There has been no shortage of health policy news out of Washington in the past few weeks. Which means that one major announcement nearly slipped under the radar, but since this was the most relevant to Medicare, here’s our analysis.

Last week, CMS released a 1,058 page proposed rule to update the Quality Payment Program for 2018. The Quality Payment Program is the implementation of the Medicare and CHIP Reauthorization Act, passed in 2015 – one of the key pieces of legislation in the movement to a value-based health care system. We’ve talked about MACRA and CMS’s proposals to implement it before, so feel free to revisit our feedback on the Aledade blog.

Our key takeaway is that the rule is a win for small and independent primary care practices. That starts right near the beginning (page 9 to be exact), when CMS lays out the aims of the Quality Payment Program.

As the rule says:

“The Quality Payment Program aims to:

  1. Support care improvement by focusing on better outcomes for patients, decreased clinician burden, and preservation of independent clinical practice;
  2. Promote adoption of APMs that align incentives for high-quality, low-cost care across healthcare stakeholders; and
  3. Advance existing delivery system reform efforts, including ensuring a smooth transition to a healthcare system that promotes high-value, efficient care through unification of CMS legacy programs.”
    (emphasis ours)

“Preservation of independent clinical practice.” That new phrase guides not only this proposed rule, but should guide future program decisions as well. When CMS is looking at the best way to transition to value, they are committing to a key consideration of independent clinical practice.

Here’s how CMS puts that commitment into action in this rule: The rule sets up guidelines for virtual groups, allowing small practices to band together while keeping their independence. It preserves the excellent work CMS already did on the interaction between ACOs and MIPS, and adds some relief for small practices who are not yet ready for virtual groups or ACOs.

Let’s walk through some of the changes that are proposed:

  • The creation of a virtual group option for practices
  • Another year-long delay before cost performance becomes part of the MIPS score
  • Bonus points in the MIPS score for small practices (small defined as 15 clinicians or less)
  • Another year-long delay in the requirement to use 2015-edition certified EHRs
  • A significant increase in the low volume threshold to exclude clinicians from MIPS

The Stepping Stone of Virtual Groups

Virtual groups are a completely new option for physicians in 2018. The move to value-based care isn’t immediate. Not every practice can immediately leap into an ACO that puts them on the hook for any higher costs, especially if they want to stay independent. Some need a longer runway, and virtual groups create that option.

Here’s the proposed criteria for virtual groups:

  • A virtual group will be a combination of a solo practitioners or practices (defined as a single TIN) with 10 or fewer eligible clinicians who band together for at least one-year performance period. As of now, there are no geographic, size or specialty limitations on the groups (though CMS is open to comments on this).
  • The group’s participants need to send a written agreement to CMS by December 1, before their performance period starts.
  • At least one member of each participating practice needs to be eligible for MIPS, and the entire group will be assessed as a group on every MIPS category.
  • As the formation requirements are relatively light, these groups will be much easier to form and operate than a typical ACO with fewer responsibilities.

The purpose of creating virtual groups is to create a better path to valued based care. We believe it is worth taking a moment to review the current pathway, compared to the proposed pathway.

Here’s how the runway currently looks as providers move from the old fee-for-service system to two-sided risk:

MACRA Blog 1 pt2

 

In there are at least two major hurdles, especially for small, independent practices. First, the initial step out of fee-for-service and into one-sided risk. Practices want to band together in high-value networks, especially if there’s a chance to share in savings. But many practices don’t want to sacrifice their independence for a hierarchical ownership structure. That’s why we called for CMS to create “virtual groups” last year.

Second, the jump from one-sided risk to two-sided risk can be devastating to practice revenue. If a small, independent practice faces headwinds in one year, losses based on the total cost of care could be devastating. This is why the rule contains practice-revenue based risk. CMS created Track 1+ ACOs to take advantage of this revenue-based risk and they should roll that principle out to all two-sided risk ACOs.

Here’s what the proposed path looks like:

MACRA Blog 2

We’ll dive into this pathway more in a future post. Virtual groups are a key component to making the hardest transition between fee for service and accountability for total cost of care.

Delaying the Cost Factor in MIPS

CMS is proposing to delay the cost category in MIPS for another year. In the vacuum of a single year, this is no big deal. However, MACRA requires a certain transition to the cost category. So every year the transition is delayed, the cliff gets steeper. Right now, CMS is proposing to go from 0 percent cost in 2018 to 30 percent cost in 2019, trying to catch up to the law. There are consequences to kicking the can down the road.

Bonus Points for Small Practices

CMS is proposing 5 bonus points to the total MIPS score for small practices. Small practices are individual practices (defined by Tax Payer ID or TIN) with 15 or fewer physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and other MIPS-eligible clinicians in the practice. The minimum threshold is 15 points, to ensure a practice is not penalized for 2020 based on 2018 performance. So these 5 points immediately get a small practices a third of the way there. This means that a small practice can avoid a negative adjustment in 2020 simply by reporting on at least two quality measures.

Delaying the Required Use of 2015 Edition Certified EHR Technology

Practices will be able to report on the advancing care information category with either 2014 or 2015 edition EHRs. While there are very important improvements to EHRs in the 2015 edition, we have seen firsthand the delays in rolling out 2015 edition EHRs to practices. CMS is proposing that rather than penalizing practices who don’t use the 2015 Edition, they would award 10 bonus points if practices do. As only 100 points are needed for full credit in the ACI category, this is a significant bonus. 

Increasing the Low-Volume Threshold – How Much is Too Much?

