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. 

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: 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)


203 (51.8%)




189 (48.2%)




392 (100%)



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)




Losers (n=189)




Total (n=392)




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)





















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.


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

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, ACO, Affordable Care Act

MACRA, MIPS and APMs: A Report from CAPG

by Gregg A. Masters, MPH

So everyone is talking about value based healthcare. No longer is ‘business as usual‘ even an option on the table as the volume driven FFS zeitgeist continues to lose supporters in health policy circles while a growing body of clinical initiatives from ACOs to a range of variably structured and differentially market positioned risk bearing organizations (RBOs) model the new paradigm.CAPG_Guide to APMs

For some this value based healthcare mantra is code-speak for the associated narrative if not mandate to reflect all payment or delivery system model entries that shift clinical risk to providers whether ‘institutional‘, i.e., hospitals and/or their parent health systems (including IDNs), or ‘professional‘, i.e., physician networks, enterprises, medical groups or their managing agents (MSOs). This pool of value based participants includes a range of ACOs whether participating in the Medicare (MSSP or other options) program or their commercial derivatives as negotiated by many of the national or regional health insurance companies; not to mention ‘OWAs’ (other weird arrangements) that arguably incorporate one or more strategies to play and thrive under a range of risk based incentives.

CAPG_Guide to APMs_matrix

Contributing clarity to an arguably non-homogeneous market including performance results to date via provider entity type use cases is CAPG (fka as the California Association of Physician Groups) who recently published ‘CAPG’s Guide to Alternative Payment Models: Case Studies of Risk-Based Coordinated Care‘. 

This is a timely and resource rich report sourced from an eclectic pool of risk savvy industry players (CAPG members) that CAPG Executives Don Crane, President and CEO, and Mara McDermott, Vice President of Federal Affairs, introduce as follows:

You’ll … learn where each model is successful and strong, and where each has room for improvement. Key areas where CAPG members are demonstrating success in APMs include:

• Improving the quality and efficiency of care for patients. These APMs align physician payment to the achievement of performance objectives.

• Encouraging team-based care and a commitment to primary care.

• Innovating to better meet the needs of patients, particularly those with chronic conditions.

In addition to the significant progress our members are making in improving patient care and innovation, several themes have emerged where there is room for improvement:

• Improving data sharing with payers to continue to drive care improvements.

• Engaging patients in new payment approaches, particularly in accountable care organizations (ACOs).

• Aligning quality measures across programs. This will play an important role in reducing the burden on physician practices and getting actionable information to consumers.
As physicians across the nation embark on this journey toward risk-bearing arrangements, we hope you find this paper a practical, helpful, and invaluable guide. 


Most of you will connect and more or less identify with the ‘it takes a village‘ [to raise a child] admonition popularized by the presumptive Democratic Nominee for President, Hillary Clinton. In the grand transformation of a change resistant and to a very large degree legacy inertia driven healthcare financing and delivery ecosystem, this village idea may just be a gross understatement. Rather, I think the then Acting Administrator of CMS Don Berwick got it right scaling the true nature of the challenge before healthcare leadership, which is to steward the market mandated transformation via an ‘all hands on deck, full court press‘ invitation to make this transformation even remotely possible. In other words, this will take much more than just a ‘village‘.

Major props to CAPG for an important body of work on this nascent and ‘learning as we go‘ industry.


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

Final Medicare Shared Savings Program Rule (CMS-1644-F)

by Gregg A. Masters, MPH

Creating consistent high quality original content is hard. At ACO Watch, we’re not in the business of breaking news or high frequency posts to drive eyeballs and traffic to this blog so ‘the numbers’ that might attract advertising or sponsorship (there aren’t any). Instead we (mostly me) watch the developments in the sector and offer newsworthy items now and then with some commentary which usually tethers to institutional memory (often failure, some successes) of having been in this dance for a while.cms final rule MSSP

So here’s the latest from CMS on the proposed final rule for ACOs participating in the Medicare Shared Savings Program, see published rule here.

I remember back in the day when CMS was known as HCFA (the Health Care Financing Administration) and inside the Baltimore HHS complex, there dwelled an office with the name ‘Alternative Delivery Systems’ (ADS). This was the locus of staff (very modest at that time) tasked to monitor and track what was then limited to HMOs and the newly minted though ‘lite version’ dubbed PPOs.

Fast forward some 45+ years and those ‘alternative entities’ have become mainstream so to speak. Literally all benefit plans written today are contractually delivered via participating providers (IPAs, PHOs, IDNs, health systems, alliances, networks, direct or more recently ACOs) are some form of ‘managed care’ unless those providers have opted out of Medicare, Medicaid and commercial insurance in favor of Direct Practice or worse ‘Concierge Medicine’.

Since the Secretary of Health and Human Services has recently set a goal to have Medicare move away from its traditional reliance of unbridled fee-for-services medicine to a range of what CMS has or will define as ‘value based care‘ arrangements – everything from bundled payments, to gain sharing, to partial or global risk assumption by providers (hospitals, health systems, IPAs or ACOs (the next generation) much attention has focused on the right combination of incentives, infrastructure and regulatory context to move this historically change resistant healthcare delivery ecosystem into the brave new world of value vs. volume.

