Health Reform and Cost Reduction: So Far, No Good

Posted by Nolan Miller on Jan 25, 2012

Filed Under (Health Care)

Since the 1960’s, Medicare has the authority to conduct pilot studies to determine whether particular innovations might reduce the cost of providing healthcare services to Medicare beneficiaries.  The 2010 health reform law (PPACA) expanded this power, giving Medicare the authority to expand nationally any program that has been shown to reduce projected spending and improve quality.  While many of us were disappointed by PPACA’s lack of attention to cost reduction (and quality improvement), there was reason to hope that, out of the garden of demonstration projects, a few flowers might bloom.  Unfortunately, while the first group of demonstration projects has taught us something about what kinds of demonstrations we should look at in the future, none successfully reduced overall Medicare spending (including the costs of implementing the pilot programs).

Broadly speaking, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Studies (CMS – note the government did successfully save money by removing the second “M” from the acronym!) has focused on two types of programs: disease management programs aimed at improving care for patients with chronic conditions and reduce costs by decreasing the likelihood of costly complications and hospital admissions, and value-based payment programs that attempt to reward providers for quality and efficiency of care rather than paying them for providing more care (as is the case in the standard Medicare fee-for-service model).  Earlier this month, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a series of reports (here and here, and summarized here and here

 The results on the disease management programs were uniformly disappointing.  Quoting from the CBO Issue Brief on the topic:

 The evaluations show that most programs have not reduced Medicare spending: In nearly every program involving disease management and care coordination, spending was either unchanged or increased  relative to the spending that would have occurred in the absence of the program, when the fees paid to the participating organizations were considered.

 The results for the Value-Based Payment initiatives were somewhat mixed.  One of the four programs considered, in which CMS made bundled payments to providers to cover all hospital and physician services for patients receiving coronary artery bypass surgeries, rather than paying for each service (and each additional service) that the hospitals and physicians chose to provide, reduced overall spending by about 10 percent.  The other three programs were less successful, and on average the savings generated by the four programs were far less than the costs and fees associated with running them.

 So, does this mean that the demonstration projects were a failure?  Not necessarily.  No reasonable person thinks that reducing Medicare spending is going to be easy.  If it were, we would have done it already.  Even in the failed demonstration projects there are lessons to be learned about where we should look for cost savings in the future.  In its issue brief, CMO lists several of these.  In my mind, the two most important are the need to limit the costs of interventions and the need to move away from the fee-for-service model of care delivery.

Regarding the costs of interventions, a number of the projects CMS implemented actually did improve quality and efficiency of care.  However, they were unable to generate savings sufficient to offset the fees paid to service providers and the other costs associated with the programs.  It is possible that if these costs could be reduced, perhaps through a competitive bidding process, disease management programs might prove to deliver the savings we suspect they can.

Regarding the need to move beyond the fee-for-service model, the CBO issue brief sums things up as:

Demonstrations aimed at reducing spending and increasing quality of care face significant challenges in overcoming the incentives inherent in Medicare’s fee-for-service payment system, which rewards providers for delivering more care but does not pay them for coordinating with other providers, and in the nation’s decentralized health care delivery system, which does not facilitate communication or coordination among providers. The results of those Medicare demonstrations suggest that substantial changes to payment and delivery systems will probably be necessary for programs involving disease management and care coordination or value-based payment to significantly reduce spending and either maintain or improve the quality of care provided to patients.

In light of this, the next thing to keep your eye on are is Medicare’s experiment with so-called “Accountable Care Ogranizations,” a program that will offer comprehensive provider groups bundled payments for taking care of all of a group of patients’ healthcare needs, where these payments will be based in part on how well the ACO meets certain quality goals.  The Medicare ACO experiment is just getting under way now. We’ll see whether it is more successful in bringing down costs than CMS’s earlier experiments.

One Response to “Health Reform and Cost Reduction: So Far, No Good”

  • Several projects has carried out to improve the quality and efficiency of care, but they were unable to generate savings sufficient to offset the fees paid to service providers and the other costs associated with the programs.