In this new proposed rule, CMS suggests they might raise that threshold even higher – from an initially proposed combination of $10,000 in Medicare revenue and less than 100 patients to this year’s proposal of either $90,000 of Medicare revenue or 200 patients. That means nearly half of all physicians could be exempt from this requirement. In other words, more than one out of every ten dollars spent by Medicare Part B. By significantly increasing the low-volume threshold, CMS risks slowing the transition to value-based care and, worse, create a two-tiered system of physicians moving forward opposed to those who are exempt and doing what they can to stay that way.

We believe that American health care needs to avoid a bifurcated or two-tiered system – one in which some providers are paid for improving quality and outcomes, and other providers stay in the old fee-for-service model with different incentives.

This proposed rule estimates that 70 percent of Medicare Part B dollars will flow either through MIPS or Advanced Alternative Payment Models.

That number can never go down.

Every patient deserves to be in a system of better care and lower costs, and every provider deserves to be rewarded for high value care. Instead of kicking the can down the road on cost and exempting more physicians, CMS should concentrate on making the program itself better. They make good strides in that endeavor with this proposed rule.

We will be working closely with our physicians and with other stakeholders to submit complete comments on the regulation in the weeks to come. We look forward to working with CMS on its commitment to move to value, and its clear commitment to preserve independent clinical practice.

One day this past spring, I met with a patient for our standing care management appointment. She’s been coming to our clinic for 5 years, and during our conversation, I asked my usual questions. When I asked her how she was feeling, she told me something I didn’t expect.

The patient shared that her mobility was getting worse. She said it was getting hard for her to leave her home, because she couldn’t manage the step down from her porch. We continued the conversation, and I addressed her other concerns. But after the appointment, I got to thinking. How could we make it easier for her to leave her home?

I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Later that week, my granddaughter was telling me about her day in school, when we suddenly had an idea. Her class could build a ramp for our patient!

I contacted Aaron Haselwood, the Industrial Arts teacher at Fredonia High School, about building a ramp. He joined in right away. He thought it was a great way for the students to learn and help the community.

Here’s Aaron’s story on how his students built the ramp:

When Tara reached out to me, I thought it would be a perfect project for my class. This is my first year teaching this class, and I can already see that the students are getting a lot out of it. They’re learning skills, gaining confidence, and earning certifications, all while giving back to the community.

The ramp was a class project, but five students took the lead on building and installing it. We spent about two class days on this project. On the first day, we met with the patient to discuss our plan, and then took measurements. We built the ramp in our workshop and installed it on the second day. The ramp didn’t cost the patient anything, because we used leftover materials.

My class already has projects lined up for next year, and we’re excited to continue helping more people in the community.

This ramp has helped my patient become more independent. She feels safer when she enters and exits her home. The ramp, combined with her exercise regimen, has reduced the patient’s risk of falling. She has not had a fall yet. I’m so glad that thanks to care management, our patient feels comfortable telling me her concerns. And I’m just as happy to know there are resources and people in our community eager to address them.

Here at Aledade, we talk a lot about getting out beyond the four walls of the practice – because that’s how you get a window into the real challenges that a patient faces every day. They might be challenges we couldn’t have seen if we kept doing business the same old way. And sometimes, if we fix those, everything else can fall into place.

One of our partner practices proved this not too long ago. Dr. Syed Zaidi has been working in the town of Ripley, Tennessee for the past 20 years – providing care to the families around Ripley through his independent practice. And thanks to Aledade, he was able to care for them with some new tools.

In 2016, Dr. Zaidi started offering Chronic Care Management to some of his Medicare patients. This meant that a care management team would check up on his patients with more complex chronic conditions, making sure they had their medications and to try to get ahead of anything that could go wrong.

One patient had been in care management for a while, but Dr. Zaidi and his team weren’t seeing any changes. Neither he nor the patient felt like they were really making progress.

Then one day, the family opened up, and shared the real challenge they were living with every day. They were homeless. For several weeks, the entire family had been living out of their car – joined by a few animals they had adopted as pets. Their home had been infected with mold, making it uninhabitable, and they didn’t know where to turn.

That’s where the care management team and Dr. Zaidi’s whole practice jumped in. They helped the family find a safe place to live. Through community resources, they secured donations and raised money to provide the family everything from new mattresses to new clothes. And, since the family’s new home couldn’t take pets, Dr. Zaidi’s team even found good homes for every one of the animals. Today, the family’s healthier, and the patient’s chronic conditions are under much better control.

Chronic diseases are only going to get more challenging in the years to come. In 2012, the CDC estimated that one out of every two adults in the U.S. had at least one chronic condition. One in every four U.S. adults had two or more. And 86 percent of all of U.S. health care spending in 2010 was for people with at least one chronic medical condition. Chronic care management – by actually connecting patients with an active and engaged care management team – can tackle a daunting challenge for our health care system, and open up new possibilities in lowering costs.

But most of all, CCM helps our patients live better lives. Thanks to CCM through Aledade, we found out about this family’s situation. And thanks to the compassion and drive of Dr. Zaidi and his care management team, this family got back on their feet and back on the road to better health.

As the Care Manager at the Winston Clinic and a Nurse Practitioner by training, I’ve taken the lead in working with our high-risk patients, as well as those with uncontrolled chronic diseases.

When a patient is identified as “high risk”, whether that’s by Aledade or by a provider, we place the patient’s name on my desktop, and add it to our list of patients who should receive care management. Usually, these are patients who need support for a hospital discharge, or have had a new diagnosis. Sometimes, they’re patients who will need support over a longer time period. One of our new programs is to place patients with uncontrolled chronic disease onto care management before we even refer them out to a specialist.

I have multiple patients who say they benefit from care management, and their clinical numbers show the same thing. But there are two patients who stand out the most.

One was placed on care management for her diabetes. In the past three months, she’s made huge steps forward. She had been diagnosed as diabetic for more than a decade, she’s been on insulin and Metformin for some time and her HgBA1C level hit 15.3. Our clinic was just about to refer her to an endocrinologist, until I asked specifically if she could be referred to Care Management services instead.

