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BREAKING: CMS Finalizes Overhaul of Medicare ACO Program, Accelerating the Move to Two-Sided Risk

December 21, 2018
by Heather Landi, Associate Editor
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While some praised modifications CMS made to the final rule, others voiced concerns that changes to the program will negatively impact ACO growth
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The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) on Friday morning published a final rule that makes sweeping changes to the Medicare Shared Savings (MSSP) Accountable Care Organization (ACO) program, with the goal to push Medicare ACOs more quickly into two-sided risk models.

Referred to as “Pathways to Success,” the Trump Administration’s overhaul of Medicare’s ACO program will redesign the program’s participation options by removing the traditional three tracks in the MSSP model and replacing them with two tracks that eligible ACOs would enter into for an agreement period of no less than five years: the BASIC track, which would allow eligible ACOs to begin under a one-sided model and incrementally phase in higher levels of risk; and the ENHANCED track, which is based on the program’s existing Track 3, providing additional tools and flexibility for ACOs that take on the highest level of risk and potential rewards. At the highest level, BASIC ACOs would qualify as an Advanced Alternative Payment Model (APM) under the Quality Payment Program. The 957-page final rule can be read here.

Currently, the MSSP model includes three tracks and is structured to allow ACOs to gain experience with the program before transitioning to performance-based risk. The vast majority of Shared Savings Program ACOs have chosen to enter and maximize the allowed time under Track 1, which is an “upside-only” risk model. MSSP Tracks 2 and 3 involve downside risk, but participation in these tracks has been limited thus far.

When ACOs are in a one-sided risk model, they do not share losses with the government when they overspend past their benchmarks, but they do share in the gains. As such, in these one-sided risk models, CMS is on the hook for any losses all on its own.

“Most Medicare ACOs currently do not face financial consequences when costs increase, but” Pathways to Success” will change this,” CMS stated in a fact sheet about the final rule. “Having more Accountable Care Organizations take on real risk, while offering them the incentives and flexibility they need to coordinate care and innovate, is an important step forward in how Medicare pays for value. Data on ACO performance shows that over time ACOs taking accountability for costs perform better than those that do not. As a result of today’s changes, the projected savings to Medicare total $2.9 billion over ten years.”

According to CMS, to ensure the ACO program delivers the most value, “Pathways to Success” is designed to advance five goals: Accountability, Competition, Engagement, Integrity, and Quality. 

A key element of CMS’s redesign of the Medicare ACO program is a reduction in the amount of time that an ACO can remain in a one-sided risk model. Under this final rule, CMS is decreasing the allowed period of time that an ACO can remain in a one-sided risk model from six years to, at most, three years for new “low-revenue” or physician-led ACOs, two years for all other new ACOs, and one year for existing one-sided ACOs.

This final rule includes two big changes as compared to what CMS initially recommended in the proposed rule, which was published back in August: While most ACOs will only be permitted to participate in a one-sided risk model for two years, CMS is providing some flexibility by allowing new, “low revenue” ACOs that are not identified by CMS as re-entering ACOs up to three years under a one-sided model; CMS also finalized a higher initial shared savings rate of 40 percent for one-sided risk ACOs, after initially proposing to cut potential shared savings in half—from 50 percent to 25 percent for one-sided risk ACOs. The maximum shared savings rate for two-sided risk ACOs will remain at 50 percent under this final rule.

Overall, there are 561 MSSP ACOs out of 649 total Medicare ACOs, with 82 percent of those 561 MSSP ACOs taking on upside risk only.

Key Changes for Upside-Only ACOs

The MSSP program launched in 2012 and currently over 10.4 million beneficiaries in fee-for-service Medicare, of the 38 million total fee-for-service beneficiaries, receive care from providers participating in a Medicare ACO, according to CMS.

