Affordable Health Insurance Requires Lower Cost Health Care. The goal of the Affordable Care Act was not just to make health insurance available, but to make it affordable. The ability to buy health insurance means little if the combination of premiums, deductibles, and cost-sharing makes the insurance unaffordable. But health insurance will not be affordable unless health care can be delivered at a much lower cost than it is today.
The Cost of Health Care Can be Significantly Reduced Without Rationing. The good news is that the cost of healthcare can be reduced significantly without denying patients the care they need. Many patients develop health problems that could have been prevented, receive tests and procedures that are not needed, are hospitalized because their health problems were not effectively managed, or experience complications and infections that could have been avoided. Other patients could receive different types of treatment than they do today that would be equally effective but cost less. The Institute of Medicine’s 2011 study The Healthcare Imperative: Lowering Costs and Improving Outcomes found that 30% of healthcare spending could be eliminated without harming patients. If these unnecessary and avoidable health problems, services, and costs were eliminated, hundreds of billions of dollars would be saved, health insurance premiums could be reduced, and the quality of life for the patients would improve.
Current Payment Systems Prevent Healthcare Providers From Delivering Lower Cost Care. Most of these unnecessary costs persist because of problems with the way health insurance plans pay physicians, hospitals, and other healthcare providers. The two most important barriers are:
Alternative Payment Models (APMs) Are Needed to Solve These Problems. Most of the so-called “value-based payment” programs used by CMS and commercial payers make small changes in current FFS payment rates based on measures of quality or total spending, but they do not remove the barriers in the payment system described above. The problem to be solved is not a lack of “incentives” for physicians or hospitals to deliver care in a different way, but the failure of the current payment system to provide the flexibility providers need to deliver care in a more efficient but financially sustainable way. A good Alternative Payment Model (APM) has two key elements:
In some cases, a small change in the current payment system, such as payment for a specific type of service in addition to existing FFS payments, may be all that is needed to support better outcomes and lower overall costs. In other cases, a more significant change may be needed, such as restructuring payments for many different services delivered by multiple providers.
(For more details on how to design alternative payment models and physician-focused payment models that actually remove the barriers to higher-value care, see A Guide to Physician-Focused Payment Models and The Building Blocks of Successful Payment Reform, which are available at www.CHQPR.org .)
Physicians That Have Participated in Well-Designed APMs Have Shown They Can Significantly Reduce Costs. For example:
Medicare and Most Health Plans Do Not Use Physician-Focused Alternative Payment Models to Pay Physicians. Although the Affordable Care Act created the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation in 2010 in order to accelerate the development and implementation of innovative payment and delivery models, relatively little progress has been made in implementing the kinds of payment models that would enable every physician to do what Drs. Calvin, Haig, McAneny, Wiler, and Zabinski have done. As the American Medical Association has stated, “Years after CMS was authorized to implement ‘new patient care models’…Medicare still does not enable the majority of physicians to pursue …opportunities to improve care in ways that could also reduce costs. Today, despite all of the demonstration projects and other initiatives that Medicare has implemented, most physicians – in primary care and other specialties – still do not have access to Medicare payment models that provide the resources and flexibility they need to improve care for their Medicare patients. Consequently, most Medicare patients still are not benefiting from regular access to a full range of care coordination services, coordinated treatment planning by primary care and specialist physicians, support for patient self-management of their chronic conditions, proactive outreach to ensure that high-risk patients get preventive care, or patient decision-support tools. As a result, the Medicare program is paying for hospitalizations and duplicative services that could have been avoided had physicians been able to deliver these high-value services.”
The same is true of most Medicaid programs and commercial health plans. Premiums for health insurance policies will continue to increase if the insurance companies who offer them continue to pay for treating problems but not for preventing them.
Accountable Care Organizations Don’t Solve the Problems with Current Payment Systems. Despite three years of effort, the CMS ACO program has increased Medicare spending rather than reducing it, and the losses increased in 2015. The reason the program isn’t working is very simple – there is no change in the way the individual physicians or hospitals in an ACO are paid. They continue to receive the same payments in the same way they would if they were not in the ACO, but they get a bonus a year later if they have spent less than other physicians and hospitals do. This program, and similar programs used by commercial health plans, provides no upfront resources to enable physician practices to improve the way they deliver care, and it encourages providers to deny or delay care to patients in order to get short-term financial bonuses.
Bundled Payment Initiatives Focus on the Wrong Thing. Although CMS and some commercial health plans have implemented bundled payment programs in addition to ACOs, almost all of them require the patient to be hospitalized in order to “trigger” the bundled payment. But the biggest savings opportunities come from helping patients avoid hospitalizations, not from reducing costs after the patient is already in the hospital. Neither CMS nor commercial health plans have implemented “condition-based payments” that enable physicians to better manage patients’ health conditions so they can avoid unnecessary hospitalizations and surgeries.
Alternative Payment Models are Needed for Hospitals as Well as Physicians. The largest component of total healthcare spending is hospital care, and most of the opportunities to reduce spending without rationing are based on reducing avoidable hospitalizations, reducing unnecessary hospital procedures, and delivering procedures outside of hospitals. However, significant losses of revenues could jeopardize the ability of hospitals, particularly small hospitals in rural areas, to maintain essential services in their communities, such as the emergency room, the cardiac catheterization lab, trauma care, etc. Rather than simply paying hospitals higher prices for every service they offer, alternative payment models are needed that provide adequate funding to hospitals to cover the costs of these essential services without tying their payments and operating margins to the volume of services they deliver. Value-based healthcare payment and delivery initiatives will not succeed if they do not provide better ways of sustaining community hospitals.
Alternative Payment Models Are Needed for All Patients, Not Just “High-Cost” Patients. In any given year, a relatively small proportion of patients accounts for a large proportion of healthcare spending. This has led many payers to focus alternative payment models only on these “high cost” patients. However, the savings they claim to achieve is illusory, because regardless of what is done, the majority of those patients won’t have high costs the following year, and a new set of high-cost patients will take their place. In many cases, spending on the patients is higher than other patients in a given year simply because they had a temporary health problem or need that year, e.g., the patient needed a hip replacement, developed cancer, or was delivering a baby. In other cases, spending was high because the patient wasn’t treated effectively in the past, e.g., their cancer wasn’t identified early, or their diabetes wasn’t treated properly. Although high cost services like joint replacement and cancer care can be delivered at lower cost than today, the biggest opportunity to reduce spending occurs before the patient becomes sick enough to require expensive treatment. This requires paying physicians in ways that enable them to more effectively manage chronic conditions and deliver preventive care than current payment systems allow.
CMS and Private Health Plans Need to Move More Rapidly to Create True Alternative Payment Models for All Types of Physicians, Hospitals, and Patients. Although Congress created a mechanism for developing alternative payment models – the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) – CMMI has used a far more complex and resource-intensive process to implement alternative payment models than is required or necessary. Under most of the payment demonstrations that it has implemented to date, 18 months or more have elapsed from the time an initiative is first announced to the time when providers actually begin to receive different payments. This process is expensive for CMMI to administer, it dramatically reduces the number of alternative payment models that can be implemented, and it is also extremely burdensome for providers who are interested in participating in the initiatives that CMMI does attempt to implement. Many physicians and hospitals have decided not to apply to participate in otherwise desirable payment reforms, and others have dropped out of the programs in the early phases, because of the cost and time burden of participating and/or the problematic requirements that are imposed.
As slow as this process has been, CMS has made far more progress in implementing alternative payment models than the private sector. The “value-based payments” most commercial health plans are using are small pay-for-performance programs and shared savings models that have not and will not result in any significant changes in the cost or quality of healthcare services. Only a few commercial health plans, such as Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, Priority Health, and the Health Care Services Corporation, have implemented truly innovative payment models in areas such as gastroenterology, maternity care, oncology, and orthopedics.
