Today, we submitted to CMS our comments on the proposed changes to the 2019 Physician Fee Schedule. This year was more exciting than most with CMS proposing significant changes to how physician’s bill for evaluation and management services i.e. the traditional office visit. We worked with our partner physicians and analyzed over 700,000 claims to inform our comments on this proposal. Below is our full comment letter and analysis to CMS.

Dear Administrator Verma:

Aledade (www.aledade.com) partners with 272 primary care physician practices, FQHCs and RHCs in value-based health care. Organized into twenty accountable care organizations across 18 states, these primary care physicians are accountable for over 240,000 Medicare beneficiaries. More than half of our primary care providers are in practices with fewer than 10 clinicians. We are committed to outcome-based approaches to determine the value of health care. We are committed to using technology, data, practice-transformation expertise and, most important, the relationship between a person and their primary care physician to improve the value of health care.

For our comments on the 2019 proposed physician fee schedule, we focus on those issues closest to value-driven health care and to independent physician practices, including:

  • Changes to evaluation and management (E&M) documentation and payment
  • New codes for physician time spent with patients that is not face to face
  • Updates to the Quality Payment Program (QPP)
  • Changes to the quality measures in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP)

E&M Documentation and Payment

We are pleased that CMS is seeking to reduce the burden of E&M documentation. Despite being outdated and misvalued, E&M codes have remained largely unchanged in the last twenty years. This is mainly due to a lack of consensus on the best way to revise the documentation guidelines and payments in the physician and payer community. We evaluated the proposed changes with a belief that reducing physician burden is a worthy and long overdue goal.

Deciding which E&M Level
We support CMS’s proposal to allow for two new, streamlined approaches to determining the E&M level.

  • Basing the level of E&M solely on the complexity of the medical decision making required
  • Relying on time as the deciding factor for the level of visit without the focus on counseling or care coordination

By providing two alternative methods of documentation, CMS would allow physicians to match their choice to their practice style and patient population. CMS would also gain experience with the different methods that will inform future efforts to improve documentation focused on worthwhile medical record keeping and care coordination.

However, our partner physicians have given us important feedback that the impact of CMS changes are limited. CMS documentation requirements are not the sole driver of the current level of documentation in most practices. Commercial payers or malpractice concerns would continue to necessitate documentation even if CMS finalizes these proposals. We encourage CMS to continue to work with the AMA CPT editorial panel to revise the guidelines at their source to minimize unnecessary documentation across the entire patient panel.

E&M Single Payment Rate
We cannot recommend that CMS finalize the single payment rate for level 2 through 5 E&M visits, even with CMS’s efforts to use G codes to minimize the variance that a single rate would cause. This decision informed both by feedback from our partner physician practices and from our analysis of the effects the rate and G-codes would have on practice revenue. Specifically, we analyzed 771,011 2017 claims of 213 Aledade practices. We provide details of that analysis and detailed feedback from our partner physician practices in the appendix. Our key takeaways are:

Neither the documentation not the single payment rate can be evaluated with consideration of interaction with other Medicare policies and with policies outside of Medicare from other payers and regarding liability

  • Without the G-codes, the practices would lose 2.3% of their revenue from E&M
  • With the addition of the primary care-focused GPCX1, the practices would gain 3.2%
  • Practice level effects vary widely with a range of -19% to +41% (see graph below)
  • To eliminate the negative effects on 99% of the practices, the extended time code, GPRO1, would have to be billed on 29% of Level 4/5 visits
  • Beneficiary risk scores do not significantly account for practice level differences in utilization of level 4 and 5 visits versus level 2 and 3 visits

 

The graph below shows the distribution of change at the practice level:

This variation creates substantial revenue uncertainty for practices. Considering Medicare’s limited effect on overall documentation requirements faced by a practice and this uncertainty, we do not believe that payment rates are an appropriate tool to reduce physician documentation. We are also concerned about introducing harmful incentives. A single payment rate combined with the MPPR policy (discussed later) incentivizes frequent limited visits that inconvenience Medicare beneficiaries, at a minimum, and possibly create less cohesive care. While the G codes mitigate this to some extent, the incentive remains both to shorten visits and to prefer patients who can be well cared for in a short visit and patients who can easily make multiple trips to the office.

Home Visits
We support the CMS proposal to remove the requirement to justify the medical necessity of a home visit. Given the challenges of providing a home visit and the obvious convenience to the beneficiary, requiring justification is an unnecessary step.

Reducing the Least Expensive Procedure by 50 Percent
We cannot recommend that CMS finalize its proposal to require modifier 25 when a procedure is combined with an E&M visit. The savings from these policies are applied to the single payment rate by CMS, but the cost that they impose on our practices are not included in our analysis. This means that if both policies were finalized then the impact on practices would be more variable and more negative than in our analysis. However, we do not recommend this proposal for more than its interaction with the E&M single payment rate.

