Has CMS Just Tipped the Scales Towards Provider Alienation, in its ACO Final Rule?

Dec. 22, 2018
CMS’s release of its final rule on MSSP ACO participation has pushed the healthcare industry into a very fraught moment in the ongoing evolution of the ACO experiment

As Healthcare Informatics Associate Editor Heather Landi reported on Dec. 21, that morning, “The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) on Friday morning published a final rule that makes sweeping changes to the Medicare Shared Savings (MSSP) Accountable Care Organization (ACO) program, with the goal to push Medicare ACOs more quickly into two-sided risk models.”

Indeed, as Landi noted in her report, “Referred to as ‘Pathways to Success,’ the Trump Administration’s overhaul of Medicare’s ACO program will 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: the BASIC track, which would allow eligible ACOs to begin under a one-sided model and incrementally phase in higher levels of risk; and 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.”

And, Landi noted, “Currently, the MSSP model includes three tracks and is structured to allow ACOs to gain experience with the program before transitioning to performance-based risk. The vast majority of Shared Savings Program ACOs have chosen to enter and maximize the allowed time under Track 1, which is an ‘upside-only’ risk model. MSSP Tracks 2 and 3 involve downside risk, but participation in these tracks has been limited thus far.”

One of the biggest points of contention in recent months as centered on how aggressive a push on the part of CMS to compel providers forward into two-sided risk would be desirable, or even wise. Some in the industry tried to put a positive spin on the “low-income” element of the program, with that term referring to smaller physician groups choosing to participate in the MSSP. On Friday morning, in response to the final rule, Travis Broome, vice president of policy at Aledade, a Bethesda, Md.-based company focused on physician-led ACO development, tweeted, “One more change to Basic. Low-revenue ACOs will be able to stay in 1-sided risk for 3 years. Difference [between] 2 & 3 years is big. The decision to take risk is made summer before the year starts. So 2 years of 1-sided risk meant making the risk decision before year 1 results even came in.”

But in a statement from the National Association of ACOs (NAACOS), an association comprised of more than 360 ACOs, Clif Gaus, Sc.D., NAACOS’s president and CEO expressed concern that CMS retained the two-year limit for other ACOs. “Becoming a well-functioning ACO takes time and requires building of IT infrastructure, hiring care coordinators, changing the culture of providers, among other tasks. Under CMS’s proposed rule, many ACOs would have just a single year of performance data available to them before evaluating the required move to risk in their third year of the program,” Gaus stated.

Gaus did include a conciliatory note in his statement, saying that "We appreciate CMS' effort in the final rule to provide greater stability to the Medicare Shared Savings Program with five-year agreement periods and more flexibility through waivers for telehealth and skilled nursing facility stays. We look forward to working with CMS to ensure that the Medicare Shared Savings Program, which has a track record of saving taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars while demonstrably improving care for patients, continues to attract new participants and reap savings." NAACOS has been among the most vocal of healthcare professional associations this year, as CMS Administrator Seema Verma has intensified her call for providers to move forward quickly into more advanced forms of alternative payment models.

But, choosing not to sound any notes of conciliation on Friday, was the Chicago-based American Hospital Association, the largest U.S. hospital association, representing nearly 5,000 hospitals nationwide. A statement attributed to Tom Nickels, AHA vice president, on Dec. 21, said, “Today’s final rule will not be helpful in the move toward value-based care. None of the actions taken today will better empower ACOs to maximize their contribution to patient care and are not pathways for improving the value of the program for patients. We remain opposed to CMS drastically shortening the length of time in which ACOs can participate in an upside-only model. Hospitals and health systems have asked for a more gradual pathway because building a successful ACO that is able to take on financial risk requires significant investments in time, effort and finances.”

Further, the AHA statement said, “While CMS made some improvements to its shared savings rate policies from the proposed rule, they still are not sufficient to appropriately reward ACOs for improving quality and reducing costs. We are particularly concerned about the impact of these and other policies on high-revenue ACOs. We do appreciate that CMS took certain steps to expand participants’ ability to provide care to beneficiaries – for example, via telehealth and longer agreement periods.”

And, the AHA said, “As a whole, the policies in the rule will likely result in a significant decrease in program participation. That would be unfortunate, as we seek to transform care to better serve our patients and communities.”

