On December 1, 2014, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a proposed rule that would postpone penalties against accountable care organizations (ACOs) for three years. The proposed rule is one of the latest measures CMS has taken to encourage ACOs to stay in the Medicare Shared Savings Program. In 2012, as part of the rollout of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the Medicare Shared Savings Program was initiated in an effort to curb spending, while improving quality of care. Since its enactment, industry stakeholders have pushed for leniency, primarily because the Medicare Shared Savings Program penalizes ACOs after the first three years unless the ACOs voluntarily take on financial risk earlier, in exchange for larger bonuses if they perform well. While policymakers supported the penalties as a means of incentivizing change in the healthcare market, providers, particularly less experienced providers, pushed back–arguing that a more moderate approach would ease the financial risk and foster more growth. Recently, the National Association of ACOs released the results of a survey, which reported that approximately 200 of the 300 ACOs in the program were somewhat or highly unlikely to continue if they were required to accept penalties.
With the issuance of the proposed rule, CMS conveyed that it wants less experienced ACOs to remain in the program. By postponing the penalties, CMS acknowledged that some ACOs might not be ready to accept the financial risks and fear these providers might exit the program in lieu of exposing their entity to liability.
However, ACOs must abide by specific criteria if they want to take advantage of the postponement. Under the proposed rule, ACOs must have reduced their spending in their first two years in the program and be prepared to assume the financial risk of penalties after six years. Additionally, CMS plans to encourage ACOs to exit the safer track and take on more risk by decreasing the safe track bonuses from fifty percent to forty percent. Furthermore, CMS proposed a third track, which would implement new methods to determine which patients are included in the ACO. Specifically, the ACOs would start the year with a list of patients, and manage those patients’ costs and care. This new system should benefit ACOs because CMS will identify the patients at the start of the year, allowing for more focused improvement efforts. Lastly, the third track will also include potential bonuses and penalties.