It's time for episode-based healthcare spending

Short take

There is widespread agreement that if the United States is to achieve sustainable levels of health care spending, it must make greater use of payment mechanisms that reward physicians, hospitals, and health systems for the results achieved. The vexing question is how best to make this transition.

Today, payers and providers are using a range of strategies to accomplish this goal, including patient-centered medical homes, value-based contracting, and accountable care organizations (ACOs). We applaud this trend. However, our research and experience have convinced us that the transition to outcomes-based payment will occur more easily if both payers and providers take an intermediate step and make greater use of retrospective episode-based payment (REBP).

REBP focuses on “episodes of care” (any clinical situations that have relatively predictable start and end points such as procedures, hospitalizations, acute outpatient care, and some treatments for cancer and behavioral health conditions). REBP identifies which provider is in the best position to affect the clinical outcomes and total costs associated with an episode of care; it then assesses (through retrospective analysis of claims data) the outcomes achieved and costs incurred during each episode over a specific period of time (e.g., quarterly). The identified providers are then rewarded or penalized based on their average performance across all the episodes.

The desire to jump straight to outcomes-based payment models focused on the total cost of care for an entire population has led many payers and providers to overlook, or give up on, episode-based payment. We believe it is worth reconsidering.

The Advantages

REBP offers a number of advantages. For example, because it uses the current fee-for-services claims system as its administrative platform, it does not require providers to make significant investments in new infrastructure or establish new contractual arrangements with other providers. And because it focuses on acute episodes, REBP acts as a necessary complement to payment and care-delivery models designed to improve prevention and chronic-care management. Furthermore, administering and/or participating in an REBP model can help both payers and providers develop many of the capabilities they will need for total-cost-of-care management. In short, REBP can serve as a bridge to more comprehensive total-cost-of-care approaches.

How Does REPB Work?

In the U.S. health system today, a dozen or more providers may be involved in an episode of care, and each provider typically bills separately. None of these providers is rewarded financially for helping ensure that the desired clinical outcome is delivered with the highest quality at lowest cost across the entire episode.

REBP is designed to change that. It is somewhat similar to and shares many of the same goals as the “prospective bundled payment” approach, which calls for making a single payment (or budget) to the accountable provider for all the services used to treat each specific episode for each specific patient. But key differences in design and administration make REBP more scalable in the current U.S. health system.

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Tom Latkovic Senior Partner