In a blog post published Friday, CMS Administrator Seema Verma wrote that the redesign of the MSSP ACO program is part of the Trump Administration’s focus on accelerating a “value-based transformation” of the U.S. healthcare system. The American healthcare system is on an “unsustainable trajectory,” Verma wrote, with one in five dollars spent in the U.S. economy projected to be spent on healthcare by 2026. “Therefore, it is incumbent on our agency to not just pay for healthcare services as they are billed but rather to ensure that patients are getting value for the care that is provided. To this end, we are developing and testing new payment models to transform our payment system, and today’s changes to Medicare’s ACO program are a critical component of that transformation,” Verma wrote.

Verma noted that in the six years that the Medicare ACO program has been in operation, CMS has gleaned key insights about what works and what doesn’t within the program.

“Most Medicare ACOs do not currently face financial consequences when costs increase, but a review of the data on ACO performance shows that overtime those ACOs that take accountability for costs perform better than those that do not,” Verma wrote. “The final policy is responsive to feedback about the need for incentives to bring healthcare providers into the ACO program, while ensuring the transition to value protects taxpayers and includes patients.”

Verma previously has criticized upside-only ACOs, remarking that they have not generated enough results to date. On a press call back in August when CMS released the proposed ACO rule, Verma said, “[Upside-only] ACOs have no incentive, at all, to reduce healthcare costs while improving outcomes, as they were intended. Thus, the program has not lived up to the accountability part of their name.”

However, in the final rule CMS is providing an option for new, low revenue ACOs not identified as re-entering ACOs, and therefore inexperienced with performance-based risk Medicare ACO initiatives, to participate for up to 3 years (or 3.5 years in the case of ACOs entering an agreement period beginning on July 1, 2019) under a one-sided model of the BASIC track’s glide path before transitioning to Level E (the highest level of risk and potential reward under the BASIC track), according to a CMS fact sheet.

“Under this participation option, the ACO would enter the glide path at Level A and automatically advance to Level B. Prior to the automatic advancement of the ACO to Level C, an eligible ACO may elect to remain in Level B for another performance year, and then be automatically advanced to Level E for the remaining two years of its agreement period,” CMS stated. CMS said this new option was developed based on commenters’ suggestions.

In her blog post, Verma wrote, “Smaller, physician-led or ‘low revenue’ ACOs – many of which are in rural areas – have shown greater success in controlling costs than hospital-led ACOs, which is an example of why CMS is focused on promoting competition in healthcare marketplaces and ensuring that patients have choices of where to obtain care. We have heard that establishing a physician-led ACO can provide practices with a means of remaining independent from consolidated hospital systems. Today’s rule bolsters the option for physicians to form ACOs while ensuring that all ACOs are generating savings for patients and taxpayers,” Verma wrote.

The change was welcome news to some industry stakeholders.

 

On Friday morning, in response to the final rule, Travis Broome, vice president of policy at Aledade, a Bethesda, Md.-based company focused on physician-led ACO development, tweeted, “One more change to Basic. Low-revenue ACOs will be able to stay in 1-sided risk for 3 years. Difference [between] 2 & 3 years is big. The decision to take risk is made summer before the year starts. So 2 years of 1-sided risk meant making the risk decision before year 1 results even came in.”

However, in a statement responding to the final rule, Clif Gaus, president and CEO of the National Association of ACOs (NAACOS), an association comprised of more than 360 ACOs, expressed concern that CMS retained the two-year limit for other ACOs. “Becoming a well-functioning ACO takes time and requires building of IT infrastructure, hiring care coordinators, changing the culture of providers, among other tasks. Under CMS’s proposed rule, many ACOs would have just a single year of performance data available to them before evaluating the required move to risk in their third year of the program,” Gaus stated.

Broome also praised CMS for finalizing a “much-needed” higher initial shared savings rate of 40 percent, up from the proposed 25 percent. “This was the most critical thing for new ACO growth,” he wrote.

He also tweeted, “The increase from 25 to 40 was critical from an ROI perspective and increasing to 50 for taking risk provides the required return on risk.”

