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Capitation and Medical Homes Or Is this the return of the Staff Model HMO?

By William DeMarco

While Primary Care seeks new ground as medical homes and insurers look for ways to share risk between providers and insurers using global/tied to episodes of care, we are reminded of the original foundation of HMOs in the early 1970s.

In the original HMO Act of 1973 the federal government intended to encourage formation of group practices through grants and loans. The promise of assembling these efficient prepaid group practices was to have them paid on a capitated basis allowing for a margin if these groups came in under the capitation rate. The intention was to have PCP groups receive full cap and “provide or arrange to provide care for a voluntarily enrolled patient population in exchange for a fixed periodic payment.”

Thus, the original definition of an HMO in the early 1970s applied to a broad variety of delivery systems sponsored by new and existing medical groups.

In today’s world, Primary Care salaries are flagging and capitation is split to sub cap for PCP, specialty and hospitals. So instead of a full payment per episode PCPs get a small amount for a couple of office calls.

Once reimbursement split, it was further split by parts A, B, C and D of Medicare, and then the original value of PCPs was also split. The Primary Care services became a commodity as PCPs were convinced over time that they had no hope of effectively managing primary, specialty, hospital and ancillary services.

They did not have knowledge of claims and information systems, severity measurement tools or care standards and guidelines to shoot for.

In short they were flying blind and this meant they would eventually lose money unless they had a health plan partner to manage all this for them. The successful plans (Marshfield, Gisenger, Lovelace, Kaiser and Harvard and Tufts) all built an insurance partner that they owned and, as such, were able to turn this process into an asset to build market share and compete with other insurers who eventually entered the market with loose-knit networks and PPO arrangements that were HMOs – but in name only.

These anti risk models failed one after another, while those that truly did manage care, reorganized and did the work to build a care system that was fully integrated with the reimbursement system. These made whole dollars for successful care and redeployed savings into these medical groups to hire staff, buy equipment and expand the reach of their practices.

Medical Home

So where do we go from here? Medical homes, a new conceptual formation of a medical practice, recently emerged in the literature.

These homes are hailed by government and practitioners as a more comprehensive approach to Primary Care and Primary Care management. Some of these homes emerged as practices newly forming out of old hospital owned practices and some are forming with insurers as sponsors, seeing the need and the opportunity to truly change care delivery but only by becoming a provider.

This is a switch away from the IPA and network models. Employed physicians exclusively work for the health plan, and are indeed employees, insulated to the extent possible by employer-employee relationships, or in some cases by the medical group that the insurer partly owns. Insurer owned medical groups have been around in the worker comp area and also with the resurgence of interest by manufacturers owning PCPs as the company doctor.

The savings for insurers and employers is obvious when the PCP builds a referral network of specialists and hospital services that are only needed when and if the PCP cannot perform the service directly.

Recent expansion of CVS, Target and Wal-Mart into the Primary Care area shows how needed the services are. But again these professionals treated as a commodity leaves much to be desired in terms of continuity of care, so the medical home has been created and is a new definition...

  • Each patient receives care from a personal physician
  • The personal physician leads a team of providers who are responsible for a patient's ongoing care
  • The personal physician is responsible for the "whole person"
  • A patient's care is coordinated across the health system and community
  • Quality and safety are hallmarks of the practice
  • Enhanced access to care is offered through open scheduling, expanded hours, and new care options such as group visits
  • The payment structure recognizes the enhanced value provided to patients

Newly developed NCQA standards for these homes as credentialed contractors for Bridges has furthered the interest by payers to link up with PCP.


On January 22nd the Boston Globe announced that Blue Cross would be returning to capitation. The spokesperson for the Blue Cross organizations stated that it was more of a globally packaged program but, as with most reimbursement schemes, there needs to be a top line and a bottom line of reimbursable dollars to make the cost predictable for insurers to construct premiums.

Although the “one size fits all” capitation calculation of the past created large controversies over what to do with sicker patients, the direction capitation has been going is much more towards a flexible dollar amount tied to diagnosis.

This risk adjusted amount based upon the patient’s health status, diagnosis, overall age and complications, seems to make more sense as patients with a greater burden of care needs are given a budget for their providers that reflects this greater need.

This amount also reflects the broader variety of services from diagnosis to a plateau of healing following generally accepted guidelines. These episodes of care are gradually replacing the word capitation but in fact represent a risk model and not to exceed cost for providers. So, again the providers do have some risk to make sure they are prescribing necessary outpatient care and hospital services.

The follow-up care in many of these episodes is a tremendous value as physicians, both primary and specialty, are financially rewarded for follow-up care and a form of case management reporting that goes back to the insurer and the attending physician.

As we see further risk adjustment play an important role in performance payment systems, we see PCPs being able to operate medical homes on a salary plus performance incentive thereby sharing in savings created through their own accurate diagnosis and care management skills.

To date FFS and former capitation models offered little savings back to PCPs, especially for seniors who took the physicians and staff extra time with care and administration. As Medicare experiments with risk adjusters for the chronically ill population and private insurers begin using a form of episodes of care to manage the commercial population, we see that research on guidelines will improve as will outcomes analysis using comparative economics.

End result

What this means for health plans and underwriting is that, with some work, their analysis of health assessments and patients’ previous illnesses will allow plans to forecast with some certainty the potential ailments of a prospective population. Rather than exclude this population for coverage, reallocating care management resources in the direction of stabilizing theses patient or, in some cases, reversing the disease course as is being done in heart disease and diabetes, will be the norm.

For providers, especially PCPs, this means a welcome source of additional payments for the fragile and chronically ill population of Medicare eligibles and a return to a vital role as the front entry point for most care. This role is expanded in the medical home, and a certification as a home differentiates these professionals in the marketplace.

For patients who seek more transparency in their doctor’s pricing and performance, the distinction as a medical home is again a meaningful message to send to new and existing patients that this practice is certified as best practices for Primary Care. Further, this is important as the package or episode of care is driven off of accurate diagnoses.

Payment and structure can come together under this medical home concept, but we still have much to learn about how consumers must also see the Primary Care physician as the essential key to open the delivery system in a productive but prudent manner.

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