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.
National physician staffing firm Mednax announced the sale of its radiology practice—which includes teleradiology company Virtual Radiologic, known as vRad—to venture-backed Radiology Partners for $885M.
Publicly-traded Mednax has been hit hard by both contracting disputes with UnitedHealthcare, as well as pandemic-related volume declines. Both its anesthesiology and radiology businesses suffered big losses with the halt of elective procedures in the spring, and saw volumes decline between 50-70 percent compared to the prior year.
The company began divesting in May with the sale of its anesthesiology division to investor-backed North American Partners in Anesthesia. Mednax leaders say these decisions to sell were made independent of the pandemic, and that they have been planning to return to the company’s roots of focusing exclusively on obstetrics and pediatric subspecialty care, including changing its name back to Pediatrix.
Acquiring firm Radiology Partners is the largest radiology practice in the country, working with 1,300 hospitals and healthcare facilities. With this acquisition, it will have 2,400 radiologists practicing in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Hospital-based physician staffing firms have been especially hard hit by COVID-induced volume declines. This has created a softening in valuations and opened the door for investment firms to accelerate practice purchases.
We expect the pace of deals to quicken as independent practices experience continued financial strain—with large national groups leading the way, taking advantage of lower practice prices to build large-scale specialty enterprises.
The healthcare industry added 75,000 jobs last month, a decline compared with the 126,000 that were added in July, the latest federal jobs report shows.
But there are some bright spots for the industry that is still recovering from major unemployment earlier this year sparked by job losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ jobs report released Friday showed that hospitals continue to add more jobs after several major subsystems furloughed and laid off workers at the onset of the pandemic in March.
Hospitals added 14,000 jobs in August, which was below the 27,000 jobs the industry added in July.
The industry shed 26,000 jobs in May as hospitals took massive revenue hits from the cancellation of elective procedures and lower patient volume due to COVID-19.
Job numbers continue to recover robustly for other sectors of the healthcare industry.
Physician offices added 27,000 jobs and dentists another 22,000 in August. Home healthcare agencies added 12,000 positions in August.
But things continue to get worse for nursing homes.
Nursing homes and residential care facilities lost 14,000 jobs. But it was the lowest number of job losses the industry has faced in months.
In July the sector lost 28,000 jobs. In June, 20,000 positions were shed.
While several parts of the healthcare industry are adding jobs, the overall picture has been bleak. The federal government reported last month that healthcare employment has been down by nearly 800,000 jobs since February.
Things could continue to get worse for both hospitals and physician offices. Experts predict that hospital volumes, which have rebounded since major drops in March and April, are still below pre-pandemic levels for some facilities.
For-profit health systems have been better able to weather a financial crisis caused by COVID-19 than their nonprofit counterparts because they could reduce more expenses, a new analysis from the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission finds.
The analysis released Thursday during MedPAC’s monthly meeting comes as providers struggle to recover from low patient volumes stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. The report also explored how physician offices have fared.
Hospitals faced a massive dip in patient volume in March and April at the onset of the pandemic, which forced facilities to cancel or delay elective procedures. Patient volumes have since recovered to near pre-pandemic levels, MedPAC found.
But the recovery has been mixed depending on the hospital system.
MedPAC looked at earnings for three large nonprofit systems in the U.S. and four large for-profit systems in the second quarter and found a variation in how they handled the decline in revenue.
Aggregate patient revenue for the nonprofit systems declined by $1.5 billion and this led to a $621 million loss for the systems in the second quarter compared to the same period in 2019. Overall the systems had operating profit margins ranging from negative 13% to positive 5%.
The four for-profit systems saw a $3.5 billion decline in patient revenue. However, the systems posted an increase of $634 million in operating income.
This led to a range of operating margin increases of 1 to 14% in the second quarter compared to 2019.
The for-profit systems got more relief funding ($1.9 billion compared with $782 million) from a $175 billion federal provider relief fund created by the CARES Act.
But the biggest difference between for-profit and nonprofit systems was how they handled expenses.
“For-profit systems substantially reduced expenses in the second quarter, in aggregate reduced by $2.3 billion and that made up for lost revenue,” said Jeff Stensland, a MedPAC staff member, during the meeting.
