ACOs

More than 55 percent of the U.S. population now lives in a local area with an accountable care organization (ACO), in which a group of providers is held accountable by a payer for the total cost and quality of care for a defined set of patients. The spread of ACOs, however, by no means ensures their success.

Significant questions remain about whether the goals of the model—better care at lower costs—will be achieved.

There are some signs that the ACO model—by rewarding provider organizations for implementing high quality mechanisms for care delivery that lower overall costs—is driving innovation in the marketplace. For example, the Montefiore ACO in New York City is using special scales in the homes of patients with congestive heart failure to monitor for changes in weight that could indicate trouble.

Walgreens has formed three ACOs and is using its retail pharmacies as low-cost care centers. In addition, the Beth Israel Deaconess Care Organization created a high-touch care management system in which nurse practitioners visit the ACO’s sickest patients at home to reduce the number of hospital readmissions.

Yet, there are also challenges inherent in the adoption and implementation of the ACO model. There have been several wide-ranging proposals on how to enhance accountable care, especially in Medicare, but we believe that developing policies to standardize measurement is an important first step.

First, we need to promote adoption of a core set of effective measures across payers. Current measures, such as screening for high blood pressure, are limited in scope and fail to incorporate important dimensions, including health outcomes meaningful to patients and the total cost of care for those within the ACO. Proposals for more advanced measures have been developed but not yet adopted, in part because of provider concerns about being held accountable for aspects of performance they do not fully control.

These issues could be addressed by operationalizing the concept of “shared accountability” through patient engagement and partnerships, as with local, multistakeholder community health coalitions, and embracing a core set of more challenging and meaningful metrics, such as functional health and total costs per capita.

Continue reading “Measuring What Matters for ACOs”

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As he ascends to the Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Ron Wyden’s recent proposal to reform Medicare by improving care for the chronically ill has garnered significant attention and support. Its topline goal of incentivizing integration of care for high-risk patients is resonating with stakeholders across the health care continuum.

In light of its momentum and Senator Wyden’s imminently expanding authority over Federal healthcare programs, we thought it wise to take a closer look at his plan – the “Better Care, Lower Cost Act” (BCLA). What we found is more interesting, ambitious and – potentially - complex than the headlines suggest.

In essence, the BCLA would allow providers (and health plans) to form new entities – labeled Better Care Programs (BCPs) – that receive capitated payments for all Medicare-covered services delivered to their enrollees. The initiative would initially focus on regions of the country with disproportionately high rates of chronic illness and only medically complex patients would be allowed to enroll.

There are a variety of medical protocols that BCPs would be required to adopt, including development of personalized chronic care plans for each enrollee.

If you are hearing echoes of the Accountable Care “movement,” then you are in the right concert hall but listening to a very different symphony. While BCPs share some characteristics with ACOs, they would differ in important ways. A limited number of ACOs in Medicare currently take full(ish) financial risk, but all BCPs would do so, with some risk corridors instituted in the first few years.

Unlike most ACO programs, control groups would be established for purposes of measuring BCP performance. Also - and this is pivotal - BCPs would be required to proactively enroll Medicare beneficiaries, while patients are typically passively attributed to ACOs.

By taking a giant step down the shared savings path, which it travels alongside ACO programs, the BCLA further blurs the line between traditional fee for service and managed care. BCPs would actually be compensated in the same manner as Medicare Advantage plans, the private insurance option in Medicare.

Continue reading “Unpacking the Wyden Chronic Care Bill”

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With the beginning of 2014 comes another year of the great accountable care organization (ACO) debate.

Is it a model to deliver high-quality, cost-effective care and improve population health management (PHM)? Or, just a passing fad, similar to the HMOs of decades ago?

Many opinions exist, and they’ll continue to be debated, especially during an election year. One thing most of us can agree on about ACOs is they are a work in progress.

We can say with some certainty that ACOs are taking hold; look no further than their growth, which now exceeds 600 public and private ACOs nationwide with the recent addition of 123 ACOs to the Medicare Shared Savings Program. But they still beg more questions than answers. What types and sizes of hospitals are forming ACOs, and where are they located? What does the pipeline of emerging ACOs look like, and how long will their journey take? And what capabilities, investments and partnerships are essential to ACO participation? What is the longer term performance?

Who better to ask than the decision makers running the organizations that participate in an ACO?

In August of 2013 we surveyed 115 C-suite executives– primarily CEOs (43.5%), chief financial officers (17.4%) and chief operating officers (16.5%) – across 35 states to collect data on their perspectives on ACO and PHM.

