N Engl J Med 2019 04;380(16):1546-1554
From the Center for Health Policy-Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research, Stanford University School of Medicine (D.C.C., D.M.S.), and Stanford Law School (D.M.S.), Stanford, the Department of Medicine, Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System, Palo Alto (D.C.C.), and the Department of Economics, University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles (J.H.) - all in California.
Background: The Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC) of the American Medical Association plays a central role in determining physician reimbursement. The RUC's role and performance have been criticized but subjected to little empirical evaluation.
Methods: We analyzed the accuracy of valuations of 293 common surgical procedures from 2005 through 2015. We compared the RUC's estimates of procedure time with "benchmark" times for the same procedures derived from the clinical registry maintained by the American College of Surgeons National Surgical Quality Improvement Program (NSQIP). We characterized inaccuracies, quantified their effect on physician revenue, and examined whether re-review corrected them.
Results: At the time of 108 RUC reviews, the mean absolute discrepancy between RUC time estimates and benchmark times was 18.5 minutes, or 19.8% of the RUC time. However, RUC time estimates were neither systematically shorter nor longer than benchmark times overall (β, 0.97; 95% confidence interval, 0.94 to 1.01; P = 0.10). Our analyses suggest that whereas orthopedic surgeons and urologists received higher payments than they would have if benchmark times had been used ($160 million and $40 million more, respectively, in Medicare reimbursement in 2011 through 2015), cardiothoracic surgeons, neurosurgeons, and vascular surgeons received lower payments ($130 million, $60 million, and $30 million less, respectively). The accuracy of RUC time estimates improved in 47% of RUC revaluations, worsened in 27%, and was unchanged in 25%. (Percentages do not sum to 100 because of rounding.).
Conclusions: In this analysis of frequently conducted operations, we found substantial absolute discrepancies between intraoperative times as estimated by the RUC and the times recorded for the same procedures in a surgical registry, but the RUC did not systematically overestimate or underestimate times. (Funded by the National Institutes of Health.).