Tag Archives: ACOs

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.
Advertisements

Physician practices seek help in transition to value-based care | Healthcare Dive

Follow-up to the last post and yesterday’s regarding CMS’ initiative for quality reporting.

See the link:

The report also found physicians are moving more toward independent and physician-led group practices after a six-year trend of doctors moving to hospitals.

Source: Physician practices seek help in transition to value-based care | Healthcare Dive

Obamacare: The Last Stage of Neoliberal Health Reform

In my recent review of the Introduction to Health Care under the Knife, the term “neoliberalism” was discussed as one of the themes the authors explored in diagnosing the root causes of the failure of the American health care system.

For review, the term neoliberalism refers to a modern politico-economic theory favoring free trade, privatization, minimal government intervention in business, reduced public expenditure on social services, etc. (Source: Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014)

As defined in Wikipedia, and as I wrote in my review, neoliberalism refers primarily to the 20th-century resurgence of 19th-century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism. Those ideas include economic liberalization policies such as privatization, austerity, deregulation, free trade and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society. These market-based ideas and the policies they inspired constitute a paradigm shift away from the post-war Keynesian consensus which lasted from 1945 to 1980.

This recrudescence or resurgence gained momentum with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, and with the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in the 1994 midterm election, which made Newt Gingrich Speaker of the House, and implemented the Contract with America. (I’ve called it the Contract on America, for obvious reasons)

Yet, the full impact of neoliberalism was not felt until the rise of the TEA Party in the run-up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and that led to the Freedom Caucus in the House that has tried unsuccessfully multiple times to repeal and replace Obamacare with basically nothing.

Economist Said E. Dawlabani, in his book, MEMEnomics, describes the period from 1932 to 1980, which includes the post-war Keynesian consensus, as the second MEMEnomic cycle, or “Patriotic Prosperity” MEME. The current period, from 1980 to the present, represents the third MEMEnomic cycle, or the “Only Money Matters” MEME.

It is in this period that the American health care system underwent a radical transformation from what some used to call a “calling profession” to a full-fledged capitalist enterprise no different from any other industry. This recrudescence of 19th century economic policies did not spring forth in 1980 fully formed, but rather had existed sub-rosa in the consciousness of many American conservatives.

In the early 1970’s, Richard Nixon’s administration came up with the concept of the Managed Care Organizations, or MCOs, as the first real attempt to apply neoliberalism to health care. As we shall see, this would not be the first time that neoliberal ideas would be implemented into health care reform.

In Chapter Seven, of their book, Health Care under the Knife, authors Howard Waitzkin and Ida Hellander, discuss the origins of Obamacare and the beginnings of neoliberal health care reform. They point to the year 1994 as a significant one for reform worldwide, as Colombia enacted a national program of “managed competition” that was mandated and partially funded by the World Bank. This reform replaced their prior health system and was based mostly on public hospitals and clinics.

1994 was also the year when then First Lady, Hillary Clinton spearheaded a proposal like the one Colombia enacted that was designed by the insurance industry. I am sure you all remember the Harry and Sally commercials that ran on television that sank her proposal before it ever saw the light of day?

What ultimately became Obamacare was the plan implemented in 2006 in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney, but that was later disavowed when he ran for President in 2012. Waitzkin and Hellander write that even though these programs were framed to improve access for the poor and underserved, these initiatives facilitated the efforts of for-profit insurance companies providing “managed care.”

Insurance companies, they also said, profited by denying or delaying necessary care through strategies such as utilization review and preauthorization requirements; cost-sharing such as co-payments, deductibles, co-insurance, and pharmacy tiers; limiting access to only certain physicians; and frequent redesign of benefits.

These proposals, the authors state, fostered neoliberalism. They promoted competing for-profit private insurance corporations, programs and institutions based in the public sector were cut back, and possibly privatized. Government budgets for public-sector health care were cut, private corporations gained access to public trust funds, and public hospitals and clinics entered competition with private institutions, with budgets determined by demand rather than supply. Finally, prior global budgets for safety-net institutions were not guaranteed, and insurance executives made operational decisions about services, superseding the authority of physicians and other clinicians.