Survey results support the increase in ACO popularity. According to respondents, ACO participation has almost quadrupled since spring 2012: More than 18% say their hospitals currently participate in an ACO, up from 4.8% in spring 2012. This growth is projected to accelerate, with about 50% of respondents suggesting their hospitals will participate in an ACO by the end of 2014. Overall, 3 out of 4 senior executives surveyed say their hospitals have ACO participation plans.

Since survey respondents also represent hospitals of different locations, sizes and types, we are able to obtain a broader look at current and future ACO participation and found that:

  • Non-rural hospitals (82.1%) are most likely to participate in an ACO overall, followed by hospitals in an integrated delivery network (81.1%).
  • The lowest rates of projected participation are among rural hospitals (70.7%) and standalone hospitals (72.6%).
  • Large hospitals are moving more quickly, as 30.8% said they’d be part of an ACO by the end of 2013.
  • And though they’re equally as likely as large hospitals to ultimately participate in an ACO, small hospitals say they require additional time, with 48.6% planning to join in 2014 or 2015.

But some providers have been more deliberate and cautious about when they start their ACO journey. The pace of ACO adoption has been slower than originally anticipated 18 months ago, when more than half of executives predicted their systems would create or join an ACO by the end of 2013. Current survey results show that about 1 out of 4 will meet that projection.

Continue reading “The Great ACO Debate: 2014 Edition”

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I first posed the question, “Could Mobile Health Become Addictive?” on August 20th.  Since then I’ve done more thinking and I’m warming to the concept.

To start with, addiction is a word laden with negative meaning.  When we hear the word, we think of opiates, street drugs, cigarettes, or possibly gambling.  In fact, Wikipedia defines addiction as, “the continued repetition of a behavior despite adverse consequences.”  So, with that definition as backdrop, is there any way health can really be addictive?  Probably not.

What I’m really talking about is the juxtaposition of motivational health messaging with some other addictive behavior, specifically checking your smartphone.

New evidence shows that people are in love with these devices, checking them more than 100 times per day!  I’ve heard people are tapping in 110, even 150 times a day. Of course this varies, but let’s face it, we check our smartphones a lot and it’s hard to stop.  A somewhat disturbing video makes the case well.  It’s easy to build a case that smartphones are addictive.

Recent research shows that checking your phone results in a small release of the neurochemical dopamine.  Dopamine release has long been associated with ingestion of addictive substances such as heroin and tobacco.  In fact, once the pattern of ingestion and dopamine release is established, even thinking about the ingestion triggers the dopamine release, the biochemical explanation for cravings.

For this post and a series to follow, I choose not to question whether this compulsive relationship with smartphones is good or bad, but simply to acknowledge that it is common, almost universal among smartphone users and to ask if we can exploit it as tool to improve your health.

Continue reading “Making Health Addictive”

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On July 16, the CMS Innovation Center reported the first-year results for the Pioneer Accountable Care Organization program:  13 Pioneers, or about 40 percent of the participants, earned bonuses. The program saved Medicare a gross $87.6 million before bonus distributions, cutting the rate of growth in Medicare spending by 0.5 percent, from 0.8 percent to 0.3 percent annually.

However, nine of the 32 members dropped out and press reports hinted at a contentious relationship between the Pioneers and a well meaning but green and overtaxed CMS staff.  It was not an auspicious beginning for a program whose advocates believed would eventually replace regular Medicare’s present payment model. There immediately followed a blizzard of spin control from ACO “movement” advocates stressing the need for patience and highlighting first year achievements.

What was irritating about the Pioneer spin is it treated the ACO as if it were a brand new idea with growing pains. This studiously ignores a burned out Conestoga wagon pushed to the side of the trail: the Physician Group Practice demonstration CMS conducted from 2005-2010. The PGP demo tested essentially the same idea — provider bonuses for meeting spending reduction and quality improvement targets for attributed Medicare patients.  The pattern of arrow holes and burn marks on the PGP wagon closely resemble those from the Pioneer’s first year, strongly suggesting more troubles ahead for the hardy, surviving Pioneers.

The PGP Precedent. Like the Pioneers, PGP participants were not ordinary community hospitals or freshly formed physician groups or IPA’s.  Rather, most were “high functioning” organized clinical enterprises, some with decades of global risk contracting or health plan operating experience.  Particularly in light of the degree of clinical integration and care management experience of its participants, the PGP results were extremely disappointing; only two of the ten participants were able to generate bonuses in each of the program’s five years, and one, Marshfield Clinic, earned half the total bonuses.  Managed care veterans like Geisinger Clinic and Park Nicollet earned bonuses in only three of their ten program years. Two other high-quality multi-specialty clinics had even rougher sledding, with Everett Clinic getting one year of bonus ($126,000) and Billings Clinic completely shut out.

