Ambulatory patient classifications and the regressive nature of Medicare reform: is the reduction in outpatient health care reimbursement worth the price?

B B Borgelt, C Stone
International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology, Physics 1999 October 1, 45 (3): 729-34

PURPOSE: To evaluate the impact of the proposed Ambulatory Patient Classification (APC) system on reimbursement for hospital outpatient Medicare procedures at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Department of Radiation Oncology.

METHODS AND MATERIALS: Treatment and cost data for the MGH Department of Radiation Oncology for the fiscal year 1997 were analyzed. This represented 66,981 technical procedures and 41 CPT-4 codes. The cost of each procedure was calculated by allocating departmental costs to the relative value units (RVUs) for each procedure according to accepted accounting principles. Net reimbursement for each CPT-4 procedure was then calculated by subtracting its cost from the allowed 1998 Boston area Medicare reimbursement or from the proposed Boston area APC reimbursement. The impact of the proposed APC reimbursement system on changes in reimbursement per procedure and on volume-adjusted changes in overall net reimbursements per procedure was determined.

RESULTS: Although the overall effect of APCs on volume-adjusted net reimbursements for Medicare patients was projected to be budget-neutral, treatment planning revenues would have decreased by 514% and treatment delivery revenues would have increased by 151%. Net reimbursements for less complicated courses of treatment would have increased while those for treatment courses requiring more complicated or more frequent treatment planning would have decreased. Net reimbursements for a typical prostate interstitial implant and a three-treatment high-dose-rate intracavitary application would have decreased by 481% and 632%, respectively.

CONCLUSION: The financial incentives designed into the proposed APC reimbursement structure could lead to compromises in currently accepted standards of care, and may make it increasingly difficult for academic institutions to continue to fulfill their missions of research and service to their communities. The ability of many smaller, low patient volume, high Medicare mix hospital-based radiation oncology departments to continue to deliver their current level of care could be compromised. APC reform may carry monetary and opportunity costs which far outweigh its apparent savings. As payment systems continue to place pressure on operating margins, it becomes even more critical that both academic and community radiation oncology practices know the cost of providing services.

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