We disagree that there is significant enough overlap between resource use of procedures and E&M to justify a 50 percent reduction. The main overlap is in physical location of the office and administrative components that do not make up 50 percent of the RVUs for most procedures and E&M services. Nothing we have experienced with our partner practices would indicate that the savings to the practice for doing multiple services in a single visit would account for the 50 percent of the costs. Finally, this adds yet another financial incentive to the practice shorten visits. Even if CMS were to finalize the single payment rate for E&M we encourage CMS to not finalize these proposal in conjunction even if it means making adjustments to the single payment rate.

Non-Face-to-Face Physician Time

Chronic Care Management Services by a Physician or Other Qualified Health Care Professional
We support the creation of a separate code for CCM that focuses on and is valued on physician time. The lack of this code creates a disincentive for physicians to step into the care coordination process. By creating this physician valued code, CMS continues its movement to supporting comprehensive chronic care management that began with 99490.

Brief Communication Technology-Based Service
We support the creation of this code because we believe that this service falls between those which are obviously incidental and those which are defined and require direct financial support. However, we acknowledge that the low reimbursement of this code combined with the high administrative cost of the claims process creates concerns. In particular, we are concerned that the collection of the minimal beneficiary coinsurance could result in administrative collection costs that exceed the amount of the coinsurance. To the extent allowed by statute, we encourage CMS to allow practices to routinely waive the coinsurance for this code due to the high financial cost for the practice to collect it.

Updates to the Quality Payment Program
Promoting Interoperability
We support the proposal to apply the individual or group-level score for Promoting Interoperability (PI) for purposes of MIPS score even when the MIPS-eligible clinician participates in MSSP. Even in our more homogenous ACOs (same state, independent primary care), we have seen significant variance in the practice level-PI scores. As with any measurement program, high levels of measure performance requires not just good process and use, but a focus on measure monitoring. Some practices monitor their measures and seek to perform high on the measure. Other practices implement processes focused on workflow, not measure performance. Unsurprisingly the former scores better than the latter. Using the ACO average hides these differences and disincentivizes high scores. By moving the the score to the individual or group level, the choices made by the practice are accurately reflected in the MIPS score of the practice.

Qualifying Professional Determination
We support CMS’s proposal for making the QP determination at the TIN level in addition to the AAPM level. This is a particularly acute issue as the threshold rises to 50 percent. Even primary care-only ACOs receive attribution for only 60-75% of their patients, depending on ACO characteristics such as geography (rural areas have higher attribution than urban). The inclusion of specialists in the ACO, particularly specialists who do not drive attribution, quickly moves the ACO close to the 50 percent AAPM threshold. Having the 50 percent threshold at the AAPM level discourages additional inclusion of specialists in the ACO because it is difficult to predict whether a given specialist will take the ACO below the threshold and therefore remove the AAPM bonus for all ACO participants. We do not believe it is desirable for the QP determination to solely dictate whether an ACO includes a specialist. By moving the QP determination to look both at the TIN and AAPM level, CMS’s proposal to use an -and- methodology removes this disincentive to include specialists while maintaining the attractiveness of the AAPM bonus to ACO participants.

Quality Measurement in the Medicare Shared Savings Program
We support all the measure changes that are being proposed by CMS.
The table below is our measure-by-measure reasoning for this support.
Web Interface Changes

As we continue to look towards outcome measures over process measures, we urge development of a “time spent at home” (https://catalyst.nejm.org/time-spent-at-home-a-patient-defined-outcome/) or “days spent at home” (https://www.nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/NEJMp1607206) patient-centered outcome measure using administrative data.

CAHPS Measures
We support both the inclusion of measuring ACO-45, “CAHPS: Courteous and Helpful Office Staff” and ACO-46, “CAHPS: Care Coordination” and the movement of ACO-7, “Health and Functional Status” to pay-for-performance. While it was not a proposal by CMS, we want to call attention to the increasing weight of CAHPS scores in accounting for differences between ACO performance. As an increasing number of Web Interface Measures top out (only three are not topped out) and as the claims-based measures are reduced in this proposal, the remaining measures for an ACO to distinguish themselves are in CAHPS. We are supporters of CAHPS measurement and do not believe CMS needs to take action in the final rule. However, it is something that CMS should monitor as the program progresses.

We look forward to continuing to work with CMS to incentivize more value creation in health care. Please contact me or Travis Broome (travis@aledade.com) if you have any questions about our submission and/or if we can be helpful to you and your staff as you consider the finalization of this regulation.

Sincerely,
/s/
Farzad Mostashari, MD, ScM
CEO and Co-Founder
Aledade, Inc.

