The Medicare Shared Savings Program saved the agency $1.19 billion in 2019, according to CMS performance results of 541 accountable care organizations released Monday.
This marks the third year of savings for the value-based care program and its largest yet, CMS Administrator Seema Verma wrote in a Health Affairs blog post Monday. ACOs taking on more risk continued to outperform those that didn’t, Verma wrote, including those under its Pathways to Success rule rolled out in December 2018.
ACOs in the Pathways to Success program generated net per-beneficiary savings of $169 compared to $106 for legacy track ACOs, Verma said, suggesting the policies are incentivizing ACOs to deliver more coordinated and efficient care.
ACOs are groups of doctors, hospitals and other providers with payments tied to the cost and quality of care they provide beneficiaries. According to Verma’s post, the number of ACOs taking on downside financial risk has nearly doubled since the Pathways to Success program launched for those in the Medicare Shared Savings Program.
New participation options under the rule require accountability for spending increases, generally after two years for new ACOs, and close evaluation of care quality. The new benchmarks and speed at which ACOs would need to take on downside risk was initially shot down by ACOs.
But CMS also created an option for “low-revenue” ACOs, generally run by physician practices rather than hospitals, allowing them an additional year before taking on downside risk for cost increases.
According to the blog post, physician-led ACOs performed better than hospital-led ACOs.
“To get program growth back on track, Congress needs to take a close look at the Value in Health Care Act, which makes several improvements to the Medicare ACO program and better incentivizes Advanced Alternative Payment Models,” trade group CEO Clif Gaus said in a statement.
Farzad Mostashari, CEO of the Aledade, pointed to physician-led ACOs out-performing hospital ACOs in a statement on the results. “What we need now is to help more practices participate in these models of care,” he said.
Low-revenue ACOs, typically physician-led, had per beneficiary savings of $201 compared to $80 per beneficiary for high-revenue ACOs. Low-revenue ACOs in the Pathways to Success program saved $189 per beneficiary while high-revenue ACOs in the program saved $155 per beneficiary, according to the 2019 performance results.
Several factors will shape the financial performance of physician- and hospital-led organizations under total cost of care payment models.
Broad consensus has long existed among public- and private-sector leaders in US healthcare that improvements in healthcare affordability will require, among other changes, a shift away from fee-for-service (FFS) payments to alternative payment models that reward quality and efficiency. The alternative payment model that has gained broadest adoption over the past ten years is the accountable care organization (ACO), in which physicians and/or hospitals assume responsibility for the total cost of care for a population of patients.
Launched by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Innovation Center in 2012, Pioneer ACO was the first such model design to generate savings for Medicare. In this incarnation, Medicare set a benchmark for total cost of care per attributed ACO beneficiary: If total cost of care was kept below the benchmark, ACOs were eligible to share in the implied savings, as long as they also met established targets for quality of care. If total cost of care exceeded the benchmark, ACOs were required to repay the government for a portion of total cost of care above the benchmark.
Payment models similar to the one adopted by Pioneer ACOs also have been extended to other Medicare ACO programs, with important technical differences in estimates for savings and rules for the distribution of savings or losses as well as some models offering gain sharing without potential for penalties for costs exceeding the benchmark. State Medicaid programs as well as private payers (across Commercial, Medicare Advantage, and Medicaid Managed Care) also have adopted ACO-like models with similar goals and payment model structures. Of the roughly 33 million lives covered by an ACO in 2018, more than 50 percent were commercially insured and approximately 10 percent were Medicaid lives.2
On the whole, ACOs in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) have delivered high-quality care, with an average composite score of 93.4 percent for quality metrics. However, cost savings achieved by the program have been limited: ACOs that entered MSSP during the period from January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2014, were estimated to have reduced cumulative Medicare FFS spending by $704M by 2015; after bonuses were accounted for, net savings to the Medicare program were estimated to be $144M.3 Put another way, in aggregate, savings from Medicare ACOs in 2015 represented only 0.02 percent of total Medicare spending. The savings achieved were largely concentrated among physician-led ACOs (rather than hospital-led ACOs). In fact, after accounting for bonuses, hospital-led ACOs actually had higher total Medicare spending by $112M on average over three years.4
While savings from MSSP have been relatively limited, in aggregate, numerous examples exist of ACOs that have achieved meaningful savings—in some cases in excess of 5 percent of total cost of care—with significant rewards to both themselves as well as sponsoring payers (for example, Millennium, Palm Beach, BCBSMA AQC).567 The wide disparity of performance among ACOs (and across Medicare, Medicaid, and Commercial ACO programs) raises the question of whether certain provider organizations are better suited than others to succeed under total cost of care arrangements, and whether success is dictated more by ACO model design or by structural characteristics of participating providers.
