Study Tracks Development of ACOs

Accountable care organizations (ACOs) are the biggest thing in healthcare today, and a new study by Leavitt Partners quantifies exactly how hot they are.  ACOs, as defined in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), are a delivery model that offers doctors and hospitals financial incentives to provide quality care to Medicare patients and keep costs affordable.

Even though ACOs are not yet operating, there are already 164 “ACO entities” in the country, according to a report by Leavitt Partners, a consulting firm led by Mike Leavitt, a former governor of Utah and Secretary of Health and Human Services during President George W. Bush’s administration.  In his survey of ACOs, Leavitt examined news releases, media reports, trade groups and conducted interviews and concluded that a health system is an ACO if it either self-identified as one or was “adopting the tenets of accountable care.”  The study included systems that work with private payers rather than Medicare.

Of the 164 “ACO entities” identified, 99 are sponsored by hospital systems, 38 by physician groups and 27 by insurers.  They are in 41 states, although there were vast regional discrepancies.  Poor, rural regions reported minimal ACO growth.

“A quiet scramble is clearly underway,” Andrew Croshaw, managing director at Leavitt Partners and director of the Leavitt Partners Center for ACO Intelligence, said.  “In certain markets, competition to establish leadership is already emerging.”

Due to the rush to complete the study, ACOs may be prolific in certain areas while sparse in some regions of the country.  Even though ACOs are still a new concept, certain states are already home to significant accountable care activity, primarily in Texas, California, and Michigan.  In general, states with larger populations have more ACOs.  “Adoption of this model will vary greatly due to both regional differences as well as variations among the sponsoring entities,” the report states.

Of the 164 ACOs that researchers examined, nearly 60 percent were established by hospitals or health systems, indicating a trend toward hospital systems leading the development of ACOs.  Leavitt Partners examined the trends of “ACO or ACO-like organizations,” meaning the report loosely defined an ACO as an entity that is “financially accountable for the healthcare needs of a population, manages the care of that population and bear that responsibility at an organizational level.”

The success of the various ACOs is still not known. According to the report, although there are different models of providing accountable care, the most successful approaches at achieving an ACO’s goals is still undecided.  “With neither a set definition, nor a national method for identifying ACOs, it is difficult to precisely identify and study such organizations,” according to the report.  “It is possible that some of the organizations, which should be considered ACOs, are missing from our study and some, such as organizations that self-identify as ACOs but will never ultimately adopt any type of care coordination or bear any risk for a population, may not belong.”

The final ACO rule provides more flexibility for eligible providers and increases the amount of possible bonuses.  The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which released the rule in October, also decreased the number of quality measures from 65 in five domains to 33 in four domains.  Although the full implications of the rule are not yet known, providers’ responses reflected their desire for long-term care to actively participate.  ”We certainly want to ensure skilled nursing and post-acute facilities are part of the cost-saving model,” according to the American Health Care Association President and CEO Mark Parkinson.

There are some who are not quite so bullish about ACOs. One is J. Thomas Rosch, commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission, who is deeply skeptical about ACOs.  According to Rosch, “even in the most optimistic scenario, the savings to Medicare from the ACO program are no more than a rounding error.”  He also believes that there is a possibility that providers may form ACOs not to collaborate or improve healthcare, but to gain market share.

“Against the very meager prospects for cost savings, there is a very real risk that some ACOs will be formed with an eye toward creating or exercising market power.  The net result of the Shared Savings Program may therefore be higher costs and lower quality healthcare — precisely the opposite of its goal,” Rosch said.

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