Monday, December 19, 2011

Reducing the Costs of Our Healthcare System

Lifestyle interventions are required to adequately address the rise in obesity 
Medicare has recently decided to cover Intensive Behavioral Therapy for Obesity (IBTO). This landmark decision is very important because obesity will now be recognized independently from co-morbidities such as diabetes and heart disease. Medicare recipients who are obese without other health problems will be allowed to receive IBTO without co-pay in the hope of preventing the development of chronic diseases associated with obesity. The potential for saving healthcare dollars is great, but there is one caveat of this new coverage: The most qualified professionals to provide IBTO are excluded from directly billing Medicare for this service.

Intensive Behavioral Therapy for Obesity will include:

1. Screening for obesity in adults using measurement of BMI calculated by dividing weight in kilograms by the square of height in meters (expressed in kg/m2);

2. Dietary (nutritional) assessment; and

3. Intensive behavioral counseling and behavioral therapy to promote sustained weight loss through high intensity interventions on diet and exercise.

Patients who meet screening eligibility are entitled to:

• One face-to-face visit every week for the first month;

• One face-to-face visit every other week for months 2-6;

• One face-to-face visit every month for months 7-12, if the beneficiary meets the 3kg weight loss requirement.

Medicare names primary care physicians, clinical nurse specialists, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants as being the only professionals who can bill Medicare for IBTO and the primary care clinic as the only site where IBTO can be provided. This leaves out registered dietitians and clinical psychologists, whose training qualifies them over primary care practitioners to most effectively provide this service. Patients who desire to work intensively with dietitians or psychologists will have to pay for these services on their own.

After reviewing the ruling posted on Medicare’s website and looking over the references that were provided in support of IBTO coverage, I’m stumped by this decision. Many of the references cited had dietary interventions provided by registered dietitians. A 2004 article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine by the Centers for Disease Control and the Primary Prevention Working Group names dietitians among the most qualified providers to administer lifestyle interventions. This same article states, “even the most highly motivated physicians typically have minimal education or training in lifestyle intervention, and they usually have inadequate access in their practice to the resources needed to support lifestyle intervention. Well-intentioned attempts by physicians to practice “lifestyle medicine” with scarce resources can lead to embittered rejection of health promotion.” The article then goes on to state, “No efficacy study had physicians directly involved in delivering interventions.”

Dietitians bill insurance at 85% of the physician rate. It doesn’t make fiscal sense to allow primary care providers to bill at a higher rate for IBTO when they are not trained in this technique and they do not have the time to provide such involved therapy. I hope in the future that Medicare sees the value that registered dietitians and clinical psychologists bring to the treatment of obesity and allows them to bill for this service independently from primary care providers.

Please support the effort to urge Medicare to allow registered dietitians to directly bill for obesity services by signing this White House petition by January 7, 2012.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Primary Prevention Working Group.
Primary Prevention of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus by Lifestyle Intervention: Implications for Health Policy. Ann Intern Med. 2004; 140:951-957

Friday, December 2, 2011

Medicare Chooses Inferior Care for Obesity

Preventing dietitians from becoming providers for obesity care is not in the best interest of patients 
I received some good news the other day. Medicare has agreed to cover Intensive Behavioral Counseling for Obesity for eligible Medicare beneficiaries. And then I read the statement released by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). Registered dietitians and psychologists will be excluded as obesity care providers. According to CMS obesity counseling must be provided by a “qualified primary care physician or other primary care practitioner and in a primary care setting.” What does this mean? A "qualified primary care physician", according to the Social Security Act is a physician who is a general practitioner, family practice practitioner, general internist or obstetrician or gynecologist. A “primary care practitioner” is defined as a physician with a primary specialty of family medicine, internal medicine, geriatric medicine or pediatric medicine or a nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, or physician assistant." Obesity services must be provided in a primary care setting which CMS defines “as one in which there is provision of integrated, accessible health care services by clinicians who are accountable for addressing a large majority of personal health care needs, developing a sustained partnership with patients, and practicing in the context of family and community. Emergency departments, inpatient hospital settings, ambulatory surgical centers, independent diagnostic testing facilities, skilled nursing facilities, inpatient rehabilitation facilities and hospices are not considered primary care settings under this definition.”

The bottom-line is that registered dietitians who are highly trained to intensively counsel obese individuals will not be allowed to bill Medicare for obesity intervention and private nutrition practices that are established and operated by dietitians are not considered an appropriate setting by CMS for nutrition education of these individuals.

I cannot say for certain what was really behind the decision to exclude dietitians from becoming Medicare providers for obesity counseling because Medicare's explanations seem lame to me. The American Dietetic Association described CMS's action with regards to the exclusion of dietitians as follows:
  it appears that CMS excluded RDs for two reasons:
1. CMS believes it lacks the statutory authority to include RDs as providers outside of diabetes and end stage renal disease; and
2. CMS believes it is important that preventive services be furnished in a coordinated approach as part of a comprehensive prevention plan within the context of the patient’s total health care. As such, they believe primary care practitioners are best qualified to offer care in this context.
Apparently Congress has not charged dietitians in the fight against obesity but dietitians are allowed to help people with diabetes and end stage renal disease. Many people with diabetes are obese and when I am counseling them for diabetes management, weight management is always a part of the intervention.

As for "preventive services being furnished in a coordinated approach as part of a comprehensive prevention plan within the context of the patient's total health care," what Medicare fails to see is that it doesn't matter how well care is coordinated if it is inadequate. To date primary care intensive obesity intervention consists of MDs and NPs telling patients that they need to lose weight and referring them to a dietitian. Now that MDs and NPs will be able to bill for counseling for obesity they can remove the dietitian from the equation and bill their services at a much higher rate than the RD would bill and provide less than adequate nutrition counseling possibly after attending a weekend course on obesity management to supplement their one medical scool course in nutrition. I don't mean to disparage doctors, but they are not trained to provide comprehensive nutritional intervention. My husband is a physician and he is the first to admit that most doctor's knowledge about nutrition is lacking. Think about it this way, does Medicare require that physical therapy be provided under the primary care physician's watchful gaze in a primary care setting?

I am always dismayed when I read press releases about new scientific discoveries related to obesity in which the final sentence in the release states that this information can be used to develop a drug to combat obesity. Obesity fighting drugs that have already been released are often recalled because they pose a serious risk to health and can cause death. Humans have existed for thousands of years with minimal obesity until now. We know how to combat obesity and it is not a pill. It is inexpensive but labor intensive and it does not make research and drug companies incredibly wealthy.

A cynical interpretation of this whole debacle is that lobbying from Big Pharma helped to ensure that the practitioners who can prescribe medications would be the only ones whose obesity related services could be covered by Medicare.

It is sad to me that some highly qualified nutrition and behavioral therapists (dietitians and psychologists) will be excluded from treating Medicare recipients. Patients who want to see dietitians and psychologists for nutrition and behavioral counseling will have to pay for these services out of their own pockets (again).

What do you think? Will Medicare provide the most comprehensive treatment for obesity by the most qualified providers?