CMMI’s new Comprehensive Primary Care Plus: Its promise and missed opportunities

Editor's note:

This analysis is part of The Leonard D. Schaeffer Initiative for Innovation in Health Policy, which is a partnership between the Center for Health Policy at Brookings and the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics. The Initiative aims to inform the national health care debate with rigorous, evidence-based analysis leading to practical recommendations using the collaborative strengths of USC and Brookings.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI, or “the Innovation Center”) recently announced an initiative called Comprehensive Primary Care Plus (CPC+). It evolved from the Comprehensive Primary Care (CPC) initiative, which began in 2012 and runs through the end of this year. Both initiatives are designed to promote and support primary care physicians in organizing their practices to deliver comprehensive primary care services. Comprehensive Primary Care Plus has some very promising components, but also misses some compelling opportunities to further advance payment for primary care services.

The earlier initiative, CPC, paid qualified primary care practices a monthly fee per Medicare beneficiary to support practices in making changes in the way they deliver care, centered on five comprehensive primary care functions: (1) access and continuity; (2) care management; (3) comprehensiveness and coordination; (4) patient and caregiver engagement; and, (5) planned care and population health. For all other care, regular fee-for-service (FFS) payment continued. The initiative was limited to seven regions where CMMI could reach agreements with key private insurers and the Medicaid program to pursue a parallel approach. The evaluation funded by CMMI found quality improvements and expenditure reductions, but savings did not cover the extra payments to practices.

Comprehensive Primary Care Plus uses the same strategy of conducting the experiment in regions where key payers are pursuing parallel efforts. In these regions, qualifying primary care practices can choose one of two tracks. Track 1 is very similar to CPC. The monthly care management fee per beneficiary remains the same, but an extra $2.50 is paid in advance, subject to refund to the government if a practice does not meet quality and utilization performance thresholds.

The Promise Of CPC+

Track 2, the more interesting part of the initiative, is for practices that are already capable of carrying out the primary care functions and are ready to increase their comprehensiveness. In addition to a higher monthly care management fee ($28), practices receive Comprehensive Primary Care Payments. These include a portion of the expected reimbursements for Evaluation and Management services, paid in advance, and reduced regular fee-for-service payments. Track 2 also includes larger rewards than does Track 1 for meeting performance thresholds.

The combination of larger per beneficiary monthly payments and lower payments for services is the most important part of the initiative. By blending capitation (monthly payments not tied to service volume) and FFS, this approach might achieve the best of both worlds.

Even when FFS payment rates are calibrated correctly (discussed below), the rates are pegged to the average costs across practices. But since a large part of practice cost is fixed, it means that the marginal cost of providing additional services is lower than the average cost, leading to incentives to increase volume under FFS. The lower payments reduce or eliminate these incentives. Fixed costs, which must also be covered, are addressed through the Comprehensive Primary Care Payments. By involving multiple payers, practices are put in a better position to pursue these changes.

An advantage of any program that increases payments to primary care practices is that it can partially compensate for a flaw in the relative value scale behind the Medicare physician fee schedule. This flaw leads to underpayment for primary care services. Although the initial relative value scale implemented in 1992 led to substantial redistribution in favor of evaluation and management services and to physicians who provide the bulk of them, a flawed update process has eroded these gains over the years to a substantial degree.

In response to legislation, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are working correct these problems, but progress is likely to come slowly. Higher payments for primary care practices through the CPC+ can help slow the degree to which physicians are leaving primary care until more fundamental fixes are made to the fee schedule. Indeed, years of interviews with private insurance executives have convinced us that concern about loss of the primary care physician workforce has been a key motivation for offering higher payment to primary care physicians in practices certified as patient centered medical homes.

Two Downsides

But there are two downsides to the CPC+.

One concerns the lack of incentives for primary care physicians to take steps to reduce costs for services beyond those delivered by their practices. These include referring their patients to efficient specialists and hospitals, as well as limiting hospital admissions. There are rewards in CPC+ for lower overall utilization by attributed beneficiaries and higher quality, but they are very small.

We had hoped that CMMI might have been inspired by the promising initiatives of CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield and the Arkansas Health Care Improvement initiative, which includes the Arkansas Medicaid program and Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield. Under those programs, primary care physicians are offered substantial bonuses for keeping spending for all services under trend for their panel of patients; there is no downside risk, which is understandable given the small percentage of spending accounted for by primary care. The private and public payers also support the primary care practices with care managers and with data on all of the services used by their patients and on the efficiency of providers they might refer to. These programs appear to be popular with physicians and have had promising early results.

The second downside concerns the inability of physicians participating in CPC+ to participate in accountable care organizations (ACOs). One of CMMI’s challenges in pursuing a wide variety of payment innovations is apportioning responsibility across the programs for beneficiaries who are attributed to multiple payment reforms. As an example, if a beneficiary attributed to an ACO has a knee replacement under one of Medicare’s a bundled payment initiatives, to avoid overpayment of shared savings, gains or losses are credited to the providers involved in the bundled payment and not to the ACO. As a result, ACOs are no longer rewarded for using certain tools to address overall spending, such as steering attributed beneficiaries to efficient providers for an episode of care or encouraging primary care physicians to increase the comprehensiveness of the care they deliver.

Keeping the physician participants in CPC+ out of ACOs altogether seems to be another step to undermine the potential of ACOs in favor of other payment approaches. This is not wise. The Innovation Center has appropriately not established a priority ranking for its various initiatives, but some of its actions have implicitly put ACOs at the bottom of the rankings. Recently, Mostashari, Kocher, and McClellan proposed addressing this issue by adding a CPC+ACO option to this initiative.

In an update to its FAQ published May 27, 2016 (after out blog was put into final form), CMMI eased its restriction somewhat by allowing up to 1,500 of the 5000 practices expected to participate in CPC+ to also participate in Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) ACOs. But the prohibition continues to apply to Next Gen ACOs, the model that has created the most enthusiasm in the field. If demand for these positions in MSSP ACOs exceeds 1,500, a lottery will be held. This change is welcome but does not really address the issue of disadvantaging ACOs in situations where a beneficiary is attributed to two or more payment reform models. CMMI is sending a signal that CPC+, notwithstanding its lack of incentives concerning spending outside of primary care, is a powerful enough reform that diverting practices away from ACOs is not a problem. ACOs are completely dependent on primary care physician membership to function, meaning that any physician practices beyond 1,500 that enroll in CPC+ will reduce the size and the impact of the ACO program. CMMI has never published a priority ranking of reform models, but its actions keep indicating that ACOs are at the bottom.

The Innovation Center should be lauded for continuing to support improved payment models for primary care. Its blending of substantial monthly payments with lower payments per service is promising. But the highest potential rewards come from broadening primary care physicians’ incentives to include the cost and quality of services by other providers. CMMI should pursue this approach.

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in Health Affairs Blog.