Check and Checkmate: Is the Debate Around the MSSP ACO Program About to Get Super-Heated? | Mark Hagland | Healthcare Blogs Skip to content Skip to navigation

Check and Checkmate: Is the Debate Around the MSSP ACO Program About to Get Super-Heated?

September 12, 2018
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Will NAACOS’s just-published study turn the tables on senior CMS officials? Or will it be ignored?

Something really quite extraordinary happened this week: NAACOS, the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Accountable Care Organizations, published, in the august journal Health Affairs, a study based on research that NAACOS leaders had commissioned from Dobson DaVanzo & Associates, a healthcare economics consulting firm. And, as Healthcare Informatics Managing Editor Rajiv Leventhal noted in his report, “Medicare’s largest ACO (accountable care organization) initiative—the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP)—generated gross savings of $1.84 billion for Medicare from 2013 to 2015, nearly double the $954 million estimated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS),” according to the NAACOS/Dobson DaVanzo & Associates study.

And here’s what’s extraordinary about that: this is the first time in my memory that I’ve seen a national association of provider organizations commission independent research that directly contradicted federal government findings and statistics. Could this be the start of a major conflict over the direction of the MSSP program? The potential for actual conflict here is quite real. But first, let’s look at what NAACOS and Dobson DaVanzo found. As Leventhal noted, “The study, which used similar scientific methods as a 2018 peer-reviewed paper by Harvard researchers published in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that MSSP ACOs reduced Medicare spending by $541.7 million during the 2013 to 2015 timeframe, after accounting for shared-savings payments earned by ACOs.”

The MSSP is the largest value-based payment model in the U.S., growing to 561 ACOs with more than 350,000 providers caring for 10.5 million Medicare beneficiaries in 2018. Under current MSSP rules, new ACOs are eligible to share savings with Medicare for up to six years if they meet quality and spending goals but are not at financial risk for any losses. As such, CMS has been reiterating in recent months that these “upside risk-only” ACOs are costing the government money.

What’s more, as Leventhal noted, “To this point, in a recent proposed rule that has so far been met with varying degrees of scrutiny, CMS is proposing to shorten that 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. This proposal, coupled with CMS’ recommendations to cut potential shared savings in half—from 50 percent to 25 percent for one-sided risk ACOs—will certainly deter new entrants to the MSSP ACO program. Importantly, CMS has essentially said they don’t mind if upside-only ACOs that are costing the government money leave the program if they aren’t willing to take on more financial risk. CMS Administration Seema Verma said in a press call following the proposed rule’s release that ‘[Upside-only] ACOs have no incentive, at all, to reduce healthcare costs while improving outcomes, as they were intended.’ Nonetheless, MSSP ACO participants seemingly performed quite well in 2017, despite CMS’ claims that they have been largely ineffective. In sum, the 472 ACOs that were in this model last year achieved $314 million in net savings to Medicare in 2017 after accounting for bonuses paid from the government, and $1.1 billion overall.”

For the NAACOS leaders, the key element here is that, as the authors of the Health Affairs article pointed out, “Despite the positive 2017 results, gauging MSSP performance based on calculations using administratively derived spending targets (benchmarks) is simply not an accurate way to measure overall program savings. In fact, the published academic research on MSSP performance points to much higher savings than are suggested by the benchmarks.”

Explained further by the researchers, for its analysis of Medicare ACOs, “CMS calculates an initial risk-adjusted spending benchmark for each ACO based on its historical spending for a group of attributed Medicare beneficiaries; it then trends this benchmark forward to the current program year based on the national average growth in Medicare spending per beneficiary.” The article’s authors further point out that if an ACO’s spending is less than the benchmark, and has a savings rate of at least 2 percent—and the ACO meets MSSP quality thresholds—it earns a shared savings payment that is typically 50 percent of the calculated savings. CMS then calculates total MSSP savings as the sum of total savings for ACOs with spending below the benchmark, plus the sum of spending above the benchmark for ACOs that exceeded it. Using this method, CMS estimated MSSP savings of $954 million between 2013 and 2015. During this period, ACOs that saved money earned $1.3 billion in shared savings payments. CMS concluded that on a net basis, the program increased Medicare spending by $344 million between 2013 and 2015, according to the NAACOS analysis and Health Affairs commentary.