Appendix: E&M Payment Rate Effects Data Analysis
To inform our views on the proposed movement to a single payment rate for E&M levels 2 through 5 and the addition of new G codes we analyzed billing data of 213 practices that were in ACOs participating in the Medicare Shared Savings Program in 2017. There were 771,011 claims that would have been affected by the proposed changes and, therefore, were included in the analysis. We used the 2019 conversion factor to value the RVUs of the 2017 claims in 2019 dollars. We then replaced the RVUs with the proposed RVUs of the single payment rate for the comparison. We adjusted for geography using the Geographic Adjustment Factor File included with the proposed rule. Finally, we applied GPC1X and GPRO1 to variable percentage of the 2017 claims to finish the comparison between 2017 revenue in 2019 dollars to 2019 revenue under the proposed rule

We were interested in the following questions:

  1. What was the mean effect of the policies on the 213 practices accounting for different use of GPC1X and GPRO1?
  2. Does the mean vary by geography?
  3. What were the practice level effects and what was the variation in the mean?
  4. Does practice risk score explain practice utilization of level 4 and 5 visits?

Mean Effect on the 213 Practices
For this first analysis we calculated the mean payment without GPC1X and with full use of GPC1X, by state. Later, we looked at the effects of GPRO1. It is unclear to us at what level GPRO1 would have been used in 2017 had it been available and therefore we account for it separately.


The effect of the practice level distribution with no G codes is negative with state level variation ranging from -$28,377 to gaining $23,104.

As these are primary care practices we ran the analysis assuming 100% of established visit claims use GPC1X.


As CMS expected the addition of the primary care focused G code moves the mean. For the practices in the analysis this means a now positive 3.2%. The geographic variation is essentially unchanged.

Next we looked at the practice level variation. This was the biggest area of concern raised by our analysis and directly led to our decision to not recommend that CMS adopt the proposal.

The above graph should the distribution of % change in practice revenue with 100% GPC1X use. Each block is a practice. As you see the range is dramatic from -19% lose to 51% gain.

While variation has its own costs it is the negatively impacted practices that are most affected. Whether a practice is positively or negatively financially impacted is a direct relation to the ratio of level 4 and 5 visits to level 2 and 3 visits.

We believe it stands to reason that the use of GPRO1, the prolonged visit code would be more likely to be used in level 4 and 5 visits and therefore would disproportionately and positively affect practices who without GPRO1 are negatively impacted financially.

The next graph assumes 15% of Level 4 and 5 Claims with Prolonged Visit Added On

As you can see this greatly reduces the number of practices negatively impacted from 93 to 25 while not increasing the range on the positive side of the graph. However, it does shift the mean from a 3.2% gain over 2017 to a 9.1% gain. We were not able to determine whether that shift can be adjusted for without increasing the number of negatively impacted practices. The ratio of visits with GPRO1, the value of GPC1X and the value of the single payment rate can be tweaked to create a variety of results. We are unable to estimate the rate GPRO1 would have been used in 2017 so the 15% of this graph is illustrative purposes only.

In another distribution we found that it would be necessary to have a GPRO1 use rate of 35% of Level 4 and 5 Claims to eliminate any practice with a loss. This would move the mean to 17.0%.

The final question we attempted to answer was whether HCC risk score controlled for differences in level 4 and 5 variation and could therefore be used to vary the single payment rate in a way that did not require documentation. While risk did reduce some variation (see three graphs below) it did not control for level variation enough to be a viable solution.

In addition to our analysis, the other driver of our decision to not recommend the proposal was feedback from our partner physicians. Below is a summary of the key points they provided to us. The feedback did include both support and concerns; however, unlike the revenue impacts which overall were favorable, the overall feedback was unfavorable.

  • If a physician is paid the same for 10 minutes as for 30 minutes and needs to maintain positive margins as a business owner, the incentive is to limit the volume of complex patients and maintain a practice that leans towards low acuity patients
  • Proposal adds yet more change without addressing the chronic underfunding of primary care
  • Malpractice concerns are the main driver of documentation levels not billing
  • Many visits that should be level 4 and 5 go out as 3s because the documentation is so onerous on a solo practitioner. This levels the playing field between small practices and large practices with billing departments.
  • If CMS can figure out how to level the reimbursement differences, the same principles apply to home visits (CPT 99341-99350) and CMS should do the same for those codes
  • As much concern for the 50 percent reduction in multi-service visits as for the single payment rate combined with G codes. Certainly that the 50 percent policy will reduce revenue, but the effects of the single payment rate on revenue is uncertain so lots of concern that the combined policies will reduce revenue

I’m a Care Manager from Dixie Primary Care in Utah. I am responsible for contacting patients on a regular basis to monitor their care outside our practice. Our calls establish a reliable point of contact for patients with the greatest care demands. This allows us to stay on top of their health. Care Management shows our patients they have someone fighting in their corner, providing the support to make difficult lifestyle changes needed to turn their health around.

High-risk patients, often those with multiple chronic conditions, benefit most from Care Chronic Management (CCM) Program. Reflecting on the success of CCM, one patient comes to mind. This patient had chronic pain, COPD, A-Fib, Depression, Heart Failure, Hyperlipidemia, Hypertension, and Prostate CA, relied on a walker and cane for mobility, endured a number of breathing complications, weighed 265 pounds, and followed a pain medication schedule, when he began CCM in June 2017.

