ATTENTION: This is a beta website, the final version will look significantly different. Thanks for bearing with us while HJM is under construction! Posts can now be found here.

MIPS penalizes physicians who take care of vulnerable populations

September 10, 2020

Topics: Quote of the Day

By Dhruv Khullar, M.D., M.P.P.; William L. Schpero, Ph.D.; Amelia M. Bond, Ph.D.; Yuting Qian, M.S.; Lawrence P. Casalino, M.D., Ph.D.
JAMA, September 8, 2020

Key Points

Question: Was there an association between patient social risk and physician performance in the first year of the Merit-based Incentive Payment System (MIPS), a major Medicare value-based payment program?

Findings: In this cross-sectional observational study of 284 544 physicians, physicians with the highest proportion of patients dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid had significantly lower MIPS scores compared with physicians with the lowest proportion (mean, 64.7 vs 75.9; range, 0-100; higher scores reflect better performance).

Meaning: Physicians with the highest proportion of socially disadvantaged patients had significantly lower MIPS scores, although further research is needed to understand the reasons underlying the differences in MIPS scores by levels of patient social risk.

From the Discussion

These results are consistent with prior research in other value-based programs, suggesting that clinicians and health care organizations serving poorer patients tend to have lower performance scores. Many value-based payment programs may thus penalize clinicians for social factors outside their control and inadvertently transfer resources from those caring for less affluent patients to those caring for more affluent patients—the so-called reverse Robin Hood effect.

While the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission has recommended eliminating MIPS in its current form, Congress has not provided any indication it intends to do so.


Association of Clinician Health System Affiliation With Outpatient Performance Ratings in the Medicare Merit-based Incentive Payment System

By Kenton J. Johnston, Ph.D.; Timothy L. Wiemken, Ph.D.; Jason M. Hockenberry, Ph.D.; Jose F. Figueroa, M.D., M.P.H.; Karen E. Joynt Maddox, M.D., M.P.H.
JAMA, September 8, 2020

Key Points

Question: Did clinicians affiliated with health systems composed of hospitals and multispecialty group practices have better performance ratings than their peers under the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Merit-based Incentive Payment System (MIPS)?

Findings: In this cross-sectional study of 636 552 clinicians with MIPS data for 2019 (based on clinician performance in 2017), those with health system affiliations compared with clinicians without such affiliations had a mean MIPS performance score of 79 vs 60 on a scale of 0 to 100, with higher scores intended to represent better performance. This difference was statistically significant.

Meaning: Clinician affiliation with a health system was associated with significantly better 2019 MIPS performance ratings, but whether this reflects a difference in quality of care is unknown.

From the Discussion

Whether the MIPS will meaningfully improve quality or reduce costs over time is unknown. Research on prior Medicare value-based payment programs in the outpatient setting, notably the Shared Savings Program and the Value-Based Payment Modifier Program, have produced mixed results, finding modest to no cost savings or improvements in the quality of care. Longer-term studies are needed to examine this program as future years of data become available.


Editorial: Potential Adverse Financial Implications of the Merit-based Incentive Payment System for Independent and Safety Net Practices

By Carrie H. Colla, Ph.D.; Toyin Ajayi, M.D., M.Phil.; Asaf Bitton, M.D., M.P.H.
JAMA, September 8, 2020

In 2019, US clinicians began to be rewarded or penalized up to 4% of revenue under the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Merit-based Incentive Payment System (MIPS). Clinicians can choose measures for evaluation from 3 categories: quality, meaningful use, and improvement activities.

The reports in this issue of JAMA by Johnston et al and by Khullar et al evaluated the MIPS performance scores of clinicians and the potential financial implications associated with the MIPS program. The authors found meaningful advantages for clinicians associated with health care systems and among those who treated fewer patients with low socioeconomic status and complex medical needs.

The findings of these studies have important implications for MIPS specifically, and broadly for payment reform. This compelling evidence supports the notion that system-affiliated practices are more likely to be rewarded by pay-for-performance programs than independent practices. However, a large amount of skepticism remains about whether this pay-for-performance approach correlates with better patient outcomes. The proportion of physicians employed by hospitals or health systems has been rapidly increasing from about 28% of primary care physicians in 2010 to almost 50% in 2018.3,4 There are consequences from this consolidation, such as increasing prices in commercial markets without meaningful improvements in care quality and patient outcomes.5 In addition, choice in referrals to inpatient settings, specialty physicians and centers, or ancillary services may be limited.

Because the quality measures were chosen by practices and were process based, the investigators could not disentangle whether their results represent better quality of patient care or reflect resources available to support selection and reporting of quality measures.

The second major finding raised by these reports is the uncomfortable recognition that the MIPS and other alternative payment models consistently appear to penalize physicians who care for low-income and vulnerable populations. Khullar et al used dual eligibility status as a proxy for social, medical, and behavioral health complexity in the Medicare population. This population requires complex medical care, behavioral health services, and long-term supports, all of which must be coordinated to achieve outcome improvements. Dually eligible beneficiaries are approximately 3 times as likely to have significant limitations in activities of daily living than non–dually eligible beneficiaries (30% vs 9%, respectively) and to experience serious mental illness (30% vs 11%). Dually eligible beneficiaries are also twice as likely (48% vs 21%) to belong to racial or ethnic minority groups than non–dually eligible beneficiaries, reflecting the complex interplay between race, geographic location, racism, poverty, and poor health outcomes.

Physicians and other health care professionals who provide care for large proportions of dually eligible beneficiaries must engage in a number of complex, costly activities to improve patient health. Consequently, primary care clinicians who serve medically and socially complex populations have greater process and operational challenges (and clinical difficulties) in providing quality and accessible care to dually eligible populations.

Yet instead of adjusting reimbursement to reflect the differential cost of caring for these populations, it appears that the MIPS may further disadvantage safety net clinicians who provide care for dually eligible beneficiaries. The results reported by Khullar et al are consistent with prior research that demonstrated value-based payment programs disproportionately penalize clinicians and practices that serve low-income patients and reflect design flaws of the payment system.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission has recommended replacing the MIPS because it is unlikely to help beneficiaries choose clinicians, help clinicians improve value, or help the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services reward clinicians for value. Rewarding improved performance is a laudable policy goal. Programs like the MIPS, however, appear to be disproportionately rewarding well-off health systems while penalizing smaller practices and those serving disadvantaged populations.



By Don McCanne, M.D. 

One of the papers says, “Longer-term studies are needed to examine this program as future years of data become available.” Don’t they always say that?

Once more, MIPS does not work, and it has to go. No more studies, please! We already have a proven model that will work for all of us: single payer improved Medicare for All. When the next Congress convenes and the new administration is installed, our roar has to be deafening and unrelenting.

Stay informed! Visit www.pnhp.org/qotd to sign up for daily email updates.

About the Commentator, Don McCanne

Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

See All Posts

You might also be interested in...

© Health Justice Monitor
Facebook Twitter