Posts Tagged ‘Geisinger Health System’

ACO Rules Revised to Attract Providers

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

The Obama administration has issued revised regulations to encourage doctors, clinics and hospitals to take greater responsibility for improving patients’ care.  The rules will reward healthcare providers who enter into partnerships to cut the cost of caring for Americans while also boosting quality — two goals of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).  Known as Accountable Care Organizations, or ACOs, these partnerships have been promoted by many experts as the most promising remedy for the high costs that typify the American healthcare system.

Supporters believe that ACOs could save taxpayers billions of dollars by better coordinating patient care and replacing the current fragmented system in which patients bounce between doctors and hospitals with minimal communication between providers.  “ACOs can represent a very big step forward in helping to transform Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Programs so they can help assure high quality, seamless and less costly healthcare,” said Dr. Donald Berwick, who runs the Medicare and Medicaid programs and helped to write the new rules.

“We have made changes in response to what we heard,” Berwick said. “I think they make the program more attractive.”  During the early days, between 50 and 270 ACOs may enroll in the program and save the Medicare program as much as $950 million over four years, according to independent estimates.

Among the changes are increased flexibility in eligibility to participate in the Shared Savings Program; a choice of start dates in 2012; a longer agreement period for those starting in 2012; more flexibility in the governance and legal structure; more streamlined quality performance standards; changes to the financial model to enhance financial incentives to participate; increased sharing caps; no downside risk and first-dollar sharing in Track 1; removal of the 25 percent withholding of shared savings; increased flexibility in timing for the evaluation of sharing savings (claims run-out reduced to three months); more flexibility in antitrust review; enhanced flexibility in timing for repayment of losses; and more options for participation of Federally Qualified Health Centers and Rural Health Clinics.

ACOs are a key provision in the ACA to decelerate rising health costs while delivering high-quality care to Medicare patients.  They are designed to change the incentives that influence how doctors and hospitals operate.  Today, most hospitals and doctors get paid more by delivering more, not necessarily better, care.  ACOs will reward healthcare providers for keeping costs down and meeting certain quality measures, including cutting hospital readmissions or emergency room visits.  ACO’s goal is to replicate the highly respected models of care at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, and the Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania where hospitals and doctors coordinate their efforts within the same organization.

George Roman, senior director of health policy at the American Medical Group Association, which represents approximately 400 large provider organizations, described the changes as “music to my ears.  We asked for almost all of these things.”

“We are very pleased at the number of significant changes in rules.  They have made the program look more attractive,” said Linda Fishman, senior vice president of the American Hospital Association.  “But it remains to be seen how many hospitals will find these changes to be motivation enough to enter the program.”

The 696-page document includes more generous shared savings incentives, leaves out 32 of the 65 original quality measures, and gives potential ACO participants extra time to formulate their plans.  One vital change is that the rule no longer mandates that 50 percent of participating physicians be approved under meaningful use requirements for electronic health record use. The revisions provide more opportunities for new ACOs to participate without absorbing risk in the earlier years, as well as major changes in at least 10 other critical areas.  Thanks to the revisions, many in the healthcare industry think more providers will be encouraged to sign up.

Writing in the Washington Post, Sarah Kliff notes that “It’s a big moment in health policy wonk land right now: the Obama administration has just published the final Accountable Care Organization rule.  Sound dull?  Let’s rephrase: The Obama administration has just released a regulation that could decide whether the American healthcare system moves past the broken, expensive fee-for-service model.  The idea is to encourage groups of providers to band together into ‘accountable care organizations’ and accept a flat fee for all care related to a particular patient or condition.  If they could deliver high-quality care in a cost-effective way, they could keep the money they saved.  The hope is to do nothing less than change the basic business model of American medicine from making money by getting patients to spend more money to making money by saving patients money.  There.  That’s better.  This is not the administration’s first crack at encouraging ACOs.  A proposed rule in April, which detailed the requirements to become an ACO, was greeted with howls of protest by the provider community.  In hundreds of comment letters, hospital and doctor groups blasted the program as unattractive, with too much risk and not enough reward.  The American Medical Group Association warned CMS that virtually none of its members would participate.  The group called the rule ‘overly prescriptive, operationally burdensome, and the incentives are too difficult to achieve to make this voluntary program attractive.’

“There are two things that really irked healthcare systems here. First, if an ACO ended up spending more money than the target set by Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), it would have to pay back some funds. Second, any ACO would have to show savings above two percent before they could reap any of the financial rewards.  The rule eliminates both of those barriers to entry.  It creates an ACO track with no ‘downside risk.’  The two percent gap gets cut, too: under the final rule, ACOs share in any savings from the very first penny.  CMS made a lot of other adjustments too that make the program easier to participate in, like lowering the quality reporting requirements and eliminating requirements that ACOs show significant use of electronic medical records.  As one CMS official put it this morning, the agency wanted to ‘smooth the on-ramp’ into the program.”