When first enrolled in the program, this patient was not ready to engage with me. After undergoing a knee replacement surgery, he recognized the importance of my team’s support in his recovery, and over time, my calls with him grew increasingly positive. I could begin to hear him smiling. Since his surgery, he is mostly pain free, only taking an occasional pain reliever as needed. Best of all, he is now walking freely, without dependence on a walker or cane.

The patient underwent an additional procedure on his nose that improved his O2 stats. He is able to breathe better and participate in more activities. In fact, he has started exercising and losing weight, thanks to both procedures and our partnership during his recovery. He joined a gym and works out with his wife three times a week. Now, he weighs 255 pounds!

After persistent follow up and unwavering support, this patient is engaged in his health. I am confident CCM and his increased participation in the program benefited him. When this patient and I began working together, we created a plan with the goal of exercising and losing weight. He is accomplishing his goals! Calling him a couple times a month, checking up on him, and providing accountability has catalyzed this process. This patient relishes the fact that he has completed his goals. I would even say he is overall less depressed as he now looks to the future.

If our practice wasn’t a part of an Aledade ACO, he would not have received this level of lasting, proactive support from someone on his team. Once he no longer needed follow-up appointments, he would have been off his doctors’ radars. But, because the patient had a CCM, he had support in reaching long-term goals, attaining holistic wellbeing, and addressing concerns that arose outside of the doctor’s office.

The support that Aledade has provided has given me tools that I can pass along to my patients. Helping a patient achieve their goals and take monumental steps towards wellness does not happen everyday and in every practice, which makes this story- a true success story- all the more exciting!

Every day, physicians are evaluated by a myriad of sources. Think of all the websites with provider ratings: Health Grades, Angie’s List, and even Yelp. These sites ask patients to review the quality of care provided by healthcare providers, and yet give no control to those who are being reviewed. Now, consider insurance companies and other payers who may provide scorecards based on patient metrics. As physicians, we may see a patient four times out of the year for 15 minutes, but we have no control over how they spend the other 8,759 hours of the year.

Also, take into consideration that no physician gets a perfect score across all of these scorecards. In today’s medicine, anything short of perfection is a “ding.” The reality is that dings are part of the new value-based world, and it’s important that we recognize them for what they are—opportunities for improvement rather than points of frustration.

Let’s face it, medical providers do not like to be judged. Many of us, as physicians, have succeeded in our professions due to our hard work and dedication. But, more importantly, our pursuit of excellence is what sets us apart. Perfection is the gold standard and anything less will not suffice. We believe that our patients’ lives depend upon it.

When we see scorecards produced by a payer and see that we do not meet or exceed all measures, many of us find this as being insufficient in the care we provide. As a medical director for Aledade, my conversation with primary care physicians in our national accountable care organization (ACO) network generally go like this:

The Over-Utilization Ding: Frequent Emergency Department (ED) Visits
“You mean to tell me I’m getting dinged for that guy? There is no way I can keep him out of the emergency room. He loves going there.”

The opportunity for over utilizers “frequent flyers” is to have them utilize you more. Less ED visits are a step in the right direction, so rather than trying to “fix” or “make perfect” one frequent flyer, we will instead attempt to reduce a few visits among all of your frequent flyers. We do this by helping practices expand same day access, teach patients to call the physician first, and add robust care management that targets patients who “love” the ED.

The Over-Budget Ding: Costs More Than Expected
“So what you’re saying is that I am getting dinged for his liver transplant? How am I supposed to control his costs? I am just his primary care physician.”
The opportunity for high cost patients is to start thinking ahead. Ask yourself the “surprise question” are the high costs due to a specific medical condition, like cancer? Would it surprise you if the patient died in the next six to 12 months? If the answer is no, has the patient or family received an end-of-life conversation? If this is not an end-of-life situation, is chronic care management appropriate? Are the costs episodic? If so, there might not be much that you can do besides embrace the ding.

The Quality Measure Ding: Failure to Meet a Seemingly Arbitrary Content Management System Defined By Quality Measures that Make No Sense Clinically
“You mean to tell me I’m getting dinged by a patient with diabetes, who refuses to take my medical advice? I am going to dismiss that patient from my practice so I never get dinged again.”

This particular ding can provide the opportunity to improve quality measure performance for an entire population. Can the measure be addressed across the entire population? Are you leveraging standing orders? Are you seeing poorly controlled patients more frequently until they reach a specific goal? Do you recognize the opportunity to improve your risk coding for these complex patients?

It’s time to rethink the ding. It can feel frustrating to have someone tell you that you are not doing your job well, but embrace the ding and let it be your call to action. Keep providing the best quality care to your patients, always with positive outcomes in mind. If you get dinged, then you will know where you need to get better. Focus on providing better care at affordable costs.

