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A Pioneering M.D. Leader Shares Insights on Successfully Navigating the Massachusetts Healthcare Market

August 9, 2018
by Rajiv Leventhal
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Dr. Barbara Spivak details her organization’s long, but rewarding journey to value

On the ongoing journey to value-based care, provider organizations are all over the map when it comes to how advanced they are. Some are just starting out on that road while others are much further along.

In Massachusetts, the Mt. Auburn Cambridge Independent Practice Association (MACIPA), based in Brighton, includes 500 affiliated physicians and operates an ACO (accountable care organization) that is in Track 3 of the federal Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) model—the track in which ACO participants take on the most risk for their patients. Indeed, the organization, headed by Barbara Spivak, M.D., CEO, has been engaged in risk-based contracting since the 1980s. Needless to say, MACIPA is on the advanced side of the road.

At the Boston Health IT Summit on August 8, Dr. Spivak joined Healthcare Informatics Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland on stage to discuss MACIPA’s value-based care journey, the core health IT and policy-related issues physicians are facing these days, and much more as it relates to healthcare in the state.

Massachusetts healthcare, said Spivak, a local practicing physician for the last 30 years, is unlike most U.S states in that nearly every doctor belongs to some type of health system. But the biggest issue doctors face today, she contended, is that when they belong to a network, they are supposed to keep business inside it. At the same time, the healthcare market is moving more into “open access,” she said. “Patients choose health plans [in which] they can go anywhere [for care]. And now, more patients are expecting that no matter where they go, their primary care physician and specialist should know what happened to them, even if they go to other physicians [in other systems],” she said. 

As such, preventing patient “leakage” out of the system has become an enormous pressure on physicians, Spivak attested. “We have talent in every system so it’s not like you will get good care in system A but bad care in system B. They are all great systems that will provide great care. So you can’t deny people based on quality because the quality is great everywhere,” she asserted.

Regarding health IT, Spivak noted that years ago, MACIPA was doing population health management even before the organization ever got an EHR (electronic health record). She said that when EHRs started to gain traction, MACIPA applied for a state grant to get the funding to implement one. And although MACIPA just missed out on that funding request, Spivak said by that time she had already convinced her colleagues to get the EHR anyway, so they did. “And over the years we have done more and more population health, using real clinical data, not just claims data. We were also one of the first Pioneer ACOs, and now we’re in MSSP Track 3 with significant upside/downside risk,” Spivak said, speaking to how far along MACIPA has come.

As such, Spivak said that when MACIPA was considering which ACO model to join, an endeavor that would involve taking on risk for Medicare fee-for-service patients, Mt. Auburn physicians were already accustomed to managing care for their patients via their Medicare Advantage contracts. “Those patients got a lot of support. They were provided social workers, health coaches, and had care managers,” Spivak recalled, noting the biggest complaint from physicians at that time was why MACIPA couldn’t do these things for their Medicare fee-for-service patients as well. “But we didn’t have the data on them and there was no risk involved,” she said.

Spotting Flaws in Quality Metrics

Spivak went on to note that for all of issues facing the healthcare industry, as physicians continue to manage populations of patients, they have to “staff up” and getting the data and documenting is quite challenging. “One of key factors in physician burnout, particularly in primary care, is the documentation required for all of the quality metrics,” she said.

Even though MACIPA is a small organization, its physicians are still held accountable for hundreds of quality metrics that differ across various health plans. But Spivak said her physicians are taught just one set of metrics. For example, if there are 50 diabetic quality metrics spanning across all MACIPA’s health plan contracts, Spivak and her team narrow those 50 down to eight and then teach the physicians just those eight.

Nonetheless, Spivak believes that there are some major flaws in how certain quality metrics are measured, offering CMS’ (the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) measure for screening for future fall risk as an example. Originally, she explained, physicians had to simply ask at-risk patients if they had two or more falls in the past six months and if they were injured. But a new CMS proposal may make things more complicated than that, Spivak noted. If the proposal passes, starting in 2019, physicians will have to ask these patients many more questions, including finding out details about stairs in the patients’ home as well as their vision.