Senators Question CMS Rules for ACOs

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Some Senators want the rules for Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) rewritten to increase their acceptance by providers. “An ACO model that can increase provider coordination and patient accountability would be a step in the right direction compared to today’s fragmented delivery system,” wrote the senators, led by Mike Enzi (R-WY) to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Dr. Donald Berwick. “However, it is increasingly clear that this proposed rule misses the target.”

According to the Senators, the ACO rules have misaligned incentives and accountability, as well as an unclear return on investment for physicians and other providers. The Senators highlighted healthcare providers who have raised concerns about the ACO rules, including the American Hospital Association, which released a study that estimated six to 14 times higher start-up costs for the new entities than estimated by CMS.

The AHA study determined that the costs of elements to successfully manage the care of a defined population is considerably higher – $11.6 to $26.1 million – than the $1.8 million estimated by CMS in its proposed rule for start-up and one year of operations. “CMS’ estimate falls short of the mark,” said Rich Umbdenstock, president and CEO of the AHA. “The shared savings rate with ACOs should be adjusted to reflect these costs in order to encourage and enable participation in this important program.” Specific areas of concern include network development and management , care coordination, quality improvement and utilization management ; clinical information systems; and data analytics.

In addition to Enzi, the letter was signed by Tom Coburn (R-OK); Jon Kyl R-AZ); Mike Crapo (R-ID); John Cornyn (R-TX); Pat Roberts (R-KS); and Richard Burr (R-NC).  According to Coburn, who is also a physician, “The letter I signed today echoes the reservations of health professionals who have expressed deep concerns about the well-intended, but ultimately unworkable, ACO regulations recently proposed by the administration. It is certainly my hope that the administration will not misread this letter as partisan, but will work to address the underlying problems of misaligned incentives and regulatory uncertainty that have elicited such concern by a range of health care institutions and providers. If the administration withdraws the regulation, they will find strong bipartisan support among Congress and stakeholders to craft a proposal that encourages broad participation in innovative models to achieve lower costs and better care.”

Berwick and CMS officials believe that organizations that participated in demonstration projects will back the rules because the results showed that Medicare saved more than $38 million in the years of the pilot program; the medical groups that participated got performance payments from the feds totaling more than $31 million. Among the participants are some of the nation’s most prestigious medical systems, including The Mayo Clinic, The Cleveland Clinic and the Geisinger Health System in western Pennsylvania.

Part of the problem, according to The Hill, is that budgetary concerns were the elephant in the room when the Obama administration wrote the proposed ACO rule. This resulted in regulations requiring stringent quality improvements that offered no upfront funding for hospitals to change their procedures. According to regulators, the proposed regulation is open for public comment and can be fine-tuned. CMS recently unveiled new tools to help hospitals start care coordination efforts, for example, by giving them the money they’re supposed to save Medicare through more efficient patient care.

According to the letter, “We have been struck by the increasingly diverse chorus of concerns many of our nation’s leading health care institutions have raised in recent days. The concerns…from some of our nation’s most knowledgeable and innovative health care providers are clear. Incentives and accountability are misaligned. Detailed requirements are complex and return on investment is uncertain.”

Although the Senators complimented the work put into the ACO rules draft, the letter said that feedback received from providers around the country brought the Senators to the conclusion that the proposed ACO regulation will not fulfill its purpose.

Another perspective is offered by Robert Tennant, a managing associate with Health Directions, who says that “I’d like to offer another point of view. Certainly, for most healthcare organizations, transitioning to an ACO will create short-term expense and disruption. At Health Directions, we are finding that healthcare organizations are not dismissing ACOs outright, but they are first asking: What do we stand to gain? In some cases the answer may be either not clear or not favorable. Regardless, there is a potential upside if the focus remains on increasing quality and efficiency of care delivery. As we weigh the future of ACOs, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The point of discussion needs to shift from whether or not to become a formally organized ACO down the road toward a more focused evaluation of which ACO-type elements are worth adopting now. A commitment to achieving meaningful use with an electronic health record (EHR) is a step in that direction, as is participating in a quality-driven pay for performance program. Both have short-term, well-defined financial rewards attached to them and both will likely increase quality of care. The key is for healthcare organizations to remain focused on the underlying thought behind ACOs — improving care and reducing costs. And that really is worth getting excited about.”