Inside the ‘wave’ of health care acquisitions

Amazon and several other major companies have made numerous attempts to “disrupt” health care over the years without much success. But new acquisitions in primary care, home health care, and more may allow them to more successfully expand into the industry, David Wainer writes for the Wall Street Journal.

Competition heats up in the health care industry

According to Wainer, the United States spends a greater proportion of its economy on medical services than any other developed nation, making health care “too big of an opportunity to ignore” for many companies, including those in technology, retail, and more. 

For example, Amazon has launched several forays into health care in recent years, although not all of them have been successful. Some of these health care efforts include its now defunct partnership with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase, as well as Amazon Care, the company’s primary care service that will shut down at the end of the year.

Amazon has also acquired several smaller health care companies in an effort to expand its reach. In 2018, Amazon purchased PillPack for $1 billion as a way to expand its online pharmacy business. Similarly, Amazon in July reached an agreement to acquire One Medical, a primary care company, for roughly $3.9 billion.

Several other companies, including retailers like Walmart and Walgreens and large insurers like UnitedHealth Group* (UHG) and CVS Health‘s Aetna, are also looking to expand their health care offerings. In fact, CVS announced last week that it had purchased home health care company Signify Health for roughly $8 billion—beating out several other competitors.

So far, “[s]hifting social attitudes and market conditions have helped fuel the wave” of health care acquisitions from major companies, Wainer writes, and more are likely to occur going forward.

What companies are targeting in health care

In contrast to the more traditional fee-for-service model, many health care startups are moving toward value-based care, which encourages providers to help prevent illnesses, rather than just treat them.

According to Wainer, UHG, which includes a pharmacy benefit manager, an insurance business, and 60,000 physicians, has made the most progress transitioning to value-based care so far. For example, many of the multi-specialty physician practices UHG has purchased through its medical provider arm Optum Care focus on proactively providing patients home, virtual, and on-site care to help them stay out of the hospital.

In addition, UHG and Walmart last week announced a partnership to provide services and “improve the patient experience” for certain Medicare Advantage enrollees. Through the partnership, UHG will use analytics to help Walmart clinics deliver value-based care to patients.

Aside from value-based care, many companies, including Amazon and CVS, are looking to expand their businesses into primary care. Currently, there is a nationwide shortage of primary care doctors, which has led to worse health outcomes for many Americans.

By providing primary care services directly to consumers, Amazon and other companies are hoping to use the relationship between patients and their providers to sell even more services, such as prescription drug deliveries and more.

Overall, “staying healthy probably will never be the sort of frictionless, one-click experience that Amazon pioneered,” Wainer writes, but the company’s current involvement in the health care industry “is a testament to the fact that there’s a lot of money to be made by fixing America’s broken system.” (Wainer, Wall Street Journal, 9/9)

*Advisory Board is a subsidiary of Optum, a division of UnitedHealth Group. All Advisory Board research, expert perspectives, and recommendations remain independent. 

What shutting down Amazon’s national care delivery service means about its health care ambition

Amazon announced it will shut down Amazon Care—its primary care service sold to employer health plans—by the end of the year. There’s one thing that Amazon’s decision will surely mean: It will continue to be fashionable to mock Amazon.

People may look at this, compare it to Amazon’s Haven misadventure, and say that everyone (including Advisory Board) who speculated that Amazon could succeed in health care is either naïve or delusional.

But there’s more to it.

In looking at what Amazon reportedly said about the challenges facing Amazon Care, we believe that the acquisition of One Medical is the clearest signal yet that Amazon intends to succeed at health care.

The problems with Amazon Care

Amazon Care appears to have struggled to understand the nuances and demands of care delivery, as detailed recently in the Washington Post. Clearly, the tension between expectations for growth and quality were real. This raised questions for us: Was Amazon going to truly “iterate” on its health care capabilities? When it came to care delivery, would Amazon get better, or would it do enough to get by?

