The GAO recently examined “self-referral” for outpatient physical therapy (PT) services, which the GAO defines as a provider referring patients to entities in which the provider or the provider's family members have a financial interest. According to the GAO, non-self-referred PT services per 1,000 Medicare FFS beneficiaries increased by 41% from 2004 to 2010, while the number of self-referred PT was generally flat. Expenditures associated with non-self-referred PT services also grew at a higher rate than for self-referred services. The GAO observed that these findings differ from its prior reviews of self-referrals involving advanced imaging, anatomic pathology, and intensity-modulated radiation therapy, in which the GAO found that self-referred services and expenditures grew faster than non-self-referred services and expenditures. The GAO suggests that a potential reason for this difference is that non-self-referred PT services can be performed by providers who can directly influence the amount, duration, and frequency of PT services through the Medicare written plan of care, whereas radiologists, for example, generally do not have the discretion to order more imaging services or more intense imaging procedures.

In addition, the GAO found that the relationship between provider self-referral status and PT referral patterns was mixed, and varied on the basis of referring provider specialty, Medicare beneficiary practice size, and geography. Self-referring providers in the three specialties that GAO examined (family practice, internal medicine, and orthopedic surgery) generally referred more beneficiaries for PT services on average than non-self-referring providers, but ordered fewer PT services per beneficiary compared to non-self-referring providers. The GAO also found that PT service referrals in the year a provider began to self-refer increased at a higher rate relative to non-self-referring providers of the same specialty.

In the report, “Medicare Physical Therapy: Self-Referring Providers Generally Referred More Beneficiaries but Fewer Services per Beneficiary,” the GAO concluded that regardless of referral patterns, the substantial growth in PT services raises concerns about costs for Medicare and beneficiaries. The GAO suggests that CMS’s initiative to collect additional information on beneficiary functional status on all PT claims may help CMS better assess the appropriateness of PT treatment provided by both self-referring and non-self-referring providers.