Farzad Mostashari, M.D., co-founder and CEO of Aledade, responded with the following statement: “While we are still digging into the details of the final rule, we are happy that the uncertainty facing Medicare Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) has been resolved, and we can now move ahead confidently. As the new ACO program year begins, we look forward to helping independent physicians across the country successfully deliver high-quality, value-based care to their patients.”

CMS’ proposal to cut potential shared savings in half, from 50 percent to 25 percent for one-sided risk ACOs, drew a lot of criticism from industry groups and stakeholders. Back in September, several industry groups, including NAACOS, the American Medical Association (AMA), Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) and Premier, sent a letter to CMS urging the agency to apply a shared savings rate of at least the current 50 percent to ensure a viable business model. Many stakeholders also asserted that the proposal to cut potential shared savings in half will certainly deter new entrants to the MSSP ACO program.

A survey of NAACOS members after the proposed rule was released found reduced shared-savings rates for no- and low-risk ACOs was the most troubling aspect of CMS’s proposed changes. A 2016 NAACOS survey found that ACOs invested an average of $1.6 million into operational costs, according to Gaus’ statement.

It appears CMS responded to industry feedback and modified the policies regarding shared savings rates. “In response to commenters’ suggestions, the policies we are finalizing include modifications to our proposal in order to allow all ACOs participating in the BASIC track’s glide path the opportunity for greater potential reward through relatively higher shared savings rates based on quality performance: up to 40 percent for one-sided models and up to 50 percent for all two-sided models,” CMS said in its fact sheet about the final rule.

According to Verma, in her blog post, these modifications “strengthen the on-ramp to the program while rewarding ACOs that take on greater risk with higher shared savings rates.”

“We strongly support CMS’s decision not to reduce shared savings rates to as low as 25 percent. CMS’ final rule sets the savings rates at either 40 or 50 percent, and we look forward to working with CMS to monitor any impact that this decreased rate may have for new ACOs wanting to join the program,” Gaus said.

In an interview with Healthcare Informatics Managing Editor Rajiv Leventhal earlier this month, Gaus indicated that any reduction from the 50 percent shared savings rate would have a negative impact on the growth of ACOs.

The reduction in potential shared savings, as currently proposed, is a “total deal breaker,” Gaus said in that interview, while also indicating that there is no wiggle room for a number between 25 and 50 percent. “If they don’t go back to 50 percent, we will see a long-term significant shrinkage in the ACO movement and a significant emanation of accountable care,” Gaus said in that earlier interview.

In CMS’ proposed rule, the agency internally estimated that more than 100 ACOs would drop out of the program over the next 10 years. The federal agency has taken a firm stance that upside risk-only ACOs have not been effective. A such, CMS seems to be fine with these ACOs leaving the MSSP— by far the largest federal ACO model, with 561 participants—if they are unwilling to take on more risk.

Other Specifics of the Final Rule

While ACO contracts normally renew at the start of the year in January, CMS is giving ACOs whose contracts expire this December a one-time-only six-month extension, until July 2019, so they can apply for a new agreement beginning on July 1, 2019, if they so choose. Moving forward, CMS would resume the usual annual application cycle for the performance year starting on January 1, 2020 and subsequent years.

CMS also finalized revisions to the program’s benchmarking methodology, which incorporates differing amounts of ACO historical experience and regional performance depending on the ACO’s agreement period. The redesign of the program will provide for more accurate benchmarks for ACOs, CMS stated.

Under the final rule, ACOs are required to provide beneficiaries in an ACO with a written notice in person or electronically through email or a patient portal that they are participating in an ACO and what participating in an ACO means for their care.

The final rule also increases flexibility for certain performance-based risk ACOs to encourage innovation and expand access to high-quality services that are convenient for patients, including telehealth services provided at a patient’s place of residence. CMS also is allowing risk-based ACOs to offer new incentive payments to beneficiaries for taking steps to achieve good health such as obtaining primary care services and necessary follow-up care.

