Bungled Payments

Image credit: Joshua Jenkins

I write regularly about the need for patients to be able to make “value-sensitive decisions.” It means they make decisions about where they receive care (and also which insurance plans they choose) while considering both price and quality. One important step to helping patients do this is enabling them to know beforehand what the total price of the care episode will be.

That’s where bundled payments comes in. Their most important function is to give patients an apples-to-apples comparison of the total price of the care episode because they set a single price that includes all the things that might be needed in the care episode.

But when you start trying to turn bundled payments into pay for performance programs, that’s when they should be called bungled payments.

Which brings me to Medicare’s bundled payment models. There was a great article in JAMA recently by Joynt Maddox, Shashikumar, and Ryan, entitled Medicare’s Payment Models–Progress and Pitfalls.

Here’s an issue they wrote about regarding benchmarks: “Continuing to base benchmarks on historical costs will lead to a feedback loop disadvantaging participants with low spending. Those who reduce spending will have lower historical spending in future years and will receive lower benchmarks. They may find it more difficult to meet progressively lower benchmarks and will thus eventually pay penalties, despite being efficient.”

This sounds like what I wrote a few weeks ago: “Sure, this incentive has gotten us better quality for more money, and yeah eventually we’ll probably have higher quality overall, but it’s going to be at the cost of a lot of consternation of providers as we repeatedly take away their quality bonuses when we raise standards. Overall, this quality bonuses idea is just a frustrating and generally ineffective way to improve value.”

They suggest defining an “efficiency floor” that exempts anyone who meets that threshold from penalties. That’s reasonable for sure, but I suggest getting rid of the bonuses/penalties thing altogether.

Another thing they wrote in the article: “Second, the current benchmark method permits payout of large reward, offsetting any savings that the models achieve for CMS. . . . While the BPCI-A, OCM, and CJR payment models are associated with reductions in clinical spending, the bonuses these programs have paid have far exceeded the spending reductions they have incented.”

This sounds, again, like what I wrote a few weeks ago in the same blog post: “If our goal is to improve value, what we’ve just done is taken the higher-value providers and increased their price, which means their value has dropped back down to everyone else’s.”

They suggest creating a “stop-gain” provision to limit potentially excessive bonus payouts. That’s reasonable for sure, but I suggest getting rid of the bonuses/penalties thing altogether.

But wait! If we get rid of these administratively determined price adjustments (bonuses and penalties), how do we reward providers who deliver higher value?

We need, instead, to do a few things all at the same time. First, providers need the freedom to offer lower prices. Second, prospective patients need to be able to easily find those prices (and, preferably, patient-relevant quality information as well!). Third, patient’s insurance plans need to be designed such that patients end up paying less out of pocket when they choose a lower-priced provider.

If that could all happen, more people would start choosing the providers who offer better value. And what does that mean? It means the better-value providers would get more patients and more profit! And the lower-value providers would get less profit. So what we have is the same general outcome of rewarding the better providers and penalizing the worse ones, but instead of trying to do it administratively with all sorts of inefficiencies and distortions (all while not enabling more people to receive higher-value care), we have instead brought to bear on this challenge the dispersed preference information from the market. It will very effectively reward the ones who are truly worthy of being rewarded, penalize the ones who have lower value, AND more patients will get higher-value care immediately, which I would argue is our overall goal with these programs in the first place (you know, “value-based care“).

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