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Curbside Consult with Dr. Jayne 11/23/20

November 23, 2020 Dr. Jayne No Comments


The Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation (aka the CMS Innovation Center) announced the list of participants in the Primary Care First initiative this week. The program was delayed due to a variety of issues prior to the pandemic, which really pushed it back. It’s finally slated to start on January 1, 2021.

I wonder how the selected participants feel about having roughly 40 days to get everything in place? Most of them have been working on other initiatives that share the same goals as this program for some time, but it’s an entirely different thing to actually get a new program ready to launch in your organization. Trying to do so in what most people are experiencing as the largest peak of the pandemic is yet another level of pain altogether.

What is Primary Care First? It’s been so long since I talked about it that many of us have probably forgotten. It was designed as a voluntary alternative payment model slated to “reward value and quality by offering innovative payment model structures to support delivery of advanced primary care.” The program is supposed to last five years. More than 900 primary care practices were selected and there are 37 identified regional partnerships with commercial, state, and Medicare Advantage plans. Practices had to be in an area with a regional partner in order to participate, which excluded a good chunk of the country.

The program changes the payment structure for patients in participating plans, with the idea that even though not all the patients in the practice may be covered by one of the partner payers, that the practice would effectively up its game in delivering the same level of high-quality primary care services to all patients.

In exchange for performance-based payments and reduced administrative burdens, practices agree to assume financial risk as they try to reduce the total cost of care. There is also a so-called “seriously ill patient” option for practices that treat high-need, seriously ill patients who don’t currently have a primary care provider.

Overall, the model is supposed to revolve around patient-focused care and a high level of care coordination. The reduced administrative tasks are supposed to free providers to spend more time with patients. The program is also designed to “foster practitioner independence by increasing flexibility for primary care, providing participating practitioners with the freedom to innovate their care delivery approach based on their unique patient population and resources.”

Practices are scored based on clinical quality and patient experience measures which include: a patient experience care survey, controlling high blood pressure, diabetes hemoglobin A1c control, colorectal cancer screening, and advance care planning.

I’m sure the practices that applied many months ago had no idea where we would be come January 1, and I wonder if many of them might try to opt out. The final selection of 900-odd practices is quite a way off from being representative of the roughly 210,000 primary care physicians in the US. I’m not even sure, given some of the other variables that were involved in selecting the participants, that the cohort will be able to generate the statistical power needed to prove whether its outcomes (clinical and financial) are truly better than other care delivery paradigms. These practices have been at least dipping their toes in the waters of value-based care for years, with many of them being mostly submerged.

The list of payer participants is dominated by Humana, with a handful of other plans and a sprinkling of Blue Cross / Blue Shield players. Looking at the practice list, it’s a little tricky trying to tell who is who because the participants are mostly listed by the name of their brick and mortar entity, which may not portray the health system ownership behind them. I learned about these naming relationships the hard way: when I was employed at a practice owned by Big Hospital System, they were keen on each practice having its own brand, which wasn’t always the greatest idea when they upcharged you for customizing various things with the practice name versus just being able to say “BHS Medical Group” in your outbound reminder messages, etc.

A couple of the big players show up with a handful of practices each: AdventHealth (formerly Adventist), Ascension, Baptist Health, Beaumont, Cambridge Health Alliance, Cedars-Sinai, Cleveland Clinic, John Muir Physician Network, Temple Physicians, Virtua Primary Care, and Warren Clinic. The University of California has the most participation with 39 sites, and OhioHealth is the runner up with 26 locations. My state isn’t part of the identified Primary Care First regions, so I won’t be able to get very many in-the-trenches stories from regional peers, but I did see at least four of my former clients on the list. Hopefully my contacts are still working there and are willing to keep me posted on how things are going.

Even for the practices with the most value-based care experience, trying to launch this program during a surging pandemic will be key. Colorado is a participating state, and recent reports estimate that 1 in 49 Coloradans are COVID-positive right now. Practices that are reeling with those kinds of numbers are going to be hard pressed to spend time preparing to embrace prevention and management of chronic diseases, which are certainly being exacerbated by the pandemic.

In the urgent care space, I see so many patients who either can’t get in to see a primary care physician or whose physicians have frankly abandoned them. My friends in telehealth report dramatic increases in the number of patients requesting visits for COVID-like symptoms. There’s even a surge in people who have had COVID tests at drive-through clinics but who are struggling to reach their primary physicians and are reaching out to telehealth providers to get documentation that they meet CDC guidelines to return to work.

I wish the best for the Primary Care First practices. We need to bolster our primary care and public health infrastructures – of that, there is no doubt.

We had a conversation at urgent care yesterday around what the health care system will look like in the US after it’s been completely decimated by COVID. This was right after we were notified that four providers had been diagnosed the day before, including the one who had been sitting at my workstation less than 12 hours previously. The nearly 100 patients I saw have no idea what kind of bills are coming their way, especially if they are positive and need hospitalization. I see a tsunami of medical bankruptcies on the horizon. If the Affordable Care Act is repealed and more people have to pay out of pocket for preventive services, I don’t see them having tremendous cash reserves to do so, and this could drive even greater healthcare expenditures down the road.

I’ll continue to follow the adventures of Primary Care First and report back with what I find. If you’re involved in the initiative, I’d love to hear from you. Until then, stay healthy, stay safe, and stay six feet back.

Email Dr. Jayne.

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