An Accountable Care Organization, also called an 'ACO' for short, is an organization of health care providers that agrees to be accountable for the quality, cost, and overall care of Medicare beneficiaries who are enrolled in the traditional fee-for-service program who are assigned to it.
Oddly enough, that seems like it could also describe a 1970s managed care organization, or a 1990s vertically integrated health care system. The only real difference is the idea that the ACO would be paid fees for service. All these similar concepts embody the notion that health care needs to be highly organized into big, bureaucratic organizations to improve quality and access while controlling costs.
Back in August, we warned:
There seems to be a strange and increasing alliance between politically- correct academic theorists and proponents of raw economic power. The theorists' notion of "accountable care organizations" seems to have become a great foil for would-be monopolists, yet the theorists have done nothing to show how their creation would really bring "power to the people." Meanwhile, maybe 'ACO' should stand for 'aggressive care oligopoly.' Meanwhile, be extremely skeptical of the latest health care fad, especially when it is supported both by academics and CEOs.
I am not sure you really heard it here first, but you did hear it here early. Now, three months later, our doubts have become main-stream.
Revisiting Sutter Health
n California, National Public Radio continued to document the increasing market dominance of the Sutter Health system (which we discussed in August here) as it marches toward becoming an ACO:
Through new construction and expanding its doctors' groups, Sutter Health is enhancing its position as one of the most dominant hospital systems in California. In addition, Sutter is further ahead of many competitors in fashioning itself into a so-called accountable care organization, responsible for coordinating care between hospitals, specialists and primary doctors.
A companion article gave examples of how this emerging ACO is becoming increasingly oligoplistic:
Hospital prices in the Sacramento region are among the highest in California, driven in large part by the negotiating clout of the hospital chain Sutter Health.Concerns about Sutter's market dominance are also increasing:
Over the last decade and a half, Sutter has gradually accumulated hospitals and amassed a roster of doctors who contract exclusively with the company. Sutter is now one of the largest hospital chains in California with 24 acute care hospitals.
'In this Roseville market, which is a big suburban area, the hospital is Sutter,' says John Murray, a veteran insurance broker. 'It's a lock right now. Because Sutter dominates the market, major insurance companies, like Blue Cross and Aetna, can't sell policies that exclude Sutter hospitals and doctors. That dependence means the hospital chain can dictate high prices.'
'As Sutter gets bigger,' says Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Sacramento, 'it can dictate higher prices and is less accountable for ensuring good quality because it has a lock on certain markets.'Doubts in the New York Times
In the New York Times, Robert Pear reported:
When Congress passed the health care law, it envisioned doctors and hospitals joining forces, coordinating care and holding down costs, with the prospect of earning government bonuses for controlling costs.
Now, eight months into the new law there is a growing frenzy of mergers involving hospitals, clinics and doctor groups eager to share costs and savings, and cash in on the incentives. They, in turn, have deployed a small army of lawyers and lobbyists trying to persuade the Obama administration to relax or waive a body of older laws intended to thwart health care monopolies, and to protect against shoddy care and fraudulent billing of patients or Medicare.
Consumer advocates fear that the health care law could worsen some of the very problems it was meant to solve — by reducing competition, driving up costs and creating incentives for doctors and hospitals to stint on care, in order to retain their cost-saving bonuses.
'The new law is already encouraging a wave of mergers, joint ventures and alliances in the health care industry,' said Prof. Thomas L. Greaney, an expert on health and antitrust law at St. Louis University. 'The risk that dominant providers and dominant insurers may exercise their market power, individually or jointly, has never been greater.'
Skeptical Liberals and Libertarians
Amazingly, while ACOs seem to be supported by many left-wing policy wonks and right-wing health care executives, they have also rapidly engendered skepticism from both liberals on the left and libertarians on the right, and from within government and the private sector. For example, at the end of the NY Times article we find:
Dr. Donald M. Berwick, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, hails the benefits of 'integrated care.' But, Dr. Berwick said, “we need to assure both patients and society at large that destructive, exploitative and costly forms of collusion and monopolistic behaviors do not emerge and thrive, disguised as cooperation.”