In the pages that follow, we examine these questions in two ways. First, we analyze “the math of ACOs” by isolating four factors that contribute to overall ACO profitability: bonus payments, “demand destruction,” market share gains, and operating expenses. Following these factors, we illustrate the math of ACOs through modeling of the performance of five different archetypes: physician-led ACOs; hospital-led ACOs with low ACO penetration and low leakage reduction; hospital-led ACOs with high ACO penetration; hospital-led ACOs with high leakage reduction; and hospital-led ACOs with high penetration and leakage reduction.
The Math of ACOs
In the pages that follow, we break down “the math of ACOs” into several key parameters, each of which hospital and physician group leaders could consider evaluating when deciding whether to participate in an ACO arrangement with one or more payers. Specifically, we measure the total economic value to ACO-participating providers as the sum of four factors: bonus payments, less “demand destruction,” plus market share gains, less operating costs for the ACO (Exhibit 1).
In the discussion that follows, we examine each of these factors and understand their importance to the overall profitability of ACOs, using both academic research as well as McKinsey’s experience advising and supporting payers and providers participating in ACO models.
1. Bonus payments
The premise of ACOs rests on the opportunity for payers and participating providers to share in cost savings arising from curbing unnecessary utilization and more efficient population health management, thus aligning incentives to control total cost of care. Because ACOs are designed to reduce utilization, the bonus—or share of estimated savings received by an ACO—is one factor that significantly influences ACO profitability and has garnered the greatest attention both in academic research and in private sector negotiations and deliberations over ACO participation. Bonus payments made to ACOs are themselves based on several key design elements:
The baseline and benchmark for total costs, against which savings are estimated8 ;
The shared savings rate and minimum savings/loss rates;
Risk corridors, based on caps on gains/losses and/or “haircuts” to benchmarks; and,
Frequency of rebasing, with implications for benchmark and shared savings.
1a. Baseline and benchmark
Most ACO models are grounded in a historical baseline for total cost of care, typically on the population attributed to providers participating in the ACO. Most ACO models apply an annual trend rate to the historical baseline, in order to develop a benchmark for total cost of care for the performance period. This benchmark is then used as the point of reference to which actual costs are compared for purposes of determining the bonus to be paid.
Historical baselines may be based either on one year or averaged over multiple years in order to mitigate the potential for a single-year fluctuation in total cost of care that could create an artificially high or low point of comparison in the future. Trend factors may be based on historically observed growth rates in per capita costs, or forward-looking projections, which may depart from historical trends due to changes in policy, fee schedules, or anticipated differences between past and future population health. Trend factors may be based on national projections, more market-specific projections, or even ACO-specific projections. For these and other reasons, a pre-determined benchmark may not be a good estimate of what total cost of care would have been in the absence of the ACO. As a result, estimated savings, and hence bonuses, may not reflect the true savings generated by ACOs if compared to a rigorous assessment of what otherwise would have occurred.
Recent research suggests that an ACO’s benchmark should be set using trend data from providers in similar geographic areas and/or with similar populations instead of using a national market average trend factor.9 It has been observed in Medicare (and other) populations that regions (and therefore possibly ACOs) that start at a lower-than-average cost base tend to have a higher-than-average growth trend. For example, Medicare FFS spending in low-cost regions grew at a rate 1.2 percentage points faster than the national average (2.8 percent and 1.6 percent from 2013 to 2017 compound annual growth rate, respectively). This finding is particularly relevant in low-cost rural communities, where healthcare spending grows faster than the national average.10 Based on this research, some ACO models, such as MSSP and the Next Generation Medicare ACO model, have developed benchmarks based on blending ACO-specific baselines with market-wide baselines. This approach is intended to account for the differences in “status quo” trend, which sponsoring payers may project in the absence of ACO arrangements or associated improvements in care patterns. Some model architects have advocated for this provider-market blended approach to benchmark development because they believe such an approach balances the need to reward providers who improve their own performance with a principle tenet of this model: That ACOs within a market should be held accountable to the same targets (at least in the long term).