On our first care management call, I started by just asking her why she thought her sugars were high. The patient told me that she didn’t know – she wasn’t eating any sweets or white bread. She had no idea that different fruits, vegetables and drinks were driving her sugars up. When I asked what her providers had taught her, she said she felt stupid for asking them questions, and they had assumed she already knew.

I also asked her why she wasn’t taking her insulin. It turns out she had been placed in the hospital once before for hypoglycemia because she had taken too high of a dose of insulin. She was worried about putting herself through that again.  Over the course of several phone calls and an office visit to train her how to manage her diabetes, the patient told me she feels much better about her ability to manage her diabetes.

Her last A1C reading was 11.5. That steady decrease is a win for the practice, and a win for our patient! But we’re not stopping there – we are still working together to lower these numbers this even more!

The other patient who stands out to me was diagnosed with prediabetes. She was due for an Annual Wellness Visit (AWV), so we brought her in. I gave her a health risk assessment, where she remarked that she felt unwell today. But she wasn’t very specific. Then I saw that her PHQ9 – a depression health questionnaire – was off the charts. I put the diabetes aside for a second, and started using some of my coaching skills to help her to open up.

She told me that she was suicidal on most days. Her mother had died three weeks before, and often she would lay in bed and cry all day. She had missed her previous day’s counseling appointment, and wasn’t scheduled to see her outpatient counselor for another several weeks.

I determined that she was not suicidal at that moment, and began to use some of our health coaching strategies. I asked her if she could picture herself happy. She said she could not. She said the only reason she hadn’t killed herself is because she didn’t want her girls to lose their grandmother and their mother in the same year.

Needless to say, we talked a lot. In the end, she decided that she could commit to one change. She would spend time each day trying to picture herself happy. And during the few times a week that she felt happy, she would write down what she was grateful for. As soon as the patient left, I called the counselor, and she called the patient for a phone visit immediately. She’s visited her counselor multiple times.

I have spoken with the patient every week over the course of several weeks. She felt that I wasn’t judging her during the first visit, that I actually cared about the “other stuff”, even though she was there to discuss her diabetes.

Just recently, I asked her how she was feeling.

She responded, “I think I can be!”

I said, “You lost me. You can be what?”

“One day,” she said, “I think I can be happy!”

She has had several bad days since then, and several good days. Through the ups and the downs, I think I’m getting as much from her as she’s getting from me. And I know I would have missed out on this experience if we were not making the effort to reach out to our patients.

I believe in the power of the AWV and care management calls, because I’ve seen it in these two patients, and many others. Here at Winston Clinic, we will continue to support our high-risk patients and patients with uncontrolled chronic diseases through care management and having open, honest conversations.

Drew Brees, the quarterback of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, the first quarterback to bring home a Super Bowl trophy to the Pelican State, has a pretty simple formula for success: “When you wake up,” he says, “think about winning the day. Don’t worry about a week or a month from now – just think about one day at a time. If you are worried about the mountain in the distance, you might trip over the molehill right in front of you.”

Every morning, not far from New Orleans, there are a few more Louisianans who wake up thinking about how to win the day. They’re the team at the practice run by Dr. Bryan LeBean – a primary care physician who’s been serving in the community of Lafayette for 23 years. And they have a name an NFL quarterback would appreciate – “Team LeBean.”

Just recently, Dr. LeBean’s practice joined the Aledade Louisiana Accountable Care Organization – to find new ways to provide better care to the families in Lafayette, while keeping the practice’s independence. Working closely with other practices in the area, Team LeBean shared some of the tactics and strategies that worked for them – how to properly conduct an Annual Wellness Visit, some ideas for good care management.

They also borrowed a few good ideas, one of which has paid off every morning. Before starting each day, Team LeBean sits down for a Daily Huddle. The entire care management team runs through a few standard questions, and then covers any other topics that came up.

They start by looking at how many AWVs have been scheduled for the day, and how many patients are in the hospital or recently visited the Emergency Department – information that they can find right on the Aledade app.

They then take a look at a few patients with chronic conditions – like diabetic patients, especially those in need of an eye exam, and patients enrolled in tobacco cessation. After running through a few other items, they wrap up by focusing on any particular patient complaints or concerns – always keeping an eye on how today can run even better than the day before.

That’s how you win the day. By working closely together – practices like Team LeBean, their patients, and Aledade are winning the day. And they’re well on their way to a better health care system with strong, independent primary care practices suiting up in the quarterback role they were always meant to play.

In a Health Affairs blog post yesterday morning, Donald Fisher and Chet Speed from AMGA took a hard look at some of the obstacles on the path to value-based care. Building off a survey of their membership and a close look at the Billings Clinic in Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, they found that it’s often tough for practices to get the right data at the right time. They worry that commercial payers aren’t moving as aggressively toward value-based payments – especially in local markets. And they say that reporting requirements are too burdensome.

They’re taking a clear-eyed look at many of the challenges that primary care doctors are facing every day as we move to a health care system that rewards high-quality care. But if we look too hard at the obstacles, we can miss some opportunities.

Here’s what we’re seeing at Aledade:

Commercial Payers are Gearing Up for Value-Based Payment

https://aledade.com/moving-ahead-with-payment-reform-in-commercial-markets/

Commercial contracts around value-based payments aren’t everywhere just yet, but they’re on the move. Take this recent analysis from Leavitt Partners –  Medicare may get the most attention, but a larger proportion of lives covered by an ACO come from commercial contracts, and they’re growing at a rapid pace.