This is clearly not what Congress intended either in the Affordable Care Act or in MACRA. A more aggressive timetable and a complete re-engineering of the processes CMS and commercial health plans use to implement alternative payment models is needed. This re-engineering process should start with the goal that is implicit in MACRA: every physician should have the opportunity to receive at least 25% of their Medicare revenues from physician-focused alternative payment models (not ACOs) in 2019, 50% of their total revenues from APMs in 2021, and 75% in 2023. CMS and commercial health plans should work collaboratively with physician groups and hospitals to design and rapidly implement the full range of true alternative payment models needed to reach those goals. Only then will the country achieve the kinds of savings needed to make health insurance not just available, but truly affordable.
(A pdf version of this post can be downloaded here.)
Significant changes in the MACRA regulations proposed by CMS are necessary for encouraging the development and implementation of Alternative Payment Models, but regulatory changes alone are not sufficient. The processes that CMS currently uses to implement APMs are far too slow and burdensome to achieve Congress’s goal of enabling as many physicians as possible to participate in APMs. CMS must create better, faster ways to implement Alternative Payment Models that meet the requirements of the law and regulations.
Although the Affordable Care Act created the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation in 2010 in order to accelerate the development and implementation of innovative payment and delivery models, relatively little progress has been made in improving the ways most physicians and other providers are paid for their services. As the American Medical Association has stated, “Five years after CMS was authorized to implement ‘new patient care models’…Medicare still does not enable the majority of physicians to pursue …opportunities to improve care in ways that could also reduce costs. Today, despite all of the demonstration projects and other initiatives that Medicare has implemented, most physicians – in primary care and other specialties – still do not have access to Medicare payment models that provide the resources and flexibility they need to improve care for their Medicare patients. Consequently, most Medicare patients still are not benefiting from regular access to a full range of care coordination services, coordinated treatment planning by primary care and specialist physicians, support for patient self-management of their chronic conditions, proactive outreach to ensure that high-risk patients get preventive care, or patient decision-support tools. As a result, the Medicare program is paying for hospitalizations and duplicative services that could have been avoided had physicians been able to deliver these high-value services.”
One key reason for this slow progress is that the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) has created a far more complex and resource-intensive process than is required or necessary to implement alternative payment models. Under most of the payment demonstrations that it has implemented to date, 18 months or more have elapsed from the time an initiative is first announced to the time when providers actually begin to receive different payments. Moreover, many proposals for alternative payment models have been submitted to CMMI that have not been implemented. This is not because the staff at CMMI are slow or incompetent, but because of the complex, expensive, and time-intensive process they have created for designing the initiative, selecting participants, managing the payments, and evaluating the results as part of any payment model they test.
This process is extremely burdensome and expensive for CMMI to administer, it dramatically reduces the number of alternative payment models that can be tested, and it is also extremely burdensome for providers who are interested in participating in the initiatives that CMMI does attempt to implement. Many providers have decided not to even apply to participate in otherwise desirable CMMI programs and others have dropped out of the programs in the early phases solely or partly because of the cost and time burden of participating.
This burdensome process is not required by either the Affordable Care Act or MACRA. If HHS were to attempt to implement every new alternative payment model using the approaches that are currently being used by CMMI, it would take many years before even a fraction of the physicians in the country would have the ability to meet the APM requirements under MACRA. This would mean relatively few Medicare beneficiaries could benefit from the higher quality care that would be possible under APMs and the Medicare program would not achieve the savings that APMs could generate. This is clearly not what Congress intended either in the Affordable Care Act or in MACRA.
A complete re-engineering of the processes HHS uses to implement alternative payment models is needed. This re-engineering process should start with the goal that is implicit in MACRA – every physician should have the opportunity to receive at least 25% of their Medicare revenues from alternative payment models in 2019, 50% of their revenues in 2021, and 75% in 2023. HHS should then work backward from those dates and design processes and timetables for implementing APMs in every medical specialty that will achieve that goal.
Just as many physicians, hospitals, and other healthcare providers are now re-engineering their care delivery processes to eliminate steps that do not add significant value, HHS should use Lean design techniques and other approaches to identify and eliminate all steps and requirements in its implementation processes that do not add value or that impede achieving the goals that Congress has set. Moreover, since MACRA allows alternative payment models to be implemented using statutory authorizations other than Section 1115A (the enabling legislation for CMMI), HHS should use all of the options available under MACRA in order to implement desirable alternative payment models in the most efficient way possible.
In order for a physician to be participating in an APM during 2019, the processes for approving and implementing the APM and for approving the physician’s participation in the APM will have to be completed no later than the end of 2018. However, in order for physicians to succeed under APMs, they will need to have sufficient lead time to form or join an alternative payment entity and to redesign the processes by which they deliver care with the flexibility provided by the APM, and so both the structure of the APM and the approval for a physician’s participation will need to be completed long before the end of 2018. Some physician groups and medical specialty societies have already developed physician-focused alternative payment models that should be able to meet the criteria under MACRA; these could and should be implemented by CMS as soon as 2017.
To ensure that the MACRA goals are achieved, HHS should establish specific milestones that are designed to implement as many alternative payment models as possible and as quickly as possible. For example, the following timetable would allow payments under an alternative payment model to begin flowing to a physician within one year after the model is recommended by the PTAC:
A second key reason why only a small number of physicians are participating in alternative payment models under Medicare is the problematic structure of the current models that CMS and CMMI have been using. Most of the payment models that are currently being implemented or tested by CMS use a very similar approach – no changes in the current fee for service structure, holding individual physicians accountable for the costs of all services their patients receive from all providers, adjusting payment amounts based on shared savings calculations for attributed patients, etc. – and these approaches not only fail to solve the problems in the current payment systems, they can actually make them worse.
The components used in most CMS payment models are very problematic for physicians and therefore they are likely problematic for their patients as well. Although CMS may view some of these payment models as “physician-focused” because they are targeted at individual physicians or physician practices, the goal should be to create physician-focused payment models that are successful in improving care and improving costs in ways that are feasible for physician practices, particularly small practices, to implement. To date, the alternative payment models implemented by CMS have not been successful in reducing costs because they do not provide the kinds of support that physicians need to redesign care. New physician-focused payment models should not be required to use the same flawed approaches that are being used in current CMS payment demonstrations.
At a minimum, HHS should create the administrative capabilities to implement seven different types of physician-focused APMs that can be used to address the most common types of opportunities and barriers that exist across all physician specialties. These are:
More detail on each of these physician-focused Alternative Payment Models and examples of how they could be used to improve care for a wide range of patient conditions is available in a report developed by CHQPR and the American Medical Association entitled A Guide to Physician-Focused Alternative Payment Models (available at www.CHQPR.org).
HHS should begin immediately to implement the administrative systems needed to support all of these types of payment models. This would not only ensure that the APMs can be implemented by 2019, but it would encourage physician groups and medical specialty societies to design payment models in a common framework, which will reduce implementation costs for HHS.
Re-engineering the processes for implementing alternative payment models as discussed above should dramatically increase the capacity of HHS to implement more payment models more quickly than it can today. However, if there are insufficient staff or resources at HHS/CMS/CMMI to support implementation of a sufficient number of new alternative payment models to enable all physicians to participate, additional resources should be provided to achieve the necessary “bandwidth.” Failing to allocate sufficient resources to implement alternative payment models that will save money for the Medicare program would be “penny wise and pound foolish.”
It would obviously be a tremendous waste of time and energy for physician groups, medical specialty societies, and others to develop alternative payment models that meet the requirements of the regulations if they will not be implemented by CMS. Consequently, it will be essential that CMS create the necessary systems and processes so that it can implement alternative payment models that meet the statutory and regulatory requirements. MACRA and the implementing regulations significantly increase the accountability that physicians will need to accept in return for payment. CMS needs to make comparable commitments to greater accountability for improving its own efficiency and effectiveness in designing and implementing new payment models.
(The points above as well as additional comments on the proposed MACRA regulations are included in the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform’s formal comment letter to CMS on the proposed MACRA regulations, which can be downloaded here.)
Thousands of comments were filed last week on the proposed regulations to implement the provisions of the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) related to the Merit-Based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) and Alternative Payment Models (APMs). One of the most important decisions CMS will need to make in finalizing the regulations is how to revise the proposed criteria for APMs.
In MACRA, Congress clearly intended to encourage the development and implementation of Alternative Payment Models. It created significant incentives for physicians who participate in APMs at a minimum level, including:
These incentives are in addition to the benefits of participating in the APM itself.