But there are timing issues, Spivak continued. The final rule on this proposal will come out in October and the mandated start date for complying would be in January 2019, meaning EHR systems will have to remove those two original questions and replace them with another seven or eight. “Once that happens, I have to go out and teach all of my doctors, nursing homes, advanced practitioners, and others that the old [method] is out while the new questions are in. And that takes three to four months. Think about health systems that have 1,500 doctors. It’s an impossible situation,” she attested.

What’s more, Spivak offered, there are plenty of quality metrics that don’t measure quality. She noted one measure that looks at whether or not the physician prescribed antibiotics for bronchitis. This, Spivak, asserted, is a “coding measure” and has nothing to do with the amount of antibiotics the physician gave, since it all depends on if that physician coded for viral bronchitis or bacterial, as it’s OK to give antibiotics out for the latter, but not for the former. “Am I a trained or untrained rat?” Spivak jokingly asked. “That’s what this measure is about.”

Indeed, Spivak advised providers to not to blindly listen to the EHR companies who say that quality metrics are imbedded inside their systems, and that physicians can document easily. “Everyone’s quality metrics are a little bit different across the U.S. and its important to work with clinicians on them,” Spivak offered. “One advantage for me is that I still see patients about one-third of the time and it’s not the healthy 20-year-olds who I am seeing. I see chronically ill patients who are tough to document for. So you have to run things by your clinicians, and ask them if the [EHRs] work for them as is or if they’re making documentation [harder].  Don’t just rely on what your vendor tells you.”


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Report: 34 Percent of Healthcare Payments in 2017 Tied to APMs

October 22, 2018
by Heather Landi, Associate Editor
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One-third (34 percent) of total U.S. health care payments were tied to alternative payment models (APMs), such as shared savings/risk arrangements, bundled payments, or population-based reimbursements, in 2017, up from 23 percent in 2015, according to a report from the Health Care Payment Learning and Action Network (LAN).

LAN’s latest progress report measures the use of APMs among public and private health plan and the analysis is based on data sourced from LAN, America’s Health Insurance Plan (AHIP), the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The data was collected across commercial, Medicaid, Medicare Advantage and fee-for-service (FFS) Medicare market segments.

LAN is a public-private partnership launched in March 2015 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to drive adoption and alignment of APMs. At its inception, LAN set out a goal of transitioning 30 percent of total U.S. health care payments to APMs by 2016 and 50 percent by 2018.

According to LAN, the progress report, the largest and most comprehensive effort of its kind, confirms positive and sustained momentum shifting health care payments away from fee-for-service toward value-based payments aimed at improving quality, reducing costs, and providing better health outcomes for patients. Yet, there are additional opportunities to increase payments in episode- and population-based payments that have additional downside risk, according to the report.

Specifically, LAN’s progress report measures the shift away from the current fee-for-service models of payment in the health care system to models that pay providers and hospitals for quality care and improved health.  Like last year’s effort, the APM Measurement Effort includes FFS Medicare data, in addition to data from 61 health plans and 3 FFS Medicaid States, representing a total of 77 percent of covered lives in the United States.

The report data was categorized according to the four categories of the original LAN APM Framework—category 1 is traditional FFS or other legacy payments not linked to quality; category 2 is foundational payments like care coordination fees or pay-for-performance; category 3 is APMs built on FFS architecture and include shared savings, shared risk and bundled payments; category 4 is population-based payment and integrated finance and delivery systems.

According to LAN’s analysis, 41 percent of healthcare dollars fall into Category 1 (FFS with no link to quality and value); 25 percent of health care dollars fall into Category 2 (FFS with a link to quality and value) and 34 percent of health care dollars fall into a composite of Categories 3 and 4 (e.g., shared savings, shared risk, bundled payments, or population-based payments). That 34 percent represents approximately 226.3 million Americans and 77 percent of the covered population.

