On July 1, 2009, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) proposed to relax its controversial position concerning physician supervision of hospital outpatient services. The hospital industry had recently been vocal in its objection to CMS’s position, and the latest proposal signifies a potential important win for hospitals. If adopted, hospitals will be able to meet Medicare supervision requirements for outpatient services, without incurring some of the high costs necessary to ensure physician presence while those services are furnished.

The July 1 proposal is contained in CMS’s hospital outpatient prospective payment system (“HOPPS”) rule for 2010. The controversy arose a year earlier in CMS’s HOPPS rule for 2009. In the 2009 HOPPS rule, CMS “clarified” that direct supervision by a physician is required for outpatient hospital therapeutic services furnished “incident to” a physician’s services – not only in an off-campus hospital-based location, but also in the main hospital building or an on-campus department. This means that a physician must be present in each provider-based department when these services are furnished. While styled as a clarification, most hospitals saw CMS’s position in the 2009 HOPPS rule as a significant change from prior CMS guidance. Specifically, in the original HOPPS regulations from 2000, while CMS required that services furnished at a location designated as a department of a provider under the Medicare “provider-based” rules must be furnished under the direct supervision of a physician, CMS also stated that it “assumed” that the direct supervision requirement would be met when the services are furnished on a hospital’s campus.

In the latest proposal, CMS articulated three new proposed policies for physician supervision for hospital outpatient services that would go into effect Jan. 1, 2010.

  • First, nonphysician practitioners (physician assistants, nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, and certified nurse-midwives) would be permitted to directly supervise all hospital outpatient therapeutic services that they may perform themselves in accordance with state law, and scope of practice, hospital-granted privileges, and other Medicare requirements.
  • Second, for outpatient services furnished in the hospital or in an on-campus outpatient department of the hospital, the “direct supervision” requirement would be met if the physician or nonphysician practitioner is present on the same campus, in the hospital or on-campus provider-based department, and is immediately available to furnish assistance and direction throughout the performance of the procedure.
  • Third, for hospital outpatient diagnostic services, the physician supervision requirements attributable to each particular test under the Medicare physician fee schedule would have to be satisfied, whether the test is performed directly or under arrangements. While the same definition of “direct supervision” applicable to therapeutic services would also apply to diagnostic tests, nonphysician practitioners would not be permitted to supervise diagnostic tests.

These changes would allow hospitals significantly more flexibility in meeting the supervision requirements, and would represent a relaxation not only from CMS’s policy articulated in the 2009 HOPPS rule, but in some respects also from CMS’s policy prior to 2009. In particular, for example, nonphysician practitioners will be able to supervise therapeutic services furnished in off-campus provider-based departments.

The proposed 2010 HOPPS rule is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register July 20, 2009. Hospitals desiring to comment on the proposal must do so by Aug. 31, 2009. The final HOPPS rule is likely to be released in December 2009. Hospitals should monitor regulatory developments in this area in order to be able to adjust physician and nonphysician staffing and scheduling of services accordingly.