Four years ago, enticed by the vision of a better healthcare system in the hands of empowered and elevated primary care providers, I joined my longtime mentors, Farzad Mostashari, MD and Mat Kendall, on our third collective adventure – Aledade.

Since that fateful day, I’ve served in a handful of roles – teacher, learner, confidante, road warrior, doctor, and mediator. I could write of the way our incredible mission has motivated me, kept me centered and determined, driven me to keep learning. I could explain the feeling I get when one of our Aledade physicians relays to me an a-hah moment, having realized that the Annual Wellness Visit they just conducted just saved a patient’s life, simply by opening up a conversation about the patient’s circumstances and risk factors. I could tell of the pride and exhilaration born of gaining momentum, of extending our reach to new patients across the country.

Instead, I want to share the story of Aledade’s four years through its people.

Year One introduced me to our Chief Technology Officer Edwin Miller, fabled builder of Electronic Health Record systems and incredible humanist, who literally feels the pain of our providers in a way I never thought possible. He shares his passion for working on old cars with his son and has quietly amassed the most incredible t-shirt collection I have ever seen. Edwin taught me what it means to serve our providers, to put their needs first, to dive in and do whatever is necessary to reach our goals.

In that first year, Edwin and I both got to meet Becky Jaffe, one of our original Delaware family physicians, a tireless advocate for the independent primary care provider, and the doctor I would choose for myself or any one of my family members. Becky and our indomitable physician partners in Delaware, Maryland, Arkansas, and Staten Island pushed us to be better and helped us build this incredible rocket ship without an instruction manual (and while flying it). Our first Delaware Practice Transformation Specialist, Robin Senft, taught me that you can accomplish anything with a smile – and a homemade, hand decorated cake pop.

In our second year, we blossomed. I was lucky to get to know so many new members of the Aledade team as our company grew, including Christine Dang-Vu, Golden State Warriors’ number one fan and tenacious, brilliant practice advocate and implementation strategist (and executor). A veritable One-Woman Band, Christine exemplified for me the discipline and work ethic necessary to move the needle in this complex ecosystem.

Our third year introduced me to the miracle of motherhood and the challenges of being a working mom. My daughter Nina became the light of my life on October 21, 2016, and even after an extended maternity leave, I was just not ready to suffer being away from her. My Aledade family rose up around me and held my hand, gracious, gentle and patient. Countless colleagues – friends – counselled and supported me and helped me see that there was a balance and serenity to be gained through persistence, self-love and incremental progress. My eyes were opened to so many awe-inspiring examples of Aledade parents – Candice Cortes, Spring Lane, Joe Neumann, to name a few – who have navigated this complex and often heart-wrenching dance. I can’t imagine going back to a time without Candice’s incredible EHR and practice workflow knowledge, Spring’s enthusiasm, can-do-it attitude and results-orientation, or Joe’s quiet progress behind the scenes to get us the data we need to promote practice change.

In our fourth year, our ranks continued to swell with the most inspiring individuals, personally and professionally. We count among us Peace Corps volunteers, foster parents, mountain climbers, church leaders, yoga instructors, acupuncturists, chefs, world travelers, and rodeo athletes. Every day, my colleagues carry our core values of Grit, Service and Inclusion to their communities. I am so proud and grateful to work alongside this incredible team and I cannot wait to see where, and to whom, Aledade’s fifth year takes us.

As a primary care physician in a small, independent practice, my focus has always been on doing what is best for my patients and community. Over the past twenty years, I’ve continued to come back to this idea. My practice, Scott Family Physicians, has become a trusted, connected part of the community. Being an independent physician offers many benefits to my patients.  One example is the freedom to have open scheduling in my practice, allowing patients to set same day appointments, instead of an expensive, unnecessary visit to the ER. It also allows me to serve my community as the high school football team’s doctor every Friday in the fall.

But, running an independent primary care practice also comes with challenges and tough decisions. As the shift to value-based care gained traction, it became clear that this new model was a great way for primary care practices to be rewarded for the attentive, personal care we provide our patients.

That’s why, two years ago, I decided to join the Aledade Accountable Care Organization (ACO) with other local Acadiana primary care physicians. I knew what this meant for my practice, as the transformation to value-based care is an investment of time, staff, and finances, but was confident that we could succeed with our partner independent physicians in the ACO and with Aledade.

And, I am proud to say, now as the Medical Director of the Aledade Louisiana ACOs with over 30 of the highest quality primary care practices in Louisiana, my practice’s decision to embrace value-based care is showing returns in a big way.

Through the Aledade ACO, our group of local, independent primary care practices partnered with one of the largest payers in Louisiana, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana. In our first year providing value-based care to our patients covered by Blue Cross in its value program, Quality Blue, we saw great results. Not only did our patients receive better quality care, our ACO achieved significant savings.