This is the latest effort by CMS to tweak the ACOs regs in order to meet some of the persistent objections to the program while scalably incentivizing the essential journey to risk assumption by providers is noted as:

The policies adopted in this final rule are designed to strengthen incentives in order to continue broad-based program participation and improve program function and transparency.

While the broader context is summarized as:

On June 6, 2016, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a final rule to incorporate regional fee-for-service (FFS) expenditures into the methodology for establishing, adjusting, and updating the benchmarks of Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) that continue their participation in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (Shared Savings Program) after an initial three-year agreement period. This final rule also adds a participation option to encourage ACOs to transition to performance-based risk arrangements and provides greater administrative finality around the program’s financial calculations. CMS is making these modifications to strengthen incentives under the program after considering comments received on issues specified in the 2016 notice of proposed rulemaking. 

There is more to the story, and the referenced PR is here.



Posted in Accountable Care, ACO, Affordable Care Act

The Droids You Are Looking For Are Not Here

by Gregg A. Masters, MPH

Beneath the ideological crossfire and mostly bluster of the ACA ‘repeal and replace crowd’, while the latest ‘new, new, thing‘ aka the defacto Rorschach upside of a litany of mostly vaporware or me too ‘meh‘ digital health apps, platforms or S-1 filings (see: ‘Disruptive Idiots from Silicon Valley‘) stumble into maturity amidst growing calls for validation and evidence of tangible ecosystem sustainability, a pulse of innovation can be found in some less ‘sexy’ sectors.

Some time ago physician innovation pioneer Richard Merkin, MD, the founder and principal visionary behind the Heritage Provider Network and all of its sequelae (Heritage Medical Systems, Heritage ACO, etc.), opined from the stage at the ACO Summit that perhaps the biggest contribution (gold) from the ACA was to be mined from the forward leaning work stimulated by the law’s enablement of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) aka @CMSinnovates on twitter.

Richard Gilfillan MDThe indisputable driver of what was then invested in Richard Gillfilan, MD the first CMMI Director (now stewarding the transformation at Trinity Health System, @TrinityHealthMI), was the volume to value imperative.

Into this challenge was cast considerable public capital/incentive funds to model what that meant from a delivery system and financing re-engineering perspective. Perhaps fueling the discounting of CMMI’s early efforts was the poorly constructed ‘Pioneer ACO‘ program, ostensibly designed to attract a more risk savvy pool of players who could reasonably assume greater risk and therefore earn more meaningful bonuses for doing what they already know how to do principally via Medicare Advantage participation. This early cohort of 32 ‘Pioneers’ has dwindled recently to 19 with the recent defection of the trophy Darmouth-Hitchcock ACO, see:Dartmouth-Hitchcock exits Medicare’s Pioneer ACO program‘.

With that as backdrop, consider the following timely guide from the Cooperative of American Physicians titled ‘The Physician’s Guide To Value-Based Compensation‘. Consider this an essential ‘blocking and tackling’ primer of how to incentivize the granular behavior of those who write the ‘purchase orders’ for an essentially supply driven healthcare economy. As my colleague and surfing buddy John Mattison, MD (@JohneMattison), Assistant Medical Director, and CMIO Kaiser Permanente Southern California (@KPshare) often says: ‘we get what we incent’.

CAP_guide to value based comp

[Editor’s Note: and for those of you really interested in where the AMA stands on the bridging the volume-to-value divide, listen to: Health 2.0 Fall Conference 2015: An AMA Deep Dive on ‘The App Cure’].

Whether the ACA is repealed (highly doubtful) or materially modified (also not likely) its essence will not and cannot be ‘undone’ – the horse is out of the barn. Like it or not, the controlling DNA driving the many moving parts articulated in the ACA (and its state lab version ‘RomneyCare’) builds on decades of established health policy thinking on what works in the uniquely American public/private pluralistic partnership of healthcare financing and delivery.

Watch the ‘enablers’

Whether ACOs, fully integrated delivery systems (real IDNs – NOT their IDN lite versions), PCMHs, or one of a number of strains of risk bearing organizations (RBOs) from bundled pricing to full blown per member per month (PMPM) capitation, this is where the sustainable action can and will be found. This other stuff, plays well at CES and the many wannabe healthcare industry copy cat conferences playing an up the ante ‘cool factor’ card to an often ADD crowd, yet it’s tangible contribution to the triple aim or sustainable healthcare economy remains squarely ‘on the come.



Posted in Accountable Care, ACO, Affordable Care Act

ACOs: The Results So Far (It Depends)

by Gregg A. Masters, MPH

It might have been prescient but minimally it was perfect timing. While Fred Goldstein, President of Accountable Health, LLC, and me were prepping for our session to re-cap on PopHealth Week (@PopHealthWeek) some of the insights from our deep dive series into Population Health and ACOs, reporting insights from embedded executives at physician led, hospital sponsored and health plan enabled ACOs respectively, CMS yesterday (August 25th) posted the results from their participants in the MSSP and Pioneer Programs.

