MACRA (the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act) is a mess. It is extremely difficult to comprehend, it is based on assumptions that defy commonsense and research, and it may raise costs.
The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) would never say what I have just said, but MedPAC definitely understands MACRA’s defects. The transcripts of MedPAC’s October 8, 2015 and January 15, 2016 meetings indicate that members and staff perceive daunting impediments to the implementation of MACRA. But those transcripts also suggest that MedPAC won’t tell Congress to rewrite or repeal MACRA. Rather, the evidence suggests MedPAC will mince words. It appears MedPAC will send CMS and Congress a few wishes dressed up as “principles” and wait for MACRA’s inevitable failure before offering more useful advice.
Before I attempt to explain MACRA, let me first convey to you MACRA’s mind-numbing complexity by quoting four commissioners. Each statement below is followed by the last name of the commissioner who made it, the date the statement was made, and the page number of the transcript where the statement appears.
This is the third essay in a three-part series in which I explore the answer to that question. In the first installment I blamed this problem on the flimsy definition of “ACO.” ACO proponents “defined” the ACO in terms of their hopes for it, not in terms of the mechanisms ACOs would use to accomplish those hopes.
In the second installment I reviewed a paper published by the Center for Health Care Strategies (CHCS) to document my statement that we have no useful information on ACOs and to illustrate the quandary the hope-based “definition” of “ACO” creates for researchers. I criticized the CHCS paper as well for its cavalier attitude about evidence. The paper relied heavily on press releases and anonymous sources, and ignored the costs providers and insurers incur to set up and maintain ACOs.
In this last installment, I explore the role that culture – the culture of the managed care movement and the larger health policy community – played in elevating the ACO to the status of national health policy and, at the same time, thwarting the production of useful research on what it is ACOs do for patients.
The ACO isn’t the only example of hope-based health policy
If the ACO were the only example of an undocumented and poorly defined health care “reform” that was flogged from obscurity to fame by a few well-placed health policy entrepreneurs, we might dismiss the problems created by the flabby definition of the ACO as an aberration. But the ACO is not the only example of such “reforms.”
To the contrary, the ACO illustrates the norm, not the exception. It is an excellent illustration of how health policy has been made in America since the modern health care reform debate began circa 1970. Over the last half-century, every managed care “reform” that was eventually unleashed on all or large portions of the American populace followed the trajectory of the ACO:
In Part I of this series I noted that we have almost no useful information on what ACOs do that affects cost and quality. I described two causes of that problem: The amorphous, aspirational “definition” of ACOs, and the happy-go-lucky attitude toward evidence exhibited by ACO proponents and many analysts. I showed how the flabby “definition” of ACO makes it impossible to operationalize this thing – to reduce it to testable components. And I asked why the health policy community let ACO proponents get away with such a vague description of the ACO. I said the answer lies in the permissive culture of the US health policy community. It is a culture that tolerates, even encourages, the promotion of vague concepts and a cavalier attitude toward evidence.
In this installment, I illustrate these problems – the vague definition of “ACO,” and loose standards of evidence – by examining a paper published last month by the Center for Health Care Strategies (CHCS) entitled, “Accountable Care Organizations: Looking back and moving forward.” In the third installment of this series I will describe the emergence of the health policy culture that tolerates intellectually flabby proposals and a devil-may-care attitude toward evidence.
Moreover, the paper’s authors and funders made it clear they hoped the paper would provide a useful update on what ACOs have accomplished and how they accomplished it. In its July 2015 announcement of the $20,000 grant that supported this study, the Foundation said the study would “inform stakeholders of progress to date by accountable care organizations.” CHCS’s paper claims it “identifies key lessons from ACO activities across the country to date” (p. 1).
Our country urgently needs research on the impact of “accountable care organizations” on cost and quality. The ACO has been the establishment’s great hope for health care reform since the concept was invented at the November 9, 2006 meeting of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission. If ACOs are not going to work, we need to know sooner rather than later.
Although it’s been almost a decade since the ACO concept was invented and six years since Congress endorsed it, we know remarkably little about ACOs. What little reliable research we have was done on CMS’s ACO programs, but even that research is woefully incomplete. As for the ACOs set up by state Medicaid agencies and insurance companies, we know almost nothing.
Yes, I know, we have a few dozen papers telling us where ACOs are starting up, whether physicians or hospitals are “leading” them, and whether their managers tells pollsters they can “monitor care across the continuum” and “have programs in place to reduce hospital admissions,” etc. But we have no idea what ACOs do for patients that non-ACO providers do not do.
There are two reasons for this information vacuum. The first is the definition of the ACO. ACO proponents have never defined the ACO; they have told us only what they hope ACOs will do (they tell us they want ACOs to “hold providers accountable”). The second problem is the cavalier attitude toward evidence with which ACO proponents and analysts approach ACO research. Until the US health policy community addresses these problems, the dearth of useful research on ACOs will continue.
In this comment, I will describe these twin problems – the amorphous, aspiration-based definition of ACO, and the casual attitude toward evidence exhibited by ACO proponents and analysts. In Part II of this series I will illustrate these problems with a report on ACOs financed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The report, entitled “Accountable Care Organizations: Looking back and moving forward,”http://www.chcs.org/media/ACOs-Looking-Back-and-Moving-Forward.pdf was released last month by the Center for Health Care Strategies. In Part III I will argue that the vague definition of ACOs and the cavalier attitude toward evidence exhibited by ACO proponents is a result of a permissive culture that evolved first within the managed care movement and then spread throughout the American health policy community.
Steven Brill’s latest book, America’s Bitter Pill, is a frustrating mix of excellent history and muddled health policy analysis. The book is a very good addition to the literature on the history of the Affordable Care Act and by far the best reporting I’ve read on the bungled implementation of the federal health insurance exchange. But Brill’s analysis of why the ACA cannot reduce health care costs is naïve and confusing. Brill claims a few smart men on the White House “economic team,” including Peter Orszag and Ezekiel Emanuel, fought hard to push “game-changing” cost-containment into the ACA but were defeated by others who were less interested in cost containment.
That explanation is wrong on two counts:
(1)There was little evidence in 2009, and little today, to support the claims by Orszag et al. that the methods they promoted would cut costs;
(2) The ACA in fact contains most of what Orszag et al. fought for.
What Brill unquestionably gets right is his conclusion that the ACA cannot cut costs. He makes his conclusion clear at the end of the book. He quotes this astonishing statement by Obama – “Frankly what we’ve seen in progress on costs has surpassed almost anybody’s most optimistic expectations” – and then unceremoniously rejects it. “But there is actually little evidence of that,” he writes. (p. 416)