Congress also clearly intended to encourage the development and implementation of APMs by establishing a very small number of very basic requirements for the APMs that would qualify for these incentives:
Unfortunately, in the proposed regulations, CMS went far beyond what Congress proposed, labeling the APMs to which the incentives would apply as “advanced” APMs and defining the Congressional criteria in very burdensome and restrictive ways. If the proposed regulations were implemented, they would serve as a serious barrier to progress in designing, implementing, and encouraging physician participation in Alternative Payment Models, which is completely counter to what Congress intended.
Congress did not use the term “advanced” to describe alternative payment models, nor did it in any fashion indicate that physicians should only be rewarded for participating in a narrowly defined subset of “advanced” Alternative Payment Models. The final regulations need to be significantly revised so they do what was envisioned by Congress – accelerate the implementation of successful Alternative Payment Models.
MACRA requires that in order for a physician to be exempt from MIPS and to qualify for the bonus payments and higher updates authorized by Congress, the alternative payment entity (i.e., the organizational entity that is actually receiving payments under the alternative payment model) must bear “financial risk for monetary losses under … [an] … alternative payment model that are in excess of a nominal amount.” The term “financial risk for monetary losses” in MACRA clearly refers to losses in the operations of the alternative payment entity, not to losses or increased spending in the Medicare program. However, in the proposed regulations, CMS defined risk for all but small primary care practices in terms of Medicare spending.
It is inappropriate to measure the amount of risk accepted by a physician practice or other provider in terms of the percentage change in total Medicare spending on the practice’s patients because (a) even a small percentage of Medicare spending can exceed the total revenues of a physician practice, and (b) the ratio of Medicare spending to physician practice revenues varies dramatically from specialty to specialty.
Under the proposed regulations, for most types of physician practices and APMs, CMS would require that an alternative payment entity be at risk for at least 4% of total Medicare spending in order for the participating physicians to qualify for the Congressional incentives. Since payments to physicians currently represent about 19% of total Medicare Part A and Part B spending, requiring them to pay CMS for up to 4% of Medicare spending would represent, on average, a payment of more than 20% of the physician practice’s revenue. Causing a physician practice to lose 20% of its revenue is clearly far “more than nominal” risk – it is significant financial risk.
Although payments to physician represent 19% of Medicare spending on average, for many physician practices, their revenues represent a much smaller percentage of total Medicare spending on their patients. In many cases, a physician practice’s revenues may represent less than 5% of total Medicare spending on their patients. For these practices, a 4% change in Medicare spending could represent 100% or more of the practice’s revenues. A physician practice could be forced out of business if it is held responsible for paying for even a very small percentage change in the total Medicare spending for the practice’s patients. Moreover, the fact that 4% of Medicare spending represents a higher amount relative to physician practice revenues for different specialties would mean that physicians in different specialties would face different levels of risk to participate in APMs, and there is no indication that Congress intended that.
It seems quite clear that in using the term “more than nominal financial risk,” Congress did not mean “significant” financial risk or it would have used that term in the law. In is inappropriate for CMS to issue regulations that are so clearly at odds with Congressional intent.
However, CMS has defined the solution to this problem in the proposed regulations. The proposed regulations created a separate definition of risk for small primary care practices participating in medical home programs that is based on a percentage of their revenues, not a percentage of Medicare spending. There is no reason to limit this approach just to small primary care practices or medical home programs. All physician practices should have their risk defined in terms of the amount of their revenues they could lose, rather than the percentage of Medicare spending they would be required to pay.
Basing risk on a practice’s revenues only solves part of the problem with the regulations, however. The financial risk incurred by an alternative payment entity is a function of the costs that the alternative payment entity incurs to implement the alternative payment model as well as the revenues it receives under the model. If the alternative payment entity hires or pays for new staff to deliver services to patients under the alternative payment model, if it acquires new or different equipment to deliver services, or if it incurs other kinds of expenses to implement the alternative payment model, and if those expenses are not automatically or directly reimbursed by Medicare, then the alternative payment entity is accepting financial risk for monetary losses.
One of the reasons for creating APMs is that Medicare does not currently pay physicians for many services that would benefit patients and help reduce avoidable spending. For example, there is generally no payment or inadequate payment for:
If an alternative payment entity implemented these kinds of services under an alternative payment model in order to help improve outcomes for its patients and reduce Medicare spending, it could easily incur monetary losses even Medicare has achieved savings. For example, even under an “upside only” shared savings model, a physician practice or other provider incurs financial risk if it incurs costs to deliver services to beneficiaries that are designed to reduce Medicare spending, since the provider could fail to qualify for the shared savings payment it needs to pay for those costs even when Medicare spending has been reduced.
Consequently, financial risk cannot be defined simply in terms of the potential reduction in revenues the alternative payment entity could receive from Medicare. An alternative payment entity’s “financial risk for monetary losses” under an alternative payment model should be defined as the potential difference between the amount of costs the entity incurs or is obligated to pay as part of the alternative payment model and the amount of revenues that it could receive under the APM. The greater the costs it incurs or the lower the revenue it could potentially receive, the greater the financial risk it will face under the APM.
Although many people seem to think that “financial risk” is only associated with alternative payment models, there is financial risk involved in any payment system other than one which reimburses physicians or other providers for their actual costs. Today, physician practices incur financial risk for monetary losses under the fee-for-service payment system because the costs they incur for office space, equipment, and staff are not directly reimbursed by Medicare, and if the practice does not deliver enough services to generate fee-for-service payment revenues in excess of those costs, it could be forced to declare bankruptcy. The measure of a good alternative payment model should not be how much it increases financial risk for physician practices and other providers, but rather how effectively it realigns their financial risk so that financial losses result from delivering lower quality care rather than from delivering fewer services.
In MACRA, Congress has placed all physicians’ payments “at risk” under the Merit-Based Incentive Payment System (MIPS). In the initial year of the program (2019), physician payments could be reduced by 4%, and the maximum reduction increases to 9% in 2022. These amounts are presumably “more than nominal” if Congress expected them to influence physician performance on the measures defined in MIPS, which includes resource measures.
Consequently, “more than nominal” risk for APMs could be defined using the maximum reduction amounts that are used in MIPS. In 2019, since a physician’s payments could be reduced by 4% under MIPS even with no change in the physician’s costs, an alternative payment entity should be viewed as being at “more than nominal financial risk” if the amount of costs that it incurs under an alternative payment model could exceed the amount of revenue it receives under the model by at least 4%.
In addition to requiring minimum levels of financial risk, MACRA requires that an APM “provide for payment for covered professional services based on quality measures.” It does not require that the amounts of payment be a “factor” in determining the amount of payment, as CMS has proposed in the regulations. This excessively narrow interpretation of the MACRA requirements in the proposed regulations led CMS to declare that one of its most widely used and potentially successful programs – the Bundled Payments for Care Improvement (BPCI) program – would not qualify as an APM under MACRA.
If a payment model is designed to achieve savings, the Affordable Care Act requires only that the payment model do so “without reducing the quality of care.” Consequently, an APM should be considered a qualified alternative payment model if it (1) measures quality and (2) requires a minimum standard of quality to be met in order for physicians to continue to participate in the APM. This would allow a much broader range of current and future APMs to qualify.
In addition to the provisions regarding financial risk and quality, MACRA requires that participants in an alternative payment model “use” certified EHR technology. After several years of HHS trying to define “meaningful use” of EHRs, there is widespread agreement that detailed requirements regarding how clinicians should use EHRs have increased costs and harmed quality rather than improving it. Since MACRA simply requires “use” of the EHR, regulations regarding use of EHRs in APMs should only require that clinical data about the patients receiving care as part of the alternative payment model be stored in a certified electronic health record system. It is impossible to prescribe how a physician or other provider should “use” the technology beyond this without potentially interfering with the provider’s flexibility to deliver services in the most effective way or imposing unnecessary costs and administrative burdens on the provider. A physician practice participating in the APM will have a strong incentive to use the EHR if the EHR has capabilities that will improve the practice’s success, regardless of any specific requirements imposed by HHS. Any specific requirements for “use” of EHRs that are imposed in regulations should be treated as a cost that increases the financial risk for a physician practice to participate in the APM if the cost is not explicitly supported by the APM itself.
