative transactions between healthcare providers and health plans in the medical and dental industries. These transactions include verifying a patient’s insurance coverage, obtaining authorization for care, submitting a claim and supplemental medical information and sending and receiving payments. The CAQH Index also estimates the annual volume of these transactions, their cost and the time needed to complete them.

By benchmarking progress, industry and government can more easily identify barriers that may be preventing stakeholders from realizing the full benefit of electronic administrative transactions. These insights can prompt new initiatives to address and reduce barriers. For the report, data was submitted by medical and dental plans that cover roughly half of the insured population in the United States and providers representing a range of specialties.

After reporting modest progress over the past few years, the 2018 CAQH Index findings suggest more positive change is occurring in the industry overall. Healthcare industry stakeholders made progress on many fronts this year—in adoption of electronic transactions, reductions in the volume of manual transactions and reductions in the remaining savings opportunity.

“The results highlighted in the 2018 Index are encouraging,” Kristine Burnaska, director of research and measurement at CAQH, said in a statement. “Both providers and health plans are saving time and reducing administrative costs, but more effort is needed to significantly reduce the volume of expensive, time consuming manual processing.”

While the overall volume of transactions in the medical industry increased by 18 percent in the past year, the volume of manual transactions declined, falling 6 percent for health plans and 1 percent for providers, according to the CAQH Index.

Medical industry adoption of electronic eligibility and benefit verification increased six percentage points to 85 percent in 2018; adoption of electronic coordination of benefits rose to 80 percent in 2018, up from 75 percent in 2017. Adoption of electronic claim submission stands at 96 percent and 71 percent of healthcare organizations have adopted electronic claim status inquiries.

However, the healthcare industry made little progress in the adoption of other electronic administrative transactions—only 12 percent of organizations have adopted electronic prior authorization, although that is up from 8 percent the year before. Adoption of electronic claim payment stands at 63 percent and less than half of healthcare organizations (48 percent) have adopted electronic remittance advice processes.

However, continued efforts are needed to significantly reduce the volume of expensive, time-consuming manual transactions and adapt to the changing administrative needs of the healthcare system, according to the CAQH Index. The Index estimates that the medical and dental industries could save an additional $12.4 billion annually with full adoption of electronic administrative transactions, particularly through greater automation by providers, which could save an additional $8.5 billion.

During a period of rising transaction volume, the medical industry shaved $1.3 billion from its savings opportunity, bringing it to $9.8 billion.

The Index also highlights a substantial rise in overall transaction volume, growing in parallel with industry complexity. As these trends persist, the Index finds that the industry would benefit from updated standards, operating rules, infrastructure and functionality that can accommodate the increase in volume and growing complexity associated with the need to connect administrative and clinical data elements in value-based payment models.

“The industry is making progress,” April Todd, senior vice president, CORE and Explorations at CAQH, said in a statement. “But, we are at an inflection point where processes and technology must adapt to a healthcare system that is transitioning to value-based payment and becoming increasingly complex.”

The CAQH Index notes that industry complexity is growing in parallel with transaction volume. “As these trends persist, the industry will benefit from standards, operating rules, infrastructure and functionality that can accommodate both the increase in volume and the growing complexity associated with varying plan and payment models designed to increase the value and quality of healthcare for consumers. There is a need for all stakeholders to support initiatives that lay the groundwork for the future,” the report authors wrote.

The CAQH Index also issued a number calls to action for the healthcare industry, including focusing efforts to address cost savings opportunities. Several transactions offer the greatest potential for savings and should be the subject of attention—transactions include eligibility and benefit verification, claim status, remittance advice and prior authorization. The medical industry could save an additional $4 billion on eligibility and benefit verifications and $2.6 billion on claim status transactions by fully adopting electronic transactions, according to the CAQH Index.

CAQH also recommends accelerating standards and operating rule development and encouraging timely vendor adoption of standards and operating rules.

 

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Has CMS Just Tipped the Scales Towards Provider Alienation, in its ACO Final Rule?

