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  • APTA to CMS: Proposed 8% Cut is 'Arbitrary' and Puts Patients at Risk

    The big picture: APTA is fighting a "nonsensical" and "arbitrary" plan to cut physical therapy reimbursement by 8% in 2021.
    The US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' (CMS) proposed physician fee schedule (PFS) rule for 2020 is, as always, a wide-ranging plan that affects multiple types of providers. But this year, physical therapists (PTs), physical therapist assistants (PTAs), and the patients they serve are facing a particularly pointed threat: a cut to the reimbursement codes most often used in physical therapy. Combined, these reductions would reduce reimbursement by an estimated 8% in 2021. APTA's comment letter to CMS lays out how the cut could dramatically reduce patient access to effective care, forcing many PTs and other rehabilitation providers to leave Medicare or shutter their doors entirely.

    The comment letter also addressed numerous other provisions in the proposed rule, including changes to the Merit-based Incentive Payment System (MIPS), remote physiologic monitoring, digital evaluation, dry needling codes, and telehealth. Additionally, APTA reiterated many of its concerns regarding CMS’ proposal for determining when therapy services are delivered "in whole or in part" by a PTA or occupational therapy assistant. Those concerns were communicated to CMS in detail in August in a comment letter that described the plan as "fundamentally flawed." APTA and 2 of its members, along with 3 other associations, met in-person with the CMS Administrator earlier this month, echoing the same concerns.

    The proposed cut, and why it's a bad idea
    The cuts are associated with a CMS plan to adopt the American Medical Association-recommended increases in values for office/outpatient evaluation and management (E/M) codes, an increase that APTA sees as generally positive. The problem is in CMS' approach to paying for the increase.

    In order to adopt those increases and maintain budget neutrality, CMS proposes cuts to other codes to make up the difference. We believe there are other, more valid ways to respond: seeking additional funding for the increase; applying negative adjustments uniformly across all services; not excluding any specialties, procedures, or service codes; increasing the conversion factor; and phasing in any proposed reductions would be "appropriate and necessary" actions to take, as stated in our letter. Instead, CMS attempts to keep the E/M increase budget neutral through a seemingly haphazard approach that lowers reimbursement for non-E/M codes, resulting in the most drastic cuts to reimbursement for providers who don't bill E/M. That list of providers isn't limited to PTs and occupational therapists—it also includes audiologists, clinical social workers, clinical psychologists, ophthalmologists, optometrists, chiropractors, and more.

    In our comment letter to CMS, we point to 5 major areas of concern:

    1. The plan is an arbitrary, across-the-board cut that doesn't account for reimbursement decreases in other areas.
    We argue that PTs have been the target for cuts through other policies such as the multiple procedure payment reduction (MPPR), sequestration, Correct Coding Initiative edits, and by way of a 2018 revaluation of current procedural terminology (CPT) codes, particularly to the practice expense (PE) of certain codes. When those reductions are combined with the proposed 8% cut, on top of the pending 15% reduction in payment for services furnished by PTAs and OTAs in 2022, the reductions for many PTs could be closer to 23% in 2022. We call that an "unrealistic" plan that will lead to a "significant decline in beneficiary access" to physical therapy.

    2. The cut runs counter to CMS' efforts to provide patient access to better care.
    Both the US Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services emphasize the importance of a Medicare system that supports integrated team-based care, chronic disease management, and reducing hospital admission and readmission rates—concepts that are central to PT practice. Given this emphasis, we write, it's "nonsensical" to cut reimbursement to the very professionals who play key roles in achieving these aims by decreasing functional limitations and increasing strength and flexibility deficits.

    3. In the midst of an opioid crisis and a national conversation on pain management, CMS should be promoting physical therapy, not decreasing patient access to it.
    Research makes the case over and over again: physical therapy lowers overall costs of care, and is an effective pathway for management of many types of chronic pain. We ask CMS to explain how the proposed 8% cut supports those ideas, and argue that if Medicare beneficiaries are in need of access to effective nonpharmacological pain management treatments, "there must be adequate payment and coverage."

    4. There was little transparency and a seeming lack of responsible analysis in the development of this proposal.
    The Regulatory Flexibility Act requires CMS to conduct a regulatory analysis of changes, such as the 8% cut, including the ways it would affect small businesses and possible options for achieving its goals that reduce economic impact. If such an analysis was conducted, it doesn't seem to be reflected in the plan, which clearly puts PTs and many other providers at risk. We write that CMS' nontransparent approach and lack of dialogue with providers may have led to "many flawed assumptions regarding practice."

    5. The cut includes unfair reductions to practice expense (PE).
    PTs have seen reimbursement for PE—costs incurred in renting office space, purchasing supplies and equipment, hiring nonphysician and administrative staff, and more—decreasing since 2011, when CMS started introducing cuts through MPPR. APTA has always held that applying MPPR to PTs was inappropriate in the first place, and often results in underpayments. The proposed cut includes a PE reimbursement decrease of at least 3%. We write that it's a plan that puts "expediency ahead of quality." Instead, we argue for the removal of the proposed cuts to the PE values of codes used by physical therapists and that CMS recoup that money by looking to those codes used by providers "who do not have as demonstrable costs for equipment and supplies as physical therapy providers."