The final regulations should not label APMs that meet the Congressional criteria as “advanced” APMs, they should define “more than nominal risk” based on a reasonable percentage of a practice’s costs and revenues, and they should establish more reasonable and flexible requirements for quality measures and EHR use. To do this, the final regulations could be revised to read as follows:
414.1415 Qualified APM criteria
(a) Use of certified electronic health record technology. The following constitutes use of CEHRT:
(2) Required use of certified EHR technology. To be a Qualified APM, an APM Entity must store clinical data in CEHRT regarding the care delivered to patients with financial support from the APM.
(b) Payment based on quality measures.
(1) To be a Qualified APM, an APM must ensure that the quality of care for patients receiving services under the APM is maintained or improved.
(c) Financial risk. To be a Qualified APM, an APM must either meet both the financial risk standard and nominal risk standard described in this section or be an expanded Medical Home Model as described in paragraph (c)(5) of this section.
(1) Financial risk standard. To be a Qualified APM, an APM must, based on whether an APM Entity’s actual expenditures for which the APM Entity is responsible under the APM exceed expected expenditures during a specified performance period, do one or more of the following:
(i) Withhold payment for services to the APM Entity or the APM Entity’s eligible clinicians;
(ii) Reduce payment rates to the APM Entity or the APM Entity’s eligible clinicians;
(iii) Require the APM Entity to owe payment(s) to CMS; or
(iv) Cause the APM Entity to lose the right to all or part of an otherwise guaranteed payment or payments.
(2) Nominal amount standard. To be a Qualified APM, either:
(i) the minimum total annual amount that an APM Entity must potentially owe or forego under the APM must be at least 4 percent of the APM Entity’s total Medicare Parts A and B revenue, or
(ii) the APM entity must document that (a) it is using its own resources to deliver new or expanded services to beneficiaries that are not directly paid for by Medicare and (b) the amount of those resources are equal to or greater than 4% of the APM Entity’s total Medicare Parts A and B revenues.
(3) Expected expenditures. For the purposes of this section, expected expenditures is defined as either:
(i) the payment to the APM entity, if the APM entity will be responsible for paying for all of the services to be delivered under the APM, or
(ii) the spending target established under the APM for the total spending on all of the services to which the APM applies.
(4) Capitation. A full capitation arrangement meets this Qualified APM criterion. For purposes of this subpart, a capitation arrangement means a payment arrangement in which a per capita or otherwise predetermined payment is made to an APM Entity for all items and services furnished to a population of beneficiaries, and no settlement is performed to reconcile or share losses incurred or savings earned by the APM Entity. Arrangements made between CMS and Medicare Advantage Organizations under the Medicare Advantage program (42 U.S.C. section 422) are not considered capitation arrangements for purposes of this paragraph (c)(4).
(5) Medical Home Model Expanded under section 1115A(c) of the Act. A Medical Home Model that has been expanded under section 1115A(c) of the Act meets the financial risk criterion under this section.
Additional recommendations for changes in the proposed MACRA regulations are included in the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform’s formal comment letter to CMS on the proposed MACRA regulations, which can be downloaded here.
These changes to the regulations are necessary but not sufficient to accelerate the development and implementation of APMs. CMS also needs to significantly change the current process it uses to implement APMs, which is far too slow and burdensome. Recommendations for this are included in CHQPR’s comment letter to CMS and will be described in a future message.
Cancer treatment is becoming less and less affordable every year. The primary reason for the rapid increase in cancer treatment costs is the increasingly high prices manufacturers charge for the drugs cancer patients need. However, instead of finding ways to reduce the high prices of drugs, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has proposed to cut the Medicare payments that enable oncology practices to buy and use the drugs cancer patients need.
CMS believes that the current method it uses to pay physicians to administer drugs in their offices creates a “financial incentive to prescribe high cost drugs over lower cost ones when comparable low cost drugs are available.” To address this, it proposed the “Part B Drug Payment Model” in March 2016. If it were implemented, this mandatory demonstration would cut Medicare payments to physicians for all of the drugs they administer (regardless of whether there are lower-cost drugs available) in order to “test” whether this would lead to a reduction in Medicare spending on drugs. Although the change is represented as being budget neutral for physician practices overall, data presented by CMS indicate that the change would actually cut payments to oncology practices by over $32 million.
Many individuals and organizations have expressed strong opposition to the proposal, while others have supported it. However, it is difficult to determine whether to support or oppose the proposal without understanding the complex way that Medicare pays for physician-administered drugs. As explained in detail below, once you understand how payment works today, it becomes clear that the most likely effect of the change proposed by CMS will be to make it more difficult for cancer patients to obtain the drugs they need. Moreover, it also becomes clear that more comprehensive reforms are needed to the way oncology practices are paid that would support improved care for patients and reduce truly avoidable spending.
Do Medicare Payments for Cancer Drugs Create Incentives to Use More Expensive Drugs?
Today, when a Medicare patient with cancer comes to an oncology practice for a chemotherapy infusion treatment, the drug the patient receives had to first be purchased by the practice from a drug wholesaler and then stored in the practice’s pharmacy until it was used to treat the patient. After the patient receives the drug, Medicare pays the practice a predetermined amount for the drug, and by law, that amount is calculated by taking the “Average Sales Price” for the drug (ASP) six months earlier and adding 6%. Currently, the actual payment is only ASP + 4.3% because of the across-the-board 2% cut in Medicare payments due to sequestration.
Many people have been led to believe that the 6% add-on is “profit” for the oncologist or the oncology practice. In reality, the 6% is used by the oncology practice to cover at least five types of costs that are not otherwise reimbursed by Medicare:
Many of the above costs are higher for more expensive cancer drugs, which is why it makes sense to base the payment at least in part on a percentage of the drug price. For example, if an oncology practice cannot use 10% of what is in a drug vial, the practice will not be reimbursed for 10% of what it paid for that drug, and a drug that was five times as expensive as another will cause the practice to lose five times as much. Practices need to spend more time trying to help patients obtain financial assistance in paying their cost-sharing on expensive drugs than on lower-cost drugs, and practices incur more bad debt for patients receiving expensive drugs than low-cost drugs.
Contrary to what CMS and others believe, covering all of these costs and covering the higher costs associated with more expensive drugs does not create an “incentive” for a practice to use an expensive drug. If anything, the percentage payment avoids creating a disincentive for the practice to use the expensive drug, so the oncologist can choose the drug that is best for the patient without worrying (as much) about whether the practice will lose money by using the drug.
No one knows what the “right” payment amount is to cover all of these costs. The current 6% statutory amount is not based on an analysis showing that amount would cover the costs physician practices in general or oncology practices in particular incur, and CMS has not presented any new analysis indicating that 6% is too much. In the Part B Drug Payment Model, CMS has proposed replacing the ASP+ 6% formula with a three part formula: ASP + 2.5% + a $16.80 flat payment per drug. (With the sequestration adjustment, the actual payment would only be ASP + 0.86% + $16.53.) However, CMS presented no analysis justifying that 2.5% would better match costs than 6%. It used that amount because it was used by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) in an analysis MedPAC did. MedPAC used the 2.5% amount in its analysis because it felt that this “should be sufficient to cover markups from wholesalers.” CMS indicates that this was based on “anecdotal evidence” that such markups are between 1% and 2%, but that MedPAC “was not aware of data that could verify this estimate.” CMS states in its regulation that it is “not aware of data that could verify this assessment.”
Rather than seeking to obtain better data to determine what the right percentage should be, CMS is proposing to just cut the amount from 6% to 2.5% and see what happens. The $16.80 flat payment was selected by CMS in order to offset the loss in revenue caused by the cut from 6% to 2.5%. However, the analysis presented by CMS only shows that adding a $16.80 flat payment would offset the cut from 6% to 2.5% on average in 2014; the analysis shows that some types of physician practices – particularly oncologists, rheumatologists, and ophthalmologists – would experience large cuts in revenue, while other physician practices, such as primary care physicians, orthopedic surgeons, and cardiologists, would experience large increases in revenue. No analysis is presented to suggest that these increases and cuts in revenue for different specialties would better match the costs the physicians in those specialties are incurring to deliver medications to their patients.
