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BREAKING: CMS Proposes Sweeping Changes to MSSP ACO Program

August 9, 2018
by Rajiv Leventhal and Heather Landi
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CMS is proposing to push ACOs into two-sided risk models by shortening the duration of one-sided risk model contracts

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is proposing a new direction for ACOs (accountable care organizations) in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP), with the goal to push these organizations into two-sided risk models.

Referred to as “Pathways to Success,” CMS’ proposal, which has been expected for a few months, looks to 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.

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.

Broadly, CMS is now essentially proposing that the contract agreements of upside-only ACOs be two years, rather than allowing six years (two, three-year agreements) like the government has previously permitted. 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.

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.

As the federal agency continues to steer ACOs away from upside-only models, CMS noted that some Track 1 ACOs are generating losses (and therefore increasing Medicare spending) while having access to waivers of certain federal requirements in connection with their participation in the program. These ACOs may be encouraging consolidation in the market place, reducing competition and choice for Medicare FFS beneficiaries, according to agency officials.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma previously has criticized upside-only ACOs, remarking that they have not generated enough results to date. And today, she hammered this point home on a press call. “[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,” Verma asserted.

Meanwhile, the ACOs in twosided risk models “have shown significant savings to the Medicare program and are improving quality,” CMS said in today’s announcement. As such, Verma said today that requiring ACOs to take on downside risk more quickly, matched with increased risk and flexibility, would reframe the Medicare Shared Savings Program to deliver value to the 10 million patients currently in ACOs, and taxpayers. “We project these changes will result in $2.24 billion in savings to Medicare program over next 10 years,” she stated.

How will Upside-Only ACOs Respond?

Indeed, as it stands today, MSSP Track 1 remains by far the most popular option for ACOs. Recently, the National Association of ACOs (NAACOS) surveyed Track 1 ACOs that were entering their third agreement period and found that 71 percent of ACO respondents indicated they are likely to leave the MSSP as a result of having to assume risk.

In CMS’ proposed rule, the agency internally estimates that more than 100 ACOs will drop out of the program over the next 10 years. CMS said in the rule that “The overall drop in expected participation is mainly due to the expectation that the program will be less likely to attract new ACO formation in future years as the number of risk-free years available to new ACOs would be reduced from six years (two, three-year agreement periods in current Track 1) to two years in the BASIC track, which also has reduced attractiveness with a lower 25 percent maximum sharing rate during the two risk-free years.”

Verma was asked on the press call about the expected drop in ACOs, to which she noted that since the two-sided risk ACOs are the ones who are generating savings, having organizations who are losing the government money eventually leave the program is not a bad thing. “We know that they are losing money when they are only taking on upside-only risk. So, we’re only allowing them to do that for the first two years of the program.”

Verma continued, “The other change we’re making is that for six years we’ve been allowing [ACOs] to only take upside risk while also take in 50 percent of the savings. Now, we’re saying you can only do this for two years and only get 25 percent of the savings. So, that’s why we’re mitigating the losses that we’re having in the program.”

It remains to be seen how stakeholders will respond to CMS’ proposal today, but with the survey NAACOS administered in May, the organization stated that it encourages ACOs to prepare to move to risk and strongly supports ACOs that are ready to do so, but that it does not support forcing ACOs to assume risk if they are not ready.

Verma, when asked on the press call about the new proposals, said that it’s simply time for the program to evolve. “When we developed this program, we wanted to move the entire program towards providers taking more risk because we know that works. We want to work with ACOs that are serious about participating in the program and investing in the type of changes that are going to deliver value to patients,” she stated.

The CMS chief acknowledged on the press call that, “For some, change is always difficult, and we understand that there are those who say they haven’t had enough time to live up to their commitment to achieve value."

Proposal Specifics

In its proposal, CMS said that the BASIC track’s glide path would offer an incremental approach to transitioning eligible ACOs to higher levels of risk and potential reward. The glide path includes 5 levels: 

  • A one-sided model available only for the first two years to eligible ACOs (ACOs identified as having previously participated in the program under Track 1 would be restricted to a single year under a one-sided model);
  • And three levels of progressively higher risk and potential reward in years three through five of the agreement period. Under the one-sided model years of the glide path, an ACO’s maximum shared savings rate would be 25 percent based on quality performance, applicable to first dollar shared savings after the ACO meets the minimum savings rate. The glide path concludes with a maximum 50 percent sharing rate, based on quality performance, and a maximum level of risk which qualifies as an Advanced APM for purposes of the Quality Payment Program.  

