Mohammad Al-Ubaydli: Let’s just start from the beginning. Tom, can you please give us an introduction about yourself and your background?
Thomas Tsang: I’m a general internist by training. I practiced internal medicine in New York City, first at a small community hospital where I predominantly worked with residents and medical students and mostly taught principles of outpatient medicine, ambulatory care and interviewing techniques.
Then I was recruited by the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center. That’s when I got to use some of the public health knowledge that I had acquired: I worked on various public health initiatives for the community in New York City. The health center itself served a predominantly Asian population. It had four sites and one of the things that I did in the beginning was implement an electronic health record. That work led to my involvement with the Board of Health of New York City, which, in turn led to my work in Congress.
I was then selected for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/IOM Health Policy Fellowship on the Committee on Ways and Means-Subcommittee on Health and worked on some of the policies that led to the creation of ACO’s, i.e., Value-Based Purchasing, Pay for Performance and so on. I was fortunate enough to actually help implement some of the policies that I worked on! It’s a long answer to your question, but that’s the route I took.
Mohammad: It’s perfect. It’s really interesting to learn. Among the many things under your belt, it sounds like you have a successful electronic health record deployment, which is good–so well done! Tell me and our readers a bit about Accountable Care Organizations. What is an ACO and what is the point of it?
Thomas: The ACO is not a very new concept. It was a term that was coined by Elliott Fisher from Dartmouth Medical School, who is the director of Center for Health Policy and Clinical Practice. I hate to use the word HMO, but in a way, it’s almost like an HMO. It’s not really an HMO because it is actually a provider-led organization, not an insurance-led one.
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.
As the next act of the Massachusetts health care drama plays out on Beacon Hill, the same characters return to the stage with a tired script. The ostensible hero of the production, the patient, is left to watch the tragedy from the back row.
Legislation being debated on Beacon Hill ignores patient-centered health plans and health savings accounts, or HSAs, which are lower-premium insurance plans that direct pre-tax dollars into a bank account to cover an individual’s current health care and save money for future medical expenses. An HSA is the most direct way to engage patients in the health system. They cover out-of-pocket medical, dental, and vision expenses, are fully portable, and owned by individuals for their entire lives.
Unlike the self-interested solutions of insurers, providers, and government, HSAs are a proven way to contain the cost of care.
Nationwide, 11.4 million people of all ages and income levels purchase patient-centered plans, up over 250 percent from 2006, when they were created. Among HSA account holders, fully half earn less than $60,000; almost three-quarters have children; and about half are over 40.
Safeway, one of America’s largest supermarket chains, rolled out a patient-centered plan in 2006; per capita health care spending shrank 13 percent, and costs remained flat for four consecutive years.
Safeway’s plans have reduced employee obesity and smoking rates to roughly 30 percent below national averages. This health dividend is priceless as 70 percent of health care costs are directly related to lifestyle decisions.
Of all the people in the health care system, none is more central than the physician. Fundamental reform that lowers costs, raises quality and improves access to care is almost inconceivable without physicians leading and directing the changes. Yet of all the actors in modern health care, none are more trapped than our nation’s doctors. Let’s consider just a few of the ways your doctor is constrained, unlike any other professional you deal with.
No Telephone. Sometime in the early part of the last century, all the other professionals in our society — lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers, etc. — discovered the telephone. It’s a handy device. Ideal for communicating with clients. Yet even today I find that I can rarely talk to a doctor by phone. Why is that?
The short answer is: Medicare doesn’t pay for telephone consultations. Medicare has a list of about 7,500 tasks it pays physicians to perform. And talking by phone isn’t on the list — at least in a way that makes it practical. Private insurance tends to pay the way Medicare pays. So do most employers.
At a time when doctors feel like they are being squeezed on their fees from every direction by third-party payers, most become very focused on which activities are billable and which are not. And most are going to try to minimize their non-billable time.Continue reading…
As I share this view from my room in Tel Aviv after leaving the conference in Haifa, it is a good chance to consider the features of the Israeli health care system and draw some comparisons with that of the US. You can find a full description here, but let me hit the highlights as I understand them, based on discussions over the last two days.
Israel has had universal coverage for many years. It is provided by four HMOs, one with about 55% of the market, another with 20% or so, and the remaining two splitting the rest. The competition that exists is not based on price. Indeed, the cost of care is covered by a payroll tax and other government funding in the form of a capitated payment to each HMO based on enrollment. People are free to shift from one HMO to another as often as every two months, but only a very small percentage (well under 2%) shift each year.
Supplemental insurance, privately paid, is also available. However, the basic coverage offered to the population is very inclusive, and the supplement is for the small number of elective items that are not of great interest to most people.
The HMOs offer a strong primary care network and then contract with the hospitals for secondary and tertiary care. Some hospitals are owned by the HMOs, but many of the patients go to hospitals that are not owned by the HMOs. These are either government owned or are private, non-profits.
Now, as we explore transactions among these entities, it gets interesting. What is the process by which the rates for the government hospital are set with the HMOs, for the services purchased by the HMO out of its capitated budget? This is a negotiation in which the government is a participant. But recall that the government also owns those hospitals for which it is negotiating the rates with the HMOs. The HMOs are not permitted to joint together to negotiate with the government.Continue reading…
I have not been able to determine how you pronounce the acronym for Accountable Care Organization (ACO). Is it ā´ ko? Or ā´ so? Or ăh so´, as in Charlie Chan movies? What about ĕ´ ko, as in a canyon? Or simply ick, with a silent o?
Anyway, this is not a trivial matter because you are likely to be in an ACO at some point in the future and it’s probably going to happen sooner than you think.
In Massachusetts, stakeholders are already meeting to develop a plan to push everyone with commercial insurance into an ACO. [Can you guess who doesn’t count as a “stakeholder?” If you live in Massachusetts and you weren’t invited to the meeting, that’s a clue.] Nationwide, Medicare will start paying fees to ACOs, beginning next year. Eventually, the Obama administration would like to see everyone in an ACO.
But if no one had any previous interest in forming ACOs, let alone joining them, what is going to cause us all to change our minds? Money. Insurers won’t be able to get premium increases unless they adopt ACO plans. Doctors and hospitals will be paid less if they don’t join. Eventually doctors will find they are ineligible to treat Medicare patients or patients insured in the newly-created health insurance exchanges if they are not practicing in ACOs. As for the patients, there won’t be any plans to join other than ACO plans.Continue reading…