Practice Economics

SGR Reform, ICD-10 Implementation Delays Frustrate Hospitalists, Physicians


Punt Dr. Lenchus

Congress has once again delayed implementation of draconian Medicare cuts tied to the sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula. It was the 17th temporary patch applied to the ailing physician reimbursement program, so the decision caused little surprise.

But with the same legislation—the Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014—being used to delay the long-awaited debut of ICD-10, many hospitalists and physicians couldn’t help but wonder whether billing and coding would now be as much of a political football as the SGR fix.1

The upshot: It doesn’t seem that way.

“I think it’s two separate issues,” says Phyllis “PJ” Floyd, RN, BSN, MBA, NE-BC, CCA, director of health information services and clinical documentation improvement at Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston, S.C. “The fact that it was all in one bill, I don’t know that it was well thought out as much as it was, ‘Let’s put the ICD-10 in here at the same time.’

“It was just a few sentences, and then it wasn’t even brought up in the discussion on the floor.”

Four policy wonks interviewed by The Hospitalist concurred that while tying the ICD-10 delay to the SGR issue was an unexpected and frustrating development, the coding system likely will be implemented in the relative short term. Meanwhile, a long-term resolution of the SGR dilemma remains much more elusive.

“For about 12 hours, I felt relief about the ICD-10 [being delayed], and then I just realized, it’s still coming, presumably,” says John Nelson, MD, MHM, a co-founder and past president of SHM and medical director of the hospitalist practice at Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue, Wash. “[It’s] like a patient who needs surgery and finds out it’s canceled for the day and he’ll have it tomorrow. Well, that’s good for right now, but [he] still has to face this eventually.”

“Doc-Pay” Fix Near?

Congress’ recent decision to delay both an SGR fix and the ICD-10 are troubling to some hospitalists and others for different reasons.

The SGR extension through this year’s end means that physicians do not face a 24% cut to physician payments under Medicare. SHM has long lobbied against temporary patches to the SGR, repeatedly backing legislation that would once and for all scrap the formula and replace it with something sustainable.

The SGR formula was first crafted in 1997, but the now often-delayed cuts were a byproduct of the federal sequester that was included in the Budget Control Act of 2011. At the time, the massive reduction to Medicare payments was tied to political brinksmanship over the country’s debt ceiling. The cuts were implemented as a doomsday scenario that was never likely to actually happen, but despite negotiations over the past three years, no long-term compromise can be found. Paying for the reform remains the main stumbling block.

“I think, this year, Congress was as close as it’s been in a long time to enacting a serious fix, aided by the agreement of major professional societies like the American College of Physicians and American College of Surgeons,” says David Howard, PhD, an associate professor in the department of health policy and management at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta. “They were all on board with this solution. ... Who knows, maybe if the economic situation continues to improve [and] tax revenues continue to go up...that will create a more favorable environment for compromise.”

Dr. Howard adds that while Congress might be close to a solution in theory, agreement on how to offset the roughly $100 billion in costs “is just very difficult.” That is why the healthcare professor is pessimistic that a long-term fix is truly at hand.

“The places where Congress might have looked for savings to offset the cost of the doc fix, such as hospital reimbursement rates or payment rates to Medicare Advantage plans—those are exactly the areas that the Affordable Care Act is targeting to pay for insurance expansion,” Dr. Howard adds. “So those areas of savings are not going to be available to offset the cost of the doc fix.”

ICD-10 Delays “Unfair”

Dr. Lenchus

The medical coding conundrum presents a different set of issues. The delay in transitioning healthcare providers from the ICD-9 medical coding classification system to the more complicated ICD-10 means the upgraded system is now against an Oct. 1, 2015, deadline. This comes after the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) already pushed back the original implementation date for ICD-10 by one year.

SHM Public Policy Committee member Joshua Lenchus, DO, RPh, FACP, SFHM, says he thinks most doctors are content with the delay, particularly in light of some estimates that show that only about 20% of physicians “have actually initiated the ICD-10 transition.” But he also notes that it’s unfair to the health systems that have prepared for ICD-10.

“ICD-9 has a little more than 14,000 diagnostic codes and nearly 4,000 procedural codes. That is to be contrasted to ICD-10, which has more than 68,000 diagnostic codes ... and over 72,000 procedural codes,” Dr. Lenchus says. “So, it is not surprising that many take solace in the delay.”

ICD-9 has a little more than 14,000 diagnostic codes and nearly 4,000 procedural codes. That is to be contrasted to ICD-10, which has more than 68,000 diagnostic codes ... and over 72,000 procedural codes. So, it is not surprising that many take solace in the delay.

–Dr. Lenchus

Dr. Nelson says the level of frustration for hospitalists is growing; however, the level of disruption for hospitals and health systems is reaching a boiling point.

“Of course, in some places, hospitalists may be the physician lead on ICD-10 efforts, so [they are] very much wrapped up in the problem of ‘What do we do now?’”

The answer, at least to the Coalition for ICD-10, a group of medical/technology trade groups, is to fight to ensure that the delays go no further. In an April letter to CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner, the coalition made that case, noting that in 2012, “CMS estimated the cost to the healthcare industry of a one-year delay to be as much as $6.6 billion, or approximately 30% of the $22 billion that CMS estimated had been invested or budgeted for ICD-10 implementation.”2

The letter went on to explain that the disruption and cost will grow each time the ICD-10 deadline is pushed.

“Furthermore, as CMS stated in 2012, implementation costs will continue to increase considerably with every year of a delay,” according to the letter. “The lost opportunity costs of failing to move to a more effective code set also continue to climb every year.”

Stay Engaged, Switch Gears

One of Floyd’s biggest concerns is that the ICD-10 implementation delays will affect physician engagement. The hospitalist groups at MUSC began training for ICD-10 in January 2013; however, the preparation and training were geared toward a 2014 implementation.

“You have to switch gears a little bit,” she says. “What we plan to do now is begin to do heavy auditing, and then from those audits we can give real-time feedback on what we’re doing well and what we’re not doing well. So I think that will be a method for engagement.”

For more on the ICD-10 delays, check out Kelly April Tyrrell’s policy article, “Stay the Course”.

She urges hospitalists, practice leaders, and informatics professionals to discuss ICD-10 not as a theoretical application, but as one tied to reimbursement that will have major impact in the years ahead. To that end, the American Health Information Management Association highlights the fact that the new coding system will result in higher-quality data that can improve performance measures, provide “increased sensitivity” to reimbursement methodologies, and help with stronger public health surveillance.3

“A lot of physicians see this as a hospital issue, and I think that’s why they shy away,” Floyd says. “Now there are some physicians who are interested in how well the hospital does, but the other piece is that it does affect things like [reduced] risk of mortality [and] comparison of data worldwide—those are things that we just have to continue to reiterate … and give them real examples.”

Richard Quinn is a freelance writer in New Jersey.


  1. Govtrack. H.R. 4302: Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014. Accessed June 5, 2014.
  2. Coalition for ICD. Letter to CMS Administrator Tavenner, April 11, 2014. Accessed June 5, 2014.
  3. American Health Information Management Association. ICD-10-CM/PCS Transition: Planning and Preparation Checklist. Accessed June 5, 2014.

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