Take two examples:

  •  Cigna established CareAllies, a service company that works with provider organizations of all types to improve patient outcomes and raise the quality and affordability of health care.
  • Humana has a well-established value path called the Accountable Care Continuum that moves its Medicare Advantage providers away from fee for service towards global capitation.

Right here in Aledade, we’ve been working with commercial partners – like Highmark and Blue Cross Blue Shield, covering more than 70,000 lives, to connect them with high-quality care through the physicians in our ACOs.

This kind of movement across the market empowers purchasers as well. Now they’re empowered to push their payers towards value-based contracting.

Reporting Requirements Absolutely Need Standardization

https://aledade.com/the-importance-of-quality-measures-for-accountable-care/

Just as important as standardization is a shift in focus. We and our partner physicians must focus on getting value out of measurement. Asking ourselves the question “How can we use this measure in our practice to ensure better outcomes for our patients?” No doctor wants to be filling out multiple, confusing and often duplicative quality reporting requirements and there is a lot of work to do in standardization. However, we need to do our part and shift our mindset from compliance to outcomes.

Data Access is a Solvable Problem

https://aledade.com/aledade-gets-the-data-flowing-to-pcps/

Fisher and Speed focus on accessing data, but that’s only the first step. We agree that practices need to get the data. That’s why, at Aledade, we focus on connecting to HIEs to deliver data to practices. But practices then need to derive insights from that data. At Aledade, we developed an app that integrates all of a practices’ clinical and claims data, giving doctors a full picture of their patients’ care. And finally, practices need to act on the data, as it guides them to deliver high-quality, coordinated care.

As we grow, Aledade continues to develop relationships with stakeholders throughout the national and local health care markets to equip our ACOs with the data they need. A big part of this is working with Health Information Exchange networks (HIEs) in the communities our ACOs serve.

They can even partner with other practices. One idea that’s started to take shape here is the idea of a virtual group – a group of physicians who can band together online to improve the quality of their care, and be scored as a group for the purposes of the Merit-based Incentive Payment System under MACRA. Our experience has been that these efforts do benefit from the economies of scale and a data “utility” that serves virtual groups and physician practices is an idea whose time has come.

Aledade is here to navigate these obstacles

https://aledade.com/growing-together-and-learning-from-our-partner-physicians/

We agree that these obstacles are real. We hear about them from our own partner physicians every day. But they don’t necessarily need to slow our journey toward a value-based payment system. Everybody needs a partner in this era – and a key part of the transition to value is that partnership doesn’t have to be driven by ownership, but can be driven by shared values and centered around the patient.

Whether it is a partner like Aledade who is transitioning practices from volume to value right now or partners like the recently announced support for the Quality Payment Program who help practices get ready for the transition to value, practices are not in this alone.

Trust and good relationships with patients are essential in providing high quality healthcare. A key factor in this equation is being available for patients when they have questions or concerns. This availability is especially important for patients dealing with chronic illnesses or other health issues. Opening an avenue for these patients to have access to care, even outside the clinic, can greatly enhance the trust they feel and the relationship they share with their provider.

Like many others, our clinic is in a state of evolution as we make the transition from a traditional fee-for-service model into a more comprehensive care setting for our patients. We decided last January to begin offering Chronic Care Management as a resource to reach some of our most at-risk patients. Right away it became obvious the success of the program was going to hinge on finding the right person as a liaison between patient and provider. It had to be someone the patients felt comfortable talking to and someone I could trust. It was a very difficult leap of faith, but I decided there was no better choice than Susan Williams, my nurse of 15 years. Susan already has good relationships with all of my patients, and they trust her. I promoted her to the position of Care Manager, and we began enrolling patients.

With Susan leading the way, our patients immediately embraced the program, and we have seen many of our most in-need patients begin to manage their health more effectively and efficiently. We have over 80 patients under management, and only two have discontinued the program.

We launched a new cell phone line so patients in the program could access Susan directly. She carries the phone during office hours so that patients no longer need to speak to the receptionist. They no longer worry about not getting a call back or if their message is lost in translation. If there is a problem, Susan comes to me directly, and we decide whether the patient needs to come to the office or if we can handle the problem remotely.

It became immediately evident, once these patients knew they could get an answer quickly, their tendency to run to the emergency room decreased. Susan began keeping a list of patients who were seen in the office on the same day they called and spoke to her. While this is a number that never shows up in the data, we have counted over 40 occasions since last June where the patient called asking if they should go to the emergency room, and instead they were seen in the office. Even if they actually do need hospitalization, I can admit them to our hospital directly from my office, avoiding the time, stress, and extra cost of a trip to the emergency room.

A specific example of the effectiveness of the program involves a patient who had an outpatient procedure to replace his pacemaker battery. The following day he spiked a high fever and called the number provided by the cardiologist. He was unsuccessful at reaching any of the clinical staff and was told he would get a call back, which never came. Instead of going to the local ER, he called Susan. She informed me of the problem, and I had her call the Cardiology practice. She was quickly able to get the physician on the phone and direct admission was arranged under the care of the patient’s cardiologist. With a simple call, an ER visit was avoided and care was provided quickly.

Aledade ACOs emphasize the special relationships small practices have with their patients, and their guidance helped us launch this beneficial care management program. Our patients value the personal relationship they have with Susan, and we have direct evidence the program has led to better health outcomes and lower hospital and ER utilization by our patients.

December 20, 2016

Andy Slavitt, Acting Administrator
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services
7500 Security Boulevard
Baltimore, MD 21244

Re: CMS-5517-FC: Medicare Program; Merit-Based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) and Alternative Payment Model (APM) Incentive under the Physician Fee Schedule, and Criteria for Physician-Focused Payment Models (81 Fed.Reg. 77008 (Nov. 4, 2016))

Dear Administrator Slavitt,

Aledade partners with over 200 primary care physician practices, FQHCs and RHCs in value-based health care. The physicians are across 15 states and are accountable for over 170,000 Medicare beneficiaries. More than half of our primary care providers are in practices with fewer than ten clinicians. As an organization that is dedicated solely to helping independent physicians lead the transition from volume to value, we have a particular set of experiences and perspectives that are highly relevant to the key policy issues faced by CMS in implementing the MACRA legislation.