At this juncture, there is an obvious issue here, because CMS’s calculation method implicitly makes it difficult for ACOs to show progress, since savings are benchmarked against administratively derived targets, rather than actual savings. Who came up with that method, anyway???

And the implications of using such a method are clear. As the press release that NAACOS issued upon the publication of the Health Affairs article noted, “Despite the growing ACO track record of improving quality and saving Medicare money, CMS, in an August 17 proposed rule, moved to shorten the time new ACOs can remain in the shared-savings-only model from the current six years to two years. Data show ACOs need more than two years to begin showing the benefits of forming an ACO. That proposal, coupled with CMS’s move to cut shared savings in half — from 50 percent to 25 percent for shared-savings-only ACOs — would deter new Medicare ACOs from forming.”

What’s more, the press release quoted Stephen Nuckolls, CEO of Coastal Carolina Quality Care in New Bern, N.C., which includes 63 providers caring for 11,000 Medicare beneficiaries, as stating that “It takes time and money to transform entrenched care delivery practices in local communities and build the critical mass to successfully integrate care, manage risk, and improve quality while reducing spending growth. Unfortunately, the proposed changes will hold up the move to value-based care by significantly undermining the business case to voluntarily form new Medicare ACOs.” 

I take Mr. Nuckolls’s charge very seriously. I interviewed him recently, and as he noted in our interview, when asked the secret of his ACO’s success so far in the six-plus years in which Coastal Carolina Quality Care has participated in the MSSP program, “[I]t takes time for some of these strategies, such as population health, to pay off. Another thing that’s going on is that our care management program, I give credit for keeping our costs low and getting things in place. And in addition,” he told me, “we really made a lot of strides in our first contract cycle, specific to our market. All of our annual wellness visits and preventive care, we made our marks there and that positioned us well in our second contract cycle. And it just takes time, when you focus on the quality of care, for… when a greater percentage of your patients have their blood pressure under control, you’ll have fewer adverse events. And when you work to lower a1cs, that will avert events over time. And annual wellness visits, vaccinations, screening services—it costs money for screenings; and once you get things set up, that’s then in place. And care management services—when you go into your second contract cycle, you have some of those costs worked into your contract cycle the second time; so it takes time to achieve shared savings, and to get the staff to focus on the sickest population.”

What’s more, what Nuckolls told me in our interview reflects what virtually every ACO leader I and my colleagues at Healthcare Informatics have heard from ACO senior executives—that it takes several years to lay the foundations for ACO success.

What’s more, Nuckolls told me, the results revealed in this data review-based study and article are important, as they speak to “the policy point—organizations are truly saving the government money, even if it doesn’t immediately show on paper. The evidence doesn’t support the idea that ACOs should be kicked out because they have a bad benchmark. The true savings to the Medicare Trust Fund will then be less. And that’s what they need to focus on, achieving true savings to the government.”

So, the obvious question now is, what will happen next? Will CMS Administrator Seema Verma lash out against NAACOS, denouncing this “rival” analysis of MSSP ACO savings? Will she ignore it? Or will she reach out to NAACOS’s leaders, and attempt to find common ground, as the “Pathways For Success” program potentially threatens the expansion of the voluntary MSSP program? It feels as though a lot is hanging in the balance right now, because if the national association representing ACOs has just come out with what is implicitly a denunciation of CMS’s method for calculating ACO progress and success, that is a fairly major “j’accuse” that Administrator Verma and her fellow senior CMS and HHS officials would do well to consider carefully. So the next move on this chessboard is Ms. Verma’s. And who knows what that move might look like?

 

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CMS: 93% of Clinicians Get Positive Payment Adjustments for MIPS Year 1

November 8, 2018
by Rajiv Leventhal, Managing Editor
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Ninety-three percent of MIPS (Merit-based Incentive Payment System)-eligible clinicians received a positive payment adjustment for their performance in 2017, and 95 percent overall avoided a negative payment adjustment, according to a CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) announcement today.