Through our clinical initiatives, population health management, and increased ability to access and share data, we reduced our patients’ total cost of care by 8 percent. But, more importantly, we kept them healthier. Our ACO kept patients out of the hospital and ER, reducing admittances from 65 to 57 per 1,000 patients. By focusing on chronic disease management, we helped increase our patients’ rate of control of diabetes (up 13 percent) and hypertension (up 20 percent) significantly. Through improved visibility into our patient population, we could proactively reach out to high-risk patients, identify patients in need of a PCP visit, and conduct more preventive care – such as mammograms, which we saw rise 5 percent across the ACO.

For my fellow physicians and I in the ACO, this is a sign of our hard work paying off. Many of our practices had been delivering this kind of care for years, but in Aledade’s ACO model we now have the technology, access to data, and ability to participate in value programs, like Blue Cross’ Quality Blue program, to see the benefits and results for our patients and practice. For my practice this means we kept our patients healthier and the savings we achieved let me breathe easier as a small business owner. The savings we shared in, can be the difference between keeping clinic doors open and remaining independent or having to close a practice.

Growing up in the Appalachian Culture of rural southwest Virginia was challenging, but until I began working with Aledade, I did not realize that my community and circumstances were unique. As a child, I did not aspire to be a nurse. I presumed I would follow the same path as my mom. She worked as a seamstress in our local sewing factories, which were essentially sweatshops. She did not graduate from high school, she was widowed at an early age and she had two children to raise. We knew we were poor but we couldn’t escape the circumstances because it was all we knew.

Survival was hard work, ingenuity, and poverty “smarts”. We knew how to stretch a meager income, grow our own food, and treat ailments, injuries, and illness naturally. Our house was always in need of repairs. A leaky roof with buckets and pots strategically stationed to catch the water, no air conditioning and only a wood stove for heat. Our clothes were hand me downs therefore I never was stylish in the 70s and 80s designs. We didn’t have an indoor bathroom until I was 16, I never had my hair cut in a salon, rarely did I even get to go inside a grocery store, and the nearest mall or shopping centers were, in my mind, lightyears away, although it was a mere 35 miles. Our car was lucky to make it 5 miles before it puttered out or we didn’t have money for gas. This is what I knew, who I was and, to me, everything was normal in this environment.

The Appalachian Culture is difficult to leave because of the deep sense of place and pride. I was fortunate to have a mother who emphasized education. Without my education, I may have remained poverty stricken. Thankfully, I was led to a career in nursing through a choice I made to attend the high school vocational-technical school. Once I started nursing, I couldn’t stop. I started as a licensed practical nurse and eventually became a master’s prepared registered nurse.

I began my nursing career in 1988. Since then, I have seen incredible changes in health care. In those 30 years, I have worked in hospitals, home health, school nursing, community health, management and quality/patient safety. In November 2015, I stepped out of my box and accepted a Practice Transformation Specialist position with Aledade. Initially after joining the Aledade team, I felt intimidated by the “city folk”, the city, and the impressive educational and career backgrounds of our team. I thought, what does this country girl from southwest Virginia have to offer? As I soon found out, Aledade impacts the health care of my community and I play an integral role.

I always remember my mom telling me “you don’t go to the doctor unless it’s broke or you’re dying”. This mindset was driven by the lack of health insurance with the lack of adequate finances, poor health literacy, and a health care system built on the premise of reactive instead of proactive care. The history of medical care was based on treating illness and injury and lacked public health maintenance. It wasn’t until 2002 that the Institute of Medicine issued a report entitled “Who Will Keep the Public Healthy?” which concluded that public health professionals must develop a plan that identifies the impact of multiple determinates affecting health and address health for the 21st century.

Amazingly, it was just a few short years ago that we realized the need to change health care to improve the health of our people through prevention. Aledade wants to change health care across the nation and we are making a huge impact by working with our primary care providers to help them gain control of the health of their patients. Our team at Aledade HQ provides me data to help the providers in my community identify patients who have health risks and proactively address ways to prevent disease or injury. Aledade’s cutting edge technology gives providers insight to the patient’s medical care from all care transitions and sources including specialists, pharmacies, and hospitals. We also help them navigate end of life for patients who need quality instead of quantity of life planning.

I lost my mom suddenly 4 years ago. She was a smoker and had uncontrolled hypertension. She died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack at the age of 63. As I look back on her medical care now, I think about what I would have given for her provider to have been working with Aledade. Aledade would have worked with her doctor’s practice to implement Annual Wellness Visits to determine her risk factors and addressed smoking cessation, exercise, EKGs, diet and cholesterol control. Her provider would have been able to see, in the pharmacy data that Aledade provides, that she was not getting her blood pressure medicine filled consistently. Her hospitalizations for accelerated hypertension would have been evaluated through transitional care visits and a chronic care manager would have helped her if she couldn’t afford her medication but didn’t want to tell people because of her pride. This provider would have been equipped to proactively address her impending heart attack by educating her on the symptoms of a myocardial infarction. She would have known that the left arm pain she was having was not from overuse of carrying in wood to keep her fire going. If Aledade could have been there sooner, my mom could potentially still be here enjoying her grandson’s ballgames and watching him grow.