Nonprofit systems only saw a $13 million decline in expenses.
The analysis comes as some larger for-profit systems like HCA Healthcare generate profits in the second quarter, while nonprofit systems such as Providence posted losses.
MedPAC did not name the systems that it analyzed nor did it delve into what expenses were reduced and how.
Some systems have taken to furloughing employees but all systems have faced increased expenses for personal protective equipment and some staff.
The analysis also looked at the financial impact of the pandemic on physician offices. MedPAC found that federal grants, loans and payment increases offset a majority of the revenue lost in March and May due to patient volume declines.
MedPAC estimated physician offices lost between $45 to $55 billion. However, offices got $26 billion in loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, which don’t have to be repaid if the majority of the funds go to payroll.
Physician offices also received $5 billion out of the $175 billion provider relief fund passed as part of the CARES Act.
Physicians also got $1 billion in savings from the temporary suspension of a 2% decline in Medicare payments created under sequestration.
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).
[Readers’ Note: This is the first of two articles on the Future of Hospitals in Post-COVID America. This article
examines how market forces are consolidating, rationalizing and redistributing acute care assets within the
broader industry movement to value-based care delivery. The second article, which will publish next month,
examines gaps in care delivery and the related public policy challenges of providing appropriate, accessible
and affordable healthcare services in medically-underserved communities.]
In her insightful 2016 book, The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore,
Michelle Wucker coins the term “Gray Rhinos” and contrasts them with “Black Swans.” That distinction is
highly relevant to the future of American hospitals.
Black Swans are high impact events that are highly improbable and difficult to predict. By contrast, Gray Rhinos are foreseeable, high-impact events that we choose to ignore because they’re complex, inconvenient and/or fortified by perverse incentives that encourage the status quo. Climate change is a powerful example
of a charging Gray Rhino.
In U.S. healthcare, we are now seeing what happens when a Gray Rhino and a Black Swan collide.
Arguably, the nation’s public health defenses should anticipate global pandemics and apply resources
systematically to limit disease spread. This did not happen with the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, COVID-19 hit the public healthcare infrastructure suddenly and hard. This forced hospitals and health systems to dramatically reduce elective surgeries, lay off thousands and significantly change care delivery with the adoption of new practices and services like telemedicine.
In comparison, many see the current American hospital business model as a Gray Rhino that has been charging toward unsustainability for years with ever-building momentum.
Even with massive and increasing revenue flows, hospitals have long struggled with razor-thin margins, stagnant payment rates and costly technology adoptions. Changing utilization patterns, new and disruptive competitors, pro-market regulatory rules and consumerism make their traditional business models increasingly vulnerable and, perhaps, unsustainable.
Despite this intensifying pressure, many hospitals and health systems maintain business-as-usual practices because transformation is so difficult and costly. COVID-19 has made the imperative of change harder to ignore or delay addressing.
For a decade, the transition to value-based care has dominated debate within U.S. healthcare and absorbed massive strategic, operational and financial resources with little progress toward improved care outcomes, lower costs and better customer service. The hospital-based delivery system remains largely oriented around Fee-for-Service reimbursement.
Hospitals’ collective response to COVID-19, driven by practical necessity and financial survival, may accelerate the shift to value-based care delivery. Time will tell.
This series explores the repositioning of hospitals during the next five years as the industry rationalizes an excess supply of acute care capacity and adapts to greater societal demands for more appropriate, accessible and affordable healthcare services.
It starts by exploring the role of the marketplace in driving hospital consolidation and the compelling need to transition to value-based care delivery and payment models.
COVID’s DUAL SHOCKS TO PATIENT VOLUME
Many American hospitals faced severe financial and operational challenges before COVID-19. The sector has struggled to manage ballooning costs, declining margins and waves of policy changes. A record 18 rural hospitals closed in 2019. Overall, hospitals saw a 21% decline in operating margins in 2018-2019.
COVID intensified those challenges by administering two shocks to the system that decreased the volume of hospital-based activities and decimated operating margins.