When comparing APM adoption across different market segments, it is clear which markets are driving the overall adoption of value-based payments, according to the report. Medicare Advantage had 49.5 percent of health care dollars in Categories 3 and 4 and FFS Medicare had 38.3 percent of health care dollars in Categories 3 and 4. The commercial line of business had 28.3 percent of health care dollars in Categories 3 and 4, while Medicaid had 25 percent of health care dollars in Categories 3 and 4.

This year marks the first time the LAN’s measurement effort reported findings at the payment or subcategory level. Notably, the findings show most of the spending tied to Category 3 and 4 APMs falls within the Framework’s 3A category, which focuses on shared savings. Only 12.5 percent of payments were made in Categories 3B, 4A, 4B and 4C combined, which represents APMs with shared savings and downside risk as well as population-based payments with additional risk.

LAN notes that these findings indicate there are additional opportunities to increase payments through episode- and population-based payments that have additional risk.

 

This year also marks the first time the LAN reported payment data by line of business (i.e., commercial, Medicaid, Medicare Advantage, and FFS Medicare), rather than across lines of business only. Like last year’s effort, the APM measurement effort includes FFS Medicare data, in addition to data from 61 health plans and 3 FFS Medicaid States, representing a total of 77 percent of covered lives in the United States.

“The report’s findings reinforce our understanding that there is sustained, positive momentum in the effort to shift healthcare payments from traditional fee-for-service into value-based payments,” Mark McClellan, co-chair, LAN Guiding Committee, and director of the Robert J. Margolis Center for Health Policy, said in a statement. “While we celebrate the increase in overall APM adoption, we also know further progress on payment reform will be important to ensure health care dollars flow through models that have more risk.”

“Our healthcare spending is growing faster than our overall economy and by 2026, 1 in 5 dollars spent in the United States will be spent on healthcare,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a statement in the LAN press release. “This is simply unsustainable, and we must change this trajectory. CMS values our partnerships with those on the frontlines of our healthcare system, and we continue to work with innovators to develop new ways to pay for and deliver care that focuses on patients.”

LAN’s report also included the payers’ perspectives on the future of APM adoption. Ninety percent of payers indicated that APM activity will increase, 9 percent said it will stay the same, while zero payers surveyed indicated that APM activity will decrease.

In responding to a follow-up question regarding which APM subcategory will be most impacted, nearly half (48 percent) of payers identified subcategory 3B: Fee-for-service-based shared-risk, Procedure based bundled/episode payments, and Population-based payments that are not condition specific.

“[3B’s] selection as the APM to be most impacted by future APM adoption reflects a likely shift to two-sided risk arrangements,” the report stated. Apart from the 48 percent that selected 3B as the APM most impacted, another 25% of payers identified subcategory 3A (traditional shared-savings, utilization-based shared-savings) as the APM most impacted by future activity.

Payers responded that APM activity will result in better quality of care, more affordable care, and improved care coordination. While they felt that payment reform may drive further consolidation among healthcare providers, they did not expect higher unit prices as a consequence.

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Heritage Medical Systems’ Voyage to Value—and How Physicians are Leading the Way

October 11, 2018
by Rajiv Leventhal, Managing Editor
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“If you have no risk at all, how hard you work at something is different than if you have some risk,” says one healthcare leader

As the accountable care train continues to speed up, innovative healthcare leaders are realizing that physicians—the ones who are working side-by-side with patients on a regular basis—will be key to making the transition to value successful. In California, Heritage Medical Systems, which also has providers operating in New York and Arizona, has been at the forefront of the accountable care revolution, and its senior executives point to its physicians as the ones who are leading the change.

Mark Wagar, president of Heritage Physicians Organization, which operates under the broader Heritage Medical Systems umbrella, recently spoke with Healthcare Informatics about his organization’s value-based care journey, its accountable care organization (ACO) progress, and how physician culture can be changed as providers take on more risk for their patients. Below are excerpts of that interview.

Where do things stand regarding Heritage’s value-based care evolution?

