• A
  • |
  • A
  • Text size

Overview of the RBRVS

In 1992, Medicare significantly changed the way it pays for physicians' services. Instead of basing payments on charges, the federal government established a standardized physician payment schedule based on a resource-based relative value scale (RBRVS). In the RBRVS system, payments for services are determined by the resource costs needed to provide them. The cost of providing each service is divided into three components: physician work, practice expense and professional liability insurance. Payments are calculated by multiplying the combined costs of a service by a conversion factor (a monetary amount that is determined by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services). Payments are also adjusted for geographical differences in resource costs.

The physician work component accounts, on average, for 48 percent of the total relative value for each service. The initial physician work relative values were based on the results of a Harvard University study. The factors used to determine physician work include the time it takes to perform the service; the technical skill and physical effort; the required mental effort and judgment; and stress due to the potential risk to the patient. The physician work relative values are updated each year to account for changes in medical practice. Also, the legislation enacting the RBRVS requires the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to review the whole scale at least every five years.

The practice expense component of the RBRVS accounts for an average of 48 percent of the total relative value for each service. Practice expense relative values were based on a formula using average Medicare approved charges from 1991 (the year before the RBRVS was implemented) and the proportion of each specialty's revenues that is attributable to practice expenses. However, in January 1999, CMS began a transition to resource-based practice expense relative values for each CPT code that differs based on the site of service. In 2002, the resource-based practice expenses were fully transitioned.

On January 1, 2000, CMS implemented the resource-based professional liability insurance (PLI) relative value units. The PLI component of the RBRVS accounts for an average of 4 percent of the total relative value for each service. With this implementation and final transition of the resource-based practice expense relative units on January 1, 2002, all components of the RBRVS are resource-based.

Annual updates to the physician work relative values are based on recommendations from a committee involving the AMA and national medical specialty societies. The AMA/Specialty Society RVS Update Committee (RUC) was formed in 1991 to make recommendations to CMS on the relative values to be assigned to new or revised codes in Current Procedural Terminology (CPT®). Nearly 8,000 procedure codes are defined in CPT, and the relative values in the RBRVS were originally developed to correspond to the procedure definitions in CPT. Changes in CPT necessitate annual updates to the RBRVS for the new and revised codes.