Last week veteran analyst Vince Kuraitis reviewed a report from the consulting firm Oliver Wyman (OW), arguing that the trend toward reconfiguring health systems to deliver more accountable care is more widespread than any of us suspect.
“The healthcare world has only gotten serious about accountable care organizations in the past two years, but it is already clear that they are well positioned to provide a serious competitive threat to traditional fee-for-service medicine. In “The ACO Surprise,” our analysis finds that 25 to 31 million Americans already receive their care through ACOs-and roughly 45 percent of the population live in regions served by at least one ACO.”
OW provides a well-reasoned analysis and conclusions, but I’m skeptical. In discussions with health system executives around the country, I hear some movement toward change, but relatively few organizations are materially turning their operations in a different direction. The specter of policy change is looming, but it is still abstract. As I’ve described before, market forces are intensifying, but they’re mostly still scattered and immature.
Fee-for-service remains the prevailing paradigm, and there is no palpable threat to the health care excess that is business-as-usual. Several health system CFOs have told me: “Why should we take less money until we have to?”
There’s no question that Medicare’s ACO programs have the bulls-eye on reimbursement for health systems, which are a convergence point for a large percentage of appropriate and inappropriate health care costs. But there is a silver lining. American health care is so replete with waste – on the order of half or more of all health care expenditures – that any system that tries could deliver dramatically lower costs and improved outcomes.
At our first meeting years ago, Tom Emerick, Walmart’s then VP of Global Benefits, told me,
“No industry can grow indefinitely at a multiple of general inflation. It will eventually become so expensive that purchasers will simply abandon it.”
He said it casually, as though it was obvious and indisputable.
Health care is playing out this way. From 1999 to 2011, health care premium inflation grew steadily at 4 times the general inflation rate. During that same period, the percentage of non-elderly Americans with employer-sponsored health coverage fell from 69.2 to 58.6 percent, a 15.3 percent erosion rate.
Health care’s boosters like to argue that it has buttressed the economy, and that it means more jobs and economic prosperity within a community. A February 2011 Altarum Institute report estimated that private sector health care jobs now account for nearly 11 percent of total employment. Since the recession began in December 2007, health care employment has risen by 6.3 percent while employment in other industry sectors fell by 6.8 percent.
But there’s a darker side. Health care’s ever-increasing revenue growth has come at the expense of individuals and firms that pay its bills, directly through health plan premiums, and through taxes, often instead of buying other goods and services. It transfers wealth to health care from everyone else. Like the finance services industry, health care has become a disproportionate “taker” industry, sapping economic vitality from America’s communities.
Walmart’s sheer size makes almost any of their initiatives newsworthy. That said, despite being a lightning rod for criticism on employee benefits and health care, they have introduced initiatives with far-reaching impacts. Their generic drug program began in September 2006 – more than 300 prescription drugs for $4/month or $10 for a 90-day supply – and was widely emulated, disrupting retail drug markets and generating immense social benefit. Imagine the difference it made to a lower middle class diabetic who had been paying more than $120 per month for medications, and suddenly could get them for about $24.
Yesterday Walmart announced that “enrolled associates” – covered workers and their family members – needing heart, spine or transplant surgeries could receive care with no out-of-pocket cost at 6 prominent health systems around the country: Mayo Clinics (Rochester, MN and Jacksonville, FL); Cleveland Clinic (Cleveland, OH); Geisinger Clinic (Danville, PA); Mercy Hospital Springfield (Springfield, MO); Scott & White Memorial Hospital (Temple, TX); and Virginia Mason Medical Center (Seattle, WA).
Walmart’s Center of Excellence (COE) program builds on its own and other organizations’ pioneering efforts with similar programs. Walmart developed a relationship with Mayo Clinics in 2007 for transplant and lung volume reduction surgeries. In March 2010, Lowes reached a similar arrangement with Cleveland Clinic for heart surgeries and, last December, Pepsico announced a global pricing deal with Johns Hopkins for cardiac and joint replacement surgeries.