The first shock was immediate. To prepare for potential surges in COVID care, hospitals emptied beds and cancelled most clinic visits, outpatient treatments and elective surgeries. Simultaneously, they incurred heavy costs for COVID-related equipment (e.g. ventilators,PPE) and staffing. Overall, the sector experienced over $200 billion in financial losses between March and June 20204.
The second, extended shock has been a decrease in needed but not necessary care. Initially, many patients delayed seeking necessary care because of perceived infection risk. For example, Emergency Department visits declined 42% during the early phase of the pandemic.
Increasingly, patients are also delaying care because of affordability concerns and/or the loss of health insurance. Already, 5.4 million people have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance. This will reduce incremental revenues associated with higher-paying commercial insurance claims across the industry. Additionally, avoided care reduces patient volumes and hospital revenues today even as it increases the risk and cost of future acute illness.
The infusion of emergency funding through the CARES Act helped offset some operating losses but it’s unclear when and even whether utilization patterns and revenues will return to normal pre-COVID levels. Shifts in consumer behavior, reductions in insurance coverage, and the emergence of new competitors ranging from Walmart to enhanced primary care providers will likely challenge the sector for years to come.
The disruption of COVID-19 will serve as a forcing function, driving meaningful changes to traditional hospital business models and the competitive landscape. Frankly, this is long past due. Since 1965, Fee-for-Service (FFS) payment has dominated U.S. healthcare and created pervasive economic incentives that can serve to discourage provider responsiveness in transitioning to value-based care delivery, even when aligned to market demand.
Telemedicine typifies this phenomenon. Before COVID, CMS and most health insurers paid very low rates for virtual care visits or did not cover them at all. This discouraged adoption of an efficient, high-value care modality until COVID.
Unable to conduct in-person clinical visits, providers embraced virtual care visits and accelerated its mass adoption. CMS and
commercial health insurers did their part by paying for virtual care visits at rates equivalent to in-person clinic visits. Accelerated innovation in care delivery resulted.
THE COMPLICATED TRANSITION TO VALUE
Broadly speaking, health systems and physician groups that rely almost exclusively on activity-based payment revenues have struggled the most during this pandemic. Vertically integrated providers that offer health insurance and those receiving capitated payments in risk-based contracts have better withstood volume losses.
Modern Healthcare notes that while provider data is not yet available, organizations such as Virginia Care Partners, an integrated network and commercial ACO; Optum Health (with two-thirds of its revenue risk-based); and MediSys Health Network, a New Yorkbased NFP system with 148,000 capitated and 15,000 shared risk patients, are among those navigating the turbulence successfully. As the article observes,
…providers paid for value have had an easier time weathering the storm…. helped by a steady source of
income amid the chaos. Investments they made previously in care management, technology and social
determinants programs equipped them to pivot to new ways of providing care.
They were able to flip the switch on telehealth, use data and analytics to pinpoint patients at risk for
COVID-19 infection, and deploy care managers to meet the medical and nonclinical needs of patients even
when access to an office visit was limited.
Supporting this post-COVID push for value-based care delivery, six former leaders from CMS wrote to Congress in
June 2020 calling for providers, commercial insurers and states to expand their use of value-based payment models to
encourage stability and flexibility in care delivery.
If value-based payment models are the answer, however, adoption to date has been slow, limited and difficult. Ten
years after the Affordable Care Act, Fee-for-Service payment still dominates the payer landscape. The percentage of overall provider revenue in risk-based capitated contracts has not exceeded 20%
Despite improvements in care quality and reductions in utilization rates, cost savings have been modest or negligible. Accountable Care Organizations have only managed at best to save a “few percent of Medicare spending, [but] the
amount varies by program design.”
While most health systems accept some forms of risk-based payments, only 5% of providers expect to have a majority (over 80%) of their patients in risk-based arrangements within 5 years.
The shift to value is challenging for numerous reasons. Commercial payers often have limited appetite or capacity for
risk-based contracting with providers. Concurrently, providers often have difficulty accessing the claims data they need
from payers to manage the care for targeted populations.
