Scale: blessing or burden for statewide ACOs?

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/scale-blessing-or-burden-for-statewide-acos/551206/

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Scale can smooth out quality variation and assuage providers’ fears of taking on risk. But it’s not a catch-all solution.

A handful of accountable care organizations are moving to cover an entire state, but not everyone thinks bigger is better when it comes to population health management.

Caravan Health, a company that works with ACOs, last week announced the launch of its second statewide program, this time in Florida. In the model, any of the 200-some Florida Hospital Association facilities that want to participate can join together to provide coordinated care.

The bid is meant to bolster care quality for Medicare beneficiaries while lowering costs and risk for participating facilities. But some experts say the larger scale, like rampant consolidation, could be more like an anchor weighing down an ACO instead of a beam propping it up.

“At the end of the day, success or failure is based on success in managing the quality of care,” Michael Abrams, partner at Numerof & Associates told Healthcare Dive. “While there may be some bigger numbers involved, I think the safety angle that they’re selling may not be all it’s cracked up to be.”

Caravan has no plans to back down on the model, however, and plans to roll out two more statewide ACOs in the next couple of weeks.

ACOs existed before the Affordable Care Act, but in 2011 HHS released new rules under the landmark law aimed at helping providers coordinate care through the population health management programs. Since then, the number of ACOs have grown dramatically, from an estimated 32 to more than 1,000 in 2018, according to Leavitt Partners.

A statewide all-payer ACO in Vermont has seen some success, but Caravan’s model and its efforts are some of the first to leverage the programs over a much larger population.

The business model

The Florida ACO, created in partnership with the FHA, is the second from Kansas City-based Caravan. The first, in Mississippi, was launched in January. Under the program, hospitals have access to Caravan’s population health management model to build primary care capacity and monitor quality results.

Mississippi currently has 29 providers participating in the program, managing care for roughly 130,000 Medicare patients in 22 locations. Its operations include hiring and training population health nurses throughout the state, annual wellness visits, chronic care management and more.

It’s potentially a good business playbook for both parties. The hospital association captures a revenue stream that’s not dependent on their membership — increasingly important in these days of sharp provider headwinds — and Caravan is granted access to the Medicare lives of a couple hundred hospitals in the state.

The need for population health management is especially acute in Mississippi, which ranks last or close to last in every leading health outcome, according to the state Department of Health. Florida and Mississippi couldn’t be farther apart when it comes to their primary care infrastructure, a factor linked to ACO success. According to the NCQA database, Florida has 894 patient-centered medical homes. Mississippi has 74.

“With population health, we improve the health of our state so it’s a win-win all the way around,” Paul Gardner, the director of rural health at the Mississippi Hospital Association told Healthcare Dive.

And Caravan, which currently works with more than 225 health systems and 14,000 providers, touts its track record with its programs. In 2017, its ACOs beat nationwide ACO performance with savings of $54 million and quality scores of 94%, a spokesperson said.

By comparison, studies have yielded mixed results when it comes to ACO success elsewhere.

An April report from Avalere found the Medicare Shared Savings Program, a CMS model to foster ACOs in Medicare, missed federal cost-savings projections from 2010 by a wide margin and raised federal spend by $384 million.

But a National Association of ACOs analysis retorted that MSSP ACOs saved $849 million in 2016 alone, and a whopping $2.66 billion since 2013 (higher than CMS’ $1.6 billion estimate). And an early 2017 JAMA Internal Medicine analysis found ACO savings only increase with time.

Scale: protection or illusion?

The threat of financial loss is a leading obstacle to participation in ACOs. Smaller ACOs are more likely to experience widely variable savings and losses simply due to change, Caravan representatives say, while larger ACOs deliver more predictable and sustainable results.

“The only way we can create certainty around our income is to have processes and accountability and the infrastructure, but you’ve also got to have to scale,” Caravan CEO Lynn Barr told Healthcare Dive. Barr said that since Caravan’s 2014 inception, the company has found having 100,000 Medicare lives or more in an ACO yields larger savings than the roughly 80-85% of ACOs with only 20,000 lives or fewer.

As the owner of the ACOs, Caravan assumes 75% of the financial risk for providers. Barr said that evens out to a maximum risk of $100 per patient.

By comparison, in the basic track of the Medicare Shared Savings Program, the maximum risk for providers is $400 per patient. In the enhanced model it’s $1,500. “With our model, if people follow it and have 100,000 lives, there’s no reason they would ever write a check,” Barr said.

