HHS Announcement Signals Start of ACO Services Race

MAR 31

With the proposed rule from the HHS and CMS finally released today for public comment, reactions and analysis will grow in the coming days on what it all means for healthcare providers.  We thought it made sense to offer some perspective on how we’re viewing the evolving opportunities for innovators, their investors, and their partners.

While integrated delivery networks (IDNs) and other large provider groups will have plenty to sort through to determine the tradeoffs of seeking accountable care organization (ACO) status, a number of researchers are already digging into the thorny issues surrounding ACOs to help develop standards, best practices, and collaboration between different models that are likely to spring up in the wake of health reform.  See this and this as examples.

What is most interesting to us so far is the jockeying of HIT vendors to reposition themselves as experts to the developing ACO marketplace.  While there are a number of ways to think about this – and our thinking is evolving pretty much daily – we see a few targeted areas where vendors are going to play.  None will be able to offer anything close to the end-to-end ACO functionality that several claim in their marketing materials.

Our view on the rapidly developing market for ACO services follows:

  • Creating the ACO:  Provider groups will require help sorting through those 1,000 pages of regulations, and we are already seeing opportunities for large, healthcare-focused consulting and implementation firms that have the ear of the hospital CEO to help steer the design and creation of these modelsCompanies like Accenture, IBM, Deloitte, Dell/Perot and the Advisory Board are being asked questions every day by their clients about ACOs – and at least one have already started to work on their own solution.  Partnerships with these consulting firms will aid adoption for vendors downstream in the areas below

 

  • Enabling the ACO:  The clinical integration of the ACO is the area of hottest focus right now – transactions in this space clearly demonstrate this.  HIE and interoperability vendors Axolotl, Medicity, and CareFX have all traded in the past 12 months.   Payers like UnitedHealth and Aetna have placed their bets on HIEs as the backbone on which clinical data will be integrated.  For provider networks looking to challenge this paradigm, the recent wave of physician practice acquisitions by hospitals and/or the subsidization of a single EMR system in an area (Minneapolis is largely an Epic market, for example) indicate that there may be another approach to achieve clinical integration.

 

  • Optimizing the ACO:  Once an ACO is established, the network of providers will need plenty of technological capability:  decision support and evidentiary guidelines, contracting and risk tools, compliance reporting, and performance benchmarking analysis among them.  Many companies already providing these services to health insurers are sprinting to reposition themselves as experts for the provider community as well – visit the home page of any formerly payer-focused software vendor as proof.  Market interest in companies participating in this space is heating up.

 

  • Marketing the ACO and Engaging with the Patient:  In our view, this is an overlooked area so far and will eventually be key to closing the loop on the ACO return on investment.  Vendors that will compete in this space are currently offering a range of services that can help do this, from health and wellness to member enrollment activities.  Once provider groups are operating as “mini-payers,” keeping patients healthy outside the facility walls while also keeping them happy with the level of engagement they experience with their physicians will extremely important.

 

Our research agenda and strategic advisory work have the ACO services space top of mind right now and our thinking is evolving constantly.  We’d love to know what you think.

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Conor Green