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

ACOs Fudging the Numbers?

by Gregg A. Masters, MPH

I came across this piece on the Healthcare Blog penned by Kip Sullivan, Esq, critiquing this article posted in Health Affairs last May ‘Bending The Spending Curve By Altering Care Delivery Patterns: The Role Of Care Management Within A Pioneer ACO‘. Sullivan raises valid points as the the legitimacy of claiming or inferring statistically insignificant results as a meaningful contribution of the subject ACO (a Partners Health sponsored venture) to ‘bending the cost curve’.

Sullivan un-bundles his argument effectively and raises issues for the industry writ large – including participating ACOs, their sponsors, the regulatory crew at both CMS and CMMI – and even the health policy press covering the sector.

I post the first few paragraphs of the piece below, for full reference the entire article on the Healthcare Blog is accessible via On the Ethics of Accountable Care Research‘.

  • Is it ethical for health policy researchers to claim that a Medicare ACO reduced “spending” by 2 percent if the reduction was not statistically significant?
  • Is it ethical for them to do so if they made no effort to measure the cost to the ACO of generating the alleged 2 percent savings nor the cost to Medicare of giving half the savings to the ACO?
  • Does it matter that the researchers work for the flagship hospital within the ACO that was the subject of their study?
  • Does it matter that the ACO and the flagship hospital are part of a huge hospital-clinic chain that claims its numerous acquisitions over the last quarter-century constitute not mere empire-building but rather “clinical integration” that will lower costs, and the paper lends credence to that argument? 
  • Is it ethical for editors to publish such a paper? Is it ethical to do so with a title on the cover that shouts, “How one ACO bent the cost curve”?

These questions were raised by the publication of a paper  by John Hsu et al. about the Pioneer ACO run by Partners HealthCare System, a large Boston hospital-clinic chain, in the May 2017 edition of Health Affairs. Of the eight authors of the paper, all but two teach at Harvard Medical School and all but two are employed by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Partners’ flagship hospital and Harvard’s largest teaching hospital. [1]

Partners has been on a buying and ….

Comment

As someone who’s been in this dance since the mid 70s (PSROs, HSAs, HMOs, IPAs, PPOs, EPOs & all derivative plays) launched into Medicare risk via TEFRA (the Tax Equity and Fiscal Accountability Act) which introduced us to ‘Medicare Choice’ the for-runner of Medicare Advantage, I can say Sullivan’s critique of fully ‘burdening‘ ALL transformational efforts is rarely – if ever – factored into the volume to value pivot ‘investment calculus‘ of the effects of the intervention (in this case a Pioneer ACO) on the national spend.

It should be noted, the entire managed care industry can be assessed a gigantic collective FAIL for that matter as well. Since managed care penetrated ‘mainstream medicine‘ principally via extension of the HMO model typically on an IPA (independent practice association) chassis (vs. group or staff models) with the exception of a brief period in the 90s premiums continue their relentless upward march; while most payors continue to write commercial business only via an enterprise and industry wide cost shifting (risk transfer) charade. The tacit admission that there is no there there in the prevailing health insurance industry zeitgeist. They’ve proven they can NOT manage clinical risk, period.

So Kip, you might want to go a little lighter on those on the front lines trying to tame the ‘rapacious appetite’ of our ‘healthcare borg‘!

 

 

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Posted in Accountable Care, ACO, Affordable Care Act, health reform

The Quality Payment Program

by Gregg A. Masters, MPH

In our healthcare innovation economy from the private sector to material modifications of public programs including Medicare and Medicaid there is a massive effort to identify and enable sustainable delivery and financing schema to stem the treasury bleeding and inch however incrementally towards ‘universal coverage’.CMS QPP 2

Ideological talking points opposing ‘Obamacare‘ aka the Affordable Care Act (ACA) notwithstanding, there are tangible efforts to move the needle in play while the uncertainty of a successor to the ACA remains largely ‘on the come’.

Continuing on this post ACA momentum, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid recently weighed in on the ‘Quality Payment Program‘. Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt provides introductory remarks and is followed by his CMS colleagues who provide deeper dives into the QPPs two track choices: the Merit Based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) and Advanced Alternative Payment Models (APM).

To listen to the complete call we’re rebroadcasting it on ‘This Week in Health Innovation.‘ It is archived for on demand replay.

The associated deck is here, and the session transcript is here.

Original link to CMS QPP is here.

