Posted in Accountable Care, ACO, Affordable Care Act

Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services Releases Accountable Care Organization Performance Results

by Gregg A. Masters, MPH

Friday, October 27th, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released details for participating Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) for the 2016 performance year.  For reporting ACO results view the entire report here.

The National Association of ACOs (NAACOs) weighed in below:

The new results demonstrate the value of a premier Medicare alternative payment model and include a higher rate (56 percent)* of MSSP ACOs generating savings than ever before and an almost equal proportion as last year of ACOs that earned shared savings (31 percent).

This public update follows previously posted results for Pioneer ACOs, the Next Generation ACO cohort and the Comprehensive End Stage Renal Disease ACO (ESRD) care model here.

In table form, the results are summarized below:

All in, participating ACOs generated $843 million in gross program savings with a modest net savings of $78.6 million for Medicare in 2016, in addition to material gains in quality scores for aligned ACO Medicare beneficiaries.

While Clif Gaus, NAACOS CEO notes:

These results show the growing success of ACOs, which is a positive trend that should not be ignored. A lot has been accomplished in a relatively short amount of time, and ACOs are on the front line of redesigning healthcare delivery. This is a moment to celebrate them and their hard work.

The ACO ‘Jury’ Is Still Is Out

Given the range of models, risk assumed or gain sharing distributed operating results in a program that some still see as fundamentally ill equipped in a predominant fee-for-services market to materially change physician and beneficiary behavior – and thus enable the elusive ‘triple aim‘ – many in the health policy area including select ACO operators remain convinced to maximize impact the ACO model will ultimately morph into the more robust Medicare Advantage operating platform.

Perhaps the ‘stealth play’ in the mix is the potential upside of Next Generation ACOs to fully leverage their competitive advantages (3 day SNF waiver, telehealth visits, relaxed supervision requirements for post hospital discharge visits and the move to all inclusive population based payments) can up-level both their game AND improve outcomes at lower per capita costs?

On the next episode of This Week in Accountable Care, our very special guest is former Acting Administrator of CMS Andy Slavitt, now Senior Advisor to the Bipartisan Policy Center. Andy was initially part of the ‘fix it dream team‘ that righted the failed launch of Healthcare.Gov, and then presided over the administration of the Affordable Care Act.

Andy is rather familiar with the original intent of the ACA, its many ‘working parts’ and the bumps in the road to perfect the law via provider input, updated rule making and policy refinements.

We’ll get Andy’s take on a range of issues from the political environment to conflicting health policy guidance including broad brush advice to ACO operators.

Join National ACO co-founders Andre Berger, MD and Alex Foxman, MD as we engage this visionary and accomplished entrepreneur turned public service official in critical dialogue impacting the transformation of our industry from its fee-for-services roots to a new model based on a value and patient centricity.

 

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Posted in Accountable Care, ACO, Affordable Care Act

What, What? ACOs Not ‘DOA’?

by Gregg A. Masters, MPH

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!

Now enter the Next Generation ACO Model. For details, see: Next Generation ACOs: A Deep Dive Series and Meet the Next Generation ACO Cohort.

 

 

 

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Posted in Accountable Care, ACO, Affordable Care Act, TrumpCare

Webinar: Next Generation ACO Model – Overview and LOI Information

By Gregg A. Masters, MPH

Webinar: Next Generation ACO Model - Overview and LOI Information Select link to open options forShare
Click to register!

Today marks the end to the eight year reign of President Barack Obama and the birth of the Trump Administration tenure.  Yet, so much in the health policy and reform domain remains unclear and on the come.

Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in March of 2010 the implementation of the delivery system side of the reform to restrain if not reduce healthcare spending has been vested primarily in a range of variably sophisticated ACOs and other participants in a tapestry of value based healthcare arrangements from bundled payments to patient centered medical homes and even the more risk savvy cohort of Medicare Advantage operators.