Some combination of a flat fee and a percentage markup would probably be a better match for a practice’s costs than a pure percentage-based markup, because a pure percentage markup under-reimburses pharmacy operations costs when lower-priced drugs are used (since there are fixed costs to operate the pharmacy that have to be covered regardless of the price of the drugs used), but a flat fee alone wouldn’t cover the higher costs the practice incurs when it uses more expensive drugs (because, as explained earlier, the practice’s costs are higher for higher-priced drugs). However, the specific combination of a flat fee and percentage that CMS is proposing would clearly not be a better match for an oncology practice’s costs than the current percentage payment, because CMS’s own calculations show the proposed formula would result in a more than $30 million cut in the payments that oncology practices currently use to cover the costs of operating their pharmacies and purchasing the drugs their patients need. Moreover, measuring whether the total payments are higher or lower than they are currently begs the question of whether the payment amounts were correct to begin with.
Available data indicate that commercial health plans pay a higher percentage markup on drugs than Medicare does, not a lower markup as CMS is proposing. Some of these higher percentage markups likely do exceed the costs cited earlier that are associated with purchasing, storing, and administering drugs to patients. However, data show that these higher payments do not represent “profits” to oncologists or to their practices; rather, these higher payments cover the costs of services that oncology practices deliver to their patients that are not paid for, or are inadequately paid for, by Medicare and the commercial health plans, such as the costs of patient education and counseling services, the time spent in coordinating care, etc. Data from the National Practice Benchmark for Oncology indicate that current fee-for-service payments from Medicare and other payers only cover 2/3 of the costs of the services that oncology practices provide to their patients. Many oncology practices are forced to rely on higher commercial payments for drugs to subsidize the other services they offer.
However, focusing only on the small percentage markup ignores the serious problems with the ASP portion of the formula, which represents 96% of Medicare’s spending on drugs and 96% of what the practice receives to cover the costs of acquiring drugs. Most people do not realize that Medicare does not reimburse a practice for its actual acquisition cost associated with an expensive chemotherapy drug. Rather, Medicare pays the practice based on the “average sales price” (ASP) of that drug two calendar quarters earlier. As everyone knows, the prices of most cancer drugs are increasing rapidly. This means that in most cases, the ASP payment from Medicare will be less than what the oncology practice will have to pay to purchase the drug, because the ASP amount was based on the price of the drug six months earlier, not the price when the practice actually bought the drug. There are also concerns that the formula calculating ASP incorporates discounts received by wholesalers that are not actually passed on to physician practices, which means that the ASP amount is less than the average amount that physician practices actually paid for a drug. Moreover, because larger practices often can obtain discounts that smaller practices cannot, smaller practices will generally have to pay more for a drug than larger practices, and that means they will pay more for a drug than what is calculated as the “average sales price.” Consequently, when Medicare bases payments on ASP, it is often paying less than a practice’s actual acquisition cost for drugs, particularly for small practices.
The result of this very complex system is that many oncology practices, particularly small practices, lose money on many of the chemotherapy drugs they purchase. Medicare’s 6% add-on payment (which has been only 4.3% under sequestration) on top of ASP helps to offset this loss in some cases, but not all. The CMS proposal to significantly cut that add-on payment will mean that practices will lose money on even more drugs than they do today. CMS is not proposing any improvements to the ASP system – which represents 96% of the payment for drugs – to make it more accurate or to remove any undesirable incentives it might create, it is only proposing to change the remaining 4% and to do so without any solid analysis indicating that the new amount better matches costs than does the current amount.
If CMS does not pay adequately to cover the losses and costs oncology practices incur in buying and administering chemotherapy, oncology practices will not be able to afford to administer the drugs patients need. This will affect their ability to administer the lower-priced drugs CMS wants to encourage practices to use as well as their ability to use expensive drugs.
As noted earlier, paying adequately for the costs of administering chemotherapy does not give an oncologist an “incentive” to use one drug over another. Rather, it ensures the oncology practice is not penalized financially for choosing the most appropriate drugs for their patients. Moreover, for many patients, there may be only one drug that is appropriate to treat their disease at a particular point in time, in which case there is no choice that could possibly be “incentivized” by how much CMS pays for drugs. In these cases, the proposal by CMS to cut drug payments would simply create a financial penalty for oncology practices when their patients need a high-cost drug or a drug whose price has been increasing rapidly.
The bottom line is there are two primary types of impacts that would be likely to occur if CMS implements the Part B Drug Payment Model. One is that cancer patients will be unable to receive chemotherapy treatments that they need because their oncologists can no longer afford to purchase and administer them. The second is that community oncology practices that try to purchase the drugs their patients need with inadequate reimbursement from Medicare will lose money and potentially be forced to close, and that in turn will mean that patients will have to travel farther and pay more to obtain cancer treatments. It would be inappropriate for CMS to use the authority provided under the Affordable Care Act to “test” which of these impacts will occur or how big the impacts would be.
How to Control Cancer Spending Without Harming Patients
Instead of this problematic proposal, CMS should pursue implementation of comprehensive oncology payment reforms that will actually improve care for patients while making that care more affordable. Last year, after many months of work, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) announced a proposal for comprehensive payment reform called Patient-Centered Oncology Payment (PCOP). PCOP is designed to provide adequate payment to oncology practices for many essential services that Medicare and health plans don’t pay for today, such as patient education, counseling, care coordination, etc. Under PCOP, instead of oncology practices being forced to try and pay for essential patient services using revenues generated from drugs, the practices would be paid directly for those services. PCOP is also specifically designed to reduce the overall cost of cancer care by (a) identifying the kinds of drugs, tests, and treatments that patients do not need and reduce the use of those services and (b) reducing the rates of complications and hospitalizations that patients experience while undergoing cancer treatment. Under PCOP, oncology practices would take responsibility for implementing evidence-based guidelines developed by ASCO for prescribing tests and drugs, and the practices would receive payments enabling them to determine an accurate diagnosis and to select the most appropriate treatment based on the guidelines. This would improve care for patients and make care more affordable, rather than achieving savings at the expense of quality.
Although PCOP has many advantages over the current payment system for oncology, it has specific advantages compared to the CMS Part B Drug Payment Model. Instead of a policy that tries to discourage oncology practices from using expensive drugs that patients need, as the CMS Part B Drug Payment Model would do, Patient-Centered Oncology Payment would discourage practices from using drugs when patients don’t really need them. Since many of those drugs are very expensive, this would save money without harming patients.
For example, the data that CMS released in conjunction with its Part B Drug Payment Model proposal showed that Medicare spent over $1 billion in 2014 on a very expensive drug called pegfilgrastim, the fourth highest amount Medicare spent on any drug in the Part B program. Pegfilgrastim is not used to treat cancer, but rather to help patients who are receiving chemotherapy to avoid developing infections. ASCO has developed guidelines for when the drug should and should not be used, but studies have shown that pegfilgrastim is being used for many patients who do not really need it. The drug isn’t being overused because oncology practices have a financial incentive to do so, it’s being overused because oncologists want to help as many patients as possible avoid complications that can lead to hospitalizations. However, not all types of chemotherapy are equally likely to cause the kinds of complications that pegfilgrastim can prevent, and the drug causes serious side effects that can outweigh its benefits for many patients. Rather than simply cutting all payments for pegfilgrastim whether patients would benefit from it or not (as the proposed Part B Drug Payment Model would do), PCOP would enable an oncology practice to have adequate time to determine which patients really need the drug and also pay for the staff resources needed to create more cost-effective approaches for preventing hospitalizations for the others.
Reducing unnecessary spending on a few frequently used, expensive drugs could result in far greater savings for Medicare than anything the proposed Part B Drug Payment Model could achieve. The PCOP payment model would provide oncology practices the time and resources they need in order to implement and follow complex, evidence-based guidelines that can control spending while protecting patients.