The first year of MIPS under MACRA’s Quality Payment Program (QPP) was dubbed by CMS as a “pick your pace year,” which essentially enabled clinicians to avoid payment penalties as long as they submitted at least the minimum amount of quality data. As such, in its announcement, CMS did admit that the overall performance threshold for MIPS was established at a relatively low level of three points, and the availability of “pick your pace” provided participation flexibility through three reporting options for clinicians: “test”, partial year, or full-year reporting.

CMS said that 93 percent of MIPS-eligible clinicians received a positive payment adjustment for their performance in 2017, and 95 percent overall avoided a negative payment adjustment. CMS specifically calculated that approximately 1.06 million MIPS-eligible clinicians in total will receive a MIPS payment adjustment, either positive, neutral, or negative. The payment adjustments for the 2017 program year get reflected in 2019.

Breaking down the 93 percent of participants that received a positive payment adjustment last year, 71 percent earned a positive payment adjustment and an adjustment for exceptional performance, while 22 percent earned a positive payment adjustment only. Meanwhile, just 5 percent of MIPS-eligible clinicians received a negative payment adjustment, and 2 percent received a neutral adjustment (no increase or decrease).

Of the total population, just over one million MIPS-eligible clinicians reported data as either an individual, as a part of a group, or through an Alternative Payment Model (APM), and received a neutral payment adjustment or better. Additionally, under the Advanced APM track, just more than 99,000 eligible clinicians earned Qualifying APM Participant (QP) status, according to the CMS data.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma noted on the first pick-your-pace year of the QPP, “This measured approach allowed more clinicians to successfully participate, which led to many clinicians exceeding the performance threshold and a wider distribution of positive payment adjustments. We expect that the gradual increases in the performance thresholds in future program years will create an evolving distribution of payment adjustments for high performing clinicians who continue to invest in improving quality and outcomes for beneficiaries.”

For 2018, the second year of the QPP, CMS raised the stakes for those participating clinicians. And in the third year of the program, set to start in January 2019, a final rule was just published with year three requirements. Undoubtedly, as time passes, eligible clinicians will be asked for greater participation at higher levels. At the same time, CMS continues to exempt certain clinicians who don’t meet a low-volume Medicare threshold.

Earlier this year, CMS said that 91 percent of all MIPS-eligible clinicians participated in the first year of the QPP, exceeding the agency’s internal goal.

What’s more, from a scoring perspective in 2017, the overall national mean score for MIPS-eligible clinicians was 74.01 points, and the national median was 88.97 points, on a 0 to 100 scale. Further breaking down the mean and median:

  • Clinicians participating in MIPS as individuals or groups (and not through an APM) received a mean score of 65.71 points and a median score of 83.04 points
  • Clinicians participating in MIPS through an APM received a mean score of 87.64 points and a median score of 91.67 points

Additionally, clinicians in small and rural practices who were not in APMs and who chose to participate in MIPS also performed well, CMS noted. On average, MIPS eligible clinicians in rural practices earned a mean score of 63.08 points, while clinicians in small practices received a mean score of 43.46 points.

Said Verma, “While we understand that challenges remain for clinicians in small practices, these results suggest that these clinicians and those in rural practices can successfully participate in the program. With these mean scores, clinicians in small and rural practices would still receive a neutral or positive payment adjustment for the 2017, 2018, and 2019 performance years due to the relatively modest performance thresholds that we have established. We will also continue to directly support these clinicians now and in future years of the program.”

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HHS Secretary Azar: HHS Is Planning New Mandatory Bundled Payment Models

November 8, 2018
by Heather Landi, Associate Editor
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The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is revisiting mandatory bundled payment models, possibly for radiation oncology and cardiac care, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, which signals a strong about-face in the Trump Administration’s policy about bundled payment initiatives.

HHS is reexamining the role that mandatory bundled payment models can play in the transition to value-based care, Azar said in a keynote speech at the Patient-Centered Primary Care Collaborative Conference on Thursday. HHS published Azar’s comments.

In the published remarks, Azar said the Trump Administration is revisiting mandatory bundled payments and exploring new voluntary bundled payments as part of the Administration’s goal of paying for outcomes, rather than process.

