A Health Affairs Study Finds ACOs Moving Forward Quickly—If Unevenly—Into Risk | Healthcare Informatics Magazine | Health IT | Information Technology Skip to content Skip to navigation

A Health Affairs Study Finds ACOs Moving Forward Quickly—If Unevenly—Into Risk

October 6, 2017
by Mark Hagland
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A study published in Health Affairs offers some of the best analysis yet about the accelerating pace of ACO development

A study published online this week in Health Affairs offers some of the best analysis yet, based on survey data, around where ACO (accountable care organization) development and risk-based contracting are headed in the near future; and it includes some findings that might surprise some in the industry.

Published in the Health Affairs Blog, “The 2017 ACO Survey: What Do Current Trends Tell Us About The Future of Accountable Care?” was authored by Kate de Lisle, Teresa Litton, Allison Brennan, and David Muhlestein. The researchers’ findings are based on a nationwide survey of ACO leaders conducted from January through April of this year, with 240 ACO executives responding, representing Medicare, commercial and Medicaid ACOs, and “ranging from urban to rural organizations, single to multipayer contracts, and physician- to hospital-led to integrated ACOs. The participation breaks down this way: 78.1 percent of the ACOs are in Medicare contracts; 44.2 percent are in commercial contracts, and 7.4 percent are in Medicaid contracts (and of course, the numbers total more than 100 percent, as many organizations are contracting with multiple types of payers).

Further, 65.1 percent of the ACOs represented in the survey are physician group-led; 28.4 percent are hospital-led, and 6.5 reported being “both” (led by both hospitals and medical groups).

Meanwhile, the authors note, “While Medicare ACO contracts tended to be smaller relative to commercial arrangements (approximately 30,000 versus approximately 60,000 lives respectively), Medicare contracts were said to represent the same levels of risk as commercial and Medicaid arrangements.” What’s more, they report, “A little more than half of ACOs (53 percent reported bearing the same levels of financial risk in their commercial and Medicaid contracts as their accountable care contracts with Medicare. Furthermore, one-quarter (26 percent) reported less commercial and Medicaid risk, suggesting that commercial and Medicaid plans are not pushing provider-borne risk faster than the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). This,” they state, “is likely a function of the flexibility and variability of commercial and Medicaid contracts. When programs are optional, and often subject to negotiation, risk levels may remain low.”

And while nearly 90 percent of survey respondents reported that they had at least one upside-only shared savings contracts, 50 percent had at least one active contract that included downside risk of either shared savings/shared losses (38 percent), or capitation (12 percent).

What’s more, 47 percent of those surveyed indicated that they were considering participating in, or already have, firm plans to participate in at-risk arrangements, with 47 percent pursuing shared savings/shared losses, and 38 percent pursuing capitation.

So a number of fascinating questions arise from these responses, and the team of researchers attempted to parse some of the survey results. An important point here is that CMS regulations require ACOs to assume risk no later than the start of their third three-year agreement period, which means that the longer ACOs are in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP), the more likely they would be planning to participate in a shared savings/shared loss arrangement.

Very importantly, the authors note, “In fact, there are 114 MSSP ACOs in their final Track 1 agreement period ending in 2018, representing nearly a third of ACOs in the MSSP. Consistent with past performance results from both the NAACOS [National Association of ACOs] and Leavitt Partners, which indicate that more experienced ACOs are more likely to achieve shared savings, the longer an organization participates as an ACO, the more attractive, or at least tolerable, two-sided risk becomes. Not only are ACOs planning to pursue two-sided risk, but many are preparing to do so quickly,” the authors state. “Among all ACOs (beyond MSSP participants) that indicated they were planning to participate in a risk-bearing arrangement, the average estimated time before beginning the actual contract was 10 months for shared savings/shared losses and 17 months for capitation. These estimations of time to contracts with greater risk are more aggressive than expected. However, some ACOs report that they will not be ready to assume risk for a number of years, and other ACOs expressed concerns about ever being in a position to assume downside risk.”

So while the results present a mixed bag in terms of how far along ACO organizations are right now, it is quite striking to note how many of those organizations either already have at least one risk-bearing contract (50 percent), or will have one soon (47 percent).

How is care management evolving forward?

Meanwhile, as important as what and how they’re organizing, it is also important to know what the leaders of ACOs are doing, in terms of population health management and care management activities.  “The stages of adoption of key population health management activities suggest that ACOs are still largely focusing on the initial steps of care redesign,” the researchers write. “For example, when tackling unscheduled care, ACOs tend to seek to prevent emergency department (ED) use with outpatient options instead of using strategies within the ED, indicating a focus on working with primary care practices before integrating more specialized providers.”


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