Cost-containment bill challenging for small practices

Massachusetts has become the first state in the nation to adopt sweeping legislation aimed at controlling the cost of healthcare. Considered a second phase of the Commonwealth's transformation of its health system, which began with the nation's first individual mandate in 2006, Gov. Deval Patrick (R-Mass.) made the new changes official by signing the bill Monday, The Boston Herald reported.

The bill aims to save the state $200 billion during the next 15 years by encouraging the creation of accountable care organizations and adoption of electronic health records. Other measures include charging insurers a tax, expected to total $60 million over the next four years, that would be earmarked for a public trust fund covering preventive care, The New York Times reported.

"Massachusetts has been a model for the nation for access to healthcare," Patrick said before signing the bill, the Herald reported. "Today, we become the first to crack the code on costs."

Shortly after the Senate and House passed the legislation, the Massachusetts Medical Society expressed support for the bill's many "steps forward" but also called out challenges it will pose to physicians.

In a post on the society's blog, Massachusetts Medical Society President Richard Aghababian applauded several aspects of the bill, including the fact that physicians will have a choice whether to participate in global payment systems and that the bill includes the Disclosure, Apology and Offer model of medical liability reform.

Aghababian also noted that the final bill's approach to hold physicians accountable for costs was "less punitive" than previous versions and that it will be possible to eventually modify the cost benchmarks laid out in the current legislation.

However, on behalf of the Massachusetts Medical Society, Aghababian voiced concern that small practices, in particular, may struggle to comply with the bill's "very stringent" reporting requirements, from both a financial and administrative standpoint. The society is also leery of the bill's favored status to limited-service clinics and classification of physician assistants as primary care providers.

According to The Boston Globe, the bill sets a target that allows healthcare spending to grow no faster than the state economy overall through 2017, or about 3.7 percent this year, compared to the 6 percent to 7 percent annual increases the state has seen in medical costs over the past several years. Providers and insurers that exceed the target will have to file performance improvement plans with a new Health Policy Commission, explaining how they will cut spending, the Globe reported. Ultimately, the commission will have the power to refer providers who don't meet benchmarks to the attorney general for investigation.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, however, contends that her office is "not trying to overregulate [the market]," the Herald reported. "We're trying to find that sweet spot. We're going to continue our watchdog role."

To learn more:
- read the Massachusetts bill
- read the article from The Boston Globe (registration required)
- see the story from The Boston Herald
- check out the post from CommonHealth
- see the post from the Massachusetts Medical Society