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CMS’s release of its final rule on MSSP ACO participation has pushed the healthcare industry into a very fraught moment in the ongoing evolution of the ACO experiment

As Healthcare Informatics Associate Editor Heather Landi reported on Dec. 21, that morning, “The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) on Friday morning published a final rule that makes sweeping changes to the Medicare Shared Savings (MSSP) Accountable Care Organization (ACO) program, with the goal to push Medicare ACOs more quickly into two-sided risk models.”

Indeed, as Landi noted in her report, “Referred to as ‘Pathways to Success,’ the Trump Administration’s overhaul of Medicare’s ACO program will redesign the program’s participation options by removing the traditional three tracks in the MSSP model and replacing them with two tracks that eligible ACOs would enter into for an agreement period of no less than five years: the BASIC track, which would allow eligible ACOs to begin under a one-sided model and incrementally phase in higher levels of risk; and the ENHANCED track, which is based on the program’s existing Track 3, providing additional tools and flexibility for ACOs that take on the highest level of risk and potential rewards. At the highest level, BASIC ACOs would qualify as an Advanced Alternative Payment Model (APM) under the Quality Payment Program.”

And, Landi noted, “Currently, the MSSP model includes three tracks and is structured to allow ACOs to gain experience with the program before transitioning to performance-based risk. The vast majority of Shared Savings Program ACOs have chosen to enter and maximize the allowed time under Track 1, which is an ‘upside-only’ risk model. MSSP Tracks 2 and 3 involve downside risk, but participation in these tracks has been limited thus far.”

One of the biggest points of contention in recent months as centered on how aggressive a push on the part of CMS to compel providers forward into two-sided risk would be desirable, or even wise. Some in the industry tried to put a positive spin on the “low-income” element of the program, with that term referring to smaller physician groups choosing to participate in the MSSP. On Friday morning, in response to the final rule, Travis Broome, vice president of policy at Aledade, a Bethesda, Md.-based company focused on physician-led ACO development, tweeted, “One more change to Basic. Low-revenue ACOs will be able to stay in 1-sided risk for 3 years. Difference [between] 2 & 3 years is big. The decision to take risk is made summer before the year starts. So 2 years of 1-sided risk meant making the risk decision before year 1 results even came in.”

But in a statement from the National Association of ACOs (NAACOS), an association comprised of more than 360 ACOs, Clif Gaus, Sc.D., NAACOS’s president and CEO expressed concern that CMS retained the two-year limit for other ACOs. “Becoming a well-functioning ACO takes time and requires building of IT infrastructure, hiring care coordinators, changing the culture of providers, among other tasks. Under CMS’s proposed rule, many ACOs would have just a single year of performance data available to them before evaluating the required move to risk in their third year of the program,” Gaus stated.

Gaus did include a conciliatory note in his statement, saying that "We appreciate CMS' effort in the final rule to provide greater stability to the Medicare Shared Savings Program with five-year agreement periods and more flexibility through waivers for telehealth and skilled nursing facility stays. We look forward to working with CMS to ensure that the Medicare Shared Savings Program, which has a track record of saving taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars while demonstrably improving care for patients, continues to attract new participants and reap savings." NAACOS has been among the most vocal of healthcare professional associations this year, as CMS Administrator Seema Verma has intensified her call for providers to move forward quickly into more advanced forms of alternative payment models.

But, choosing not to sound any notes of conciliation on Friday, was the Chicago-based American Hospital Association, the largest U.S. hospital association, representing nearly 5,000 hospitals nationwide. A statement attributed to Tom Nickels, AHA vice president, on Dec. 21, said, “Today’s final rule will not be helpful in the move toward value-based care. None of the actions taken today will better empower ACOs to maximize their contribution to patient care and are not pathways for improving the value of the program for patients. We remain opposed to CMS drastically shortening the length of time in which ACOs can participate in an upside-only model. Hospitals and health systems have asked for a more gradual pathway because building a successful ACO that is able to take on financial risk requires significant investments in time, effort and finances.”

Further, the AHA statement said, “While CMS made some improvements to its shared savings rate policies from the proposed rule, they still are not sufficient to appropriately reward ACOs for improving quality and reducing costs. We are particularly concerned about the impact of these and other policies on high-revenue ACOs. We do appreciate that CMS took certain steps to expand participants’ ability to provide care to beneficiaries – for example, via telehealth and longer agreement periods.”