Amazon concedes that its product was not comprehensive enough for its employer partners. It’s unclear whether that means it simply wasn’t saving them money, even if employees were using it. At the same time, we wonder how hard it was to persuade employees to embrace Amazon-branded health care or to attract employees to a product centered on virtual and home-based care—or some combination of the two.

Remember: Everyone had to try out telehealth in 2020 because, in many cases, they had no choice. There isn’t any similarly powerful and pervasive force pushing anyone to virtual-first care today. People tend to like virtual visits, but that doesn’t mean that they want to receive all adequately satisfy users or keep care from fragmenting with its mosaic of services, channels, and providers.

What shutting down Amazon Care suggests about Amazon’s health care ambition

Amazon’s willingness to jettison its homegrown but underperforming health care business suggests three things.

  1. One Medical is the centerpiece of Amazon’s health care strategy, not simply one component among many. When viewed this way, the details of the acquisition make more sense than they did four weeks ago. Knowing that a virtual and home-based model wasn’t attractive for employers, we can understand more clearly why Amazon wanted a partner with both in-person and digital health capabilities. Knowing that its own product was struggling, we can see why it was willing to pay a huge premium for One Medical.
  2. Amazon is iterating on its health care capabilities, but it is iterating at an enormous scale. “Fail fast” is axiomatic in technology. It’s usually applied to minimum viable products—applications and services that are quickly built, delivered, and assessed for their ability to meet customer demands and gain traction in the market. Products that don’t meet those demands are replaced as quickly as possible. Obviously, Amazon Care was not a minimum viable product. It was rolled out three years ago, and it offered telehealth services in all 50 states and in-home services in seven markets. But when you look at the pivot Amazon seems to be making from virtual and home-based care with Amazon Care to in-person and virtual with One Medical, it’s hard not to reach for the “fail fast” comparison.
  3. Amazon is a different kind of competitor in health care. We can’t think of another organization that would spend years building out a care delivery enterprise, roll it out in 50 states, and then simply shut it down. We also can’t think of another organization whose alternative care delivery plan is to spend nearly $4 billion on another company. It’s not just the scale and the money—it’s the willingness to throw around those assets that makes Amazon a potentially potent competitor.

There are still enormous execution challenges for Amazon and One Medical. Massive disruption of the industry is not a given, no matter how much money is spent or how many companies are bought and/or fail.

It seems likely that the impact of Amazon on the market will be centered, at least for the immediate future, on the same direct-to-consumer approach that One Medical has taken and at which Amazon is expert in its other lines of business.

That does not mean Amazon can be dismissed as a dilettante or a dabbler in health care. Its mere presence in the market already seems to have sparked a bidding war for Signify Health. Amazon’s continued iteration of its approach to health care demands ongoing attention.

Houston Methodist reports flu levels not usually seen until December

Houston Methodist is reporting an early increase in flu cases, with numbers hitting levels not usually seen until the end of the year.

The hospital recorded 100 cases of influenza A and B in the week ending Sept. 21. A week prior, this figure hit 226. 

“We experienced an early uptick in mid-September, which relaxed some last week, but still these are the sorts of numbers we usually see in December, not now,” Wesley Long, MD, PhD, a pathologist and medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist, tweeted Sept. 26.

Texas is the only state in the U.S. — outside of Washington, D.C. — that already has a moderately high rate of flu cases, according to the CDC’s latest weekly flu report published Sept. 23.

The early rise in cases comes amid warnings that this season’s flu season may be severe.

Senator has questions for Providence CEO on billing practices

U.S. Senator Patty Murray of Washington is seeking answers from Renton, Wash.-based Providence’s CEO following a Sept. 24 New York Times report detailing the system’s alleged debt collection practices. 

“According to recent reports, over the past several years, Providence has increasingly extracted payments from low-income patients, even when patients qualified for free or discounted care,” Ms. Murray said in a Sept. 28 letter to CEO Rod Hochman. “The reports allege several disturbing practices, including high-pressure billing conversations at hospital beds when patients are vulnerable, the use of extraordinary collection actions by debt collectors, and patients eligible for free or discounted care being billed for outstanding balances. As a result, patients have gone without food or heat, have seen their credit scores plummet, and have been afraid to seek out further medical care due to the cost—all as a result of practices that potentially violate both state and federal laws.”