The roots of neoliberal health reform emerged from the Cold War military policy, and the authors cite economist Alain Enthoven providing much of the intellectual framework for those efforts. Enthoven was the Assistant Secretary of Defense under Robert S. McNamara during both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. While he was at the Pentagon, between 1961 and 1969, he led a group of analysts who developed the “planning-programming-budgeting-system” (PPBS) and cost-benefit analysis, that intended to promote more cost-effective spending decisions for military expenditures. Enthoven became the principal architect, the authors indicate, of “managed competition”, which became the prevailing model for the Clinton, Romney, and Obama health care reforms, as well as the neoliberal reforms around the world.

The following table highlights the complementary themes in the military PPBS and managed competition in health care.

_____________________________________

Sources: See note 11, page 273.

Enthoven continued to campaign for his idea throughout the 1970s and 1980s and collaborated with managed care and insurance executives to refine the proposal after being rejected by the Carter administration. The group that met in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which included Enthoven and Paul Ellwood, was funded by the five largest insurance corporations, as well as the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign, and wife Hillary’s Health Security Act.

The authors state that Barack Obama, while a state legislator in Illinois, favored a single payer approach, but changed his position as a presidential candidate. In 2008, he received the largest financial contributions in history from the insurance industry, that was three times more the contributions of his rival, John McCain.

The neoliberal health agenda, the authors write, including Obamacare, emerged as one component of a worldwide agenda developed by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other international financial institutions. The agenda to promote market-driven health care, facilitated access to public-sector health and social security trust funds by multinational corporations, according to Waitzkin and Hellander. The various attempts in the US by the Republican Party to privatize Social Security is an example of this agenda.

An underlying ideology claimed that corporate executives could achieve superior quality and efficiency by “managing” medical services in the marketplace, but without any evidence to support it, the authors contend. Health reform proposals from different countries have resembled one another closely and conform to a cookie-cutter template. Table 2 describes the six features of nearly all neoliberal reform initiatives.

_______________________________

† Sources: patients, employers, public sector trust (“solidarity”) funds (the latter being “contributory” for employed workers, and “subsidized” for low income and unemployed).
‡ Sources: patients, public sector trust funds – Medicaid, Medicare.

The six features of neoliberal health reform are as follows:

  1. Organizations of providers – large, privately controlled organizations of health care providers, operate under direct control or strong influence of private insurance corporations, in collaboration with hospitals and health systems, may employ health care providers directly, or may contract with providers in a preferred network. In Obamacare, they are called Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), supported only in Medicare, but Obamacare accelerated organizational consolidation in anticipation of broader implementation.

In this model, for-profit managed care organizations (MCOs) offer health plans competitively. In reality, competition is restrained by the small number of organizations large enough to meet the new laws’ financial and infrastructure requirements, as well as by the consolidation in the private insurance industry. They contract with or employ large numbers of health practitioners. Instead, physicians and hospitals are absorbed into MCOs.

