Category Archives: Accountable Care Organizations

ACOs Do Not Improve Spending or Quality

Thank to Dr. McCanne, I am re-posting the following article from the Annals of Internal Medicine that was published Tuesday. I have written before about MSSPs, so I thought it would be a respite from talking about single payer.

Here is the article in its entirety:

Annals of Internal Medicine
June 18, 2019
Performance in the Medicare Shared Savings Program After Accounting for Nonrandom Exit: An Instrumental Variable Analysis
By Adam A. Markovitz, BS; John M. Hollingsworth, MD, MS; John Z. Ayanian, MD, MPP; Edward C. Norton, PhD; Phyllis L. Yan, MS; Andrew M. Ryan, PhD


Accountable care organizations (ACOs) in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) are associated with modest savings. However, prior research may overstate this effect if high-cost clinicians exit ACOs.

To evaluate the effect of the MSSP on spending and quality while accounting for clinicians’ nonrandom exit.

Similar to prior MSSP analyses, this study compared MSSP ACO participants versus control beneficiaries using adjusted longitudinal models that accounted for secular trends, market factors, and beneficiary characteristics. To further account for selection effects, the share of nearby clinicians in the MSSP was used as an instrumental variable. Hip fracture served as a falsification outcome. The authors also tested for compositional changes among MSSP participants.

Fee-for-service Medicare, 2008 through 2014.

A 20% sample (97 204 192 beneficiary-quarters).

Total spending, 4 quality indicators, and hospitalization for hip fracture.

In adjusted longitudinal models, the MSSP was associated with spending reductions (change, −$118 [95% CI, −$151 to −$85] per beneficiary-quarter) and improvements in all 4 quality indicators. In instrumental variable models, the MSSP was not associated with spending (change, $5 [CI, −$51 to $62] per beneficiary-quarter) or quality. In falsification tests, the MSSP was associated with hip fracture in the adjusted model (−0.24 hospitalizations for hip fracture [CI, −0.32 to −0.16 hospitalizations] per 1000 beneficiary-quarters) but not in the instrumental variable model (0.05 hospitalizations [CI, −0.10 to 0.20 hospitalizations] per 1000 beneficiary-quarters). Compositional changes were driven by high-cost clinicians exiting ACOs: High-cost clinicians (99th percentile) had a 30.4% chance of exiting the MSSP, compared with a 13.8% chance among median-cost clinicians (50th percentile).

The study used an observational design and administrative data.

After adjustment for clinicians’ nonrandom exit, the MSSP was not associated with improvements in spending or quality. Selection effects — including exit of high-cost clinicians — may drive estimates of savings in the MSSP.

Primary Funding Source:
Horowitz Foundation for Social Policy, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and National Institute on Aging.

In addition, here is an article from The Incidental Economist of June 17th on the same subject:

The Incidental Economist
June 17, 2019
Spending Reductions in the Medicare Shared Savings Program: Selection or Savings?
By J. Michael McWilliams, MD, PhD, Alan M. Zaslavsky, PhD, Bruce E. Landon, MD, MBA, and Michael E. Chernew, PhD.

Prior studies suggest that accountable care organizations (ACOs) in the MSSP have achieved modest, growing savings. In a recent study in Annals of Internal Medicine, Markovitz et al. conclude that savings from the MSSP are illusory, an artifact of risk selection behaviors by ACOs such as “pruning” primary care physicians (PCPs) with high-cost patients. Their conclusions appear to contradict previous findings that characteristics of ACO patients changed minimally over time relative to local control groups.


Monitoring ACOs will be essential, particularly as incentives for selection are strengthened as regional spending rates become increasingly important in determining benchmarks. Although there has likely been some gaming, the evidence to date — including the study by Markovitz et al. — provides no clear evidence of a costly problem and suggests that ACOs have achieved very small, but real, savings. Causal inference is hard but necessary to inform policy. When conclusions differ, opportunities arise to understand methodological differences and to clarify their implications for policy.