 

 

Posted in Accountable Care, health innovation challenges, HealthIT, population health

On the ‘N of 1’ As a Standard for ‘Accountable Care’

by Gregg A. Masters, MPH

When I penned the post, ‘CTE on the Accountable Care Agenda? Junior Seau it’s latest victim?‘ in 2012 my intention was to draw a circle around seemingly unrelated events now finding increasing conversational gravity in the emerging ‘population health‘ zeitgeist where social determinants of health are valued as strategic grist for the mill of health systems and especially their ‘integrated‘ bretheren’s leadership.

It was also my hope that the commentary might generate some sober conversation in the healthcare social media, healthtech and healthIT social media communities. Much to my dismay, there was none.

The causes of this silo-ed, episodic, ‘we’re not concerned with life or health related events that occur beyond the walls of our cathedrals of medicine‘ sick care focus are well known and documented. Though mitigated somewhat by select provisions in the Affordable Care Act with emphasis on transitions of care, avoidance of 30 day re-admissions and continuum of care coordination particularly in the long term, post acute care (LTPAC) space, it’s mostly ‘modified” business as usual in U.S. Healthcare operations.

Oft referred to as the ‘burning [fee for services] platform‘ now clearly in the crosshairs of regulators, health industry leadership, payors, employers and even patients as the source of the problem, everyone is now focused on ‘value based healthcare‘ as the ecosystem’s likely successor footprint.

Yet, we do have a long way to go.

Case in Point

As someone who’s been in the belly of the beast of the ‘healthcare borg’ dating back to the mid 70s, I have witnessed and been to more or less degrees both a strategist (‘disruptor’) and implementation principal to successor waves of ‘innovation’ – ALL intended to tame the rapacious appetite of our ‘do more to earn more‘ healthcare financing and delivery ecosystem.

Decades later the bottomline is we’ve failed, writ large and collectively as an industry. The healthcare spend run rate as a percentage of GDP (then 8%) is now approaching 18-20%., where one out of every five dollars spent in the U.S. finds its way into the coffers of the silo-ed sick-care system we’ve collectively co-created. And while the change or re-engineering imperative was then limited and contained behind mostly closed door board rooms of health systems, health plans and large self funded employers or multiple employer trusts, today that ‘conversation’ is top of mind for our nation. Then, only corporation’s and government’s financial stability were ‘at risk’, today it’s entire nation states at peril.

So clearly something must be done. It must be bold (all inclusive), truly innovative and impactful. No mere tweaks at the margin will do and this may be the last hurrah for a public/private partnership to succeed before the Government has to intervene and solve the problem from the ‘top down’.

Enter the Triple Aim, Value Based Healthcare and the Population Health Mandate

There is non-stop discussion at meetings, conferences, webinars and expositions on the subject of a structural and scaleable pivot of ‘U.S. Healthcare Inc.’, from it’s Fee For Services (FFS) roots and incentives to a successor, sustainable version. Perhaps best framed by Don Berwick and the Institute Healthcare Improvement (IHI) as the ‘triple aim’, the charge to healthcare industry leadership is for a better experience of care, with better outcomes at lower per capita costs.

This ambitious tasking rightly shifts the focus of health system leadership from that which is customarily provided within the walls of the acute – and now subacute – delivery system operating units, to the ‘upstream‘ arguably ‘roots’ of the social determinants of health as discerned by proactive risk stratification coupled with outreach to defined populations.

Technology As Enabler?

Concurrent with the pre-occupation on value based healthcare and emerging focus on population health management, we’ve been discussing and evidencing the value of ‘mhealth’ or ‘digital health‘ apps, platforms and technologies to nest inside current clinical workflows (and beyond?) and fuel delivery of the triple aim. Yet, closing in on a decade later (the iPhone launched in 2007) there is sparse and limited evidence of the salutary benefit of digital health apps to make a dent in the aggregate quality, cost and access challenges we face as an industry.

Whether we’re in collective denial, have all drunk the ‘kool-aid’ thinking this time will be different or simply point to some evidence based believe or faith that technology can serve the greater good of the triple aim’s goals, the expectations and stakes are high – very high in fact. Much talk about contributions from AI, Big Data, Gamification, VR, the Internet of Things and even the Internet of Medical Things, all get woven into often lofty forward looking tech-speak and even policy solutions of how we’re going to make this happen. Yet is this warranted?

