When It Comes to The Big Debate on ACOs, What Is “Big Enough” Savings?

Dec. 12, 2018
The back-and-forth interaction between CMS Administrator Seema Verma and the ACO community is unfolding in a fascinating, if unpredictable way, at a key inflection point in the evolution of the MSSP program

Intense debates on every subject are constantly swirling in the healthcare policy sphere; that has always been the case. But one debate that is both impactful and being closely watched is the intensifying argument between the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, particularly CMS Administrator Seema Verma, and some leader organizations in the accountable care organization (ACO) area.

At its base, the proposal on the part of CMS, as outlined in a proposed rule published in August, to push more ACOs into two-sided risk, is being pushed back against by many ACO leaders, particularly by their nationwide association, NAACOS (the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of ACOs). As Managing Editor Rajiv Leventhal noted in his report Dec. 5, CMS’s “core aim” is “to push these organizations into two-sided risk models—so that Medicare isn’t on the hook when ACOs overspend past their financial benchmarks—suggested to redesign the program’s participation options by removing the traditional three tracks in the MSSP model and replacing them with two tracks that eligible ACOs would enter into for an agreement period of no less than five years.”

As Leventhal noted, “One option, per CMS’ proposal, would be the BASIC track, which would allow eligible ACOs to begin under a one-sided model and incrementally phase-in higher levels of risk. The second option would be the ENHANCED track, which is based on the program’s existing Track 3, providing additional tools and flexibility for ACOs that take on the highest level of risk and potential rewards. At the highest level, BASIC ACOs would qualify as an Advanced Alternative Payment Model (APM) under the Quality Payment Program. But where CMS, in its proposals, truly clamped down was through two core recommendations that stakeholders took issue with: shortening the glide path for new ACOs to assume financial risk, reducing time in a one-sided risk model from the current six years to two years; and cutting potential shared savings in half, from 50 percent to 25 percent for one-sided risk ACOs. These proposals, if finalized, will certainly deter new entrants to the MSSP ACO program. So far, the proposed rule has been met with varying degrees of scrutiny.”

Clifton Gaus, Sc.D., NAACOS’s president and CEO, recently gave Leventhal an interview, and in that interview, he confirmed his association’s stance that the reduction of shared savings and the shortened time allowed in one-sided models are two of the biggest problems the group has with the proposal. Indeed, Gaus said in that interview that the reduction in potential shared savings “would be very devastating to the growth of new ACOs.”

In fact, Gaus said, in polling their members, NAACOS’s leaders asked them whether they would in theory join a federal ACO program knowing that, at least at first, they would be limited to 25 percent of shared savings at most; and, in fact, “the near universal response was no, they wouldn’t have joined the program,” Gaus said, adding that “The potential of 25 percent savings just isn’t enough to offset our investment costs of starting and operating the ACOs,” noting that ACOs have to obviously put up money to get going, and sometimes it’s very hard for medical group practice-dominant ACOs to buy IT systems, not to mention the whole clinical transformational aspect of ACOs where they are typically hiring nurse coordinators, and in some cases opening 24/7 call centers. “There is a real start-up and operational cost that’s involved, and [getting] 25 percent of the shared savings doesn’t return enough income to offset those,” he said.

Meanwhile, this morning, NAACOS issued a new press release focused on the value that the MSSP program has created for CMS. “In the latest data proving the financial benefits of accountable care organizations (ACOs), Medicare’s largest value-based care initiative – the Medicare Shared Savings Program – saved $859 million in 2016, an independent analysis published today shows,” the press release began. “Since 2013, the first full year of the program, ACOs have saved Medicare $2.66 billion, well above the $1.6 billion calculated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).” What’s more, the press release reported, “After accounting for bonuses paid to ACOs for hitting spending and quality targets, the program, which accounts for 561 ACOs and 10.5 million patients nationwide, netted more than $660 million to the Medicare Trust Fund between 2013 and 2016, contrasting the net loss of $384 million CMS estimates.”

And the press release quoted NAACOS’s Gaus as stating that “These results are the latest data point in a growing body of evidence unequivocally proving ACOs’ value. ACOs are saving American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when it’s most needed.” Indeed,  he added, “Given the natural lag time in collecting and analyzing data and the well-established trend that ACOs need a few years to start demonstrating results, we are only seeing the beginning of the nation’s return on investment in accountable care. This data doesn’t even mention the quality benefits ACOs have generated, which have also been substantial.”

Further, the press release noted, “A sizable amount of recent data show ACOs are saving money: 472 Shared Savings ACOs generated gross savings of $1.1 billion and netted $314 million in savings to the Medicare Trust Fund last year; CMS’s August 17 proposed rule estimates the overall impact of ACOs, including ‘spillover effects’ on Medicare spending outside of the ACO program, lowered spending by $1.8–$4.2 billion in 2016 alone.”

So now we reach the rubber-meets-the-road place. Here’s the fundamental question: Do Seema Verma and her fellow CMS and HHS (Health and Human Services) senior officials truly understand the complexities involved in what they’re asking of provider leaders? Verma and her fellow federal healthcare officials are facing a kind of Scylla and Charybdis situation right now. On the one hand, as everyone knows, the Medicare actuaries have predicted that total U.S. healthcare spending will explode from $3.1 trillion annually (in 2014) to $5.4 trillion annually (by 2024), in the next several years, amounting to a 70-percent increase in less than a decade, and bringing the percentage of GDP spent on healthcare in this country from 17.4 percent in 2013 to 19.6 percent in 2024.

On the other hand, as Clifton Gaus and the NAACOS folks have pointed out, based on surveying their membership, patient care leaders are going to recoil at the over-intensification of change mandates coming out of CMS. That feeling is quite widespread. As one ACO CEO told me just two weeks ago, Seema Verma is deluded if she thinks that ramping up the downside-risk requirements in the Medicare Shared Savings Program is going to inspire more patient care leaders to join the MSSP program or renew their participation in it. And, as this morning’s press release notes, ACO community leaders are documenting real progress in capturing savings.

The million-dollar (or maybe, $1.1 trillion-dollar?) question is, is the broad level of savings that ACOs are netting for CMS, progress enough? Indeed, what is “enough”? And what is “fast enough”? Because Administrator Verma and her fellow senior federal healthcare officials seriously risk cratering the MSSP program, the core federal ACO program, if they push too hard on the downside-risk issue. On the other hand, if they don’t push hard enough, the progress made so far could simply be dwarfed, in the broader scheme of things, by the current acceleration of overall U.S. healthcare spending inflation.

So right now really does feel like an inflection point—but one without an obvious resolution. Only time—and the interactions of federal healthcare officials and providers—will tell.

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