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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Are ACO's DOA?

A lot of people have been staking the future of health care on the idea of Accountable Care Organizations (ACO's). President Obama thinks they will reduce health care costs, providers have been reorganizing to take advantage of the opportunity, and bloggers have praised them. Even the event planning industry loves them as it has spawned a whole new line of conference opportunities.

To those who have not been following the ACO's like fantasy league baseball owners follow spring training, an ACO is an old idea that aligns the financial incentives of providers and payers. It provides a global budget for managing the care for Medicare beneficiaries. This rewards providers for efficient health care or keeping patients healthy rather than lots of invasive procedures. Medicare projects that it will save $510 million over a 2 year period. However, the release of the proposed ACO rules by Center for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) at the end of the March had the same effect on the party as urine in the punch bowl. Or as my blog title foreshadows, it's like Weekend at Bernie's 2 where providers realize that participating in an ACO is like partying with a dead guy. It's a lot of work, not a lot of fun, and starts to smell after a while. In summary:

Lots of work: To participate in an ACO, providers will need more reporting, IT systems, have to develop some insurance functions, and build up the infrastructure to better track patients health. This is not unexpected and was part of the ROI analysis. What pushes the amount of work over the edge is the governance requirement. There must be a separate Board of Directors that runs the ACO that includes patient representation. This is a common aspect of Federally Qualified Health Centers and also the most challenging requirement to meet. Creating a separate governance board with complete control removes a lot of control from the providers who are launching a new venture. It's not easy to give up control of something that requires this much investment.

Not a lot of fun: The fun in ACO's was the opportunity to get paid more treating Medicare beneficiaries through shared savings compared to a benchmark. However, CMS took away the fun or opportunity to make more money by doing the following:
  • The benchmark or cost target that providers have to beat to make additional money is the current Medicare benchmark for the geographic area. For providers in the Northwest where benchmarks are very low because they are historically low cost areas, that means limited opportunity. For providers in Texas and Florida, where the benchmarks are very high because these are expensive areas, there is opportunity. However, these providers get paid enough by Medicare already so there is not the incentive. In other words, providers that are well-organized and poised to form an ACO have little room to get additional money. The wide variation in geographic payment for Medicare has been a continual problem and removes a lot of incentive from the ACO.
  • CMS also keeps the first 2% of any savings. Therefore, providers have to lower costs by greater than 2% in order to get additional payment. Or yet another barrier to participation. That's like having to watch Weekend at Bernie's 2 before you get to watch the first one or just turn off the TV.
Smelling like a corpse: Given the current structure, there is a risk that no provider group will apply to the ACO's. The current rules went over like a fart in a spacesuit to the 10 provider groups that participated in the original Physician Group Practice demo. If those provider groups who are the most likely to be successful aka make additional money in this model don't participate, who will? This would be a large blow to the Obama administration's vision of designing a more efficient health care system.

Hope or Yes we Can:
It's too easy to write a critical blog post about how a new idea in health care might not work. Any blogger who writes such a critical post should either balance it out with a solution or some really good colonoscopy or animal husbandry jokes. Since I don't have any new jokes, I'll pick the solution option.

Despite the fact that CMS has made participation in an ACO as appealing as a colonoscopy, this model represents the best solution to the US health care system. The fee for service model has proven to be unsustainable. Others besides CMS, like large employers or unions will start to demand this type of model from insurance companies and provider groups. While the revenue opportunities in an ACO are not good, there are not any better revenue opportunities elsewhere. Provider groups can no longer compare opportunities to today's payment but should compare it to the future payment opportunities. Provider groups who can organize under an ACO structure and lower health care costs will be more viable in the future. Those who cannot and expect to continue to be paid at today's levels will become just like the main character/corpse in Weekend at Bernie's.

Provider groups best option is still the ACO model. If CMS can't develop a good structure, that presents the opportunity for the health care industry to develop its own.

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