Between September of 2016 and last month, CMS released “final evaluations” of all three of its “medical home” demonstrations. All three demos failed.
This spells bad news not just for the “patient-centered medical home” (PCMH) project, but for MACRA. The PCMH, along with the ACO and the bundled payment (BP), is one of the three main “alternative payment models” (APMs) within which doctors are supposed to be able to find shelter from the financial penalties inflicted by the MIPS (Merit-based Incentive Payment System) program which was recently declared to be unworkable by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission. Medicare ACOs and virtually all Medicare BP programs are also failing. Thus, we may conclude what some predicted a long time ago – that neither arm of MACRA (the toxic MIPS program and the byzantine APM program) will work.
In this post I describe each of CMS’s three PCMH demos, review the findings of the final evaluations of the three demos, and then explore the reasons why all three demos failed. I’ll conclude that the most fundamental reason is that the PCMH is so poorly defined no one, including the doctors inside the PCMHs, knows what it’s supposed to do. That’s not to say that the hopes and dreams of PCMH proponents were never clear. They have always been clear. PCMH proponents have said over and over the PCMH is supposed to lower costs and improve care. But a clear expression of hopes and dreams is not the same thing as a clear description of what it is you’re dreaming about.Continue reading…
Everywhere we turn these days it seems “Big Data” is being touted as a solution for physicians and physician groups who want to participate in Accountable Care Organizations, (ACOs) and/or accountable care-like contracts with payers.
We disagree, and think the accumulated experience about what works and what doesn’t work for care management suggests that a “Small Data” approach might be good enough for many medical groups, while being more immediately implementable and a lot less costly. We’re not convinced, in other words, that the problem for ACOs is a scarcity of data or second rate analytics. Rather, the problem is that we are not taking advantage of, and using more intelligently, the data and analytics already in place, or nearly in place.
For those of you who are interested in the concept of Big Data, Steve Lohr recently wrote a good overview in his column in the New York Times, in which he said:
“Big Data is a shorthand label that typically means applying the tools of artificial intelligence, like machine learning, to vast new troves of data beyond that captured in standard databases. The new data sources include Web-browsing data trails, social network communications, sensor data and surveillance data.”
Applied to health care and ACOs, the proponents of Big Data suggest that some version of IBM’s now-famous Watson, teamed up with arrays of sensors and a very large clinical data repository containing virtually every known fact about all of the patients seen by the medical group, is a needed investment. Of course, many of these data are not currently available in structured, that is computable, format. So one of the costly requirements that Big Data may impose on us results from the need to convert large amounts of unstructured or poorly structured data to structured data. But when that is accomplished, so advocates tell us, Big Data is not only good for quality care, but is “absolutely essential” for attaining the cost efficiency needed by doctors and nurses to have a positive and money-making experience with accountable care shared-savings, gain-share, or risk contracts.
It’s a strange business we are in.
I can freeze a couple of warts in less than a minute and send a bill to a patient’s commercial insurance for much more money than for a fifteen minute visit to change their blood pressure medication.
I can see a Medicaid or Medicare patient for five minutes or forty-five, and up until now, because I work for a Federally Qualified Health Center, the payment we actually receive is the same.
I can chat briefly with a patient who comes in for a dressing change done by my nurse, quickly make sure the wound and the dressing look okay and charge for an office visit. But I cannot bill anything for spending a half hour on the phone with a distraught patient who just developed terrible side effects from his new medication and whose X-ray results suggest he needs more testing.
As a primary care physician I get dozens of reports every day, from specialists, emergency rooms, the local Veterans’ clinic and so on, and everybody expects me to go over all these reports with a fine-toothed comb.
A specialist will write “I recommend an angiogram”, and we have to call his office to make sure if that means he ordered it, or that he wants us to order it.
An emergency room doctor orders a CT scan to rule out a blood clot in someone’s lung and gets a verbal reading by the radiologist that there is no clot. But the final CT report, dictated after the emergency room doctor’s shift has ended, suggests a possible small lung cancer.
Did anyone at the ER deal with this, or is it up to me to contact the patient and arrange for followup testing? All of this takes time, but we cannot bill for it.
Most people are aware these days that procedures are reimbursed at a higher rate than “cognitive work”, but many patients are shocked to hear that doctors essentially cannot bill for any work that isn’t done face to face with a patient. This fact, not technophobia, is probably the biggest reason why doctors and patients aren’t emailing, for example.