As described in more detail in our comment letter, a few critical improvements to the final MACRA regulation could improve the uptake of accountable care.
1. Creating a new MSSP model that takes advantage of the breakthroughs in the MACRA regulations regarding risk and matches that risk with proper rewards
2. Allowing independent practices to come together in “virtual groups” now for all aspects of MIPS reporting, and rewarding their clinical practice and health IT advances as they work towards participation in APMs (like gain share only ACOs) and on to AAPMs
3. Simplifying provisions related to other payer APMs and Certified EHR Technology
Thank you very much for your consideration as we move together through this exciting time in health care. Please feel free to follow up with me or Travis Broome (travis@aledade.com) if you or your staff have questions or would like to explore these positions further.

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

Advanced APM Revenue-Based Nominal Amount Standard

CMS seeks comment for future consideration on the amount and structure of the revenue-based nominal amount standard for QP Performance Periods in 2019 and later. This includes: (1) setting the revenue-based standard for 2019 and later at up to 15 percent of revenue; or (2) setting the revenue-based standard at 10 percent so long as risk is at least equal to 1.5 percent of expected expenditures for which an APM Entity is responsible under an APM.

In our comments on the MACRA proposed rule we supported a 15 percent of revenue standard out of the gate to simplify the requirements. We continue to believe that 15 percent represents more risk than any other path under MACRA and more than satisfies the Congressional standard of more than nominal risk. In response to CMS’s request for comment, we want to highlight the critical nature of maintaining both a revenue based standard and a percentage of model benchmark standard. Using a percentage of model benchmark standard creates vastly different amounts of risk depending on the organization and depending on the APM model. How risky something is to an organization is dependent on the level of risk relative to their financial situation. This variation creates a situation where CMS will not be able to gauge the amount of financial risk any APM entity is actually taking on. What could be disastrously risky for one organization could be less than nominal for another organization.

Reintroducing a model benchmark standard to the revenue standard reintroduces all that was wrong with the standard in the first place, namely that the financial risk would in no way be related to the financial standing of the organization. If Congress had not asked CMS to measure financial risk this would not be a concern; however, Congress clearly wanted the APM entity to take on more than nominal financial risk. This means financial risk should be measured and it should be measured in relation to the APM entity not the AAPM. For these reasons CMS should maintain a pure revenue-based standard that stays well ahead of the risk in MIPS and finalize in the future a 15 percent of revenue standard.

CMS furthers asks for comment on cases where the APM Entity is one component of a larger health care provider organization and using the larger organization as the basis for a revenue-based nominal amount standard. To minimize the revenue based standard, a health care organization could limit the composition of its APM entity to only those health care providers who drive attribution in the model. We do not believe it is necessary for CMS to consider this in determining the revenue-based nominal amount for several reasons. First, by limiting the participants in the AAPM the health care provider organization would lose all the benefits of having those health care providers in the AAPM and that in and of itself has cost. Second, not all models use the same attribution methodologies and certainly do not have the same economics so what might seem wise in one model to include the larger health care organization may not make sense in another model and could inadvertently drive large health care organizations out of some models. Finally, by including the alternative pure percentage of benchmark standard for nominal financial risk CMS already has an alternative for larger health care organizations for whom the benchmark standard may only represent 15% of revenue or less for larger health care organizations. By having both a pure revenue standard and a pure percentage of benchmark standard, CMS ensures that all APM entities are taking on more than nominal financial risk while still allowing flexibility to account for the incredible diversity that is some larger health care organizations.

ACO Track 1+ Model
The most obvious work left undone by MACRA is having an ACO that matches the risk standards finalized in MACRA. We believe it is imperative that CMS implement an ACO model that does so as quickly as possible. We field questions everyday as to whether our ACOs will move to two-sided risk. Every day that goes by where we have to say we do not know is a lost opportunity. We continue to believe that the most straightforward way to implement just the new risk standards would be through the MSSP itself.

This risk can be easily integrated as a stop loss scenario into Track 2 and Track 3 with the addition of one line of regulation text each for Track 2 and Track 3 MSSP ACOs. Changes are in bold with higher risk for Track 3 due to its higher reward.

For Track 2: 42 CFR 425.606 (g)
(3) 3 percent in the third and any subsequent performance year, or
(4) 8 percent of the Medicare Parts A and Part B revenue of the ACO participants in any performance year 2017 and 2018.

For Track 3: 42 CFR 425.610
(g) Loss recoupment limit. The amount of shared losses for which an eligible ACO is liable may not exceed 15 percent of its updated benchmark as determined under § 425.602 or 15 percent of the Medicare Parts A and Part B revenue of the ACO participants in any performance year.

However, we understand that CMS is on the path to implement it as an innovation model. This means there is at a minimum additional one additional piece of work to be accomplished. CMS must outline the reward that ACOs receive for taking on risk. While CMS may be tempted to see the 5% fee-schedule bonus as sufficient, we assure you it is not. First, many ACOs include participants who do not receive Part B payments in a significant way such as FQHCs, RHCs and hospitals. Secondly, most physicians (rightly or wrongly) believe they can achieve 5% in MIPS. Combining these two factors essentially negates the value of the 5% bonus for taking on risk. Finally, even in the rare scenario where all ACO participants only receive Part B payments the risk is still mathematically higher than the reward. The combination of these factors means it is imperative that the model itself offer reward for taking on risk. We recommend that CMS include in the model the potential for 60 percent shared savings for 8% of revenue risk and 75 percent shared savings for 15% of revenue risk.