A Long Way to Go

A recent experience of mine suggests much work remains ahead. As indicated in the Junior Seau (RIP) post there is a grand canyon divide between the ad copy and rhetoric of population health initiatives and current healthcare operations and financing.

In November I moved to South Lake Tahoe for the ski season. I am 65, in general good health and reasonably active (I surf in San Diego) and recently qualified for Medicare and chose to enroll (i.e., assign my benefits) to a private sector alternative operating under Part C as the ‘Medicare Advantage’ (NOTE: which is a misnomer, since it isn’t Medicare but rather a private and in some markets ‘enhanced version’ when when the health plan is profitable) program organized by Kaiser Permanente in San Diego California. Kaiser Permanente (KP) is a trophy IDS (integrated delivery system) and is often and rightfully acknowledged as ‘best in class‘ in their approach to the organization, delivery and financing of healthcare services. I agree, and thus elected to enroll via their ‘Senior Health Plan‘.

KP has made enormous investments in HealthIT having adapted EPIC to serve their regions’ individual operating units. KP has also embraced technology and innovation via their Garfield Innovation Center and present with a well staffed and focused social media enterprise that seems linked to its member services group.

The Event

On Friday, I headed up to the summit at Heavenly Mountain with my girlfriend Lori. Upon exiting the Gondola and traversing up to the Ski lift to the Summit I started to feel light headed, stopped, looked up and collapsed backwards. According to Lori:

‘your eyes rolled up, your face went pale and you looked expressionless. I was alarmed.’

None-the-less, determined to get to the top for the first run of the season I elected to proceed and we entered the lift to the Summit. On the way up, we had cross winds gusting between 20-30 MPH. The temperature hovered in the low 20s to teens and the air was thin and dry.

I was wearing a ski dickey and found it difficult to speak and breath. Clearly this was not normal. Yet, we exited (9500 foot elevation) and began our decent down to Tamarack Lodge. Midway through the run I stopped, began to feel light headed and very dizzy. Gasping for air, I leaned onto my poles and then everything went dark. I collapsed again.

Lori took charge, summoned the ski patrol via a passing skier. Ski Patrol arrived, placed me on oxygen, suggested I was experiencing altitude sickness and STRONGLY recommended immediate descent to the Heavenly Center for hydration and rest (65oo foot elevation).

The Social Stream – More than What I Had for Lunch

Once the fog lifted and I began to feel better, I decided to tweet my experience in the public square and tag my health plan (KP San Diego, the Heavenly Ski Center and my Twitter ‘friends’) to alert them about my experience. For both my twitter colleagues and the Heavenly Center it was an FYI with a Ski Patrol shout out to Nathan (the EMT).

For KP San Diego it was a ‘heads-up’ as in hey, this happened to me today and ‘I think you should know.’ Now I know KP has a patient portal via MyChart and one I’ve been in and out of a few times, in addition to a ‘go to the emergency department‘ when in need advisory. Yet, we’re in the age of population health, risk assessment, prevention and ‘patient generated health data’ (PGHD) including massive investments in ‘listening’ technology for the rich streams of content posted to social networks.

Now add the fact that healthcare is a litigious and thus risk averse environment. Therefore sitting on the sidelines and at best ‘listening’ is probably less risky than realtime or ‘asynchronous’ attempts to ‘intervene’. I’m sure a bevy of corporate lawyers counsel against ill advised engagement outside the normal ‘theater of operations’. Yet, I am old enough to remember when the Darling and Nork cases began to peck away at the immunity from liability traditionally argued by many hospital administrators that ‘we’re just the doctor’s workshop’ and have no control (and by extension no liability) for their actions. Yup, that once was the standard of practice a few decades ago.

The Messaging

Here are the series of tweets posted related to this narrative.

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The Health Plan’s Response

Several days later… and in ‘async’ fashion KP weighed in via Direct Message on Twitter. I previously tweeted about my inability to reschedule a colonoscopy from a San Diego location to the Sacramento area since I am in South Lake Tahoe for the ski season. I learned that I could NOT opt for a local option as the health plan didn’t operate that way [paraphrased]. The tweets below pertain specifically to the incident on the mountain.