The current allocation of cost-savings between buyers (including government, employers and consumers), payers
(health insurance companies) and providers discourages the shift to value-based care delivery. Providers would
advance value-based models if they could capture a larger percentage of the savings generated from more effective
care management and delivery. Those financial benefits today flow disproportionately to buyers and payers.
This disconnection of payment from value creation slows industry transformation. Ultimately, U.S. healthcare will not
change the way it delivers care until it changes the way it pays for care. Fortunately, payment models are evolving to
incentivize value-based care delivery.
As payment reform unfolds, however, operational challenges pose significant challenges to hospitals and health
systems. They must adopt value-oriented new business models even as they continue to receive FFS payments. New
and old models of care delivery clash.
COVID makes this transition even more formidable as many health systems now lack the operating stamina and balance sheet strength to make the financial, operational and cultural investments necessary to deliver better outcomes, lower costs and enhanced customer service.
MARKET-DRIVEN CONSOLIDATION AND TRANSFORMATION
Full-risk payment models, such as bundled payments for episodic care and capitation for population health, are the
catalyst to value-based care delivery. Transition to value-based care occurs more easily in competitive markets with many attributable lives, numerous provider options and the right mix of willing payers.
As increasing numbers of hospitals struggle financially, the larger and more profitable health systems are expanding their networks, capabilities and service lines through acquisitions. This will increase their leverage with commercial payers and give them more time to adapt to risk-based contracting and value-based care delivery.
COVID also will accelerate acquisition of physician practices. According to an April 2020 MGMA report, 97% of
physician practices have experienced a 55% decrease in revenue, forcing furloughs and layoffs15. It’s estimated the
sector could collectively lose as much as $15.1 billion in income by the end of September 2020.
Struggling health systems and physician groups that read the writing on the wall will pro-actively seek capital or strategic partners that offer greater scale and operating stability. Aggregators can be selective in their acquisitions,
seeking providers that fuel growth, expand contiguous market positions and don’t dilute balance sheets.
Adding to the sector’s operating pressure, private equity, venture investors and payers are pouring record levels of
funding into asset-light and virtual delivery companies that are eager to take on risk, lower prices by routing procedures
and capture volume from traditional providers. With the right incentives, market-driven reforms will reallocate resources to efficient companies that generate compelling value.
As this disruption continues to unfold, rural and marginal urban communities that lack robust market forces will experience more facility and practice closures. Without government support to mitigate this trend, access and care gaps that already riddle American healthcare will unfortunately increase.
WINNING AT VALUE
The average hospital generates around $11,000 per patient discharge. With ancillary services that can often add up to
more than $15,000 per average discharge. Success in a value-based system is predicated on reducing those discharges and associated costs by managing acute care utilization more effectively for distinct populations (i.e. attributed lives).
This changes the orientation of healthcare delivery toward appropriate and lower cost settings. It also places greater
emphasis on preventive, chronic and outpatient care as well as better patient engagement and care coordination.
Such a realignment of care delivery requires the following:
A tight primary care network (either owned or affiliated) to feed referrals and reduce overall costs through
better preventive care.
A gatekeeper or navigator function (increasingly technology-based) to manage / direct patients to the most
appropriate care settings and improve coordination, adherence and engagement.
A carefully designed post-acute care network (including nursing homes, rehab centers, home care
services and behavioral health services, either owned or sufficiently controlled) to manage the 70% of
total episode-of-care costs that can occur outside the hospital setting.
An IT infrastructure that can facilitate care coordination across all providers and settings.
Quality data and digital tools that enhance care, performance, payment and engagement.
Experience with managing risk-based contracts.
A flexible approach to care delivery that includes digital and telemedicine platforms as well as nontraditional sites of care.
Aligned or incentivized physicians.
Payer partners willing to share data and offload risk through upside and downside risk contracts.
Engaged consumers who act on their preferences and best interests.
While none of these strategies is new or controversial, assembling them into cohesive and scalable business models is something few health systems have accomplished. It requires appropriate market conditions, deep financial resources,
sophisticated business acumen, operational agility, broad stakeholder alignment, compelling vision, and robust
Providers that fail to embrace value-based care for their “attributed lives” risk losing market relevance. In their relentless pursuit of increasing treatment volumes and associated revenues, they will lose market share to organizations that
deliver consistent and high-value care outcomes.