The shared savings rate is the percentage of any estimated savings (compared with benchmark) that is paid to the ACO, subject to meeting any requirements for quality performance. For example, an ACO with a savings rate of 50 percent that outperforms its benchmark by 3 percent would keep 1.5 percent of benchmark spend. Under the array of Medicare ACO models, the shared savings rate percentage ranges anywhere from 40 percent to 100 percent.11
In some ACO models, particularly one-sided gain sharing models that do not introduce downside risk, payers impose a minimum savings rate (MSR), which is the savings threshold for an ACO to receive a payout, typically 2 percent, but can be higher or lower.12 For example, assume ACO Alpha has a savings rate of 60 percent and MSR of 1.5 percent. If Alpha overperforms the benchmark by 1 percent, there would be no bonus payout, because the total savings do not meet or exceed the MSR. If, however, Alpha overperforms the benchmark by 3 percent, Alpha would receive a bonus of 1.8 percent of benchmark (60 percent of 3 percent). An MSR is common in one-sided risk agreements to protect the payer from paying out the ACO if modest savings are a result of random variations. ACOs in two-sided risk arrangements may often choose whether to have an MSR.
Both factors impact the payout an ACO receives. Between 2012 and 2018, average earned shared savings for MSSP ACOs were between $1.0M and $1.6M per ACO (between $10 and $100 per beneficiary).13 However, while nearly two out of three MSSP ACOs in 2018 were under benchmark, only about half of them (37 percent of all MSSP ACOs) received a payout due to the MSR.14
1c. Risk corridors
In certain arrangements, payers include clauses that limit an ACO’s gains or losses to protect against extreme situations. Caps depend on the risk-sharing agreement (for example, one-sided or two-sided) as well as the shared savings/loss rate. For example, MSSP Track 1 ACOs (one-sided risk sharing) cap shared savings at the ACO’s share of 10 percent variance to the benchmark, while Track 3 ACOs (two-sided risk sharing) cap shared savings at the ACO’s share of 20 percent variance to the benchmark and cap shared losses at 15 percent variance to the benchmark.15 In contrast with these Medicare models, many Commercial and Medicaid ACO models have applied narrower risk corridors, with common ranges of 3 to 5 percent. In our experience, payers have elected to offer narrower risk corridors. Their choice is based on their desire to mitigate risk as well as the interest of some payers (and state Medicaid programs) to share in extraordinary savings that may be attributable in part to policy changes or other interventions undertaken by the payers themselves, whether in coordination with ACOs or independent of their efforts.
Payers also may vary the level of shared savings (and/or risk), between that which applies to the first dollar of savings (versus benchmark) compared with more significant savings. For example, by applying a 1 percent adjustment or “haircut” to the benchmark, a payer might keep 100 percent of the first 1 percent of savings and share any incremental savings with the ACO at a negotiated shared savings rate. Depending on what higher shared savings rate may be offered in trade for the “haircut,” such a structure has the potential to increase the incentive for ACOs to significantly outperform the benchmark. For example, an ACO that beats the benchmark by 4 percentage points and earns 100 percent of savings after 1 percentage point would net 75 percent of total estimated savings. However, under the same risk model, if the ACO were to beat the benchmark by 2 percentage points, they would only earn 50 percent of total savings. Such a structure could therefore be either more favorable or less favorable than 60 percent shared savings without a “haircut,” depending on the ACO’s anticipated performance.
