ACOs: Good News for Skeptics

FEB 14

As TripleTree continues to cover the rapidly evolving opportunities associated with health reform, I have remained an optimist about the potential for the many health reform experiments included in the healthcare reform bill to create meaningful healthcare savings in the long term.   In particular, I have been hopeful about the various shared savings programs to meaningfully impact cost and quality in the healthcare system, and momentum has continued to build, with CMS naming 32 organizations to the Pioneer ACO program in December.

This is what makes the recent news from CBO disheartening.  Last month, they released an analysis showing that ten different demonstration programs – six disease management and four value-based payment approaches – have usually not had any meaningful impact on reducing Medicare spending.    One of these value-based demonstrations “allowed large multispecialty physician groups to share in estimated savings if they reduced total Medicare spending for their patients.”

Sound familiar?  Troublingly, this program had little to no effect on Medicare expenditures.  (The only program of the four that did have an effect on costs used bundled payments for heart bypass surgeries.)

Adding to the bad news, Leavitt Partners released a study late last year showing that of the 164 accountable care organizations (ACOs) they have identified (note that the Leavitt definition of ACO overlaps with – but doesn’t perfectly align with – the CMS definition), were somewhat evenly distributed across 41 of 50 states.  However, these same 164 were found in just 144 of the 306 hospital referring regions (HRRs) – a benchmark of regional health care markets where patients are referred for care.   While a number of these HRRs had three or more ACOs, large swaths of the country had yet to see even one yet suggesting that perhaps ACOs are springing up largely to compete with each other, rather than focusing on finding geographic areas where a new care delivery model could meaningfully reduce costs.  This is one of the issues that skeptics of the model are concerned about, as my colleague highlighted recently.

In any case, critics of the healthcare reform have certainly gotten some new ammunition in the past few weeks – we’ll be keeping an eye out for some good news to highlight in a future post.   As before, I still remain optimistic about the change in mentality that CMS’s ACO program seems to have brought in how payers and providers are rethinking the traditional and rigid zero sum game of treatment and reimbursement, allowing new ways for commercial payers and care delivery organizations to partner to deliver quality care.

Let us know what you think.

Conor Green
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