As CMS is developing a new model we believe CMS can take this opportunity to focus on more than the risk reward tradeoff. The model can test other ways to bring the ACO model closer to measuring whether a person in the ACO get better care at lower cost than if the person had not in the ACO or a “difference in difference” approach.

We recommend CMS address two additional areas that are crucial towards moving physicians towards taking risk. First, CMS should change how it views risk adjustment. Rather than the current view of fear that it will lead to paying for coding, CMS should focus on the true purpose of risk adjustment which is make different populations comparable to one another. We have advocated, along with many others, for the last two years that to measure real ACO value risk scoring must accurately reflect the measured population. The artificial cap imposed by CMS on risk scoring turns ACOs into mini-insurance companies. This in turn scares ACOs away from two-sided risk because they are no longer responsible for just population health, but also statistical anomalies. This is the only area where CMS is not leading the accountable care movement, but falling behind commercial health plans.

The second important step CMS can take to measuring ACO value is to include regional inflation update factors instead of national inflation update factors in all contract years. CMS should seek to reward ACOs for the work they do in creating difference in difference ACO value not because they happen to be in a low cost or high cost area in any given year. CMS’s own analysis for their last regulations on the MSSP shows that very few ACOs can individually impact their area’s cost curve. Every ACO can impact whether the person got better care in the ACO than they did out of it. A regional inflation update ensures that the work of the ACO impacts the ACO’s financial future instead of regional cost arbitrage. ACOs have begun to calculate headwinds and tailwinds (i.e. is the benchmark lower or higher than the most recent year’s costs) to determine their likelihood of success. This is what CMS intended to reward areas with falling costs with more ACO participation. However, this intent has gone awry. First, rarely does any individual ACO have significant impact on their regional costs so the reward or penalty is not due to the past work of the ACO participants. Second, ACOs have not been able to determine these headwinds or tailwinds prior to receiving ACO data from CMS so the phenomenon cannot drive increases or decreases in ACO participation. Given that the hoped for effects of this policy have not materialized it is time to revert to the more accurate measurement of regional inflation in benchmarking and annual update factors in the first contract and end the unnatural arbitrage opportunities national inflation updates are causing across the MSSP.

Other Payer Advanced APM Financial Risk Criteria
We strongly believe that CMS should use the exact same criteria for qualifying other payer APMs as advanced as those used for Medicare. Both payers and health care providers should be able to submit the parameters of their program for qualification as an AAPM. CMS should be as open as possible in disclosing the specific qualifying terms of the other payer APMs, but should offer enough proprietary protection so that a health care provider is able to submit the parameters on their own.

Definition of Certified EHR Technology
We believe that CMS should not attempt to create different versions of meaningful use (now referred to as Advancing Care Information) through the AAPM requirements. CMS should, as they finalized in this regulation, define use simply as use of Certified EHR Technology in the AAPM. Different AAPMs will have different health information technology needs. They will all have a need to keep medical records and to make those records available to patients, care givers and other health care providers which is why we support the requirement that the EHR Technology be certified, but specific uses, measurement of those uses and the effects on the financials of the AAPM should be allowed to vary significantly from AAPM to AAPM.

Virtual Groups
Not all MIPS eligible clinicians are ready to participate in an APM. By laying out the framework for the virtual groups, CMS can make it a viable alternative for physicians in 2018. By serving as an alternative to consolidation, virtual groups can stem the revenue shift from small to large practices projected in the impact statement which in turn stems consolidation and preserves competition. We put forward a potential outline of virtual group as part of our comments.

How a virtual group is formed:

  • Voluntary election by physicians to be in a virtual group prior to the start of the performance year
  • Agree to work together to improve quality and other elected components of MIPS
  • Must agree to be scored on quality component
  • Can elect to be scored on
  • Clinical Practice Improvement Activities
  • Advancing Care Information
  • Resource Use
  • Can utilize any reporting method including Group Practice Reporting Option (GPRO)
  • Identify to CMS the officer responsible for the virtual group’s reporting

CMS already has several online systems for physician interaction regarding quality such as Quality Net, EIDM and HPMS. Any one of this could be adapted to record the grouping of the Taxpayer Identification Numbers that represent practices and to collect the election of which components of MIPS to be scored on.

Governance of the Virtual Group:

  • Establish a board with beneficiary representation to govern the virtual group
  • Empower an officer to take responsibility for the virtual group’s reporting
  • Establish a compliance officer
  • Conduct at least quarterly group reviews of their work toward improved quality

Responsibility of the Virtual Group:

  • The physicians and other eligible professionals agree to be scored as a group for purposes of MIPS
  • The virtual group is responsible for ensuring group reporting (i.e. CMS should not be responsible for aggregating the data across practices except in the area of resource use and other claims based measures)
  • The virtual group should have the capability to generate practice level information within the group (CMS will provide scoring at the virtual group level)

Limitations of the Virtual Group:

  • The sole purpose of the virtual group is to comply with MIPS reporting and it does not infer other advantages to the practices in regards to waivers or other exceptions
  • Virtual groups seeking additional group activities should seek to become an existing, more advanced group such as a clinically integrated network and/or an accountable care organization
  • Practices commit to a minimum of one year to being scored under MIPS as part of the virtual group

Last Friday, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released the highly anticipated final regulations implementing the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA). MACRA creates two value driven ways of interacting with CMS: Advanced Alternative Payment Models (AAPMs) and the Merit-Based Incentive Payment System (MIPS). Here is what you need to know about each. CMS listened to and responded to a vast array of comments from health care stakeholders. I believe the rule will move the country to where doctors are reimbursed for quality and value not volume. In creating a clear path for small, independent physicians to embrace the transition to value, CMS makes it possible for leading independent practices to reduce costs, boost outcomes, and thrive.

