What Is an ACO? What Is a Medical Home? What Is Bundled Billing? What Is P4P?

Image credit: shutterstock.com
Image credit: shutterstock.com

Our healthcare system is currently in experimentation mode–we are trying thousands of experiments to figure out how providers can be rewarded for “value instead of volume.” All the new terminology and reimbursement ideas accompanying these reforms can be hard to keep straight if you’re not steeped in this stuff every day, but guess what? There aren’t actually that many different ideas being tried; there are just a bunch of the same ideas being tried in various combinations. First I’ll describe those four basic ideas, and then I’ll show how they are the building blocks of all the main payment reform experiments out there.

Quality bonus: Give a provider more money when he hits performance targets on whatever quality metrics are important to the payer.

Utilization bonus: Utilization metrics and quality metrics are not usually separated, but they should be. Here’s the difference: improved performance on a quality metric increases spending; improved performance on a utilization metric decreases spending. They both improve quality, but they have different effects on total healthcare spending. So, for example, ED utilization rates and readmission rates would be considered utilization metrics. And childhood immunization rates and smoking cessation rates would also be considered utilization metrics because they tend to be cost saving. Insurers love giving providers bonuses on utilization metrics because they are stimulating providers to lower the amount being spent on healthcare.

Shared savings: If a provider can decrease spending for an episode of care (which could be defined as narrowly as all the care involved in performing a single surgery or as broadly as all the care a person needs for an entire year of chronic disease management), the insurer will share some of those savings with him.

Capitation: The amount a provider gets paid is prospectively determined and will not change regardless of how much or how little care that patient ends up receiving. Again, this could be defined narrowly, such as all the care involved in performing a single surgery (in which case it’s actually called a “bundled payment”), or it could be defined broadly, such as for all the care a person needs for an entire year.

By the way, did you notice that shared savings and capitation are almost the same thing? The only difference is who bears how much risk. In shared savings, the risk is shared, which means that if the costs of care come in lower than expected, the insurer gets some of the savings and the provider gets some of the savings. In capitation, the provider bears all the risk, which means that if the costs of care come in lower than expected, the provider gets all of the savings.

Okay, now that I have listed out those four ideas, take a look at the popular payment reforms of the day . . .

Medical Home

General idea:

  • Give a primary-care provider a per member per month “care management fee” (in addition to what he normally gets paid) for providing additional services (such as care coordination with specialists, after-hours access to care, care management plans for complex patients, and more)
  • Also give the primary-care provider bonuses when he meets cost and/or quality targets

Breaking down a medical home:

  • A care management fee is actually a utilization bonus (because the net effect of the provider offering all those services is to avoid a lot of care down the road)
  • A bonus for meeting quality targets is either a quality bonus or a utilization bonus depending on the specific metrics used
  • A bonus for meeting cost targets is shared savings

Accountable Care Organization (ACO)

General idea:

  • Give a group of providers bonuses when they lower the total cost of care of their patients (but the bonuses are contingent upon meeting quality targets).

Breaking down an ACO:

  • A bonus for lowering the total cost of care is shared savings
  • When a bonus is contingent upon meeting quality targets, that means it’s also a quality or utilization bonus (depending on the specific quality metrics used)

Pay for Performance (P4P)

General idea:

  • Give a provider bonuses when she meets quality targets.

Breaking down P4P:

  • This is either a quality or utilization bonus (depending on the specific quality metrics used), but it tends to be utilization bonuses because insurers especially like when providers decrease the amount of money they have to fork out

Bundled Payment/Episode-of-care Payment

General idea:

  • Give a group of providers a single payment for an episode of care regardless of the services provided.

Breaking down bundled payment:

  • A bundled payment is a narrow form of capitation

There you have it. They are all repetitions of the same ideas but combined in different ways.

Why Fee-for-service Reimbursement Is Bad. Wait . . .

When someone is arguing that the health system needs an overhaul, one of the most common reasons they cite is that “our health system is built on a flawed foundation of fee for service.” Arguments like this always sound so bulletproof when they rely on vague yet widely accepted assumptions, but let’s think clearly about this, just for a moment.

First, let’s go back to Econ 101 to recall that association does not imply causation. So, when you see a health system based on fee for service that is delivering surprisingly low value, you are seeing an association. It starts to look a lot more like causation when you compare this health system to other health systems in the world that are not built on fee for service but are all delivering much higher value. But it starts to look a lot less like causation when you compare this health system to any other industry and see that nearly all of them are based on fee for service yet somehow delivering excellent value. (I’ll come back to this later.)

So what is fee-for-service reimbursement, really? It is simply one extreme end of a spectrum, and at the other end sits capitation:

1This spectrum is not well understood. People always think of it in terms of incentives (“bad” incentives at the fee-for-service end, “good” incentives at the capitation end), but what is actually being varied as you move from one end to the other? I’ve never heard anyone talk about that. So let’s talk about it; the conclusion will be surprising.

