Sharing her initial takeaways on the 2018 MACRA QPP final rule, Enekwechi, who also previously served as a senior analyst with the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, and at the Congressional Budget Office, says, “What the Administration is doing is really making an effort to continue to ease the burden of implementation of MACRA this second year, but, at the same time, they recognize that full implementation will begin in the third year, so they don’t want to leave clinicians completely unprepared. You see evidence of a little bit of a ramp up, when you look at the MIPS scoring, whereas before you needed a minimum of 3 points and now it’s 15. And, cost is now weighted at 10 percent in the second year as opposed to zero in the first year,” she says, adding, “To me, it read very much like a real effort to get folks ready for 2020.”
In the proposed rule, plans from CMS signaled that many more clinicians will be exempt from MIPS once again, like they were in year one of the QPP, which began in January. In keeping with the proposed rule, the final rule will increase clinicians’ low-volume threshold from $30,000 or less in Medicare Part B allowed charges or less than 100 Medicare patients to $90,000 in Part B allowed charges or less than 200 Medicare patients.
There has been some debate about whether excusing more clinicians from MIPS for another year is beneficial in the long-term. Enekwechi notes that one potential impact of increasing the low-volume threshold is a growing chasm between physicians currently participating in MIPS and those who are exempt.
“You have some clinicians who are participating in MIPS and going through the rigorous effort of measuring quality, reporting, and for all intents and purposes, marching toward higher risk payment models, and just getting more involved in advanced APMs (alternative payment models). And then, on the other side, you have a whole set of clinicians who are not going to be exercised in that way and will not adjust to these new payment models that are coming out, not just from Medicare but from the commercial side. I do think, if we continue down this path where the majority are not participating in MIPS or APMs, I think we’re going to start to see differences between those two classes of clinicians,” she says.
To this point, the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) said in a statement that it is grateful that the rule lets small practices form virtual groups in 2018. It said, “Virtual groups can help small practices join together to have enough patients for robust measurement and prepare for APMs. Unfortunately, the rule prevents the smallest practices from joining virtual groups by defining low-volume practices as ineligible for MIPS. Low-volume practices—those with less than $90,000 in Medicare revenue or 200 Medicare patients—most need virtual groups so they can have reliable measurement and reap rewards for improvement. CMS could remedy this by amending its low-volume definition to say these practices are ineligible for MIPS ‘unless they join a virtual group.’”
Smith notes several positive developments in the final rule, such as giving providers the ability to use either 2014 Edition Certified Electronic Health Record Technology (CEHRT) or 2015 edition CEHRT, which was also in the proposed rule. “It was good to see that CMS is continuing to try to find ways to gently encourage people to adopt 2015 edition CEHRT as they maintained from the proposal to offer a bonus for using it,” Smith says, referring to the policy in the final rule that states providers can earn a 10 percent bonus if they only use 2015 edition CEHRT.
CMS also increased the number of improvement activities that are eligible for bonus credit under the Advancing Care Information category. As one example, CMS plans to give bonus credit to physicians who consult patient-generated health data from consumer wearables. Smith says, “I think that will be an important policy moving forward, for a host of reasons, not least of which is the fact that there are a growing number of consumer technologies that patients are showing up at their doctor’s office and saying, ‘here’s my data, this is keeping track of my weight or blood pressure and how do we make sense of that.’ If you look at the improvement activity piece of MIPS, they are trying to give credit to innovation and experimentation.”
He continues, “And, while it doesn’t account for a huge portion of the overall MIPS score, I think it’s an important policy lever. It will be interesting to see what additional kinds of issues arise out of this new proposal to pay physicians to take patient-generated health data and spend time with that data, but, I think, overall, that’s a positive aspect of the Improvement Activities.”
In the press release about the final rule, CMS noted that to further ease clinician burden, CMS is adding an option to help clinicians and small, rural practices join together and share the responsibility of participating in value-based payments in virutal groups. CMS is also adding a new hardship exception to assist small practices and clinicians impacted by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. This change mitigates the absence of Electronic Health Records as a result of the natural disasters.