Health Policy Issue Brief: How to Improve the Medicare Accountable Care Organization (ACO) Program

Contributors: Alice M. Rivlin and Christine Dang-Vu

Recent data suggest that Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) are improving important aspects of care and some are achieving early cost savings, but there is a long way to go. Not all ACOs will be successful at meeting the quality and cost aims of accountable care. The private sector has to date allowed more flexibility in terms of varying risk arrangements—there are now over 250 accountable care arrangements with private payers in all parts of the country—with notable success in some cases, particularly in ACOs that have been able to move farther away from fee-for-service payments. Future growth of the Medicare ACO program will depend on providers having the incentives to become an ACO and the flexibility to assume different levels of risk, ranging from exclusively upside arrangements to partial or fully capitated payment models.

Given that the first three year cycle of Medicare ACOs ends in 2015 and more providers will be entering accountable care in the coming years, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has indicated that they intend to release a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) affecting the Medicare ACO program.

In anticipation of these coming changes, the Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform has identified the “Top Eight ACO Challenges” that warrant further discussion and considerations for ensuring the continued success of ACOs across the country. To support that discussion, we also present some potential alternatives to current Medicare policies that address these concerns. These findings build on the experiences of the Engelberg Center’s ACO Learning Network members and other stakeholders implementing accountable care across the country.  In some cases, the alternatives might have short-term costs, but could also improve the predictability and feasibility of Medicare ACOs, potentially leading to bigger impacts on improving care and reducing costs over time.  In other cases, the alternatives could lead to more savings even in the short term. In every case, thoughtful discussion and debate about these issues will help lead to a more effective Medicare ACO program.

Top Eight ACO Challenges

1. Make technical adjustments to benchmarks and payments
2. Transition to more person-based payments
3. Increase beneficiary engagement
4. Enhance and improve alignment of performance measures
5. Enable better and more consistent supporting data
6. Link to additional value-based payment reforms
7. Develop bonus payments and other incentives to participate
8. Support clinical transformation