1d. Frequency of rebasing
In most ACO models (including those adopted by CMS for the Medicare FFS program), the ACO’s benchmark is reset for each performance period based (at least in part) on the ACO’s performance in the immediate prior year. This approach is commonly referred to as “rebasing.” The main criticism of this approach toward ACO model design—which is also evident in capitation rate setting for Managed Care Organizations—is that ACOs become “victims of their own success”: Improvements made by the ACO in one year lead to a benchmark that is even harder to beat in the following year. The corollary is also true: An ACO with “excessive” costs in Year 1 may be setting themselves up for significant shared savings in Year 2 simply by bringing their performance back to “normal” levels.
Even in situations where ACOs show steady improvements in management of total cost of care over several years, the “ratchet” effect of rebasing can have significant implications for the share of estimated savings that flow to the ACO. Exhibit 2 illustrates the shared savings that would be captured by an ACO, if it were to mitigate trend by 2 percentage points consistently for 5 years (assumes linear growth), under a model that provides 50 percent shared savings against a benchmark that is set with annual rebasing. In this scenario, although the ACO would earn 50 percent of the savings estimated in any one year (against benchmark), the ACO would derive only 16 percent of total savings achieved relative to a “status quo” trend.
Some ACO model designs (including MSSP) have mitigated this “ratchet” effect, to some extent, by using multi-year baselines, whereby the benchmark for a given performance year is based not on the ACO’s baseline performance in the immediate prior year but over multiple prior years. This approach smooths out the effect of one-year fluctuations in performance on the benchmark for subsequent years; by implication, improvements made by an ACO in Year 1 and sustained in Year 2 create shared savings in both years. Under a three-year baseline, weighted toward the most recent year 60/30/10 percent (as applies to new contracts under the MSSP), the ACO in Exhibit 2 would capture 22 percent of total estimated savings over 5 years. If the model were instead to adopt an evenly weighted three-year baseline, that same ACO would capture 28 percent over 5 years.
In select cases, particularly in the Commercial market, payers and ACOs have agreed to multi-year prospective benchmarks. Under this approach, the benchmark for performance Years 1 to 5 (for example) are set prospectively in Year 0; the benchmarks for Years 2 and 3, for example, are not impacted by the ACO’s performance in Year 1. If this approach were to be applied to the ACO depicted in Exhibit 2, they would earn fully 50 percent of the total savings, assuming that the prospectively established 5-year benchmark was set at the “status quo” trend line. While prospective multi-year benchmarks may be more favorable to ACOs, they also increase the sensitivity of ACO performance to both the original baseline as well as the reasonableness of the prospectively applied trend rate.
While in many cases healthcare organizations are highly focused on the percent of shared savings they will receive (shared savings rate), in our experience, the financial sustainability of ACO arrangements may be equally or more greatly affected by several other design parameters outlined here, among them: the inclusion of an MSR or a “haircut” to benchmark, either of which may dampen the incentive to perform; benchmark definitions including the use of provider-specific, market-specific, and/or national baseline and trend factors; and the frequency of rebasing, as implied by the use of a single-year or multi-year baseline, or the adoption of prospectively determined multi-year benchmarks.
2. Demand destruction
Although shared savings arrangements are meant to align providers’ incentives with curbing unnecessary utilization, the calculation of bonus payments based on avoided claims costs (as described in Section 1) does not account for the foregone provider revenue (and margins) attached to reductions in patient volume. The economic impact of this reduction in patient volume, sometimes referred to as “demand destruction,” is described in this section, which we address in two parts:
Foregone economic contribution based on reduced utilization in the ACO population; and,
Spillover effects from reduced utilization in the non-ACO population, based on clinical and operational changes that “spillover” from the ACO population to the non-ACO population.
2a. Foregone economic contribution
Claims paid to hospital systems for inpatient, outpatient, and post-acute facility utilization typically comprise 40 to 70 percent of total cost of care, with hospital systems that own a greater share of outpatient diagnostic lab and/or imaging and/or skilled nursing beds falling at the upper end of this range. These same categories of facility utilization may comprise 60 to 80 percent of reductions in utilization arising from improvements in population health management by an ACO. Given the high fixed costs (and correspondingly high gross margins) associated with inpatient, outpatient, and post-acute facilities, foregone facility volume could come at an opportunity cost of 30 to 70 percent of foregone revenue—that opportunity cost being the gross contribution margin associated with incremental patient volume, calculated as revenue less variable costs: Commercially insured ACO populations are more likely to fall into the upper end of this range and Medicaid populations into the lower end. This is the reason savings rates tend to be higher in the Commercial market, to offset the larger (negative) financial impact of “demand destruction.”
