Challenges in Oncology Practice
Published Online: October 23, 2013
A Discussion With Anupama Kurup Acheson, MD, 2013-2014 Chair of the ASCO Clinical Practice Committee
Increasing financial and administrative pressures—made worse by the federal sequester and continued rollout of the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA)—have created instability and uncertainty for oncology practices nationwide. To better understand how oncology practices are adapting to these stressors, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) launched the National Census of Oncology Practices to collect practice-level data on the organizational, staffing, and service changes of oncology practices across the United States.
For an expert interpretation of the census data and its impact on independent oncology practices, we discussed the current state of oncology practice with Anupama Kurup Acheson, MD, medical oncologist at Providence Cancer Center Oncology and Hematology Care Clinic and 2013-2014 Chair of the ASCO Clinical Practice Committee. Acheson’s expert analysis covers practice trends, cost pressures, sequestration, healthcare reform, consolidation, genetic testing, new care delivery models, payment reform, accelerated drug approvals, clinical trials, and quality and value measures.
What are the principal cost pressures affecting independent oncology practices?
Reimbursement for patient care from Medicare poses a major challenge, especially as the medications and technologies we use are big-ticket items. The system has not been able to keep up with the upward cost curve. Also, with doctors facing the constant specter of severe cuts, the sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula represents an enormous impediment to successful healthcare delivery and payment reforms that can improve the quality of patient care while lowering growth in costs. The system is flawed and in need of a major overhaul, and it’s never been more important for oncologists to play a role in shaping the future of the payer system while also ensuring we are able to deliver high-quality, high-value care.
Another trend is that newer drugs typically cost a lot. Some specialty drugs, which are especially complex, also require management, particularly of toxicity. Different pharmacies offer varying levels of support, and so it’s very much part of our job to assist our patients while also helping them work out insurance coverage. This involves a major effort on the part of our office staff to accommodate payers, who request information in different ways; it’s not consistent.
Practices are also bearing the burden of the cost of some of these drugs. Chemotherapy drugs comprise the largest single expense for community oncology practices. These costs include purchasing the drugs, special storage and inventory costs, safe handling, and specialized staff to mix and administer the drugs as well as to monitor the patient during treatment. The federal sequester has also had a significant impact on the bottom line.
In a recent ASCO survey on the effects of sequestration, of the more than 500 practices that responded, 80% said they’d been impacted in some way. Fifty percent said they could not continue to care for Medicare patients without supplemental insurance, and about half said they were redirecting 10% to 50% of their patients to hospitals for chemotherapy. Around 14% said they were no longer taking Medicare patients.
What impact is the ACA having on independent oncology practices?
Under the ACA, physicians must participate in the Physician Quality Reporting System (PQRS) by 2015. The good news is that the Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services (CMS) has released criteria criteria for the approval of existing, qualified registries as a reporting device under the PQRS. ASCO is working with CMS to ensure that our Quality Oncology Practice Initiative (QOPI) would meet these requirements. A major issue the law did not address is the SGR formula. This reimbursement formula is really flawed, especially in light of expected increases in costs and the aging of the population. Physicians would like to get away from the SGR, as it creates intense instability within oncology and the larger practice environment. We are aware that we will be seeing more patients under ACA, but we’re still waiting to see when and how the law will have an impact on practices.
What are recent trends in services that independent practices are providing, and what market or regulatory forces are driving these?
Last year, ASCO launched its first national oncology census to better understand these trends and found that just over 40% of practices were providing chemotherapy onsite, almost 30% were offering social services, and 23% nutritional counseling (see Figure). A quarter of practices had lab services onsite, and 26% were involved in clinical trials. The 2013 census is now open and we will be looking to its results for trend analysis. One aspect of practice we want to track is the increasing use of advanced practice providers (APPs), specifically nurse practitioners and physician assistants. In an ASCO study released in the fall of 2011, we learned that nonphysician nonphysician practitioners were seeing patients at office visits independently of physicians, although a physician was on hand. Notably, 98% of patients polled in one survey recognized that the provider they saw was not a physician, and the average satisfaction score (92.5%) indicated that they were extremely satisfied with their care from a team that involved physicians and APPs. Practices in which the APPs worked with all physicians were nearly 20% more productive than practices where APPs worked with select physicians. A 2007 ASCO workforce study also found that practices involving APPs have higher visit rates than those that do not.
Broadly, what we’ve all known is that beyond delivering chemotherapy, services such as counseling, nutritional guidance, and social services are all highlights of quality oncology care. Independent practitioners provide them in a range of ways—some smaller practices use outside providers, including hospital services, while larger practices have them onsite. But everyone feels these are essential. We need to stay tuned, however, to see what effects the sequester will have on these services.
What sort of consolidation are you seeing among practices? How are independent practices managing to go it alone and what are the implications for services provided?
In the past 2 or 3 years we’ve been seeing a lot more consolidation as doctors transition out of community practice. One of the prime drivers of the recent census was to get a better handle on this trend, and from last year’s survey (http://bit.ly/asco_survey) we saw considerable movement. We’re seeing a lot of mergers, especially in metropolitan areas. Larger practices reported plans to purchase smaller ones, while smaller ones said they were more likely to close. Again, the sequester is having an impact. In order to survive in this environment, solo practices are paying close attention to information provided to them by community oncology consortiums on how practices across the country are coping. They are able to manage some costs by joining together;
group purchasing for drugs is an example.In terms of providing multidisciplinary care, independent practices recognize the value of interacting with specialty providers given the complexity of disease, and while this takes more time, they see it as a necessity. What sort of momentum is there behind new care delivery models such as patient-centered medical homes (PCMHs) and accountable care organizations (ACOs)?
Over the past few years, there has been a lot of talk about developing new models and growing calls for more pilot testing, with the understanding that these new models would require a wholesale change in how we practice medicine. In cancer care, however, it’s important to keep in mind that a onesize-fits-all approach will not work. ASCO would look for a menu of options:
different types of models that will support the level of care we need to provide. In the near-term, we’re looking for more pilot testing of clinical pathways to guide evidence-based care and patient-centered medical homes. However, we recognize that these models may make sense in some parts of the country and not in others. These pilots, which require a significant commitment of time and resources on the part of practices, are still in the early stages. But we are very encouraged. Going forward, we need to make sure the menu is developed thoughtfully and that we put in place a transition period so that we can fully assess how they are working. In general, oncologists must continue to tie the work they do to what’s important to patients. We need to be
more careful about utilization of tests and services, making sure that whatever we order is meaningful. A lot of positives will come out of this.
What’s happening on the payment reform front?
As the Medicare population grows, reimbursements for services are not keeping up with cost increases and we are bearing a large part of the added cost. So we are very encouraged at ASCO to see an appetite in Congress to reform unworkable aspects of the current payment system, including the SGR model and the fee-for-service system, which requires a wholesale change. Importantly, more elected representatives are reaching out to us for feedback, asking for our ideas about alternatives to SGR, for example. And we are putting pen to paper.
PDF is available on the last page.