What is clear is change is on the horizon; yet just what the nature of that change will look like will probably reveal itself over the next several months and perhaps even years. For our discussion of what appears to be the emerging indicia of a ‘TrumpCare‘ chassis, Health Innovation Media principals share insights via: ‘On @PopHealthWeek: #Trumpcare What We Know @fsgoldstein @efuturist @2healthguru‘ and ‘A #TrumpCare Roundtable with @efuturist, @fsgoldstein and @2healthguru‘.

screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-1-52-24-pmClearly the era of ‘accountable care‘ and the provider organizations designed to explore and implement their local market vision of an entity that delivers accountability is not likely to come to an end as President Trump occupies the White House. In fact, though I have been deeply skeptical of the rather hollow ‘repeal and replace‘ mantra absent a material Republican replacement option, I am somewhat encouraged by the tempered optimism proffered by Ezekiel Emanuel, M.D., Ph.D., Former Chief Health Policy Advisor to the Obama Administration, to an informed audience at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco earlier this month.

Meanwhile, I doubt the Trump Administration and his HHS and CMS appointees (Rep Tom Price and Seema Verma, respectively) once confirmed will advocate for an era of ‘unaccountable care‘ with a return to unbridled to fee-for-services medicine. Thus, I bank on the continued evolution and deployment of ACOs as progressive risk bearing entities and continuing clinical integration plays. However, we shall see!

We do indeed live in interesting times!

 

 

 

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

ACO Winners and Losers: A Quick Take

by Ashish K. Jha

Last week, CMS sent out press releases touting over $1 billion in savings from Accountable Care Organizations.

Here’s the tweet from Andy Slavitt, the acting Administrator of CMS:

NEW ACO RESULTS: physicians are changing care, w better results for patients & are saving money. Over $1B. https://www.cms.gov/Newsroom/MediaReleaseDatabase/Press-releases/2016-Press-releases-items/2016-08-25.html 

The link in the tweet is to a press release.  The link in the press release citing more details is to another press release.  There’s little in the way of analysis or data about how ACOs did in 2015.  So I decided to do a quick examination of how ACOs are doing and share the results below.

Basic Background on ACOs:

Simply put, an ACO is a group of providers that is responsible for the costs of caring for a population while hitting some basic quality metrics.  This model is meant to save money by better coordinating care. As I’ve written before, I’m a pretty big fan of the idea – I think it sets up the right incentives and if an organization does a good job, they should be able to save money for Medicare and get some of those savings back themselves.

ACOs come in two main flavors:  Pioneers and Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP).  Pioneers were a small group of relatively large organizations that embarked on the ACO pathway early (as the name implies).  The Pioneer program started with 32 organizations and only 12 remained in 2015.  It remains a relatively small part of the ACO effort and for the purposes of this discussion, I won’t focus on it further.  The other flavor is MSSP.  As of 2016, the program has more than 400 organizations participating and as opposed to Pioneers, has been growing by leaps and bounds.  It’s the dominant ACO program – and it too comes in many sub-flavors, some of which I will touch on briefly below.

A couple more quick facts:  MSSP essentially started in 2012 so for those ACOs that have been there from the beginning, we now have 4 years of results.  Each year, the program has added more organizations (while losing a small number).  In 2015, for instance, they added an additional 89 organizations.

So last week, when CMS announced having saved more than $1B from MSSPs, it appeared to be a big deal.  After struggling to find the underlying data, Aneesh Chopra (former Chief Technology Officer for the US government) tweeted the link to me:

@ashishkjha CMS always releases these results. They are on the website!

You can download the excel file and analyze the data on your own.  I did some very simple stuff.  It’s largely consistent with the CMS press release, but as you might imagine, the press release cherry picked the findings – not a big surprise given that it’s CMS’s goal to paint the best possible picture of how ACOs are doing.

While there are dozens of interesting questions about the latest ACO results, here are 5 quick questions that I thought were worth answering:

  1. How many organizations saved money and how many organizations spent more than expected?
  2. How much money did the winners (those that saved money) actually save and how much money did the losers (those that lost money) actually lose?
  3. How much of the difference between winners and losers was due to differences in actual spending versus differences in benchmarks (the targets that CMS has set for the organization)?
  4. Given that we have to give out bonus payments to those that saved money, how did CMS (and by extension, American taxpayers) do? All in, did we come out ahead by having the ACO program in 2015 – and if yes, by how much?
  5. Are ACOs that have been in the program longer doing better? This is particularly important if you believe (as Andy Slavitt has tweeted) that it takes a while to make the changes necessary to lower spending.