That is one of the selling features of the statewide ACO: It can be a mitigating factor for hospitals that might feel too exposed on their own, Abrams said.

But the threat of risk could still prove too much. CMS finalized new rules for shared savings ACOs in December, shaving down the amount of time they had before they were forced to assume downside risk from six year to two years for new ACO participants or three years for new, low-revenue ACOs.

And some critics say it’s a safe bet that the losses incurred by any one organization are not going to be spread across the other parties in the ACO, especially given the shortened timeline. As the deadline for assuming more risk approaches, Caravan could see attrition among providers who don’t feel ready.

“I think this is very, very, very challenging,” nonprofit primary care advocacy Patient-Centered Primary Care Collaborative Director Ann Greiner told Healthcare Dive. “Most of the hospital leadership has not been working under these kinds of conditions.”

And ACOs are all about a connection to the community, which might prove difficult to foster across an entire state.

“You’ve got to leverage people at the community level and have those relationships with the patient and, in the ideal world, know where to refer,” Greiner said. “At the state level, that’s pretty far removed.”

Unified governance, heterogeneity pose problems

The scale of large ACOs makes them much more difficult to manage, experts say. ACOs have a single set of policies that, in an organization involving more parties, needs to be adopted in one form or another that’s acceptable to all participating providers.

That’s done by majority, Barr said. Each participating provider has a single vote and the overall vote binds the ACO board’s decision on waiver approval, discharge standards, shared savings distribution plans and more.

But in an ACO with a lot of differently cultured and structured providers — academic hospitals, teaching hospitals, acute care, research, small, medium, large etc. — it can get a lot more complicated, Abrams said. For example, if 100 FHA hospitals opt into the new Caravan Health model, that’s 100 variations in acute care policy, physician compensation and all else involved in managing cost and quality operations, and 100 different voices strongly advocating to keep doing things the way they’ve always done them.

“Some issues are just working through the details,” Gardner from the Mississippi Hospital Association said. “In some of your larger systems, that’s getting the medical staff all pulled together and singing off the same sheet of music.”

The more homogeneous the ACO organizations are, the easier it will be to get them to buy in to the various policies and procedures that need to be put in place for operations to flow smoothly. “You can’t outsource that,” Abrams said. “The most you can do is get guidance from someone who’s perhaps been around this block about how to handle it.”

Barr maintains Caravan standardizes the most important factors.

“Nurses are critical to this model,” Barr said. “That’s what everyone’s doing the same.” Caravan has found that after nurses are trained in population health management over three to six months, each dollar the company spends on that provider produces two dollars in savings.

And, after Caravan puts the population health management infrastructure in place, the providers themselves helm the ship with a steering committee, leveraging data to see what differentiates them from the next community and making slight adjustments to course-correct.

Challenges for hospitals

Hospitals will face two challenges: taking in the coordinated framework given to them by Caravan and translating it into behavioral change, Abrams said. The success of the overall ACO will depend on the latter as “those who can’t do that successfully will probably self-select out when it comes time to take on risk.”

The question is whether Caravan can really deliver on some of the promises it’s explicitly making.

“The truth is that hospitals who haven’t had the infrastructure to manage their cost and quality are not better off in terms of consolidation and a position in a larger ACO,” Abrams said. “So an ACO comprised of multiple small hospitals and independent hospitals can’t expect savings proportionate to their aggregate size.”

With more statewide ACOs on the way, it’s important Caravan (and partnering providers) work out any kinks in the model sooner rather than later.

“This is not like bringing in a plumber to fix your faucet,” Abrams said. “At the end of the day, an organization stands on its own.”

 

 

Trends in Health Policy and the Mid-Term Elections Results

http://avalere.com/expertise/life-sciences/insights/series-trends-in-health-policy-and-the-mid-term-election-results

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Tune in to hear Avalere experts discuss potential implications of the mid-term elections on health policy. Director Chris Sloan interviews Senior Vice President Elizabeth Carpenter on the mid-term elections results and what this could mean for the future of healthcare policy.

CS: Hello, and welcome to a special mid-term elections Avalere podcast. This is the last in a three-part series we’re doing on the health policy implications of the mid-term elections, and this time, we actually have results from the mid-term elections! My name is Chris Sloan, I’m a director with the federal and state policy group here at Avalere. Today, we’re going to discuss the results of the mid-term elections and the implications for health policy going forward.