9:19am
@KPMemberService
Hi, Gregg. I noticed your recent tweets and wanted to follow back up with you. If you’ve already sent your email, we have not received it. Can you please resend it? Thank you! ^Jamison

9:49am
Gregg Masters MPH @2healthguru

No point in sending log to you. After DM, spoke to my PCP. She advised I can not schedule colonoscopy in NorCal (Sacramento) w/o changing PCPs. Suggested we delay until I return to Oceanside in April. Really bad form for KP. If true, you are NOT an IDN, but a federation of providers under a common marketing banner with discrete regional accounting, but worse clinical operations. I am VERY disappointed, since I am and have been a fan of KP. I am 65. I’ve been self employed since 2000, and un-insured by choice since. My health plan is my health. If KP is committed to my health, then a simple risk profile of these facts would expedite the colonoscopy as a preventive tool. I shouldn’t have to point this out to my health plan. Then add my fainting on mountain at Heavenly (9500 foot elevation) with minimally hypoxia if not cerebral edema, AND ZERO recognition or comment from @KPsandiego who I tagged [in tweet]. I mean seriously, with the investment made in tech, how can you not leverage proactively on behalf of your members? I am shocked. If this is M-F brand listening tool only and not deployed as adjunctive to KPs clinical risk management surveillance program, you are clearly missing the boat of the PGHD wave that is sweeping the ecosystem under the banner of ‘digital health’ tools. Again, I am a KP fan and believe you need be held to a higher standard given all the accolades received via others in the industry. Please pass this concern in its entirety to both Robert Pearl and Bernard Tyson who I personally hold responsible for these systemic (x2) ‘fails’. I am blogging about this experience (including this response) as a N of 1 example of ‘accountable care’ in the new age of population health contextualized via social [i.e, lifestyles of] determinants of health plan members (including their known risk profiles). Thanks for asking. My concerns go considerably beyond the usual scope of member services, and I do hope you pass on my comments in their entirety to senior leadership. My blog comments will be posted to @ACOwatch as my N of 1 version of ‘accountable care’ to this post: acowatch.me/2012/05/02/cte… Thanks Gregg

@KPMemberService
Thank you for your detailed reply, Gregg. I will definitely make sure to pass along your experience and concerns to our senior management staff. ^Jamison

Much To Do About Nothing or Reflexive Provider vs. Patient Centric Response?

One can argue,  hey dude work within the system, i.e., call/alert KP via member services, enter a note to your PCP in the MyChart portal or head to an Urgent/Emergent Care Center – quit whining.

Yet, am I wrong to think that in an era of ubiquitous, real time and ‘asynchronous’ tech stacks afforded by major social networks where participants are ‘tagged’ as in a ‘headsUP’ fashion, need be viewed solely as a forum for posted images of cats or what’s on the menu today?

When and where do we walk the talk of the upside of digital health tools, the value of patient generated data and the big data and massive analytics engines that routinely data-mine these streams for population health insights and actionable ‘intelligence’?

So maybe this is just too much to expect even from best in class performers – the likes of KP. Maybe the residual ‘resistance ifs futile’ legacy inertia is just too powerful to overcome systemically and we’ll just have to be happy with at best tweaks at the margins.

I for one think we need to up the ante and hold both the providers and financiers accountable to this dysfunctional ecosystem we’re so often powerless to influence or change.

I am committed to make a difference. Where are  you?

 

 

 

Posted in Accountable Care, ACO, Affordable Care Act

The NextGen ACO: Another Round Opens

by Gregg A. Masters, MPH

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation has announced the results of its ‘continuous learning‘ commitment model wherein ‘field reports‘ including provider comments and open door inputs are materially incorporated into tweaks of the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) as risk is progressively adopted by participating ACOs. This ‘new round’ iteration no doubt includes ‘lessons learned‘ from the Pioneer ACO Program including the many ‘exits’ and risk downgrades opted to date.

In summary, this round is:

‘..one that sets predictable financial targets, enables providers and beneficiaries greater opportunities to coordinate care, and aims to attain the highest quality standards of care.’

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For complete information, see: ‘Next Generation ACO Model | Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation‘.

 

 

Posted in Accountable Care, ACO, Affordable Care Act

The Long and Winding Road to Healthcare Price Transarency

by Gregg A. Masters, MPH

Bitter Pill: Steve BrillWhen Steven Brill published ‘Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us‘ in 2013 he brought national attention via a series of personal stories that served to reveal the complex dysfunction inherent in our healthcare delivery and financing system. A veritable ‘conundrum‘ created over the decades of layering managed care complexity (pre-certification, prior authorization, referral management, contract payment adjudication, etc.) on top of the arguably burning ‘fee-for-services’ platform that incentivizes the prevailing ‘do more [units] to earn more [income]’ mentality of hospitals, physicians and allied healthcare practitioners who do not operate in a pre-paid or per member per month capitated environment.

