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A doctor treats a patient during a clinic visit. Photo: Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Medicare will pay the same amount for routine doctor visits regardless of whether they happen in hospital outpatient departments or physicians' offices. It formally signed off on the controversial policy in a new regulation today.

Yes, but: The policy will be phased in over 2 years, which may give hospitals and doctors time to quash it or get it scaled back. And although this so-called "site-neutral" policy represents a major shift in how hospitals get paid, the relatively narrow rule will affects less than 1% of all Medicare outpatient spending.

Between the lines: The federal government has studied this issue for years, even before the Obama administration. Officials decided they were fed up with paying more for routine checkups in hospital-owned clinics, when the same services can be done cheaper elsewhere.

  • "In 2012, Medicare was paying approximately 80% more for a 15-minute office visit in a hospital outpatient department than in a freestanding physician office," the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services wrote in its final rule.
  • CMS also based its decision on a 2015 Government Accountability Office report, which called for this payment reform after finding hospitals were buying doctors' practices and increasing routine office visits due to the higher payment rates.

The American Hospital Association and other hospital lobbying groups have already said they intend "to promptly bring a court challenge to the new rule's site-neutral provisions."

Go deeper

WHO warns against travel bans on southern African countries

Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization regional director for Africa. Photo: Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

The World Health Organization called on countries Sunday to not impose travel bans on southern African nations amid concerns over the new COVID-19 Omicron variant.

Why it matters: The U.S. and countries in Europe and the Asia-Pacific announced travel restrictions in response to Omicron, which was first detected in South Africa. It's since spread to several European countries, Canada, Israel, Australia and Hong Kong. The WHO noted in a statement that only two southern African nations have detected the new variant.

Updated 3 hours ago - Health

First North American Omicron cases identified in Canada

COVID-19 testing personnel at Toronto Pearson International Airport in September. Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The first two cases of the new Omicron variant have been detected in North America, the Canadian government announced Sunday evening.

Driving the news: The World Health Organization has named Omicron a "variant of concern," but cautioned earlier on Sunday that it is not yet clear whether it's more transmissible than other strains of COVID-19.

7 hours ago - Health

WHO: Not yet known whether Omicron leads to more severe disease

Photo illustration: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The World Health Organization on Sunday said that it is not yet clear whether the newly discovered Omicron variant is more transmissible than other strains of the COVID-19 virus.

Why it matters: The agency's statement comes as the variant, discovered in South Africa, has already been detected in European and Asian countries.