And finally, Don McCanne’s comment:

This important study in the highly reputable Annals of Internal Medicine concludes that accountable care organizations (ACOs) participating in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) did not show any improvement in spending or quality when adjustments were made for selection effects, especially the non-random exit of high-cost clinicians (“I’m worth the extra money, and if you’re gonna cut my fees, I’m outta here.”)

The conclusions were immediately challenged by others in the policy community who have previously published studies indicating that “ACOs have achieved very small, but real, savings,” albeit admitting that “there has likely been some gaming.” And the savings were, indeed, very small. Others have suggested that the very small savings did not take into consideration the significant increase in provider administrative costs for technological equipment and personnel to run the ACOs, and certainly did not consider other unintended consequences such as the tragic increase in physician burnout.

Another problem with the infatuation for ACOs is that politicians and the policy community are insisting that we continue with this experiment in spite of the disappointing results to date. That simply postpones the adoption of truly effective policies, such as those in a single payer Medicare for All program, that would actually improve quality while greatly reducing administrative waste. The tragedy is that this also perpetuates uninsurance, underinsurance, and personal financial hardship from medical bills.

People are suffering and dying while the policy community continues to diddle with ACOs and other injudicious policy inventions. Enough! It’s long past time to reduce suffering and save lives! Single Payer Medicare for All!

(Yes, I’m angry, but even more I’m terribly anguished over the health care injustices that we continue to tolerate through our collective inaction.)

See, we can’t get away from Medicare for All after all.


Those Damn Models Again – Health Care As An Experiment in Bait & Switch

Another shout out to Dr. McCanne, who posted today about a study sponsored by the AMA and conducted by RAND that basically said that alternative payment models (APM) are affecting physicians, their practices and hospitals.

Here is the RAND Summary with key findings:

October 24, 2018
Effects of Health Care Payment Models on Physician Practice in the United States
By Mark W. Friedberg, et al
This report, sponsored by the American Medical Association (AMA), describes how alternative payment models (APMs) affect physicians, physicians’ practices, and hospital systems in the United States and also provides updated data to the original 2014 study. Payment models discussed are core payment (fee for service, capitation, episode-based and bundled), supplementary payment (shared savings, pay for performance, retainer-based), and combined payment (medical homes and accountable care organizations). The effects of changes since 2014 in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and of new alternative payment models (APMs), such as the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA) Quality Payment Program (QPP), are also examined.
Key Findings
Payment models are changing at an accelerating pace
Physician practices, health systems, and consultants find it difficult to keep up with the proliferation of new models, with some calling for a “time out” to allow them to better adapt to current APMs.
Payment models are increasing in complexity
Alternative payment models have become increasingly complex since 2014. Practices that have invested in understanding complex APMs have found opportunities to earn financial awards for their preexisting quality — without materially changing patient care.
Risk aversion is more prominent among physician practices
Risk aversion among physician practices was more prominent. Risk-averse practices sought to avoid downside risk or to off-load downside risk to partners (e.g., hospitals and device manufacturers) when possible.
RAND press release

Here is the comment by Don McCanne:

There is much more here than a casual glance might imply. The search for value-based payment in health care, as opposed to paying for volume, has led to various payment models such as shared savings, accountable care organizations, bundled payments, pay for performance (P4P), medical homes, and other alternative payment models. How well is that working?
To date, most studies have been quite disappointing. Claims of cost savings are belied when considering the additional provider costs of information technology and human manpower devoted to these models, not to mention the high emotional cost of burnout. This RAND study shows that these models are increasing in complexity, making it difficult for the health delivery system to keep up. Even worse, they are inducing risk aversion. The health care providers are trying to avoid those who most need health care – the opposite of what our health care system should be delivering.
Much of the experimentation in delivery models has been centered around reward or punishment. But, as Alfie Kohn writes, “intrinsic motivation (wanting to do something for its own sake)… is the best predictor of high-quality achievement,” whereas “extrinsic motivation (for example, doing something in order to snag a goody)” can actually undermine intrinsic motivation. It has been observed by others that the personal satisfaction of achievement of patient health care goals is tremendously rewarding, whereas the token rewards based on meager quality measurements are often insulting because of the implication that somehow token payments are a greater motivator than fulfilling Hippocratic traditions. Even more insulting are the token penalties for falling on the wrong side of the bell curve simply as a result of making efforts to care for patients with greater medical or sociological difficulties.
Quoting Alfie Kohn again, “carrots or sticks… can never create a lasting commitment to an action or a value, and often they have exactly the opposite effect … contrary to hypothesis.” The RAND report suggests slowing down and working with these models some more while increasing investment in data management and analysis with the goal of increasing success with alternative payment models. No. These models are making things worse. It’s time to abandon them and get back with taking care of our patients. The payment model we need is an improved version of Medicare that takes care of everyone. Throw out the sticks and carrots.


