Japanese Have A Better Idea for SGR (Sustainable Growth Rate) Fee Cuts

The House of Representatives voted last week to give another reprieve to physicians, who faced a 21% Medicare fee cut because of a provision called SGR – or Sustainable Growth Rate.   The SGR mandates cuts in fees for all Medicare services if the total number of services increases. Essentially, if too much service is delivered, each unit of service is reimbursed at a lower rate. This helps keep the Medicare budget “in balance.”

National Public Radio and others  characterize the SGR provision as a “glitch.”  Indeed it really feels like a mistake, since each year Congress overturns the SGR and reinstates small fee schedule increases or flat fee schedules. Each year, Congress has only kicked the can forward to the next year. When SGR would have required a 5% fee cut one year, it requires a cut of over 10% the next year, and you can see where this is going.

It was never intellectually honest to overturn the SGR on a year by year basis –because if a 5% pay cut is untenable, a 21% pay cut is unimaginable.   Still, the cost to the federal budget deficit of eliminating SGR altogether would be over $200 billion (over 10 years). The Congressional Budget Office recently reminded us that eliminating this fee cut will also cost Medicare beneficiaries almost $50 billion in increased out of pocket expense over the next ten years.

The SGR was not a “glitch,” but it was a poorly designed way of trying to prevent overutilization.  The problem is that the benefit of increased revenue to individual providers overwhelms the risk of a pay cut due to overall higher than expected utilization.  This is a classic “tragedy of the commons”  problem – where it pays for each individual provider to do more procedures, knowing that her contribution to the “overgrazing” will be overwhelmed by the practices of the general population.

SGR is poorly designed because the group of procedures it applies to (the equivalent of the “pasture” in the tragedy of the commons) is too big – and no physician would rationally think about cutting back on utilization to prevent future fee cuts.  There is a better way.  Japan has an SGR-equivalent which is by individual service –not generic across all services. 

Prices are revised individually, adjusted for each procedure and drug, and not by an across-the-board conversion rate. In particular, the prices of procedures that show large increases in volume tend to be decreased. (Ikegami  and Campbell, Health Affairs, 2004)       Harvard Link 

As a practical matter, procedures with large increases in utilization are sometimes those where there is new evidence of efficacy, but they are likely to be procedures with an exceptionally high margin.  This method of adjusting helps diminish the excess margin associated with particular services, so there is less likelihood they will continue to be overused.

So – we should get rid of the SGR – it’s not effective at changing physician utilization, and would cause politically infeasible across-the-board cuts.  As long as we are using primarily fee for service payments, Medicare should adopt the Japanese approach to targeted fee cuts for certain procedures if the volume increases. 

(Thanks to Tori Fancher, Sophie Miller, Amy Rothkopf, and Alicia Widge of HSPH HPM235 for drawing my attention to this approach)