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.
U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) sent a letter today to the Health Resources and Services Administration, criticizing its decision to remove a public version of the National Practitioner Data Bank, which has helped reporters and researchers to expose serious gaps in the oversight of physicians.
“Shutting down public access to the data bank undermines the critical mission of identifying inefficiencies within our health care system – particularly at the expense of Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries,” Grassley wrote to HRSA Administrator Mary Wakefield. “More transparency serves the public interest.”
Grassley, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, continued: “Generally speaking, except in cases of national security, the public’s business ought to be public. Providers receive billions of dollars in state and federal tax dollars to serve Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. Accountability requires tracking how the money is spent.”
Despite recent court settlements that recouped more than a quarter billion dollars from lab-test companies for allegedly overbilling California’s Medicaid program, the federal government seems to be ignoring similar schemes that drain Medicare coffers.
The cases involve the nation’s two largest medical laboratory-testing companies – Laboratory Corporation of America and Quest Diagnostics – that together control about half the annual $25 billion lab test market. The Medicare suits, filed in federal court in Manhattan by a former industry executive, claim the testing companies charged insurers like UnitedHealthcare unprofitably low rates while squeezing Medicare and Medicaid.
The whistleblower suits allege the schemes relied on sweetheart deals in which managed-care companies required in-network physicians to send their patients’ lab tests to a single testing company. As part of the deal for below-cost prices, the insurance companies allegedly promised to encourage physicians in their networks also to send Medicare and Medicaid patients to the same testing company, which then billed the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (the federal agency that oversees both programs) or state Medicaid agencies at significantly higher rates.
This blog has tried to support the virtue of personal responsibility. If you smoke, don’t blame Joe Camel. If you surrender to Big Mac attacks, don’t go after Ronald McDonald. If you love donuts, and your girth is steadily expanding, is it really Krispy Kreme’s fault? And, if you suffer an adverse medical outcome, then…
Medicare aims to zoom in on hospitals, suffocating them with a variation of the absurd pay-for-performance charade that will soon torture practicing physicians. Of course, a little torture is okay, as our government contends, but pay-for-performance won’t increase medical quality, at least as it currently exists. It can be defended as a job creator as several new layers in the medical bureaucracy will be needed to collect and track medical data of questionable value.
Medical quality simply cannot be easily and reliably measured as one can do with a diamond, an athlete or a wine. Most professions resist being graded or claim that the grading scheme is a scheme. Teachers, for example, refute that testing kids is a fair means to measure their teaching performance. Conversely, any individual or profession who scores well on any quality review program will applaud the system’s worth and fairness. Shocking.
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.
Almost everyone agrees that without significant entitlement program reform, there is little hope for a solution to the looming decade of out-of-control deficit spending. That said, there is little agreement on how to do so. The inclination on the right is to cut spending; the inclination on the left is to raise taxes.
Critics of proposals to reduce spending claim that younger workers will be short-changed. For example, when Paul Ryan proposed to reform Medicare by making the federal government’s contribution (“premium support”) grow less rapidly than the rate of medical inflation, critics charged that this would shift costs to future retirees.
What the critics missed: If future Medicare benefits are smaller, then the taxes and premiums needed to pay for Medicare will also be smaller. In other words, Medicare benefit cuts produce partly offsetting taxpayer gains. Take the cuts in Medicare spending already enacted as part of ObamaCare. According to a National Center for Policy Analysis report by our colleagues Courtney Collins and Andrew Rettenmaier, lower taxes and premiums will offset about one-fourth of the benefit cuts for today’s 65-year-olds. They will offset almost one-half of the benefit cuts for 45-year-olds.
The Administration proposal that would enable small employers to band together to purchase health insurance by forming Association Health Plans has several good features. Large companies do pay about 15% less, apples-to-apples, for health insurance than small businesses because they negotiate lower administrative fees, get larger discounts on health care prices and avoid premium taxes and risk charges by self-insuring. Allowing small business to replicate what boils down to volume discounts also appeals politically to many as a market-based alternative to government intervention. Reliance on Association Health Plans could result in substantial volume discounts, but, in the end, would be like paying $10 for a tube of toothpaste that retails for $100, a big discount and a rip-off price.