But however we see it, from the point of view of carrots and sticks as not able to change behavior, or by introducing ever newer models of alternative payments, the end result is the same.

Health care suffers because of the wasteful, bureaucratic, and arbitrary imposition of models that only serve to make life for physicians and hospitals harder, and makes health care more expensive and complex.

As Dr. McCanne says above, throw out the carrots and the sticks. Get rid of the models that don’t work and go to a single payer system that is streamlined and less bureaucratic and arbitrary.

Again, With the Models?

Today’s post from Don McCanne revives an old issue readers of this blog are familiar with — the introduction of new models or the revising of old models for value-based care such as Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) and the Medicare Shared Savings Program.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma attempts to defend these models and gives an overview of a new proposal called “Pathways to Success.” Don’t you just love these cute names they give to future failures? Instead of scraping them altogether and going to single payer, they keep re-inventing a broken wheel.

At any rate, I am posting Verma’s article from Health Affairs blog, along with Kip Sullivan’s response, and lastly, Don McCanne’s brief comments on both. Enjoy!

Health Affairs Blog
August 9, 2018
Pathways To Success: A New Start For Medicare’s Accountable Care Organizations
By Seema Verma
For many years we have heard health care policymakers from both political parties opine about the need to move to a health care system that pays for the value of care delivered to patients, rather than the mere volume of services.
From the moment I became Administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), I have been committed to using every tool at my disposal to move our health care system towards value-based care.
One set of value-based payment models that CMS has been closely reviewing are initiatives involving Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs).
In this post I will unpack key features of Medicare’s ACO initiatives and provide an overview of CMS’s new proposal for the Medicare Shared Savings Program, called “Pathways to Success.”
Upside-Only Versus Two-Sided ACOs
The majority of Medicare’s ACOs – 460 of the 561 or 82% of Shared Savings Program ACOs in 2018 – are in the upside-only “Track 1” of the Shared Savings Program, meaning that they share in savings but do not share in losses.  Currently, ACOs are allowed to remain in the one-sided track for up to six years.
The results show that ACOs that take on greater levels of risk show better results for cost and quality over time. (See Kip’s comments.)
The current combination of six years of upside-only risk, which involves bonus payments if spending is low but no risk of losses if spending goes up, along with the provision of waivers may be encouraging consolidation.  Such consolidation reduces choices for patients without controlling costs.  This is unacceptable.
The proposed changes included in Pathways to Success would shorten the maximum amount of time permitted in upside-only risk to allow a maximum of two years, or one year for ACOs identified as having previously participated in the Shared Savings Program under upside-only risk.
Streamlining the program, extending the length of agreements, and accelerating the transition to two-sided risk would result in reduced administrative burden and greater savings for patients and taxpayers.
Looking Forward
ACOs can be an important component of the move to a value-based system, but after six years of experience, the program must evolve to deliver value.  The time has come to put real “accountability” in Accountable Care Organizations.
The Health Care Blog
August 21, 2018
Seema Verma Hyperventilates About Tiny Differences Between ACOs Exposed to One-and Two-Sided Risk
By Kip Sullivan, JD
There is no meaningful difference between the performance of Medicare ACOs that accept only upside risk (the chance to make money) and ACOs that accept both up- and downside risk (the risk of losing money). But CMS’s administrator, Seema Verma, thinks otherwise. According to her, one-sided ACOs are raising Medicare’s costs while two-sided ACOs are saving “significant” amounts of money. She is so sure of this that she is altering the rules of the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP). Currently only 18 percent of MSSP ACOs accept two-sided risk. That will change next year. According to a proposed rule CMS published on August 9, ACOs will have at most two years to participate in the MSSP exposed to upside risk only, and after that they must accept two-sided risk.