  1. Organizations of purchasers – large organizations purchasing or facilitating the purchase of private health insurance, usually through MCOs. Under Obamacare, the federal and state health insurance “exchanges”—later renamed “marketplaces” to reflect reality of private, government-subsidized corporations—fulfill a similar role.
  2. Constriction of public hospitals and safety net providers – public hospitals at the state, county, or municipal levels compete for patients covered under public programs like Medicaid or Medicare with private, for-profit hospitals participating as subsidiaries or contractors of insurance companies or MCOs. With less public-sector funding, public hospitals reduce services and programs, and many eventually close. Under Obamacare, multiple public hospitals have closed or have remained on the brink of closure. Note: This is a subject I have written about in prior posts about Medicaid expansion.
  3. Tiered benefits packages – defined in hierarchical terms, minimum package of benefits viewed as essential, individuals and employers can buy additional coverage, poor and near poor in Medicaid eligible for benefits that used to be free of cost-sharing, but since Obamacare passed, states have imposed premiums and co-payments. Under Obamacare, various metal names—bronze, silver, gold, platinum, identify tiers of coverage, where bronze represents the lowest tier and platinum the highest.
  4. Complex multi-payer and multi-payment financing – financial flows under neoliberal health policies are complex (see Chart 7.1). There are four sources of these various financial flows.
    1. Outflow of payments – each insured person considered a “head” for whom a “capitation” must be paid to an insurance company or MCO.
    2. Inflow of funds – funds for capitation payments come from several sources. Premiums paid by workers and their families, contributions from employers is a second source. Public-sector trust funds are a third source, co-payments and deductibles constitute a fourth source, and taxes are a fifth source.
  5. Changes in the tax code – neoliberal reforms usually lead to higher taxes because they increase administrative costs and profits, Obamacare reduces tax deductions and imposes a tax for so-called Cadillac insurance plans. In addition, it calls for penalties for those who do not purchase mandatory coverage, administered by the IRS. I was unable to get on the ACA because I had not filed a return in several years due to long-term unemployment because of the financial collapse of 2007/2008, and the subsequent jobless recovery.

Chart 7.1 Financial Flows under Neoliberal Health Reform

_______________________________

*Purchase of insurance policies for employers and patients mediated by large organizations of health care purchasers.

What is the outlook for single payer in the US, the authors ask?

They cite national polls that show that about two-thirds of people in the US favor single payer. See Joe Paduda’s post here.

If the US were to adopt single payer, the PNHP proposal would provide coverage for all needed services universally, including medications and long-term care, no out-of-pocket premiums, co-payments, or deductibles; costs would be controlled by “monopsony” financing from a single, public source, would not permit competing private insurance and would eliminate multiple tiers of care for different income groups; practitioners and clinics would be paid predetermined fees for services without and need for costly billing procedures; hospitals would negotiate an annual global budget for all operating costs, for-profit, investor-owned facilities would be prohibited from participating; most nonprofit hospitals would remain privately owned, capital purchases and expansion would be budgeted separately, based on regional health-planning goals.

Funding sources would include, they add, would include current federal spending for Medicare and Medicaid, a payroll tax on private businesses less than what businesses currently pay for coverage, an income tax on households, with a surtax on high incomes and capital gains, a small tax of stock transactions, while state and local taxes for health care would be eliminated.

From the viewpoint of corporations, the insurance and financial sectors would lose a major source of capital accumulation, other large and small businesses would experience a stabilization or reduction in health care costs. Years ago, when I first considered single payer, I realized that if employers no longer had to pay for health care for their employees, they could use those funds to employ more workers and thus limit the impact of recessions and jobless recoveries.

So how do we move to single payer and beyond?

According to the authors, and to this reporter, the coming failure of Obamacare will become a moment of transition in the US, where neoliberalism has come home to roost. This transition is not just limited to health care. The theory of Spiral Dynamics, of which I have written about in the past, predicts that at the final stage of the first tier, or Existence tier, the US currently occupies, there will be a leap to the next stage or tier, that being the Being tier, where all the previous value systems have been transcended and included into the value systems of the Being tier.

We will need to address, the authors contend, with the shifting social class position of health professionals and to the increasingly oligopolistic and financialized character of the health insurance industry. The transition beyond Obamacare, they point out, will need to address also the consolidation of large health systems. Obamacare has increased the flow of capitated public and private funds into the insurance industry and extended the overall financialization of the global economy.

The authors conclude the chapter by declaring that as neoliberalism draws to a close, and as Obamacare fails, a much more fundamental transformation needs to reshape not just health care, but also the capitalist state and society.

To sum it all up, all the attempts cure the ills of health care by treating the symptoms and not the cause of the disease will not only fail, but is only making the disease worse, and the patient getting sicker. We need radical intervention before the patient succumbs to the greed and avarice of Wall Street, big business, and those whose stake in the status quo is to blame for the condition the patient is in in the first place.

