Physician Compensation Programs Shifting to Address Changing Market Dynamics and Mitigate COVID-19 Financial Implications
Chicago, IL | November 11, 2020 08:00 AM Eastern Standard Time
SullivanCotter, the nation’s leading independent consulting firm in the assessment and development of total rewards programs, workforce solutions, and technology and data products for the health care industry and not-for-profit sector, recently released results from the 2020 Physician Compensation and Productivity Survey – which represents data from more than 800 organizations on nearly 244,000 individual physicians and advanced practice providers. The results reflect calendar year 2019 and, as the last set of benchmark data available prior to the onset of COVID-19, this year’s survey will serve as an important resource for organizations needing pre-pandemic compensation reference points for this critical workforce.
“Although the pandemic has created a great deal of uncertainty – with many organizations making near-term modifications to their physician compensation programs as a result – we’re seeing a slow and steady adjustment to the ‘new normal’ as patient volumes have returned to approximately 90% of pre-COVID-19 levels. In some ways, the fallout from COVID-19 has simply accelerated the forces that were driving physician compensation changes prior to the pandemic, and the 2020 survey data will be very important in helping to determine how organizations are responding to these challenges,” said Tim Stamper, Senior Consultant, SullivanCotter.
Physician Total Cash Compensation (TCC)
While TCC has grown, on average, 2.5% annually since 2012, COVID-19-related reductions in surgical and non-emergent care have impacted the financial condition of many health care organizations nationwide – causing them to implement or consider a number of compensation and benefits-related modifications to help offset significant losses in revenue. According to SullivanCotter’s COVID-19 Physician and Advanced Practice Provider Compensation Practices Survey series, nearly 30% of participants had implemented or were considering pay reductions for front line physicians and nearly 40% of participants were doing the same for non-front line physicians as of May 2020. Median pay cuts were 11% and 15% for front line and non-front line physicians respectively. Other organizations made cuts in physician benefits in response to COVID-19. The most common benefit program changes in 2020 included eliminating or reducing retirement plan contributions, adjustments to PTO policies, and eliminating or reducing CME allowances. The majority of these actions were intended to be temporary and, as patient volumes continue to increase and organizations start to recover financially, many are returning to historical pay and benefits practices.
Due to the financial impact of COVID-19, physician incentive programs have also come under scrutiny in 2020. Among respondents surveyed in May, 16% of organizations reported eliminating or reducing non-productivity incentive compensation in 2020 while an additional 38% were considering this action. Many organizations pay out these incentives at year-end, making these programs an obvious target for cost-reduction.
The 2020 Physician Compensation and Productivity Survey results continue to show a trend of flat or even declining median work RVU (wRVU) productivity across all major specialty categories. Since TCC showed modest increases in the 2020 survey, TCC per wRVU ratios have also increased. While we have anticipated growth in value-based incentives, wRVUs and productivity-based incentives still determine the majority of incentive or variable compensation as a percentage of TCC. Approximately 70% of organizations utilize wRVUs to determine compensation for primary care and specialist physicians, with wRVU productivity accounting for about 18% of TCC in plans with a base salary component and over 90% of TCC in plans without a base salary component. Less than half (44%) of organizations surveyed include a wRVU component for hospital-based physicians, who are instead paid primarily on base salary and shift-based models.
As organizations focus their attention on maintaining patient access and minimizing the financial losses created by COVID-19, the emphasis on individual wRVU productivity will remain prominent. While the pandemic itself has had a sizable impact on patient volumes and physician productivity, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) proposed changes to the Evaluation & Management wRVU values loom large as organizations look ahead to 2021. These adjustments include an increase in wRVUs for most office-visit E&M codes due to added responsibilities physicians have absorbed over the last five years. As a result of the overall projected increased in wRVUs, a 10.6% reduction in the conversion factor was required in order to maintain budget neutrality. The proposed increase in wRVU values ranges from 28%-46% for established office visits, which will have a significant impact on compensation plans that use wRVUs as a determinant of compensation.
Considerations for 2020 and Beyond
Although COVID-19 has sharpened industry focus on supporting financial sustainability, other market dynamics and the timing of anticipated financial recovery are also influencing the way hospitals and health systems are approaching physician compensation in both the short and long-term.
“Considering the implications of COVID-19 in 2020 and the impending impact of wRVU changes in 2021, the 2020 survey benchmark data represents the best data reference point for use in the near future. With appropriate context, it can serve as a foundation for understanding specialty market positioning leading into COVID-19, identifying recruitment and retention risks, and pinpointing areas of focus for targeted compensation adjustments as your organization moves forward with 2021 planning,” said Dave Hesselink, Principal, SullivanCotter.
There are a number of important physician compensation considerations for organizations to assess as they continue to navigate the new normal:
- Be mindful of how to appropriately use 2020 survey data. Understand the timing of the data and consider what you are trying to assess before using it. It can be helpful in benchmarking the competitiveness of compensation program elements and incentive opportunities.
- Develop an approach to physician compensation now in response to CMS’ proposed wRVU changes. Organizations should be proactive in assessing how these changes will impact payer reimbursement and physician compensation programs.
- With continued uncertainty regarding the impact of the pandemic in FY2021 and beyond, be prepared for new pandemic-related challenges to patient revenues and physician compensation. Organizations would be well-advised to have a plan developed in advance of any new restrictions on elective and non-emergent care to mitigate additional financial losses.
View an infographic summary of the 2020 survey results.
For more information on SullivanCotter’s surveys or the upcoming Evaluation and Management wRVU value changes, please visit our website at www.sullivancotter.com, email us or contact us by phone at 888.739.7039.