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Pioneer ACO’s Disappointing First Year

On July 16, the CMS Innovation Center reported the first-year results for the Pioneer Accountable Care Organization program:  13 Pioneers, or about 40 percent of the participants, earned bonuses. The program saved Medicare a gross $87.6 million before bonus distributions, cutting the rate of growth in Medicare spending by 0.5 percent, from 0.8 percent to 0.3 percent annually.

However, nine of the 32 members dropped out and press reports hinted at a contentious relationship between the Pioneers and a well meaning but green and overtaxed CMS staff.  It was not an auspicious beginning for a program whose advocates believed would eventually replace regular Medicare’s present payment model. There immediately followed a blizzard of spin control from ACO “movement” advocates stressing the need for patience and highlighting first year achievements.

What was irritating about the Pioneer spin is it treated the ACO as if it were a brand new idea with growing pains. This studiously ignores a burned out Conestoga wagon pushed to the side of the trail: the Physician Group Practice demonstration CMS conducted from 2005-2010. The PGP demo tested essentially the same idea — provider bonuses for meeting spending reduction and quality improvement targets for attributed Medicare patients.  The pattern of arrow holes and burn marks on the PGP wagon closely resemble those from the Pioneer’s first year, strongly suggesting more troubles ahead for the hardy, surviving Pioneers.

The PGP Precedent. Like the Pioneers, PGP participants were not ordinary community hospitals or freshly formed physician groups or IPA’s.  Rather, most were “high functioning” organized clinical enterprises, some with decades of global risk contracting or health plan operating experience.  Particularly in light of the degree of clinical integration and care management experience of its participants, the PGP results were extremely disappointing; only two of the ten participants were able to generate bonuses in each of the program’s five years, and one, Marshfield Clinic, earned half the total bonuses.  Managed care veterans like Geisinger Clinic and Park Nicollet earned bonuses in only three of their ten program years. Two other high-quality multi-specialty clinics had even rougher sledding, with Everett Clinic getting one year of bonus ($126,000) and Billings Clinic completely shut out.

The pattern in the first Pioneer year is remarkably similar.   While thirteen of the Pioneers earned bonuses, it appears from press reports that four of them generated 2/3 of the savings.   It is likely not coincidental that three of those four participants (Massachusetts General, Beth Israel Deaconess’ physician organization, and New York’s Montefiore) either run or practice at some of the most expensive hospitals in the country, in two of the country’s highest per capita Medicare spending markets.  Orchards full of low hanging fruit (e.g. very high levels of previously unexamined Medicare spending) appear to be an essential precondition of ACO success.

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