Whitney Palmer

Healthcare. Politics. Family.

Accountable Care: Let the Work Begin

Published in the Dec. 12, 2011, Billian’s HealthDATA/Porter Research Hub e-newsletter

By Whitney L.J. Howell

One of the hottest topics in the health sector today is accountable care. The premise seems simple: Providers and clinical settings of all types will closely collaborate and share responsibility for providing patient care. Implementation, however, can be challenging, according to many hospital leaders and industry experts.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released its final rule on accountable care organizations (ACOs) in October, detailing how its version of an ACO – the Medicare Shared Savings Plan – should be structured. If facilities choose to enroll in this program, they must offer services to at least 5,000 Medicare recipients for at least three years. Providers and clinical settings are also free to design and implement their own collaborative care model that uses a network of physicians and facilities to provide coordinated care.

Past attempts at managed care have failed, and there is still a chance the U.S. Supreme Court could declare ACOs unconstitutional. But that hasn’t stopped some in healthcare from working toward more team-based care. They are advocates of a new form of healthcare – one that ultimately focuses on the health of the patient rather than the bottom line. They are betting that the changes that come with accountable care, repealed or not, will help to usher in and get providers comfortable with this more team-based approach.

“The path forward to accountable care seems brighter and more achievable to many health systems, community providers and small practices,” said Justin Barnes, Vice President of Marketing, Industry, and Government Affairs at Greenway Medical Technologies Inc. “There is flexibility within creating a model for accountable care; and, with the final rule, many care providers are seeing that accountable care is the future of where healthcare is going.”

Barnes was also central to the formation of  the Accountable Care Community of Practice, a group of healthcare information technology providers committed to helping providers and facilities successfully design and implement either a formal ACO business model or less formal accountable care strategy.

Although this care model is getting significant attention, Barnes said, much still needs to shake out before it can be declared a success. In the meantime, many providers are putting the pieces that will support it – healthcare IT, shared-risk plans and provider networks – in place.

Mentors can Make the Difference

However, pivoting from a fee-for-service delivery model to one that prizes teamwork and increased quality at a lower cost isn’t necessarily intuitive. Many hospitals – large, small, urban and rural – need guidance, said Julie Sanderson-Austin, RN, a quality management professional with the American Medical Group Association (AMGA).

“The ACO model and even accountable care are very different animals,” she said. “It’s clear that this isn’t business-as-usual and that the change to healthcare is significant.”

To support facilities moving toward team-based care, the AMGA launched its learning collaboratives program last year. The goal, Sanderson-Austin said, is to help hospitals design ACO models that fit their specific needs by pairing facilities just embarking on accountable care conversations with mentor institutions that are further along in implementation.

Defining and Addressing Challenges

Hospitals just approaching accountable care voice some of the same concerns and encounter similar challenges, Sanderson-Austin said. For many, the biggest problem is integrating their data across care settings to offer patients a complete continuum of care. Having an electronic health record (EHR) connecting the hospital to its outpatient clinics is a good start, but it isn’t enough.

“It’s great to have an EHR that connects to ambulatory sites, but it has to be connected to your other sites, as well,” she said. “Otherwise, how are you going to get data from your nursing homes or home health agencies? If your patients either have to or elect to go to a nursing facility, you need a way to access their information for any possible future care needs.”

The initial capital investment needed to acquire good technology or build fluid health information exchanges can also present substantial problems, especially for smaller facilities, said Erik Johnson, Senior Vice President of consulting firm Avalere Health.

Although physicians are slated to play a vital role in any collaborative model, they can also be a significant sticking point for administrators looking to re-vamp how their facilities provide services. Even hospitals that began looking to a more team-based approach years ago have struggled to bring any changes to fruition.

“Improving engagement between physicians and hospitals continues to be an up-at-night problem for hospital executives,” Johnson said. “It’s difficult to get this kind of alignment.”

The Greenville Hospital System University Medical Center (GHSUMC) encountered this problem when it first considered its own type of ACO roughly a decade ago. According to Chief Medical Officer Angelo Sinopoli, M.D., convincing the doctors was an uphill battle.

“It took 10 years for physicians to embrace the model,” he said. “The concept is foreign because physicians train as individuals and are not accustomed to working in teams.”

However, administrators repeated the facility’s long-term goal and worked to educate the doctors on the benefits of working with other providers. Eventually, Sinopoli said, the physicians became champions of the hospital’s new care model.

Laying the Groundwork

Even though these challenges exist, hospitals can lay the groundwork for accountable care success, said Eric Bieber, M.D., President of the Accountable Care Organization at University Hospitals in Cleveland.

“Creating a collaborative care system that works well requires a high-functioning, multidisciplinary team to work across the organization,” Bieber said. “This team will be responsible for negotiating how the different groups within the hospital come together and divide risk.”

In January, University Hospitals launched its own accountable care model – a self-insurance plan that covers approximately 24,000 people. The facility is still in the process of identifying what works well and what doesn’t, but Bieber said institutions looking to follow in his hospital’s footsteps should bring together representatives from human resources and the legal department, as well as case managers, to discuss best strategies.

Industry management consultants at Kurt Salmon Associates also recommend hospital administrators focus on a few fundamental changes to position their facilities ahead of the curve.

Perhaps the biggest shift for hospitals, according to Kurt Salmon consultants Kate Lovrien and Luke Peterson, will be that pivot from concentrating on what the facility provides to honing in on what the community needs. With the ultimate goal of preventing inpatient admissions, the hospital is no longer the center of healthcare.

“There needs to be a dramatic change in organizational culture from the inside-out thinking of ‘my care, my time, my location’ to the outside-in thinking of ‘right care, right time, right location,'” Lovrien and Peterson wrote in a statement about ACO preparations, adding that this altered view constitutes a vision change for many facilities, and to do it well, administrators must secure buy-in from their board and staff members.

In addition, a facility’s business model must change. Under accountable care, success will no longer be measured in patient volume or the amount of services provided. Instead, efficiency and efficacy will be based on how well facilities control their costs while providing superior quality. Lovrien and Peterson seem to agree with Bieber – outlining how responsibilities will be divided and shared is a critical step. This move will give the hospital a clear organizational model, bolstering the ambulatory care system and streamlining the continuum of care across settings. The result, they said, will be improved quality and cost control.

Physicians must also turn from being the biggest hindrances to accountable care to being the most enthusiastic foot soldiers in the ramp up to the new care model, they said.  With their knowledge of the interplay between clinical activities, healthcare economics, and provider-patient engagement, doctors can strengthen the bonds across care settings.

Lastly, success will also come easier if hospitals tailor any EHR system to quality measures that are unique to the populations they serve.

Whatever strategies hospitals choose to employ, all facilities would be wise to start giving serious thought to what their accountable care model might look like, Bieber said. Waiting for Congress to announce a directive would be a waste of time.

“Regardless of the result of the elections in November 2012, there’s real support on both sides of the aisle for accountable care concepts,” he said. “It would behoove all organizations to begin to think about a system that focuses on maintaining wellness and managing chronic disease.”

To see the article at its original location: http://www.porterresearch.com/Resource_Center/Blog_News/Industry_News/2011/December/Accountable_Carex_Let_the_Work_Begin.html


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