The Pioneer results are displayed below (for a description of the Pioneer program click here):CMS_ACO_Results_Pioneers
Again, while we’re still very early in this game, one bit of ‘cognitive dissonance’ that I experienced is worthy of note and further exploration.

That being the Heritage ACO a physician led enterprise fielded by managed care industry veteran and disruptive innovator Richard Merkin, MD, et al (including my former American Medical International colleague Mark Wagar, President Heritage Medical Systems and most recently CEO Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield) untethered in any way from an institutional portfolio of healthcare infrastructure (i.e., hospitals) booked zero savings for distribution while hospital tethered and a card carrying member of the Association of American Medical Colleges (@AAMCtoday) (as the principal teaching hospital for Einstein College of MedicineMontefiore ACO booked massive (relative to ‘aligned beneficiares’) savings.

One must ponder the question and ask how can this be so?

It’s common knowledge that ACOs ‘untethered’ from (heads in beds) legacy hospital interests are more nimble and therefore better positioned to manage the volume-to-value transition. Further, when you add into the mix the history of successful risk assumption across a distributed network of ‘aware’ coordinated care practices (both IPA and medical group) you have a material competitive advantage.

So perhaps the ‘devil is in the details‘ as it often is, and the answers are to be found in the formulaic world of risk adjusters, corridors, baselines and severity of illness calculations. We hope top hear direct from Heritage ACO as this author has made that request a number of times previously.

Another interesting result that stands out as it arguably tethers to the presumptively competitively disadvantaged ‘health plan enabled‘ camp of ACOs is the incredible savings generated by the Banner Health Network (a Pioneer ACO), which if memory serves me well is a co-creation of Banner and Aetna via their ‘payor agnostic’ Healthagen subsidiary.

For complete details see the CMS release ‘Medicare ACOs Continue to Improve Quality of Care, Generate Shared Savings‘ and ‘Medicare ACOs Provide Improved Care While Slowing Cost Growth in 2014‘.

Meanwhile for a bit of reading the tea leaves color via Beckers Hospital Review see CMS releases 2014 Medicare ACO quality, financial results: 10 things to know):

1. Ninety-seven ACOs qualified to share in savings by meeting quality and cost benchmarks. Together, they earned shared savings payments of more than $422 million.

2. Fifteen of the 20 participating Pioneer ACOs generated a total of $120 million in savings in 2014, their third performance year. This is up 24 percent from the second performance year when they generated $96 million in savings. Of those that generated savings, 11 earned shared savings payments of $82 million.

3. Five Pioneer ACOs generated losses and three owed CMS shared losses of $9 million.

4. Pioneer ACOs increased their average quality scores to 87.2 percent in performance year three from 85.2 percent in performance year 2. They improved an average of 3.6 percent compared to performance year two on 28 of the 33 quality measures and showed significant improvement in medication reconciliation, clinical depression screening and follow-ups, and EHR incentive payment qualification…

Read complete article here.

Yes we do live in interesting times. And ideological prism not-withstanding there is no way this Genie (ACOs et al, and whatever formulaic derivatives may be forthcoming) gets put back in the bottle – the best efforts of Governor Scott Walker’s ‘bold’ The Day One Patient Freedom Plan (more likevaporware‘) effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

This train has left the station. Time to deal with it?

Posted in Accountable Care, ACO

An ACO Update via Leavitt Partners

By Gregg A. Masters, MPH

Just released is the continuing pulse of the accountable care industry (not just ACOs per se) via the consulting firm branded with the imprimatur of a former Secretary of HHS Michael Leavitt who opines from the Red State of Utah on the progress made by market driven initiatives outlined leavitt_acosin the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).

I will add my thoughts to the Leavitt commentary shortly, but the one slide that caught my attention y/e 2014 was the crossover by provider type from physician led to institutionally (hospital system) led ACOs.

One might say that the traditional revenue side vs. cost basis of a hospital group is now at the head of the class of ACO innovation is the wrong form of ‘disruptive leadership’.

Yet, it’s interesting to note that the American Hospital Association (AHA) is a principal partner if not co-sponsor of the report. Might this be a filtering outcome of the ‘fox guarding the hen house‘ or even the aggregate impact (conscious or otherwise) of strategy driven choices by CEOs of U.S. Health Systems?

By way of context, as a long as hospitals maintain their ‘revenue center’ primacy vs, their actual role (in the sustainable healthcare ecosystem food chain) as the true ‘cost centers’ they are – at least in legally, financially and clinically integrated delivery systems or networks (IDNs), how can ‘hospital culture’ be expected to pro-actively cannibalize a bread-and-butter fee-for-services business model in a reimbursement paradigm largely dominated by volume driven incentives even in 2015? Only a disinterested third party (aka physician led ACOs) can re-engineer the needed disruption of maldistributed, asset concentrated overpriced hospital services.

For the complete Leavitt Partners report click here.

ACOs by sponsor type Leavitt Partners