The COVID-19 virus has unleashed a rolling series of crises among fee-for-service providers. First, and most directly affected, providers in areas with major outbreaks have suffered extreme personal hardship and risked infection themselves with inadequate equipment and protective gear when treating patients. Second, everywhere in the country, physician practices and hospitals have seen revenue drops from 20 percent to 60 percent due to the need to follow social distancing practices to minimize infection. This revenue collapse has perversely resulted in staffing reductions that are likely to accelerate unless Congress provides further assistance to the industry. Third, and only partially observed so far, there is a pending “second wave” of health crises discernible in the “missing heart attacks” and reports from nephrologists and oncologists of patients making difficult decisions about whether to continue necessary care. In some cases, emergency care has shifted out of the hospital, and some triage is conducted on the street to avoid risk of COVID-19 infection.
The COVID-19 public health emergency has generated a massive set of emergency changes in Medicare payment policy, loosening regulation of acute hospital care, dramatically expanding use cases for telehealth and other types of virtual care, and, through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and subsequent relief legislation, releasing a $175 billion pool of money that attempts to prop up Medicare providers dependent on in-person, fee-for-service revenue. Now, with that first batch of changes handled, a debate has started among proponents of value-based purchasing as to the appropriate direction for the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) and other value-based initiatives during the emergency.
In this context, a number of stakeholders have begun to call on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to modify existing MSSP parameters to maintain the program through the emergency. CMS has responded by eliminating downside risk for accountable care organizations (ACOs) for the duration of the public health emergency and taking COVID-19 costs out of ACO financial calculations. These are welcome changes but don’t completely address the serious problems ACO participants face. We urge a different focus—the federal government should charge these existing networks with addressing the “second wave” of health care needs going largely unaddressed, as patients with serious, non-COVID-19-related chronic conditions see procedures and visits postponed indefinitely. Commensurately, Congress should suspend all financial impacts from the MSSP for the duration of the public health emergency—and consider excluding any data from 2020 for performance years 2021 and beyond. We describe key elements of these changes in this post.
A Growing Call For MSSP Modifications
The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) issued a comment letter urging CMS to allow ACO providers to focus on COVID-19, rather than shared savings. MedPAC, acknowledging the dramatic shifts in care delivery necessitated by the COVID-19 crisis, made several recommendations about treatment of savings and losses in the MSSP for 2020. MedPAC asked CMS not to use 2020 data for purposes of ACO quality, bonuses, and penalties. MedPAC would also have CMS disregard 2020 claims when assigning beneficiaries to ACOs, since a shift to telehealth, with physicians and patients potentially located far apart, could distort the ACO assignment with unintended effects. Finally, MedPAC recommended extending all ACO agreement periods, keeping everyone in the current risk arrangement for one year, a recommendation CMS adopted.
William Bleser and colleagues recently suggested immediate and short-term actions that could help preserve ACOs through this crisis. Their blog post identifies the decision point, coming on June 30, 2020, for ACOs to stay in the program and be accountable for losses in 2020. The impact of the emergency on ACOs will still be unclear at that time, and the authors recommend that CMS allow ACOs to completely opt out of downside risk for 2020 while accepting a capped amount of potential shared savings. Eliminating the downside and offering a limited upside might just convince ACOs not to leave the program entirely. CMS has taken these concerns seriously and removed all COVID-19–related costs from ACO financial calculations and eliminated shared losses during the public health emergency.
Another recent blog post by Travis Broome and Farzad Mostashari makes the case that the population health focus and financial incentives for ACOs position them uniquely, not just to survive, but to lead the way for primary care during the COVID-19 crisis. ACO participation may protect these practices because of the program’s unique financial metrics. Unlike Medicare managed care, MSSP ACOs are measured against a benchmark that trends forward at actual regional and national spending growth rates. During an unusual spending year, as 2020 is sure to be, those factors are included in the trend, and the ACO is not heavily penalized for the spending pattern. Broome and Mostashari recommend that CMS focus on shielding primary care practices from certain quality reporting and information collection requirements to pave the way for high-quality care and solid financial performance.
A More Focused Re-Envisioning Of The MSSP
Foundational to the MSSP is an agreement between groups of providers and the federal government to align their financial relationship with patient and taxpayer goals: to improve the quality of care for their patients and reduce the growth of health care spending. Both of those elements must take a back seat during a massive public health emergency.
Reducing overall health care costs is not an appropriate consideration for providers today. Even though national and regional growth factors will track actual changes in expenditures and may allow for identification of more efficient providers, this objective is second order to directly responding to the threat of the emergency. Given the overwhelming need to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in their communities, the ability of any health system or ACO to influence costs this year is likely to be dwarfed by factors outside its control. This type of highly infectious, novel pandemic is a risk that can only be properly assumed by the federal government. Neither physician practices, nor hospitals, nor any other ACO participants can realistically budget and prepare for such an event on their own. Congress and CMS should adopt MedPAC’s suggestion to suspend charging penalties or paying bonuses for all of 2020, no matter how long the public health emergency is in effect.
