Accountable care and patient-centered medical homes: Implications for office-based practice

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The passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will profoundly affect the way physicians—particularly those engaged in primary care—practice medicine. Clinicians and their colleagues will be obliged to meet government-mandated performance quality measures while achieving cost efficiencies. Two concepts are central to the implementation of reform in the US health care system: accountable care organizations (ACOs) and the patient-centered medical home (PCMH). To get some perspective on what these changes mean for the practicing clinician, Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine (CCJM) interviewed David Longworth, MD, who chairs the Cleveland Clinic Medicine Institute and directs strategy and implementation of Cleveland Clinic ACO-related activities.

CCJM: Please explain briefly the concept of PCMH.

Dr. Longworth: PCMH is not a new concept; first advanced by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1967,1 it represents a model of care in which an individual patient has a primary relationship with one provider who manages and coordinates the different aspects of the patient’s health care. The provider collaborates with a team of health care professionals. The concept caught on about a decade ago when a consortium of family medicine organizations and ultimately industry, including IBM, endorsed the concept. IBM and others created the Primary Care Consortium and began to drive the concept of PCMH.

Increasingly, care delivered through PCMH is team-based. The team coordinates the patient’s care and, when appropriate, enlists specialists or subspecialists to provide necessary components of care, all while maintaining responsibility for care coordination across the continuum of care. The medical home model provides an opportunity for enhanced access and care coordination utilizing care outside of the office walls, such as through retail clinics, eVisits, online diagnostic services, phone and electronic communication, and house call services.

Patient-centered medical homes are springing up across the country. In 2008, the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) developed criteria for recognition of PCMHs.2 It scored the sophistication of medical homes at three levels, level 1 being the lowest and level 3 the highest. Between 2008 and the end of 2010, NCQA had recognized more than 1,500 PCMHs. According to the latest figures, more than 3,000 practices have now earned PCMH recognition from the NCQA.3

The NCQA criteria for PCMH recognition were updated in 2011,4 with increased emphasis on patient centeredness and alignment of medical homes with certain government initiatives, such as health information technology and the use of electronic medical records. Engagement of community services in patient care is another element incorporated into the updated criteria (Table).5

At Cleveland Clinic, pilot projects at three family health centers that cover 60,000 persons have recently been rolled out with the goal of determining the model of team care that yields the highest value, with value defined by the equation of quality over cost. Ideally, higher quality is delivered at lower cost to increase value.

CCJM: What are the goals of ACOs?

Dr. Longworth: The term “accountable care,” first used in 2006 by Elliot Fisher, Dartmouth Institute of Health Policy and Clinical Practice,6 expresses the idea that health care organizations be accountable for the care they deliver, with the three-part aim of better health for populations, better care for individuals, and reduced cost inefficiencies without compromised care.

With accountable care, institutions take on risk with the expectation that they will improve quality but reduce costs, and if they reduce costs and achieve certain quality targets for populations of patients, they will share in the savings accrued. The Affordable Care Act laid the groundwork for creation of ACOs. The regulation for ACOs released by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) became effective in January 2012.7,8 Many health care organizations opposed the rule for reasons related to complexity, prescriptiveness, onerous detail around governance and marketing, and shared savings arrangements, among others. The final rule addressed many of these concerns and enabled the creation of the first wave of ACOs.8 At present, 153 ACOs have been approved by CMS.9 Other ACOs funded by commercial payers are also being formed in many locations.

For ACOs to be effective, I believe that the cornerstone of management has to be PCMHs.

CCJM: You mentioned that institutions will take on risk. What kind of risk are you referring to?

Dr. Longworth: Added value must be rewarded with sustainable payment models. There are two payment models in the final ACO rule from CMS. Both models require 3-year commitments and both require involvement of primary care physicians. One model for organizations that want to stick a toe in the water has no downside risk and modest potential for gain if they hit certain quality and cost targets. For those organizations that are further along and want to assume risk, the second option is a shared savings/risk payment model, which creates greater incentives for efficiency and quality. In the shared savings/risk model, the ACO can retain a portion of savings if it meets performance and expenditure benchmarks based on its performance during the previous 3 years. It is also at risk for loss if expenditures are greater than a certain amount compared with benchmark expenditures. Ultimately, the final destination for ACOs will be a risk of loss if they don’t perform.

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