While the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) finalized some improvements to the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP), the Premier healthcare alliance is extremely concerned that these are overshadowed by unrealistic expectations of the speed at which providers can transition to risk-based tracks, the un-level playing field created for hospital-led vs. physician-led ACOs and the imbalance of risk vs. reward.

Meanwhile, leaders at the Charlotte-based Premier Inc. were equally critical. In a statement released on Friday, Blair Childs, Premier’s senior vice president of public affairs said that while “Premier appreciates that CMS finalized the extension of waivers and the longer agreement period and heard our concerns about the reduction in shared savings,” “We are extremely disappointed, however, that CMS has moved forward in creating an unlevel playing field that disadvantages high-revenue ACOs—primarily hospital-led ACOs. Premier and other stakeholders, including MedPAC, oppose this policy,” the statement read. “Hospital-led ACOs in Premier’s Population Health Management Collaborative performed twice as well as all the other ACOs nationally. CMS should be taking steps to enhance, not limit, the inclusion of all innovative providers that are seeking to move to value-based care. For an Administration that has been outspoken in advocating for market solutions and level playing fields among competitors, it’s an enormous mistake to finalize a policy that pits providers against each other rather than focusing on collaboration, as the model intends.”

So, where does this leave the industry? Quite possibly, at an important inflection point, now that what was a proposed rule is now a final rule. One could argue this situation from a number of standpoints, but the bottom line is simple: in her desire to push providers forward quickly and decisively into two-sided risk—and even with the carrot-like incentives for smaller physician groups that have been added—Administrator Verma is now strongly risking a massive wave of defections from the MSSP.

As NAACOS’ Gaus noted in his statement, “Under CMS's proposed rule, many ACOs would have just a single year of performance data available to them before evaluating the required move to risk in their third year of the program.” Perhaps similarly importantly, he noted, "Although we are pleased that CMS finalized a new, limited exception to its high-low policy, we remain concerned that the high-low revenue ACO distinction could deter providers who want to embark on the path of value-based care and could unintentionally harm physician-led ACOs. We urged CMS in the rulemaking process to provide an equal playing field for all ACOs and will continue to advocate for changes to this policy. A NAACOS analysis of how ACOs would be classified under CMS's proposed definitions found almost 20 percent of physician-led ACOs would be considered high revenue ACOs. Furthermore, federally qualified health centers and rural health clinics would also have a fair proportion of high revenue ACOs.”

So, here we come to a very tricky set of issues. First, the entire point of adding in the “low-income ACO” distinction was to encourage more physician groups to join the MSSP; and that would be very important for the survival and thriving of the program, since the participation of hospital-based organizations has been slow to date, and one key way to encourage participation by all types of patient care organizations would be to be able to boast about rapidly increasing participation. But if, as Gaus has noted, NAACOS’ analysis finds that nearly 20 percent of physician-led ACOs would actually end up being “high-revenue ACOs,” that could indeed complicate CMS’s attempts to quickly gain new participants.

Further, the short period of time between initial participation and having to decide whether to stay in the voluntary program and take on mandated two-sided risk, poses one of the most serious barriers to increased participation; and therein lies the real rub for CMS, because if this final rule ends up causing mass defections in the next two years, the agency’s signature and largest federal ACO program could begin to fall apart, precisely at the time that Administrator Verma, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, and all their fellow senior federal healthcare policy officials, would be hoping to accelerate the shift from volume to value in U.S. healthcare, and prove that the broad ACO experiment is working.

On the other hand, it’s also true that if CMS allows the forward evolution of the MSSP program to progress too slowly, that could cause members of Congress and their staffs to determine that voluntary programs simply aren’t cutting it, and move towards massive Medicare cuts instead, in an attempt to get better control of overall U.S. healthcare inflation, at a time when all discretionary spending in the federal budget is increasingly becoming politically fraught.

For the time being, there is no simple answer to any of this. It’s as though the levers of power and influence must be used in an exquisitely calibrated way. There seems to be no “Goldilocks pace” of change here that will both maximize new participation, and ongoing participation, in the MSSP program, on the part of wary providers, and yet also fulfill all the demands and desires of senior federal healthcare policy officials. Only time will tell, but this moment feels more fraught than ever, in the ongoing evolution of the ACO experiment. There’s no doubt that 2019 could be a determinative year for MSSP.

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