CONCLUSION: THE CHARGING GRAY RHINO
America needs its hospitals to operate optimally in normal times, flex to manage surge capacity, sustain themselves
when demand falls, create adequate access and enhance overall quality while lowering total costs. That is a tall order requiring realignment, evolution, and a balance between market and policy reform measures.
The status quo likely wasn’t sustainable before COVID. The nation has invested heavily for many decades in acute and
specialty care services while underinvesting, on a relative basis, in primary and chronic care services. It has excess
capacity in some markets, and insufficient access in others.
COVID has exposed deep flaws in the activity-based payment as well as the nation’s underinvestment in public health.
Disadvantaged communities have suffered disproportionately. Meanwhile, the costs for delivering healthcare services
consume an ever-larger share of national GDP.
Transformational change is hard for incumbent organizations. Every industry, from computer and auto manufacturing to
retailing and airline transportation, confronts gray rhino challenges. Many companies fail to adapt despite clear signals
that long-term viability is under threat. Often, new, nimble competitors emerge and thrive because they avoid the inherent contradictions and service gaps embedded within legacy business models.
The healthcare industry has been actively engaged in value-driven care transformation for over ten years with little to
show for the reform effort. It is becoming clear that many hospitals and health systems lack the capacity to operate profitably in competitive, risk-based market environments.
This dismal reality is driving hospital market valuations and closures. In contrast, customers and capital are flowing to
new, alternative care providers, such as OneMedical, Oak Street Health and Village MD. Each of these upstart
companies now have valuations in the $ billions. The market rewards innovation that delivers value.
Unfortunately, pure market-driven reforms often neglect a significant and growing portion of America’s people. This gap has been more apparent as COVID exacts a disproportionate toll on communities challenged by higher population
density, higher unemployment, and fewer medical care options (including inferior primary and preventive care infrastructure).
Absent fundamental change in our hospitals and health systems, and investment in more efficient care delivery and
payment models, the nation’s post-COVID healthcare infrastructure is likely to deteriorate in many American communities, making them more vulnerable to chronic disease, pandemics and the vicissitudes of life.
Article 2 in our “Future of Hospitals” series will explore the public policy challenges of providing appropriate, affordable and accessible healthcare to all American communities.
Four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer than 10% of U.S. primary care practices have been able to stabilize operations.
Nearly 9 in 10 primary care practices continue to face significant difficulties with COVID-19, including obtaining medical supplies, meeting the increasing health needs of their patients, and finding sufficient resources to remain operational, according to a recent survey of close to 600 primary care clinicians in 46 states.
Only 13% of primary care clinicians say they are adapting to a “new normal” in the protracted pandemic, the survey found.
More than four months into the pandemic and at a time when 39 states are experiencing an increase of COVID-19 cases, fewer than 4 in 10 clinicians feel confident and safe with their access to personal protective equipment, according to the survey from the Larry A. Green Center in partnership with the Primary Care Collaborative, which was conducted July 10 to July 13.
Among the primary care clinicians surveyed, 11% report that staff in their practice have quit in the last four weeks over safety concerns.
A primary care provider in Ohio said this: “The ‘I can do 4-6 weeks of this’ transition to ‘this feels like a new/permanent normal’ is crushing and demoralizing. Ways to build morale when everyone is at a computer workstation away from other staff (and patients) feels impossible.”
“In the first few months of the pandemic, the country pulled together to stop the spread of the virus, and it seemed like we were making progress. Primary care clinicians and practices were working hard, against tremendous challenges,” said Rebecca Etz, Ph.D., co-director of The Larry A. Green Center in a statement.
“But now the country is backsliding, and it’s clear that primary care doesn’t have enough strength to deal with the rising number of cases. If primary care were a COVID-19 patient, it would be flat on its back,” Etz said.
The survey conducted by the Larry A. Green Center is part of an ongoing series looking at the attitudes of primary care clinicians and patients during the COVID-19 pandemic and the abilities of practices to meet patients’ needs.
Close to 40% of primary care providers report they are maxed out with mental exhaustion and 18% say they spend each week wondering if their practice or job will still be there next week.