“We need results, American patients need change, and when we need mandatory models to deliver it, mandatory models are going to see a comeback,” Azar said.

In his speech, Azar said, “Imagine a system where physicians and other providers only had to worry about the outcome, rather than worrying about their staffing ratios and the individual reimbursements for every procedure they do and every drug they prescribe. That kind of payment system would radically reorient power in our healthcare system—away from the federal government and back to those closest to the patient.”

He continued, “One way we can do that is through bundling payments, rather than paying for every individual service. This is an area where you have already seen testing from CMMI for several years now—and I want to let you know today that you are going to see a lot more such ideas in the future.”

Azar highlighted the Bundled Payments for Care Improvement (BPCI), which, he said, has shown significant savings in several common inpatient episodes, including joint replacement and pneumonia.

During his speech on Thursday, Azar said, “I want to share with all of you for the first time today: We intend to revisit some of the episodic cardiac models that we pulled back, and are actively exploring new and improved episode-based models in other areas, including radiation oncology. We’re also actively looking at ways to build on the lessons and successes of the Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement model.

“We’re not going to stop there: We will use all avenues available to us—including mandatory and voluntary episode-based payment models,” he said.

One industry group, the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO), already has voiced concerns about a mandatory payment model. In a statement issued Thursday afternoon, Laura Thevenot, CEO of ASTRO, made it clear that the organizaiton strongly supports a radiation oncology alternative payment model (RO-APM). "ASTRO has worked for many years to craft a viable payment model that would stabilize payments, drive adherence to nationally-recognized clinical guidelines and improve patient care. ASTRO believes its proposed RO-APM will allow radiation oncologists to participate fully in the transition to value-based care that both improves cancer outcomes and reduces costs."

Thevenot said ASTRO has aggressively pursued adoption of this proposed model with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI). However, Thevenot said the group has concerns "about the possibility of launching a model that requires mandatory participation from all radiation oncology practices at the outset."

Further, Thevenot said any radiation oncology payment model will represent "a significant departure from the status quo." "Care must be taken to protect access to treatments for all radiation oncology patients and not disadvantage certain types of practices, particularly given the very high fixed costs of running a radiation oncology clinic," Thevenot stated.

Back in January, CMS announced the launch of the voluntary BPCI Advanced model, noting that it “builds on the earlier success of bundled payment models and is an important step in the move away from fee-for-service and towards paying for value.” The BPCI Advanced model includes more than 1,000 participants that are receiving episode-based payments for over 30 clinical areas, Azar said.

“BPCI Advanced is a voluntary model, where potential participants can select whether they want to join. But we’re not going to stick to voluntary models. Real experimentation with episodic bundles requires a willingness to try mandatory models. We know they are the most effective way to know whether these bundles can successfully save money and improve quality,” Azar said.

The Obama Administration introduced mandatory bundled payment for care for heart attacks and for cardiac bypass surgery in July 2016.

In the past, CMS Administrator Seema Verma has said that she does not support making bundled payments mandatory, and former HHS Secretary Tom Price, M.D. had strongly opposed mandatory bundles, going so far as to direct the end of two mandatory bundled payment programs—one existing and one previously announced. In November 2017, CMS finalized a rule, proposed in August 2017, that cancelled mandatory hip fracture and cardiac bundled payment models.

As per that final rule, CMS also scaled back the Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement Model (CJR), specifically reducing the number of mandatory geographic areas participating in CJR from 67 areas to 34 areas. And, in an effort to address the unique needs of rural providers, the federal agency also made participation voluntary for all low-volume and rural hospitals participating in the model in all 67 geographic areas.

On Thursday, Azar acknowledged that his statements signaled HHS was reversing course on its previous stance, noting that last year the administration reduced the size of the CJR model and pulled back the other episode payment models, including those on cardiac care, before they could launch.

Azar, who was confirmed as HHS Secretary earlier this year, signaled early on that he diverged from Verma and Price on his views about mandatory bundled payments. During a Senate Finance Committee hearing in January on his nomination for HHS Secretary, he said, on the topic of CMMI [the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation] pilot programs, “I believe that we need to be able to test hypotheses, and if we have to test a hypothesis, I want to be a reliable partner, I want to be collaborative in doing this, I want to be transparent, and follow appropriate procedures; but if to test a hypothesis there around changing our healthcare system, it needs to be mandatory there as opposed to voluntary, then so be it.”

