Thursday, November 3, 2011

Some Inconvenient Cautions for the PCMH and ACOs, Courtesy of the Medicare Health Support Program

Remember Medicare Health Support (MHS)?  That now defunct Medicare program is widely regarded as "the" study that "proved" that "disease management doesn't work."

If you're one of those disease management skeptics, you might enjoy the lingering anti-vendor schadenfreude of this bottom-up re-analysis of the MHS program that was just published in the New England Journal.  However, if you are a fan of the Fed's programs for the Patient Centered Medical Home or Accountable Care Organizations, you'll also want to pay close attention to a timely reminder about the perils of contracting with CMS.

The Disease Management Care Blog explains.

Recall MHS was a CMS program designed to test old fashioned disease management in fee-for-service Medicare.  A total of eight vendors launched their programs in separate geographic areas across the U.S. in the latter half of 2005.  Each area had about 30,000 beneficiaries with diabetes and heart failure who were randomized to disease management or usual care in a 2:1 ratio.  Participants were ill with an average of more than one recent hospitalization in the previous 12 months and more than $15,000 in baseline costs.  The programs consisted of remote call centers staffed by nurse-coaches who counselled patients on a regular basis.  Each of the vendors negotiated a monthly "at risk" administrative fee from CMS.  To retain the fee, the companies had to reduce costs in excess of the fee and simultaneously achieve a variety of quality and satisfaction targets vs. the usual care patients.  If they failed to save enough money, CMS clawed the money back.

The Journal's reanalysis, involving more than 240,000 beneficiary-participants, didn't shed any new light on the original depressing report to Congress.  Among the eight vendors, the change in the per beneficiary per month (PBPM) cost ranged from $22 in savings to $38 in additional costs; most of the PBPM changes were in the single digits.  In contrast, the fees ranged between $74 to $159 per beneficiary per month.  Only three of the eight vendors had lower costs, none achieved statistical significance and none had savings that exceeded their fees. There were some improvements in quality, but they were spotty and quite modest.

Participation rates among eligible beneficiaries averaged 85%.  Mean telephone contacts per patient was .7 per month and ranged from .4 to 1 per month.  Patients were telephoned on average every 2.7 months; over a 30 month period, 59% were contacted at least 10 times and 23% were contacted fewer than 5 times. 

And what are the lessons?

The authors had five, all of which also apply to the medical home and ACOs.  The DMCB has two more.

1) Show me the money:  In retrospect, the research that led to MHS that suggested that disease management "worked" was imperfect.  By the way, the same can be said of the largely observational and underpowered research supporting medical homes and the total lack of any meaningful experience with ACOs.  Will these innovative care approaches share the same fate as MHS?  Based on what we know at this time, it can't be ruled out.

2) Needy patients:  Medicare beneficiaries with diabetes and heart failure are sick. The nurse-coaches were unprepared to meet all of their patients' needs.  Medical homes and ACOs may end up being surprised also.

3) Analytics:  In the CMS' "data dumps" to the vendors, it was difficult to find the patients who were the most vulnerable.  This good news is that modern predictive modeling analytics - despite its limitations - may enable medical homes and ACOs to target their care management at those patients with the greatest need and at the highest risk for increased costs.

4) Timely access to data: CMS' data transfers to the vendors could be tardy, resulting in telephonic outreach to patients long after it could have done any good.  ACOs will need to worry about this in their dealings with CMS. 

5) The doctors: despite the vendors' assurances, the disease management programs were not aligned with the beneficiaries' doctors.  This is less likely to be a problem in medical homes and ACOs, but doesn't mean that they won't have to worry that their docs aren't fully buying into the notion of teaming with non-physicians.

The DMCB offers two other lessons:

In retrospect, calling sick Medicare patients infrequently may have been one factor in MHS' undoing.  The telephone will probably have a role to play for medical homes and ACOs, but the best mix of telephonic and face-to-face visits remains an open question.  At any rate, it seems that contacting patients at least every 30 days would be a good benchmark.

The DMCB remembers the confident "this is guaranteed to work!" hubris of yesterday's MHS architects and finds it eerily similar to the enthusiasm surrounding today's medical homes and ACOs. If the Medicare medical home and ACO programs don't work out, it'll set these innovations back ten years or more.

Image from Wikipedia

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