In addition to feeling stressed, clinicians and their practices are also experiencing upheaval. The survey found that 22% of clinicians report skipped or deferred salaries, and 78% report preventive and chronic care is being deferred or delayed by patients.
Primary care clinicians report that 42% of in-person volume is down but overall contact with patients is high, while 39% report not being able to bill for the majority of work delivered, the survey found.
“Given the rapidly rising infection rates and persistent lack of PPE, more than a third of primary care clinicians are reporting feeling unsafe at the office, and 20% are cutting back on face-to-face visits while doing more remote outreach,” said Ann Greiner, president and CEO of the Primary Care Collaborative in a statement.
Greiner said this is a clear signal that payers must advance or retain parity for telehealth and telephonic calls.
“It also is a clarion call to move to a new payment system that doesn’t rely on face-to-face visits and that is prospective so practices can better manage patient care,” she said.
Providers say they need more support from private insurers, particularly when it comes to reimbursing for telehealth and telephone visits.
According to the survey, a primary care doctor in Illinois said, “Recently told we would not be able to conduct telephone visits due to lack of reimbursement. I work in a low-income Medicare population which has low health literacy and no technology literacy. We were 80% telephone and 20% Zoom and in-office. This further exemplifies the extreme health care disparities in the U.S.”
California’s outpatient health care practices largely shrugged off two recessions, adding more than 400,000 jobs during a two-decade climb from the start of 2000 to early 2020. It was an enviable growth rate of 85% and a trend largely mirrored on the national level.
Then came COVID-19.
Anecdotal stories abound about the crushing impact the pandemic has had on a range of outpatient medical services, from pediatric and family medical practices to dental offices, medical labs and home health care. In California, as in many other states, thousands of doctors, dentists and other health care providers temporarily closed offices this spring as state health officials directed them to suspend non-urgent visits. Many others sat open but largely idle because patients were too scared to visit the doctor given the risk of running into someone with COVID-19 in the waiting room.
As the economy has reopened, so have many medical offices. But the latest state and federal employment data underscores the lingering toll the pandemic has taken on the health care sector.
Doctors’ Offices Shed Jobs Amid COVID
In California, and across the nation, the number of workers in doctors’ offices grew by more than 50% in the past 20 years, before seeing rapid declines amid COVID-19. This chart shows proportional growth in employment over time, with percentages relative to January 2000.
In California, employment in medical offices providing an array of outpatient care fell by 159,300 jobs, or 18%, from February to April, according to California’s Employment Development Department. The sector has recovered some, but job totals in June remained 7% below pre-crisis levels, the latest figures show. Data is not yet available for July, when COVID-19 cases in California again began to rise sharply and communities across much of the state reverted to partial shutdowns.
Nationwide, employment in outpatient care fell by about 1.3 million jobs, or 17%, from February to April, and in June also remained 7% below pre-crisis levels.
Doctors’ offices typically rely on patient volume for revenue. Without it, they can’t make payroll. Many small medical clinics weren’t flush with cash before the crisis, making COVID-19 an existential threat.
“Never in our history have we had more than a month’s cash on hand,” said Dr. Sumana Reddy, owner of the Acacia Family Medical Group in Monterey County. “Think of it that way.”
Reddy operates two clinics, one in Salinas and the other in the town of Prunedale. Many of her clients come from rural areas where poverty is common. When COVID-19 hit and stay-at-home orders took effect, the number of patients coming to the practice fell by about 50%, Reddy said. To keep her patients safe and her business afloat, Reddy largely shifted to telehealth so she could provide care online.
She also turned to federal aid. “I took the stimulus money,” she said. “I asked for advances from anywhere I could get that. So, now I’m tapped out. I’ve done every single thing that I can think of to do. And there’s nothing more to do.”
By late June, patient volume at Reddy’s practice stood at roughly 70% of the level seen before the crisis.
Dental Offices Hit Hard by COVID
The coronavirus pandemic prompted steep declines in dental office employment, undoing 20 years of steady growth. This chart shows proportional growth in dental employment over time, with percentages relative to January 2000.
