Six years ago Ezekiel Emanuel and Jeffrey Liebman made the foolish prediction that ACOs would eat the insurance industry’s lunch. “By 2020, the American health insurance industry will be extinct,” they wrote. “Insurance companies will be replaced by accountable care organizations….” This would happen, they argued, because ACOs are just so darned good at lowering costs compared with insurance companies.
The first Medicare ACO programs began in 2012. Today there are 800 to 1,000 ACOs in business.  But ACOs aren’t even close to displacing the insurance industry. The most obvious reason is they don’t want to be insurance companies – they don’t want to bear full insurance risk. And the reason for that is they can’t cut costs. The performance of the Medicare ACOs, which are the only ACOs for which we have reliable data, illustrates both problems: Very few want to accept “downside risk” (the risk of losing money if they can’t cut costs); and they are incapable of cutting costs.
ACO hype confronts reality: Reality wins
Anyone paying attention to the research knew even before 2012 that ACOs wouldn’t cut costs for a general population (as opposed to a small slice of the population that is very sick). The Physician Group Practice Demonstration, which was widely seen as the first test of the ACO concept, raised Medicare spending. According to the final evaluation of the demonstration, the ten participating ACOs raised Medicare’s costs by 1.2 percent over the five years the demonstration ran (2005-2010), and it might have been worse if the ACOs hadn’t upcoded.  This failure to cut costs occurred despite the fact that the ten participating “group practices”/ACOs were very experienced in managing risk. They had names anyone who studies health policy would recognize, including Dartmouth-Hitchcock Clinic, Geisinger Clinic, and Marshfield Clinic. According to the final report on the demo, “Seven of the ten participants had currently or previously owned a health maintenance organization ….” (p. 15)
In my first post in this three-part series, I documented three problems with Pioneer ACOs: High churn rates among patients and doctors; assignment to ACOs of healthy patients; and assignment of so few ACO patients to each ACO doctor that ACO “attributees” constitute just 5 percent of each doctor’s panel. I noted that these problems could explain why Medicare ACOs have been so ineffective.
These problems are the direct result of CMS’s strange method of assigning patients to ACOs. Patients do not decide to enroll in ACOs. CMS assigns patients to ACOs based on a two-step process: (1) CMS first determines whether a doctor has a contract with an ACO; (2) CMS then determines which patients “belong” to that doctor, and assigns all patients “belonging” to that doctor to that doctor’s ACO. This method is invisible to patients; they don’t know they have been assigned to an ACO unless an ACO doctor tells them, which happens rarely, and when it does patients have no idea what the doctor is talking about. 
This raises an obvious question: If CMS’s method of assigning patients to ACOs is a significant reason why ACOs are not succeeding, why do it? There is no easy way to explain CMS’s answer to this question because it isn’t rational. The best way to explain why CMS adopted the two-step attribution method is to explain the method’s history.Continue reading…
Despite the political angst, the doomsday predictions and a very rocky launch, the Affordable Care Act has enabled more than 8 million Americans to acquire insurance coverage through the public exchanges.
Health insurance increases the probability that patients will access the medical care they need. And my colleagues at Kaiser Permanente are already seeing some positive stories emerging as a result.
They’ve shared dozens of stories with me about patients with undiagnosed medical problems who are now receiving treatment. In particular, I enjoyed hearing about two new patients in Northern California who’ve benefited from being insured.
They came in with life-threatening cancer: One, a mother with a uterine malignancy, and the other, a young man with a testicular mass. Both had gone years without medical care because they were unable to afford it. And now – thanks to medical coverage, early diagnosis and successful treatment – both will live.
But expanding access to health insurance is only the first step. Improving health care delivery is the next step in this journey.With all the acrimony in our nation’s capital, bipartisan agreements are few and far between.
Medicare Advantage may be the one platform on which both parties can stand. Examining this program and why it has proven so successful offers us insights into where we as a nation might choose to go.
Medicare Advantage: A History Born from Necessity
Since the Medicare program was created in 1965, the federal government has been insuring citizens over the age of 65.
This original form of Medicare, called traditional Medicare, was and remains a “fee-for-service” program. That means the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) – the agency that administers the Medicare program – pays individual physicians for the services they provide to Medicare beneficiaries.
Think of a service as an office visit, a test or a procedure. The price for those services is determined by the agency’s Physician Fee Schedule.
Beginning in 1978, Medicare beneficiaries had a second option. They could enroll in private Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) under a “risk contract” between CMS and the HMOs.
In 1932, the Committee on the Cost of Medical Care identified rising medical costs as a threat to the financial security of millions of Americans. In a series of studies that created the field of health services research, the Committee recommended several strategies for cost containment that reads like a blueprint for today’s cost containment efforts: prevention, price controls, capitation, elimination of unnecessary care, and integration. If it sounds like a précis of my previous two blogs – cut prices and cut quantities – it should. We have known for a long time that those are the only ways to cut spending. And yet here we are, 80 years later, facing a spending crisis that threatens to take down the entire economy.
In my lifetime, we have been subjected to a steady drumbeat of rising medical costs. There have been respites – for a couple of years after Medicare introduced DRGs and for about five years in the 1990s during the heyday of HMOs. While DRGs and HMOs shifted costs down, they did not seem to reverse underlying growth trends, although HMOs did not thrive for long enough to be certain.
Not for lack of trying have medical costs continued to increase. We promote prevention, regulate prices, capitate providers, and review utilization to eliminate wasteful spending. We have seen horizontal integration that led to market power and higher costs, and vertical integration that more often than not created unmanageable bureaucracies. Most of today’s proposals for cost containment can be encapsulated by two words: “Try harder.” The Affordable Care Act gives us free preventive care, stricter price controls, ACOs, and the Comparative Effectiveness Institute. We need radical change but all we get is creeping incrementalism. I will take creeping incrementalism over the do-nothing approach of the previous decade, if only because we could use another respite. But the ACA is no permanent fix.