Docs Weigh Pulling Out of MIPS Over Paltry Payments

Elizabeth Woodcock, MBA, FACMPE, CPC


January 29, 2020

If you've knocked yourself out to earn a Merit-based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) bonus payment, it's pretty safe to say that getting a 1.68% payment boost probably didn't feel like a "win" that was worth the effort.

And although it saved you from having a negative 5% payment adjustment, many physicians don't feel that it was worth the effort.

On January 6, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced the 2020 payouts for MIPS.

Based on 2018 participation, the bonus for those who scored a perfect 100 is only a 1.68% boost in Medicare reimbursement, slightly lower than last year's 1.88%. This decline comes as no surprise as the agency leader admits: "As the program matures, we expect that the increases in the performance thresholds in future program years will create a smaller distribution of positive payment adjustments." Overall, more than 97% of participants avoided having a negative 5% payment adjustment.

Indeed, these bonus monies are based on a short-term appropriation of extra funds from Congress. After these temporary funds are no longer available, there will be little, if any, monies to distribute as the program is based on a "losers-feed-the-winners" construct.

It may be very tempting for many physicians to decide to ignore MIPS, with the rationale that 1.68% is not worth the effort. But don't let your foot off the gas pedal yet, since the penalty for not participating in 2020 is a substantial 9%. Physicians should make sure that they, at minimum, achieve the 45 points necessary to avoid that pitfall this reporting year.

However, it is certainly time to reconsider efforts to participate at the highest level.

Should You or Shouldn't You Bother With MIPS?

Let's say you have $75,000 in revenue from Medicare Part B per year. Depending on the services you offer in your practice, that equates to 500-750 encounters with Medicare beneficiaries per year. (A reminder that MIPS affects only Part B; Medicare Advantage plans do not partake in the program.)

The recent announcement reveals that perfection would equate to an additional $1260 per year. That's only if you received the full 100 points; if you were simply an "exceptional performer," the government will allot an additional $157. That's less than you get paid for a single office visit.

The difference between perfection and compliance is approximately $1000. Failure to participate, however, knocks $6750 off your bottom line.

The difference between perfection and compliance is approximately $1000. Failure to participate, however, knocks $6750 off your bottom line. Clearly, that's a substantial financial loss that would affect most practices. Obviously, the numbers change if you have higher—or lower—Medicare revenue, but it's important to do the math.

Why? Physicians are spending a significant amount of money to comply with the program requirements. This includes substantial payments to registries—typically $200 to >$1000 per year—to report the quality measures for the program; electronic health record (EHR) systems, many of which require additional funding for the "upgrade" to a MIPS-compatible system, are also a sizable investment.

These hard costs pale in comparison with the time spent on understanding the ever-changing requirements of the program and the process by which your practice will implement them. Take, for example, something as innocuous as the required "Support Electronic Referral Loops by Receiving and Incorporating Health Information."

You first must understand the elements of the measure: What is a "referral loop?" When do we need to generate one? To whom shall it be sent? What needs to be included in "health information?" What is the electronic address to which we should route the information? How do we obtain that address? Then you must determine how your EHR system captures and reports it.

Only then comes the hard part: How are we going to implement this? That's only one of more than a dozen required elements: six quality measures, two (to four) improvement activities, and four promoting interoperability requirements. Each one of these elements has a host of requirements, all listed on multipage specification sheets.

The government does not seem to be listening. John Cullen, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, testified at the Senate Finance Committee in May 2019 that MIPS "has created a burdensome and extremely complex program that has increased practice costs..." Yet, later that year, CMS issued another hefty ruling that outlines significant changes to the program, despite the fact that it's in its fourth performance year.

Turning Frustration Into Action

Frustration or even anger may be one reaction, but now is an opportune time to determine your investment in the program. At a minimum, it's vital to understand and meet the threshold to avoid the penalty. It's been shifting to date, but it's now set at 9% for perpetuity.

At a minimum, it's vital to understand and meet the threshold to avoid the penalty. It's been shifting to date, but it's now set at 9% for perpetuity.

First, it's crucial to check on your participation status. CMS revealed that the participation database was recently corrected for so-called inconsistencies, so it pays to double-check. It only takes seconds: Insert your NPI in the QPP Participation Status Tool to determine your eligibility for 2020.

In 2020, the threshold to avoid the penalty is 45 points. In order to get the 45 points, practices must participate in two improvement activities, which is not difficult as there are 118 options. That will garner 15 points. Then there are 45 points available from the quality category; you need at least 30 to reach the 45-point threshold for penalty avoidance.

Smart MIPS Hacks That Can Help You

To obtain the additional 30 points, turn your attention to the quality category. There are 268 quality measures; choose at least six to measure. If you report directly from your EHR system, you'll get a bonus point for each reported measure, plus one just for trying. (There are a few other opportunities for bonus points, such as improving your scores over last year.) Those bonus points give you a base with which to work, but getting to 45 will require effort to report successfully on at least a couple of the measures.

The quality category has a total of 100 points available, which are converted to 45 toward your composite score. Since you need 30 to reach that magical 45 (if 15 were attained from improvement activities), that means you must come up with 75 points in the quality category. Between the bonus points and measuring a handful of measures successfully through the year, you'll achieve this threshold.

There are two other categories in the program: promoting interoperability (PI) and cost. The PI category mirrors the old "meaningful use" program; however, it has become increasingly difficult over the years. If you think that you can meet the required elements, you can pick up 25 more points toward your composite score.

Cost is a bit of an unknown, as the scoring is based on a retrospective review of your claims. You'll likely pick up a few more points on this 15-point category, but there's no method to determine performance until after the reporting period. Therefore, be cautious about relying on this category.

The best MIPS hack, however, is if you are a small practice. CMS—remarkably—defines a "small practice" as 15 or fewer eligible professionals. If you qualify under this paradigm, you have multiple options to ease compliance:

  • Apply for a "hardship exemption" simply on the basis of being small; the exemption relates to the promoting operability category, shifting those points to the quality category.

  • Gain three points per quality measure, regardless of data completeness; this compares to just one point for other physicians.

  • Capture all of the points available from the Improvement Activities category by confirming participation with just a single activity. (This also applies to all physicians in rural or Health Professional Shortage Areas.)

In the event that you don't qualify as a "small practice" or you're still falling short of the requirements, CMS allows for the ultimate "out": You can apply for exemption on the basis of an "extreme and uncontrollable circumstance." The applications for these exceptions open this summer.

Unless you qualify for the program exemption, it's important to keep pace with the program to ensure that you reach the 45-point threshold. It may not, however, be worthwhile to gear up for all 100 points unless your estimate of the potential return—and what it costs you to get there—reveals otherwise. MIPS is not going anywhere; the program is written into the law.

But that doesn't mean that CMS can't make tweaks and updates. Hopefully, the revisions won't create even more administrative burden as the program is quickly turning into a big stick with only a small carrot at the end.

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