There are a ton of other interesting questions about ACOs that I will explore in a future blog, including looking at issues around quality of care.  Right now, as a quick look, I just focused on those 5 questions.

Data and Approach:

I downloaded the dataset from the following CMS website: https://data.cms.gov/widgets/x8va-z7cu and ran some pretty basic frequencies.

Here are data for the 392 ACOs for whom CMS reported results:

Question 1:  How many ACOs came in under (or over) target?

Question 2:  How much did the winners save – and how much did the losers lose?

Table 1.

Number (%)

Number of Beneficiaries

Total Savings (Losses)

Winners

203 (51.8%)

3,572,193

$1,568,222,249

Losers

189 (48.2%)

3,698,040

-$1,138,967,553

Total

392 (100%)

7,270,233

$429,254,696

I define winners as those organizations that spent less than their benchmark.  Losers were organizations that spent more than their benchmarks.

Take away – about half the organizations lost money and about half the organizations made money.  If you are a pessimist, you’d say, this is what we’d expect; by random chance alone, if the ACOs did nothing, you’d expect half to make money and half to lose money.  However, if you are an optimist, you might argue that 51.8% is more than 48.2% and it looks like the tilt is towards more organizations saving money and the winners saved more money than the losers lost.

Next, we go to benchmarks (or targets) versus actual performance.  Reminder that benchmarks were set based on historical spending patterns – though CMS will now include regional spending as part of their formula in the future.

Question 3:  Did the winners spend less than the losers – or did they just have higher benchmarks to compare themselves against?

Table 2.

Per Capita Benchmark

Per Capita Actual Spending

Per Capita Savings (Losses)

Winners (n=203)

$10,580

$10,140

$439

Losers (n=189)

$9,601

$9,909

-$308

Total (n=392)

$10,082

$10,023

$59

A few thoughts on table 2.  First, the winners actually spent more money, per capita, then the losers.  They also had much higher benchmarks – maybe because they had sicker patients – or maybe because they’ve historically been high spenders.  Either way, it appears that the benchmark matters a lot when it comes to saving money or losing money.

Next, we tackle the question from the perspective of the U.S. taxpayer.  Did CMS come out ahead or behind?  Well – that should be an easy question – the program seemed to net savings.  However, remember that CMS had to share some of those savings back with the provider organizations.  And because almost every organization is in a 1-sided risk sharing program (i.e. they don’t share losses, just the gains), CMS pays out when organizations save money – but doesn’t get money back when organizations lose money.  So to be fair, from the taxpayer perspective, we have to look at the cost of the program including the checks CMS wrote to ACOs to figure out what happened.  Here’s that table:

Table 3 (these numbers are rounded).

 

Total Benchmarks

Total Actual Spending

Savings to CMS

Paid out in Shared Savings to ACOs

Net impact to CMS

Total (n=392)

$73,298 m

$72,868 m

$429 m

$645 m

-$116 m

According to this calculation, CMS actually lost $116 million in 2015.  This, of course, doesn’t take into account the cost of running the program.  Because most of the MSSP participants are in a one-sided track, CMS has to pay back some of the savings – but never shares in the losses it suffers when ACOs over-spend.  This is a bad deal for CMS – and as long as programs stay 1-sided, barring dramatic improvements in how much ACOs save — CMS will continue to lose money.

Finally, we look at whether savings have varied by year of enrollment.

Question #5:  Are ACOs that have been in the program longer doing better?

Table 4.

Enrollment Year

Per Capita Benchmark

Per Capita Actual Spending

Per Capita Savings

Net Per Capita Savings (Including bonus payments)

2012

$10,394

$10,197

$197

$46

2013

$10,034

$10,009

$25

–$60

2014

$10,057

$10,086

-$29

-$83

2015

$9,772

$9,752

$19

-$33

These results are straightforward – almost all the savings are coming from the 2012 cohort.    A few things worth pointing out.  First, the actual spending of the 2012 cohort is also the highest – they just had the highest benchmarks.  The 2013-2015 cohorts look about the same.  So if you are pessimistic about ACOs – you’d say that the 2012 cohort was a self-selected group of high-spending providers who got in early and because of their high benchmarks, are enjoying the savings.  Their results are not generalizable.  However, if you are optimistic about ACOs, you’d see these results differently – you might argue that it takes about 3 to 4 years to really retool healthcare services – which is why only the 2012 ACOs have done well.  Give the later cohorts more time and we will see real gains.

