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…
A number of pundits are citing the systemic failure of ACOs, after additional Pioneer ACOs announced withdrawal from the program – Where do you weigh in on the prognosis for Medicare and Commercial ACOs over the next several years?”
Peter R. Kongstvedt
Whoever thought that by themselves, ACOs would successfully address the problem(s) of [cost] [care coordination] [outcomes] [scurvy] [Sonny Crockett’s mullet in Miami Vice Season 4]? The entire history of managed health care is a long parade of innovations that were going to be “the answer” to at least the first four choices above (Vitamin C can cure #5 but sadly there is no cure for #6). Highly praised by pundits who jump in front of the parade and declare themselves to be leaders, each ends up having a place, but only a place, in addressing our problematic health system.
The reasons that each new innovative “fix” end up helping a little but not occupying the center vary, but the one thing they all have in common is that the new thing must still compete with the old thing, and the old thing is there because we want it there, or at least some of us do. The old thing in the case of ACOs is the existing payment system in Medicare and by extension, our healthcare system overall because for all the organizational requirements, ACOs are a payment methodology.
When Barack Obama was merely a senator running for the White House, he told one physician association, “I support the concept of a patient-centered medical home” and would encourage the model if he ever became president.
Six years later: Mission accomplished.
Nearly 7,000 primary care practices have officially been accredited as PCMHs, and thousands of other providers have adopted some features of medical homes, which use a team-based approach to coordinated care. And while the movement toward medical homes might have evolved without Obama, his health reforms clearly laid the groundwork for rapid adoption.
The only problem? There’s still no clear evidence that the model even works.
“There are folks who believe the medical home is a proven intervention that doesn’t even need to be tested or refined,” lead study author Mark Friedberg told the Wall Street Journal‘s Melinda Beck. “Our findings will hopefully change those views.”
An accompanying editorial also sounded caution. “It is time to replace enthusiasm and promotion with scientific rigor and prudence,” Thomas Schwenk wrote, “and to better understand what the PCMH is and is not.”