“There are an enormous number of ways you can contort and twist this so you can create scenarios where people come out of it feeling like they have been penalized for behavior well outside their control,” Dr. Siegal says. “I think those are the big risks: imbalance of power and how do you create lines of accountability that actually make sense?”
But, he says, a system that promotes collective responsibility for patients could create a compelling incentive for more collaboration between physicians and consultants. “I think if ‘done right,’ and I say that in quotations because nobody knows what ‘done right’ means,” Dr. Siegal says, “bundling could actually be huge for hospitalists.”
Mary Dallas, MD, medical information officer at Presbyterian Healthcare Services in Albuquerque, N.M., says she’s seen first hand how collaboration among a health plan, a hospital and physicians can improve quality and balance finances. “Those efforts were really spawned out of a forced alignment between all groups in order to focus on common goals,” she says. Bundling could force a similar convergence of priorities.
If “alignment” has become the favorite watchword in bundling discussions, “gainsharing” as a concept has been greeted by far more ambivalence. “I oppose gainsharing that puts money directly into the physician’s pocket,” Dr. Dallas says. “This is something that occurs frequently in the free-market world in other industries, and to pay a few for the success that demands participation of many is just wrong in my book.”
Instead, Dr. Dallas supports the idea of directing monetary rewards toward improving infrastructure and the overall healthcare delivery process. As examples, she suggests using the money to buy time from physicians willing to be involved in pilot projects aimed at improving the delivery process, or to add more resources for better patient continuity between the hospital and the community.
Even with a more equitable distribution of resources, she and other hospitalists concede any transition to bundling could be bumpy. “If I were an independent physician, and my personal payment from Medicare was dependent on or tied to the hospital’s performance,” Dr. Dallas says, “there would be a lot of work to prepare me for this.”
As several hospitalists warn, a bundling system could trigger ratcheting down of care—and a whole new set of headaches. “The concern for everyone is that it is going to incentivize physicians to give less services,” says Jonathan Lovins, MD, director of hospitalist and midlevel practitioner services at the Hospital of Central Connecticut, and the brother of Waterbury Hospital’s Dr. Rachel Lovins.
Several hospitalists say the problem could be similar to what happened with Medicare’s capitation system, which gained traction in the 1980s and peaked in the mid-1990s before waning because of a backlash by both providers and patients. This fixed pre-payment reimbursement system, Dr. Lovins says, created an inherent conflict of interest for primary caregivers because referring patients to specialists for tests lowered profits whereas delivering fewer services did not.
Bradley Flansbaum, DO, MPH, FACP, director of hospitalist services at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, goes a step further, calling the bundling plan capitation on steroids, and cautions that a one-size-fits-all system is bound to fail. “Having technology and having the intellectual firepower to figure out how this system is going to manage the bundled payment is an advantage,” he says, adding that larger hospitals are more likely to have this advantage. For rural physicians or those within inefficient networks, bundling payments could be disastrous. “CMS may just say, ‘We’re turning on the lights tomorrow and tough,’ but it’s going to be a hell of a mess if they do,” he says.