Dynamics of Decline: The Truth About HMOs

California’s commercial health maintenance organization population shrank from 11.9 million to 9.8 million enrollees between 2004 and 2015 (see figure below), a 17.5% decline. But the decline has not been consistent across all HMOs — Kaiser’s commercial enrollment has actually grown during this period.

Two new publications from CHCF take a closer look at how commercial managed care enrollment (including individual enrollment) and the public sector’s embrace of managed care are shifting the way physician organizations are paid — important trends that could affect California’s delivery system.

The first report, As Commercial Capitation Sinks, Can California’s Physician Organizations Stay Afloat?, by Laura Tollen uses quantitative data and findings from stakeholder interviews to shed light on the extent to which commercial capitation is losing ground in California.

A companion set of charts and graphics compiled by Katherine Wilson provides additional detail on health plan enrollment and changes in HMO participation over the past decade.

California Commercial HMO Enrollment, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan ("Kaiser") vs. Non-Kaiser, 2004-2015

It is important to look separately at Kaiser and non-Kaiser enrollment. Kaiser is characterized by a mutually exclusive relationship between the health plan (Kaiser Foundation Health Plan) and its two associated Permanente Medical Groups in Northern and Southern California. While Kaiser is by far the largest HMO in California, the health plan offers capitated contracts only to these two medical groups.

Kaiser HMO enrollment increased from 5.6 million to 6.1 million in the last decade, while commercial HMO enrollment for all non-Kaiser plans plummeted, from 6.3 million in 2004 to the current 3.6 million — a loss of more than 40%.

Uncertain Future

The impact of these trends on the state’s non-Permanente physician organizations is uncertain. While declining commercial capitation has not yet had a big effect on their operations, medical group leaders suspect it will soon, according to interviews. The change in commercial payment methods has been slow enough that their organizations have been able to adapt, repurposing some of their HMO-based infrastructure (utilization management tools, for example) for value-oriented payment programs that are FFS-based, such as private accountable care organizations (ACOs).

Among the other findings from the interviews were:

  • Declining capitation and rising fee-for-service will not influence individual physicians’ clinical decisions. All interviewees noted that their organizations’ strong culture of providing high-value care would prevent them from fundamentally changing the way they practice, regardless of payment type.
  • Despite commercial trends, capitation from Medicare Advantage and Medi-Cal managed care plans is on the rise. However, neither of these types of capitation is seen as a substitute for commercial capitation in terms of supporting infrastructure. While the perception is that Medicare Advantage capitation rates are generous, there is also recognition that these patients are costly. Interviewees said Medi-Cal capitation rates are inadequate.
  • Along with the decline in commercial capitation, interviewees expressed alarm at the large increases they observed in patient cost-sharing requirements. All said they fear that patients will not obtain the care recommended by their providers because of high out-of-pocket costs, and some said they already see this happen frequently.

Why This Matters

As more employers shift coverage from HMOs to preferred provider organizations (PPOs) and other non-capitated plans to achieve lower premium rates, they are sacrificing quality and financial protection for employees in exchange for short-term premium savings.

A recent CHCF blog post by Jeff Rideout of the Integrated Healthcare Association highlights the patterns of higher quality / lower cost that distinguish HMO plans in the state (compared to PPOs and other plan types). Large multispecialty physician organizations, which have flourished in California, have a long history and significant expertise in managing risk and coordinating care. These are the very skills that health care purchasers demand from value-based payment programs. Without sufficient infrastructure — which is supported by capitation/prepayment — the foundation of high-value care could crumble.

Given these trends, are employers being penny-wise but pound-foolish in pursuing short-term savings at the expense of longer-term value?

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