Final Thoughts:

This is decidedly mixed news for the ACO program.  I’ve been hopeful that ACOs had the right set of incentives and enough flexibility to really begin to move the needle on costs.  It is now four years into the program and the results have not been a home run.  For those of us who are fans of ACOs, there are three things that should sustain our hope.  First, overall, the ACOs seem to be coming in under target, albeit just slightly (about 0.6% below target in 2015) and generating savings (as long as you don’t count what CMS pays back to ACOs).  Second, the longer standing ACOs are doing better and maybe that portends good things for the future – or maybe it’s just a self-selected group that with experience that isn’t generalizable.  And finally, and this is the most important issue of all — we have to continue to move towards getting all these organizations into a two-sided model where CMS can recoup some of the losses.  Right now, we have a classic “heads – ACO wins, tails – CMS loses” situation and it simply isn’t financially sustainable.  Senior policymakers need to continue to push ACOs into a two-sided model, where they can share in savings but also have to pay back losses.  Barring that, there is little reason to think that ACOs will bend the cost curve in a meaningful way.

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Post originally appeared at An Ounce of Evidence | Health Policy: The blog of Ashish Jha — physician, health policy researcher, and advocate for the notion that an ounce of data is worth a thousand pounds of opinion.

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

Those Failing CO-OPs: Implications for the ACA and its ACO Workhorse

by Gregg A. Masters, MPH

As the battle for the hearts and minds of Americans relative to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) continues, and the tracking sentiment index waxes and wanes between ‘favorable’ and ‘unfavorable’ one front in particular seems to have a fair degree of utility with the narrative profferred by the ‘repeal and replace‘ crowd.

Consumer Operated and Oriented Plan (CO–OP) Program

Nested in Section 1322 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the ACA created the Consumer Operated and Oriented Plan Program (the CO–OP program):

‘to foster the creation of new consumer-governed, private, nonprofit health insurance issuers, known as ‘‘CO–OPs.’’ In addition to improving consumer choice and plan accountability, the CO–OP program also seeks to promote integrated models of care and enhance competition in the Affordable Insurance Exchanges established under sections 1311 and 1321 of the Affordable Care Act. The statute provides loans to capitalize eligible prospective CO–OPs with a goal of having at least one CO– OP in each State. The statute permits the funding of multiple CO–OPs in any State, provided that there is sufficient funding to capitalize at least one CO–OP in each State. Congress provided budget authority of $3.8 billion for the program’

For program details and background see the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) hereACOwatch_COOPGraphs_netIncome

As fodder for the anti-ACA crowd, much of the recent headlines have rightfully focused on the problematic ‘failure‘ rate of many of these community based AND governed start-up health plans.

Just witness some of the associated reports recently in the news:

Lets underscore the fact that CO-OPs are de-facto start-up health plans – a problematic undertaking under ideal launch conditions. As any entrepreneur or VCs fueling their vision knows, there is a tender proof of business model period during which an entities’ expenses typically exceed their revenues as they build market share and compete for members or lives in the market where they operate.

The ‘break-even’ (B/E) formula is rather simple:

revenues – expenses + subsidies = profit (or for non-profit entities: surplus revenues over expenses)

While not a golden rule, the B/E crossover point is rarely (if ever) within the first 24 or even 36 months of a stand alone (vs. subsidiary) operations and wholly determined by local market conditions and competitive landscape. Whether capitalization is via private investment or as in the case of CO-OPs via Federal loans this start-up fragility can not be overstated.

The other consideration unique to the CO-OP Program is the locally brewed, governed and accountable nature imbued in the operating culture and mission of these entities.

When you layer in the well established actuarial dynamics of profit and loss cycles predictably inherent in health insurance industry including ALL managed care derivatives, the critical variable of timing of market entry may introduce a volatility factor over-expressed under the current market conditions the ACA has fostered.