There’s scant disagreement that a key to transforming the U.S. health system is strengthening its primary care foundation. But there’s no consensus about how.
In last week’s new cycle, evidence of our dysfunction on this central issue was apparent:
Last Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics fired a volley across the bow at retail clinics, calling them an “inappropriate source of primary care for pediatric patients (1).” Instead, the society that represents the nation’s 62,000 pediatricians encouraged an alternative—the patient centered medical home it originated in 1967.
In its policy statement, while acknowledging the growing popularity of retail clinics, the AAP affirmed its opposition to models that are not physician driven. Never mind that the 1600 retail clinics deliver comparable outcomes for treatment of a dozen uncomplicated medical problems, offer extended hours and cost less than half for a medical office visit. And their caregivers are nurse practitioners.
Then Tuesday, a robust Canadian study was released that cast doubt on the suitability of the patient centered medical home (PCMH) as the transformative model for primary care (2). The Canadian research team compared results from 32 medical home practices in Pennsylvania that had achieved certification from the National Committee on Quality Assurance’ medical home program to 29 non-medical home primary care practices in the same region from 2008-2011.
They concluded “a multi-payer medical home pilot, in which participating practices adopted new structural capabilities and received NCQA certification, was associated with limited improvements in quality and was not associated with reductions in utilization of hospital, emergency department, or ambulatory care services or total costs over 3 years. These findings suggest that medical home interventions may need further refinement (3).”
And the same day, the White House announced it would spend $5.2 billion over 10 years to train 13,000 additional primary care residents and $3.95 billion over 6 years to expand the Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA) program from 8900 primary care providers to 15,000.
Our clinic is now a Certified Patient-Centered Medical Home. The whole process leading up to this reminds me of one of my favorite subjects – buying cars. Specifically, buying cars based on technical specifications in color brochures. It takes real, on-the-road experience to know if a car is right for you.
When I moved to this country in 1981, I bought a 1980 Chevrolet Citation. Back in Sweden I had owned a Volvo wagon, but secretly admired the front-wheel-drive SAAB 900. Once in America, I figured I’d buy American. My wife’s relatives sent me car brochures to help me prepare for my choice of car.
The Citation sounded like America’s answer to the SAAB: a front-wheel-drive car with a powerful engine, quirky interior and a hatchback design. A car magazine at that time ran a comparison test between the Citation, the SAAB 900 and one of the German sports sedans, and the Citation almost won. I pretty much walked onto a used car lot and bought a silver Citation with red vinyl seats.
What does this have to do with PCMH certification?
Well, I bought a Citation based on a checklist of features that on paper made it look comparable to a SAAB. Once I owned it, I noticed the cracks between the door panels, the uneven paint and the awkward positioning of the controls, some of which felt like they could break if I wasn’t careful.
Not long afterward, I found myself hitting the front bumper on the pavement in sharp turns; I heard the rear shock absorbers snoring on dirt roads; I watched the dashboard dry out and crack in the temperate Maine summer weather, and I realized with the first frost that my car did’t have a rear defroster, and it never seemed to warm up in the winter.
We’re all aware of the past criticisms of “disease management.” According to the critics, these for-profit vendors were in collusion with commercial insurers, relying robo-calls to blanket unsuspecting patients with dubious advice. Their claims of “outcomes” were based on flawed research that was never intended to be science; it was really intended to market their wares.
But suppose this correspondent alerted you to:
1. A company that had developed a patient registry to identify at-risk patients who had not received an evidence-based care recommendation? Software created mailings to those patients that not only informed them of the recommendation but offered them a toll-free number to call if there were questions. Patients who remained non-compliant were then called by coordinators, who made three attempts to contact the patient and assist in any scheduling needs. If necessary, a nurse was available to telephonically engage patients and develop alternative care options.
If you think that sounds like typical vendor-driven telephonic disease management, you’d be right. You’d also be describing an approach to care that was studied by Group Health Cooperative using their electronic record, medical assistants and nurses. When it was applied to colon cancer screening, a randomized study revealed each additional level of support progressively resulted in statistically significant screening rates.
In November 2008, the New England Journal of Medicine convened a small roundtable to discuss “Redesigning Primary Care.”
U.S. primary care is in crisis, the roundtable’s description reads. As a result … [the] ranks are thinning, with practicing physicians burning out and trainees shunning primary care fields.
