Already, most insurance companies barely function as insurers. Most non-elderly Americans — or 60 percent of Americans with employer-provided health insurance — work for companies that are self-insured. In these cases it is the employer, not the insurance company, that assumes most of the risk of paying for the medical care of employees and their families. All that insurance companies do is process billing claims.
For individuals and small businesses, health insurance companies usually do provide insurance; they take a premium and assume financial responsibility for paying the bills. But the amount of risk sharing that is accomplished is limited because the insurers charge premiums that vary, depending on the health of an individual or a group of employees, and use their data and market power to identify healthy people to cover and unhealthy people to exclude from coverage. (The health care law’s total ban on exclusions for pre-existing conditions will begin in 2014.)
Many health insurance companies also impose barriers — like requiring prior authorization for tests and treatments and denying payment for covered services, which forces patients to appeal — to discourage patients from using the medical services for which they are insured and to attempt to avoid paying for those services. While these barriers can reduce waste by preventing unnecessary care, they can also discourage patients from receiving care they need, as well as impose administrative burdens on doctors and patients.
But thanks to the accountable care organizations provided for by the health care reform act, a new system is on its way, one that will make insurance companies unnecessary. Accountable care organizations will increase coordination of patient’s care and shift the focus of medicine away from treating sickness and toward keeping people healthy.
Because most physicians and hospitals today are paid on a fee-for-service basis, medical care is organized around treating a specific episode of illness rather than the whole patient. This system encourages overtreatment and leads to mistakes and miscommunication when patients are sent between their primary care doctors, specialists and hospitals. Indeed, under today’s payment system, investments in providing better care are doubly penalized. If a hospital hires a nurse to follow up with patients after they are discharged in order to reduce readmissions — for example, to help patients with diabetes improve blood sugar control — it must pay for the nurse, which is typically not reimbursed by insurance companies or Medicare, and it loses revenue by preventing the readmission.
In contrast, accountable care organizations will typically be paid a fixed amount per patient, along with bonuses for achieving quality targets. The organizations will make money by keeping their patients healthy and out of the hospital and by avoiding unnecessary tests, drugs and procedures. Thus, they will actually have a financial incentive to hire that nurse for follow-ups.
In addition to providing better and more efficient care, A.C.O.’s will also make health insurers superfluous. Because they will each be responsible for a large group of patients (typically more than 15,000), they will pool the risk of patients who have higher-than-average costs with those with lower costs. And with the end of fee-for-service payments, insurance companies will no longer be needed to handle complicated billing and claims processing, nor will they need to be paid a fee for doing so. Payments can flow directly from an employer, Medicare or Medicaid to the accountable care organizations. A.C.O.’s will require enhanced information systems to track patients and figure out how to deliver more effective care, but this analytic capacity will be directed at improving health outcomes, not at imposing barriers to those seeking treatment.
A.C.O.’s are not simply a return to the health maintenance organizations of the 1990s. Although in both models patients are members of a provider network with a specific group of doctors and hospitals, and both are paid primarily per member rather than per procedure or test, there are big differences between them. H.M.O.’s were often large national corporations far removed from their members. In contrast, A.C.O.’s will consist of local health care providers working as a team to take care of patients who are likely to be members for years at a time. H.M.O.’s often cut costs not by keeping people healthy but by denying patients services and by forcing doctors and hospitals to take lower payments. In the 1990s, we lacked the information technology and proven models of integrated care delivery that we have now. These advances will allow A.C.O.’s to simultaneously improve health outcomes and reduce costs.
A final bonus of A.C.O.’s is that they will lead to a better form of competition in health care markets. Today, consumers have to choose among insurance plans with a bewildering array of copayments, deductibles and annual out of pocket maximums — choices that few of us are any good at making. In the A.C.O. model, consumers will choose a primary care physician and the team of doctors and hospitals that are in the same group. Choosing a doctor and provider group is a responsibility that consumers want to have and are likely to be much better at.
A few health insurers see this asteroid coming. Wellpoint, for example, bought the clinic operator CareMore for $800 million last summer to make the transition into the A.C.O. business. Others, like the Optum unit of UnitedHealth Group, are developing data analysis services to provide to future A.C.O.’s. If they don’t want to go the way of the dinosaurs, insurance companies will have to find a new business to be in, one that is useful in the new world of coordinated care.
By EZEKIEL J. EMANUEL and JEFFREY B. LIEBMAN