Tracking CMMI’s Shift to Health Equity

Health equity is the latest focus of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI), which was launched a decade ago to develop and test health care payment models with the goal of saving money for Medicare.  This push for health equity goes back to the very beginning of the Biden administration when he first issued an executive order (EO) on advancing health equity in January 2021.  What steps has CMMI taken to push for health equity since then, and how will CMMI pull it off?

CMMI’s shift to health equity kicked off in October 2021, when the center released a white paper announcing a “strategic refresh” that would judge the success of its models not just on whether they save money but also whether they improve health equity.  Of note, the white paper found that only six models of the more than 50 models CMMI currently has generated substantial savings for Medicare.

CMMI followed-up this strategic refresh in February 2022 when it launched the Accountable Care Organization (ACO) Realizing Equity, Access, and Community Health (REACH) Model, a redesign of the Global and Professional Direct Contracting (GPDC) Model.  A key feature of the ACO REACH model is a requirement for model participants to develop a health equity plan that identifies underserved communities and outlines initiatives to reduce health disparities within their beneficiary populations. 

The ACO REACH Model won’t be the last CMMI model to make health equity a cornerstone.  In March 2022, CMMI Director Liz Fowler said creating a health equity plan will  likely be a requirement for future innovation center models.

CMMI took another bold step on health equity in March 2022 when Chief Medical Officer Dora Lynn Hughes announced in a Health Affairs blog post that the innovation center has added “Advancing Health Equity” as one its five strategic objectives.  In the blog post, Hughes outlines ways CMMI intends to achieve this new objective:

  • Developing new models and updating existing models to promote and incentivize health equity, as demonstrated by the ACO REACH Model.
  • Increasing the participation of safety net providers to ensure models reach underserved communities.
  • Increasing collection and analysis of equity data, primarily by coordinating with other offices in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
  • Monitoring and evaluating models for health equity impact by analyzing beneficiary experience and equity assessments.

Can CMMI pull off its health equity goals?  After all, only a fraction of the center’s 50 models achieved the goal of saving Medicare money, which makes the center’s capability to tack on and carry out another goal seem overly ambitious.

Fortunately, CMMI has a plan.  In her blog post, Hughes stated that the center will have to collaborate with offices and agencies across HHS, particularly those focused on social determinants of health like food, housing, and transportation.  Outside of the government, Hughes said CMMI is already meeting with groups that have not previously engaged with the center, like community-based organizations and patient advocacy groups, and that CMMI is hosting roundtable discussions on health equity to help inform its work. 

On top of this, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is working hard to advance health care interoperability, which CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure said in March 2022 is essential to addressing the “inequities in our health care system.”  Better data collection is one of the four ways CMMI hopes it will achieve its health equity goal, and Brooks-La Sure recently announced that CMS will soon publish a rule on health data exchange.  While CMMI’s success at creating models that reduce Medicare costs may be limited at best, the center has laid out some specific actions it hopes to take to achieve its new goal, increasing the odds this goal can become reality.    

CMS Puts Geo Model on Hold

On March 1, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced its Geographic Direct Contracting Model is “currently under review” until further notice.   While CMS has yet to provide a reason for the pause, criticism from industry stakeholders and the new Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMM) Director may explain the pause.

Announced in December 2020, the Geographic Direct Contracting Model, or the “Geo Model,” envisions using direct contracting entities (DCEs) to build integrated relationships with health care providers and coordinate care for Medicare beneficiaries in designated geographic regions.  The model, which had been under development for two years, builds on lessons learned from the Next Generation ACO model, Medicare Advantage, and other initiatives.

However, the Geo Model is the only CMMI model that has been paused by the new Administration so far.   In the absence of an official justification from CMS, one of the reasons why the model may have been put on hold was criticism from health care stakeholders.  In a December 2020 letter to then-CMMI Director Brad Smith, the National Association of ACOs warned the model could generate confusion among beneficiaries over who is compelled to participate.  Additionally, the Center for Medicare Advocacy urged the then-Biden Transition Team in a December 2020 letter to halt the Geo Model due to uncertainty over how the model would work with other forms of insurance such as Medigap.

The move to suspend the Geo Model is not entirely without precedent.  The Biden Administration paused or withdrew numerous actions by the previous Administration since assuming power, which is typical for new presidential administrations.  For instance, CMS has withdrawn proposed rules on oversight for accrediting organizations, revisions to dialysis coverage requirements, and changes to Medicare Part A enrollment requirements since January 20. 

It should be noted that not all stakeholders oppose the Geo Model.  In a March 4 letter, America’s Physician Groups urged CMMI to restart the model as soon as possible due to “extensive financial investments” participating providers have already made in preparation for the model’s launch, as well as a genuine belief that the model represents a meaningful shift away from the fee-for-service model.

In addition to external criticism, pressure to put the Geo Model on hold may have come from within CMMI itself.  Recently, the Biden Administration tapped Liz Fowler to serve as CMMI Director.  Prior to her new leadership role at CMS, Fowler served as Executive Vice President for Programs at the Commonwealth Fund, where she co-authored a December 2020 blog post about the Geo Model.  While the blog post largely served as an explainer for the model, it raised several questions, including how CMS would be able to produce savings CMS had projected and whether CMS is adequately tracking beneficiaries’ use of services under the model.

Thus, pressures from both inside and outside CMS have likely led to the Administration’s decision to suspend the model for the time being.  That said, while not knowing yet where CMMI may take the geographic-based care and payment model, it certainly seems possible that the Administration could choose to pause other CMMI models in the future.