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Medical Economics Physician Finances

2021 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule Winners And Losers

Every year at this time, physician practice administrators hold their breath and wait for the annual relative value unit (RVU) revaluations by Medicare. This year, Medicare was delayed in releasing the “final rule” that dictates how physicians will be paid and the final report was not released until earlier this month (December 2020). As in past years, some specialties will have increased revenue and some will have decreased revenue. Here is the projections for the RVU changes in 2021.

So, why are there so much differences between specialties? There are two reasons. First, with the 2021 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule, the evaluation and management codes for outpatient visits were revised with a result that office visits are more highly valued than in the past. Medicare is required to keep overall physician reimbursement constant so when outpatient visits were more highly valued, other procedures and services necessarily had to be lower valued. Therefore, those specialties associated with a lot of outpatient office visits will see an overall increase in their Medicare payments. For this reason, endocrinology, rheumatology, hematology/oncology, and family practice will all see double digit increases from Medicare

Procedure-oriented specialties such as surgical specialties will see a decrease in Medicare payments. Because of the increase in RVUs associated with outpatient E/M codes, the Medicare “conversion factor” (the amount that Medicare pays physicians per RVU) will drop from $36.09 to $32.41 in order to stay budget neutral. Overall, this translates to physicians getting paid 10% less per RVU in 2021 than in 2020. Therefore specialties with no E/M billing (such as pathology and radiology) will see a significant drop in income and surgical specialties that have most of their RVUs from surgical procedures and have a lower percentage of their RVUs from E/M billing will also see a drop in income.

Every year, different physician specialty societies lobby for increasing their own specialties’ compensation. In that sense, doctors as a profession are a group of competing special interests.

For physicians in solo or small group private practice, a decrease in total RVUs has the biggest impact on physician income since those physicians still have the same overhead expenses in 2021 as they had in 2020. If that overhead expense is half of total revenue, then a 10% drop in total revenue can translate to a 20% drop in physician income. Therefore, radiologists and pathologists in solo or small group private practices will see the biggest drop in take-home income. I anticipate that in this group, there will be increasing pressure to become hospital-employed next year as a consequence of the significant drop in private practice income.

For physicians who are hospital-employed, a decrease in the work RVU has the biggest impact on physician income since those physicians typically have the work RVU as the measure of productivity by which the hospital bases their income. Therefore, critical care physicians, anesthesiologists, and radiologists who are hospital-employed will see the greatest drop in their income.

The annual changes in physician reimbursement has a big financial impact on current physicians but also has a quieter impact on future physicians. As medical students see changes in compensation among specialties, the invisible hand of capitalism will affect the decision about which specialties those students choose to enter. One way of assessing medical student interest in different specialties in in the National Residency Match Program data. In the 2020 residency and fellowship match, the specialties with the lowest fill rates were nephrology (62%,), geriatrics (50%), and infectious disease (79%). Specialties with the highest fill rates were radiology (98%), dermatology (98%), otolaryngology (99%), plastic surgery (100%), and thoracic surgery (100%). In the future, we can expect students to be drawn to those specialties that have an increasing reimbursement and away from those with lower reimbursement.

American medicine is not a free market economy. Each year, Medicare can have a big impact on the compensation among different specialties as well as the interest in students entering those specialties, simply by changing the RVU valuations and the conversion factor. In 2021, we will see some of the biggest changes in recent years.

December 23, 2020

By James Allen, MD

I am a Professor of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University and the Medical Director of Ohio State University East Hospital