Stop the Attacks on Medicaid: It Could Hold the Key to Better Health for Those Living Life on the Financial Edge

It’s time for our nation’s health care leaders to stand up against those who denigrate the nation’s invaluable Medicaid program. Such talk is wrong-headed, usually untrue, and counter-productive to the provision of care. Medicaid expansion is a key component of the Affordable Care Act, and congressional efforts against the Affordable Care Act would badly undermine health care for the poor and low-income Americans. Although these efforts in Washington have failed, offensive attitudes toward Medicaid persist.

This persistent criticism by some is ironic, as 21 states – including Massachusetts –-have or will soon implement a new health care delivery model: Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). ACOs are collaboratives of health care providers and insurers who are entirely focused on improving the overall health and well-being of Medicaid patients and, as a result, by extension, reducing costs of providing their care. This mandate was written into the Affordable Care Act so that we – finally — have a health care approach that acknowledges the realities of life below the poverty line.

ACOs shun the costly fee-for-service system and require accountability from medical care providers, case managers and behavioral health professionals who will now work as teams to focus on all aspects of a Medicaid-enrolled patient’s well-being. ACOs networks are rewarded not for saving money in providing care, but for improving patients’ health.

The ACO model acknowledges that, for people with low-income, success in coping with chronic disease, acute illness or injury is only 10 percent dependent on actual medical care received. Since genetics account for about 30 percent of our health, a full 60 percent of our health care is linked to social, behavioral and environmental factors.

So now, ACO health care providers will shine a spotlight on patients in ways they may find uncomfortable at first: for instance, along with taking a patient’s blood pressure, a practitioner will ask: Do you have transportation? If you live alone, are you able to cook for yourself? Do you have friends? Have you recently experienced a loss? Are you worried about paying the rent, or heating your home? Would you like to talk about mental health services? Does your family eat healthy meals at home? Not only can ACO practitioners ask the questions, they can leverage the resources to help address the answers.

This year, Governor Charlie Barker announced the formation of 17 ACO collaboratives. These networks are scheduled to be up and running in January with more than 900,000 Medicaid enrollees and 4,500 primary care providers. In the Berkshires, Berkshire Health Systems, Community Health Programs and Fallon Health have formed the Berkshire Fallon Health Collaborative. Together we will care for some 20,000 people in the Berkshire region.

Our ACO partners are heartened by this collaboration and its possibilities. Soon, when CHP patients present needs beyond a medical issue, we can offer a continuum of family support, mental health care and resources to help with housing and food insecurity.

It’s nearly impossible to overstate the breakthrough offered by these innovations. MassHealth is drawing on the lessons of the two-year-old Medical Home Network ACO, which serves Chicago’s poor West Side. MHN’s results demonstrates that when a comprehensive ACO offers complete and diverse care and services, health improves. Homelessness or overcrowded housing, high unemployment or low wages, poor nutrition, substance abuse, under-education, and distrust of the criminal justice system can be better addressed through this collaborative health care model.

Sounds expensive? In its first year, health care costs for those served by Chicago’s MHN declined by more than $17 million in its first year, an approximate 7.9 % reduction in net risk-adjusted costs, and by an additional $6 million in its second year.  MHN also measured a 12.9% reduction in emergency room visits and 35% reduction in hospital re-admission rates.

The faith that ACO providers place in this model is reflected in their willingness to assume financial risk. ACOs receive a pre-determined annual fee for each member, and at year’s end, the ACO shares data on how that patient is doing: Are members using emergency rooms less often? Have hospitalizations been reduced or avoided? Have hospital re-admissions decreased? If the cost of a member’s care exceeds the set fee, the ACO covers the difference.

MassHealth has been operating a pilot project with six ACOs since December 2016, and the results are promising. For example, Partners HealthCare ACO, which was founded by Brigham and Women’s and Massachusetts General hospitals, reports that by connecting members with home and community based services — including providing primary care in members’ homes — preventable or unnecessary hospitalizations have declined.

The recent national push to cut millions from Medicaid rolls, and to reduce services available for those who remain, is heartbreaking and frustrating. But for those of us working to craft a health care system that measurably improves the lives of the families and individuals — with significant cost savings -– this is a time for hope.

Massachusetts has long led the nation in ensuring that all citizens have access to health care. This goal matches the mission of the community health center movement, so we are ideal ACO partners. But we all must continue to advocate and collaborate — especially now, at the cusp of positive change — to ensure that our struggling friends and neighbors benefit from a long-overdue understanding of what constitutes cost-efficient, effective, and humane health care.

Lia Spiliotes is chief executive officer of Community Health Programs, a federally qualified health center serving nearly 34,000 patients in the Berkshire County region of Massachusetts. She also serves on the board of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers.