First, I think Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) are a great idea. Just like I thought HMOs were a good idea in 1988 and I thought IPAs were a good idea in 1994.
The whole notion of making providers accountable for balancing cost, medical necessity, appropriateness of care, and quality just has to be the answer.
But here’s the problem with ACOs: They are a tool in a big tool box of care and cost management tools but, like all of the other tools over the years like HMOs and IPAs, they won’t be used as they were intended because everybody—providers and insurers—can make more money in the existing so far limitless fee-for-service system.
I see the $2.5 trillion American health care system as a giant health care industrial complex. It just grows on itself and sucks in more and more money. Why not? The bigger it gets the more money we give it.
How do you make it efficient? You change the game. You can’t let it any longer make money just getting bigger. The new game has to be one that only pays out a profit for results—better care for a budget the country can live with. There are lots of tools available to do that. ACOs, capitated HMOs, IPAs, disease management, enormous data mines, Electronic Patient Data Systems, and so on.
But, here’s the rub. There isn’t a lot of incentive for payers and providers to do more than talk about these things and actually make these tools work. Right now they can just make lots more money off the fee-for-service system. They demand more money and employers and government and consumers are willing to just dump more money into the system. Sure they complain about it but they just keep doing it.
On the heels of the “Patients Rights Rebellion” (or maybe better titled the Provider Rights Rebellion) in the late 1990s, a CEO of one of the biggest health plans told me, “We’ve had it. We tried to manage care. Actually got results. Then consumers and employers and the politicians all sawed the limb off on us. Screw it. Back to fee-for-service. We can make more money doing that and not take all of this heat. They won’t admit it but that is what they [patients, employers, and politicians] really want.”
ACOs won’t succeed in the near term any more than capitated HMOs and IPAs accomplished anything in their day because there is no reason—no imperative—for the health care industrial complex to want them to succeed.
Here’s a flash for the policy wonks pushing ACOs: They only work if the provider gets paid less for the same patient population. Why would they be dumb enough to voluntarily accept that outcome?
Oh, there will be some providers—particularly hospital administrators—who can’t wait to build an ACO but probably more because they want another excuse to corner the primary care docs as a marketing channel for their growing system. But spend millions to develop an ACO so they can get less money? Only in the policy wonk netherland does that compute.
The only people on the ball when it comes to this ACO idea are the anti-trust lawyers and with good reason.
In my next post, I will talk more about how we might change the game so that these tools can work.
Robert Laszweski has been a fixture in Washington health policy circles for the better part of three decades. He currently serves as the president of Health Policy and Strategy Associates of Alexandria, Virginia. Before forming HPSA in 1992, Robert served as the COO, Group Markets, for the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company. You can read more of his thoughtful analyses at The Health Policy and Marketplace Blog, where this post first appeared.