Many dental offices have been hit even harder. From February to April, the number of dental office employees in California fell by 85,000, or 60%, a rate of decline that outpaced even job losses in the state’s restaurant industry. Nationwide, dental employment fell by about 546,000 from February to April, a 56% decline.
“March, April, mid-May — we were pretty much closed except for emergency care,” said Dr. Natasha Lee, who owns Better Living Through Dentistry, a practice in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset neighborhood. “While dental offices were considered essential, most were closed due to guidance from health departments and the CDC to postpone routine and preventative medical and dental care and just to limit things to emergency.”
Lee has reopened her clinic but is doing less business. She and her staff need extra time to clean tools and change their personal protective equipment.
“With the social distancing, the limiting [of] patients in the office at a time and the slowdown we’ve had, we’re probably seeing about, I’d say, two-thirds of our normal capacity in our practice,” she said in late June.
As for employment, California hospitals have fared better than outpatient medical offices. Hospitals shed about 2% of jobs from February to June.
“They have more capacity in a large organization to withstand the same shock,” said John Romley, a professor and economist at the University of Southern California’s Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics.
Romley said he is optimistic the health care sector overall will recover faster than some other sectors of the economy, since health care remains a necessity.
Still, red flags abound. The recent spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths in many parts of the nation raises the specter of future shutdowns and, with them, additional health care layoffs. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently ordered a second shutdown for dine-in restaurants, movie theaters and bars statewide, as well as churches, gyms and barbershops in much of the state. For now, dental and doctors’ offices can continue operating.
Older Californians Are Postponing Care
A recent census survey found that 42% of California respondents had put off medical care because of the pandemic.
But it’s uncertain when patients will feel comfortable returning to the doctor for routine and preventive care. A series of Census Bureau surveys conducted between June 11 and July 7 found that 42% of Californians who responded had put off medical care in the previous four weeks because of the pandemic. About 33% said they needed medical care for something unrelated to COVID-19 but did not get it.
“I’ve been telling my staff and patients that we should prepare for things to stay not too different for six months to a year,” Reddy said, “which is pretty depressing for most people to think about.”
The coronavirus pandemic has torn through the global economy, suppressing consumer demand and industrial production. As countries look to an eventual recovery, but in a very different environment characterized by continuing distancing measures and loss of public confidence, businesses in many sectors, such as hospitality and retail, are asking how they can adapt to survive these new economic conditions. Yet perhaps surprisingly, those feeling threatened include independent primary care practices in the United States. Despite the USA being one of the most expensive healthcare systems in the world, many primary care practices are now facing financial collapse. Some estimates suggest that primary care practices will lose up to $15 billion during 2020 as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.
Covid-19 has highlighted a fundamental weakness in how primary care is paid for in the USA. Many practices are financed by fee-for-service (FFS) reimbursement. Put bluntly, providers make money from office visits, diagnostic tests, and procedures. This has long been criticized for encouraging an expansion of what is considered disease and overtreatment, contributing to the high cost of the American health system. However, it can only work as long as patients keep coming, and they are no longer doing so, at least not in sufficient numbers for many primary care practices to remain viable. The imposition of social distancing policies has seen a severe reduction in office visits, and with it a substantial decline in revenue. The pandemic has taught Americans that the financial model that underpins primary care needs to be reformed. It needs to move from a per-visit reimbursement to a per-patient reimbursement, in other words primary care capitation, as used in many other countries, including the UK.
If the existing reimbursement model is not reformed, the clinical and financial implications for struggling primary care practices, which could play a key role in the continuing coronavirus pandemic, will be far-ranging. From a clinical standpoint, primary care practices that need to lay off staff or close will not be able to respond effectively to an influx of patients who have been delaying care since the pandemic began. Given that primary care is often the entry point into the healthcare system, this could lead to severe reductions in access to routine health care as well as referrals to specialty providers for advanced complaints. From a financial standpoint, many of these independent practices may consider consolidation with larger health systems, something that has been shown to increase prices without improving quality in the long run.
To overcome these issues, insurers and primary care practices could work together to construct capitated payment models. In capitated contracts, providers are paid a risk-adjusted sum for each patient enrolled in the practice. Payment to providers is not reliant on volume of office visits, but rather delivering cost-effective care focused on the health of primary care patients.
