Under the Stark statute and regulations, there are significant restrictions on how hospitals may pay physicians or provide financial benefit to them. In today’s environment of increased demand for quality performance, paying physicians for their contribution to hospital quality performance is increasingly a sought after technique. In the proposed update to the 2009 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule (MPFS), CMS asked for comments on how they should approach gainsharing (“shared savings programs”) and quality performance payments (“incentive payment plans”). Alice responded with comments on the quality payments. We do not believe gainsharing programs are about quality. They are about saving hospitals money. They have a short shelf life, distract physicians from work they should be doing, and are not sustainable as a business model. We do not comment on them to the government, although we do advise clients who choose to implement them. Most of the programs which have been greenlighted by the OIG are so overloaded with safeguards and protections that they have relatively little utility, other than to the consultants whom the OIG apparently thinks are a protection in their structuring and review of these programs. Unfortunately, in their proposed regulations, the government failed to understand the very significant policy and operational differences between programs that pay physicians a portion of shared savings and programs which pay physicians for contributing to improved hospital quality performance as measured on nationally recognized bases.

When the time came to actually publish an exception that would address these issues, the regulators waffled. Instead they posed 55 specific questions about how to regulate these programs. There are many ways in which the Stark program is out of control and this is one of them. Admitting their lack of familiarity with quality measurement or improvement techniques, they called for answers to their questions, leaving the comment period open another ninety days into February. Alice has provided a 16 page response addressing quality performance payment programs, setting forth the minimal regulation that is necessary here to safeguard patients and protect against rewarding referrals. The government has to stop using the Stark statute as a vehicle for basic regulation of issues that are highly regulated already in other contexts.