For example, a hospital-led ACO that mitigates total cost of care by 3 percent (or $300 based on a benchmark of $10,000 per capita) might forego $180 to $240 of revenue per patient (assuming 60 to 80 percent of savings derived from hospital services), which may represent $90 to $120 in foregone economic contribution, assuming 50 percent gross margins. As this example shows, this foregone economic contribution may represent a significant offset to any bonus paid under shared savings arrangements, unless the shared savings percentage is significantly greater than the gross margin percentage for foregone patient revenue.
For some hospitals that are capacity constrained, the lost patient volume may be replaced (that is, backfilled) with additional patient volume that may be more or less profitable depending on the payer (for example, an ACO that backfills with more profitable Commercial patients). However, the vast majority of hospitals are not traditionally capacity constrained and therefore must look to other methods (for example, growing market share) to be financially sustainable.
In contrast, physician-led ACOs have comparatively little need to consider the financial impact of “demand destruction,” given that they never benefitted from hospitalizations and thus do not lose profits from forgone care. Furthermore, primary care practices may actually experience an increase, rather than decrease, in patient revenue, based on more effective population health management. Even for multi-specialty physician practices that sponsor ACO formation, any reductions in patient volume arising from the ACO may have only modest impact on practice profitability due to narrow contribution margins attached to incremental patient volume. Physician-led ACOs may need to be concerned with “demand destruction” only to the extent that a disproportionate share of savings is derived from reductions in practice-owned diagnostics or other high-margin services; however, the savings derived from such sources are typically smaller than reductions in utilization for emergency department, inpatient, and post-acute facility utilization.
2b. Spillover effects
Though ACOs are not explicitly incentivized to reduce total cost of care of their non-ACO populations (including FFS), organizations often see increased efficiency across their full patient population after becoming an ACO. For example, research over the last decade has found reductions in spend for non-ACO lives between 1 and 3 percent (Exhibit 3).
The impact of spillover effects on an ACO’s profitability depends on the proportion of ACO and non-ACO lives that comprise a provider’s patient panel. Further, impact also depends on the ACO’s ability to implement differentiated processes for ACO and non-ACO lives to limit the spillover of the efficiencies. Although conventional wisdom implies that physicians will not discriminate their clinical practice patterns based on the type of payer (or payment), nonetheless many examples exist of hospitals and other providers with the ability to differentiate processes based on payer or payment type. For example, many hospitals deploy greater resources to discharge planning or initiate the process earlier for patients reimbursed under a Diagnosis Related Group (case rate) than for those reimbursed on a per diem or percent of charges model. Moreover, ACOs and other risk-bearing entities routinely direct care management activities disproportionately or exclusively toward patients for whom they have greater financial accountability for quality and/or efficiency. For physician-led ACOs, differentiating resource deployment between ACO- and non-ACO populations may be necessary to achieve a return on investment for new care management or other population health management activities. For hospital sponsors of ACOs that continue to derive the majority of their revenue from FFS populations outside the ACO, differentiating population health management efforts across ACO and FFS populations are of paramount importance to overall financial sustainability. To the extent that hospital-led ACOs are unable to do so, they may find total cost of care financial arrangements to be financially sustainable only if extended to the substantial majority of their patient populations in order to reduce the severity of any spillover effects.
The adverse impact of “demand destruction” is what most distinguishes the math of hospital-led ACOs from that of physician-led ACOs. The structure of ACO-sponsoring hospitals—whether they own post-acute assets, for example—further shapes the severity of demand destruction, which then provides a point of reference for determining what shared savings percentage may be necessary to overcome the impact of demand destruction. Though in the long term, hospitals may be able to right size capacity, in the near term when deciding to become an ACO, there is often limited ability to alter the fixed-cost base. Finally, the extent of “spillover effects” from the ACO to the non-ACO population further impacts the financial sustainability of hospital-led ACOs. Hospital-led ACOs can seek to minimize the impact through 1) differentiating processes between the two populations, and/or 2) transitioning the substantial majority of their patient population into ACO arrangements.