Reducing avoidable spending on drugs and tests is just one way that PCOP would achieve savings on cancer care in ways that benefit patients. Another major focus of PCOP would be to enable cancer physicians to turn their practices into “oncology medical homes,” including providing rapid response to complications of chemotherapy in order to avoid patients being taken to the emergency room or being hospitalized. A national demonstration project called COME HOME (www.comehomeprogram.com) that was funded by CMS showed that dramatic reductions in the frequency of ED visits and hospitalizations and overall savings for Medicare could be achieved by giving oncology practices the time and resources they need to deliver more services to patients. Unfortunately, these services are not paid for under the current Medicare fee schedule, and the practices that have implemented these services will have to discontinue them if a better payment system like PCOP isn’t implemented soon.
CMS has developed another oncology payment reform demonstration called the Oncology Care Model that could provide some of the resources oncology practices need to help their patients avoid ED visits and hospitalizations. Unfortunately, the Oncology Care Model would also create significant financial incentives for oncology practices to give patients low-cost drugs regardless of whether those drugs would be effective for their patients, and it would penalize practices by dropping them from the program if they don’t find ways to reduce spending on drugs and other services. A report prepared by the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform titled A Better Way to Pay for Cancer Care explains why the PCOP payment model is superior to the Oncology Care Model and to other alternative payment models that have been proposed or used by CMS. It is available at http://www.chqpr.org/cancer-care.html.
The current payment system for oncology care in America is badly broken. Cancer patients deserve much better. There are significant opportunities to reduce the cost of cancer care in ways that help patients rather than hurt them, but these can only be implemented with an appropriately designed payment system that provides adequate funding for good cancer care grounded in evidence-based guidelines for treatment. Rather than testing problematic and piecemeal payment “incentives” that could seriously harm both patients and oncology practices, CMS should implement a truly comprehensive payment reform that strengthens oncology practices and enables them to deliver the best possible care to patients at the most affordable cost.
Despite widespread agreement on the need for major improvements in healthcare payment systems, progress in implementing truly meaningful payment reforms has been frustratingly slow. Last spring, as part of the Medicare and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA), Congress created significant new incentives and processes designed to dramatically accelerate progress in payment reform, with a focus on creating better ways to pay physicians.
The success of MACRA will depend heavily on how the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) implement the provisions of the law relating to Alternative Payment Models (APMs) and Physician-Focused Payment Models. The decisions they make and the processes they establish could either encourage rapid development and implementation of innovative and successful payment models, or deter innovation and impede the progress in payment reform that Congress wanted to support.
A new report from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform, Implementing Alternative Payment Models Under MACRA: How the Federal Government Can Accelerate Successful Health Care Payment Reform, explains the provisions of MACRA relating to APMs and describes the actions HHS and CMS should take in three key areas:
A copy of the report can be downloaded at:
The important issues discussed in the report include:
Implementing Alternative Payment Models Under MACRA explains why the Alternative Payment Models that are being designed and implemented by CMS and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) not only fail to solve the problems with current payment systems but can actually make it harder for physicians who want to improve care and reduce spending. The report details the serious problems with the approaches CMS and CMMI are using in most of their payment models, and it explains the types of payment changes that should be used instead, including seven different types of Physician-Focused Alternative Payment Models that could improve patient care and reduce spending for Medicare while preserving the financial viability of high-quality physician practices and other healthcare providers. The report also describes how the development of new patient condition groups, care episode groups, and patient relationship groups required by MACRA can facilitate the development of better Alternative Payment Models.
Additional information on how to develop successful Alternative Payment Models can be obtained in these earlier reports from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform, all of which can be downloaded free of charge at www.CHQPR.org:
There is growing national concern that consolidations of healthcare providers are leading to higher prices for healthcare services. The June 2014 issue of the policy magazine Health Affairs includes four separate papers that propose a range of policy options to try and address this issue. Unfortunately, those hoping for answers will not find the Health Affairs papers very satisfying. Not only is there little agreement among the authors about what to do, most of them do not express much enthusiasm about either the feasibility or benefits of the options they do identify.
False Premises Lead to Wrong Conclusions
Most policy prescriptions about prices and market power are based on three fundamentally false premises:
We Don’t Pay Hospitals and Doctors For What We Really Want Them To Do
When we’re injured, we want a hospital close by that is ready to treat the injury quickly and effectively. When we have the symptoms of a heart attack, we want a hospital close by that is ready to quickly and accurately determine if we’re having a heart attack and if so, to treat it quickly. If a disaster strikes our community, we want a hospital close by that can respond rapidly and treat all of those who are injured.
But we don’t pay hospitals to be there when we need them. We only pay them when they actually do something for us. If you’re not injured, the hospital doesn’t get paid for having the emergency room staffed and ready for you. If you don’t have a heart attack, the hospital doesn’t get paid for having a cardiac catheterization lab organized to ensure you have a low door-to-balloon time. If your community doesn’t have a disaster, a terrorist attack, a flu epidemic, or any similar unfortunate event, the hospital doesn’t get paid for the capacity it has created and the preparations it has made to deal with such events.
The hospital maintains a certain amount of standby capacity as a form of insurance for the community so it can respond to needs when they arise, and then it adds additional capacity in response to both actual patient needs and discretionary choices that physicians and patients make. However, Medicare, Medicaid, and commercial health plans pay only for the services provided, not the “insurance” of the standby services. As a result, the hospital has to treat enough patients in order to generate the revenues needed to cover its standby capacity, and that can lead to overutilization.
Not only do we expect hospitals to be there when we need them, we expect hospitals to care for people whether they can pay or not and to care for patients on Medicaid even if the Medicaid payment is less than what it costs to deliver care. As a result, hospitals have to charge the paying patients more in order to cover the losses they incur on the under-paying and non-paying patients.
Physicians face many of the same kinds of problems with current payment systems that hospitals face. What we really want a primary care physician to do is to keep people healthy, but a PCP isn’t paid at all if a patient doesn’t need office visits or if a problem can be handled over the phone. We’d like specialists to take the time to help patients decide whether they need a risky, invasive procedure, but if fewer patients choose to have the procedure, the specialists may not have enough revenues to cover their practice expenses, even though the patients may be better off. And if you think it’s only the hospital that needs to be available 24/7, imagine how the hospital will treat anyone during the night or on a weekend if there isn’t a physician available during those same times. However, physicians aren’t paid by Medicare or health plans to be available in case patients need them in the hospital, only hospitals pay them for that.
If doctors and hospitals do a better job of keeping patients well, they may need to be paid more for the patients who do get sick in order to continue covering the fixed costs of maintaining hospital standby capacity and the operating costs of physician practices. However, even with higher payment for individual services, overall spending can still be lower if fewer patients need expensive treatment.
Current Payment Reform Proposals Make the Problem Worse, Not Better
Although there is growing recognition that changes in payment systems are needed, most of the payment reforms being discussed or implemented by Medicare and commercial payers don’t really solve the problems with the current payment system and they may actually make some aspects of the problem worse.
The Right Approach: True Payment Reform
What’s needed are true payment reforms – accountable payment systems that give physicians and hospitals the flexibility to redesign care, reward them for keeping patients healthy, pay them adequately for treating the patients who do need care, and give them accountability for ensuring that costs are lower and quality is higher. Several different approaches to accountable payment systems could be used:
All of these payment systems would support the ability of physicians and hospitals to deliver better care at lower cost. Although in most cases, solo/small physician practices and independent hospitals would not be able to manage these types of payments on their own, there is no need for them to merge or consolidate to do so. Physicians can work together through an Independent Practice Association and physicians and hospitals can work together through a Physician-Hospital Organization to manage accountable payment systems.
What About Prices?
While better payment systems are a necessary element of a solution to controlling healthcare costs, payment reform isn’t sufficient. In addition to payment systems that reward providers for keeping patients healthy rather than giving them more expensive treatments, we also need ways to ensure they keep patients healthy at the lowest possible cost.