Advanced Alternative Payment Models: What You Need to Know

Most commonly taking the form of accountable care organizations and bundled payment initiatives, the defining characteristic that make an alternate payment model “advanced” is risk. Risk is usually simply defined as poor performance means I will have to write CMS a check. The critical question was how big does the check have to be to qualify. CMS originally proposed that the check had to be a percentage of the denominator in the model so in an ACO a percentage of total cost of care or in bundles a percentage of the total bundle price. Yet as we detailed in blog posts (here, here and here) as well as in our formal comments to the proposed rule this would have disadvantages smaller, physician-led groups that represent only a small percentage of the total cost of care.

Therefore, we are very pleased to see CMS simplify how they measure the amount of risk and relate it to the financial resources of those participating in the APM entity. CMS recognizes that not all APM entities have the same financial resources so it is impossible to use the same standard for all and claim that the risk is merely more than nominal for all of them.

CMS finalized for 2017 and 2018 that risk representing 8 percent of the Medicare Part A and Part B revenue received by participants of the ACO or other APM would qualify the APM as advanced. CMS also indicated that this could ramp up over time to as much as 15 percent in later years. This would ensure that participation in an AAPM always entails more risk than participation in MIPS, a goal we support.

Advanced Alternative Payment Models: What to Watch For

This is just the first step. Today no two-sided risk APM takes advantage of this motivational level of risk. CMS indicates in it regulation that updates to existing APMs are coming very quickly. In particular CMS talks about a MSSP Track 1+ that would take advantage of this lower risk track in time for physicians to be in it for 2018 which would affect their payments in 2020. We look forward to seeing CMS move quickly to catch their various models up to this final rule.

While not an issue for most ACO participants, physicians should be aware that they must have at least 25% of their Medicare Part B services or at least 20% of their Medicare Part B patients attributed to the APM to individually qualify for the 5% bonus payment. Nearly every primary care physician in an ACO model will easily push past these thresholds, but specialists and physicians in other models should be wary of this provision especially as it ramps up to 50% and 35% respectively in 2021 (reporting year 2019) and all the way to 75 and 50% in 2023 (reporting year 2021).

Medicare Incentive Payment System: Need to Know

CMS recognized that with 2017 starting in just two and a half months and calls 2017 what it was always going to be: a transition year. To successfully navigate the transition year there are two number to know: 3 and 70. 3 is how many points you need in 2017 to avoid any penalty in 2019. 70 is how many points you need to gain access to the $500 million exceptional performance bonus pool that Congress created.

MIPS is divided into four categories that total up to 100 possible points.

2017 Breakdown of Points by Category

Category

MIPS only Points

MIPS with ACO Points

Quality

60

50

Improvement Activities

15

20

Advancing Care Information

25

30

Cost

0

0

 

2018 Breakdown of Points by Category

Category

MIPS only Points

MIPS with ACO Points

Quality

50

50

Improvement Activities

15

20

Advancing Care Information

25

30

Cost

10

0

 

To get the 3 points you need only successfully report one measure for one category. This prevents any 2019 negative payment adjustments. A low bar to be sure, but you must interact with CMS in 2017 at least this much or you will receive a negative 4% adjustment in 2019.

Because CMS expects most physicians to at least report one measure, there will not be a lot of positive payment adjustments available under budget neutrality rule. This means most of the positive potential in MIPS is tied to the exceptional performance bonus pool. To access this pool, you must report at least 90 days preferably the whole year and earn at least 70 points. While it appears possible to get there while ignoring one of the categories other than quality this is not advisable. Each category has some built in low hanging fruit (for example you get 50% of the points in Advancing Care Information just for having 5 specific EHR capabilities) that should not be missed. Every organization should look into the three scored categories and plot their best way to get to at least seventy points.

To start you on that path, improvement activities is the easiest category and as mentioned you get 50% of the points in ACI just for fully implementation of your EHR. That is 22.5 points right there in MIPS only and 35 points in MIPS with ACO, certainly a solid base to start from. If you have done PQRS before, if you have done meaningful use before and certainly if you are in an ACO or other “non-advanced” APM then look into how you can be in that exceptional performance pool right away. If those things are new to you then take full advantage of 2017 as a transition year.

Medicare Incentive Payment System: What to Watch For

There are a lot of reporting submission options. Claims, registry, EHR, CMS web interface, CMS wants your data and they will take it however they can get it. If you are in an ACO your ACO quality reporting does double duty. If you aren’t in an ACO or ACO won’t be in its performance year in 2017 then you have to choose which option to use. The first consideration is what options are available to you. Is there a registry for your specialty, are you on an EHR those type of capability question. If you are capable of more than one, the second thing to keep in mind that each has its own benchmarks. So the benchmarks for CMS web interface are the same as the benchmarks used for the Medicare Shared Savings Program whether you are in an ACO or not. The benchmarks for EHR submission are based on past performance of those who submitted through EHR, etc. Benchmarks for most measures are published in advance and could influence your choice of submission method.

Bottom Line:

AAPM – Excellent news on right sized risk, but models that use it will come out in 2017

MIPS –   Must minimally interact with MIPS in 2017 to avoid penalty and if you are ready the bonus pool is within reach.

While Aledade focuses on total cost of care savings models or accountable care, there are other models moving us towards value ever day. Bundled payments (or set payment of a grouping of related services) is one of the most prominent of these other models. Medicare has several initiatives around bundle payments and just yesterday the comment period closed on the latest: a mandatory program around cardiac care. Our comments focus on the importance of quality and the interaction between ACOs and bundles. Both important areas as we all work together to achieve greater value in health care.