 

 


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When Will Federal Healthcare Officials Liberate CMMI to Create Appealing Innovation?

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At a moment when the MSSP Program is particularly vulnerable, are officials at HHS and CMS preparing new offerings through CMMI that will appeal to provider leaders?

“What might be in the works over at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI)? Are there new pilot models actively in development that will be rolled out this year? Many industry stakeholders, including federal lawmakers, are eager to know what the relatively opaque agency has in store,” Associate Editor Heather Landi wrote here in an article on January 11.

“Created under the Obama administration, CMMI is charged with piloting, testing and evaluating alternative payment models (APMs)—such as bundled payment models, for example—with the intent of increasing quality and efficiency, while reducing program expenditures under Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP),” she noted. “However, CMMI has been notably quiet in the first two years of the Trump Administration with regards to new payment models. Last January, CMS did launch a new voluntary bundled payment model, Bundled Payments for Care Improvement Advanced, the Administration’s first Advanced APM.”

Landi added that, “In several speeches to industry groups this past fall, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar has indicated that the Trump Administration is exploring new voluntary bundled payments, and even revisiting mandatory bundled payments, which represents a strong about-face in the Trump Administration’s policy about bundled payment initiatives. Azar has even hinted that CMMI will get more involved in addressing social needs, such as food insecurity and housing.”

Indeed, in a September 6 speech to a meeting of the Physician-Focused Payment Model Technical Advisory Committee (PTAC) in Washington, D.C., Secretary Azar said, “Of the priorities I have picked for HHS, the most ambitious and furthest reaching is transforming our healthcare system into one that pays for health and wellness rather than sickness and procedures… The outcome we’re aiming for is pretty simple: better healthcare at a lower price. But the question of how we deliver this outcome is much more complicated.”

Azar went on to say that “There has been some progress on some of the tools we need to execute this transformation. We have more alternative payment models, more coordinated care, and more value-based compensation than ever before. But the results we hope for haven’t always materialized. As just one example, we saw in the analysis CMS released at the beginning of August that the burgeoning number of Accountable Care Organizations have not delivered significant savings when all costs and incentives are taken into account.”

Importantly, he added, “[T]he best results we’ve seen have been in ACOs that took on two-sided risk—where providers have real accountability for outcomes. We’ve also seen better results from physician-run ACOs, as opposed to hospitals. Without real accountability, we’re just offering bonuses on top of payments that may be too high already. That’s why we have now proposed to simplify the ACO system into two tracks, requiring them to take on risk sooner. As our CMMI director, Adam Boehler, put it last week, if this means somewhat fewer ACOs, that’s okay with us.”

Remember, PTAC was created by the MACRA law, to help HHS get input and feedback for innovative ideas. As the committee’s website notes, “PTAC was created by The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA) which was enacted, in part, to improve how the federal Medicare program pays physicians for the care they provide to Medicare beneficiaries. MACRA authorized the creation of Medicare’s Merit-based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) and additional Medicare Alternative Payment Models (APMs). MACRA also created incentives for physicians to participate in APMs, and it specifically encouraged the development of certain types of APMs referred to as physician-focused payment models (PFPMs).” And, as part of all of that, Congress created PATC. Indeed, PTAC’s website notes, “The Secretary is required by MACRA to review PTAC’s comments and recommendations on submitted proposals and post a detailed response on the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) website.” So it might well be at one of PTAC’s committee hearings that we’ll hear the inside scoop on what’s coming next.

As Landi noted in her Jan. 11 article, “Many healthcare industry stakeholders who support accelerating the transition to value-based care and payment models are eager for CMMI to develop and roll out new voluntary alternative payment models. And others want to see more transparency in the process. Just this week, two Congressional leaders, U.S. Representative Richard Neal (D-MA), chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, and Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), ranking member of the committee, sent a letter to Verma calling for greater transparency from CMMI as it develops new delivery and payment models, noting that its process has ‘historically been opaque to Congress and to stakeholders.’”

