2019 Benchmarks Reveal Physician Pay Trends

Yesterday we celebrated the tenth anniversary release of MD Ranger physician contract benchmarks for non-salaried physicians. Our 2019 report highlights the growing significance of physician contracts as a major component of hospital spending, with particular growth in payment for hospital-based physician services such as hospitalists, intensivists and laborists. Benchmarks include payments to physicians for providing ED call, medical directorships, administrative services, hospital-based services, medical staff leadership, and diagnostic testing.

2019 benchmarks cover more than 320 services derived from over 36,000 contracts from 250 facilities in 32 states across the US, a tenfold increase since we launched in 2009.

Joe Piccolo, Vice President of Corporate Compliance at Inspira Health in New Jersey, commented, “Working with MD Ranger has allowed Inspira to standardize and streamline our physician contracting process. Not only do we have access to the best available market data, but the customer support in understanding how to best use the benchmarks has been outstanding. Working with MD Ranger makes my job easier and gives our leadership team peace of mind."

While many things have changed in healthcare over the past ten years, our benchmarks demonstrate the scope of services that health care facilities continue to procure from physicians. Key findings from the 2019 benchmarks include:

  • Size matters. While hospitals under 100 beds pay for fewer services, their cost per patient day is significantly higher. For example, the median payment for Pathology contracts at hospitals with more than 300 beds is more than twice the payment for hospitals with fewer than 100 beds, but the cost per patient day is more than seven times higher.
  • Average per diem ED call rates for medical subspecialists have increased 40% over the past ten years from an average of $414 per diem to $580, compared to less than 8% for surgical subspecialties, from $854 to $920. Hospital-based coverage rates have grown from an average of $783 per diem to $980, a 25% increase.
  • The past decade has seen a huge growth in the scope, complexity and cost of hospital-based agreements. Hospital-based services comprise the largest category of physician contract cost; for example, 63% of MD Ranger hospitals reported payment for general hospitalists programs at an average cost of $1.55 million.
  • Psychiatric hospitalist programs as well as ED per diem payments have grown more than any other service, with mean coverage payments increasing nearly 95% from $171 to $330 per diem since 2009.
  • Payments for interventional services such as neuro-interventional, interventional radiology, and stroke-related services continue to grow. For example, in 2015, only 4% of MD Ranger participating hospitals paid for neuro-interventional call coverage while in 2019, 17% paid.
  • Payment rates for medical staff officers and leadership positions were relatively constant, with 46% of MD Ranger hospitals paying a Chief of Staff an average of $48,000 and 31% paying an average of $20,000 for other medical staff officers.

A selection of the 15+ new 2019 benchmarks include:

  • Neuro-Interventional Medical Direction
  • Stroke ED Call Coverage
  • TAVR Medical Direction
  • Heart Failure Program Direction
  • Adult and Pediatric Echocardiogram
  • Intraoperative Neuromonitoring Technical Fees

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Maintaining FCA Enforcement in the Trump Era

Well into the Trump administration’s third year, any speculation about waning prosecutions of False Claims Act violations has been decisively answered. As noted in a previous post, in 2018 the OIG recovered a massive 2.5 billion in healthcare-related FCA cases, up from 2.4 billion in 2017. Despite significant organizational challenges, including unfilled senior positions, turnover at the top, and government shutdowns, the Feds are maintaining and even increasing their vigilance. The reason they are able to do this is nicely illustrated in the Wheeling Hospital case, in which the DOJ joined a lawsuit that had initially been brought by an individual whistleblower.

The Wheeling Hospital case was initially filed in late 2017 by whistleblower Louis Longo, who’d formerly served as the hospital’s Executive Vice President. His case alleged that the hospital’s CEO, Ronald Violi, conspired with external consultant V&R Associates Ltd. to boost referrals from employed and contracted physicians by offering compensation well above fair market value. Some physicians allegedly received over $1 million annually.