    What's next?
    The comments are one part of a multifaceted approach to advocacy against the proposed cuts. APTA members, patients, and other stakeholders have joined a grassroots effort opposing the plan, and the association has joined with the American Chiropractic Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Occupational Therapy Association, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, and 5 other professional associations in a letter opposing the cuts and requesting additional dialogue. APTA will continue to work with CMS to educate them on the negative consequences on patient health if this reduction is implemented. APTA and our members will also have a second formal opportunity to fight any proposed cut in the 2021 proposed fee schedule rule that will be released in July 2020.

    After the deadline for comments closes at 11:59 pm on September 27, CMS will begin its review process. The final rule is expected to be released in early November.

    Reading this before 11:59 pm on September 27? There's still time to add your voice to the effort. Visit APTA's "Regulatory Take Action" webpage to access a customizable template letters on both the proposed 8% cut and the PTA/OTA modifier proposal. It's easy—and crucial.


    • We need to fight this with extreme vigor. This cut would make practicing PT unsustainable for many practices today and access will suffer greatly. PT is your cost effective solution, spend more on it, not less! Hands on, in the trenches care, is provided by the caring professionals of physical therapy. This could lead to higher rates of therapist burn out if they have to double book to make ends meet and everyone will suffer.

      Posted by Craig Hawkins -> =ORaEO on 9/27/2019 1:00 PM

    • Please help save us. We cannot lower the quality of care due to insurances anymore than we have (as a field). Insurances including Medicare are always looking to save money...a great way to do that is let us practice to our full skill-set, let us see our patients, reimburse us properly! Instead of cutting short our sessions and forcing more and more people in the door just to put food on the table, give us a little room to breathe. It's disheartening that we may get 83$ a session if we are lucky when we provide significant 1 on 1 time and skilled service (without medication or risky surgeries). Please help.

      Posted by Nicholas Larghi on 9/27/2019 2:13 PM

    • What may seem like a cost reduction for CMS by cutting reimbursement for PT services, will likely explode overall health care costs.PT facilities will have to limit access for Medicare patients in order to keep their doors open. PT services are vital to keep aging clients functioning independently and thriving in their home environment. Assisted living and skilled nursing facilities cost much more and erode quality of life for many.

      Posted by Susan Gray -> =FRZ?M on 9/27/2019 3:06 PM

    • This cut seals the idea that I should no longer treat Medicare patients due to the fact that I will be actively working myself out of business due to the net revenue loss my business suffers with each Medicare pt. I accept. Alaska cost of living and salary structure is much higher than the rest of the US, Medicare does not provide reasonable accommodations for this. Why does PT have to take an unfair and unreasonable discount for working with Medicare clients which are arguably the clients that may gain the most benefit from PT and if treated by PT have the greatest cost savings to Medicare?

      Posted by Chris Wilson on 9/27/2019 3:31 PM

    • Reimbursement is, and has been, unsustainable for a long time. We are all humanitarians, but we can't pretend that regulations and decreased reimbursement haven't degraded the care we deliver to our patients. As a result, our reputations are on the line. We must reduce the number of Medicare patients on our schedules. I know that sounds heartless, but it's that or close our doors. We must tell legislators that we have no choice at point, not just because of the proposed cuts, but because we can't meet our obligations to provide the best care possible under current conditions. If you are like me and half of your case mix includes patients with Medicare, make gradual changes to your schedules in order to survive and tell you patients you just can't continue to pretend that everything is going to be OK, because it isn't. We can't treat any patients if we have to close the doors and that is happening all to frequently these days. Even hospitals can't sustain the onslaught of reimbursement cuts and PT's in hospital settings must know that the care they are delivering is at a financial deficit for the hospital that employs them. WE MUST ACT NOW! Dr. Brian P. D'Orazio DPT, MS, OCS

      Posted by Brian P. D'Orazio on 9/27/2019 5:21 PM

    • The people that make these decisions should come to a few weeks of PT visits with their loved one, example; grandmother or grandfather. I think they would be a little more sympathetic if they were to see a loved one not getting the care they deserve because of decrease in reimbursement pay. As clinicians, we know what it is like for a patient to have a high quality visit. The more you decrease reimbursement, the more you decrease a physical therapists pay, and the less likely we will continue to do our job with the same quality and outcome. The more you decrease reimbursement, the more patients I have to see each hour to make up the difference; which further leads to a decrease in the quality of care. Stop decreasing our reimbursement rate or we will all suffer in the long run, including yourself and your loved ones. The decisions you make now will have a direct effect on the physical therapy care you have in the future.

      Posted by Devon McCord on 9/27/2019 11:09 PM

    • I duly submitted my comments to CMS. I will now wait until November to see if CMS acts in customary fashion and summarily dismisses all comments received, and implements their rule as stated. :•(

      Posted by Bill on 9/28/2019 9:13 AM

    • We will all get old if God wills. Else, one may become a patient in spite of being young. And with his disabilities, he will wish to have a therapy but will not get it because there won't be any PTs who will accept Medicare cases, or no more PTs at all. As our current elderly patients usually say, "we spent all our lives paying for our medicare and taxes, now we don't receive what we worked for?" Another patient mentioned, "they are really trying to kick us all out." This cut is a heartless decision to not give care to the elderly any longer just because they are no longer contributing like they used to when they were still capable of working and paying. Well, these minds who created these cuts will eventually arrive to being patients and suffer from the lack of medical benefits that they authored.

      Posted by Dennis Chiu Mee on 1/28/2020 1:35 AM

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