Three months ago a post argued that America’s primary care associations, societies and membership groups have splintered into narrowly-focused specialties. Individually and together, they have proved unable to resist decades of assault on primary care by other health care interests. The article concluded that primary care needs a new, more inclusive organization focused on accumulating and leveraging the power required to influence policy in favor of primary care.
The intention was to strengthen rather than displace the 6 different societies – The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), the American College of Physicians (ACP), the Society for General Internal Medicine (SGIM), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) – that currently divide primary care’s physician membership and dilute its influence. Instead, a new organization would convene and galvanize primary care physicians in ways that enhance their power. It would also reach out and embrace other primary care groups – e.g., mid-level clinicians and primary care practice organizations – adding heft and resources, and reflecting the fact that primary care is increasingly a team-based endeavor.
We came to believe that a single organization would not be serviceable. Feedback on the article suggested that several entities were necessary to achieve a workable design.
This week the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) issued a new report describing its vision of primary care’s future. Not surprisingly, the report talks about medical homes, with patient-centered, team-based care.
More surprisingly, though, it makes a point to insist that physicians, not nurse practitioners, should lead primary care practices. The important questions are whether nurse practitioners are qualified to independently practice primary care, and whether they can compensate for the primary care physician shortage. On both counts the AAFP thinks the answer is “no.”
AAFP marshals an important argument to bolster its position. Family physicians have four times as much education and training, accumulating an average of 21,700 hours, while nurse practitioners receive 5,350 hours.
It is unclear how this plays out in the real world but, intuitively, we all want physicians in a pinch. Researchers with the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews reviewed studies in 2004 and 2009 comparing the relative efficacy of primary care physicians and nurse practitioners. They wrote “appropriately trained nurses can produce as high quality care as primary care doctors and achieve as good health outcomes for patients.” But they also acknowledged that the research was limited.
There is no question that nurse practitioners can provide excellent routine care. For identifying and managing complexity, though, physicians’ far deeper training is a big advantage. In other words, difficult, expensive cases are likely to fare better from a physician’s care.
Excessive health care spending is overwhelming America’s economy, but the subtler truth is that this excess has been largely facilitated by subjugating primary care. A wealth of evidence shows that empowered primary care results in better outcomes at lower cost. Other developed nations have heeded this truth. But US payment policy has undervalued primary care while favoring specialists. The result has been spotty health quality, with costs that are double those in other industrialized countries. How did this happen, and what can we do about it.
American primary care physicians make about half what the average specialist takes home, so only the most idealistic medical students now choose primary care. Over a 30 year career, the average specialist will earn about $3.5 million more. Orthopedic surgeons will make $10 million more. Despite this pay difference, the volume, complexity and risk of primary care work has increased over time. Primary care office visits have, on average, shrunk from 20 minutes to 10 or less, and the next patient could have any disease, presenting in any way.
By contrast, specialists’ work most often has a narrower, repetitive focus, but with richer financial rewards. Ophthalmologists may line up 25 cataract operations at a time, earning 12.5 times a primary care doctor’s hourly rate for what may be less challenging or risky work.
Several years ago I had dinner with a woman who had served in the late 1990s as the national Chief Medical Officer of a major health plan. At the time, she said, she had developed a strategic initiative that called for abandoning the plan’s utilization review and medical management efforts, which had produced heartburn and a backlash among both physicians and patients. Instead, the idea was to retrospectively analyze utilization to identify unnecessary care.
This was at the height of anti-managed care fervor. A popular movie at the time, As Good As It Gets, cast Helen Hunt as the mother of a sick kid. When someone mentioned an HMO, Ms. Hunt’s character let fly a flurry of expletives. America’s theater audiences exploded in applause.
Apparently, the health plan’s senior management team bought into cutting back on medical management but saw no need for retrospective review. After all, if the health plan abandoned actions against inappropriate services, utilization and cost would explode. Fully insured health plans make a percentage of total expenditures, so more services, appropriate or not, meant the plan’s profits would increase.
