3 Ascension Texas hospitals to pay $20.9M for alleged kickbacks

Kickback Definition

Three Ascension hospitals in Texas agreed to pay $20.9 million for allegedly paying multiple physician groups above fair market value for services, according to a recent news release from the HHS’ Office of Inspector General.

The three Texas hospitals are Ascension’s Dell Seton Medical Center in Austin, Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin and Ascension Seton Williamson in Roundrock. Ascension self-disclosed the conduct to the inspector general.

The hospitals allegedly violated the Civil Monetary Penalties Law, including provisions related to physician self-referrals and kickbacks in seven instances, according to the April 30 news release.

Some of the allegations the report outlined include Dell Seton paying an Austin physician practice above fair market value for on-call coverage; Ascension Seton Austin paying an Austin practice above fair market value for transplant on-call coverage and administrative services; and Ascension Seton Williamson paying a practice above fair market value to lease the practice’s employed registered nurses and surgical technologists who assisted in surgeries at the hospital. 

The release did not disclose the physician groups allegedly involved.

Access the full release here

CommonSpirit posts $1.7B net income in Q3

CommonSpirit aims to cut cost after merger, HQ move

After posting a $1.4 billion net loss in the third quarter of fiscal year 2020, CommonSpirit, a 140-hospital system based in Chicago, saw improved finances in the third quarter of fiscal year 2021, according to financial documents released May 14. 

CommonSpirit, formed in 2019 through the merger of San Francisco-based Dignity Health and Englewood, Colo.-based Catholic Health Initiatives, reported revenues of $8.8 billion in the third quarter of fiscal 2021, up from $7.8 billion recorded in the same quarter one year prior. The health system said the third quarter of fiscal 2021 was the first period to fully include results from Virginia Mason Fransican Health, an 11-hospital system that was formed in January and joined the CommonSpirit network. 

The health system’s operating expenses also increased year over year. It reported total expenses of $8.3 billion in the third quarter of fiscal 2021, compared to about $8 billion recorded in the same period last year. 

CommonSpirit ended the third quarter of fiscal 2021 with an operating income of $539 million, a figure that included federal relief aid and a pre-tax gain on the sale of joint venture shares. CommonSpirit said without the aid and pre-tax gain, the health system would have posted an operating loss of $117 million in the quarter ended March 31, “highlighting the continuing concerns around overall patient volumes and the ongoing impact of the pandemic.”

After factoring in $1.2 billion in non-operating income, including $636 million in investment income, CommonSpirit posted a net income of $1.7 billion in the quarter ending March 31. In the same quarter one year prior, CommonSpirit recorded a net loss of $1.5 billion. 

“In many ways this quarter was similar to what we experienced over the last year, with a very challenging period followed by a robust recovery,” said CommonSpirit CFO Dan Morissette in a May 14 news release. “With vaccination rates rising and many people returning to their pre-pandemic routines, we expect to continue a strong path to recovery, while also recognizing that we will likely see operational impacts from the pandemic for quite some time.”

CommonSpirit said it also is working to strengthen its financial foundation by realizing operational synergies this year. The goal is to realize $350 million to $400 million in savings during fiscal 2021, and it is on track to meet or surpass that goal. 

Walmart, Amazon continue to build healthcare presence

Walmart Health: A Deep Dive into the $WMT Corporate Strategy in Health Care  | by Nisarg Patel | Medium

Late last week, retail giant Walmart announced its plan to acquire national telemedicine provider MeMD, for an undisclosed sum. According to Dr. Cheryl Pegus, Walmart’s executive vice president for health, the acquisition “complements our brick-and-mortar Walmart Health locations”, allowing the company to “expand access and reach consumers where they are”.

MeMD, founded in 2010, provides primary care and mental health services to five million patients nationally. The acquisition extends Walmart’s health delivery capabilities beyond the handful of in-store and store-adjacent clinics it runs, and follows the launch of its own Medicare Advantage-focused broker business, and partnership with Medicare Advantage start-up Clover Health to offer a co-branded insurance product. 