This is why I work for Aledade. I am part of a shift in health care delivery in our nation but most importantly, I can personally impact my community and my family. My mom always gave me this advice….”an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” She was so right.

Recently, I had dinner with some of my fellow family physicians and, typical for our group, our conversation ranged broadly. After discussing our favorite basketball teams’ odds of making the final four, we wound up talking about one of the biggest buzzes in health care today: the shift to value-based payment.

The conversation is moving beyond the fact of change to the pace of change acceleration.

Medicare is making this move because value-based care is improving patient outcomes. Increasing preventive medicine services, lowering hospitalizations and readmissions, and performing fewer unnecessary procedures means better medicine for both patients and their healthcare teams. The move to a value-based system is also saving money; in 2016, Medicare accountable care organizations (ACOs) generated more than $652 million in total savings. The private sector is not far behind, with a large coalition of health systems and insurers starting similar initiatives.

For primary care physicians, the implications of this shift are becoming clear. We understand the basic concept of value-based care: rewarding physicians for quality outcomes instead of volume. We are learning that providing value-based care empowers us to put the patients’ health first. A significant question remains: how can independent primary care doctors operate in this new environment?

While many of us feel we have the skills to be strong champions in leading this change, we lack the large-scale tools, regulatory fluency, and dollars to do so without sacrificing the qualities that make our practices our own. Negotiating with an insurance company or digesting volumes of government regulations aren’t skills often taught in medical school. Spending time learning those things in the midst of adopting new technology systems, adhering to regulatory requirements, and overhauling the practice payment structure distracts physicians from doing the job we love most: taking care of our patients.

The solution for independent practices may come from an unexpected direction: through innovative partnerships that don’t require geographic co-location or practice-based infrastructure. Three years ago, my practice made the decision to partner with an organization that believes patients must be at the center of value-based care, and that physicians are happiest and best utilized when providing that care to patients. I have served as the medical director for a Kansas-based ACO with Aledade, Inc. for three years.

I have seen the Aledade model provide support for the business, technological, administrative, and regulatory work of the ACO without placing a burden on my practice. The partnership allows each party to focus on what they know best: the practice takes care of the patient population and Aledade takes care of the infrastructure. The success of each partner is dependent on the other, which aligns priorities and goals across the organization.

Value-based care is the future of health care. From independent practices to large systems, we must adopt innovative strategies to accelerate the pace of change. Our physicians need it, our patients deserve it, and our healthcare system depends on it.

Managing an independent medical group of 10 family practitioners, 32 employees and 85,000 patients is difficult even on the rare day that nothing goes awry by 9:30 AM.  Try adding integration to that daily struggle.  That was my experience in 2008, when I worked as a Clinic Manager and the clinic owner/MDs asked me to come up with a plan to tie-together the electronic health record and onsite lab/imaging, with physical therapy and pharmacy in the same building.  This was no small task.  Life after that day was a blur of template building, interfaces, late nights and workflow changes to keep up with patient communication and needs in a constantly evolving world. Every day, I felt three days behind.  By 2012, the onsite integration was complete.

In 2018, I was introduced to Aledade.  After speaking with Aledade’s founders, my first admittedly skeptical impression was that IF they could actually deliver their vision into a daily operating model, it would revolutionize what limited population health tools I had spent a decade trying to mold. And revolutionize they did!

As the clinic cleared the hurdles of quality standards, clinical thresholds, transition to ICD 10, Meaningful Use and PQRS, I realized that what I had in place was not enough to be successful in the next major evolution from fee-for-service to value-based care.  When I surveyed the clouded horizon of virtual care coordination beyond our clinic’s walls, I learned that Aledade was delivering the patient-specific daily action reports and the visibility across a patient’s entire spectrum of care through its technology platform that had I looked for (and never located) during my 30-year healthcare career. Coupled with weekly in person support from a team of practice transformation specialists, I realized this was population health at its finest!

The Aledade Utah ACO is set up to thrive, with 17 enrolled primary care practices, contracts with Medicare and Regence BlueCross BlueShield, and an unstoppable team that I’m proud to be a part of. In the first performance year, Aledade Utah ACO partner providers have: used wellness visits to fight homelessness and same day appointments to help prevent unnecessary ED visits. I’m inspired by Aledade’s vision of a healthcare system in which independent primary care practices can thrive, and I’m truly excited to see this model grow in Utah.

I’m an independent internal medicine physician with my own practice, Advanced Internal Medicine, in Paducah, Kentucky. My practice has served patients in Paducah for three and a half years. Paducah is a changing medical community. We have two competitive hospitals in our town that employ many of the specialists and physicians in our area. There’s still a good number of independent primary care doctors, like me, who run our own practices.

