Though they try to present themselves differently, ACOs are paper tigers. While they may be bound together by the toughest contracts an army of lawyers can devise, they really aren’t integrated in a meaningful way.
After all, the hospitals and medical groups that make up the ACO still have their own leadership, they don’t generally hold assets in common other than funds to support the ACO’s operations, and they’re definitely not in a great position to integrate technically.
So it comes as no surprise that a recent study has found that ACOs are having a hard time with interoperability and rolling out advanced health IT functions.
The study, a joint effort by Premier and the eHealth Initative, surveyed 62 ACOs. It found that 86% had an EMR, 74% had a disease registry, 58% had a clinical decision support system, and 28% had the ability to build a master patient index.
Adding advanced IT functions is prohibitively difficult for many, researchers said. Of the group, 100% said accessing external data was difficult, 95% said it was too costly, 95% cite the lack of interoperability, 90% cite the lack of funding or return on investment and 88% said integration between various EMRs and other sources of data was a barrier to interoperability.
So what you’ve got here is groups of providers who are expected to deliver efficient, coordinated care or risk financial penalties, but don’t have the ability to track patients moving from provider to provider effectively. This is a recipe for disaster for ACOs, which are having trouble controlling risk even without the added problem of out of synch health IT systems.
By the way, if ACOs hope to make things easier by merging with some of the partners, that may not work either. The FTC — the government’s antitrust watchdog — has begun to take a hard look at many hospital and physician mergers. While hospitals say that they are acquiring their peers to meet care coordination goals, the FTC isn’t buying it, arguing that doctors and hospitals can generally achieve the benefits of coordinated care without a full merger.
This leaves ACOs in a very difficult position. If they risk the FTC’s ire by merging with other providers, but can’t achieve interoperability as separate entities, how are they going to meet the goals they are required to meet by health insurers? (I think there’s little doubt, at this point, that truly successful ACOs will have to find a way to integrate health IT systems smoothly.) It’s an ugly situation that’s only likely to get uglier.