CMS releases proposed rules for Accountable Care Organizations

The shift from today’s volume-based payment system to tomorrow’s value-based methodologies took a major step forward yesterday. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released  proposed rules for the new Accountable Care Organization (ACO) program.  Although the proposed regulations will be the subject of extensive comment and will undoubtedly be changed before final adoption, the coming transformation in Medicare reimbursement is so profound that the rules command the attention of governing boards and other healthcare leaders now.

Rather than read the entire 429 pages, board members would be wise to read an article in March 31 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine by CMS Director Donald M. Berwick, MD, MPP.  It lays out the rationale and essential principles for ACOs. Key points include:

  • “Because in many settings no single group of participants — physicians, hospitals, public or private payers, or employers — takes full responsibility for guiding the health of a patient or community, care is distributed across many sites, and integration among them may be deficient. Fragmentation leads to waste and duplication — and unnecessarily high costs.”
  • Under the Affordable Care (ACA) Act, ACOs are designed “to foster change in patient care so as to accelerate progress toward a three-part aim: better care
    for individuals, better health for populations, and slower growth in costs through improvements in care.”
  • “Under the law, an ACO will assume responsibility for the care of a clearly defined population of Medicare beneficiaries attributed to it on the basis of their patterns of use of primary care. If an ACO succeeds in both delivering high-quality care and reducing the cost of that care to a level below what would otherwise
    have been expected, it will share in the Medicare savings it achieves.”

The article summarizes the proposed rule’s provisions regarding who can form and lead ACOs, including: physician groups; physician practice networks; hospitals that employ physicians; and partnerships among these entities.  It describes how ACO should be governed –by providers, but with the voices of patients and community involved too.  CMS is proposing to offer two models for ACOs to share financial rewards and risks with Medicare, one low risk, the other higher risk but also high potential return. The article also articulates 65 quality performance measures for judging ACO performance.

The shared savings program is not the end point for ACOs, Berwick stresses, but rather, it is designed to first of many “delivery-reform efforts such as expanded use of medical homes, bundled payments, value-based purchasing, adoption of information technology, and payment reforms are under way or under consideration.” 

Thus, an ACO is really a structure for carrying out a cultural transformation in healthcare delivery from incentivizing volume to rewarding peformance in in improving individual and population health and controlling costs. Boards should be asking how ready their organization is to work in collaboration with physicians to measure and manage both the costs and quality of patient care — to individual patients and to targeted populations groups such as those with diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and the frail elderly.

Berwick concludes: “Whatever form ACOs eventually take, one thing is certain: the era of fragmented care delivery should draw to a close. Too many Medicare beneficiaries — like many other patients — have suffered at the hands of wasteful, ineffective, and poorly coordinated systems of care, with consequent costs that are proving unsustainable. CMS believes that with enhanced cooperation among beneficiaries, hospitals, physicians, and other health care providers, ACOs will be an important new tool for giving Medicare beneficiaries the affordable, high-quality care they want, need, and deserve.”