Indeed, Reps. Neal and Brady wrote, "Significant policy changes made unilaterally by the executive branch without sufficient transparency could yield unintended negative consequences for beneficiaries and the health care community. We strongly urge the Agency to provide more sunshine in this process."

The challenge here is that even the APMs are heading through some very choppy waters right now. As I noted on January 11, The announcement on Wednesday, January 10 by senior officials at the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) that the agency will require participants in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) will be required to submit applications to the new Pathways to Success part of the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) by February 19, has roiled accountable care organization (ACO) leaders nationwide.”

And I quoted extensively a press release from the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of ACOs (NAACOS) that criticized CMS for the timeframe involved, following the issuance of the final rule on December 19. In its Wednesday press release, NAACOS stated that “The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) late Wednesday announced applications to participate in the new Pathways to Success accountable care organization (ACO) program will be due February 19, two months after the agency published a nearly 267-page rule overhauling the Medicare Shared Savings Program. In response, the National Association of ACOs (NAACOS) is calling on CMS to give ACOs till later in March to understand the complex changes and determine participation options with affiliated doctors, hospitals, and other providers before committing to high-stakes decisions.” And the association quoted its president and CEO, Clif Gaus, Sc.D., as stating that “ACOs barely have time to understand the new rules, and organizing an application is very complicated and for some it is now a high-risk decision. There are too many difficult decisions to rush.”

So we have Secretary Azar stating on the record back in September that it’s OK with him if fewer patient care organizations participate in the MSSP program, and then on December 19, CMS announced that it was setting the deadline for the submission of applications to the new Pathways to Success program for February 19. Well, that move will almost certainly cause some ACO leaders to drop out of MSSP for now; indeed, in that same article, I quoted Jennifer Moore, a NAACOS board member and chief operating officer at MaineHealth ACO in Portland, Maine, as stating that her ACO would probably have to retreat to upside-only participation, simply because of the unreasonable deadline set for submission of applications for 2019 participation in two-sided risk.

So—does CMS have ideas for new voluntary APMs that are being developed now? And, very importantly, how appealing might those ideas be to providers? Here’s what’s clear: with MSSP participation already imperiled because of what providers see as unreasonable timelines in submitting applications for participation in two-sided risk, any new voluntary programs are absolutely going to have to be seen by provider leaders as having at least a moderate level of appeal—at the strategic level, programmatic level, and practical level—in order to attract any participation.

Because honestly, the rhetoric and mixed messages coming out of HHS and CMS right now are meeting with confusion, bewilderment, and frustration on the part of provider leaders nationwide. As I’ve noted in past commentaries, HHS and CMS leaders are caught in a complex policy web, in that they represent a Republican administration whose mantra has been that markets and consumers can help to drive change; yet the practical reality, as they know, is that, without using exceptionally focused, even pointed, strategies to gain participation, any voluntary programs that senior federal healthcare policy officials develop, will crash against a shoal of hard defeat in the face of provider reluctance to participate.

CMMI is a unique organization; created under the ACA to be the Medicare and Medicaid programs’ innovation test bed, it is now caught in a vise between free-market-tinged ideology coming from the White House, and the understanding, among senior HHS and CMS officials, that experimental APMs are going to be needed to be created and adopted, quickly, in order to begin to make a dent in the accelerating healthcare inflation trajectory that continues to bedevil the U.S. healthcare system. What’s more, CMMI Director Adam Boehler appears to be talented and thoughtful; now certainly would be a great time for him to be given the freedom and scope to create meaningful new programs that will appeal to the industry.

And, in the end, as political commentators are fond of saying, in a variety of different contexts, hope is not a strategy. Let’s hope we see CMMI developing appealing APMs that provider leaders can really be enthusiastic about participating in. It’s definitely time.

 

 

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Should Physicians and HIT Leaders Worry about the Implications of the Walgreens/Microsoft Deal?