3. Market share gains
Providers can further improve profitability through market share gains, specifically:
Reduced system leakage through improved alignment of referring physicians across both ACO and non-ACO patients; and,
Improved network status as an ACO.
3a. Reduced system leakage
ACOs can grow market share by coordinating patients within the system (that is, reduce leakage) to better manage total cost of care and quality. This coordination is often accomplished by improving the provider’s alignment with the referring physician; for example, ACOs can establish a comprehensive governance structure and process around network integrity, standardize the referral process between physicians and practices, and improve physician relationships within, and with awareness of, the network. Furthermore, ACOs can develop a process to ensure that a patient schedules follow-up appointments before leaving the physician’s office, optimizing the scheduling system and call center.
Stark Laws (anti-kickback regulations) have historically prevented systems from giving physicians financial incentives to reduce leakage. While maintaining high-quality standards, ACOs are given a waiver to this law and therefore are allowed to pursue initiatives that improve network integrity to better coordinate care for patients. In our experience, hospitals generally experience 30 to 50 percent leakage (Exhibit 4), but ACOs can improve leakage by 10 to 30 percent.
3b. Improved network status
In some instances for Commercial payers, an ACO may receive preferential status within a network by entering into a total cost of care arrangement with a payer. As a result, the ACO would see greater utilization, which will improve profitability. For example, in 2012, the Cooley Dickinson Hospital (CDH) and Cooley Dickinson Physician Hospital Organization, a health system in western Massachusetts with 66 primary care providers and 160 specialists, joined Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts’ (BCBSMA) Alternative Quality Contract (AQC), which established a per-patient global budget to cover all services and expenses for its Commercial population. As a result of joining the AQC, reducing the prices charged for services, and providing high quality of care, CDH was “designated as a high-value option in the Western Mass. Region,” which meant BCBSMA members with certain plans “[paid] less out-of-pocket when they [sought] care” at CDH.16 Other payers have also established similar mutually beneficial offerings to providers who assume more accountability for care.1718 An ACO can benefit from these arrangements up until most or all other provider systems in the same market join.
These factors to improve market share (at lower cost and better quality) can help an ACO compensate for any lost profits from “demand destruction” (foregone profits and spillover effects) and increased operating costs. The opportunity from this factor, which requires initiatives that focus on reducing leakage, can be the difference between a net-neutral hospital-led ACO and a significantly profitable ACO. An example initiative would be performance management systems that analyze physician referral patterns.
4. Operating costs
Finally, profitability is impacted by operating costs or any additional expenses associated with running an ACO. These costs generally are lower for physician-led ACOs than for hospital-led ACOs (and also depend on buy-versus-build decisions). In our experience, operating costs to run an ACO vary widely depending on the provider’s operating model, cost structure (for example, existing personnel, IT capabilities), and ACO patient population (for example, number and percent of ACO lives). However, we will focus on three specific types of costs:
Care management costs, often variable, or a marginal expense for every life;
Data and analytics operating costs, which can vary widely depending on whether the ACO builds or buys this capability; and
Additional administrative costs, which are fixed or independent of the number of lives.
4a. Care management costs
In our experience, care management costs to operate an ACO range from 0.5 to 2.0 percent of total cost of care for a given ACO population. These care management costs include ensuring patients with chronic conditions are continuously managing those conditions and coordinating with physician teams to improve efficacy and efficiency of care. A core lever of success involves reducing use of unnecessary care. ACOs that spend closer to 2 percent and/or those whose efforts focus on expanding care coordination for high-risk patients struggle to achieve enough economic contribution to break even. This is because care coordination (devoting more resources to testing and treating patients with chronic disease) often does not have a positive return on investment.19 ACOs that do this effectively and ultimately spend less on care management (around 0.5 percent of the total cost of care) tend to create value primarily through curbing unnecessary utilization and steering patients toward more efficient facilities rather than managing chronic conditions. This value creation is particularly true for Commercial ACO contracts, where there is greater price variation across providers compared with Medicare and Medicaid contracts, where pricing is standardized.
