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Three ‘Brutal Facts’ That Provide Strategic Direction for Healthcare Delivery Systems- Preparing for the End of the Healthcare Bubble

By Nate Kaufman, April 10, 2012

In August 2005, David Lereah, chief economist of the National Association of Realtors stated “All of the doom-and-gloom forecasts of a housing debacle are not only irresponsible, but downright  wrong” Lereah was not alone,  economists from Goldman Sachs, National Association of Home Builders and the Mortgage Bankers Association all stated similar opinions. Wall Street firms such as Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns bet their companies on the strength of the housing market. Eventually the lack of financial sustainability inherent in sub-prime mortgages burst the housing bubble and the industry collapsed. (shilling)

 The lack of acceptance of the housing bubble by industry leaders is a clear example of “cognitive dissonance”.  The theory behind cognitive dissonance is “the more we are committed to believe something is true, the less likely we are to believe its opposite is true, even in the face of clear evidence that shows that we are wrong.”  (Marshall Goldsmith)  Refusal to recognize new market realities is a fundamental strategic flaw that has lead to the demise of many organizations. As Admiral Stockdale noted in his discussion with Jim Collins:  “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be” (see Collins web site)

The recent passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) has created uncertainty about the future of the nation’s healthcare delivery system.  Regardless of how PPACA is implemented, or funded or modified, there are certain ‘brutal facts’ regarding the future of healthcare delivery in the United States.  In order to prepare for the ultimate impact of these ‘brutal facts,’ healthcare organizations must begin today to modify both their core beliefs and clinical practices.  By focusing strategy on these new market realities (regardless how brutal they may be), a healthcare organization can begin to position itself for success in the future.

Our Healthcare Bubble Will Eventually Burst

In their open letter to the American people published in November 2010, several months after PPACA became law, the bi-partisan Debt Reduction Task Force:

“The federal budget is on a dangerous, unsustainable path. Federal debt will rise to unmanageable levels, which will push interest rates up, endanger our prosperity, and make us increasingly vulnerable to the dictates of our creditors, including nations whose interests may differ from ours…. we must take immediate steps to reduce the unsustainable debt that will be driven [in part] by the aging of the population and the rapid growth of healthcare costs...”

Even the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) appears to be skeptical about PPACA’s ability to reduce the deficit as was reflected their original ‘base line’ projections. As a result, the CBO produced an “alternative fiscal scenario” using the more realistic assumptions that: 1) tax revenues would remain at historical levels (i.e., 19% of GDP) and 2) cost control features of the new law would only have a moderate impact. (Frakt)  This more realistic scenario further supports the Debt Reduction Task Force’s assertion that healthcare costs will contribute to the destabilization of the economy.

 Richard Foster, the Chief Actuary for CMS supported this concern when he testified before congress that the new law will increase the nation's overall spending on healthcare by $289 billion through 2019. (Modern Healthcare)

The State Budgets are in no position to absorb the cost of PPACA.  According the Wall Street Journal,

“PPACA puts cash-strapped states in a tenuous position, forcing them into one or more unattractive policy choices: cut spending in crucial areas, such as public safety and education, to compensate for the additional health care costs, raise taxes to fund the new spending, or borrow money to pay the bill and sink further into debt. (WSJ)

Thus it is a brutal reality that we are in an economic healthcare bubble that will eventually burst.  Out of necessity, both State and Federally-funded healthcare programs will intensify their pressure on providers to reduce the per capita cost of care. In the immediate term this pressure will take the form of draconian reductions in fee schedules (as we are currently seeing from some states Medicaid programs.) Over the longer term, government-funded healthcare will move from the fee for service reimbursement methodology to either bundled/episodic or population based payments. Given the historical pace with which government implements changes in payment methodologies, one  can expect these new payment systems to be phasing in between 2016-2018.

Both the Shared Savings ACO Program and ‘First Generation’ Clinically Integrated Networks Will Not Produce Desired Results - Buyer Beware 

An Accountable Care Organization (ACO) is a group of providers (physicians, hospitals etc.) that share accountability for the cost and quality of care they provide. PPACA established a “ Shared Savings Program” for Medicare fee for service patients in which ACO providers would share in cost savings should the ACO meet certain quality and cost benchmarks.

The ACO concept has been pilot tested under the “Physician Group Practice Demonstration Project.” (PGP.)  Ten of the nation’s most integrated medical groups participated in the PGP demonstration. The demonstration provided groups the “opportunity to earn performance payments derived from savings for improving quality and efficiency of delivering health care services through better coordination of care and investment in care.” (CMS fact sheet)

After four years, these ‘all star’ group practices achieved a 40% success rate. That is, during the first year only two groups received a shared savings payment. By the fourth year five groups received a payout. Ultimately, over the four years, only sixteen shared savings payments were distributed out of a possible 40. (i.e., 10 groups times 4 years.) Among the brutal facts from the PGP demonstration project are:


  1. It is difficult for even the most integrated medical groups to generate significant savings on Medicare fee for service patients
  2. When a group received shared savings payments, the magnitude of these payments were not sufficient to cover the infrastructure cost associated with operating an ACO.

The Center of Studying Health System Change recently noted:

"the economic and market rewards [for ACOs] may not materialize for a long time, if ever,"… "None of the organizations [in the PGP] indicated positive return on investments related to improvement activities,"  (Modern Healthcare)

There is little hard data documenting the primary source(s) of the cost savings that generated the shared savings payments. Both the PGP participants and CMS reported anecdotally that the savings came from reductions in both admissions and high cost procedures e.g., imaging. It is a brutal fact that ROI for the ‘successful’ PGP participants was negative even before accounting for the loss of admissions and procedural revenue.  From a financial perspective, the PGP participants would have been much better off not participating in this ACO-like demonstration.  From the PGP experience it appears that the only parties that will receive financial benefit from the establishment of a Medicare-ACO are the lawyers and consultants retained for this purpose- buy beware!

