Senators Introduce Bill to Improve Medical Payment Models for Rural Health Care Organizations

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Last Friday, U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Patty Murray (D-WA) and John Thune (R-SD) introduced bipartisan legislation that would improve Medicare Accountable Care Organizations (ACO’s) for patients and health care providers.

The Rural ACO Improvement Act of 2015 promotes access to coordinated, patient-focused health care services in rural and underserved areas by implementing improvements to the way patients are assigned to the Medicare Shared Savings Program, a key Medicare ACO.  The legislation allows Medicare to include primary care visits by nurse practitioners, physicians’ assistants and clinical nurse specialists, as well as primary care services furnished in Federally Qualified Health Centers and Rural Health Clinics, in assigning patients to an ACO.  The changes aim to make ACO assignment more accurate and inclusive in communities lacking primary care physicians, while enabling health care providers to attain enough ACO participants to make the model successful.

 “Washington state has long been an innovator in the delivery of efficient and coordinated health care.” said Cantwell.  “This legislation advances that innovation by promoting health care that puts the health of patients at the forefront, particularly in rural communities that lack primary care physicians.  Improvements to Medicare’s delivery of health services mean higher-quality care for Washington state beneficiaries and lower costs for taxpayers.”

“I’m focused on building a health care system that works for Washington state families, and to do that, we need to make sure that families are able to get high quality care right in their own communities,” said Senator Murray. “Our legislation will help more families in Elma, Shelton, and communities throughout our state benefit from innovative delivery system reforms that are designed to put patients and families first and save taxpayer dollars, by helping to bend the cost curve and improve quality of care.”

“While health care reimbursement models are transforming, it’s important to level the playing field so rural health care organizations can participate in new payment models, like ACOs, that reward well-coordinated, high-quality, low-cost care,” said Thune. “This bipartisan legislation takes several common-sense steps that would not only help rural ACOs get off the ground, but would also result in more coordinated access to value-based rural health care for Medicare beneficiaries across the country.”

“We commend the Senators’ legislation which will ensure those patients who have chosen to receive primary care services from a nurse practitioner are eligible to be included in an ACO,” said Dave Hebert, CEO of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners.  “This change will result in increased access to the quality primary care that nurse practitioners provide especially for those patients in rural and underserved communities.”

“The rural ACO model has the potential to greatly improve access to high quality care in rural parts of our state. But to achieve that goal, it must reflect the realities of who provides care in these communities,” said Scott Bond, CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association. “This bill recognizes the critical role nurse practitioners and physician assistants play in providing access for residents of rural communities.”

Accountable Care Organizations, or ACO’s, are groups of hospitals, doctors, and other health care providers who voluntarily join together to coordinate care for a specific patient population.  In ACO’s, health care providers are responsible for effectively managing the health and wellness of patients: when an ACO delivers high-quality care at a lower cost than traditional fee-for-service spending, the ACO recoups part of the savings.  Created by Congress in 2010, the Medicare Shared Savings Program is a voluntary program enabling health care providers to share savings with Medicare if they beat cost targets and achieve specified quality measures.