As we noted above, this system is already widely used internationally, but there are also good examples in the USA. For example, Iora Health is a venture-backed primary care company that partners with insurers to obtain a flat $150 per-member-per-month (PMPM) fee for taking care of its patients. They also receive bonuses for reducing total cost of care (TCOC). As a result, they have been able to use their dollars for health-related interventions, such as hiring health coaches. They have also demonstrated significant reductions in hospitalizations and health spending along with high patient satisfaction scores. Most importantly, they were able to quickly adapt to the needs of their patient population in the pandemic using alternative models of care, such as online consultations, without the added stress of losing revenue.
There are also many other promising examples of both public and private payers designing capitated contracts for independent primary care practices. In the public sector, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) introduced the multi-payer Primary Care First (PCF) Model. Under PCF, primary care practices will receive a risk-adjusted population-based payment for patients as well as a flat fee for any office visits performed. In addition, there are bonuses for practices to limit hospitalizations, an expensive component of delivering care. However, this is still an experimental program that is supposed to begin in 2021, which may be too late for primary care practices that are already facing financial strain from the pandemic.
In the private sector, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBS NC) has created the Accelerate to Value program for independent primary care practices. Through this program, BCBS NC is offering independent primary care practices a supplemental stabilization payment, based on the number of members a particular practice serves. In return, it is asking them to remain open for patients and deliver care appropriate to the circumstances created by the pandemic. In the longer term, it also asks them to join an accountable care organization (ACO) and consider accepting capitation for future reimbursement.
While CMS and BCBS can offer blueprints for a path towards primary care capitation, there will be challenges to implement capitation at scale across the nation’s primary care system. A key defining aspect of the US healthcare system is its multitude of payers, from commercial to Medicaid to Medicare. For primary care capitation to succeed, practices will need to pursue multi-payer contracts that cover a critical mass of the patients they serve. Independent practices will also have to adapt to a fixed budget model where excess healthcare utilization could actually lead to financial losses, unlike in fee-for-service.
Ultimately, it is important to recognize that no payment model will be a panacea for healthcare providers during the pandemic and afterwards. However, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted clear deficiencies in the American fee for service system that have existed for almost a century. Covid-19 has created an opportunity for policymakers and providers to look anew at a model that is already implemented widely in other countries, and in parts of the US. At some point there will have to be an inquiry into the many failures that have characterized the American response to covid-19. Given the magnitude of the catastrophe that has befallen the US, in stark contrast to the relative successes achieved in many other countries, it will be essential to challenge many things once taken for granted. One must be the fee for service system that has so clearly undermined the resilience of the US health system. Covid-19 has provided an almost unprecedented opportunity to create a healthcare system that rewards providers caring for patients in a coordinated manner, rather than prioritizing expensive and often wasteful healthcare provision.
We’re hearing from medical groups around the country that in the past few weeks, office visit volumes have quickly approached pre-COVID levels. Some are even busier, running at 110 percent of their February volumes, or more. At the same time, practice has become more stressful, with doctors balancing virtual care with in-person visits, new safety procedures slowing operations, and staff and patients worried about COVID exposure. Everything feels different, and irrespective of the number of patients on today’s schedule, all of the changes make a physician feel like she’s working harder than before.
A chief clinical officer from a Midwestern health system relayed the discord this has created when discussing incentives: “Our doctors were fully on board with the need to reduce salaries back in April, so we all took a 15 percent pay cut through the summer. Now that they’re busy again, they want to be bumped back to 100 percent. But the system’s financial picture hasn’t changed.”
The growing disconnect between how hard many staff are working and the economic reality of the system isn’t unique to doctors. But physicians, most of whom have their compensation tied to individual productivity, may feel it more acutely. While there are no easy solutions, it’s critical to discuss this disconnect openly, rather than letting resentment fester under the surface.
The pandemic has brought to light the brittleness of health system and physician practice finances. Prescient systems will use this moment to work with their doctors to rethink practice and align compensation with the financial success of the system, while meeting doctors’ needs for stability and security.