Are ACOs More About Good Accounting and Reporting Than Improving Care?

Posted on August 28, 2015 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

I was recently reading David Harlow’s analysis of the recently released data from CMS on ACO performance and found a lot to chew on. Most people have found the results underwhelming unless they’re big proponents of ACOs and value based reimbursement and then they’re trying to spin it as “early on” and “this is just the start.” I agree with both perspectives. Everyone is trying to figure out how to reimburse for value based care, and so far we haven’t really figured it out.

These programs aside, after reading David Harlow’s post, I asked the following question:

The thing I can’t figure out with ACOs is if they’re really changing the cost of healthcare or if they’re mostly a game of good accounting and reporting. Basically, do the measures they’re requiring really cause organizations to change how they care for patients or does it just change how organizations document and report what they’re doing?

I think this is a massive challenge with value based reimbursement. We require certain data to “prove” that there’s been a change in how organizations manage patients. However, I can imagine hundreds of scenarios where the organization just spends time managing how they collect the data as opposed to actually changing the way they care for patients in order to improve the data.

Certainly there’s value in organizations getting their heads around their performance data. So, I don’t want to say that collecting the right data won’t be helpful. However, the healthcare system as a whole isn’t going to benefit from lower costs if most ACOs are just about collecting data as opposed to making changes that influence the data in the right way. The problem is that the former is a program you can build. The later is much harder to build and track.

Plus, this doesn’t even take into account that we may be asking them to collect the wrong data. Do we really know which data we need to collect in order to lower the costs of healthcare and improve the health of patients? There is likely some low hanging fruit, but once we get past that low hanging fruit, then what?

In response to my comment, David Harlow brought up a great point about many of the ACO program successes not being reproducible. Why does an ACO in one area improve quality and reduce costs and in another it doesn’t?

All of this reminds me of the question that Steve Sisko posed in yesterday’s #KareoChat:

There are a lot of things that seem to make sense until you dig into what’s really happening. We still have a lot of digging left to do in healthcare. Although, like Steve, I’m optimistic that many of the things we’re doing with ACOs and value based care will provide benefits. How could they not?