ACOs in the BASIC track glide path would be automatically advanced at the start of each performance year along the progression of risk/reward levels, or could elect to move more quickly to a higher level of risk/reward, over the course of their agreement period.

In the end, ACOs entering the BASIC track’s glide path for an agreement period beginning on July 1, 2019, would have at most 2 ½ years under a one-sided model (with ACOs identified as having previously participated in the program under Track 1 restricted to 1 ½ years) and their first automatic advancement would occur at the start of performance year 2021, CMS explained.

What’s more, ACOs identified as “low revenue”—typically composed of physician practices and rural ACOs—could participate in the BASIC track for up to two agreement periods.  For instance, a low revenue ACO that participates in the BASIC track’s glide path could renew under the BASIC track, at the highest level of risk and reward, for a second agreement period. ACOs identified as “high revenue”—typically ACOs that include hospitals—would be required to transition to the ENHANCED track more quickly, after no more than a single agreement period under the BASIC track.

CMS has observed that low-revenue ACOs have outperformed high-revenue ACOs, but that some low-revenue ACOs lack a pathway to transition from a one-sided model to more modest levels of performance-based risk. Agency officials noted its Medicare Track 1+ ACO Model, a time-limited Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (Innovation Center) model which began this past January, demonstrates that a lower-risk, two-sided model is an effective way to rapidly progress to performance-based risk. 


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When It Comes to The Big Debate on ACOs, What Is “Big Enough” Savings?

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The back-and-forth interaction between CMS Administrator Seema Verma and the ACO community is unfolding at a key inflection point in the evolution of the MSSP program

Intense debates on every subject are constantly swirling in the healthcare policy sphere; that has always been the case. But one debate that is both impactful and being closely watched is the intensifying argument between the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, particularly CMS Administrator Seema Verma, and some leader organizations in the accountable care organization (ACO) area.

At its base, the proposal on the part of CMS, as outlined in a proposed rule published in August, to push more ACOs into two-sided risk, is being pushed back against by many ACO leaders, particularly by their nationwide association, NAACOS (the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of ACOs). As Managing Editor Rajiv Leventhal noted in his report Dec. 5, CMS’s “core aim” is “to push these organizations into two-sided risk models—so that Medicare isn’t on the hook when ACOs overspend past their financial benchmarks—suggested to 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.”

As Leventhal noted, “One option, per CMS’ proposal, would be the BASIC track, which would allow eligible ACOs to begin under a one-sided model and incrementally phase-in higher levels of risk. The second option would be 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. But where CMS, in its proposals, truly clamped down was through two core recommendations that stakeholders took issue with: shortening the glide path for new ACOs to assume financial risk, reducing time in a one-sided risk model from the current six years to two years; and cutting potential shared savings in half, from 50 percent to 25 percent for one-sided risk ACOs. These proposals, if finalized, will certainly deter new entrants to the MSSP ACO program. So far, the proposed rule has been met with varying degrees of scrutiny.”

Clifton Gaus, Sc.D., NAACOS’s president and CEO, recently gave Leventhal an interview, and in that interview, he confirmed his association’s stance that the reduction of shared savings and the shortened time allowed in one-sided models are two of the biggest problems the group has with the proposal. Indeed, Gaus said in that interview that the reduction in potential shared savings “would be very devastating to the growth of new ACOs.”

In fact, Gaus said, in polling their members, NAACOS’s leaders asked them whether they would in theory join a federal ACO program knowing that, at least at first, they would be limited to 25 percent of shared savings at most; and, in fact, “the near universal response was no, they wouldn’t have joined the program,” Gaus said, adding that “The potential of 25 percent savings just isn’t enough to offset our investment costs of starting and operating the ACOs,” noting that ACOs have to obviously put up money to get going, and sometimes it’s very hard for medical group practice-dominant ACOs to buy IT systems, not to mention the whole clinical transformational aspect of ACOs where they are typically hiring nurse coordinators, and in some cases opening 24/7 call centers. “There is a real start-up and operational cost that’s involved, and [getting] 25 percent of the shared savings doesn’t return enough income to offset those,” he said.

