Posted in Accountable Care, ACO, Affordable Care Act, Triple Aim

‘Fear and Trembling’ or Simply ‘Lonely in’ Seattle?

By Gregg A. Masters, MPH

The old is new again…

I’ve been writing and tweeting about this theme for some time now. It was aptly offered as contextual insight via Nicole Bradberry of MZI Healthcare /Orange Solutions and CEO of the Florida Association of ACOs.

Many have similarly echoed this ‘deja vu’ theme when discussing the roll-out of ACOs including functional similarities and key differentiators with HMOs and previous managed care initiatives circa the 1980 – 2000 vintage.

One such old is new again effort is ‘direct contracting’, where the employer deals directly with the provider community without a health plan as third party intermediary. An army of TPAs (third party administrators) stepped up to offer ‘administrative services only’ (ASO) typically to larger employers who self fund their benefit plans to carve out the middleman, i.e., Aetna, United, the Blues, etc., and exercise greater flexibility with their provider community. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, many traditional insurance carriers promptly positioned themselves to compete in the TPA space via acquisition or internal accommodations.

I suppose the novelty and efficacy of direct contracting (vs. traditionally orchestrated health plan based managed care) was somewhat muted by the overall failure of the managed care industry writ large to effectively restrain the rapacious appetite of a volume fueled delivery system; see: ‘Direct Contracting: Why It Hasn’t Grown’.   

Fast forward a decade plus and we read about innovation in the Seattle market where competing health systems have internally launched ACOs and in turn are direct contracting with Boeing, see: ‘Seattle Health Systems Launch New Accountable Care Organizations for Employer’.

While the cited ‘InterStudy’ report (the think tank founded by progenitor of the ‘SuperMed’ concept and the acknowledged father of HMOs Paul Ellwood, MD) is behind a pay-wall, the report highlights are as follows [Note: for details on Boeing direct contracting see: ‘Narrow Networks in Today’s Health Care Climate]:

  • Aviation giant Boeing is the first large employer in the market to sign on for both ACO networks, which will be offered to non-union members and select unionized employees. Other employers are expected to contract with the health systems prior to January 2015.
  • The UW Medicine Accountable Care Network features a mix of hospitals within the Seattle market and in surrounding communities. The network includes Seattle Children’s Hospital and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, both of which were left off the networks for most health insurance exchange policies.
  • The state’s exchange plans prominently featured narrow networks. After outcry from affected stakeholders, state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler introduced new regulations requiring the submission of provider networks for approval, and the networks must include adequate access to specialists and community care providers. Insurers warn the regulations could lead to higher premiums, while hospitals argue that the new rule does not goes far enough to protect consumers.

Comments from report author include:

  • “The introduction of direct-contract ACOs in the Seattle market is surprising, as the market has only begun fully embracing ACOs in the last year. Traditionally, Seattle health systems have shied away from bearing risk, so the market is now entering into a more advanced model of care. Franciscan Health, which was not included in a direct-contract ACO network, may feel pressure to form one to remain competitive in the market.”
  • “Boeing’s willingness to offer the new ACOs, as well as its traditional health plans, allows employees to select the coverage and network they prefer. UW Medicine may have a bigger draw as its ACO network includes providers that have been excluded from insurance networks.”

Meanwhile, per ‘Employer Direct Contracting‘ via Knowledge Source:

According to a recent National Business Group on Health survey, 11% of the large employers are using direct contracting with designated surgical centers of excellence or patient-centered medical homes. Such direct contracting is likely to increase because another roughly 20% of such employers are considering such provider agreements.

Large employers are using reference pricing, where self-insured companies offer to pay only the median price in certain geographic areas for some medical services and require employees to pay the difference at more expensive providers.

So yes, the old is new again. The question is: will it or can it be different this time? Or will we witness another round of ‘me too’ cookie cutter strategies followed by a risk push-back bloodbath, and ‘return to core operations’ by health systems who can’t manage risk, or the acquired physician practices they are so busy swallowing or health plans who can’t manage delivery systems.

Perhaps more on point with the headline of the post is: Will the health plan and institutional health system communities and their advocacy partners respond in kind to another Søren Kierkegaard ‘fear and trembling’ moment with wisdom and clarity? Or will the collective industry ignore the lessons learned from prior well intended but misguided strategic initiative?  

Times have indeed changed, and the horse is out of the barn. Healthcare reform and its required re-engineering is no longer contained behind the closed doors of board rooms of health systems or health plans. Achieving the triple aim is a ‘all hands on deck’ responsibility of all stakeholders in the healthcare ecosystem. But people are people, so we shall see!

 

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