The History of the Sustainable Growth Rate, and How Its Repeal and ACOs are Linked

Ken Perez
Ken Perez

Guest post by Ken Perez, vice president of healthcare policy, Omnicell.

Section 4503 of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, enacted on Aug. 5, 1997, replaced the Medicare Volume Performance Standard (MVPS) with the sustainable growth rate (SGR) provision, a formulaic approach intended to restrain the growth of Medicare spending on physician services. The SGR formula incorporates medical inflation, the projected growth of per capita gross domestic product (GDP), projected growth in the number of Medicare beneficiaries, and changes in law or regulation.

The SGR requires Medicare each year to set a total budget for spending on physician services for the following year. If actual spending exceeds that budget, the Medicare conversion factor that is applied to more than 7,400 unique covered physician and therapy services in subsequent years is to be reduced so that over time, cumulative actual spending will not exceed cumulative budgeted (targeted) spending, with April 1, 1996, as the starting point for both.

In part because of the effective lobbying efforts of physicians, Congress has temporarily suspended application of the SGR by passing legislative overrides or “doc fixes” 17 times from 2003 to 2014. (It utilized five different pieces of legislation in 2010 alone to avoid cuts exceeding 20 percent.) As a result, actual spending has exceeded budget every year during these years. Because the annual fee update must be adjusted not only for the prior year’s variance between budgeted and actual spending but also for the cumulative variance since 1996, the next proposed update, effective April 1, 2015, is a reduction in Medicare physician fees of 20.9 percent.

Those hoping for a permanent repeal of the SGR—which is pretty much everybody, given the almost universal disdain for it—entered 2014 with a sense of optimism that this would be the year. These hopes were fueled by bipartisan and bicameral support of SGR reform proposals that emerged at the end of 2013 and significantly lower estimates by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) of the cost of a long-term doc fix.

Ultimately, the inability to figure out how to pay for the SGR repeal blocked the passage of the permanent reform bills, and Congress settled for yet another short-term patch. On March 27, 2014, the House of Representatives, under a suspension of normal rules, approved via a voice vote H.R. 4302, the Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014. The bill provides a patch to the SGR that would avoid a 24.4 percent reduction to Medicare’s Physician Fee Schedule (PFS), effective April 1, 2014, replacing the scheduled reduction with a 0.5 percent increase to the PFS through Dec. 31, 2014, and a 0 percent increase for Jan. 1, 2015, through March 31, 2015. Four days later, the Senate approved H.R. 4302 on a bipartisan 64-35 vote, and President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.

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