I received the following note from Dale Fuller M.D. a retired Radiation Oncologist. Like me Dr. Fuller does not have a billfold agenda for Repairing The Healthcare System. I will add my comments to his extensive critique of Accountable Care Organizations (ACO).
“I read your piece this morning, and a number of thoughts come to mind; One is a quote from Richard Nixon, who when he was "vamping for time", would say.”Let me say this about that!" In this case the "that" is the issue of ACO's. It stimulated some general ideas about how medicine is structured, and how care is or could be paid for.”
Dr. Fuller has expressed some of the same concerns that I have about ACO. He nailed it with his concern for the hospital systems taking advantage of physicians’ intellectual property.
It concerns me that the lead in the formation of ACO's is generally a hospital, and most often, a large one, with multiple sites of service. My fifty years in medicine have caused me to recognize that the management of hospital organizations and the leadership of doctor groups of any size, small or large, do not have interests that are congruent.
Moreover hospital administrators tend to come and go, sometimes with great frequency, and each change brings new managers with new management strategies. Doctors, changing as they do with much less frequency, will have to learn to adapt to constantly to new management strategies.
Hospital administrations usually change because the hospital is not making enough money. Hospital systems might not make enough money when administrators treat staff physicians poorly. Physicians can undermine hospital systems’ built in profit leverage. Physicians’ may have also negotiated too good a deal.
Some of those changes will in one way or other impact physicians’ earnings. That is to say nothing about recognizing the difference in the earning expectations and compensation strategies among the various specialties likely to be swept up together in an ACO.
The division of the "pie" of dollars will be a daunting exercise, just as it is now, but with the added complexity of hospital administrators adding their own expectations to the process, and claiming their own piece of the pie.
The transition will mark the end of the era of the practice of medicine as a "cottage industry" as it is transformed into an assembly line approach to the delivery of the care of patients.
You can bet the process of dividing reimbursement will be contested. It is difficult enough when deciding compensation among physicians in multi specialty groups.
“In your piece you mention that the dollars paid to the ACO will still be procedures based, and I believe that same process, probably with RVU's, could easily be translated into an algorithm to facilitate the division of the revenue to those delivering the services, with, of course, that healthy slice off the top, for the administration of the ACO, provided by you-know-who.(hospital administrators).
Physicians are beginning to understand that the healthcare insurance industry loads its overhead. As physicians enter into partnerships with hospital systems they are starting to realize that the hospital systems administrators overload physicians overhead. Hospital systems pay all the overhead for employees, rents and equipment maintenance many times at an inflated fee.
Physicians are not stupid. They are starting to wake up.
“I have the sense that not only of the adage "he who has the gold makes the rules “will apply, but in addition, "he who has the data controls the flow of payments". And, more often than not, the data is controlled by the insurance companies and by the CMS (aka the government)”
Generally the doctors are pretty clueless about the existence and the potential usefulness of the data, prevented as they have been from negotiation with the payers with both sides having equal access to that information.
I have been told by healthcare insurance executives that physicians will remain clueless. I replied that physicians are a sleeping tiger. When they awake the party for secondary stakeholders will be over.
“The data is all there and could readily be used to develop case rates for individual diagnoses, or, given the characteristics of a given patient population, a capitation rate could be set quite easily based on the experience and the risk factors inherent in the makeup of the population.”
Useful data presupposes a large data base. Most of the physicians are solo or in small groups. It had been impossible to calculate capitation rates with data available in the past.
A large margin of error must be built into the cost of care. Patients are becoming sicker because of the obesity epidemic and poor lifestyle choices. Patients over utilize the healthcare system because they have first dollar coverage.
“ Once the ACO is paid, the division of the income could be made in a variety of ways, the easiest being by the Relative Value Units (RVU's) for the services provided to the patient by the physicians. The physicians in the ACO over time should be able to monitor the actual RVU's reported by individual physicians.”
From the physician side if the RVU’s were fair and primary care was valued appropriately. ACO might work. ACO would not control patient utilization of the healthcare system. Patients must be motivated and incentivized to control utilization.
“When "outliers" are identified, those physicians can be re-educated about the wisdom of practicing medicine with some greater level of restraint where the provision of services is concerned. Some of the larger organizations are already using such an approach with the evolution of clinical pathways.”
Data could be used and should be used constructively to control outliers. Groups of physicians must control the data and discipline to outliers. A peer group must have incentive to control “outliers”. It must be done in a non punitive way.
“It isn't all that easy.”
ACO will not decrease costs.
“An ACO will change forever the business side of medical practice, but that may be the way the ball will be made to bounce”.
An ACO might wake up physicians and patients. It might stimulate secondary stakeholders not to take advantage of primary stakeholders (physicians and patients). I believe the chances are slim.
All in all, it is a good time for the docs to be very careful, and not to rush into something they may later have cause to regret. DEF
The idea of ACO is a good one if it could be priced fairly. The patient incentive component is missing. Consumers of healthcare with first dollar coverage drive increasing utilization and costs.