The pattern in the first Pioneer year is remarkably similar.   While thirteen of the Pioneers earned bonuses, it appears from press reports that four of them generated 2/3 of the savings.   It is likely not coincidental that three of those four participants (Massachusetts General, Beth Israel Deaconess’ physician organization, and New York’s Montefiore) either run or practice at some of the most expensive hospitals in the country, in two of the country’s highest per capita Medicare spending markets.  Orchards full of low hanging fruit (e.g. very high levels of previously unexamined Medicare spending) appear to be an essential precondition of ACO success.

Continue reading “Pioneer ACO’s Disappointing First Year”

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Since 1973, when Jack Wennberg published his first paper describing geographic variations in health care, researchers have argued about both the magnitude and the causes of variation.  The argument gained greater policy relevance as U.S. health care spending reached 18 percent of GDP and as evidence mounted, largely from researchers at Dartmouth, that higher spending regions were failing to achieve better outcomes.   The possibility of substantial savings not only helped to motivate reform but also raised the stakes in what had been largely an academic argument.   Some began to raise questions about the Dartmouth research.

Today, the prestigious Institute of Medicine released a committee report, led by Harvard’s Professor Joseph Newhouse and Provost Alan Garber, that weighs in on these issues.

The report, called for by the Affordable Care Act and entitled “Variation in Health Care Spending: Target Decision Making, Not Geography,” deserves a careful read. The committee of 19 distinguished academics and policy experts spent several years documenting the causes and consequences of regional variations and developing solid policy recommendations on what to do about them.  (Disclosure: We helped write a background study for the committee).

But for those trying to make health care better and more affordable, whether in Washington or in communities around the country, there are a few areas where the headlines are likely to gloss over important details in the report.

And we believe that the Committee risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater by appearing, through its choice of title, to turn its back on regional initiatives to improve both health and health care.

What the committee found

The report confirmed three core findings of Dartmouth’s research.

First, geographic variations in spending are substantial, pervasive and persistent over time — the variations are not just random noise. Second, adjusting for individuals’ age, sex, income, race, and health status attenuates these variations, but there’s still plenty that remain. Third, there is little or no correlation between spending and health care quality. The report also effectively identifies the puzzling empirical patterns that don’t fit conveniently into the Dartmouth framework, such as a lack of association between spending in commercial insurance and Medicare populations.

Continue reading “Making Sense of Geographic Variations in Health Care: the New IOM Report”

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What’s behind the recent EHR public relations blitz and our passionate debate in The Health Care Blog? It’s fear for the Affordable Care Act’s future. Oh, the ACA can weather political challenge in the short term, but in the long run, only health cost containment will matter. EHRs are the ship that institutions are counting on to navigate payment reform and, from the institutional perspective, physicians and patients are just along for the ride. From the citizen perspective however, cost containment will be seen as rationing unless patients and physicians are appropriately engaged in the most costly decisions.

The impact of yet more regulations, such as Stage 3 Meaningful Use, could be too late to save the ACA. For now, the administration and those of us that hope the ACA succeeds must work to shift EHR vendors and their institutional customers toward patient engagement using the tools of policy guidance, public relations and federal procurement.

First, a crash course in health economics. If you have a few minutes, read Accountable Care Organizations: Can We Have Our Cake and Eat It Too? by Jessica L. Mantel. Otherwise, just struggle through the next two paragraphs summarizing why EHRs are the lynchpin of health reform via the ACA.

Cost containment requires either cost controls or a shift away from fee-for-service payment. The ACA is based on accountable care as an alternative to fee-for-service. Accountable Care Organization (ACO) is shorthand for the new health care payments regime. By paying ACO institutions instead of individual service providers, health insurance companies and Medicare provide direct economic incentives to reduce waste, lower costs and, if we’re not careful, withhold needed care. An ACO is by definition an organization or institutional construct.

The EHR is is not the Jedi knight’s lightsaber, it is an institutional tool designed to bind the individual service providers into the Federation’s collective. Not surprisingly, patient engagement is an afterthought.

Continue reading “The Affordable Care Act Will Fail Without Patient Engagement”

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The Next Health Care calls for very different strategies and tool sets. Many systems are acting as if they read a manual on how to do it wrong. How many of these critical strategic and tactical mistakes is your system making?