4b. Data and analytics operating costs
Data and analytics operating costs are critical to supporting ACO effectiveness. For example, high-performing ACOs prioritize data interoperability across physicians and hospitals and constantly analyze electronic health records and claims data to identify opportunities to better manage patient care and reduce system leakage. ACOs can either build or license data and analytics tools, a decision that often depends on the number of ACO lives. In our experience, an ACO that decides to build its own data and analytics solutions in-house will on average invest around $24M for upfront development, amortized over 8 years for $3M per year, plus $6M in annual costs (for example, using data scientists and analysts to generate insights from the data), for a total of $9M per year. Alternatively, ACOs can license analytics software on a per-patient basis, typically costing 0.5 to 1.5 percent of the total cost of care. Thus, we find the breakeven point at around 100,000 covered ACO lives; therefore, it often makes financial sense for ACOs with more than 100,000 lives to build in-house.
4c. Additional administrative costs
Organizations must also invest in personnel to operate an ACO, typically including an executive director, head of real estate, head of care management, and lawyers and actuaries. The ACO leadership team’s responsibilities often include setting the ACO’s strategy (for example, target markets, lines of business, services offered, through which physicians and hospitals) and developing, managing, and communicating with the physician network to support continuity of care.
Operating costs to run an ACO are significant. Ability to find ways to invest in fixed costs that are more transformational in nature may result in lower near-term profitability but can provide a greater return on investment in the long term both for the ACO and the rest of the system. The decision to make these investments is dependent on the number of lives covered by an individual ACO.
Drawing on the analysis outlined above, we conducted scenario modeling of “the math of ACOs” using five different ACO archetypes, which vary in structure and performance under a common set of rules. These five archetypes include:
Typical physician-led ACO
Hospital-led ACO with low ACO penetration and low leakage reduction
Hospital-led ACO with high ACO penetration
Hospital-led ACO with high leakage reduction
Hospital-led ACO with high leakage reduction and high ACO penetration
Subsequently, taking an ACO’s structure as a given, we describe for each ACO archetype the key model design parameters and other strategic and operational choices that ACOs might make to maximize their performance.
Comparision of archetypes based on scenario modeling
Summarizing the four factors, the profitability of each archetype reveals certain insights (Exhibit 5).
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.
CMS issued a another round of sweeping regulatory rollbacks Thursday that will temporarily change how some providers care for patients and get compensated during the ongoing pandemic.
Practitioners such as therapists previously restricted from providing telehealth services for reimbursement can now do so, and CMS is also upping payments for telephone-only telehealth visits. Accountable care organizations also scored a major win in the Thursday rule drop, with CMS pledging they wouldn’t be dinged financially for lower-than-expected health outcomes in their patient populations from COVID-19.
Other major changes are related to COVID-19 testing for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. A written practitioner’s order is no longer needed for diagnostic testing for Medicare payment purposes. The agency also said it will cover serology, or antibody testing, including certain FDA-authorized tests that patients self-collect at home.
The new rules come out of the recent public health emergency declaration, building on others announced in late March and early April. This round of changes, which take effect immediately, focuses on expanding testing capacity to help reopen the U.S. economy, according to CMS, along with delivering expanded care to seniors.
Major provider lobbies the American Hospital Association and American Medical Association praised the changes, noting that Medicare patients have been canceling needed medical appointments because of physical distancing and transportation challenges.
The Trump administration, which allowed traditional Medicare to temporarily cover telehealth in March, continues to expand virtual care access. CMS is expanding the types of specialists allowed to provide telehealth services for reimbursement to include physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists and others. In the past, only doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and certain others could do so.
Earlier changes included waiving the video requirement for telehealth patients without access to interactive audio-video technology – particularly those in rural areas. CMS is increasing payments for telephone visits from a range of about $14-$41 to about $46-$110, according to the release.
The rollbacks are a “major victory for medicine that will enable physicians to care for their patients, especially their elderly patients with chronic conditions who may not have access to audio-visual technology or high-speed Internet,” the AMA said.