And, the AHA said, “As a whole, the policies in the rule will likely result in a significant decrease in program participation. That would be unfortunate, as we seek to transform care to better serve our patients and communities.”

While the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) finalized some improvements to the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP), the Premier healthcare alliance is extremely concerned that these are overshadowed by unrealistic expectations of the speed at which providers can transition to risk-based tracks, the un-level playing field created for hospital-led vs. physician-led ACOs and the imbalance of risk vs. reward.

Meanwhile, leaders at the Charlotte-based Premier Inc. were equally critical. In a statement released on Friday, Blair Childs, Premier’s senior vice president of public affairs said that while “Premier appreciates that CMS finalized the extension of waivers and the longer agreement period and heard our concerns about the reduction in shared savings,” “We are extremely disappointed, however, that CMS has moved forward in creating an unlevel playing field that disadvantages high-revenue ACOs—primarily hospital-led ACOs. Premier and other stakeholders, including MedPAC, oppose this policy,” the statement read. “Hospital-led ACOs in Premier’s Population Health Management Collaborative performed twice as well as all the other ACOs nationally. CMS should be taking steps to enhance, not limit, the inclusion of all innovative providers that are seeking to move to value-based care. For an Administration that has been outspoken in advocating for market solutions and level playing fields among competitors, it’s an enormous mistake to finalize a policy that pits providers against each other rather than focusing on collaboration, as the model intends.”

So, where does this leave the industry? Quite possibly, at an important inflection point, now that what was a proposed rule is now a final rule. One could argue this situation from a number of standpoints, but the bottom line is simple: in her desire to push providers forward quickly and decisively into two-sided risk—and even with the carrot-like incentives for smaller physician groups that have been added—Administrator Verma is now strongly risking a massive wave of defections from the MSSP.

As NAACOS’ Gaus noted in his statement, “Under CMS's proposed rule, many ACOs would have just a single year of performance data available to them before evaluating the required move to risk in their third year of the program.” Perhaps similarly importantly, he noted, "Although we are pleased that CMS finalized a new, limited exception to its high-low policy, we remain concerned that the high-low revenue ACO distinction could deter providers who want to embark on the path of value-based care and could unintentionally harm physician-led ACOs. We urged CMS in the rulemaking process to provide an equal playing field for all ACOs and will continue to advocate for changes to this policy. A NAACOS analysis of how ACOs would be classified under CMS's proposed definitions found almost 20 percent of physician-led ACOs would be considered high revenue ACOs. Furthermore, federally qualified health centers and rural health clinics would also have a fair proportion of high revenue ACOs.”

So, here we come to a very tricky set of issues. First, the entire point of adding in the “low-income ACO” distinction was to encourage more physician groups to join the MSSP; and that would be very important for the survival and thriving of the program, since the participation of hospital-based organizations has been slow to date, and one key way to encourage participation by all types of patient care organizations would be to be able to boast about rapidly increasing participation. But if, as Gaus has noted, NAACOS’ analysis finds that nearly 20 percent of physician-led ACOs would actually end up being “high-revenue ACOs,” that could indeed complicate CMS’s attempts to quickly gain new participants.

Further, the short period of time between initial participation and having to decide whether to stay in the voluntary program and take on mandated two-sided risk, poses one of the most serious barriers to increased participation; and therein lies the real rub for CMS, because if this final rule ends up causing mass defections in the next two years, the agency’s signature and largest federal ACO program could begin to fall apart, precisely at the time that Administrator Verma, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, and all their fellow senior federal healthcare policy officials, would be hoping to accelerate the shift from volume to value in U.S. healthcare, and prove that the broad ACO experiment is working.

On the other hand, it’s also true that if CMS allows the forward evolution of the MSSP program to progress too slowly, that could cause members of Congress and their staffs to determine that voluntary programs simply aren’t cutting it, and move towards massive Medicare cuts instead, in an attempt to get better control of overall U.S. healthcare inflation, at a time when all discretionary spending in the federal budget is increasingly becoming politically fraught.