Walmart has been climbing the healthcare learning curve for several years, building on its sizeable retail pharmacy business, and seems to have hit on a successful formula in its latest in-person clinic model, which includes primary care, behavioral health, vision, and dental services. The retailer plans to add 22 new clinic locations by the end of this year, and its new telemedicine offering will allow it to expand its virtual reach even further.

The MeMD acquisition also represents a new front in Walmart’s head-to-head competition with Amazon, which launched its own national telemedicine service earlier this year. That service, Amazon Care, is targeted at the employer market, and right on cue, Amazon announced its first customer sale last week—to Precor, a fitness equipment company. 

Both retail giants are slowly circling the $3.6T healthcare industry, targeting inefficiencies by deploying their expertise in convenience and consumer engagement. Incumbents beware.

Should hospitals mandate the COVID vaccine for employees?

What the COVID-19 vaccine means for your workforce

As we’ve talked to health system executives about the challenges of rolling out COVID vaccines in their communities, one topic keeps coming up: how difficult it’s been to get hospitals’ own workers fully vaccinated. One system told us recently that only 55 percent of their frontline caregivers have opted to get vaccinated, despite early and easy availability, and ongoing encouragement from the hospital’s leaders.

Healthcare workers, it turns out, are just like the general population, bringing the same diversity of perspectives and concerns about vaccination to work with them from their own communities. Vaccine hesitancy is not a new issue for hospital staffers; getting the workforce to take the flu vaccine is an annual struggle for many hospitals.

But given the risks of COVID-19, why not just mandate that hospital employees get the vaccine, as other employers have started to do? We commonly hear two concerns.

One is a labor relations worry: will mandating vaccination cause workers to quit, or make it harder to hire staff in an already difficult market for talent? And given growing concerns about unionization of healthcare workers, will mandatory vaccination become a flashpoint issue?

The second concern is medical liability: can we force workers to get a vaccine that hasn’t been fully approved by the FDA? Would that expose the hospital to legal challenges down the road, if there turn out to be long-term complications from the vaccine?

Our own view is that the first concern is overblown—we suspect vaccine mandates are going to become more and more common as the economy reopens. As to the second, we’re more sympathetic. But once the FDA does grant full approval for the vaccines, we’d hope hospitals will get tougher about vaccine mandates (with the necessary exemptions for health, religious, and other concerns).

At the end of the day, hospitals are in the patient care business, and they should view vaccine mandates—whether for COVID or for influenza—as a patient safety issue, not a workforce engagement issue.

Hospital volume continues an uneven recovery

Though consumers say they’re increasingly confident in returning to healthcare settings, hospital volume is not returning with the same momentum across the board. Using the most recent data from analytics firm Strata Decision Technology, covering the first quarter of this year, the graphic above shows that observation, inpatient, and emergency department volumes all remain below pre-COVID levels. 

Consumers are still most wary about returning to the emergency department, with volume down nearly 20 percent across the past year. Meanwhile, hospital outpatient visits rebounded quickly, and have been growing steadily month over month, finishing March 2021 at 36 percent above the 2019 level.

Meanwhile, a recent report from the Commonwealth Fund shows that no ambulatory specialty fully made up for the COVID volume hit by the end of last year. But some areas, including rheumatology, urology, and adult primary care, have bounced back faster than others.

With continued success in rolling out vaccines and reducing COVID cases, we’d expect a continued recovery of most hospital visit volume. It may be, however, that some areas, such as the emergency department, will never fully recover to pre-COVID levels. To the extent those visits are now being replaced by more appropriate telemedicine and urgent care utilization, that’s welcome news.

But the continued lag of inpatient admissions indicates that some of the loss of emergency volume is more worrisome—warranting continued efforts on the part of providers to reassure patients it’s safe to use healthcare services. Stay tuned as our team continues to dig into this data.