Saturday, April 2, 2011

Launching Accountable Care Organizations — The Proposed Rule for the Medicare Shared Savings Program | Health Policy and Reform

by Donald M. Berwick, M.D., M.P.P in NEJM

A common criticism of U.S. health care is the fragmented nature of its payment and delivery systems. Because in many settings no single group of participants — physicians, hospitals, public or private payers, or employers — takes full responsibility for guiding the health of a patient or community, care is distributed across many sites, and integration among them may be deficient. Fragmentation leads to waste and duplication — and unnecessarily high costs.

Section 3022 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) establishes the Medicare Shared Savings Program for accountable care organizations (ACOs) as a potential solution.1 The creation of ACOs is one of the first delivery-reform initiatives that will be implemented under the ACA. Its purpose is to foster change in patient care so as to accelerate progress toward a three-part aim: better care for individuals, better health for populations, and slower growth in costs through improvements in care. Under the law, an ACO will assume responsibility for the care of a clearly defined population of Medicare beneficiaries attributed to it on the basis of their patterns of use of primary care. If an ACO succeeds in both delivering high-quality care and reducing the cost of that care to a level below what would otherwise have been expected, it will share in the Medicare savings it achieves.

On March 31, 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services took a major step toward establishing ACOs by issuing a notice of proposed rule-making that will define how physicians, hospitals, and other key constituents can adopt this new organizational form. The issuing of the proposed rule follows months of obtaining informal and formal input from throughout the health care delivery system, but at this point the rule is only a proposal. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) will carefully review the comments we receive in response to the proposed rule before issuing a final rule later this year.

A critical foundation of the proposed rule is its unwavering focus on patients. We envision that successful ACOs will honor individual preferences and will engage patients in shared decision making about diagnostic and therapeutic options. Information management — making sure patients and all health care providers have the right information at the point of care — will be a core competency of ACOs. Held to rigorous quality standards (see table), ACOs will be expected to be proactive in their orientation and to regularly reach out to patients to help them meet their needs for preventive and chronic health care. Patients who seek care at their ACO will know that their physicians are part of that ACO, but as beneficiaries of fee-for-service Medicare, they will continue to be free to seek care from any Medicare provider they wish. They will not be locked into seeing only particular health care providers.
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