It’s Not the ‘Shared Savings’, Stupid: Why ACOs Under the Proposed Rule Will Change Medicine As We Know It

CMS got the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) proposed rule largely right, but not because of the actual “shared savings” that the ACO model is commonly associated with. Rather, the MSSP will usher in a shift from the practice of medicine as primarily an art, to the practice of medicine as primarily a science.

The Battle of Marathon: a victory for the Greeks that some attribute to the double-envelopment tactic. Maps courtesy of the Department of History, United States Military Academy

The Battle of Marathon: a victory for the Greeks that some attribute to the double-envelopment tactic. Maps courtesy of the Department of History, United States Military Academy

The explosion over the last 50 years of drugs and devices — and the studies and guidelines concerning their effectiveness — is staggering. Couple this explosion with the lack of effective means for physicians and health care providers to make sense of the information, and it’s not surprising that we have a bloated, inefficient, and costly system that fails to provide value commensurate with our health care budget.

This systemic problem is no secret. The HITECH Act attempts to target the health information technology (HIT) problem with an incentive program, and PPACA attempts to increase evidence-based medicine (EBM) with projects like the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute. But a piecemeal approach does not ensure the necessary integration between HIT and EBM, nor sufficient incentives for industry to embrace them.

Why such faith in the MSSP?

Because if ACOs want to participate in the shared savings they must meet the dual requirements of EBM and HIT. It’s this double-envelopment — combined with the ‘carrot’ of shared savings — that will finally usher in a medical revolution.

Thomas Kuhn, a trained physicist who is better known for his contributions to the philosophy of science , introduced the idea of “paradigm shifts” that occur as science evolves. In “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” Kuhn posits that instead of a linear evolution of scientific discovery, the discovery of anomalies can force traditional explanations of natural phenomena to be questioned. If enough anomalies accrue that seriously undermine an accepted explanation, a “crisis moment” occurs. In this circumstance “a scientist’s world is qualitatively transformed [and] quantitatively enriched by fundamental novelties of either fact or theory and a scientific revolution is born.” But as Kuhn notes — with import to our discussion of the MSSP — prior beliefs and experiences can make accepting a new paradigm difficult for scientists.

Thomas Kuhn -- U.S. physicist, philosopher, and author of the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where he introduced the idea of paradigm shifts that occur in science.

Thomas Kuhn -- U.S. physicist, philosopher, and author of the "Structure of Scientific Revolutions," in which he introduced the idea of "paradigm shifts" that occur in science.

Kuhn’s theory of the evolution of science helps to explain health reform, or the lack thereof. Our health care paradigm — the spending of significant resources on health care per capita — has accrued significant anomalies, most notably outcomes that do not match up with our spending. We have tried HMOs, PPOs, and every many other types of arrangements, but to no avail. We are in a “crisis moment.” And we have a new paradigm: health care decision making that utilizes EBM at the point of care.

And that, my friends, is where the savings will ultimately be found.

A 2004 study demonstrated that following evidence-based guidelines for the treatment of hypertension in the elderly would save $1.2 billion annually.

There is no shortage of similar studies showing billions of dollars, and better health outcomes, waiting to be unlocked. So why isn’t it occurring?

new review by Stanford University’s Adam Elshaug, M.P.H., Ph.D., and Alan Garber, M.D., Ph.D. demonstrates that recent studies on complex vertebral spinal procedures point have “cast doubt on the magnitude of any benefits from these procedures and at worst established their ineffectiveness.” The studies have caused payers like Blue Cross to limit or withdraw coverage of the procedure. After analyzing the data, the authors found that a conservative estimate of the savings of scaling down the costly and ineffective procedure would yield between $450 million and $725 million depending on the continued use of the procedures.

But the authors make a crucial point at the end of their piece:

Of course, savings will be derived from [comparative effectiveness research] CER only if practice changes. In the United States, it’s unclear whether these studies are powerful enough to overturn coverage decisions or cut utilization of established procedures. . . ACA features such as bundled payments, shared savings programs, and outcomes-based payments offer mechanisms for stimulating the adoption of practices that are supported by CER and the abandonment of practices that CER calls into question.

I interpret this as an acknowledgment that we have enough data to start saving money and increasing care, but that we are stuck in a rut where the practice of medicine itself is having troubling embracing science, and we are relying on the payers to pick up the slack.

This is not to say that medicine can ever — or should ever — become entirely science-based. There are embedded values in the process of health care decision making that science cannot determine, such as a patient’s desire for aggressive treatment and the risks or costs they are willing to incur. Regardless, there is a baseline degree of science-based medicine that will improve quality, afford greater patient (and physician) autonomy, and decrease cost. Moreover,  studies have shown that better informed patients make more cost-effective choices.

The problem is our inability and/or our unwillingness to embrace the inevitable paradigm shift to a greater science-based medicine even during a crisis moment. That is where the MSSP double-envelopment strategy comes in.

