Healthcare Tech Lessons: Capitation

Earlier I wrote about the differences between a managed care payment model and a fee-for-service payment model. Today I’m going to write about a specific managed care model called capitation. In a capitation model, healthcare providers (doctors and nurse practitioners) contract with a type of HMO called an independent practice association (an IPA). The IPA is a group of providers across a wide range of specialties that look to provide care for patients in their community. Patients enroll in the IPA and pay a fixed, monthly fee to have access to care from those providers. The IPA then pays each healthcare provider a set amount for each patient that’s enrolled. The provider receives this payment regardless of whether or not the patient seeks care.

So, in short, the bad news for the provider is that the payments are “capped”, regardless of how much care they provide. But the good news is they get paid even if they never see the patient. The amount of the payment the provider receives varies based on the expected healthcare utilization of the patient (factors such as medical history, age and gender are considered); though there are some capitation models where the payment is the same, regardless of the expected healthcare utilization.

The capitation model provides a few unique incentives for physicians and nurse practitioners:

  1. Providers will consider cost when providing care. You don’t want to order treatments that cost more than the payment you receive.
  2. There’s an incentive for providers to focus on preventative care. Healthy patients mean more profit.
  3. There’s an incentive to avoid costly patients. So with a capitation model, the provider effectively becomes the insurer for the patient. They take on the risk of whether or not the patient is going to seek care. They can have good and bad years, depending on the amount of care patients need.

There are two major challenges when providers insure patents:

  1. They’re providers, not actuaries or underwriters. As a result, they’re not as good as assessing risk as a traditional insurer and could take a loss as a result.
  2. Risk fluctuation is a function of the size of the portfolio. Because a provider’s patient panel is limited by the capacity of the physicians in the IPA, portfolio size can be small and risky.

It'll be interesting to watch how the relationship between providers and insurers changes as changes in Medicare and Medicaid force more providers to adopt a capitation model.