Therefore, Obamacare is the last stage of neoliberal health care reform.

ACO’s Across the Pond: What Some Believe the US and England Can Learn From Each Other

It is amazing how experts in the field of health care are so wedded to ideas that are, with greater scrutiny, the real cause of the dysfunction and failures of providing health care to the citizens of a nation.

Such is the case with an article I found from the Commonwealth Fund, a well-respected organization in health care research, yet doubles down on the root causes of the crisis faced by the health care system in the US.

Late last month, Briggs, Alderwick, Shortell, and Fisher published the article entitled, “What Can the U.S. and England Learn from Each Other’s Health Care Reforms?

The focus of the article was on the idea of Affordable Care Organizations (ACO’s), which in the US were established in 2010 under the ACA. According to the authors, both countries are currently working toward better integrating health services, improving population health, and managing health care costs. They also said that both countries are developing their own versions of ACO’s to achieve these aims.

However, the authors point out, by way of listing previous links to articles they wrote, that results so far have been mixed, patient experience (you mean like having a great time at Disney World, that sort of experience?) and some quality measures have improved.

Yet, financial savings, they report, have been modest and data on outcomes is limited.

On the other hand, across the pond, the English NHS recently created 44 Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships (STPs) [Isn’t that what one puts in a motor car to make it run better?]

These STPs cover the entire country and are “place-based” partnerships of all NHS organizations and local government departments that purchase and provide health and long-term care services for a geographically defined population. They believe that organizations in STPs will work together to improve care and manage local budgets. Some payers are even considering American-style ACO contracting models.

Wait, if we are not having success with ACOs, what makes the Brits think they will do better? Interestingly enough, Himmelstein and Woolhandler, in “Health Care Under the Knife”, chapter 4, page 61, said the following when they were involved with drafting an new proposal for the Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP):

“Recently, the emergence of huge integrated health systems incorporating multiple hospitals and thousands of physicians (so-called Accountable Care Organizations or ACOs), which dominate the care of entire regions, is causing us to again to talk about NHS models.”

So let me get this straight. We are not having much success with ACOs, yet, the Brits are moving in that direction. And the physician-led advocacy group in this country, the PNHP, that is pushing for single-payer, has been forced to consider models employed by the British NHS.

If that isn’t the definition of insanity, I don’t know what is.

Of course, the move towards ACOs in this country is due to the ACA and to the resurgence of 19th century economic liberalism, also known as neoliberalism, and its impact over the past thirty years on the American health care system. But in the UK, the move away from Labour Party socialism to the Conservative Party’s neoliberalism, is the reason why Britain is exploring the ACO model.

Maybe one day, both Anglo-oriented nations will wake up and stop believing in the fairy tale that the free market works for health care. It does for cars and other consumer goods, but health care is not a consumer good. It is a necessity of life.

Federal Spending Increased Due to Medicare ACO’s

Once again, a topic previously discussed here has raised its head.

This time, it is the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP), Medicare’s largest alternative payment model (APM).

Readers of this blog will recall previous posts about this topic. The first, from September 2015, Shared Savings ACO Program Reaps the Most for Primary-care Physicians reported that primary-care physicians were benefiting the most from the shared savings.

The next post, Challenges Remain in Physician Payment Reform, which followed on the heels of the first, discussed the challenges that remained in reforming physician payment, after then President Barack Obama (the good ole’ days) signed the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) back in April.

MACRA repealed the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) mechanism of updating fees to the Physician Fee Schedule (PFS), and had been blamed for causing instability and uncertainty among physicians for over a decade, and that led to 17 overrides of scheduled fee cuts, at a cost of over $ 150 billion.

In Models, Models, Have We Got Models!, I suggested, rather strongly that all these models were not living up to their promise and was only creating more complexity, confusion, and dysfunction in an already dysfunctional health care system.

A post from January 2017, Illogical!, reported on yet another asinine model introduction by CMS at the Health Care Payment Learning and Action Network (LAN) Fall Summit by Adminstrator Seema Verna.

