The Fundamental Challenge of ACOs

Posted on March 31, 2014 I Written By

Kyle is CoFounder and CEO of Pristine, a VC backed company based in Austin, TX that builds software for Google Glass for healthcare, life sciences, and industrial environments. Pristine has over 30 healthcare customers. Kyle blogs regularly about business, entrepreneurship, technology, and healthcare at

I’ve been openly bullish on ACOs and capitated payment models. The only way to achieve the triple aim – quality, cost and access – is to create a system that is structurally incentivized towards those ends. The fee-for-service model will never be structured in a way that incentivizes the triple aim. On the other hand, ACOs do.

Early ACO data is mixed. Although some organizations succeeded in lowering costs and improving outcomes, about 1/3 dropped out of the ACO program entirely, and another 1/3 reported no significant cost or quality changes. Only 1/3 were “successful.”

Why? Why did some organizations succeed where others failed? What did each organization do differently? It’s been proven that some organizations can succeed under this model. But not everyone.

ACOs are disruptive to fee-for-service payment models. ACOs invert incentives. They invert how every employee should think about their job in the context of the larger care delivery system. In ACOs, healthcare professionals are implicitly asked to think about preventative care, which tends to lead towards both cost and quality improvements. On the other hands, in a fee-for-service model, healthcare professionals are only incentivized to simply treat the patient in front of them with no regard for prevention or cost.

When the board of directors of a given organization recognizes the need to change the course of a business, the board usually replaces the CEO. After a new strategy is devised, the new CEO typically replaces most of the executives and lays off a significant number of the existing staff. This accomplishes a few things:

1) reduces the burn, making the organization leaner and more capable of pivoting
2) replaces lots of senior and middle management, who were trained and wired around the old business model, and who may conspire against the new model if they don’t believe in it
3) sends a signal to the remaining staff that management is serious about change

Although this plan doesn’t guarantee success, it’s fairly common in large organizations because it can create impetus to break from the inertia of the status quo. The only thing worse than going after the wrong business model is maintaining one that’s failing.

This of course begs the question, how are providers adopting ACOs? Management at provider organizations that have adopted the ACOs are early adopters. They are pioneers. They are leaders. They can see a new, better, ACO-based future. The last thing management at these organizations is going to do is fire themselves after deciding to transition to an ACO.

In light of the above, I am particularly impressed by the early success of the ACO program. Only 1/3 dropped out. Given the fundamental change at hand, I would consider the early data a harbinger of better changes to come. I suspect that almost all of the remaining ACOs will see more significant improvements in years 2 and 3 as they mature and refine processes around value.