While accountable care organizations (ACOs) hold promise to provide better overall patient care at lower cost, it appears that vulnerable individuals, including disadvantaged racial minorities, people with low incomes, and medically complex patients, may not have the same access to ACOs as others. New financing strategies, performance measurement techniques, and technical assistance programs will be essential to ensuring that all populations are able to benefit from these new health care organizations.
The accountable care organization is a health care delivery and payment model designed to reduce costs while improving quality. In an ACO, a group of providers is collectively held accountable for the cost and quality of care of a defined patient population. There are concerns, however, that vulnerable populations may experience more difficulty gaining access to ACOs than would more advantaged groups. That is because the health care providers treating racial minorities, low-income individuals, and people lacking social supports often lack the capital, capability, and payer support to form and run these organizations. Medically complex patients may face similar challenges, especially if ACOs discourage or avoid enrollment of sicker patients—either for lack of resources or for fear that providing needed services will undermine efforts to meet cost or quality targets. The authors of this Commonwealth Fund–supported article present strategies that payers and policymakers can use to overcome these obstacles.
To implement these strategies, public and private payers may wish to look to existing ACO initiatives, including the Medicare Shared Savings Program, which has provided startup funding to smaller organizations and developed sophisticated risk-adjustment models and reward systems. Additional guidance is available from the Premier Hospital Quality Incentive Demonstration; the Safety Net ACO Readiness Assessment tool, developed by the University of California, Berkeley; and Minnesota’s Health Care Delivery System Demonstration.
Strategies that support ACO formation in diverse settings as well as the monitoring, measuring, and rewarding of provider performance may help to ensure that the nation's most vulnerable patients have access to the higher-quality, lower-cost care that ACOs are designed to achieve.