Quality Models

November 1, 2009

Sure, the integrated delivery model produces good outcomes and lower costs, but it's not applicable everywhere, in spite of what politicians think

Five years ago, Aetna and several large employers confronted Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle over how much it was charging for treatment of migraine, severe acid reflux and narrowed aortic valves, and other conditions. Virginia Mason, a not-for-profit hospital system that employs about 400 salaried physicians, took the message to heart.

Working with the employers and Aetna, doctors and staff began to re-engineer care protocols. For example, the system ensured back pain patients same-day access to a physical therapist and physical medicine physician and sharply reduced medically unnecessary MRI tests and physical therapy visits. From 2004 to 2007, the changes yielded a 50% reduction in lost employee work days due to back pain, almost $2 million in cost savings and high patient satisfaction scores.

Geisinger has gotten so much attention from politicians that it reportedly hosted tours for more than 70 visiting payers and providers last month.

Leaders of integrated delivery systems say the model won't work just anywhere. It's challenging to build a culture of high quality and low costs through contractual relationships. Independent delivery markets don't have the dynamic of salaried doctors and instead must manage the powerful fee-for-service forces.

Robert S. Mecklenburg, MD, medical director of the Center for Health Care Solutions at Virginia Mason, says his system's experience shows how health plans and employers can benefit from collaborating with an integrated hospital-physician group. But, he adds, moving away from fee-for-service to payment models that reward better patient outcomes, higher patient satisfaction and lower costs is key.

"[Innovative providers] want to be paid for value," he says. "That's very important in straightening out U.S. healthcare."

Mayo Clinic CEO Dr. Denis Cortese describes integrated systems as having high levels of physician engagement, teamwork, connectivity and greater use of industrial efficiency and quality controls. All this is hard to achieve in contracted networks.

At the same time, experts say, non-integrated systems haven't felt the pressure-or been given the financial incentive-to change because payers have been slow to revamp payment methods to encourage coordinated delivery. The current fee-for-service model simply rewards greater volume of services.

So far, Dr. Mecklenburg says, no health plans have agreed to pay Virginia Mason based on actual patient outcomes, except on a temporary experimental basis. He believes the system should realize a positive margin when it meets its quality targets.

"You won't get system reform without changing the reimbursement dynamics," says Andrew Webber, president of the National Business Coalition on Health in Washington, D.C. "I'm sure the leaders of integrated delivery systems are frustrated with the current payment system."