Central to Brill’s narrative was the hospital ‘charge master‘, typically a made up fictional schedule of retail (sticker shock) values with ZERO relationship to the actual cost of services provided nor what would ultimately be paid by the patient or third party on his or her behalf.

Brill admonishes readers to:

Pay no attention to the chargemaster – No hospital’s chargemaster prices are consistent with those of any other hospital, nor do they seem to be based on anything objective — like cost — that any hospital executive I spoke with was able to explain. “They were set in cement a long time ago and just keep going up almost automatically,” says one hospital chief financial officer with a shrug.

Most of us are fortunate enough to have 3rd party coverage via our employer or Government funded programs like Medicare, Medicaid, etc., and benefit from deeply discounted intermediary ‘wholesale rates‘ often beginning at 50% of the published charge master rates.

Ironically, those who of us absent this ‘buffer’ and who could least bear the sticker shock burden associated with arbitrary (no relationship to cost) charge master pricing, i.e., the un and under insured, paid the steepest price, see: ‘Medical Bills Are the Biggest Cause of US Bankruptcies: Study‘.

Consumer Directed Health Plans and the ‘Empowered Patient’ Mandate

Since the launch of the Health 2.0 movement and arguably the ‘digital health‘ innovation industry writ large by co-founders Matthew Holt and Indu Subaiya, MD, some of the start-ups launched addressed the problem of price transparency ‘workarounds’ via back end building of ‘virtual’ contract rate books through platform user submissions of EOBs detailing the charge basis and ultimate contract repricing per the health plan negotiated rate of the services rendered and paid. Some of the companies operating in the space, though not necessarily back-ending virtual rate books, include: Medlio, Change Healthcare, Healthcare Bluebook and Castlight Health, see: ‘8 companies working on healthcare price transparency‘.

Clearly the ‘holy grail‘ here is contract rate-book transparency, but don’t hold your breath. These rates are deemed proprietary and thus closely guarded ‘trade secrets’.

So fast forward to today. It’s 2016 (some 43 years post HMO Act) and healthcare inflation which has shown remarkable restraint principally due to the lingering impact of the great recession of 2008, coupled with the health insurance industry’s new found love affair fueled by the ACA with so called ‘consumer directed health plans‘ (aka code for the ‘cost shifting’ charade). Think of it this way, massive health plans, pooling millions of lives, extracting maximum pricing leverage from providers and exercising varying degrees of medical management oversight have explicitly admitted that as an industry they can NOT manage clinical risk, thus have chosen make provider pricing restraint ‘our’ problem. Afterall, they reasoned the required (mythical absence of?) ‘skin in the game‘ of high deductibles, non-covered services, copayments and co-insurance drives granular price sensitivity since the once 3rd party buffer (if it ever existed) is no longer present to immunize our exposure to the cost of utilizing healthcare services.

Last month The Health Care Incentives Improvement Institute (HCI3 ) and Catalyst for Payment Reform (CPR) issued the fourth installment of the ‘Report Card on State Price Transparency Laws‘. The picture below tells the less than pretty story:

Price Transparency Report Care

 

They open the report noting:

Despite the full integration of price information into almost every other retail experience, it’s typical in American health care for consumers to go into an appointment or procedure knowing nothing about what it will cost until long afterward

And conclude as follows:

Our 2016 Report Card on State Price Transparency Laws shows that price transparency—an obvious expectation integrated into every other consumer experience—is on the minds of state legislators and other health care leaders throughout the U.S. It also highlights why this information is so critical to every health care consumer in every state; prices for routine and very common procedures can vary by more than 50 percent, even in the same geographical area, placing a potentially significant financial burden on individual consumers, a burden that can be avoided with robust health care price transparency. Thus, design and implementation of the legislation matter.

In fact, the potential for transparency to empower consumers, shift costs down, and raise quality rests entirely on the strength and comprehensiveness of each state law’s implementation. This is a perspective that is often lost in some of the research on the effectiveness of price transparency, even though no one should be surprised that weak resources yield poor results. Importantly, a very strong and thorough body of research demonstrates that consumers will seek lower-priced, high-quality providers when given the right information in the right format.