Dr Berwick is a well-known advocate of innovative approaches to improve the quality of care, but was tarred as a raving left-winger when he was nominated to his current position.
On the other hand, in the New York Post was an op-ed by Dr Scott Gottlieb:
I warned that the creation of 'accountable care organizations,' which put hospitals in control of all the doctors in their outlying areas, would lead to concentrated power over the provision of medical care -- turning physicians into salaried employees and reducing consumer choices.
Furthermore, he wrote:
Since the ACOs will have local monopolies, they'll also have little incentive to compete for more patients in an open marketplace. Yet this is the only incentive that would spur an ACO to truly innovate and improve its delivery of medical care and offer better services.
Private health plans vie to contract with the best doctors and hospitals, creating market prices for services and competition to improve outcomes. If the ACOs squeeze out this competition, the result will be a de facto 'single payer': Every market will be controlled by a single ACO,....
Dr Gottlieb writes frequently about health care and policy issues, and is a "resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute."
Missing the Main Point: Doctors vs Business Executives as Leaders
At least it did not take long this time for the fundamental flaws in the latest fashionable health care reform effort to get attention. It is really striking that this time around, skepticism is coming from both liberals and libertarians. Maybe we all have learned something from the failures of managed care and of vertically integrated hospital systems.
A Washington Post op-ed by Steven Pearlstein hinted at one fundamental problem with the ACO concept.
Most reformers believe ...that the best way to deliver affordable quality care is through organizations such as the Mayo Clinic, which coordinate physician and hospital services under one roof and are paid not on the basis of how many procedures they do but on the quality of the care they provide. These organizations tend to rely on salaried doctors, make extensive use of electronic medical records and evidence-based 'best practices,' and, in effect, take on much of the risk traditionally borne by insurers. Several provisions of the new health-care reform law encourage the formation of such 'accountable care organizations.'
Somehow, however, the supposed health care reformers seemed to have overlooked a crucial fact about the Mayo Clinic they are using as a model. The Mayo Clinic traditionally was basically a large physician group practice. It was run by physicians. Even now, the Mayo Clinic's CEO is a physician (Dr John H. Noseworthy) who had a substantial clinical and academic career. The CAO is a nurse, and the three top Vice Presidents are physicians. I submit the fact that the organization was run by physicians, physicians who once swore to put their patients' clinical care ahead of all other considerations, was crucial to the Clinic's success in taking care of patients as well as maintaining its finances.
However, nearly all of the would-be ACOs we hear about now are centered on big hospital systems, run by business executives who have never taken care of patients, and never swore to put patient care ahead of anything. For example, the most advanced degree possessed by the CEO of Sutter Health is a Master's in Health Administration (see here). Sutter Health does not make biographical information about its top executives particularly easy to find, but according to the most recent (2008) 990 form posted on Guidestar, of its 19 top executives, only 2 had MD degrees. As we have seen time and again on Health Care Renewal, such executives have become extremely good at becoming rich in their jobs. (For example, according to the 2008 990 form, of those 19 executives, all had total compensation greater than $200,000, 16 had compensation greater than $500,000, and 9 had compensation greater than $1 million.) When things go wrong, these royally paid executives may take their golden parachutes and open the exit door, and jump on the slide.
The advent of ACOs reminds me of the advent of managed care. The original managed care organizations, exemplified by Kaiser - Permanante, were also not-for-profit large group practices run by physicians. However, the "managed care organizations" that evolved out of the 1970s law, favored by our glorious former President Nixon, were for-profit corporations run by business executives. Somehow, when legislators seek to promote better health care, the legislation they right often get the crucial details wrong.
The one good thing about ACOs seems to be that they have galvanized liberals and libertarians alike to worry about big, collective, bureaucratic health care organizations run by executives with no clear commitment to putting care of individual patients first.
ADDENDUM (26 November, 2010) - See also comments by David Williams on the Health Business Blog.