During his speech Thursday, Azar pointed to the Administration’s first mandatory model, which was unveiled two weeks ago, called the International Pricing Index (IPI) Model for payments for Part B drugs. Azar said the model is a “mandatory model that will help address the inequity between what the U.S. and other countries pay for many costly drugs.”

Further, Azar said CMMI also will launch new primary care payment models before the end of the year, with the aim of introducing a spectrum of risk for primary care providers, Azar said.

“Before the end of this year, you will see new payment models coming forth from CMMI that will give primary care physicians more flexibility in how they care for their patients, while offering them significant rewards for successfully keeping them healthy and out of the hospital,” he said.

“Different sizes and types of practices can take on different levels of risk. As many of you know, even smaller practices want to be, and can be, compensated based on their patients’ outcomes,” he said. “We want to incentivize that, with a spectrum of flexibility, too: The more risk you are willing to take on, the less we’re going to micromanage your work.”

Azar also noted HHS’ efforts to examine impediments to care coordination, such as examining the Stark Law, the Anti-Kickback Statute, HIPAA, and 42 CFR Part 2. CMS has already launched and concluded a request for information on the Stark Law, and the Office of the Inspector General has done the same on the Anti-Kickback Statute, he noted.

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Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s Heartening Speech at CHIME18 Should Inspire U.S. Healthcare Leaders

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The story of an Amazonian tribe could serve as a motivational lesson for U.S. healthcare stakeholders

It was inspiring to hear Sanjay Gupta, M.D., the well-known neurosurgeon and medical reporter, give the closing keynote at the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) 2018 Fall CIO Forum in San Diego last week. Dr. Gupta, who serves as associate chief of the neurosurgery service at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, while also best known as CNN's multiple Emmy Award-winning chief medical correspondent, discussed the fascinating balance that he strikes between medicine and media.

“Oftentimes, I see people at their best, and sometimes at their worst. I get to travel the world, where I learn so much, but also teach others. Sometimes the dance between medicine and media can be awkward and emotionally challenging. But almost always, the stories we do have a significant impact,” Gupta told the Fall CIO Forum attendees.

What was perhaps most captivating about Gupta’s speech was when he spoke about visiting a primitive Amazonian tribe that appears to have the best heart health in the world. The Tsimane people of Bolivia do not speak a language, live a simple existence, and are disease-free, explained Gupta. So he went to visit the tribe with the goal to understand its lifestyle and what led to its members having such healthy hearts.  

Sanjay Gupta, M.D.

“I went spearfishing with one [tribe member], who thought he was 84-years-old, but he really didn’t know for sure. His shirt was off, and he was ripped, balancing himself on the canoe, just looking at the water, spearing fish. His eyesight was perfect. The entire indigenous tribe was just like this,” Gupta recalled.

After examining the Tsimane tribe’s diet, Gupta noted it was a hunter-gatherer society, meaning there was nothing technological. “The most mechanical thing I saw was a pulley for the well,” he said. Seventy percent of what they eat is carbohydrates—unrefined and unprocessed—while 15 percent of their diet is protein, and 15 percent fat, he added. “You need farmed food because oftentimes you don’t have successful hunting days, so the farmed food was the food in the bank. And they would do intermitting fasting, too. These are the people with the healthiest hearts in the world,” Gupta exclaimed.

When it comes to activity, when hunters are hunting, they’re not ever outrunning their prey, but rather outlasting it, noted Gupta. “We found that they walked about 17,000 steps per day. But they didn’t run; they only walked. They are active, but not intensively active. They also hardly every sit—they are either lying or standing all the time. And they would get nine hours of sleep per night, waking up to the rooster’s crow. There are no devices. Again, these are the people who have the healthiest hearts in world. They don’t have a healthcare system and don’t spend a dollar on healthcare,” Gupta stated.