Many states may see low grades for themselves. However, in this report card, they also have a roadmap for improvement. It’s up to states to apply that roadmap to benefit from the desired and proven positive effects of price and quality transparency. 

I am not as optimistic as the authors that price transparency solutions coupled with a growing army of ‘empowered patients‘ are sufficient to tame the rapacious appetite of a predominantly volume incentivized delivery system. Clearly this is a slog unlike any other industry re-tooling, re-invention or re-engineering challenge we’ve EVER faced in the United States. More will be revealed as we move from niche solutions (concierge medicine, direct practice, non-risk bearing ACOs or IDNs, or HMO-lite solutions, etc.) tweaking at the margins of the ecosystem dysfunction but delivering little by way of sustainable contribution.

As I was recently reminded by Dan Munro of a quote often mis-attributed to Winston Churchill:

The question is whether there is any reason to believe that such a new era [think value based healthcare driven by ’empowered patients’] may yet come to pass. If I am sanguine on this point, it is because of a conviction that men and nations do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives. Surely the other alternatives of war and belligerency [avoiding the inevitable path of risk assumption/integration] have now been exhausted.  Abba Eban,  June 1967 

Bottom-line?

I see HMO’s 2.0 (global risk) in our future. There just isn’t anyway around it, though we’re trying our best to avoid the inevitable.

Your thoughts?

 

Posted in Accountable Care, ACO, Affordable Care Act

POTUS: The De Facto Health Wonk-in-Chief of the US?

by Gregg A. Masters, MPH

United States Health Care Reform

 

Love him or hate him President Barack Obama continues to demonstrate depth, insight, tenacity and a firm grip on the state of the U.S. Healthcare ecosystem dysfunction (and remedies) well beyond his formal training as a Constitutional scholar. Now as arguably one of the most legislatively accomplished President’s in U.S. history, particularly in light of the catastrophic train wreck he inherited from his predecessor and fueled by the nonstop ‘hell no‘ chorus of his disingenuous (often health policy clueless) political opposition he weighs in to set the record straight and for legacy purposes.

On July 11, 2016, JAMA released ‘United States Health Care Reform: Progress to Date and Next Steps‘ a rather scholarly construed unbundling of the state of healthcare then and now (pre and post ACA implementation). As a rather complex piece of legislation with many moving parts, and staggered implementation timelines (some as a result of political accommodation, some merely in tune with operational and prevailing healthcare delivery and financing legacy inertia) he steps up and in classic barrister narrative fashion lays out his case, and simultaneously calls out the next steps to remedy the U.S. healthcare conundrum.

POTUS aka ‘Health Wonk-in-Chief‘ Barack Obama concludes:

Policy makers should build on progress made by the Affordable Care Act by continuing to implement the Health Insurance Marketplaces and delivery system reform, increasing federal financial assistance for Marketplace enrollees, introducing a public plan option in areas lacking individual market competition, and taking actions to reduce prescription drug costs. Although partisanship and special interest opposition remain, experience with the Affordable Care Act demonstrates that positive change is achievable on some of the nation’s most complex challenges.

I strongly encourage you to click on and read the entire piece. It is well worth your time and wholly consistent with the ‘accountable care’ narrative (the subject of this blog) driving Medicare ACOs, their commercial derivatives and large portions of the moving parts of the ACA including the entire spectrum of ‘value based’ healthcare initiatives.

For this piece, I want to focus on four areas of the ‘next steps‘ called out by POTUS, namely: the ‘Health Insurance Marketplaces’, associated ‘delivery system reform’, AND the introduction of ‘a public plan option in areas lacking individual market competition, and finally ‘taking actions to reduce prescription drug costs’.

Health insurance marketplaces

So much of the ACA oppositional cheerleading liked to stress the ‘buying across state lines‘, and ‘malpractice reform‘ as ‘freedom and choice‘ enabled solutions to the health insurance quagmire. Never mind the rampant marketing, churn, double digit premium increases, retrospective rescissions or opportunistic denial rates, coverage limits and lifetime caps so endemic in the space. Not to mention ‘mini-meds‘ or ‘junk insurance’ so prevalent in the market before some baseline notions of what constitutes ‘insurance‘ in the face of typical health, illness or accident challenges one may experience in life. Here again, coverage baselines and the need for consistency to shop, compare and ultimately purchase real health insurance seemed like too much regulatory over-reach in a market where choice absent basic ground rules somehow seemed like a more attractive solution – at least to the often clueless opposition. The entire over-reach narrative was wrapped up, sold and bought as a ‘Government controlled healthcare takeover‘ per the vacuous talking points proffered by ACA oppositional research.