Similarly, while the prevention and care management metrics embedded in the MSSP remain appropriate indicators directionally, difficulties in seeing patients for well visits and new standards for documentation during telehealth visits will make any precise differentiation of quality in primary care practices near impossible. MedPAC is correct that using 2020 data for performance evaluation would undercut the legitimacy of the program, and the commissioners are right to support the call to suspend the use of such data in establishing bonuses, penalties, and benchmarks in 2020 and beyond.
However, many practices have made significant investments in population health technology, staff, and training that remain as valuable as ever during this emergency. And the public has an interest in maintaining those staff and those skills, as the basis for a better health system in the future. All told, like much of the rest of the economy, putting the MSSP and other ACO arrangements “on ice” to allow providers to focus on near-term priorities would best serve the public interest. That includes delaying or freezing requirements to step up to higher-risk tracks in the Pathways to Success program, as well as delaying or canceling quality submission requirements. These delays, however, should be paired with public funding to reflect the work that ACOs have already undertaken, as well as work that they can do to help manage through the crisis, discussed further below.
Taking steps to preserve ACOs through 2020 is a good start, but we believe Congress and CMS should think bigger and empower ACOs to focus directly on the current crisis for the next two years.
Adapting ACOs To Serve The Current Emergency
ACOs are a valuable asset for the Medicare program, reflecting nearly 10 years of work across hundreds of thousands of providers serving tens of millions of beneficiaries. Disbanding them by indifference would be a mistake. The current collapse in fee-for-service volume is a problem of fee-for-service medicine primarily, and ACOs represent an infrastructure for a further step away from volume-focused medicine once the danger from this emergency passes.
Suspending financial considerations and consequences for the duration of the emergency is insufficient. Without the responsibility for managing risk and sharing in any savings, the ACO contract with CMS loses its organizing force, and the program becomes “a solution in search of a problem.”
We see two opportunities for ACOs to redirect their energies productively this year and next. First, ACOs should be directed to follow best practices in testing and public health data collection, in collaboration with local and state officials. Managing the spread of the virus in their communities is already a daily task for these providers; additional surveillance and data collection could be adopted and updated continuously as recommendations evolve. By providing resources to ACOs to support this work directly, CMS would help ensure providers can keep up.
Second, and perhaps more important in most of the country to date, ACOs should be charged with meeting explicit virtual care management requirements to identify, contact, and serve patients in their panel with multiple high-risk chronic diseases. These patients are underserved today, and efforts to address their needs are piecemeal. In place of the current financial incentives, we propose that CMS require ACOs to perform a variety of care management and COVID-19 surveillance functions in exchange for a care management fee. Congress could enable and CMS could specify that ACOs place 10 percent to 15 percent of their patients under virtual care management programs, for example, and require that ACOs maintain regular contact with these patients as well as others at higher risk. The 10 percent to 10 percent figure is a fairly low bar, considering that more than 60 percent of Medicare patients have multiple chronic conditions, according to CMS. Additionally, COVID-19 patients could be offered principal care management, a new service for Medicare beneficiaries with one serious health condition, for a month or more after their diagnosis. New flexibilities for remote patient monitoring and virtual care make this far easier to implement than it had been before the pandemic.
CMS could quickly adapt existing financial models to support this work, drawing from analysis and design of the Primary Care First, Comprehensive Primary Care Plus, and other care management programs. ACOs are by design collaborative and can rapidly learn and share best practices for establishing virtual care management services. Behavioral health services and outreach, as well as other valuable preventive care, could also be directly funded through this structure. As an alternative to the fee for care management and surveillance, Congress could allow ACOs to receive their 2019 shared savings amounts again for 2020, for ACOs continuously operating in each year.
The steps we have outlined here will accomplish several worthwhile ends in this crisis:
- directly funding primary care capacity at a time when volumes are nosediving;
- keeping the nearly 500,000 physician and other clinicians already in ACOs working together, maintaining the infrastructure that has already been built; and
- providing upfront resources to manage patients whose conditions could deteriorate in the coming months, potentially catching them before they do.
These modifications should be executed first by Congress, not CMS, to ensure that such changes to the program do not become commonplace. This would invigorate the ACO programs by focusing them on the unique set of problems of this crisis, unencumbered by requirements better suited to peacetime than wartime. And when the war is over, these organizations can resume their longer-term mission to manage total costs and quality with all of the new tools and capabilities they have acquired during the crisis.