Dec 21, 2018

“Pathways to Success,” an Overhaul of Medicare’s ACO Program

Seema Verma
Administrator, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services

 “Pathways to Success,” an Overhaul of Medicare’s ACO Program

Today the Trump Administration announced our overhaul of the program for Accountable Care Organizations, or “ACOs,” in Medicare. ACOs serve a large number of Medicare beneficiaries – over 10.4 million individuals in Fee-for-Service Medicare (of the 38 million total Fee-for-Service beneficiaries) receive care from providers participating in a Medicare ACO. Before getting into the specifics of our new policy, let’s take a step back and put today’s announcement in a broader context. 

The Trump Administration has put a high priority on accelerating a value-based transformation of America’s healthcare system – which is the move from paying for the volume of services to paying for outcomes and health. CMS is hard at work to move to a value-based system, not just because we want to, but because the American healthcare system is on an unsustainable trajectory, with one in five dollars spent in our economy projected to be spent on healthcare by 2026. Therefore, it is incumbent on our agency to not just pay for healthcare services as they are billed but rather to ensure that patients are getting value for the care that is provided. To this end, we are developing and testing new payment models to transform our payment system, and today’s changes to Medicare’s ACO program are a critical component of that transformation. 

ACOs are groups of healthcare providers that take responsibility for the total cost and quality of care for their patients. In exchange for this, ACOs are able to receive a portion of the savings that they achieve as long as they meet quality standards. The program for ACOs in Medicare has been in operation for six years, and from these years of experience, CMS has gleaned key insights about what works and what doesn’t within the program. 

CMS and OIG have jointly issued waivers of specific fraud and abuse laws to provide the regulatory relief needed to innovate. In exchange for this flexibility, today’s rule ensures that ACOs have strong incentives to provide high-quality care and generate savings. Most Medicare ACOs do not currently face financial consequences when costs increase, but a review of the data on ACO performance shows that over time those ACOs that take accountability for costs perform better than those that do not. 

Today’s final rule drives towards greater savings and quality for Medicare’s ACO program. The rule is projected to achieve $2.9 billion in savings over ten years. The final policy is responsive to feedback about the need for incentives to bring healthcare providers into the ACO program, while ensuring the transition to value protects taxpayers and includes patients. 

One key element of today’s rule is a reduction in the amount of time that an ACO can remain in the program without taking accountability for healthcare spending. The allowed period of time is decreasing from six years to, at most, three years for new “low-revenue” or physician-led ACOs, two years for all other new ACOs, and one year for existing one-sided ACOs. We are setting the shared savings rate at 40 percent for ACOs not assuming risk for healthcare costs and 50 percent for ACOs at BASIC track levels of risk, to strengthen the on-ramp to the program while rewarding ACOs that take on greater risk with higher shared savings rates. 

Smaller, physician-led or “low revenue” ACOs – many of which are in rural areas – have shown greater success in controlling costs than hospital-led ACOs, which is an example of why CMS is focused on promoting competition in healthcare marketplaces and ensuring that patients have choices of where to obtain care. We have heard that establishing a physician-led ACO can provide practices with a means of remaining independent from consolidated hospital systems. Today’s rule bolsters the option for physicians to form ACOs while ensuring that all ACOs are generating savings for patients and taxpayers. 

Today’s rule also increases flexibility for certain performance-based risk ACOs to encourage innovation and expand access to high-quality services that are convenient for patients, including telehealth services provided at a patient’s place of residence. This is part of our holistic review of policies aimed at driving innovation and efficiency and to ensure regulations are not hindering the development of new ways of delivering care.   

In all that we do at CMS, we aim to put patients first and ensure that they have the information they need to make decisions about their care. To this end, today’s rule requires ACOs to provide beneficiaries in an ACO with a written notice in person or electronically through email or a patient portal that they are participating in this new approach to care delivery, and it must also explain what participating in an ACO means for their care. 

Pathways to Success also allows risk-based ACOs to offer new incentive payments to beneficiaries for taking steps to achieve good health such as obtaining primary care services and necessary follow-up care. This way patients are aligned with providers on the drive to value. 

Finally, to ensure rigorous financial benchmarking for ACOs, we are incorporating regional spending factors in establishing an ACO’s target spending during all agreement periods, providing a more accurate point of comparison for evaluating ACO performance. Our changes to the benchmarking process for ACOs also promote greater alignment between the ACO program and Medicare Advantage. 

In connection with the program redesign announced today, and to ensure providers have time to review and assess the new options, CMS is offering an ACO application cycle for a special one-time new agreement period start date of July 1, 2019. We are encouraged that 90 percent of eligible ACOs with participation agreements expiring on December 31, 2018 elected to extend their agreements for six months, so now they will have the option to renew their agreement under the new policies and continue to participate in the program uninterrupted. 

In addition to the final rule for Pathways to Success, CMS is also releasing the financial and quality results for the second performance year of the Next Generation ACO Model. The Next Generation model test provides ACOs with additional flexibilities in exchange for the greatest level of risk sharing offered across all ACO programs in Medicare. 

The Next Generation ACO Model actuarial results show that net savings to the Medicare Trust Funds from the model in 2017 were more than $164 million across 44 ACOs. The Model is also showing strong performance on quality metrics. 

As you can see, the Trump Administration is absolutely committed to the value-based transformation of America’s healthcare system. Today’s final rule for Medicare’s ACOs accelerates that transformation while promoting patient engagement and ensuring high-quality care. This is a positive step forward for our healthcare system, one that we hope to continue building on in the future.


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