And that’s how it played out. Virtually all health plans followed suit, dismantling the aggressive medical management that had been managed care’s core mechanism in driving appropriateness. In the years following 1998, health plan premium inflation grew significantly, for a short period reaching 5.5 times general inflation, but averaging 4 times general inflation through today. Medical management became all but a lost, or at least a scarce, discipline in American health care, which is its status now.
On May 10th, the US Senate Finance Committee, co-chaired by Senators Max Baucus (D-Mont) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), convened a remarkable panel of four former Administrators of the Health Care Finance Administration (HCFA) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS): Gail Wilensky, Bruce Vladeck, Thomas Scully and Mark McClellen. (See the video here.) Against a backdrop of intensifying budgetary pressures, the roundtable was to provide perspectives on Medicare physician payment, including several controversial issues: the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula, the Resource-Based Relative Value Scale (RBRVS), and the RVS Update Committee (RUC).
Ironically, the day before, a Maryland Federal District judge dismissed a suit brought against HHS and CMS by six Augusta, GA primary care doctors over CMS’ longstanding relationship with the RUC, based on a procedural technicality and without weighing the substance of the complaint.
The dream of reason did not take power into account – modern medicine is one of those extraordinary works of reason – but medicine is also a world of power.
Paul Starr, The Social Transformation of American Medicine, 1984
How can primary care’s position be reasserted as a policy leader rather than follower? Even though it is a linchpin discipline within America’s health system and its larger economy – a mass of evidence compellingly demonstrates that empowered primary care is associated with better health outcomes and lower costs – primary care has been overwhelmed and outmaneuvered by a health care industry intent on freeing access to lucrative downstream services and revenues. That compromise has produced a cascade of undesirable impacts that reach far beyond health care. Bringing American health care back into homeostasis will require a approach that appreciates and leverages power in ways that are different than in the past.
But primary care also has complicity in its own decline. It has been largely ineffective in communicating and advocating for its value, and in recruiting allies who share its interests. Equally important, it has failed to appreciate and protect primary care’s foundational role in US health care and the larger economy, as well as the advocacy demands of competing in a power-based policy environment.
The consequences have been withering constraints that have diminished primary care’s value, and that have thwarted its roles as first line manager of most medical conditions, and as patient-advocate and guide for downstream services. Combined with fee-for-service reimbursement and a lack of cost/quality transparency, primary care’s waning influence has precipitated a cascade of impacts, allowing health industry revenues to grow at more than four times the general inflation rate for more than a decade, with unnecessary utilization and cost that credible estimates suggest is half or more of all health care spending.Continue reading…
By mid-November, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) must respond to the legal complaint filed in a Maryland federal court by six Augusta, Georgia family physicians.
These doctors are not asking for money, but for relief from the negative effects brought about by CMS’ twenty year reliance on the American Medical Association’s Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC) for valuing doctors’ work. They are asking CMS to enforce the Federal Advisory Committee Act(FACA), which requires that regulatory agencies shield themselves from undue special interest influence. In the process, they are asking CMS to rethink Medicare’s approach to physician payment, with a mind toward recognizing and valuing primary care’s ability to treat the whole patient within a larger system of care. They are asking CMS to develop payment policy that supports the needs of patients over those of professional groups.
In a sense, the suit reflects the larger concerns of America’s increasing unrest: a general frustration with a system rigged to benefit the few at the expense of the many, privatizing profits while socializing losses. It calls into question an incentive structure that has resulted in half or more of all health spending providing no utility and translating to exorbitant cost but debatable value. In other words, the case is accompanied by a sense that the system, as it is currently constituted, is failing the American people.
Any simple examination of medical services payment reveals the systematic under-valuing of primary care services relative to procedural services, the direct result of the RUC’s valuation process. For example, in an earlier Health Affairs Blog post we compared a 99214 moderately complex established office visit with a routine cataract extraction and intraocular lens implant. The first has all of medicine as it’s palette. The second is a highly refined, low risk, repetitive procedure that is valued, on an hourly basis, at 12.5 times the first.