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As architect Daniel Burnham once said, “Make no little plans”; the leaders of the Walgreens/Microsoft alliance, like so many others, certainly are thinking big these days
architect Daniel Burnham

Nearly every day, it seems, new business combinations are announced that are threatening to alter the landscape of U.S. healthcare forever. CVS’s acquisition of Aetna, completed last November; the announcement a year ago now that the executives of Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase & Co. were launching a broad (if not well defined) initiative to improve consumer satisfaction and reduce costs for their employees; Cigna’s acquisition just last month of pharmacy benefit management (PBM) company Express Scripts; and Amazon’s acquisition last summer of online pharmacy company PillPack.

Every one of those business deals represents a disruptive move in U.S. healthcare, with unalike “species” of organizations combining with one another. And now, the retail drugstore giant  Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are coming together in yet another disruptive venture. As Managing Editor Rajiv Leventhal wrote in an article on Tuesday, the corporations “are joining forces on a major seven-year healthcare partnership that will aim to ‘deliver innovative platforms that enable next-generation health networks, integrated digital-physical experiences and care management solutions.’” As he wrote, “The companies announced today that they will combine the power of Microsoft Azure, Microsoft’s cloud and AI (artificial intelligence) platform, healthcare investments, and new retail solutions with WBA’s customer reach, volume of locations, and outpatient healthcare services to accomplish their goals: to make healthcare delivery more personal, affordable and accessible.”

As Leventhal noted in his report, “While innovation in healthcare has occurred in pockets, officials of the two companies believe that ‘there is both a need and an opportunity to fully integrate the system, ultimately making healthcare more convenient to people through data-driven insights.’” Further, he noted, “As part of the strategic partnership, the companies have committed to a multiyear research and development (R&D) investment to build healthcare solutions, improve health outcomes and lower the cost of care. This investment will include funding, subject-matter experts, technology and tools, officials noted in the announcement. The companies will also explore the potential to establish joint innovation centers in key markets. Additionally, this year, WBA will pilot up to 12 store-in-store ‘digital health corners” aimed at the merchandising and sale of select healthcare-related hardware and devices.

“This gap creates an opportunity for the pharmacist to help monitor the patients’ health and prompt the patient to receive preventative care in the retail clinic or through a virtual care visit. Using an enterprise health cloud, like Azure, you create a more connected ecosystem so that we can share that data with the patient’s additional providers, track outcomes, and intervene earlier when an issue arises,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in a statement Tuesday.

And, Leventhal wrote, “Notably, the companies will also work on building an ecosystem of participating organizations to better connect consumers, providers—including Walgreens and Boots pharmacists—so that major healthcare delivery network participation will provide the opportunity for people to seamlessly engage in WBA healthcare solutions and acute care providers all within a single platform.”

Speaking to the difference between retail pharmacies and traditional care providers, Forrester analyst Arielle Trzcinski said in a statement emailed to the press that “[R]etail pharmacies offer an opportunity to engage with the patient much more frequently than at an office visit, giving an example of how chronic care patients see their pharmacist frequently, while some figures indicate that the average diabetic patient sees his or her provider once every six months.”

The implications of all of this are, of course, huge. For one thing, if one were to ask the average patient/healthcare consumer with whom they interacted more, doubtless, the vast majority would cite their retail pharmacists, rather than their primary care physicians. What’s more, what happens if Walgreens is able to follow through, as CVS also intends to do, in creating minute clinics in retail pharmacy locations? The impact could be revolutionary.

Indeed, it’s no secret that many patients are dissatisfied with the cumbersome, challenging processes around accessing primary and specialty care in the U.S. healthcare system. Simply accessing a timely appointment often proves to be a major hassle; and encounters around needed follow-ups and around questions to doctors and nurses often turn out to be such a hassle that many patients simply give up, with the result of medication non-compliance and other issues.

So what will happen if Walgreens, like CVS, manages to achieve success with one or more elements of this initiative? Those could include enhanced continuum of care for patients, especially those with chronic diseases; improved communication among all care delivery stakeholders; and enhanced patient/consumer satisfaction.