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Yet, the value proposition of an ‘insurance market place‘ whether Federally run, ‘facilitated’ or state delegated exchange option makes total sense if a transparent consumer market is to emerge from the chaos that is principally the individual market (non employer sponsored health insurance), though the group, or self funded ASO market ain’t much to cheer about either. Yet such a model was/is a proven way (witness the explosive growth of private exchanges) to introduce orderly competition in an otherwise opaque industry.

If you’ve ever run a health plan, built a managed care organization or contracted for hospital, physician, ancillary and pharmaceutical services (I presided over several employer sponsored health plan initiatives, MSOs, PHOs and IPAs tackling both capitated and discounted fee for service plan launch and operational issues in for-profit, voluntary and academic health systems) you will know that prudent (empowered, informed, etc.) purchasing of health insurance options requires clear apples-to-apples covered services comparisons, exclusions and non-covered item disclosures coupled with understandable pricing transparency and the cost sharing burden associated with your election. Absent this comprehensive clarity, listing guidance and/or requirements that an exchange imposes to ‘qualify’ eligible participants as candidates to choose from is virtually impossible. Standing up the infrastructure (people,  process, culture, etc.) to enable informed choice requires such an exchange environment whether public, private or some combination thereof to transparently market their services to the consuming public.

Delivery system reform

This is clearly the ACA’s ‘achilles heel‘ as there ain’t much there, there other than aggregate ‘on the come‘ efforts to tip toe into the waters of ‘clinical integration‘, measured risk assumption and a range of payment reforms collectively recognizing fee-for-service (i.e., do more to earn more) medicine as a burning platform. The most tangible form of this commitment is represented by Secretary Burwell’s call to migrate increasing shares of Medicare beneficiaries (including me, as I turn 65 in August and have elected Kaiser Permanente Senior Plan in San Diego) into Medicare Advantage, ACOs and a broadly cast series of ‘value based‘ healthcare arrangements by certain dates.

Standing Up the ACOFor the most part, ACA focused on insurance market place reforms. While delivery system reform was principally invested in ‘nascent’ ACOs (which are mutating as we speak amidst some 5 and 1/2 years of operating experience under the Medicare Shared Savings Program (one I like to call ‘HMO-lite’ which incidentally and inevitably is morphing into its more traditional gatekeeper HMO predecessor vs. the retrospective attribution methodology that undermines successful ACO risk assumption performance).

Additional delivery system reform was to come from pilots, demonstrations and other ‘innovations’ the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) funded via the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) – who’s budget the Republican controlled Congress is determined to cut.  Here, I might add at the ACO Summit circa 2012 one of the most seasoned and successful risk savvy players I had the opportunity to work for and with in Dallas, Texas Richard Merkin, MD, the founder and owner of Heritage Medical Systems and Heritage Provider Network described as the ‘hidden jewel’ in the ACA.

As much as we’ve progressed into ‘managed care‘ whether discounted, bundled, case rates, per diems or global or partial per member per month (PMPM) capitation or percent of premium the majority (estimated at 80-90%) of healthcare payments are still of the fee for services variety. Back in the 80s when American Medical International (AMI) retained me to develop and preside over their managed care strategy for the California Region’s 19 hospitals I elected ‘Director of Health System Development‘ vs. Regional Director of Managed Care as a title, since I saw the strategic imperative of building and operating a hospital system as a partnership with payors, health plans and employer groups, in order to create value. Since ‘payors’ (as a group) were our customers to grow market share we needed ‘dots on the map‘ to effectively service their employees, members or insureds. That vision and strategy collapsed before taking root since quarterly earnings per share incentives of the hospital CEOs precluded the longer term strategy of acquisitions and divestitures consistent with a dots on the map game-plan could take hold.

Today, many years later health systems are ‘getting [payor/provider partnership] religion’ at least rhetorically, yet the prevailing provider/payor mindset remains ‘your revenues are my expenses‘ – not much progress! So don’t hold your breath on material delivery system reform other than the equivalent of re-arranging furniture on the deck of the Titanic while the ship sinks. Mergers, acquisitions, the ‘death of independent‘ medicine and rise of mega institutionally led health systems more or less ‘clinically integrated‘ notwithstanding.