Meanwhile, this morning, NAACOS issued a new press release focused on the value that the MSSP program has created for CMS. “In the latest data proving the financial benefits of accountable care organizations (ACOs), Medicare’s largest value-based care initiative – the Medicare Shared Savings Program – saved $859 million in 2016, an independent analysis published today shows,” the press release began. “Since 2013, the first full year of the program, ACOs have saved Medicare $2.66 billion, well above the $1.6 billion calculated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).” What’s more, the press release reported, “After accounting for bonuses paid to ACOs for hitting spending and quality targets, the program, which accounts for 561 ACOs and 10.5 million patients nationwide, netted more than $660 million to the Medicare Trust Fund between 2013 and 2016, contrasting the net loss of $384 million CMS estimates.”

And the press release quoted NAACOS’s Gaus as stating that “These results are the latest data point in a growing body of evidence unequivocally proving ACOs’ value. ACOs are saving American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when it’s most needed.” Indeed,  he added, “Given the natural lag time in collecting and analyzing data and the well-established trend that ACOs need a few years to start demonstrating results, we are only seeing the beginning of the nation’s return on investment in accountable care. This data doesn’t even mention the quality benefits ACOs have generated, which have also been substantial.”

Further, the press release noted, “A sizable amount of recent data show ACOs are saving money: 472 Shared Savings ACOs generated gross savings of $1.1 billion and netted $314 million in savings to the Medicare Trust Fund last year; CMS’s August 17 proposed rule estimates the overall impact of ACOs, including ‘spillover effects’ on Medicare spending outside of the ACO program, lowered spending by $1.8–$4.2 billion in 2016 alone.”

So now we reach the rubber-meets-the-road place. Here’s the fundamental question: Do Seema Verma and her fellow CMS and HHS (Health and Human Services) senior officials truly understand the complexities involved in what they’re asking of provider leaders? Verma and her fellow federal healthcare officials are facing a kind of Scylla and Charybdis situation right now. On the one hand, as everyone knows, the Medicare actuaries have predicted that total U.S. healthcare spending will explode from $3.1 trillion annually (in 2014) to $5.4 trillion annually (by 2024), in the next several years, amounting to a 70-percent increase in less than a decade, and bringing the percentage of GDP spent on healthcare in this country from 17.4 percent in 2013 to 19.6 percent in 2024.

On the other hand, as Clifton Gaus and the NAACOS folks have pointed out, based on surveying their membership, patient care leaders are going to recoil at the over-intensification of change mandates coming out of CMS. That feeling is quite widespread. As one ACO CEO told me just two weeks ago, Seema Verma is deluded if she thinks that ramping up the downside-risk requirements in the Medicare Shared Savings Program is going to inspire more patient care leaders to join the MSSP program or renew their participation in it. And, as this morning’s press release notes, ACO community leaders are documenting real progress in capturing savings.

The million-dollar (or maybe, $1.1 trillion-dollar?) question is, is the broad level of savings that ACOs are netting for CMS, progress enough? Indeed, what is “enough”? And what is “fast enough”? Because Administrator Verma and her fellow senior federal healthcare officials seriously risk cratering the MSSP program, the core federal ACO program, if they push too hard on the downside-risk issue. On the other hand, if they don’t push hard enough, the progress made so far could simply be dwarfed, in the broader scheme of things, by the current acceleration of overall U.S. healthcare spending inflation.

So right now really does feel like an inflection point—but one without an obvious resolution. Only time—and the interactions of federal healthcare officials and providers—will tell.

 

 

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At UPMC, Turbo-Charging Quality Improvement Efforts through Data Analytics

December 11, 2018
by Mark Hagland, Editor-in-Chief
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At UPMC, Dr. Oscar Marroquin is leading a team of data analysts whose work is facilitating intensive efforts around readmissions

At a time when the leaders of patient care organizations are facing intensifying pressure to shift away from a dependence on volume-based payment and to plunge into value-based care delivery, some U.S. hospitals, medical groups, and health systems are helping to lead the way into a future of continuous clinical improvement and of clinical transformation. That topic—of organized continuous quality improvement—was the subject of the fourth-quarter 2018 Healthcare Informatics cover story. Numerous leaders of pioneering organizations were interviewed for their insights into the health system change focused-quality improvement movement that has been emerging across the U.S. healthcare system.