A few stakeholder groups should be paying particular attention here, including practicing physicians and healthcare IT leaders. For practicing physicians, could anyone deny that this business initiative, along with the others mentioned above, should be disconcerting at the very least? Already, patients needing relatively immediate medical attention, are turning en masse to urgent care centers, as both health systems and health insurers are working to cut down on the volume of emergency department visits, which are tremendously expensive, and which burden the healthcare delivery system in ways that are not sustainable. But now, with both Walgreens/Microsoft and CVS/Aetna, is anyone denying that the era of pretty-close-to-immediate medical attention is on the horizon?

The reality is that, while most patients like their primary care physicians and are satisfied with their care overall, strong majorities, in polls, continue to complain about poor service, bad communication, and delays accessing care and accessing follow-up support. What happens when most decent-sized Walgreens and CVS drugstores are staffed up with PCPs or advanced practice nurses, to handle the colds, coughs, flus, strep throats, and minor skin and digestive issues that could easily be handled by such service offerings?

One of the core policy issues here is that the U.S. healthcare payment system remains largely predicated on primary care physicians physically touching patients in order to get paid. Yes, telehealth services are expanding daily; but in most situations, patients still need to go through the awkward, inconvenient, sometimes even-arduous process of scheduling an appointment, using some form of transportation to get to that appointment, and waiting in a crowded physician office, in order to access primary care.  But in 2019, when GrubHub can deliver one’s banh mi Vietnamese sandwich to one’s home, and Amazon is sending everything from books to clothing to furniture to God-knows what, directly to people’s doors, how much longer will healthcare consumers continue to be patient with the glacial pace of care delivery change in U.S. healthcare?

Meanwhile, healthcare IT leaders will inevitably find themselves somewhat behind a proverbial eight-ball on all this, caught between the intensifying demands on the part of practicing physicians, especially primary care physicians, for full clinical IT support for their practices, and constant business changes, including merger-and-acquisition activity in their own organizations that is continuously scrambling their long-term planning.

So we’re seeing both business and technology changing, and changing quickly, with numerous examples already of industry-disruptive business combinations, and technology advancing to the point where previously unimagined breakthroughs are now imaginable. For example, Walgreens and Microsoft noted that, “Through this agreement, Microsoft becomes WBA’s strategic cloud provider, and WBA plans to migrate the majority of the company’s IT infrastructure onto Microsoft Azure,” as corporate officials put it. And “Microsoft also plans to roll out Microsoft 365 to more than 380,000 Walgreens employees and stores globally.” And, to make things just that more intriguing, the announcement quoted Stefano Pessina, executive vice chairman and CEO of the Walgreens corporation, as stating that “WBA will work with Microsoft to harness the information that exists between payors and healthcare providers to leverage, in the interest of patients and with their consent, our extraordinary network of accessible and convenient locations to deliver new innovations, greater value and better health outcomes in health care systems across the world.”

As renowned Chicago architect Daniel Burnham so famously said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized.” There’s no question that the senior leaders of all of these business alliances, combinations, and initiatives are going to be “no little plans.” It would behoove clinicians, clinician leaders, healthcare IT leaders, and all c-suite leaders in provider organizations to think Burnham-sized thoughts; these businesspeople from outside traditional healthcare delivery are certainly doing so.

 

 

 

 

 

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Blue Cross NC, Five Health Systems Announce Major Shift to Value-Based Care

January 16, 2019
by Heather Landi, Associate Editor
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The insurer aims to have half of its 3.89M customers covered by VBC contracts by next year; all customers in VBC arrangements in five years
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Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC), one of the state’s largest insurers, and five of the state’s major health systems in North Carolina have announced a new value-based care program that encompasses hundreds of thousands of healthcare customers throughout the state.