Heritage Physicians Organization is part of Heritage Medical Systems, which has lots of medical organizations in several states. I believe we have about 3,700 primary care physicians and 12,000 specialists that are involved in our ACO endeavors. This has been driven off the original and largest piece of our business in California. And it was a policy decision early on, from our founder, Dr. Richard Merkin, to get into [the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services’] Pioneer ACO model, even though it was not our core business.

We have been involved in value-based care, the full-risk version, for decades, but we wanted to demonstrate that if you can surround private fee-for-service physicians with the kind of capabilities and infrastructure that we give our traditional business, an ACO has potential. So we did that and are continuing to move forward with that program. But we also believe this: the country would benefit if this all moved faster.

Heritage has evolved from the Pioneer ACO model, to the MSSP (Medicare Shared Savings Program), now to the Next Generation ACO model. Can you talk about the biggest lessons learned so far?

Generally, it’s a step in the right direction. The ability to get more of the funding earlier enables provider organizations to have the funding, change the system, and change what we do. You don’t have to drive off billable events only. We finally have this exploding recognition suddenly that social determinants and behavioral health are important. But that has been apparent to any physician organization for decades, particularly for us as we have been involved in value-based care and risk arrangements since the 1970s.

It became obvious that depending on the patients and the circumstance—what happens in their home and community, what surrounds them, and what their other issues are—may be more important than the physical interaction with their providers. You have to know that in order to manage their health. Once you move away from the mindset of, “I just need to be excellent when you fall in the door, sick or injured,” and move toward, “I will try to help you not fall in the door sick or injured,” or at least have it take longer for it to happen, or maybe you won’t be as bad when you do fall in the door, that’s when the light bulb goes on. We are happy that it’s becoming a broad part of the equation.

Mark Wagar

What are some of the most important IT and data elements to being successful in this transition?

I think as much real-time data and access as you can get is extremely important—so what care a patient is getting, and where, and what is happening in his or her life. If you work from the traditional basis, we pay claims in partnership with our health plan partners, and we pay the claims on the vast majority of our business. And when we do that, our physicians, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, and everyone else involved in the patient’s care, don’t have to wait every three to six months for a review of the data. We see the data today—this hour.

If someone shows up with a conflicting set of prescriptions, or an event that the primary care physician didn’t know about, you want to find out about that right away, and find out what’s happening and what’s wrong. Looking back at trends is important in terms of a future planning perspective, but in terms of what is happening with the patient right now, especially those who are at risk, you want to have that information right now—today, tonight, this hour—and do something about it.

Dr. Merkin’s next question after he talks with physicians about a patient is, “So you know this information, and what are we doing about that right now?” It’s much different than the traditional fee-for-service system where the data just isn’t available to the provider at the level until much later.

What are your thoughts on the recent policy developments on the ACO front these days? Are the government’s proposals to push providers into risk more aggressive than some would like?

Yes, it’s more aggressive than some would like. But this is not about what all of us would like; it’s about how you get to where things are optimal and most effective faster. If you fully embrace both the access to the resources, and the risk, and you are able to spend the money on the resources—in terms of changing the system, changing the way you do business, and not accepting the status quo—you can make a significant difference.

The one-sided risk models are a very important way for providers who may be uncertain to get started, but we are talking about managing a human being-based system of care. If you have no risk at all, how hard you work at something is different than if you have some risk. Providers always want more dollars to do something with, but you don’t get dollars if you aren’t in a position to do something materially different, and essentially guarantee that at least some of it will happen.

We still have a fee-for-service-based system and much of the value-based payments that health plans have moved to is a positive thing that has stimulated some change, but it’s paying you a year or a year-and-a-half later—maybe a little differently if you happen to administer a result as a bonus—but you are still getting that underlying fee-for-service payment. If you are in a one-sided model, it masks and slows down how quickly you get to what could be done if you had more of the resources.  

How have you and your colleagues been able to change the physician culture, in terms of moving physicians to a new understanding of what’s going on in healthcare?