For the time being, there is no simple answer to any of this. It’s as though the levers of power and influence must be used in an exquisitely calibrated way. There seems to be no “Goldilocks pace” of change here that will both maximize new participation, and ongoing participation, in the MSSP program, on the part of wary providers, and yet also fulfill all the demands and desires of senior federal healthcare policy officials. Only time will tell, but this moment feels more fraught than ever, in the ongoing evolution of the ACO experiment. There’s no doubt that 2019 could be a determinative year for MSSP.

 

 

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CMS: 93% of Clinicians Get Positive Payment Adjustments for MIPS Year 1

November 8, 2018
by Rajiv Leventhal, Managing Editor
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Ninety-three percent of MIPS (Merit-based Incentive Payment System)-eligible clinicians received a positive payment adjustment for their performance in 2017, and 95 percent overall avoided a negative payment adjustment, according to a CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) announcement today.

The first year of MIPS under MACRA’s Quality Payment Program (QPP) was dubbed by CMS as a “pick your pace year,” which essentially enabled clinicians to avoid payment penalties as long as they submitted at least the minimum amount of quality data. As such, in its announcement, CMS did admit that the overall performance threshold for MIPS was established at a relatively low level of three points, and the availability of “pick your pace” provided participation flexibility through three reporting options for clinicians: “test”, partial year, or full-year reporting.

CMS said that 93 percent of MIPS-eligible clinicians received a positive payment adjustment for their performance in 2017, and 95 percent overall avoided a negative payment adjustment. CMS specifically calculated that approximately 1.06 million MIPS-eligible clinicians in total will receive a MIPS payment adjustment, either positive, neutral, or negative. The payment adjustments for the 2017 program year get reflected in 2019.

Breaking down the 93 percent of participants that received a positive payment adjustment last year, 71 percent earned a positive payment adjustment and an adjustment for exceptional performance, while 22 percent earned a positive payment adjustment only. Meanwhile, just 5 percent of MIPS-eligible clinicians received a negative payment adjustment, and 2 percent received a neutral adjustment (no increase or decrease).

Of the total population, just over one million MIPS-eligible clinicians reported data as either an individual, as a part of a group, or through an Alternative Payment Model (APM), and received a neutral payment adjustment or better. Additionally, under the Advanced APM track, just more than 99,000 eligible clinicians earned Qualifying APM Participant (QP) status, according to the CMS data.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma noted on the first pick-your-pace year of the QPP, “This measured approach allowed more clinicians to successfully participate, which led to many clinicians exceeding the performance threshold and a wider distribution of positive payment adjustments. We expect that the gradual increases in the performance thresholds in future program years will create an evolving distribution of payment adjustments for high performing clinicians who continue to invest in improving quality and outcomes for beneficiaries.”

For 2018, the second year of the QPP, CMS raised the stakes for those participating clinicians. And in the third year of the program, set to start in January 2019, a final rule was just published with year three requirements. Undoubtedly, as time passes, eligible clinicians will be asked for greater participation at higher levels. At the same time, CMS continues to exempt certain clinicians who don’t meet a low-volume Medicare threshold.

Earlier this year, CMS said that 91 percent of all MIPS-eligible clinicians participated in the first year of the QPP, exceeding the agency’s internal goal.

What’s more, from a scoring perspective in 2017, the overall national mean score for MIPS-eligible clinicians was 74.01 points, and the national median was 88.97 points, on a 0 to 100 scale. Further breaking down the mean and median:

  • Clinicians participating in MIPS as individuals or groups (and not through an APM) received a mean score of 65.71 points and a median score of 83.04 points
  • Clinicians participating in MIPS through an APM received a mean score of 87.64 points and a median score of 91.67 points

Additionally, clinicians in small and rural practices who were not in APMs and who chose to participate in MIPS also performed well, CMS noted. On average, MIPS eligible clinicians in rural practices earned a mean score of 63.08 points, while clinicians in small practices received a mean score of 43.46 points.

Said Verma, “While we understand that challenges remain for clinicians in small practices, these results suggest that these clinicians and those in rural practices can successfully participate in the program. With these mean scores, clinicians in small and rural practices would still receive a neutral or positive payment adjustment for the 2017, 2018, and 2019 performance years due to the relatively modest performance thresholds that we have established. We will also continue to directly support these clinicians now and in future years of the program.”

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