When the Affordable Care Act passed in March of 2010 and the law’s many moving parts analyzed by the ecosystem stakeholders including operators, health wonks and patient advocates many weighed in that ACOs were doomed to fail. They were just too ‘tepid’ to make a material contribution to the volume to value transformational journey. Complaints included little control over patients who ‘voted with their feet’ while ACOs bore the liability of their choices whether in upside only track vs. the downside of exposure of track two, flawed retrospective attribution methodologies and data dumps and reporting lags from CMS all handicapped the proactive management of ‘risk’ assumed by participating ACOs in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP).
Noted futurist Jeff Goldsmith captured the spirit in Pioneer ACOs: Anatomy Of A ‘Victory’ post in Health Affairs:
With over 17 million Medicare beneficiaries voluntarily choosing MA thus far, and enrollment growing at more than 10 percent annually despite three years of CMS payment reductions in real dollars, it is increasingly clear the future of managed Medicare lies in the MA program, not with directly contracted shared savings models.
Co-incident with the ramp up of the Medicare ACO cohort the private sector jumped on the bandwagon, operating with higher degrees of contractual terms and conditions freedom than promulgated by CMS to participating MSSP’s. Aetna, the Blues, United et al negotiated their version of ‘accountable care’ arrangements with participation IPAs, PHOs, IDNs, health systems, medical groups or physician networks.
Five years later, we have some important data recently reported by Health Affairs that suggests ACOs are far from the neutered enterprises many suggested and while mixed in terms of results reported ACOs have found their place in the managed competition ecosystem and are not likely to disappear any time soon.
The headline at Health Affairs is as follows: Growth Of ACOs And Alternative Payment Models In 2017.
As of the end of the first quarter of 2017, our inventory included 923 active public and private ACOs across the United States, covering more than 32 million lives (Figure 1). The increase of 2.2 million covered lives in the past year means that more than 10 percent of the U.S. population is now covered by an accountable care contract (Note 1).
As the ACO model matures, there is now some turnover, with organizations joining and leaving the model. Since the first quarter of 2016, 138 new ACOs began operation, and 46 ACOs dropped their accountable care contracts, representing a net increase of 92 organizations becoming ACOs, or an 11 percent growth.
From the nominal ACO count basis to the number of lives associated with the aggregate arrangements, this is an impressive tally for such an allegedly ‘anemic‘ model!