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Obamacare’s Magic Bullet (Accountable Care Organizations) Is Not On Target!

Stanley Feld M.D.,FACP,MACP


As we get closer to January 2012, the originally scheduled implementation date for Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), the time has come to reexamine the showpiece of President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) of 2010. 

 The final rules for ACO’s are now scheduled for release on January 2012. The implementation was originally scheduled for January 2012. As the original rules are being studied and interpreted the program for ACOs implementation became more confusing. Dr. Don Berwick (CMS Director) has refused to discuss the final rules until they have been published in the Federal Register.

 “The ACO program is based on the hubristic assumption that the federal government can design the best organizational structure for the delivery of care, foster its development, and control its operation for the entire country.

 The federal government has big-footed health system reform. Although there is no one right way to organize care, the federal government (Dr. Don Berwick and President Obama) thinks it has found one—and exerts top-down, bureaucratic control through PPACA to implement it.”

 ACOs are supposed to be organizations that improve coordinated care. If an ACO decreases the cost of care the ACO will share the savings with the government with a formula for sharing to be determined by the government. The formula is complicated.

 ACOs will be required to accept responsibility for the cost and quality of care for defined patient populations. The government will define the population not the ACO or the patient. The goal is to prevent the ACOs ability to cherry pick a healthy population.

 ACOs will have to meet targets defined by their previous 3 years of Medicare Part A and Part B experience in order to share savings.

 Here is the first “Catch 22.”

 If an organization such as Mayo Clinic did a great job with its integrated system in the past three years it would have to do better in the next year to receive any savings. Let us say it is not possible to do better because they are so great. The only risk benefit reward for Mayo Clinic is a penalty.

If an organization did poorly in the last three years its upside potential is great if it performs well.

  Qualified ACOs can choose between 2 risk-benefit programs. The first involves upside potential from shared savings in the first 2 years, adding downside risk only in the third year of operation.

 In the second risk-benefit program, ACOs share a greater percentage of the savings with the government but are responsible for downside risk from the onset of the program.

 ACOs’ will be required to conduct quality improvement initiatives, care coordination, measure performance and develop infrastructure to meet government requirements to qualify to continue to be an ACO. The startup costs for a hospital system have been estimated to be $2 million to $12 million dollars.

  Hospitals and physician organizations have had adversarial relationships in the past that have to be overcome. In order for ACOs to have a chance to work, cooperative relationships must be developed between the hospital and physicians. Hospitals will control the money. They must distribute it fairly to physicians. Past behavior is a predictor of future behavior.  Hospitals have not had a successful record in the past of being fair to physicians.

 Systems of continuing quality improvement will have to be developed and implemented. Both physicians and hospitals have not had to deal with these systems in the past. In is not part of the medical care systems’ culture.  They will have to learn to adapt too quickly in Dr. Berwick’s timeline. 

 It will require a fundamental change in the U.S. healthcare system. It is not a bad thing to have systems of continual quality improvement. In my view the medical care system has to grow into it under steady but friendly pressure. The culture cannot be changed overnight. A consumer driven healthcare system can make it happen quickly. A government driven system will not be able to do it.  

 President Obama has stated over and over again that he is all ears for new ideas. Yet he does not listen to new ideas.

 It is an error to try to create a HMO on steroids. HMOs failed once and they will fail again. Many medical outcomes are unpredictable. Physicians and hospitals are not insurance companies. President Obama is trying to shift the risk to physicians and hospitals. Physicians and hospitals are aware of the difficulty. Many are terrified by the potential penalty.

 A recent report listed the 54 worse hospitals in the country as far as readmission rates after discharge in two out of three disease categories. President Obama has recognized some of these worst performing hospitals as having the best-integrated systems.

Among the hospital systems listed are the Cleveland Clinic, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Boston, Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, MO, Northwestern Memorial in Chicago, University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore and the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.

  President Obama is going to impose a penalty starting at 1% for Medicare DRG discharges and readmissions after Oct. 1, 2012, increasing to 2% after Oct. 1, 2013 and to 3% after Oct. 1, 2014.

President Obama must be reminded that it is difficult to get cooperation from organizations when they are threated by penalty. The development of complicated regulations that cannot be followed and then granting waivers to some and not others intensifies the mistrust and uncertainty felt by the medical community.

Creating new programs must provide adequate incentives not penalties. Penalties do not promote participation by providers.

 The opinions expressed in the blog “Repairing The Healthcare System” are, mine and mine alone. 






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