I will say that fee for service is the purchase of a narrowly defined service (e.g., a single doctor visit, a single operation, a single medication), whereas capitation is the purchase of a broadly defined service (e.g., all health care you need for a year). So, breadth of service purchased at one time is really what varies on this spectrum. But in addition to the breadth of the service being purchased, there is another important difference: risk. When you pay for narrowly defined services one at a time, you have all the risk (meaning, if you get sick or break your arm, you’re the one who is financially accountable). And when you pay for a broadly defined service, the party you’ve paid has all the risk (meaning, if you get sick or break your arm, they’re the one that is financially accountable). Note that this is primarily where the “accountable” comes from in accountable care organizations–they have the financial risk, not the patient.

This is a spectrum because a service could sit at any point along it. For example, Qliance offers flat-rate, no-limit primary care; they are financially accountable for anything that could be considered primary care. Another example is episode-based billing, where the patient pays a single lump sum in exchange for a guarantee that the provider will do everything necessary to treat the specified medical condition. An interesting side note is that even a typical fee-for-service doctor visit is not truly fee for service in the sense that the patient has all the risk; at least, last time I checked doctors don’t make patient pay larger copays any time appointments run longer than the allotted 15 minutes.

2So what can we conclude from this discussion? Is fee for service actually bad?

Being too far at the fee-for-service end of the spectrum can definitely be bad if it means patients are expected to coordinate complex care by themselves. But being too far at the capitation end of the spectrum can also be bad if it means patients are not at all financially responsible for the services they choose to consume and are also stuck having to get all their care from one source that will inevitably provide less-than-exceptional quality for some services.

This means we need to find the perfect point somewhere in between the extreme ends of the spectrum where our health system will deliver optimal value. This point obviously depends on the service and the individual involved, as well as who can bear risk most effectively, but the way to think about it is using the “jobs” principle as taught by Clay Christensen. When a person enters the health system, it’s because they have a “job” they want to get done. That job generally isn’t something as narrow as to get an x-ray; more likely, their job would be to fix a suspected broken arm, so they’re looking to purchase all the services together that can fulfill that job. The job could also be broader, like to have the peace of mind that they have little to no healthcare-related financial risk and can just go and get care from one source no matter what comes up, or also to have help to keep healthy and thereby reduce care-requiring episodes (think: Kaiser Permanente and similar integrated delivery systems).

If we want to successfully redesign our healthcare delivery system (isn’t that all the talk these days?), we need to understand that fee-for-service isn’t intrinsically bad; the only bad thing is missing the sweet spots on that spectrum.

One final, crucial point: Yes, overhaulists* properly attribute many of the problems in our system to it sitting too far at the fee-for-service end of the spectrum (e.g., overtesting, overtreating, fragmentation), but they have overlooked what has caused the system to fail to adjust itself to a more optimal, jobs-focused point on the spectrum, as other industries do. This has everything to do with value not being financially rewarded in our system, and it is the topic of the publication I’ve been working on, as well as many future blog posts that will start to lay out the solutions more cohesively (after my publication comes out). More to come!

* My term for someone who believes the entire health system needs to be overhauled

UPDATE: Added a paragraph or two for clarity.

Bariatric Surgery on the Health System

Today I learned about a doctor group in Ohio that is advocating for a law to eliminate insurance companies’ wanton (and almost unrestricted) refusal to deny reimbursement for various health services. I applaud these efforts; but, I think their focus would lead me to categorize them as bariatric surgeons of the health system.

Bariatric surgery, A.K.A. weight-loss surgery, is criticized as (to reference Thoreau) hacking at the branches of evil rather than striking at the root. The root cause of obesity (in most cases) is a suboptimal diet and insufficient exercise. But, instead of going through painful lifestyle changes to solve the root of their obesity problem, people can now get bariatric surgery instead. (I should say here and now that I don’t think bariatric surgery is all bad–it has its uses, many of which are wonderful and important, as do advocacy groups such as the one spoken of above.)

How does this relate to the work being done by that noble doctor group in Ohio? They’re trying to contain the ill effects of an underlying incentive in the health system rather than change that underlying incentive that is causing insurance companies to seek every way possible to limit medical loss. (“Medical loss” is the term health insurance companies use to refer to their money they spent on paying healthcare providers for services rendered.)

What is this underlying incentive that insurance companies are rationally (yet probably unethically) responding to? They get paid more for spending as little as possible on health care. Instead, they need to get paid more for keeping patients healthy. If that incentive were to be changed, the whole issue of reimbursement denials would be solved.

Even “pay for performance” is another, more sophisticated form of health-system bariatric surgery–providers would naturally invest much more time and effort (e.g., investing in EMRs, crafting policies to help physicians more closely adhere to clinical guidelines, perform research in ways to reduce complication rates and hospital re-admissions, etc.) to find every possible way to keep patients healthy if it meant they would be more profitable as a result of it.

So, how can a payer get paid more to keep patients healthy? Integrated systems. Capitation. There are ways, but this post isn’t about the solutions so much as it is about understanding the causes of the problems. Sorry.

UPDATE: Another way to look at this would be using the carrots and sticks metaphor. Right now, our main way to negate the ill effects of bad underlying incentives in healthcare is by using sticks to punish the natural responses to the incentives the system provides. Using sticks is prone to getting “gamed” (i.e., people find ways to avoid the punishment without actually doing the desired action). Carrots, on the other hand, provide good underlying incentives (assuming the carrot is well-aligned with what we really want health-care providers to be doing for us), and they stimulate creativity to find more effective ways to get them.