What’s even more interesting about this tribe is that each of its members lives with some degree of a parasitic infection, which they usually get it early in life, have a few days of illness, and then just live with these parasites in their bodies for their entire lives. “The belief is that so much of the disease we talk about—that leads to this $3.3 trillion price tag [the total cost of U.S. healthcare spending in 2016]—is actually ignited or worsened by our immune systems. So the parasitic infections could be part of the reason they are protected from all types of diseases,” Gupta offered.

Essentially, it’s living this basic, undeveloped life that “inadvertently provides them extraordinary protection against heart disease,” noted a report in HealthDay last year. “Thanks to their unique lifestyle, most Tsimane [members] have arteries unclogged by the cholesterol plaques that drastically increase the risk of heart attack and stroke in modern Americans,” Gregory Thomas, M.D., medical director of the Memorial Care Heart & Vascular Institute at Long Beach Memorial, in California, said in that report.

Tsimane tribe (source: University of New Mexico)

You might be asking what the story of the Tsimane tribe has to do with U.S. healthcare since its lifestyle would obviously never be replicated in a developed country. And while that is true, it’s tough to ignore the $1 billion per day that our healthcare system spends on heart disease—compared to the Tsimane tribe that doesn’t spend a single dime, yet has the healthiest hearts in the world.

In this sense, perhaps we can use the Tsimane story to push ourselves to develop a greater understanding of why we spend so much money on healthcare and don’t have the results to show for it. Gupta asked this $3.3 trillion-dollar question in his speech—why does healthcare in the U.S. cost so much and what do we get in return?

“If you look at the statistics, it’s not impressive. More people die from preventable disease in the U.S. than in 12 other nations. People live longer in 30 other countries compared to the U.S.—including places like Chile and Costa Rica. We still have tens of millions of people who don’t have access, and we still spend all this money on healthcare. Why?” he asked.

Gupta explained that the nation’s high healthcare costs come down to the following: high administrative costs, technology, new drugs and development, and the cost of chronic disease—the last which is incredibly self-inflicted. About 70 to 80 percent of chronic disease is self-preventable, he said.

Indeed, as most of us know, about 5 percent of the U.S. population accounts for 50 percent of the healthcare costs. These are folks who are defined by illness, not by health, Gupta stated. This is why the modern-day healthcare system has proactively taken to targeting that 5 percent to improve their chances of preventing disease and staying healthy. “Data shows that home visits, nutritional counseling, one-on-one coaching, and diligent follow-up care can go a long way in preventing someone from getting sick in the first place, and from turning a disease into something more chronic. Some of these interventions can actually reverse disease. The die is not cast,” Gupta said.

For me, Gupta’s keynote highlighted the need for efforts around value-based care, care management, and population health to be intensified. A big part of that, as noted in the speech, is addressing patients’ social and environmental factors. It’s not at all surprising to see studies such as this one from earlier this year, conducted by researchers at the University of South Florida (USF) College of Public Health, Tampa, and WellCare Health Plans, and published in Population Health Management, which found that healthcare spending is substantially reduced when people are successfully connected to social services that address social barriers, or social determinants of health, such as secure housing, medical transportation, healthy food programs, and utility and financial assistance.

And with that, there is also an enormous opportunity for data and IT to play a role. Information sharing, so that providers have access to the right information at the point of care—no matter where the patient is—will be critical to reducing unnecessary costs. As will the robust use of data analytics, so that patient care organizations can be proactive in predicting which patients are at highest risk, when they might need services, and how to intervene at the appropriate time.

But to this point, Gupta, who noted that our society can get too caught up in high-tech, also suggested that “medicine seems to play by slightly different rules when it comes to innovation as opposed to other sectors. Sometimes, innovation moves painstakingly slow in respect to medicine.” At the end of the day, he said, it will be “the innovations that make us, [as a society], healthier, happier, and connect us in frictionless ways, that will be the biggest winners.”

So, will the U.S. population suddenly turn off their iPhone alarms, wake up to the rooster’s crow, and become a hunter-gatherer society? No, I would say that’s quite unlikely to happen. But hearing stories such as the one of the Tsimane tribe might just serve as good enough motivation to bring down the astronomical and unsustainable costs of U.S. healthcare.

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