By REBECCA FOGG
Earlier this month, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma proposed bold changes to Medicare’s Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), with the goal of accelerating America’s progress toward a value-based healthcare system—that is, one in which providers are paid for the quality and cost-effectiveness of care delivered, rather than volume delivered.
CMS has created a number of ACO programs over the last six years in an effort to improve care quality and reduce care costs across its Fee-for-Service Medicare population. In a Medicare ACO, hospital systems, physician practices and other voluntarily band together and assume responsibility for the quality and cost of care for beneficiaries assigned to them by Medicare. All ACOs meeting quality targets at the end of a given year receive a share of any savings generated relative to a predetermined cost benchmark; and depending on the type of ACO, some incur a financial penalty if they exceed the benchmark.
According to CMS’ recent analyses, ACOs that take on higher financial risk are more successful in improving quality and reducing costs over time. So one important objective of CMS’ proposed changes is to increase the rate at which ACOs assume financial risk for their beneficiaries’ care.
By KIP SULLIVAN, JD
There is no meaningful difference between the performance of Medicare ACOs that accept only upside risk (the chance to make money) and ACOs that accept both up- and downside risk (the risk of losing money). But CMS’s administrator, Seema Verma, thinks otherwise. According to her, one-sided ACOs are raising Medicare’s costs while two-sided ACOs are saving “significant” amounts of money. She is so sure of this that she is altering the rules of the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP). Currently only 18 percent of MSSP ACOs accept two-sided risk. That will change next year. According to a proposed rule CMS published on August 9, ACOs will have at most two years to participate in the MSSP exposed to upside risk only, and after that they must accept two-sided risk.
That same day, Verma published an essay on the Health Affairs blog in which she revealed, presumably unwittingly, how little evidence she has to support her decision. The data Verma published in that essay revealed that one-sided ACOs are raising Medicare’s costs by six-one-hundredths of a percent while two-sided ACOs are cutting Medicare’s costs by seven-tenths of a percent.  Because these figures do not consider the expenses ACOs incur, and because the algorithms CMS uses to assign patients to ACOs and to calculate ACO expenditure targets and actual performance are so complex, this microscopic difference is meaningless.
“Two beellion dawlers”
Even if the difference is not meaningless – even if two-sided ACOs actually save a few tenths of a percent for Medicare – the impact on Medicare spending will be barely noticeable. Verma assures us, without a hint of embarrassment, that her new rule will cut Medicare spending by $2.2 billion over ten years. “The projected impact of the proposal would be savings to Medicare of $2.2 billion over ten years,” she declares in her blog comment.
Dr. Evil from Austin Powers
I feel like we’re in a scene from the Austin Powers movie where Dr. Evil announces he will hold the world ransom for “one meellion dawlers.” Dr. Evil’s sidekick, Number Two, has to advise him that a million dollars is peanuts. Verma’s estimate of 2.2 “beellion dawlers” is essentially zero percent of the trillions of dollars CMS will spend on Medicare in the next decade.