Among the leaders interviewed for that cover story was Oscar Marroquin, M.D., a practicing cardiologist and epidemiologist, who is helping to lead a team of clinical data experts at the vast, 40-hospital UPMC health system in Pittsburgh. Dr. Marroquin and his colleagues have been busy harnessing the power of creating and nurturing purpose-specific teams focused intensively on the management of data to power performance improvement, particularly in the clinical area. Marroquin’s team, of about 25 data specialists, was first created five years ago. Of those, half are IT- and infrastructure-focused, and, says Dr. Marroquin, “The rest are a team of folks dedicated to data consumption issues. So we have clinical analysts, data visualization specialists, and a team of data scientists who are applying the right tools and methods, spanning from traditional analytical techniques to advanced computational deep learning and everything in between. Our task is to use the clinical data, and derive insights”—and all 12 clinically focused data specialists report to him.

And that work—“allowing people to ask questions to generate opportunities”—has paid off handsomely. Among the advances has been the creation of a data model that predicts the chances of patients who are being discharged, being readmitted. The model, based on the retrospective analysis of one million discharges, is also helping case managers to more effectively prepare patients for discharge, specifically by ensuring that patients being discharged are promptly scheduled for follow-up visits with their primary care physicians. “If those patients are seen within 30 days of discharge,” he notes, “there’s a 50-percent reduction in their 30-day rate of readmission.” The program is now active in six UPMC hospitals.


Oscar Marroquin, M.D.

Below are excerpts from the interview for that cover story that Healthcare Informatics Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland conducted with Dr. Marroquin this summer.

From your perspective, what does it really mean to be data-driven, in the pursuit of continuous quality improvement and clinical transformation?

From my perspective, I’m very passionate in that I feel that you really can’t do any of the things that doing in terms of moving towards value, without having a robust data infrastructure, a robust strategy on how to use data and analyze it, and without then deriving evidence for how you’re going to transform your organization. There are a lot of buzzwords involved in all of this, but the only way to get from a buzzword to a true action of transformation, is if it’s data-driven.

I’m a cardiologist by training and an epidemiologist; I still practice. Over the past five or so years, I’ve been asked to oversee how we’ll derive insights from clinical data in our system; in other words, this work is around anything related to big-data analytics, with those analytics being used to help our clinicians. In order to do that, we’ve had to do many different things, including more intelligently aggregating our data, and focusing on specific analytical purposes. They’ve been structured as databases for transactional systems, but not with the intent of improvement.

So we’ve spent a lot of time creating a purpose-built environment for analytics. That’s involved a lot of technical work, to create tables, what we call our consumable layers, for analytical purposes. And we’ve created a team whose only job is to do analytics. We’ve had folks in the past managing back-end databases, who have generated reports, but that doesn’t lead to a sustainable way of using data. And so we have a team that is dedicated to maintaining the warehouse and consuming the data.

With regard to the team of 25 data analysts, do all of them report to you?

The 12 who do data consumption report directly to me; the others have a dotted-line report to me. They sit on our infrastructure team within our IT Information Services Division. Both teams are part of the Clinical Analytics Team. Data analytics—Health Services Division. Integrated team. Two sides of the same coin.

When did these teams come together?

There have been different phases. The analytics program development started in 2012, and we learned a lot of lessons. A lot of the work early on had to be dedicated to technical issues—identifying data sources, etc. That was a pretty labor-intensive process. We really got enough aggregated data to use it consistently in 2015, so from 2015 on, we’ve had this structure of teams dedicated to doing this as I’ve described.

Can you share a few examples of key advances that your team has made so far?

When asked what our team does, I tell folks we do work at the higher level in three different buckets. The first bucket is the entry point for the majority of projects. Not everybody in the system necessarily knows which questions to ask.

We allow people to ask questions to generate opportunities. Off of that, two things will happen. One, hypotheses can be generated, and so we can do hypothesis testing, we can do comparative effectiveness studies, we can formal testing of hypotheses. Also, when insights get generated, one can say, oh boy, there’s a lot of heterogeneity in this population, why is one group more at risk? So we can identify who is at high risk of a condition, and who within the high-risk category is at high risk of developing specific conditions? And the third level or bucket, we apply machine learning and AI tools to develop models that allow us to do a variety of things, from more precise phenotyping of our populations; we can build predictive models to identify patients at various levels of risk. And we also use these models to do unsupervised learning, where we can start to generate hypotheses. So most people in this space love to talk about the latter part, the predictive modeling, and we have done a fair amount of work there, with things like identifying patients at highest risk of rehospitalization after 7 or 30 days of discharge, and we’re using that in our hospitals to guide clinicians. There are resources everywhere.