CMS’s Double-Envelopment Strategy: Attract with the Savings, Surround with EBM and HIT

The MSSP allows an ACO, each year, to recoup some of the savings that they have realized in reference to a benchmark cost. There is a fairly complicated procedure for determining the actual savings that the ACO can collect, but the idea is simple: incentivize the health care providers to reduce the cost of care. Health care organizations are racing to form ACOs, but while doing so they are being surrounded by EBM and HIT requirements that will drive a shift in health care delivery.

With respect to EBM, the proposed rule requires ACOs to implement evidence-based medicine or clinical practice guidelines and processes in an effort to improve individual care, improve the health of the population, and lower the growth of health care expenditures. The guidelines and processes must cover diagnoses with “significant potential” for the ACO to achieve quality and cost improvements, taking into account the circumstances of individual beneficiaries. All ACO participants and suppliers/providers must agree to abide by these guidelines and processes, and must be evaluated for their compliance. The rule also states that remedial actions must be a possibility for non-compliance, and ACOs must have policies and procedures for ACO expulsion of participants and/or providers/suppliers.

On the HIT side, ACOs are required to have an infrastructure, such as information technology (which may include EHR technology that is certified for CMS’s incentive-based meaningful use program). This infrastructure must enable the ACO to collect and evaluate data and provide feedback to ACO participants and ACO providers/suppliers across the entire ACO, including providing information to influence decision making at the point of care. Moreover, fifty percent of the primary care providers of an ACO must be “meaningful users” as defined by the HITECH Act by the second year of their ACO contract. As others have noted, the meaningful use requirement is extremely aggressive when considering that the proposed rule allows ACOs to come online as soon as Jan 1st, 2012. Industry has seen the writing on the wall, and has responded with nothing short of an ACO arms race.

The ACO-driven Paradigm Shift

Thus, the proposed rule requires ACOs to leverage HIT to evaluate data and provide feedback to others in the ACO, and do it in such a way that the feedback influences decision making at the point of care.  In other words, it is setting the stage for informed decision making for both physician and patient alike. This is the holy grail of health care reform: that is, an HIT network with users that are reporting data that can be leveraged to enable providers to suggest treatments that are proven to have better outcomes for their specific patient, and to do so at the point of care.

This is in contrast to the current paradigm of managing costs by relying primarily on ex post decision making at the payer level. Often, however, the consumer who has their desired procedure or drug denied (for reasons often opaque to either the physician, insurer, or patient) will decide to pay out of pocket, and can go bankrupt in the process. In this case, no costs have been reduced, rather, they have been shifted to the consumer. While some insurers create and use HIT and EBM, their behind-the-scenes decision making has not been embraced by physicians or patients. That’s because patients trust their physicians, not their insurers. The locus of reform must be on the decision making at the physician-patient level, and that is precisely where the proposed rule places it.

The proposed rule also clearly addresses the fact that you can’t get new practices adopted if physicians have to, for example, minimize their EHR application, fire up their web browser, and start searching the Cochrane Collaboration or some other site for possibly relevant data. They are going to have to do it from within the HIT system.

There is an added benefit politically to this paradigm shift: if the focus is on data-driven doctor-patient decision making, we bypass the political push and pull often associated with determining what treatment is “medically necessary.” This would satisfy the progressive ideal of providing high quality care without overbearing cost-control, while also satisfying the conservative refrain that the doctor-patient relationship remains independent. If the process of creating EBM decision making is HIT-focused, it also encourages the antithesis of cookbook medicine by tailoring the process to the individual patient.

The Long View

Too much focus has been placed on the short term issue of how much money the ACOs can recoup. This is a valid worry for the industry, particularly the smaller practices that can’t afford setting up an ACO. The federal government must do whatever it can to allay these worries so that industry further strives to create the HIT-EBM framework that the shared savings program envisions. If it means increasing the percentage of savings that the ACOs can receive, then so be it. Or perhaps ACOs should come online a year later after the meaningful use stage of EHRs has progressed.

Regardless of how the final rule mitigates industry difficulties, the ACO model is our best chance at creating a true paradigm shift that will better provide the medically necessary and efficient delivery of health care resources. It may take 5, 10, or 20 years to robustly develop the systems and the data, but nobody said a medical revolution would be easy.

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  1. Why Reduce Health Care Costs? : HEALTH REFORM WATCH | April 21, 2011
  1. Kevin says:

    There is a fundamental disparity in supply and demand and that is what is driving healthcare costs. The bottom line is providers want to be paid A LOT for what they do and there is a burgeoning demand for their services from the entitled masses. It is a perfect recipe for high costs, which is what we will continue to have. It doesn’t matter how many data-mining algorithms you come up with or how much technology or “evidence.” Just look at the case of Baby Joseph. And that’s just one case out of millions. It wouldn’t have mattered what the technology was or what the evidence said. It became an ethical question in the face of limited supply and over demand. The solution is to demonopolize the practice of medicine and expand who can do what to whom. That is the only answer. However, too many players are invested in the current system and are not willing to give up anything. Many would rather see the whole system collapse than give up anything and that is exactly what will happen. We are all going down with the ship because of the selfish few. Just watch and wait.

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