In Heritage’s markets where the models are most mature, it’s a combination of physician groups where the doctors are employed, as well as significant numbers of independent practices and smaller offices in the community, and we can blend those. But the physicians individually are not at personal material downside risk. There is an organizational structure that manages the money that comes in when we are fully at risk, but regardless of whether they are employed or an independent practice, they are all tied to a payment at the individual physician level.

That’s one of the things that is missed in the whole conversation over providers being put more at risk—an individual practice office with a few thousand patients is not in a position, actuarily, to accept all that risk. You have to be partnered with some kind of system.

In our instance, in our most mature markets, it’s a blend of employed physicians and independent practices, but in some markets all we have are independent practices. So we can do this if we surround them with the infrastructure if you aggregate enough members from the plans that give you an actuarily valid risk base, and then you have the money up front, so you can help them with information and give them information faster. Then, they can do good things for their patients faster.

What advice can you give to others who are just starting out on this journey?

I [wouldn’t] sit and stew about how difficult it is to be in your position and be surrounded by all these regulations and requirements that can become tough to manage. You can talk about that all day, but it’s ultimately the people’s money and they are asking for better quality, better service and access, and more moderated costs. The only people that can ultimately change things on all those fronts, for the better, are provider organizations—predominately those led by physicians.

But we cannot afford to take decades to make the next set of changes, unless we want government intervention that breeds mediocrity as a result. Physicians and providers should lead this change, and moving this faster will bring the best things for their patients in the long run. Demand more of the dollar in your control immediately, and in order to do that you have to have the structure around you and the willingness to accept responsibility for that dollar. We are trying to show people out there that you can partner with others, and it’s possible to get net better across these factors if you enable the physicians to manage more of the dollar from a clinical perspective, to the patient’s benefit.


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Are Disruptive Forces in U.S. Healthcare Accelerating Now? Notes on the Now-Approved CVS-Aetna Deal

October 10, 2018
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The DoJ’s approval of the CVS-Aetna merger signals a new phase in the healthcare business world—and it’s time for patient care executives to rethink the meaning of competition

As Associate Editor Heather Landi noted in her news report Oct. 10, on Wednesday, the Department of Justice (DoJ) approved a proposed $69 billion merger between CVS Health and health insurer Aetna, after Aetna entered into an agreement with the Department to divest its Medicare Part D prescription drug plan business.

“The deal,” Landi wrote, “is the latest in a wave of combinations among healthcare companies, including many pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) and insurer integrations. Last month, the Justice Department approved Cigna’s $67 billion takeover of Express Scripts. CVS Health announced in early December 2017 its intention to acquire Aetna in a $69 billion-dollar merger, marking the largest ever in the health insurance industry. Woonsocket, R.I.-based CVS operates the nation’s largest retail pharmacy chain, owns a large pharmacy benefit manager called Caremark, and is the nation’s second-largest provider of individual prescription drug plans, with approximately 4.8 million members. CVS earned revenues of approximately $185 billion in 2017. Aetna, headquartered in Hartford, Connecticut, is the nation’s third-largest health-insurance company and fourth-largest individual prescription drug plan insurer, with over two million prescription drug plan members. Aetna earned revenues of approximately $60 billion in 2017.”

As Reed Abelson wrote in a report in Wednesday’s New York Times, “The approval marks the close of an era, during which powerful pharmacy benefit managers brokered drug prices among pharmaceutical companies, insurers and employers. But a combined CVS-Aetna may be even more formidable. As the last major free-standing pharmacy manager, CVS Health had revenues of about $185 billion last year, and provided prescription plans to roughly 94 million customers. Aetna, one of the nation’s largest insurers with about $60 billion in revenue last year, covers 22 million people in its health plans.”

And, while executives from the two mega-companies assert that this merger will allow them to better coordinate care for consumers, while also better controlling costs, some consumer advocates believe that the opposite could actually take place—that consumers could lose both choice and reasonable medication costs. “This type of consolidation in a market already dominated by a few, powerful players presents the very real possibility of reduced competition that harms consumer choice and quality,” George Slover, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, an advocacy group, said in a statement. “The combination of CVS and Aetna creates an enormous market force that we haven’t seen before.” The consumer organization, the Times report noted, had opposed the Aetna-CVS merger, arguing that people enrolled in Aetna health plans could be forced to seek care at CVS retail clinics, and that those who were not insured by Aetna could pay higher prices for drugs than those who were.