Rather than forcing patients into payer-defined narrow networks, patients should have the responsibility for choosing providers based on both cost and quality. However, it’s impossible for patients to compare prices on the over 7,000 CPT codes and over 700 DRGs used in today’s payment system, particularly when they don’t even know for sure which of those services they’re going to receive. The accountable payment models described above would define prices based on a patient’s health problems rather than the procedures they receive, so patients can choose the physicians and hospitals that offer the best combination of price and outcomes for the specific health problems those patients are facing.
Right-Sizing Healthcare Delivery for Choice and Competition
Of course, consumer choice can only control prices if there are choices of providers available. If we design payment systems that do not require physicians and hospitals to consolidate into large systems, and if we remove unnecessary regulatory requirements that increase costs for smaller providers or prevent them from participating in better payment models, then it will be more likely that patients will have multiple providers to choose from.
Purchaser-Provider Collaboration to Find Win-Win-Win Solutions
Physicians and hospitals will need to collaborate to determine what the right amount of care is for a patient population and how much it will cost to deliver that care. Purchasers will need to implement new payment systems and patient benefit designs that support the better care that providers want to deliver. Consequently, payment reforms have to be designed in collaboration with providers, not imposed on them by payers. In many cases, all of the stakeholders can “win” – i.e., patients can get better quality care, purchasers can spend less, and providers can be more financially viable – if they work together in a collaborative way to design “win-win-win” payment reforms. Instead of purchasers and providers treating each other as the enemy, and focusing on ways to beat the other in a war over prices, they need to recognize that each can help the other win.
Fortunately, a growing number of communities have neutral conveners ready to help find win-win-win solutions. Regional Health Improvement Collaboratives – non-profit multi-stakeholder organizations focused on improving healthcare quality and reducing costs – can facilitate discussions between purchasers and providers and provide the objective data analysis both sides can trust in designing truly higher-value healthcare delivery and the payment systems needed to support it. Purchasers and providers need to recognize the value of this kind of service and use it to move to better payment and delivery systems as quickly as possible.
A more detailed discussion of the above points can be downloaded at: www.chqpr.org/downloads/Payment_Reform-The_Antidote_to_Market_Power.pdf .
A bipartisan, bicameral bill was announced earlier this month as the result of a joint effort by the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, House Ways and Means Committee, and Senate Finance Committee to repeal and replace the Sustainable Growth Rate formula in Medicare. There is no other industry in America that tells its key professionals that their compensation will be cut by 25% at the end of each year regardless of whether they are doing a good job or not, but that’s what the Sustainable Growth Rate formula requires in the Medicare program. Repeal is long overdue and the members and staff of the Committees should be commended for advancing a solution in a collaborative way.
The key challenge now is how to pay for the bill. Unless Congress can find over a hundred billion dollars to cover the projected cost of the legislation at a time when the federal deficit is one of the biggest challenges facing the country, the superb work of the three committees will go to waste.
Although Congress is looking at ways to cut fees to other healthcare providers, cut services to Medicare beneficiaries, or make cuts in non-healthcare programs in order to generate enough savings to pay for the bill, a better solution is actually contained within the bill itself in a little-discussed section that encourages the development and use of “Alternative Payment Models.”
Alternative payment models for physicians can save a lot of money for Medicare while actually paying physicians better because the vast majority of healthcare spending doesn’t go to physicians. In Medicare, physician fee schedule payments represent only 16% of total spending in Medicare Parts A, B, and D. Over the next decade, the Congressional Budget Office projects that physician fee schedule payments will represent only 12% of total Medicare spending. However, physicians prescribe, control, or influence most of the lab tests, images, drugs, hospital stays, and other services that make up the other 88%.
Study after study has shown that if healthcare services are redesigned to improve quality and efficiency, tens of billions of dollars in healthcare spending could be saved every year by avoiding unnecessary tests, procedures, emergency room visits, and hospitalizations; by reducing infections, complications, and errors in the tests and procedures which are performed; and by preventing serious conditions and providing treatment at earlier and lower-cost stages of disease. If physicians are given the ability to redesign care for patients in a way that reduces unnecessary spending on all of the other services, the physicians could be paid more and still reduce total Medicare spending.
How much would physicians have to save Medicare in order to pay for the SGR repeal?
The Congressional Budget Office projects that Medicare Part A, B, and D spending over the next decade will total more than $6 trillion. The cost of repealing the SGR is currently estimated to be about $115 billion. However, that figure is unrealistically low, because it assumes that physicians would receive no payment increases over the next decade, even though they haven’t received any payment increases over the past decade. The very modest 0.5% increase in physician fees contained in the compromise bill would add another $20-$30 billion to Medicare spending, bringing the total cost of the repeal and updates to about $140 billion.
$140 billion represents only 2.3% of total Medicare spending, and only 2.6% of the non-physician fee schedule spending. If physicians can reduce enough of the unnecessary and problematic spending in Medicare so that non-physician spending decreases by a mere 3%, they will have more than paid for the SGR repeal.
Alternative payment models are the key to this approach for a very simple reason. The current fee-for-service payment system poses major barriers to physicians who want to redesign care in ways that benefit patients and save money for Medicare:
• Today, physicians are financially penalized for reducing unnecessary services and improving quality. Under the current Medicare payment system, physicians lose revenue if they perform fewer procedures or lower cost procedures, even if their patients are better off. Most fundamentally, under Medicare, physicians don’t get paid at all when their patients stay well.
• Some high-value services aren’t paid for adequately or at all. Medicare doesn’t pay physicians to respond to a patient phone call about a symptom or problem, even though those phone calls can avoid far more expensive visits to the emergency room. Medicare won’t pay primary care physicians and specialists to coordinate care by telephone or email, yet it will pay for duplicate tests and the problems caused by conflicting medications.
Unfortunately, most of the “payment reforms” being pursued today don’t fix these problems. Pay for performance programs and shared savings programs have had very little impact on costs for a simple reason: the barriers described earlier aren’t solved by adding a small bonus or penalty on top of the existing fee-for-service system. Even tying payment to quality measures will have little impact on quality if physicians are forced to lose money in order to implement better care.
Truly different payment models create “win-win-win” approaches to paying physicians that can help improve quality and reduce total healthcare spending without forcing physicians to take financial losses themselves. These accountable payment models have three key characteristics:
• They give physicians the flexibility to deliver the care patients need without worrying about whether the payment for one type of service is lower than another or whether they will lose revenue by performing fewer procedures.
• They give physicians accountability for ensuring that changes in care result in spending that is lower than it would otherwise have been, but this accountability is limited to the kinds of spending the participating physicians can actually control or influence.
• They separate insurance risk and performance risk, so physicians are not penalized financially for taking care of sicker patients or patients with unusually complex conditions.
In order to use accountable payment models to pay for the SGR repeal bill, two things have to happen:
1. Accountable payment models need to be available in the Medicare program for every physician in every specialty; and
2.Those accountable payment models need to be designed by physicians in ways that will benefit patients and save money for Medicare, but also be feasible for physicians to implement.
Although CMS has done a lot of good work in advancing different payment models over the past several years, there are few alternative payment options available to most physicians today, particularly specialists. The only “payment reform” that exists as a formal Medicare program (rather than a demonstration project) is the Medicare Shared Savings Program, but as noted earlier, this is not really a payment reform, because it leaves the current fee for service payment system completely unchanged.
The barrier to getting more alternative payment models in place faster is the belief that these models have to be “tested” in a demonstration program before they can be made available for physicians to voluntarily choose to participate in. However, demonstration projects take years to put in place and evaluate, and they are unlikely to show the true impacts of a significantly different payment model because physician practices are unlikely to fundamentally redesign the way they deliver care in response to a payment change that may only last a few years.
Over the past 30 years, the payment systems that Medicare uses for its largest areas of expenditure have been implemented without conducting a demonstration or evaluation in advance. For example, the Inpatient Prospective Payment System (hospital DRGs) was designed and implemented for most hospitals across the country without a demonstration. The RBRVS Physician Fee Schedule was implemented for all physicians beginning in 1992 after it was mandated by Congress in 1989, with no demonstration or evaluation of the payment system before it was implemented. These payment systems were implemented in a phased approach and then monitored and regularly adjusted to correct any unanticipated problems and to adapt the payment systems to changes in science, technology, and other factors that occur over time.