So when I received an email today from Dr. Don McCanne, former president of the Physicians for a National Health Plan (PNHP) that mentioned a press release from Avalere Health indicating that Medicare ACO’s have increased federal spending despite projections that said they would produce net savings.

According to the press release, the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) has performed considerably below the financial estimates from the CBO that was made in 2010 when the MSSP was enacted as part of the ACA.

Avalere’s press release said that this has raised questions about the long-term success of Medicare’s largest alternative payment model (APM).

The MSSP has grown from 27 ACO’s in 2012 to 561 in 2016, and most of them continue to select the upside-only Track 1, the release continued, which does not require participants to repay CMS for spending above their target.

As seen in the figure below, Avalere’s research found that the actual ACO net savings have fallen short of initial CBO projectios by more than $2 billion.

However, in 2010, the CBO projected that the MSSP would produce $1.7 billion in net savings from 2013 to 2016. Yet, it actually increased federal spending by $384 million over that same period, a difference of more than $2 billion.

Josh Seidman, senior vice president at Avalere said, “The Medicare ACO program has not achieved the savings that CBO predicted because most ACO’s have chosen the bonus-only model.”

Avalere also found that while the MSSP was overall a net cost to VMS in 2016, there is evidence that individual ACO performance improves as they gain years of experience. Avalere found that MSSP ACO’s in their fourth year produce net savings to the federal budget totaling $152 million, as shown in the next figure.

Avalere’s analysis also showed that the downside-risk models in the MSSP experienced more positive financial results overall. This indicates that there is potential for greater savings over time to CMS as the number of downside-risk ACO’s increase.

The upside-only model increased federal spending by $444 million compared to the downside-risk ACO’s $60 million over 5 years.

“While data do suggest that more experienced ACO’s and those accepting two-sided risk may help the program to turn the corner in the future, the long-term sustainability of savings in the MSSP is unclear. ACO’s continue to be measured against their past performance, which makes it harder for successful ACO’s to continue to achieve savings over time,” said Avalere’s director, John Feore.

The weird part is that despite the MSSP increasing federal spending, ACO’s are still reducing spending compared to projected benchmarks.

If you are increasing spending, then how can you at the same time be reducing spending? Isn’t this a health care oxymoron?

Which brings me back to my previous posts. CMS is a clusterfudge of programs, models, rules, regulations, and schemes that have done nothing to improve the health care system in the US. In point of fact, it has only added to the confusion, complexity, dysfunction, and wastefulness of a system no other nation has.

When are we going to wake up from this nightmare and deep six the market-driven disaster that is the American health care system? There are saner alternatives, but we are so mentally ill and obsessed with profiting from people’s illnesses that nothing changes.

Einstein was right. The definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We are crazy to continue with this mess.

Illogical!

Picking up where I left off last week with my post, Regulation Strangulation, regarding too much regulation, a series of articles from earlier this week, published in various health care journals and magazines, discussed a new scheme the good folks at CMS have cooked up to make our health care “system” better. (Or worse, depending on whether you have drunk the kool-aid yet)

You may recall my post from late last year, Models, Models, Have We Got Models!, that reported that CMS was launching three new policies to continue the push toward value-based care, rewarding hospitals that work with physicians and other providers to avoid complications, prevent readmissions and speed recovery.

In that article, I mentioned the various models CMS was implementing. My view then, as it remains today, is that these models have not worked, and have only made matters worse, not better.

So when CMS unveiled their latest scheme recently when Administrator Seema Verma spoke at the Health Care Payment Learning and Action Network (LAN) Fall Summit, this is what she said:

The LAN offers a unique and important opportunity for payors, providers, and other stakeholders to work with CMS , in partnership, to develop innovative approaches to improving our health care system. Since 2015, the LAN has focused on working to shift away from a fee-for-service system that rewards volume instead of quality…We all agree that quality measures are a critical component of paying for value. But we also understand that there is a financial cost as well as an opportunity cost to reporting measures…That’s why we’re revising current quality measures across all programs to ensure that measure sets are streamlined, outcomes-based, and meaningful to doctors and patients…And, we’re announcing today our new comprehensive initiative, “Meaningful Measures.”