Andrew M. Slavitt, Acting Administrator

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services

7500 Security Blvd

Baltimore, MD 21244

 

Re:       CMS–5519–P:  Medicare Program: Advancing Care Coordination Through Episode Payment Models (EPMs); Cardiac Rehabilitation Incentive Payment Model; and Changes to the Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement Model

 

Dear Administrator Slavitt:

 

Aledade partners with 205 primary care physician practices, FQHCs and RHCs in value-based health care. Organized into sixteen accountable care organizations across 18 states these primary care physicians are accountable for over 200,000 Medicare beneficiaries. More than half of our primary care providers are in practices with fewer than ten 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 importantly the relationship between a person and their primary care physician to improve the value of health care.

To create the most value from the episode payment model (EPM) savings must come from the efforts of those participating and from quality as well as cost. There is considerable concern that bundles create opportunity for arbitrage. While this concern is somewhat alleviated by mandatory bundles, CMS must closely monitor for when savings are derived from value creation versus arbitrage. Increasing the data transparency in BCPI and mandatory bundles is an excellent first step here.

Value is not just defined as lower costs. Lower costs coupled with lower quality does not equal value creation. We support CMS’s efforts to introduce a robust quality component to EPM. We encourage CMS to include quality as a fundamental factor in the financial performance of all advanced alternative payment models.

The overlap between the episode payment models (EPM) and accountable care models (ACO) is a challenging issue in the movement to value based health care. We encourage CMS to adopt three principles as they address overlap between these models.

  1. “Do no harm” – Create absolute protection from the cost of one episode registering as savings in one model and the same episode cost registering as losses in another model
  2. Reward risk taking – Medicare beneficiaries who could be attributed to multiple models should be attributed to the model with the most risk
  3. Encourage collaboration – Remove real and perceived barriers to health care providers participating in EPMs and ACOs collaborating financially as well as clinically. Lead efforts to design attribution models that can successfully assign savings to actions of those in EPMs to those in ACOs.

Regarding the particular details of the proposed EPM itself, Aledade, Inc. is a signatory to the Health Care Transformation Taskforce’s comments and we refer you to those comments.

Principle 1: Do No Harm

The need for this principle came to light in the Bundled Care Payment Initiative or BCPI. ACOs were assigned the target price of the BCPI and this was billed as creating built in savings for the ACO; however, the ACO’s savings were capped. The reality was much different. Since the target price for BCPI was based on a blend of historic and regional costs, while the benchmark for the ACO was based on historical costs for that ACO situations arose where the target price was considerably higher, in some cases 20-30% higher, than what the episode historically cost in the ACO. This created the perverse situation where the BCPI participant would receive savings simply for not screwing up the ACOs past good work and the ACO would incur losses directly proportional to those savings. This situation created unneeded animosity between some ACOs and some BCPI participants.

It appears that the changes in CJR and the proposed EBM rule will eliminate this situation. We believe it is absolutely crucial for the transition to value based care that CMS do everything it can to prevent this situation from happening again and to monitor with extraordinary vigilance to ensure this situation does not reoccur. At the risk of hyperbole, fee for service is the enemy; however, arbitrage between the two programs creates conflicts between the programs when we should all be moving towards value.

Principle 2: Reward Risk Taking

As we will discuss in principle 3, ideally savings would be directly attributable to either the EPM participant or the ACO participant. However, that is a very difficult task prone to error. This creates a need to establish precedent for beneficiaries who are attributable to multiple models. We believe the guiding principle for the precedent should be whoever is taking the most risk should have precedent. Two-sided total cost of care risk is more than two-sided episode based risk. Two-sided episode based risk is more than one-sided total cost of care. One-sided total cost of care is more than one-sided episode based. This does not exclude collaboration between EPM participants and ACO participants. The financial incentives remain the same. Precedent simply puts the participant with the most lose in the best position to succeed.

CMS proposes to apply this principle and give precedence to the Next Generation ACO model. The exact same logic leads to the obvious conclusion that Track 3 with its prospective attribution and two-sided risk should also be show precedence. Track 2 meets the risk criteria; however, we recognize the operational difficulties of retrospective attribution. CMS should seek to overcome them and put a placeholder in the regulation that indicates that principally Track 2 should be given precedence once attribution timing can be overcome. By implementing these proposals CMS sends a very clear signal that they are rewarding risk taking. Many ACOs have publicly expressed concern over going to two-sided risk due to the uncertainty of the interaction between the ACO and the EPM. Adopting this proposal would eliminate that uncertainty.

Principle 3: Encourage Collaboration

The most powerful tool available to create value is for EPM participants and ACO participants to come together in ways that match their local health care environment, each bringing their own strengths and creating the maximum value possible. These private collaborations should be encouraged and celebrated. CMS can encourage such collaboration in two ways. First, removing both real and perceived barriers to collaboration. The perception that a collaboration might run afoul with law or regulation is just as paralyzing as the reality that it does. Second, CMS can lead research and demonstration efforts to attribute savings across models. The most immediate step CMS can take is to open up the data on BCPI and CJR as it has on the ACO side. An ACO style public use file on BCPI participants and CJR participants would be immensely beneficial to researchers seeking to accurately attribute savings across models. As long as CMS keeps the financial and quality information about individual participants in the BCPI and CJR programs secret, cross model research will remain very difficult and ACOs and others will, rightly or wrongly, wonder whether the secrecy is hurting them financially.

Specifically, we support the Taskforce’s recommendation for CMS to finalize its proposal to make all APM entities potential EPM collaborators.

Thank you very much for your consideration as we move together through this exciting time in healthcare. Please feel free to follow up with me or Travis Broome (travis@aledade.com) if you or your staff have questions or would like to explore these positions further