Similarly, accountable payment models can be implemented and then monitored and regularly adjusted to correct any unanticipated problems. Each accountable payment model would have to be explicitly structured to assure CMS that Medicare spending would be lower than it would otherwise be. There would be no need to evaluate such an accountable payment model in order to determine whether it will save money; the physicians would be guaranteeing that it would reduce the types of Medicare spending covered by the model if the physicians were paid under the accountable payment model. If at any point, CMS identifies a situation where quality is being harmed for a particular provider’s patients, or where spending is not truly being reduced, that provider’s participation in the payment model could be terminated, similar to what CMS can do today in its standard payment systems. If physicians find they can’t successfully manage under the new payment model, they could work with CMS to improve it or return to fee for service payment.
Not all physicians will have the ability to successfully participate in alternative payment models that guarantee savings to CMS, particularly during the early years of implementation. Consequently, current payment systems should not be completely replaced by any alternative payment model, but rather, physicians and other providers who wish to participate in such models should be given the ability to do so voluntarily, the same way that the Medicare Shared Savings Program is structured today for ACOs.
Many physicians, medical societies, and multi-stakeholder Regional Health Improvement Collaboratives have been working to develop payment models that are specifically designed to improve patient care and save payers money. There needs to be a mechanism for them to bring those models to CMS on an ongoing basis, have them rapidly reviewed and refined, and then put into place quickly. This will not only ensure there are enough savings to pay for the SGR repeal bill, but it will also enable the largest number of Medicare beneficiaries to benefit from higher quality care.
1. Congressional Budget Office. May 2013 Medicare Baseline. May 14, 2013.
2. Congressional Budget Office. The Budget and Economic Outlook 2014 to 2024. February 2014.
3. Projected costs or savings from other provisions have led to cost estimates above or below that amount for the individual bills reported by the Committees.
4. Miller HD. Ten barriers to payment reform and how to overcome them. [Internet] Pittsburgh, PA: Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform; 2013. Available from: http://www.chqpr.org/reports.html.
5. Miller HD. From volume to value: Better ways to pay for health care. Health Aff (Millwood). 2009 Sept-Oct; 28(5): 1418-28.
6. Section 1899(i) of the Social Security Act allows the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to implement accountable payment models other than shared savings, but it has chosen not to do so.
YOU CAN DOWNLOAD A PDF VERSION OF THIS POST AT: www.paymentreform.org/downloads/Paying_for_SGR_Repeal.pdf
It’s the time of year when many people must choose a health insurance plan. Although the national news has focused on the problems people are having in signing up for coverage through the new federal health insurance exchange, thousands of senior citizens are also facing choices about whether to get their health coverage through the traditional Medicare program or one of many different Medicare Advantage insurance plans, and many workers with employer-sponsored insurance will have new choices to make during their open enrollment period.
Many people are being forced for the first time to evaluate different health plans based on which physicians and hospitals are “in-network,” because employers and health insurance companies are increasingly offering “narrow network” health plans in an effort to reduce premiums.
The dictionary defines a “network” as a “group or system of interconnected people or things.” Traditionally, most health plan networks haven’t really been coordinated systems, but merely lists of physicians and hospitals that have agreed to give a bigger discount to the health plan. However, research shows that patients can stay healthier and get better quality care at a lower cost if the patients use a true network of high quality physicians who work together in a coordinated way to deliver better outcomes.
What does such a “high-value” network look like?
The most important elements of a good network aren’t the hospitals, because the network’s first goal should be to help you stay well so you don’t need a hospital at all. Instead, the most important component of a network is an adequate number of high-quality primary care practices. A truly high quality primary care practice does four key things for you: (1) it helps you get the preventive care you need to stay as healthy as possible; (2) it accurately diagnoses new health problems you experience and then provides or arranges for the most appropriate treatment in a timely fashion; (3) if you have a chronic disease such as asthma, diabetes, emphysema, or heart disease, it helps you manage that chronic condition successfully so you don’t have problems and end up in the hospital; and (4) if you need specialists, the practice helps you find the right specialists and makes sure all of your care is coordinated.
Unfortunately, most people don’t get truly high-quality primary care in any network today. It’s not because the primary care physicians are bad, it’s because of the way the physicians are paid by the health plan. For example:
• If you’re frustrated by how little time your primary care physician (PCP) spends with you when you have a visit, blame your health insurance, not the doctor. Medicare and most health plans pay doctors on the assumption that a typical office visit will last only 15 minutes. Moreover, doctors get paid less if they address multiple issues in the same visit than if they bring you back multiple times, even though it would save you time and money to get everything done in one visit.
• If you’re angry because your doctor spends more time during your short visit typing on the computer than listening to you, blame your health insurance, not the doctor. Medicare and many health plans now reduce physicians’ pay if they don’t enter detailed data about you in an electronic health record.
• If you have trouble getting your PCP to answer the phone or respond to an email when you have a question or health problem, don’t blame the doctor, blame your health insurance. Medicare and most health plans won’t pay doctors for phone calls or emails with patients, they only pay for office visits. The more time a doctor spends on the phone, the less time he or she has to see patients in the office, but the only way anybody in the physician practice can get paid is if the doctor (or a nurse practitioner or physician assistant) sees enough patients in the office every day.
Some health plans are beginning to change the way they pay primary care physicians so the physicians can better customize care to what their patients really need. These “patient-centered medical home” programs are a step in the right direction, but most of them have been too small to make a significant difference. That’s starting to change, but not nearly fast enough. Fewer doctors are going into primary care because of their frustrations with the way they’re paid, so it’s going to be harder and harder for people to find good primary care physicians if health plans don’t start paying PCPs in better ways.
From time to time, you’ll have a health problem that requires help from a specialist. But which of the dozens of subspecialties is the right one? If you need multiple specialists, will they all coordinate what they do so you don’t receive conflicting medications or duplicative tests?
In a true “network,” your PCP would help you find the right specialists and work with them to ensure all of your care is coordinated. But once again, the way doctors are paid gets in the way. For example, in many cases, the specialist could advise you and your PCP over the phone about what to do, rather than making you wait for weeks or months until you can get an appointment to see the specialist in person. But Medicare and most health plans don’t pay specialists for giving advice over the telephone or by email, they only pay for office visits and procedures. As a result, many specialists can’t see new patients quickly because their calendars are filled with office visits from patients they don’t really need to see in person. Specialists also don’t get paid for time they spend talking with other specialists or with PCPs to coordinate care, so it’s no wonder that patients can find themselves falling between the cracks.
Some health plans are beginning to pay differently for the specialists in the “medical neighborhood” as well as for the primary care “medical home.” In one pilot project, paying for email consultations with specialists resulted in dramatic reductions in the delays seriously ill patients experienced in getting appointments with specialists, because the specialists were able to successfully address other patients’ problems quickly through an email exchange with their PCP.
If you do need hospital care, you obviously want to make sure there are high-quality hospitals in your health plan’s network that can take care of you. Unfortunately, the hospitals in our region don’t publish information about the quality of the care they provide, so it’s impossible to know whether one network’s hospitals are better than another’s. Although you hear a lot of advertising about how certain hospitals are the “best” at one thing or another, most of those rankings aren’t based on actual outcomes for specific procedures. The limited data available suggest that for common hospital procedures, most of the hospitals in the Pittsburgh Region deliver care of similar quality, and many of the independent community hospitals do it at a much lower cost. For more complex conditions, the best hospital for you may not be in the Pittsburgh Region at all. Some national employers, such as Walmart and Lowes, are now paying not only medical costs but travel expenses so their employees can go to hospitals such as the Cleveland Clinic and Johns Hopkins that have committed to provide high quality care at an affordable cost.
So before you decide which health plan to use, first choose a primary care practice that is committed to high-quality, patient-centered care. Ask the PCP which health plans pay to support high-quality care, and ask which plans pay specialists so they can work as a team with your PCP. If you choose a health plan that supports truly coordinated, high-quality primary and specialty care, you’ll be healthier, you’ll spend less, and you may never need to worry about which hospitals are in the network.
(A version of this post appeared as the Regional Insights column in the Sunday, November 3, 2013 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)Newer Posts »
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