As a reminder for those of you living under rocks, the mid-term elections ended with Democrats taking control of the House while Republicans increased their lead in the Senate. In three states, Medicaid expansion ballot initiative passed, which is likely to lead to about 325,000 new enrollees in Medicaid in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah. Also, Democratic candidates who campaigned on Medicaid expansion won the governors races in Kansas, Maine, and Wisconsin, potentially leading to another 300,000 Medicaid enrollees in those states if they follow through with expansion.

Joining me today to talk about all of this and what we can expect in healthcare from the new Democratically-controlled House is Elizabeth Carpenter. She’s the senior vice president of our federal and state policy group, and she’s the preeminent expert at Avalere in all things health policy. Thanks for being here.

EC: Thanks for having me.

CS: The exit polling for the elections showed that healthcare again was one of the top issues for voters in the elections, eight years after the passage of the ACA. Can you talk about why this issue has continued to be such a big part of campaigns and elections in U.S. politics?

EC: I think this election marked a new high in some ways in terms of how Americans thought and voted on health care. If you had asked me this question leading up to 2016, I would have focused on Americans talking about jobs and the economy, and I would have linked healthcare to jobs and the economy. People often talk about being worried about their job because they are worried about affording their health insurance and their healthcare. This year, from a domestic policy perspective, we saw healthcare at the top of the list, and when you look under the hood, what you see is that people were focused on healthcare costs and not necessarily those costs that are predictable—premiums ranked somewhat low on the list. People were very focused on surprise medical bills and certain areas where we’ve seen increased deductibles and coinsurance that are leading people to be more exposed to system costs. It’s clear that people were focused on healthcare, but they were really focused on having a surprise or unexpected healthcare expense where they were going to have to go out of pocket quite a bit at one time. As the economy has stabilized, people seem to be zeroing on the healthcare front. What I would say is, in all of our policy discussions of healthcare costs, you have to ask yourself, what is the policy doing to address that question? In many cases, I would opine that the policy is not doing much. So it is quite likely that we may see this issue continue as we head towards 2020.

CS: In that vein, a lot of the Democratic candidates this election cycle were campaigning on expansions of public programs, like Medicare for All, Medicare for More. Do we expect that to continue now that Democrats have taken control of the House? How big of an issue do you think recent campaign promises have been?

EC: I would say the Democrats face a choice in this moment about what they want their next step of health reform to look like in advance of 2020. In general, I would very much expect Democrats to use the next year or two to offer thought leadership and position their party in advance of the presidential race. What that looks like, I don’t think we know at this moment. There were a number of candidates, interestingly at the state and federal level, who embraced a Medicare for All or Medicare for More type of approach. Some of those candidates won and some didn’t, and it’s hard to pinpoint what role their position on this circular policy had in those results. But I think it is fair to say that there will be continued debate over what role Medicare and other public programs play in covering our citizens and that Democrats will need to land on something in advance of 2020.

CS: So that was one big issue in the campaign, and another big issue that was on both sides was pre-existing conditions protections that made its way into the campaign season this year. There is still a lawsuit in Texas challenging the Affordable Care Act and the pre-existing conditions now that the individual mandate is gone. Do you see this as an option for some sort of bipartisan consensus coming out of the divided congress? What do you see happening with this issue going forward?

EC: This is another issue where when you look under the hood, even people who say the same things mean potentially very different things. We had candidates on both sides of the isle running ads that talked about their desire to protect pre-existing condition protections, despite the fact that some of those candidates voted to uphold the Affordable Care Act and others voted to repeal it. You asked what might happen if we see the core go down this path where pre-existing conditions projections will be null and void and would Congress sweep in and produce a solution. On face, you could say both parties to some degree do want to maintain protections for some pre-existing conditions. In practice, how you do that gets complicated. Once you open up this particular issue, you’re going to have people on one side of the isle wanting to use it as an opportunity to do certain kinds of reforms, and you have people on the other side of the isle who want to change the insurance market in another way. We’ve heard already from Democrats, for example, who are interested in potentially pursuing limitations on some of the short-term plans, including association health plans and other types of plans that don’t meet all Affordable Care Act requirements. People have already said they want to pursue this in this congress. So you can imagine there being a real need to do something, but at the same time, you can envision how this gets complicated and partisan really quickly. The closer we get to 2020, the more complicated any kind of healthcare debate gets.

CS: Given those realities of a divided government and partisanship, are we in a holding pattern for health policy until 2020 and the next election?