Meanwhile, what fascinates me in all this is the potentially accumulative impact of all the various disruptive business combinations that have been emerging in U.S. healthcare—not just CVS/Aetna, but also the Amazon/Berkshire Hathaway/JP Morgan Chase collaboration on healthcare costs and other challenges; Wal-Mart’s interest in potentially acquiring Humana; and the forays into consumer-facing healthcare IT on the part of Google and Microsoft.

All of these business deals, collaborations, and potential connections involve either “interspecies” combinations, or forays into new areas on the part of companies from outside those core business areas. And that should concern traditionalist-thinking leaders in patient care organizations, especially senior executives in tradition-bound hospitals and health systems, who have historically thought about competition as being direct hospital organization to hospital organization competition. With all sorts of non-traditional business combinations emerging, that kind of thinking ends up being not just limiting, but potentially debilitating.

The reality is that every part of the policy, business and operational landscape on which hospital-based organizations is now in motion—at the same time. Physicians are coalescing into ever-larger multispecialty physician groups, some of them affiliated with hospital-based integrated health systems, but many of them totally independent. Health plans are acquiring physician practices, and are, in many markets direct competitors with hospitals in the acquisition of those practices. Health plans are also continuing to consolidate among themselves. Employer-purchasers are eliminating the health plan “middleman,” and setting up direct contracting with some of the largest and best-known nationally branded patient care organizations; and on and on.

I wrote last year about attending a fascinating session on employer direct contracting that took place at the World Health Care Congress in Washington, D.C. last spring. Employer-purchaser executives talked with great enthusiasm about such contracts. One executive, representing the nationwide Lowes home improvement retail company, shared his enthusiastic response to contracting directly with the Mayo Clinic, to bring patients from places as faraway as Montana and Mississippi, to Cleveland, for total joint replacement surgeries, at scale.

I quoted Bob Ihrie, who had recently retired as senior vice president, compensation and benefits, at the North Wilkesboro, North Carolina-based Lowe’s Companies, about that contracted relationship. “As Ihrie noted, for an extremely far-flung self-insured employer like Lowe’s, with its 1,800-plus home improvement stores spread across the U.S., doing what the Chicago-based Boeing Corporation, with its massive plants in Washington state, California, Missouri, and South Carolina, and its ability to build bricks-and-mortar corporate medical clinics in those locations, the options for Lowe’s are rather different,” I wrote. “Thus, the desire to create systems to improve their patient outcomes for their covered lives, and improve costs.” Indeed, I wrote that Ihrie told that World Health Care Congress audience, that, “The quality results have been so overwhelming that for Lowe’s for 2017, if you elect not to go to a center of excellence, you need a mandatory second opinion, and if it doesn’t approve, you won’t be covered.” He further noted that “Wal-Mart actually mandates travel to a center of excellence.”

In other words, the old thinking among hospital organization senior executives—to think primarily about market competition as being illustrated by the fact that the hospital down the road is building a new facility—is hopelessly outdated at this point. Indeed, it’s time to consider that market competition may now mean a major nationwide retailer with a strong local presence, compelling its employees and their family members to fly across the country to a patient care organization with national branding and presence, rather than to one’s own facility, or to the facility down the street.

In short, it’s time for hospital executives to think very differently about what market competition and market disruption might mean for their organizations. It’s time to start playing three-dimensional chess.

And I haven’t even discussed the role that consumer-facing technologies, many of them spread through online apps and wearable technologies, will begin to play in all this. That adds yet another cross-hatch factor to this entire discussion.

So it’s time for healthcare executives to rethink the very definition of market competition, and to think in unprecedented ways about market disruption; because this DoJ approval of the CVS-Aetna merger should absolutely be taken as a sign of things yet to come.

 

 

 

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