Context for what “Value-based Purchasing” (VBP) Really Is About

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As I was reading through the ACP’s “Health Care Delivery and Payment System Reforms” paper this week, I was thinking more about the principles underlying this whole “value-based purchasing” (VBP) thing. So, before we delve into the ACP’s opinions on the topic, I thought it would be helpful to give a little context about what VBP really is.

I’ve written about these topics before here and here, and those posts describe somewhat different aspects of VBP and fee for service than what I’m talking about today.

The stated goals of VBP boil down to two things: (1) reward (and thereby improve) value and (2) decrease healthcare spending. If you’re familiar with my Healthcare Incentives Framework, you know I think trying to give providers bonuses for delivering better quality is not a transformational nor a sustainable effort. But what of the goal to decrease spending? Let’s talk about that for just a minute.

Question: Who stands to gain (or, save) the most if healthcare spending goes down? Answer: The person on the hook for paying for it. Paying for healthcare is a shared responsibility between the patient and the insurer, but really the risk for having to cover large healthcare expenditures resides with the insurer. (Yeah, that’s the point of insurance.)

So, if insurers are the ones that stand to benefit the most if healthcare costs go down*, what can they do to make that happen? They don’t directly control what providers do, but can they financially incentivize those providers somehow to find ways to decrease healthcare spending for them?

Yes. That’s what VPB is. And that primarily takes two forms:

First, they can simply pay them extra to reorganize in certain ways that would decrease spending. The insurer hopes the additional investment will result in a lot more savings than they invested. So, an example of this would be when insurers give clinics extra money when they offer expanded services such as after-hours access to doctors, social workers, and care coordinators. Think: patient-centered medical home.

Second, they can shift some of the risk to providers, so providers will make more money if they successfully decrease spending but will also make less money if spending increases. Think: Any “shared savings” plan, such as an ACO.

Now when we talk more about VBP, you will see these two tactics at work. Really, these are the only two tactics insurers can use, so every VBP model is some variation of one or both of them.

*There are some complicating factors in that statement. One is that with the ACA’s medical loss ratio restrictions, they actually don’t stand to gain much if they find a way to decrease medical spending, because they’re required to turn around and send a lof of that extra money they saved back to their enrollees in the form of rebates. It messes with insurers’ incentives to lower the cost of care, and this is one of the many reasons I despise those regulations. Another complicating factor is that insurers make a large amount of their profits (if anyone knows a specific number, I’m all ears) off the stock market by investing the premium money until they need to pull that money back out of those investments and pay for care. So, the more they get paid in premiums, the more they have available to invest in the interim. If all insurers could collude and find a way to keep healthcare super expensive, they would be tempted to do that, especially if they could keep premiums high AND decrease spending at the same time (and keep 100% of the difference). However, that is not a Nash equilibrium–there’s an incentive for someone to cheat the others and make more money than their competitors by lowering premiums and winning all the market share–so I don’t expect it to be a lasting thing even if it is happening informally in certain markets at certain times.

How to Think About a Healthcare Reform’s Impact on Total Spending

I know I left off my last post with a cliff-hanger about how to lower the cost of delivering care, but I realized I’m explaining this in an out-of-order way, so I’m going to back up a bit and lay the foundation.

I’ve posted before that there are actually three ways to lower health spending. Again, here’s the equation:

Total Spending = Volume x Price

To lower total spending, we could lower volume or lower price. And, again, we can only lower price so much without actually lowering costs of delivering care.

But what about the third way? A more complete equation would look like this:

Total Spending = Volumea x Pricea + Volumeb x Priceb + Volumec x Pricec + . . .

Get it? Our total spending is the total amount we’ve spent on hip replacements and on metformin and on office visits. . . .

So, the third way for us to lower total spending would be to adjust our mix of services so we’re choosing low-cost treatments instead of high-cost ones. Instead of buying brand-name drugs, we’d buy generics. Instead of full knee replacements, we’d opt for physical therapy.

Okay, good. Now, whenever you hear anything about a reform that’s aimed at lowering total health spending, you should be able to easily place it into one of those three categories.

So what about the Affordable Care Act? There are a zillion different provisions, all with different effects on total spending. Increasing insurance coverage = increased volume. Requiring preventive care coverage = changing services mix (more preventive services, fewer preventable complications we have to fix). Insurance exchanges = lower price through increased price competition among insurers. . . . To mention just a few.