There’s a debate in the United States about whether the current measures of health care quality are adequate to support the movement away from fee-for-service toward value-based payment. Some providers advocate slowing or even halting payment reform efforts because they don’t believe that quality can be adequately measured to determine fair payment. Employers and other purchasers, however, strongly support the currently available quality measures used in payment reform efforts to reward higher-performing providers. So far, the Trump administration has not weighed in.
The four of us, leaders of organizations that represent large employers and other purchasers of health care, reject any delay in payment reform efforts for the following three reasons:
Even imperfect measurement and transparency accelerate quality improvement. One set of measures often questioned is the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s (AHRQ) Patient Safety Indicators (PSIs) used by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and others in value-based payment programs. These indicators measure surgical complications and errors in hospitals, which is critical given that one in four hospital admissions is estimated to result in an adverse event.
PSIs remain among the most evidence-based, well-tested, and validated quality measures available. CMS uses many in its value-based purchasing programs. Use and reporting of PSIs through AHRQ’s Medicare Patient Safety Monitoring System has measurably improved quality. For instance, CMS reported a reduction in inpatient venous thromboembolisms (VTEs) from 28,000 in 2010 to 16,000 in 2014, meaning that 12,000 fewer patients had potentially fatal blood clots in 2014.
In addition to using quality measures in payment programs and for quality improvement, making measures public is key to accelerating change. “If transparency were a medication, it would be a blockbuster,” concluded a multi-stakeholder roundtable convened by the National Patient Safety Foundation’s Lucian Leape Institute in 2015. The foundation’s report cited the Leapfrog Group’s first-ever reporting of early elective delivery rates by hospitals in 2010, which galvanized a cascade of efforts to curtail the problem and thus reduce maternal harms and neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) admissions. This was effective: The national mean of early elective deliveries declined from a rate of 17% to 2.8% in only five years.
Using measures improves measurement. Providers and health care executives sometimes point to flaws in their medical-record and billing systems as a main reason certain measures shouldn’t be used. As they see it, their performance on the measures isn’t the issue; it’s their medical records or billing coding that’s the problem. They believe these internal systems should be fixed before measures that use this information are applied in payment formulas or public reporting.
But use of these measures is often necessary to break logjams in correcting the health care industry’s long-neglected weaknesses in data-quality control. Indeed, many of the nuanced imperfections providers criticize were only uncovered by public reporting, which revealed unexpectedly poor performance for some providers, prompting them to research the medical records to find out the reasons.
Even rough measures make a big difference when they are publicly reported. For instance, New York State’s release of surgical mortality data for coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) procedures jump-started the movement to define and more carefully collect much stronger measures of CABG outcomes, and today we have many advances in cardiac care and its measurement.
In the New York example, the success in generating ever better measures — and more importantly, achieving ever better outcomes for patients — came about because providers made the changes that saved lives, and they deserve all the credit for that. A thorough, respectful process for building scientific and stakeholder consensus around measures has been orchestrated by leaders like the National Quality Forum (NQF) and the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA). Purchasers are committed to partnering in the development and refinement of excellent measures while we advance transparency and payment reform alongside that work.
Returning to fee-for-service is not an option. Given the widely acknowledged waste, heavy costs, and quality-of-care issues produced by the fee-for-service system, the fact that there are rough spots on the road to value-based payment is hardly a justification for slowing down reform. If converting to a more sensible payment system were easy, it would have been done a long time ago.
The change to performance-based payment and market share requires tenacity and patience. Current quality measures may have rough edges, but stakeholders have worked hard to steadily improve their validity and reliability. Employers and other purchasers, such as those involved in our organizations, must work with forward-thinking colleagues in the health care system to continually improve the measures that publicly signal value. It will be a learning process for providers and purchasers as long as we’re guided by a spirit of transparency.
Whatever the risks of imperfect measurement, America’s first priority must be to eliminate avoidable suffering, mortality, and waste in its uniquely costly health care system. We hope that the Trump administration and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will continue to recognize what our members see clearly: delaying payment reform is not an option.