Anatomy of an Independent Primary Care ACO – Part II

by Smith Anderson

Our Secret Weapon and Our Biggest Disappointment

In our last column, we highlighted the Rio Grande Valley Health Alliance, an accountable care organization in McAllen, Tex., composed of 14 independent primary care physicians in 11 practices. As primary care physicians, the RGVHA providers realized the potential for a primary care ACO to generate savings from value-based care.

Because RGVHA is a network model ACO – the physicians stay in their separate independent practices but participate in the ACO through contracts – RGVHA needed a way to manage the ACO data collection, sorting, and reporting requirements in an efficient and effective manner.

Fortunately, Dr. Gretchen Hoyle of MD Online Solutions was able to tailor a data management solution for RGVHA. In addition, Dr. Hoyle helps interpret the data and leads a weekly data-driven staff conference call with the ACO’s nurse care coordinators.

Through Dr. Hoyle’s data collection and interpretation work with RGVHA, the ACO now has concrete data showing utilization trends and patterns. The most positive result has been the demonstrated benefit of nurse care coordinators, who work with patients in the post–acute care settings between their office visits.

In fact, care coordinators have proved to be RGVHA’s secret weapon, because their work has been invaluable in managing patients with chronic conditions between provider appointments.

Conversely, the data have revealed a pattern of overuse of home health care services, which helps contribute to higher care costs overall, making home health the biggest disappointment.

The secret weapon

As Dr. Hoyle so aptly said, "To become a fully functioning ACO, an organization must be able to address both sides of the ACO ‘coin’: quality improvement and cost control." Care coordinators have the capacity to address both concerns.

Within RGVHA, care coordinators have performed chart reviews that identify the ACO’s current performance according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ quality standards. This is the first secret weapon for a small primary care ACO.

This data collection helps RGVHA fill in knowledge gaps as it works toward having a fully integrated electronic health records system. In turn, it helps the care coordinators identify the strengths and weaknesses of each of the participating ACO providers. This ensures that weaknesses can be addressed in a timely fashion. In addition, the chart reviews help identify documentation issues. Documentation is critical to meeting CMS benchmarks, which ultimately helps determine the amount of shared savings for an ACO.

In addition, the data have proved crucial to being able to rank patients by cost. That has allowed RGVHA to identify the top 10% of patients whose care accounts for 50% of the total care costs in the ACO. This information allows providers to understand which patients and types of patients are more expensive, and who can benefit most from intense care coordination and/or longer visits with RGVHA’s primary care doctors.

Claims data show that even a small amount of additional time and care coordination outside of the clinic setting curbs utilization for the most complex patients and saves money. Most important, care coordinators help providers focus their time and energy where it can have the most impact.

The biggest disappointment

Shortly after RGVHA began reviewing patient claims data, home health care costs per patient emerged as one of the greatest cost outliers. The data revealed that providers outside of the ACO were prescribing home health at much higher rates than providers within the ACO. A subsequent gap analysis showed that home health was a prime opportunity target for RGVHA.

As RGVHA developed a strategy to address the overutilization and extremely high home health costs for their patient population, the providers faced their biggest disappointment to date: The Medicare Shared Savings Program regulations only permit ACOs to "ask" that providers outside the ACO coordinate patient care with doctors inside the ACO, not "tell" the providers that they must collaborate in delivering evidence-based, high-value care.

So, RGVHA decided to use those data as the starting point to reach out to those providers.

Dr. Hoyle helped RGVHA identify the amount of home health care generated by each specific agency and ordering physician. That information was used to craft a targeted letter to each provider outside the ACO requesting and encouraging their collaboration and cooperation in the development of a care plan for each home health patient.

Now, several months later, home health care overutilization and costs are beginning to decline, as patient care is monitored by RGVHA and appropriately coordinated among each ACO patient’s team of care providers.

RGVHA’s biggest concern has now become one of its biggest assets. The ACO doctors finally feel empowered in their ability to impact the quality and costs of patient care. Furthermore, they are excited they are getting paid for doing what they are trained to do: provide high-value care to their patients.

The good news is that, when properly informed and invited to help shape high-value patient care, providers want to and will do the right thing.

This article appears courtesy of Internal Medicine News.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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