That same day, Verma published an essay on the Health Affairs blog in which she revealed, presumably unwittingly, how little evidence she has to support her decision. The data Verma published in that essay revealed that one-sided ACOs are raising Medicare’s costs by six-one-hundredths of a percent while two-sided ACOs are cutting Medicare’s costs by seven-tenths of a percent. Because these figures do not consider the expenses ACOs incur, and because the algorithms CMS uses to assign patients to ACOs and to calculate ACO expenditure targets and actual performance are so complex, this microscopic difference is meaningless.
As pathetic as these figures are, they fail to take into account ACO start-up and operating costs. CMS doesn’t know or care what those costs are. The only relevant information we have are some undocumented statements by the staff of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) to the effect that ACO overhead is about 2 percent of their benchmarks (their predicted spending). I suspect 2 percent is low, but let’s take it at face value and do the math. If, as Verna’s data indicates, two-sided ACOs save Medicare seven-tenths of a percent net (that is, considering both CMS’s shared-savings payments to some ACOs and penalties other ACOs that lose money pay to CMS), but these ACOs spend 2 percent doing whatever it is ACOs do, that means the average two-sided ACO is losing one percent.
The good news is that Verma may have hastened the demise of a program that isn’t working. Whether Congress ultimately pulls the plug on the ACO project will depend on whether ACO advocates will concede at some point that the ACO fad was based on faith, not evidence, and has failed to work. I predict they will refuse to admit failure and will instead peddle another equally ineffective solution, for example, overpaying ACOs (as the Medicare Advantage insurers and their predecessors have been for the last half-century). I base my prediction on the behavior of ACO advocates. The history of the ACO movement indicates ACO proponents don’t make decisions based on evidence.
Facing the Evidence
Evidence that the ACO project is failing is piling up. All three of CMS’s two-sided ACO programs – the PGP demo, the Pioneer demo, and the Next Generation program – saved only a few tenths of a percent, while CMS’s mostly two-sided program, the MSSP, raised costs by a smidgeon. All four programs have raised costs if we take into account the ACOs’ start-up and operating costs and CMS’s cost of administering these complex programs. Evidence indicting the other major “value-based payment” fads – medical homes, bundled payments, and pay-for-performance schemes – is also piling up. The simultaneous failure of all these fads to cut costs spells trouble ahead for the Affordable Care Act (because it relies on “value-based payment reforms” for cost containment), MACRA (because it also relies on “value-based payment” theology), and our entire health care system (because the big insurance companies and the major hospital-clinic chains are spending more money on “value-based payment” fads than those fads are saving, and because these 1,000-pound gorillas are using the establishment’s endorsement of ACOs, medical homes etc. as an excuse to become 2,000-pound gorillas).
The root cause of our nation’s chronic inability to adopt effective cost-containment policies is the chronic inability of the American health policy establishment to make decisions based on evidence, not groupthink. Seema Verma’s decision to bet the farm on two-sided-risk ACOs is the latest example of this problem.
Comment by Don McCanne
We can thank Seema Verma for showing us that all of the talk about value-based payment – paying for value instead of volume through the establishment of accountable care organizations – was never really about value. Her insistence in shoving providers into downside risk reveals that it was always about reducing federal spending on Medicare. But that hasn’t changed her deceptive rhetoric about value and accountability.
Thank goodness we have astute analysts such as Kip Sullivan. The excerpts from his critique of Verma’s views as expressed in her Health Affairs Blog article should tempt you to read his entire critique at The Health Care Blog (link above).
The nonsense about ACOs has to go so we can get down to fixing the real problems with our health care financing system – the inequities, lack of universality, and lack of affordability for far too many individual patients. So let’s turn up the volume on a well designed, single payer, improved Medicare for all.