Even though the largest companies get very deep discounts, there is substantial research showing that their net costs are much higher than everywhere else because we in the United States pay higher prices for health care goods and services. One need to look no further than the benchmark large corporate purchasers who continue to pay about 40% or 50% more than Medicare for the same health care to see how excessive health care prices for private payers are. And this disparity is likely to get worse. While hospitals gobble up other hospitals and doctors’ practices and gain near monopoly market power to raise prices, employers of all sizes remain highly fragmented and, as a result, impotent price negotiators.
A better approach to health care cost containment than Association Health Plans hides in full view. Continue reading…
Our healthcare system is self-destructing, a fact made more obvious every single day. A few years ago, a number of brave physicians who were fed up with administrative burden, burnout, and obstacles to providing care for patients started a movement –known as Direct Primary Care (DPC.) This is an innovative practice model where the payment arrangement is directly between a patient and their physician, leaving third parties, such as insurance or government agencies, completely out of the equation.
The rapidly growing number of DPC physicians have organized into a group called the DPC Coalition (DPCC); suddenly, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) is paying attention. As of February 2018, there are 770 DPC practices across the United States with new clinics opening each week as brave physicians leave the “system” behind, never looking back. Breaking free from the chains of insurance and government, this group is restoring the practice of medicine to its core, a relationship between a physician and their patient.
CMS understands there is a problem with the way Medicare services are being delivered to tax payers; it turns out their idyllic version of “high quality” care is not as affordable as they predicted. All evidence indicates the DPC model is not only capable of generating significant cost reduction, but also saving the federal government billions if administered on a large-enough scale. As fewer physicians accept Medicare and convert to DPC practices, CMS wants a piece of the pie.
I attended a Population Health conference this summer where a number of representatives from large health systems and physician organizations convened to discuss common challenges. Many of my healthcare colleagues assume that anything that carries the label “Population Health” must relate to health disparities and food deserts. While we do address these topics, the vast majority of sessions and conversations had one underlying theme: lowering the total cost of care.
In rebuttal to any charges that our group is far too corporate to be considered a fair example of Population Health advocates, even the Institute for Healthcare Improvement addresses the importance of managing costs with the third part of the Triple Aim stated as “reducing the per capita cost of health care”.
Whether it is from Medicare or commercial ACOs, the Efficiency metric in CMS’s Value-Based Purchasing program, or the continued push from commercial payors for bundled payment programs, health systems and provider groups are beset by demands regarding cost. Unfortunately, at this conference, and in most groups trying to meet the demands of Population Health, one key stakeholder group is often absent: Specialists.
If cardiologists, spine surgeons, and hospitalists cannot become engaged with Population Health principles, moving the cost needle will be very challenging, if not impossible. I believe there are ways, however, to engage specialists in providing efficient care.
The toxic polarization of Washington politics might lead even the most stubborn optimist to abandon any hope for bipartisanship on healthcare. Despite endemic pessimism, the flagging efforts to forge a Republican consensus on “repeal and replace” might set the stage for overdue efforts at compromise. Congress will be tempted to move on to more promising areas such as tax reform and infrastructure funding. That temptation should be resisted. The threat to the nation posed by the current state of American healthcare calls for Congress to resurrect the long lost spirit of bold bipartisanship.
Before considering opportunities for compromise, the obstacles confronting the GOP reform efforts are worth considering. Republicans face the same stubborn reality that confronted the framers of the Affordable Care Act (ACA): Expensive services cannot be covered by cheap insurance. The cost of U.S. healthcare has simply priced low income and even middle income individuals out of health insurance. Without subsides, they get left behind. The Congressional Budget Office’s estimated that the Ryan plan would result in 24 million losing coverage underscored the political divide: Confronted with unmanageable healthcare costs, most Republicans would opt to reduce public expense whereas Democrats plus a handful of Republican moderates prefer more extensive coverage. The effort of the GOP leadership to split the difference by preserving some residual subsidies and the structures supporting them—“Obamacare light”—remains unacceptable to many on the right. No clear middle ground has yet emerged.