Three years ago, other independent doctors and I joined a local Accountable Care Organization (ACO). We were excited about the opportunity to come together to offer better care for our patients and leverage our size to compete with hospital employment. However, we didn’t see significant progress in our move to value-based care or a clear vision for how we would get there. At the end of our relationship with our prior ACO, after doing some research, we decided to partner with Aledade.

Working with Aledade has been a completely different experience.  From our first kick- off visits we could see that Aledade was different.  Aledade had a plan to address our local pain points and worked with us to get things right. Before Aledade, for example, our group of doctors didn’t have a plan for Annual Wellness Visits (AWVs) or HCC coding. We were all trying to tackle them separately without insight into an optimal workflow. With the Aledade App we have actionable data and can target our highest priority patients, to keep them healthy.

I have found that it is possible to participate in value based care and remain independent. I was the solo doctor figuring it out on my own, and it was time consuming and hard. When you partner with Aledade you don’t have to figure things out on your own. Having support in moving to the next level of value-based care has made all the difference. We now have someone from Aledade in our office every single week. They help us stay on track and keep in touch between visits. They’re there to help us break down barriers, so we can provide our patients the best care.

I’m looking forward to the next three years working with Aledade. The changes I’ve seen already in my practice are unparalleled.

This is National Healthcare Decisions Day Week (yes, that’s a little confusing). It is a week to consider the importance of end of life planning that is sponsored by The Conversation Project, an organization co-founded by a journalist who wrote:

“In my mom’s last years of life, she was no longer able to decide what she wanted for dinner, let alone what she wanted for medical treatment. So the decisions fell to me. Another bone marrow biopsy? A spinal tap? Pain treatment? Antibiotics? I was faced with cascading decisions for which I was wholly unprepared. After all the years I had written about these issues, I was still blindsided by the inevitable.

The last thing my mom would have wanted was to force me into such bewildering, painful uncertainty about her life and death. I realized only after her death how much easier it would have all been if I heard her voice in my ear as these decisions had to be made. If only we had talked about it. And so I never want to leave the people I love that uneasy and bewildered about my own wishes. It’s time for us to talk”

The Conversation Project was born from this experience, an organization created to help people talk about their wishes for end of life care. At Aledade, we share this vision. It is the right thing to do and aligns perfectly with the mission of Accountable Care Organizations that are trying to improve patients’ healthcare experiences while reducing non-beneficial health care costs. 80 percent of patients who die annually in the U.S. have Medicare as their primary insurance and approximately $170 billion is spent annually by Medicare on the last year of life; this equals 25 percent of all Medicare spending. Much of this spending is useful and important, but not all of it is, and Accountable Care Organizations are in a key position to try to improve end of life care in this country.

Some numbers:

  • 90 percent of people say that talking with their family about their end-of-life treatment preferences is important.
  • 27 percent have had this conversation
  • 23 percent have put their preferences in writing
  • 7 percent have had a similar conversation with their own doctor (the number is higher for Medicare patients: 27 percent)

On the other hand, 64 percent of physicians have completed their own advance directives and discussed it with a family member and 80 percent of physicians have a stated personal preference for comfort care over aggressive medical treatment at the end of life.

What do these statistics suggest? At least two things:

First, that we as physicians have seen what can happen when treatment preferences are not documented and shared with family: unwanted treatment that too often results in needless suffering for patients and their families. We have seen it, and we don’t want that experience for ourselves or our loved ones.

Second, that there are likely barriers that prevent physicians from offering this important aspect of care to all our own patients. Is it a conversation that takes too much time to fit cleanly into a provider’s schedule without spilling into other appointments and backing up a busy clinic? Is it the discomfort with broaching a potentially emotional and uncomfortable subject? The challenge of communicating around uncertain prognoses? Concern about applying our own choices and values to our patients’ most important decisions? Lack of clarity within the medical system around who “owns” end of life planning?

At Aledade, we are taking on the wonderful, difficult and important challenge to understand these barriers and address them. We help primary care practices identify patients who are most in need of end of life planning and offer medical providers training in using the Serious Illness Conversation Guide to discuss end of life preferences. We offer practices the option to partner with Iris Plans, a company with palliative care expertise that offers patients advance care planning via phone and video conference, so these conversations can be held at a time convenient for patients and in a way that allows family members who live far away to join and be included in the conversation in real time. We also have created a scorecard for hospices based on billing data and patient satisfaction surveys to help guide patients to the best possible end of life care.

For ourselves at Aledade we have encouraged our own team to use the Conversation Project Starter Kit to consider their own end of life preferences. This is not only because life usually does not go as planned for any of us, but also so that we can have direct experience with what it means to consider our own treatment preferences and what it is like to communicate our wishes to our families and our own medical providers.

As Robert Frost wrote, “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” What we do know is that helping our patients live the best lives possible includes planning for what happens at the end of it.