Ms. Murray said in the letter she is seeking answers on how many patients Providence has served in recent years who qualified for free or discounted care and how many it referred to debt collection services. She is also seeking information about the system’s billing and debt collection policies, and how much it paid consulting firm McKinsey & Co. for a program designed to increase its revenue. She is seeking answers by Oct. 12. 

Washington state’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against Providence in February, alleging that 14 of its hospitals engaged in aggressive tactics to collect payment, failed to ensure discounts for eligible low-income patients, and steered poor patients to debt collectors. 

A Providence spokesperson expressed discontent and disagreement with the attorney general’s charges in a statement shared with Becker’s.

“The Providence family of organizations is extremely disappointed that the Office of the Washington State Attorney General has chosen to file inaccurate and unfair charges against us regarding our charity care and financial assistance practices,” the spokesperson said. “Serving every person who comes to us, regardless of ability to pay, is a central tenet of our mission as a not-for-profit organization. We take this responsibility seriously.”

The 18 health systems Walmart sends its employees to for care in 2022

In an effort to rein in healthcare costs for its employees, Walmart sends them directly to health systems that demonstrate high-quality care outcomes, otherwise known as Centers of Excellence.

Through the COE program, Walmart will cover the travel and treatment costs for employees seeking a range of services, but only with providers the company is contracted with. Walmart then reimburses with bundled payments negotiated with the providers.

To determine which providers get access to its 1.6 million employees, Walmart starts by examining health systems. Lisa Woods, vice president of physical and emotional well-being at Walmart, and her team analyze public data, distribute requests for information and conduct detailed on-site visits.

Below are the 18 health systems or campuses to which Walmart will refer patients for defined episodes of care in 2022. (See how COE participants have evolved since 2019 or 2021.)

Cardiac

Cleveland Clinic 

Geisinger Medical Center (Danville, Pa.)

Virginia Mason Medical Center (Seattle)

Weight loss surgery

Emory University Hospital (Atlanta)

Geisinger Medical Center (Danville, Pa.)

Intermountain Healthcare (Salt Lake City)

Northeast Baptist Hospital (San Antonio)

Northwest Medical Center (Springdale, Ark.)

Ochsner Medical Center (New Orleans)

Scripps Mercy Hospital (San Diego)

University Hospital (Cleveland)

Spine surgery

Emory University Hospital (Atlanta)

Geisinger Medical Center (Danville, Pa.)

Carolina NeuroSurgery & Spine Associates (Charlotte, N.C.)

Mercy Hospital Springfield (Mo.)

Mayo Clinic Arizona (Phoenix)

Mayo Clinic Florida (Jacksonville)

Mayo Clinic Minnesota (Rochester)

Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center (Houston)

Ochsner Medical Center (New Orleans)

Virginia Mason Medical Center (Seattle)

Breast, lung, colorectal, prostate

or blood cancer

Mayo Clinic Arizona (Phoenix)

Mayo Clinic Florida (Jacksonville)

Mayo Clinic Minnesota (Rochester)

Hip and knee replacements

Emory University Hospital (Atlanta)

Geisinger Medical Center (Danville, Pa.)

Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center (Baltimore)

Kaiser Permanente Irvine (Calif.) Medical Center

Mayo Clinic Florida (Jacksonville)

Mayo Clinic Minnesota (Rochester)

Mercy Hospital Springfield (Mo.)

Northeast Baptist Hospital (San Antonio)

Ochsner Medical Center (New Orleans)

Scripps Mercy Hospital (San Diego)

University Hospital (Cleveland)

Virginia Mason Medical Center (Seattle)

Organ and tissue transplants

(except cornea and intestinal)

Mayo Clinic Arizona (Phoenix)

Mayo Clinic Florida (Jacksonville)

Mayo Clinic Minnesota (Rochester)