Commentary

Medicare payments could get tougher for docs


 

Not much was expected from value-based plans

Many are not surprised that the value-based models did not produce impressive results. Ms. Noyes doubted that positive outcomes will be achieved for physicians in comparison with what could have been attained under fee-for-service arrangements with lower administrative costs.

While the Affordable Care Act attempted to encourage alternative reimbursement, it limits the maximum medical loss ratio (MLR) a payer could achieve. For many plans, that maximum was 85%. Simply put, at least $0.85 of each premium collected had to be paid in claims; the remaining $0.15 went to margin, claims, and other administrative costs. A payer with an 82% MLR then would have to rebate the 3% difference to enrollees.

But that’s not what occurred, according to Ms. Noyes. Because value-based payments to providers are considered a claims expense, an MLR ratio of 82% allowed the payer to distribute the 3% difference to providers as value-based payments. Ms. Noyes said: “That may sound good for the provider, but the result was essentially a freeze on the provider’s fee-for-service reimbursement with the prospect of getting value-based payments like ‘shared savings.’ 

“When the providers tried to increase their base fee-for-service rates just to match inflation, payers often advised that any future raises had to be earned through value-based programs,” Ms. Noyes added. The value-based formulas confuse providers because payments are often made for periods as far back as 18 months, and providers do not have data systems to reconcile their payer report cards retrospectively. The result is that providers tended to accept whatever amount the payer distributed.

Executives at Lumeris, a company that helps health systems participate successfully in value-based care, see potential in a newer approach to alternative payments, such as CMS’ Direct Contracting initiative. This voluntary payment model offers options tailored to several types of organizations that aim to reduce costs while preserving or enhancing the quality of care for Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries.

Jeff Smith, chief commercial officer for population health at Lumeris, explained that the Direct Contracting initiative can provide physicians with a more attractive option than prior value-based models because it adjusts for the complexity and fragility of patients with complex and chronic conditions. By allowing providers to participate in the savings generated, the initiative stands in stark contrast to what Mr. Smith described as the “shared savings to nothingness” experienced by providers in earlier-stage alternative payment models.

Physicians engaged with value-based programs like Direct Contracting are investing in nurses to aid with initiatives regarding health promotion and transitions of care. When a patient is discharged, for example, the nurse contacts the patient to discuss medications, schedule follow-up appointments, and so forth – tasks typically left to the patient (or caregiver) to navigate in the traditional system.

The initiative recognizes the importance of managing high-risk patients, those whom physicians identify as having an extraordinary number of ED visits and admissions. These patients, as well as so-called “rising-risk” patients, are targeted by nurses who proactively communicate with patients (and caregivers) to address patient’s needs, including social determinants of health.

Physicians who have a large load of patients in value-based programs are hiring social workers, pharmacists, and behavioral health experts to help. Of course, these personnel are costly, but that’s what the value-based programs aim to reimburse.

Still, the road ahead to value based is rocky and may not gain momentum for some time. Johns Hopkins University’s Doug Hough, PhD, an economist, recounts a government research study that sought to assess the university’s health system participation in a value-based payment program. While there were positive impacts on the program’s target population, Hough and his team discovered that the returns achieved by the optional model didn’t justify the health system’s financial support for it. The increasingly indebted health system ultimately decided to drop the optional program.

Dr. Hough indicated that the health system – Johns Hopkins Medicine – likely would have continued its support for the program had the government at least allowed it to break even. Although the payment program under study was a 3-year project, the bigger challenge, declared Dr. Hough, is that “we can’t turn an aircraft carrier that quickly.”

“Three years won’t show whether value-based care is really working,” Dr. Hough said.

Robert Zipper, MD, a hospitalist and senior policy advisor for Sound Physicians, a company that works to improve outcomes in acute care, agreed with Dr. Hough that performance tends to improve with time. Yet, Dr. Zipper doesn’t see much change in the near term, because “after all, there is nothing to replace them [the programs].”

The problem gets even stickier for private payers because patients may be on an insurance panel for as little as a year or 2. Thanks to this rapid churn of beneficiaries, even the best-designed value-based program will have little time to prove its worth.

Dr. Zipper is among the many who don’t expect significant changes in the near term, asserting that “President Biden will want to get a few policy wins first, and health care is not the easiest place to start.”

But it’s likely that payers and others will want to see more emphasis on value-based programs despite these programs’ possible value to patients, physicians, and health systems alike.

A version of this article originally appeared on Medscape.com.

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