Let’s dissect her comments so we can understand just how complicated this so-called system has become.

  1. Develop innovative approaches? How’s that working for you?
  2. Improving our health care system? Really? What planet are you living on?
  3. Financial cost? Yeah, for those who can afford it.
  4. Revising current quality measures? Haven’t you done that already after all these years?
  5. “Meaningful Measures”. Now there’s a catchy phrase if I ever heard one. You mean they weren’t meaningful before?

You have to wonder what they are doing in Washington if this is the level of insanity and inanity coming out of the bureaucracy on top of our health care system.

In an article in Health Data Management, Jeff Smith, vice president of public policy for the American Medical Informatics Association stated the following regarding the new CMS initiative.

According to Smith, “the goals are laudable, but the talking points have been with us for several years’ now…measurement depends on agreed-upon definitions of quality, and in an electronic environment, it requires access to and use of computable data. If CMS is going to turn these talking points into reality, it will need to put forth far more resources and commit additional experts to a complete overhaul of electronic quality measures for value-based payments.”

Mr. Smith’s comments are at least an indication that not everyone goes along with CMS every time they unveil some new initiative, model, or program, but again we see the words associated with the consuming of health care being used in discussing the current state of affairs. Terms like “value-based payments”, and “quality measures”, and “financial/opportunity cost”, etc., only obscure the real problem with our health care system. It is a profit-driven system and not a patient-driven system.

Let’s push on.

A report mentioned Monday in Markets Insider showed that 29% of total US health care payments were tied to alternative payment models (APMs) in 2016, compared to 23% in 2015, an increase of six percentage points. These APMs were discussed previously in Models, Models, Have We Got Models!,

The report was issued by the LAN, and is the second year of the LAN APM Measurement Effort (try saying that three times fast). They captured actual health care spending in 2016 from four data sources, the LAN, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA), and CMS across all segments, and categorized them to four categories of the original LAN APM Framework. (Boy, you must be tired trying to remember all these acronyms and titles!)

Here are their results:

  • 43% of health care dollars in Category 1 (traditional FFS or other legacy payments)
  • 28 % of health care dollars in Category 2 (pay-for-performance or care coordination fees)
  • 29% of health care dollars in a composite of Categories 3 and 4 (shared savings, shared risk, bundled payments, or population-based)

Speaking of shared savings, an article in Modern Healthcare reported that CMS’ Medicare shared savings program paid out more in bonuses to ACO’s than the savings those participants generated.

As per the report, about 56% of the 432 Medicare ACOs generated a total of $652 million in savings in 2016. CMS paid $691 million in bonuses to ACOs, resulting in a loss of $39 million from the program.

Chief Research Officer at Leavitt Partners, David Muhlestein said, “Medicare isn’t saving money.”

This is attributed to the fact that 95% of the Medicare ACOs (410) participated in Track 1 of the Medicare Shared Savings Program. Only 22% participated in tracks 2 and 3.

Two more articles go on to discuss a Medicare bundled-pay initiative and the Medicare Merit-based Payment System (MIPS) .

What does this all mean?

It has been long apparent to this observer that the American health care system is a failure through and through. Sure, there are great strides being made daily in new technology and therapies. A member of my family just benefited from one such innovation in cardiac care. But luckily, they have insurance from Medicare and a secondary payor.

But many do not, and not many can afford the second level of insurance. From my studies and my writing, I have seen a system that is totally out of whack due to the commercialization and commodification of health care services.

And knowing a little of other Western nations’ health care systems, I find it hard to believe that they are like this as well. We must change this and change this now.

If Medicare is losing money now, with the limited pool of beneficiaries, perhaps a larger pool, with little or no over-regulation and so many initiatives, models, and programs, can do a better job. Because what has been tried before isn’t working, and is getting worse.

The logical thing to do is to make a clean break with the past. Medicare for All, or something like it.