Many physicians and hospitals have formed ‘clinically integrated’ networks which they believe will evolve into ACOs. While these networks have noble goals and some have positive results, few have demonstrated the competency to significantly lower the cost of care. Even Advocate Physician Partners, a joint venture clinically integrated network in operation for over 15 years could not document “medical cost savings” in real green dollars but stated that improvements in the cost of care are “inferred.” (see health affairs)

One could argue that even though it is unlikely that ACOs and first generation clinically integrated networks will fail to achieve cost saving benchmarks, these ACOs will eventually evolve into an effective delivery model. However, as the noted futurist Jeff Goldsmith points out, the track record for past efforts for physician-hospital collaboration has been ‘dismal’ and there is no reason to assume that this time it will be different. (goldsmith)

Based on the brutal fact that ACOs and ‘first generation’ clinically integrated networks’ will not generate sufficient cost savings to be relevant, it is recommended that healthcare organizations skip the first generation models and move towards the creation of ‘second generation clinically integrated networks’ capable of managing risk and targeting the 20% of the population that consume 80% of the cost. The most current research on reducing the per capita cost of treating Medicare patients conclude:

Health reform policies currently envisioned to improve care and lower costs may have small effects on high-cost patients who consume most resources. Instead, developing interventions tailored to improve care and lowering cost for specific types of complex and costly patients may hold greater potential for “bending the cost curve.” (Reschovsky)

 Also, rather than pilot test an ACO model on Medicare and/or commercial fee for service patients where reductions in admissions will impact the revenue of the health system, it is recommended that these networks ‘cut their teeth’ on the self-funded pool of hospital employees and dependents, where a reduction in admissions/cost results in savings for the organization.

Critical elements for a successful ‘second generation’ clinically integrated network include: primary care-based medical homes, digitally connected electronic medical records with point of care protocols, disease management programs and a culture committed to improving the cost and quality of care for a population of patients vs. maintaining individual provider income and autonomy. (Kaufman)

Physician Autonomy and the Organized Medical Staff Will Become Less Relevant

On January 13, 2011 CMS published the proposed rule for the Value-Based Purchasing Program for Medicare inpatient services (VBP.) Starting October, 1 2012, hospitals can earn incentive payments based on the care they deliver to Medicare inpatients. These incentive payments will be funded by a one percent reduction in the base DRG payment. Thus hospitals that underperform will see a relative reduction in their Medicare payment rate. The VBP incentive will be based on adherence to clinical processes, (e.g., Aspirin prescribed at discharge for AMI patients) and patient experience ( e.g. communication with doctors, responsiveness of staff etc.) CMS will eventually include mortality-related measures in VBP as well. In addition, as part of the National Patient Safety Initiative, by 2015 9% of a hospital’s Medicare reimbursement will be “tied to public reporting of errors and provision of safer more reliable care with particular focus on hospital acquired infections and readmissions.” (cms proposed regs)

Traditionally the  medical staff had the responsibility for monitoring and maintaining high quality care within a hospital. While hospitals have always borne the financial risk for the cost of care ordered by its physicians, VBP now puts a hospital’s revenue at risk for their physicians’ clinical practices and communication skills. The evidence is clear from Geisinger, Thedacare, Virginia Mason and others that the standardizing care through thoughtful process redesign can improve efficiency, quality, safety and patient satisfaction. Most medical staffs have been unwilling to tackle an issue associated with the variability of cost and quality of care unless it exceeds broad limits.

It is a brutal fact that hospitals can no longer afford to delegate the responsibility and accountability of the cost and quality of care to the independent medical staff composed of physicians practicing and promoting the traditional autonomous, highly variable model of care. Hospitals will have to develop a work with the members of their medical staffs to:

1) modify bylaws to require conformance to patient safety, patient satisfaction, process and quality metrics as a condition of keeping hospital priveleges, and

2) develop the clinical infrastructure with a new breed of physician leaders in which medical directors will have the authority and accountability for cost, quality and patient satisfaction in their serviceline.

Not If But When

The nation’s rate of spending on healthcare is unsustainable. As with the housing bubble, the fundamental economics cannot support the status quo and yet many healthcare thought leaders and politicians dismiss claims of a healthcare bubble as “doom-and –gloom.” Others choose to ignore the brutal fact that AAPACA may exacerbate the cost crisis rather than moderate it.

Those that recognize the existence of a bubble and prepare for its brutal realities can actually benefit when the bubble bursts. This was clearly the case with the housing bubble where Michael Burry and his investors earned hundreds of millions of dollars betting against mortgage-backed securities (Wikapedia.) Healthcare organizations that believe in the brutal realities of the healthcare bubble can also position themselves for success when the bubble bursts. These organizations will dismiss the incremental approaches such as Medicare Shared Service ACOs, first generation clinical integration, physician co-management and focus on meaningful transformation into a provider system that is comprised of data driven, digitally connected, physician-lead TEAMS consistently delivering  evidence-based, patient-centered health care, able to treat higher volumes of patients, at lower predictable costs per episode, demonstrating measurable high quality and providing an exceptional patient experience.. As Don Berwick stated Healthcare is hungry for something truly new, less a fad than a new way to be. (VA Mason) 


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