Fast forward two years, and the Pittsburgh US attorney’s office swoops in with much of the preliminary work already complete done. With the allegations unsealed only weeks ago, the outcome has yet to be determined, and indeed Wheeling Hospital has initiated a countersuit against Longo. But even without the outcomes, this case makes several things abundantly clear:

  • Qi tam provisions helps the government rely on private citizens to identify, initiate, and qualify FCA cases allows, which allows them to work more efficiently, and bring in the full weight of the Federal enforcement to bear while sparing it the effort of proactively seeking violations.
  • For any hospital charged with Stark Law and Anti Kickback violations, the defense will be a lot weaker without comprehensive documentation of the services provided and of FMV paid for those services.

As long as whistleblowers are protected from employer retaliation, incentivized by huge settlements, and empowered by private law firms, the conditions are in place for DOJ to maintain robust FCA enforcement.

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Evaluating Stacked Agreements: Case Studies

Spotting physician overpayments is usually straightforward. Whether it’s compensating above fair market value, or paying for too much or for too many hours in an administrative position, compliance risks are clear and can be easy to identify. However, in some cases, overpayments can be hidden—particularly when there is “stacking” of physician agreements that results in total payments to an individual or group exceeding reasonable levels.

One of the best ways to understand how federal regulators view these risks is found in OIG Advisory Opinion 07-10 from 2007. The OIG calls “problematic compensation structures”: (a) “payment for lost opportunity cost that do not reflect bona fide lost income,” (b) “payment… when no identifiable services are provided,” (c) “aggregate on-call payments that are disproportionately high compared to the physician’s regular medical practice income,” (d) “payment…resulting in the physician essentially being paid twice for the same service.”

Many of the situations noted by the OIG above can be referred to as “stacking.” There are two typical ways that stacking occurs. The first is when a physician or physician group has two or more agreements with a hospital for coverage or administrative/medical direction services. When this happens, it is possible that the physician can coordinate his or her time to fulfill both responsibilities within a time frame generally understood as required to fulfill each agreement separately. Each agreement may be compliant when considered independently; however, however when taken together, payment may be greater than the 90th percentile or the time commitment, particularly in the context of the physician’s clinical practice, requires more hours per year than full-time. The second situation that may result in stacking occurs when an on-call payment rate is based on an estimated “opportunity cost” of lost private practice income, but the physician does not actually suffer losses.

Case Study One: Hospitalist, Administrator, Consultant

Dr. Sally Wong is a hospitalist at a 300-bed community hospital, covering shifts and serving as medical director of the hospitalist panel. Additionally, Dr. Wong serves as the Vice Chief of Staff and has a consulting arrangement with the hospital to assist with EHR transition. She is a huge asset to the organization and the rate for each position falls with the fair market value for that position.

Despite Dr. Wong’s talents, these responsibilities could be too much for anyone to handle, no matter how competent. If you take all of Dr. Wong’s payments and consider them together, she’s being paid more than the 90th percentile of the annual income for a full-time hospitalist. It also raises the question that if a hospital pays a physician to be a full-time hospitalist, and also pays that individual for three additional jobs, can the physician be effective? Furthermore, there is the issue of accurate time-tracking and reporting. There is a possibility that Dr. Wong could—in an admirable effort to be efficient and get the heavy workload done—perform additional administrative duties while she is on-duty and paid as a hospitalist. The takeaway here is that Dr. Wong’s total compensation must fall within FMV for the positions she fulfills, and justification for excess payment must be documented to demonstrate non-duplicative payments and duties.

Case Study Two: ENT and Facial Injuries

Dr. George Perez is one of the few ENT physicians on the medical staff who is trained and willing to handle major facial injuries. He staffs two separate panels at the same Level II trauma center: ENT and facial injuries. Both panels are paid at the 75th percentile of their respective fair market value ranges, and he is allowed to take simultaneous call for both specialties. While this might make sense to Dr. Perez, it contradicts the principals in the OIG advisory opinions and OIG guidelines if he is being paid for taking call twice.