So we developed a model derived out of retrospective analysis of one million discharges, and we’ve prospectively verified that the model allows us to identify patients at the highest risk of readmission, so our case managers can help us identify plans to help those patients transition from hospitalization to post-acute care in a more effective way. And we see that if they’re seen within 30 days of discharge, there’s a 50-percent reduction in their 30-day hospitalization if they get in to see a clinician. So we make sure that the patient has an appointment made and is ready to see their doctor once they’re discharged, to address any issues.

When was that program put into place?

We spent a lot of last year validating the data. And then this year, we started rolling this out to our hospitals in a phased approach, so throughout 2018, we’ve been deploying this to our hospitals, and we’ve trained and educated different hospitals to use the model, and we’re actively following patients to measure the impact of the tool. And as an epidemiologist, I’m always cautious about declaring victory too soon. We’re seeing good trends, our smaller hospitals are seeing decreases in patients coming back early.

So you don’t have any metrics to share yet?

We have three hospitals, smaller ones we started the program with first, that different units, have shown that this program has had an impact. The numbers are still small enough that I have reservations about absolute certainty. But already, we’re using the program in 20 of our hospitals.

What would your advice be for CIOs, CMIOs, and other healthcare IT leaders, as they consider these kinds of initiatives?

If we all are serious about transforming the way we care for patients, we need to do it in a data-driven way. There has to be a philosophical belief and commitment to do that. Number two, as a result of the institutional commitment and philosophy, then there has to be a team that’s dedicated to this work. I don’t think this is achievable in an ad hoc way, when people just have time. And three, it’s not for the faint of heart; it takes time and effort, but if you have the philosophical belief and institutional commitment, it’s doable. If I say to myself, I don’t ever want to leave my house and get drenched because I wasn’t prepared for a storm, then I need to check the weather app before I leave my house. In medicine, we haven’t yet taken that approach, but the data and analytics are there to guide us in helping us to make decisions, and making it a part of the everyday decision-making process. And in the same way I use examples of rehospitalization prediction, we also do condition-specific predictive analytics, around patients with asthma, kidney disease, etc., so there’s a lot of work going on there. And the message I give clinicians is, there will be companies that say they don’t’ sell you the predictive models they’ve developed; but in our experience, the models have to be a part of an organic process that leads to the building of the models. Clinicians won’t feel alienated, disenfranchised, or threatened, if you bring them in and engage them from the beginning.

 


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EXCLUSIVE: NAACOS President Foresees “Shrinkage in Accountable Care Movement” Pending MSSP Final Rule

December 5, 2018
by Rajiv Leventhal, Managing Editor
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If CMS doesn’t scale back some of its proposed changes to the MSSP, the government’s largest value-based payment program will be significantly affected, says one ACO leader

When the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released its proposals to overhaul the federal Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP), it was expected that industry associations, along with the ACOs (accountable care organizations) themselves, would push back strongly.

After all, in the August proposed rule, CMS, which has the core aim to push these organizations into two-sided risk models—so that Medicare isn’t on the hook when ACOs overspend past their financial benchmarks—suggested to 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.

One option, per CMS’ proposal, would be the BASIC track, which would allow eligible ACOs to begin under a one-sided model and incrementally phase-in higher levels of risk. The second option would be 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.

But where CMS, in its proposals, truly clamped down was through two core recommendations that stakeholders took issue with: shortening the glide path for new ACOs to assume financial risk, reducing time in a one-sided risk model from the current six years to two years; and cutting potential shared savings in half, from 50 percent to 25 percent for one-sided risk ACOs. These proposals, if finalized, will certainly deter new entrants to the MSSP ACO program. So far, the proposed rule has been met with varying degrees of scrutiny.

One of the trade groups that has done much of the heavy lifting when it comes to pushing back on the government’s proposals, and offering evidence as to why ACOs need more time in one-sided risk models while being able to reap more of the shared savings, is NAACOS (the National Association of ACOs,) an association comprised of more than 360 ACOs across the U.S.