In other words, start-up health plans take time to create the infrastructure (people, processes and culture) to market, retain, price and operate successfully under ideal let alone typical market conditions. When you add the disruptive conditions the ACA has created (see: ‘Risk Adjustment Gone Wrong‘) in the small group and individual markets via Federally Facilitated or State run health insurance exchanges that complexity, associated market share gain challenges and ‘volatility ratio‘ can only be expected to play an increasingly important role in the success or failure of the enterprise.

The HMO Act of 1973

There is precedent to perhaps gauge and contextually consider the relative success or failure of the CO-OP Program spawned by the ACA. When the managed care revolution was birthed by then Republican President Richard Nixon via the HMO Act of 1973 as a market driven solution to remedy the run away costs of healthcare, HMO’s were typically seeded as non-profit, community based AND governed risk bearing health plans with a principal mission to maintain the health ACOwatch_HMO_Actand well being of its members.

HMO’s like the CO-OP program today received Federal support via start-up loans to manage through the typical B/E point associated with the start-up of a community based health plan vs. the typical indemnity based, fee for services insurance companies that dominated the market. The two exceptions to this rule where the non-profits licensed and operating under the Blue Cross and Blue Shield label and at least in California the Kasier Permanente Health Plan.

During the launch trajectory as then designated ‘alternative delivery systems‘ (ADS) HMO’s slowly gained share (both mind-share and members) and made their way out of California, though constrained by their non-profit nature and operating culture including the limited marketing upside of ‘staff’ or group model HMOs portrayed as second class medicine. In the 80s HMO’s went mainstream via the introduction of Independent Practice Associations (IPAs) and later ‘network models’ which attracted the independent private practice cohort into managed care if for no other reason than to defend against an emerging trend that could threaten their livelihood as more and more health benefit plans started to traffic patients to a contracted network of ‘participating providers’.

Shortly thereafter fueled by Wall Street the major health insurance companies went on a acquisition binge of these sleepy, capital constrained community based health plans. This consolidation orgy created a legal bonanza via a new industry of for-profit conversions of community based health plans, the behemoths of which included many of the Blue Cross/Blue Shield licensees. During the ‘urge to merge‘ imperative the seminal transaction was likely the for profit conversion of Blue Cross of California under the stewardship of health wonk Leonard Schaeffer (former Administrator of HCFA – the predecessor agency to CMS). Blue Cross of California was then to serve as the founding member of the for-profit WellPoint empire now re-branded and operating as Anthem, Inc. 

As simple and narrow as HMO (alternative delivery system model) charge was then, it pales in comparison to the charge and expectations placed on the nascent and fragile CO-OP industry. Not only are CO-OPs to stand up entities that provides non-profit, community based alternatives in a competitively vetted, comparably priced tiered benefits package for exchange facilitated marketplaces, they are to do this while the hospital, physician and a health plan communities are rapidly consolidating to gain scale and thus pricing leverage.

Bottom Line

The health insurance industry is a complex and some would argue ‘protected‘ industry (see: McCarran–Ferguson Act) that challenges even best-of-breed leadership (Mark Bertolini, Bruce Broussard et al) to sustainably operate their business as profitable enterprises during the volume to value shift. Witness the ‘urge to merge‘ amidst the majors, i.e., Aetna’s proposed acquisition of Humana, and Anthem’s proposed acquisition of Cigna, both recently challenged by the Department of Justice, and both rationalized by the need for scale to achieve the operating results expected by their investors.

As to ACO implications, clearly there are some. It’s hard to predict the rate of legal and clinical integration and the seamless care coordination and commitment to quality envisioned by 2nd or 3rd generation ACOs (typically risk bearing) or any of their derivative plays as exchanges become the de-facto market place for small group and individual offerings, but the handwriting is clearly on the wall.

So as some of us point to the CO-OP failure rate as another example of ACA over-reach via fundamentally flawed legislation and thus cause for repeal or re-entrenchment from the law, it may be helpful to historically gauge the nature of their challenge AND the market conditions in which they operate. A little humility can go long way here.