Nearly five years out — and dozens of reforms and pilots later — the primary care system’s condition may still be acute. But policymakers, health care leaders and other innovators are more determined than ever: After decades where primary care’s problems were largely ignored, they’re not letting this crisis go to waste.
Ongoing Shortage Forcing Decisions
The NEJM roundtable summarized the primary care problem thusly: Too few primary care doctors are trying to care for too many patients, who have a rising number of chronic conditions, and receive relatively little compensation for their efforts.
It is as natural for doctors, hospitals, health plans and others to aggressively affirm their “patient-centeredness” as it is for politicians to loudly proclaim their fealty to the hard-working American middle class. Like the politicians, the health care professionals no doubt believe every word they say.
The most accurate measure of “patient-centered” care, however, lies not in intentions but implementation. Ask one simple question – what effect does this policy have on patients’ ability to control their own lives? – and you start to separate the revolutionary from the repackaged. “A reform is a correction of abuses,” the 19th-century British Parliament member Edward Bulwer-Lytton noted. “A revolution is a transfer of power.”
With that in mind, which purportedly patient-centric policy proposals portend a true power shift, and which are flying a false flag?
Falling Short Of Shifting Power
The two most prominent examples of initiatives whose names suggest power sharing but whose reality is quite different are so-called “consumer-driven health plans” (CDHP) and the “patient-centered medical home” (PCMH). Both may be worthy policies on their merits, but their names are public relations spin designed to put a more attractive public face on “defined contribution health insurance” and “increased primary-care reimbursement.
It’s not quite time to publish the obituary for by far the most extensive patient-centered medical home (PCMH) network in the country, Community Care of North Carolina (CCNC) but it’s certainly time to spellcheck it. The HMO-friendly GOP controls the statehouse, a blistering audit on Medicaid management has just been released (with plans for a CCNC-specific audit in the works), and the state’s most influential media outlet has ”vindicated” those who were excoriated for daring to question it, such as me, to name one random person who has frankly obsessed with it. (This might explain why I never get invited to parties.)
By way of background, the state’s Medicaid agency initiated what might loosely have been termed an enhanced-access model almost 15 years ago, and have subsequently expanded their experiment into a full-fledged patient-centered medical home, which currently covers many disabled members, the large majority of the non-disabled adults, and most of the children.
This wasn’t just any old medical home – it was the “poster child” for the PCMH movement, even making it onto NPR. Here is the influential and literate Disease Management Care Blog on the subject:
It’s impossible it seems to read anything about the Patient Centered Medical Home (PCMH) and not run into Community Care of North Carolina (CCNC) as the ‘The PCMH Saves Money’ poster child. No power point presentation on the topic is complete without its mention, no Meeting Agenda is full if it’s not there, if you’re going to testify on the PCMH’s benefits before Congress, you should bring it up , the Commonwealth Fund is working hard to replicate it and it’s even embedded in Medical Home Wikipedia.
Further, North Carolina and states that wanted to adopt this model were given an unprecedented 9-to-1 federal match, reflecting the Obama Administration’s admiration for its success.
The ongoing saga of savings estimates for the Community Care of North Carolina (CCNC) patient-centered medical home (PCMH) is finally over. The verdict: no savings. Because the scale and visibility of the CCNC experiment are unparalleled in the Medicaid sector today, it is important that the right policy and delivery system lessons be learned from this dispositive conclusion.
Lesson 1: Enhancements in access do not necessarily create cost reductions, at least in Medicaid.
CCNC is by all accounts an excellent program from the patient’s perspective. Indeed, if I were a Medicaid recipient, I would want to live in North Carolina. The leadership of CCNC is passionate about the program and constantly strives to improve it. However, as was amply observed by J.D. Kleinke on this very blog last week, Medicaid recipients have many lifestyle and economic issues that even the best-intentioned and best-incentivized doctors will never be able to systematically address.
Lesson 2: Perhaps it is time to create an ER co-pay for Medicaid recipients that has more than one digit to the left of the decimal point.
Even as ER co-pays for commercial insurers have soared in the last decade, Medicaid ER co-pays remain virtually non-existent. CCNC created excellent reasons to use primary care but was not permitted to re-price the ER to economically encourage use of primary care. Many Medicaid recipients overuse the ER in part because it is basically free. For the CCNC experiment to truly have a chance to reduce ER visits now that they have created a worthy substitute with their PCMH, it’s only fair to them (and to taxpayers) to reconfigure the financial incentives so that people use their worthy substitute … and then re-measure savings.