So I was beta testing FutureSearch, this cool new Google add-on app I’m writing with a coder, and I found an article that I wrote in 2025. My first thought was, “Cool! It works!” My second thought was, “I’m still working at the age of 75?” It was only then that I focused on the title of the article: “Fail: The 16 Steps by Which Hospitals Failed in the Post-ACA Risk Environment — An Analysis.”

The article detailed a dispiriting history from 2013 to 2020. More important, it listed the 16 most common mistakes that hospitals and health systems made while trying to navigate the new risk environment of the Next Health Care.

I found this interesting because of course right at this moment much of the health care industry, in many different ways, is trying to move away from the traditional fee-for-service payment system, which has given the whole industry adverse incentives, leading to much higher costs, poorer quality and restricted access. The rubric of the day is “volume to value.” And I see many different institutions and systems across the country making exactly these mistakes already in 2013.

Step-by-Step Instructions

As you read this list, ask yourself in what way you and your institution might be making the wrong decisions, and ask yourself what they will look like looking back from 2025.

Stick with fee-for-service. Though they included various incentives and kickbacks, most accountable care organizations and ACO-like structures built in the 2012–2014 period were based on a payment system that remained stubbornly fee-for-service. Systems continued to make more money if they checked off more items on the list (and more complex items), rather than solving their customers’ problems as well and as efficiently as possible.

Continue reading “How to Fail at the Next Health Care”

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Just back from the Health Datapalooza confab that took place last week – an event now in its 4th year hosted by the federal government. I had a few lingering thoughts to share. First, on the event name: I’m guessing it came out of my old business partner and current national CTO Todd Park’s experience in Washington, where trying to get any single distinct thought through “the interests” could knock the “palooza” out of a grown stallion.

You’d think the federal government would be the last ones to host a Datapalooza, but the fact is NO ONE ELSE has stepped up!

So they did.

And complain as I might about the G-men and G-women being industry conference conveners (makes me want to bathe with a wire brush) they pulled it off pretty darn well. The Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) attracted hundreds of serious entrepreneurs… and hundreds more wannabes (who real entrepreneurs desperately need in order to feel cool).

And boy were there some great bloopers…

Kaiser came blistering onto the scene with an open API—to the location and hours of operation of its facilities! Kinda sounds like Yelp to me…I’d be surprised if developers will come a runnin’ to that one. Kaiser’s CIO (a very cool guy whom they or anyone in health care would be lucky to get) broke this news in a two-minute keynote speech. Imagine President Obama announcing, in a State of the Union address, that the green vegetables in the White House cafeteria were now much crunchier!

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius applied similarly excessive fanfare announcing the release of cost data for 30 ambulatory procedures. The whole idea that Toddy (Park) was trying to get going with this Palooza was not to release REPORTS on things but to release the SOURCE data so that anyone with proper security and privacy clearance could INVENT a million reports that no one had ever conceived before!

So here are my thoughts on all of this, some of which I shared at the conference in my way-longer-than-two-minute keynote:

1. Release the data!! Secretary Sebelius announcing the release of cost data for 30 ambulatory procedures during her keynote felt like the Secretary of Energy serving up a can of 10W30 to oil companies to drill into.

Her words were great. To wit: “The fact that this [unlocking the data] is growing by leaps and bounds is a good indication that we can leapfrog over years and decades of inaction into an exciting new future.” YES! GO GIRRRL!  OK, so…where’s the data?

Continue reading “Knocking the Palooza Out of the Data”

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Historically, the physician has been viewed as the leader of medicine, with responsibility for the care and outcomes of patients; in iconic photographs and paintings, the physician is seen as a lone, heroic figure. Such a view has led to natural interest in the measurement of individual physicians’ performance. It is therefore not surprising that some information brokers, including the U.S. News and World Report and many city magazines like the Washingtonian, provide ratings of “top doctors,” often based mostly on reputation, warranted or not.

However, this focus on the individual is flawed for most measures of quality and presents substantial technical challenges. Systems-based care is emerging as a key value within health care and a vital component of high-quality care, while the notion that an individual health professional can be held accountable for the outcomes of patients in isolation from other health professionals and their work environment is becoming an outdated perspective. For example, better intensive care unit staffing sometimes mitigates the evidence that surgeons who perform more procedures achieve better outcomes [21].

The communication and coordination of services across providers is required to ensure that patients, many of whom have multiple conditions, are assisted through various health care settings [22]. For some aspects of care, such as diagnosis errors and patient experience, measuring at the individual physician level might be considered. Nevertheless, focusing measurement on an individual runs counter to our goals in promoting teamwork and “systemness” as core health care delivery attributes.

Continue reading “3. Measure quality at the level of the organization, rather than the clinician.”

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