A public plan option in areas lacking individual market competition

While POTUS stresses the individual market as the target ‘book of business‘ most at risk and dysfunctional absent effective reform the need for a ‘public option‘ across the board (group, self funded/ASO, fully insured, etc) is rather compelling, in my view. The recent failures of the ACA enabled ‘CO-OPs‘ notwithstanding (i.e., startup insurance companies or health plans rarely if ever achieve profitability in such a short timeline given the threshold need for ‘the law of large numbers‘ for actuarial credibility and the inherent volatility of the underwriting profit/loss cycle) do nothing to undermine the argument and need for a public option writ large.

I’ll go one step further and say ultimately our worshipping of ‘pluralism‘ in healthcare delivery and finance will ultimately give way to a ‘Medicare E‘ version as in Medicare for everyone. If public/private partnerships and business models could successfully manage clinical risk and meet the health and healthcare needs of their constituents we would have solved the problem in the 80s and 90s. Who remembers the ‘Harry and Louise‘ narrative battles (‘if the Government choses, we lose‘) on the Clinton Health Security Act aka ‘HillaryCare‘? So perhaps we’ll get there once we exhaust every other option to avoid ‘single payor‘?

Actions to reduce prescription drug costs

This seems to me the segment the easiest to resolve. Here I’d empower Medicare to negotiate direct and on behalf of it’s entire pool of beneficiaries, rather than dilute the market power via a tapestry of variably (under) performing ‘PDPs’. The political compromise that birthed Medicare Part D (the Prescription Drug Plan) materially undermines the market power of the ‘law of large numbers’ to extract best price from vendors, suppliers or providers of services. This make NO sense, and we’re paying the price! Here, politicos assured Medicare could NOT intervene with such market clout instead they routed the business upside to a pool private participants.

Add to this macro market efficiency undermining the challenges of orphan or rare disease market segments and the egregious and unaccountable pricing practices most recently popularized by ‘bad boy’ Martin Shkreli of Turning Pharma and more recently Valeant‘s abusive pricing admissions.

Yes, specialty pharma is at risk and a major source of heartburn for AHIP and it’s employer allies, yet PHRMA has a point. The drug discovery and commercialization process/pathways to market are unpredictable and fraught will high failure rates. Coupled with the long development runways and high costs, but absent a ‘ceiling’ or ‘pricing accountability framework’ pharma’s management credo will remain ‘whatever the market can bear‘ strategy lest ProPublica‘s (et al) investigational journalism (see their guide to investigating non-profit health systems) marshals sufficient public attention and shame forces reconsideration or retraction of Pharma’s lazy over-reliance on raising ‘P’ (Price) vs. the more complex market challenge of driving ‘U’ (units via share gains) becomes their duty and ultimate measure and basis of ‘success’.

So thanks BO! Despite all odds, you (and Max Baucus et al) pulled it off. And yes, it’s only a beginning and there’s lots of work to do. In the words of then Acting CMS Administrator, Don Berwick, who was wrongly blocked (by you know who) for permanent appointment [I paraphrase below]:

This will require no less than an all hands of deck, full court press to make happen [i.e., the triple aim].

 

Posted in Accountable Care, population health, Triple Aim

Blab the Blockchain: Healthcare Implications?

by Gregg A. Masters, MPH

blockchain blab screen grab

Yesterday, April 27th 2016 I joined twitter colleagues and principal co-moderators and my ‘go-to Blab experts James Legan, MD (@jimmie_vanagon) and Charles “Chuck” Webster, MD (@wareflo) for a ‘Blab‘ on ‘blockchain implications in the heathcare space (both delivery and finance).

Our featured expert du jour Jeff Brandt was a no-show, so we winged it with an excellent overview and introduction by Chuck. We’re all learning in this space but one of the potential applications of the emerging technology might be in the granular if not seamless adjudication of complex bundled payments.

During the session many excellent references were included in the chat box. Several resources were mentioned including Smart Contracts, the Consensus 2016 conference, Youbase, and the article posted by Dan Munro on Health Standards, titled ‘Digital health lessons from BART‘.

I have a feeling there will be major application in the healthcare financing and delivery space as we progress into scaled assumption of risk under a value based healthcare incentive structure. Watch and see if you agree with some of the points made in the discussion!