How might the hospital compensate Dr. Perez fairly without overpaying? Some organizations pay physicians in a similar situation at the high end of the market range for the best paid position. Other organizations will choose to pay at the median for one position and at or under the 25th percentile for the second service. No matter what is chosen, be aware of paying for two jobs at the same time. Carefully justify and document whatever payment is made. Common service combinations where stacking most frequently occurs are the following:

  • Orthopedic surgery and hand surgery
  • Plastic surgery and hand surgery
  • Non-invasive and invasive cardiology
  • Stroke and non-stroke neurology
  • Trauma and general surgery

Case Study Three: Neurosurgery

Neurosurgery in trauma centers is particularly vulnerable to hidden compliance risks. Neurosurgery is one of the few specialties where there frequently is both a requirement for restricted coverage and most non-emergency private practice revenue comes from a relatively small number of surgical cases that are relatively easy to reschedule.

The standard for Levels I and II trauma centers is that neurosurgeons must be immediately available and cannot conduct private practice when on-call (“restricted call”). Thus, compensation benchmarks for trauma center neurosurgery assume physicians suffer lost private practice income given the restriction of the physician’s activities while on call. This assumption is based on the understanding that the neurosurgeon’s practice is busy and nearly all the physician’s time could be utilized for the private practice.

However, if a physician’s practice has slack capacity and the private practice cases can be juggled (or traded with a partner), the physician may not suffer any opportunity cost. It could be the case that aggregate compensation from trauma center call coverage and private practice would be significantly beyond the 90th percentile of benchmark annual neurosurgery compensation.

Case Study Four: Employment “Plus”

Dr. Grace Williams is a cardiologist that works with a medical group that has a professional services agreement with the local hospital. In addition to the PSA, Dr. Williams and her colleagues have negotiated both a co-management agreement and additional medical directorship payments, including ad hoc payments for meeting attendance and peer review participation. Though her per diem call coverage payment is quite small and falls in the 25th percentile range, she and her colleagues are paid call stipends.

Before even seeing payment rates, there is a cause for concern with these arrangements. Additional payments for services on top of employment arrangements could result in payments to doctors well above fair market value.

Best Practices

How should hospitals identify and prevent stacked physician arrangements? Here are some ideas:

  1. Develop a policy and review process regarding physicians who hold more than one position or perform more than one service with the hospital or affiliated organizations. If physicians are holding two call positions at the same time, set guidelines around how much they can be paid. If they are effectively an employed physician, set an aggregate payment cap from all sources.
  2. Ask physicians for time documentation that delineates activities for each role. Time tracking should be standard for all physician administrative positions.
  3. Be careful with restricted call payments. One best practice is to ask the physician to sign a statement to certify that his or her private practice cannot be rearranged to avoid lost income. Another way is to monitor physicians’ OR utilization to compare elective volume with and without on-call coverage.
  4. Don’t pay a physician to take call for two services at the same time.

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Stark Law and AKS: What Not To Do

When it comes to complying with Stark Law and the Anti-Kickback Statute, it can often be hard to keep all your ducks in a row and maintain a perfect compliance program. However, with some recently released DOJ allegations, healthcare organizations can directly learn exactly what not to do when it comes to Stark and AKS:

The Department of Justice alleges that nonprofit Wheeling Hospital Inc. violated the Stark Law and Anti-Kickback Statute, and that those violations were caused by R V Associates Ltd., Wheeling's contracted management consultant, and Wheeling CEO Ronald Violi, who prosecutors allege had "dictatorial control" of the compensation agreements..."Wheeling Hospital's dramatic revenue increase was accomplished by entering into lucrative but improper compensation arrangements with physicians that were well above fair market value, took into account the value or volume of services and/or were not commercially reasonable, in order to gain the physicians' referrals," the suit claims. - Health Leaders Media

Sometimes well-meaning hospitals can make mistakes in the complex world of healthcare compliance - but sometimes bad actors can helpfully provide the roadmap of precisely what you should not be doing in your physician contracting program. Stark law directly prohibits a hospital from billing Medicare for services referred by physicians who have improper financial relationships with the hospital which appears to be exactly what the alleged behavior involved.

Interestingly, the DOJ lawsuit was once again filed under the qui tam, or whistleblower, provisions of the False Claims Act. Whistleblower laws mean that organizations must maintain compliant behavior in the realm of physician contracting at all times - no matter how good their intentions may be- or face the potential risk of expensive settlements for compliance violations in the future.

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