Health Care Spending and Quality in Year 1 of the Alternative Quality Contract


In 2009, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts (BCBS) implemented a global payment system called the Alternative Quality Contract (AQC). Provider groups in the AQC system assume accountability for spending, similar to accountable care organizations that bear financial risk. Moreover, groups are eligible to receive bonuses for quality.


Seven provider organizations began 5-year contracts as part of the AQC system in 2009. We analyzed 2006–2009 claims for 380,142 enrollees whose primary care physicians (PCPs) were in the AQC system (intervention group) and for 1,351,446 enrollees whose PCPs were not in the system (control group). We used a propensity-weighted difference-in-differences approach, adjusting for age, sex, health status, and secular trends to isolate the treatment effect of the AQC in comparisons of spending and quality between the intervention group and the control group.


Average spending increased for enrollees in both the intervention and control groups in 2009, but the increase was smaller for enrollees in the intervention group — $15.51 (1.9%) less per quarter (P=0.007). Savings derived largely from shifts in outpatient care toward facilities with lower fees; from lower expenditures for procedures, imaging, and testing; and from a reduction in spending for enrollees with the highest expected spending. The AQC system was associated with an improvement in performance on measures of the quality of the management of chronic conditions in adults (P<0.001) and of pediatric care (P=0.001), but not of adult preventive care. All AQC groups met 2009 budget targets and earned surpluses. Total BCBS payments to AQC groups, including bonuses for quality, are likely to have exceeded the estimated savings in year 1.


The AQC system was associated with a modest slowing of spending growth and improved quality of care in 2009. Savings were achieved through changes in referral patterns rather than through changes in utilization. The long-term effect of the AQC system on spending growth depends on future budget targets and providers' ability to further improve efficiencies in practice. (Funded by the Commonwealth Fund and others.)

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