Michael Abrams, managing partner of Numerof & Associates, a healthcare consulting firm, said the current, rapid adoption of telehealth is an experiment, and depending on the results, waivers could eventually become permanent.
“Once you increase pricing, you almost never roll it back,” Abrams said. “If this new pricing on telehealth visits makes it more attractive, attractive enough to substitute telehealth for in-office visits, that not only lowers the cost of care, but makes it very much more accessible, particularly for those whose ability to see a physician is limited.”
In a victory for ACOs, CMS said the value-based organizations wouldn’t incur any financial penalties because of COVID-19 testing and treatment for their patient populations. Roughly 60% of ACOs said previously they were likely to drop out of their risk-based model to avoid potential losses, according to the National Association of ACOs.
CMS is also allowing ACOs to remain at the same level of risk for another year, instead of bumping them up to the next risk level. NAACOs said it was “appreciative” of the changes in a statement, though they asked for additional relief for providers in two-sided risk arrangements.
Other loosened restrictions include those on who can administer COVID-19 diagnostic tests for payment to include any healthcare professional authorized to do so under state law, including pharmacists. Medicare and Medicaid recipients can now get tested at parking lot sites operated by pharmacies and other entities for reimbursement.
Outpatient hospital services such as wound care, drug administration, and behavioral health services can now be delivered in temporary expansion locations, including parking lot tents, converted hotels or patients’ homes for reimbursement, so long as they’re temporarily designated as part of a hospital.
Hospital outpatient departments that relocate off-campus are paid at lower rates under current law, but CMS is making a temporary exception to continue paying those physicians at their standard rates.
The agency will also pay for certain partial hospitalization services – that is, individual psychotherapy, patient education, and group psychotherapy – that are delivered in temporary expansion locations, including patient homes.
CMS is also now requiring nursing homes to inform residents, their families, and representatives of COVID-19 outbreaks in their facilities.
Medicare Advantage is not producing any savings but spends between 2% and 5.5% more than traditional Medicare, a report in Health Affairs finds.
On the other hand, the report found Medicare’s accountable care organizations are reducing costs as compared to traditional Medicare. The Medicare Shared Savings Program, which includes accountable care organizations, saved about 1% to 2% in 2016.
The authors suggest a number of changes for policymakers to consider if they want to improve competition and address flaws among the two programs.
As the popularity of programs such as Medicare Advantage grows, it’s important to understand the spending ramifications and whether the program is yielding any savings for taxpayers.
More and more seniors are choosing coverage options outside of traditional Medicare. Together, Medicare Advantage and the Medicare Shared Savings Program cover about half of all Medicare beneficiaries. In a six-year period, Medicare Advantage alone grew by 57% and as of 2018 covered nearly 20 million seniors.
Medicare Advantage allows private insurers to contract with the federal government to care for eligible Medicare beneficiaries. Private plans receive a fixed payment — typically a per member, per month allotment — to coordinate care for beneficiaries who choose MA plans.
It’s these “predictable” payments that allow MA plans to invest in unconventional coverage options such as meal delivery and transportation to appointments, the authors said.
But despite the program’s popularity, it’s not yielding the savings that was originally expected.
“When a beneficiary joins MA, Medicare spends more, on average, than it would have if the patient had remained in traditional Medicare. We find the opposite in the MSSP: When a patient joins the Medicare ACO program, Medicare costs fall,” according to Health Affairs.
There are also differences between the two programs that should be fixed, the authors said.
The MSSP is only punitive, which is not true for the star-rating program for MA. One way to achieve a more equitable ratings system is to “radically” reduce the number of quality measures, which have become a burden for physicians, the authors said.
“We propose limiting quality measurement to five measures that are outcome oriented: hospital and ER use, patient satisfaction, and diabetes A1c and blood pressure control.”
It’s also important to find a risk adjustment model that can be used for both MA and MSSP populations, the authors said.
CMS has committed itself to reducing the amount of burden on payers and providers, and paring down quality ratings overhead is a key part of that. The agency’s removed a number of measures across its reporting programs in 2018 as part of its “Meaningful Measures” initiative, and is currently looking at others in MSSP, MA and the Merit-based Incentive Payment System.