EC: I think a TBD there. Based on what we’ve seen so far, I don’t think anyone holds out a lot of hope for kumbayah and bipartisan progress. At the same time, we’ve seen over the past 24-48 hours various lawmakers on both sides of the isle talking about, for example, the drug pricing issue. The important thing to remember here is that we have a president who is non-traditional in some of his thinking and not necessarily aligned with the positions of the historic Republican party, so to the degree that Congress can reach some kind of alignment, it’s quite possible the President would sign something that another president might not. But it really is up to Congress to decide if they can and want to work together. Both sides at this point are making a calculation about working together and governing is good for them heading into the next election or if fostering gridlock and highlighting differences is a better political path.

CS: Great. Well, thank you so much for being with us. That wraps up our final episode of our three-part Avalere mid-term elections podcast series. As always, watch for more updates and analysis from Avalere over the coming weeks. Feel free to reach out to us with any questions. You are listening to Avalere Podcasts.

 

 

Doctors Leaving Atrium Buck The National Trend Of Groups Joining Hospitals

http://www.wfae.org/post/doctors-leaving-atrium-buck-national-trend-groups-joining-hospitals#stream/0

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Hospital systems have been on a buying binge the last few years, gobbling up doctors’ practices. By one estimate, nearly a third of medical practices nationwide are now part of a large hospital network.

But one large group of physicians is going in another direction – it’s breaking away from Atrium Health and opening an independent practice next month.
A whiteboard at the temporary Tryon Medical Partners office counts down the number of days till the practice opens. It’s made up of 88 primary care and specialty doctors who are leaving Atrium Health, formerly Carolinas HealthCare System. One of them is Dr. Dale Owen.

“Just because everybody else may be selling that doesn’t mean that we are not at the peak and it’s going to start the other direction,” he said. “Because I really think that’s what’s happening. Because we cannot keep doing the same thing. We can’t just keep buying up groups and then doctors not have any say and then expect a different outcome from the very same process each time.”

Owen is a cardiologist and CEO of the practice, called Tryon Medical Partners. The mood is different now than it was five months ago. Owen and the rest of the doctors sued Atrium so they could leave and start this practice. The hospital relented.

The doctors’ lawsuit said Atrium was making changes like cutting the number of registered nurses assisting doctors, and moving nurses from individual doctors’ offices and to a central a call center.

In preparation for the opening next month, rows of nurses are in a South Park office building taking calls from patients.

They answer questions from patients and schedule appointments. The practice will stagger the opening of eight locations in the Charlotte metro area throughout the next several months, roughly mirroring the locations of the Atrium affiliated Mecklenburg Medical Group’s offices.

What the doctors are doing is unusual. The national trend for the past several years has been practices joining hospital systems. As of 2016, about a third of doctors’ practices were owned by a hospital – a more than 100 percent increase in just four years, according to a study for the Physicians Advocacy Institute and Avalere Health. Hospitals bought 5,000 practices between July 2015 and 2016 alone.

Lisa Bielamowicz is a doctor and president of Gist Healthcare, a Washington D.C. based consulting company. She said hospitals are buying up these practices to grow their networks and keep patients in the system. Physicians sought stability and help with increasing administrative tasks due to increasing regulatory changes.

“So far there hasn’t been a ton of flux away from employment relationships. If you have health system employ hundreds of physicians, of course, there is going to be a handful chose to leave for a variety of reasons,” she said. “But it’s very rare that a group of dozens or more of physicians will leave en masse from a health system. Now that said given where the market is going and all of the change that’s occurring now it’s something that we would expect to see more of down the road.”

Because, Bielamowicz said, some doctors have found being an employee of a large health system isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“Most doctors are trained to be independent thinkers and don’t think of themselves as being employees of any organization even if someone is giving them a paycheck and a W2 every year,” she said. “The idea of a parent or employer organization putting limits around how they operate their office or how they would practice, the types of care that they deliver is something very difficult for a lot of physicians to adjust to.”

A few doctors from the original practice decided to stay with Atrium. The health system has said it’s hired nearly 50 providers who have already started or will start by October. As the opening date nears, Owen said his adrenaline is high and he’s excited to practice on his own terms.

“There have been lots of people who said it was going to be too hard to be independent and you can imagine that the hospitals might think that and other independent organizations because they were already independent. Plus, when you are the first do it at this kind of scale and on the backs of primary care. Everybody is going to be watching it.”

Owen and the doctors will start seeing patients the first week in September.