In a recent interview with Healthcare Informatics, Clif Gaus, president and CEO of NAACOS, confirmed that the reduction of shared savings and the shortened time allowed in one-sided models are two of the biggest problems the group has with the proposal. Specifically, Gaus says that the reduction in potential shared savings “would be very devastating to the growth of new ACOs.”

He explains that after polling NAACOS’ members, asking them if they would hypothetically apply to be an ACO knowing that at first, they would be limited to 25 percent of shared savings at most, “the near universal response was no, they wouldn’t have joined the program.” Gaus adds, “The potential of 25 percent savings just isn’t enough to offset our investment costs of starting and operating the ACOs,” noting that ACOs have to obviously put up money to get going, and sometimes it’s very hard for medical group practice-dominant ACOs to buy IT systems, not to mention the whole clinical transformational aspect of ACOs where they are typically hiring nurse coordinators, and in some cases opening 24/7 call centers.

“There is a real start-up and operational cost that’s involved, and [getting] 25 percent of the shared savings doesn’t return enough income to offset those,” he says.

Regarding the proposal to shorten the time in a one-sided risk model from the current six years to two years, Gaus points to CMS’ own data which shows that more experience in a federal ACO model drives more savings, but typically the first few years are not profitable for the ACO.

“We have many examples where an ACO has been in the program and was able to turn the corner by the fifth or sixth year,” he says. “Medicare has to have a long-term view of this. We are investing in a totally new redesign of the healthcare system, so give us time to learn how to transform that care into more efficient and higher-quality care. We are troubled by two years,” Gaus frankly admits. He believes that capping the time in a one-sided risk model at three to four years “is reasonable,” and is what many other associations have proposed.

Indeed, while NAACOS and other industry groups have made their arguments to CMS clear, the federal agency has so far 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.

But Gaus believes that even though CMS did come out of the box with an “aggressive negative message” about one-sided ACOs, the agency has now moderated its views. To this end, a recent study from NAACOS and Dobson Davanzo & Associates, based on a different way of measuring financial success—by comparing actual costs over time in the ACO’s market as opposed to CMS’ method of calculating an initial risk-adjusted spending benchmark for each ACO based on its historical spending, without considering underlying market factors—revealed that MSSP ACOs generated gross savings of $1.84 billion for Medicare from 2013 to 2015, nearly double the $954 million estimated by CMS.

“The whole dialogue has changed,” says Gaus. “We have met with Seema and a number of her staff over the last two months, and the driving factor to this change in dialogue is that the 2017 data, from CMS’ benchmarks, turned the corner and showed that net-net the ACO program was saving Medicare money. You don’t see CMS coming out anymore arguing that the program is losing money,” he says.

What a Final Rule Might Look Like

Gaus acknowledges that a core challenge for CMS is being in the precarious position of pushing down too lightly in its regulations, which could result in the pace of change being too slow, or pushing down too hard, which could result in provider organizations fleeing value-based care initiatives.

“We know the government is wrestling with this issue, and so are we,” Gaus says. “In the crafting of our comments to CMS, as well as the comments from the AHA [American Hospital Association], AMA [American Medical Association], and others, we felt that the balance is the issue here, and there needs to be some movement toward the direction that CMS is pushing. We do respect their concerns, to a degree, but we just thought they were too aggressive in their speed to risk, or speed to remove an ACO from the program,” he says.

Gaus is hopeful that the final rule on the future of the MSSP—which he believes could come by the end of the year, but no later than the end of January—will reflect the industry’s concerns. “History says that this administration, like many others, does listen to input from stakeholders that the rule affects. I believe that they really do understand our positions,” he adds.

At the same time, NAACOS’ position is that the reduction in potential shared savings, as currently proposed, is a “total deal breaker,” and that there is no wiggle room for a number between 25 and 50 percent, Gaus asserts. He adds, “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.”

Importantly, Gaus also notes that ACO programs are voluntary in nature, a key consideration that he believes CMS often forgets. “Nobody has to be an ACO. [Providers] are making a bet of their capital, that they can invest that capital in cost containment, in care transformation, and [in return], they will get back in the shared savings more than they invested. It’s almost like buying stock—you made the investment and you hope the return is worth it,” he says.

Gaus says that he has told Verma in their many conversations that in many ways “we are at a crossroads, and we have to get the balance right, or we are going to see a denigration of what still remains the largest government value-based payment program.”


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