WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration announced a new Medicare pilot program Wednesday to strengthen primary care services for patients and cut costly emergency room visits - by offering financial incentives to doctors.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the three-year pilot plan is modeled after a program being tested in Vermont. It would begin early next year.
Under the Vermont program, private insurers work with Medicaid to set uniform standards for so-called "medical homes" - a single doctor or practice that will track all the patient's required care. The model provides financial incentives for doctors to spend more time with patients and offer better care by coordinating with specialists. That program would be extended to Medicare.
Medicaid is the federal-state program that provides health insurance to the poor. Medicare is the federal program that provides health insurance to the elderly.
"When Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance companies coordinate their efforts, we can improve the quality of care," said Sebelius. She was joined in the announcement by Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas.
Sebelius said the pilot program will deliver better patient-centered care "at no extra cost to Americans." She did not elaborate, but a statement from HHS said there would be mechanisms in place that would ensure savings for the Medicare trust funds.
Under the Medicare pilot program, the focus would be on wellness and prevention to pre-empt hospitalizations and emergency room visits down the road. States will be able to apply to be part of the program later this fall. They'll have to demonstrate that a majority of primary care doctors in the area would participate.
The model means a different health care experience for patients, said Douglas.
"They have a more thorough and less hurried primary care visit," he said. "The primary care providers are being paid for better care, not more care, through incentive payments."