Medicare payments could get tougher for docs


More than 40 value-based payment models – from direct contracting to bundled payments – have been introduced into the Medicare program in the past 10 years, with the goal of improving care while lowering costs. Hopes were high that they would be successful.

But despite the new alternative payment models, costs have not declined. If this continues, Medicare won’t have sufficient funds to cover benefit costs after 2024. Physicians could suffer a huge blow to their income.

Many of the value-based care models simply did not work as expected, said Seema Verma, head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, at a recent HLTH Conference. “They are not producing the types of savings the taxpayers deserve,” Ms. Verma said.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPac) concluded that, while dozens of payment models were tested, most failed to generate net savings for Medicare. Even the most successful of the models produced only modest savings. MedPac elaborated: “The track record raises the question of whether changes to particular models or CMMI’s [Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation’s] broader strategies might be warranted.”

What will happen now, as government officials admit that their value-based programs haven’t worked? The value-based programs could become more stringent. Here’s what physicians will have to contend with.

More risk. Experts agree that risk – financial risk – will be a component of future programs. Two-sided risk is likely to be the norm. This means that both parties – the provider and the insurer – are at financial risk for the patients covered by the program.

For example, a plan with 50,000 beneficiary patients would estimate the cost of caring for those patients on the basis of multiple variables. If the actual cost is lower than anticipated, both parties share in the savings. However, both share in the loss if the cost of caring for their patient population exceeds expectations.

This may compel physicians to enhance efficiency and potentially limit the services provided to patients. Typically, however, the strategy is to make efforts to prevent services like ED visits and admissions by focusing on health maintenance.

In contrast to most current value-based models, which feature little to no downside risk for physicians, double-sided risk means physicians could lose money. The loss may incorporate a cap – 5%, for example – but programs may differ. Experts concur that double-sided risk will be a hallmark of future programs.

Better data. The majority of health care services are rendered via fee-for-service: Patients receive services and physicians are paid, yet little or no information about outcomes is exchanged between insurers and physicians.

Penny Noyes, president of Health Business Navigators and contract negotiator for physicians, is not a fan of the current crop of value-based programs and feels that data transparency is positive. Sound metrics can lead to improvement, she said, adding: “It’s not money that drives physicians to make decisions; it’s what’s in the best interest of their patients and their patients’ long-term care.”

Value-based programs can work but only if applicable data are developed and given to physicians so that they can better understand their current performance and how to improve.

Mandated participation. Participation in value-based programs has been voluntary, but that may have skewed the results, which were better than what typical practice would have shown. Acknowledging this may lead CMS to call for mandated participation as a component of future programs. Physicians may be brought into programs, if only to determine whether the models really work. To date, participation in the programs has been voluntary, but that may change in the future.

Innovation. The private insurance market may end up as a key player. Over the past 6 months, health insurers have either consolidated partnerships with telemedicine companies to provide no-cost care to beneficiaries or have launched their own initiatives.

Others are focused on bringing together patients and providers operating outside of the traditional health care system, such as Aetna’s merger with CVS which now offers retail-based acute care (MinuteClinic) and chronic care (HealthHUB). Still other payers are gambling with physician practice ownership, as in the case of United Healthcare’s OptumHealth, which now boasts around 50,000 physicians throughout the country.

New practice models are emerging in private practices as well. Physicians are embracing remote care, proactively managing care transitions, and seeking out more methods to keep patients healthy and at home.


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