The five health systems—Cone Health, Duke University Health System, UNC Health Care, Wake Forest Baptist Health and WakeMed Health & Hospitals—and their accountable care organizations (ACOs) have committed to participating in Blue Premier, a new value-based model of care in which Blue Cross NC and the health systems will be jointly responsible for better health outcomes, exceptional patient experience and lower costs, according to a Blue Cross NC press release.

“With agreements from five of the state’s major health systems and their ACOs, Blue Premier is one of the most rapid and comprehensive shifts to value-based payments in the nation,” Blue Cross NC officials stated. Patrick Conway, M.D., serves as president and CEO of the Durham-based health insurer and previously served as the Chief Medical Officer, Deputy Administrator, and Director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI), a division of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Within five years, Blue Cross NC has committed to having all 3.89 million customers covered under Blue Premier’s value-based care contracts. By early 2020, fifty percent or more of all Blue Cross NC members will have a provider who is jointly responsible for the quality and total cost of their care, the health insurer stated.

“As a practicing physician, I have experienced first-hand the challenges plaguing our health care system,” Conway said in a statement. “Historically, our health care system pays for services that may or may not improve a patient’s health, and our customers simply cannot afford this approach. Moving forward, insurers, doctors and hospitals must work together, and hold each other accountable for improving care and reducing costs. We applaud the leadership and commitment of these five leaders in health care to help transform health care delivery in North Carolina.”

During the HLTH Conference, held at the Aria Resort in Las Vegas last May, Conway discussed the payer-provided landscape in North Carolina and alluded to opportunities accelerate the move to value-based care and payment models, according to reporting from Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland. “We’re looking at a new model, where patient care organizations can partner more fully with Blue Cross North Carolina,” Conway said, per Hagland’s report. And Conway continued, “We’re saying, you can take this alternative pathway with us. And we’ll jointly be accountable for the total quality and cost of care. And we want you to go into two-sided risk. And we’re wondering, should we turn off all prior authorization? And documentation other than for risk coding and STARS measures, we won’t worry about how you document. And for people in the audience, those kinds of partnerships are very exciting, because you’ve now got a provider and payer that are no longer locked into rigid rules, but where you can innovate on quality and customer experience.”

According to the insurer, Blue Premier ties payments to doctors and hospitals over time to the value of services that improve patient health. This means that total payments to the health systems under Blue Premier will be based on the health systems’ ability to manage the total cost of care and their overall performance, measured by industry quality standards. Through a “shared risk” financial model, the health systems will share in cost savings if they meet industry-standard goals to improve the health of patients – and share in the losses if they fall short. “The unprecedented commitment from these five large health systems makes Blue Premier one of the most advanced and comprehensive value-based care programs in North Carolina and the nation,” Blue Cross NC officials stated.

“This unprecedented step by Blue Cross NC and many of the state’s leading health care organizations will make a big difference in advancing high-quality, innovative care in North Carolina,” Mark McClellan, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy said in a statement in the press release. “At Duke-Margolis, we remain committed to supporting state government and private-sector initiatives to reform payment and improve care – providing needed examples for the nation.” 

In a statement, Donald Gintzig, president and CEO, WakeMed Health & Hospitals, said, “This collaboration represents an important step forward in our efforts to provide patients in our area and across the state with high quality, coordinated services for the best value. Our health systems are bringing together valuable resources in a more integrated way that will ultimately lead to better health and more affordable health care.”

The news of the value-based care collaboration comes a month after the health insurer announced a partnership with Aledade, a Bethesda, Md.-based company focused on physician-led ACO development, to launch a value-based care initiative to support primary care physicians across the state. Through the initiative, the two companies will support physician-led ACOs tailored specifically for primary care physicians and the communities they serve. Through these ACO arrangements, Blue Cross NC will collaborate with Aledade to provide physicians with technology and data analytics tools to better manage patient care and costs. After joining these ACOs, practices gain a more comprehensive view of their patients’ total cost of care, gaps in quality of care, and experiences throughout the entire health care system, the companies said.

 

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