Last Wednesday, I attended a full-day workshop sponsored by the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine on the ACO. We started by reviewing the basic premise of the PCMH: central places to coordinate care focused on patients’ needs and relationship-building. Industry leaders who were fed up with poor care options in America created the concept of the PCMH, which was jointly supported by all national primary care organizations. The PCMH model emphasizes a strong primary care foundation in which primary care providers take responsibility for providing, coordinating and integrating care across the health care continuum. Pilots of the PCMH have shown improvements in quality and reductions in spending when implemented in large provider settings.
The conceptualization of ACOs is separate from the PCMH but there are many parallels. ACOs are organizations that can use payments:
- to incentivize physicians and hospitals to provide care coordination,
- to invest in infrastructure and redesign care processes and
- to provide high-quality and efficient services.
You may be thinking right now - this all sounds great. But what you've given me is a bunch of fancy concepts. Where are the examples? Well, the answer is that there aren't really any good examples yet. The ACO is a new model that was outlined in the Affordable Care Act. ACO rules were just released last month by the Center of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). These rules are still open for comments until June 6, 2011 and then are to be implemented by January 1, 2012. Providers and hospitals at that point can apply to be ACOs.
What does this mean for family medicine and for the PCMH model that we helped develop?
It’s an opportunity to get involved! The weakness of the PCMH model is that there is no incentive for specialists and hospitals to get involved because they don’t participate in the savings. Secondly, there’s little financial incentive for even primary care doctors to get involved because the money saved on emergency room visits, tests and procedures isn’t reflected directly in the pocketbooks of primary care doctors unless payment structures are transformed from the traditional fee-for-service to more innovative payment mechanisms. The ACO model helps align these incentives to achieve much of what the PCMH model desires.
However, the ACO model makes no explicit mention of the centrality of primary care. As future primary care doctors, we must lead in the development and implementation of ACOs if we are to remain relevant in the 21st century and to continue serving our patients.