On the eve of a scheduled House vote on a bill that would immediately end the federal public health emergency (PHE), the Biden administration announced Monday that both the PHE and the COVID national emergency will end on May 11. With the Omnibus legislation passed at the end of December, Congress already decoupled several key provisions once tied to the PHE, including setting April 1st as the date on which states can resume Medicaid redeterminations, and extending key Medicare telehealth flexibilities.
However, once the PHE ends,various other provider flexibilities will expire: hospitals will no longer receive boosted Medicare payments for COVID admissions, and the cost of COVID tests, vaccines, and treatments will shift from the government to insurers and consumers.
The Gist: While previous Congressional action addressed some pressing provider concerns, the end of the PHE will still bring big changes.
The healthcare system will soon be responsible for covering, testing, and treating COVID like any other illness, even as the virus continues to take the lives of hundreds of Americans each day.
Many patients may soon find it difficult to access affordable COVID care, and many health systems will see an increase in uncompensated care, exacerbating current margin challenges. COVID remains an urgent public health concern in need of a coordinated strategy.
This week, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) finalized a 2018 proposed rule that will impose aggressive audits on Medicare Advantage (MA) insurers. By extrapolating the audits to insurers’ entire contracts, CMS expects to claw back almost $500M annually in overpayments since 2018, but has opted not to extrapolate the audits for 2011 to 2017. While MA insurers threaten to sue over the rule’s exclusion of a “fee-for-service adjustor” that would have reduced the degree of overpayments, CMS officials note that the estimated repayments under the final rule constitute less than 0.2 percent of total MA spending.
The Gist: This MA overpayment audit is overdue, especially given how well-documented MA overbilling has become. This week the Biden administration also announced a proposed change to MA risk adjustment that would reduce MA spending by $11B annually.
Though nearly half of all US seniors are now enrolled in MA plans, the program has yet to achieve its original purpose of saving the government money by encouraging competition around delivering care more efficiently.
MA cannot continue to cost more per enrollee than traditional Medicare in perpetuity, and an eventual reduction in per-member per-year payments is inevitable.
Published last weekend in the New York Times Magazine, this wide-ranging article weaves the experiences of patients and providers within hospital-at-home programs into a broader examination of what hospital-level care at home could mean for the future of healthcare.
While the hospital-at-home movement is still small, provider interest grew sharply during the pandemic, and gave rise to Medicare’s Acute Hospital Care at Home waiver, providing 260 hospitals Medicare payment for the service. The article lays out the challenges hospital-at-home programs are still working to overcome, ranging from equity (rural hospitals have seen far less uptake of the Medicare waiver), labor models (National Nurses United, the largest union of registered nurses, opposes them), to the upfront investments required to stand up a program.
The Gist: Like telemedicine, hospital-at-home programs lingered on the fringes of care delivery before the federal COVID response delivered both the regulatory flexibility and the reimbursement needed to generate provider interest—and turbocharged start-ups providing support in implementing the model.
Despite growth in health system and payer interest, hospital-at-home programs are still not deployed widely, or at scale. Many physicians and patients either don’t understand or accept it as an alternative to inpatient hospitalization, despite the fact that patients and families who participate in the service largely report a high level of satisfaction.
But as the article points out, thebarriers to scaling hospital-at-home pilots—staffing models, quality control, and appropriate reimbursement—are ultimately financial.
Recent conversations with executive teams about physician issues have made us feel like we’ve time-travelled back to 2006. Both health systems and large independent physician groups report having difficulties hiring physicians willing to take call, even among specialties where it has long been part of the job expectations.
“We stopped paying for call fifteen years ago,” one CMO shared. “But now, even though we’ve started paying again, it’s hard to get takers.” While procedural specialties seem to be the hardest to cover, with orthopedics, urology, and GI cited most frequently, we’re also hearing challenges with medical specialty coverage. One hospital CEO (who lamented that call coverage had once again risen to a CEO-level problem) shared that cardiologist candidates were looking for positions without call obligations.
The knee-jerk reaction of older executives is to blame a younger generation of doctors seeking more work-life balance. Surely this contributes, but as one astute medical group CEO pointed out, the only way doctors can draw this line in the sand with health systems is if there are alternatives that don’t require call.
He referenced the growing number of investor-backed specialty practices focused squarely on outpatient growth and even offering doctors no-call positions straight out of training. In his market, he felt these doctors were discouraged from taking call: “When 80 percent of the procedures are done in a surgery center, an orthopod doesn’t need referrals from call to fill his schedule with new patients. And the patients they encounter in our ED are more likely to be uninsured or government pay, so they don’t want them anyway.”
Beyond simply paying for call, a few other solutions are gaining traction. Some hospitals are expanding the number of in-house, hospitalist-like positions for other specialties. Others are deploying virtual consult services with some success, even in procedural specialties. As one orthopedic surgeon told us, the virtual call coverage does a decent job with triage and can often save the doctor from having to come in overnight.
Ultimately, as the number of investor-owned specialty groups expands, health systems must develop collaborative relationships to solve care delivery challenges across the continuum.
The healthcare sector has been navigating an intransigent staffing crisis since the widespread layoffs during the first few months of COVID. The graphic above uses Bureau of Labor Statistics data to illustrate the impact of this labor shock on both total employment and employee compensation.
Across key healthcare settings, workplaces with the slowest recovery of total workers have seen the largest increases in employee earnings.Hospital employment largely tracked with the rest of the private sector; however, hospitals raised employee compensation by two percent more than the private sector, while recovering two percent fewer jobs.
It is important to note that the relationship between employment levels and employee compensation is not causal, as evidenced by the ongoing labor shortages in nursing facilities, despite boosting average pay over 20 percent. Rather, the data suggest that, for as long as the tight labor market persists,pay raises alone are not sufficient to recruit and retain talent. Plus, while inflation may be abating, it has still outpaced earnings growth since December 2021.
Given that many healthcare workers saw pay bumps early in the pandemic, some are left still feeling underpaid, even if their compensation over the past three years has more than kept pace with inflation.
The U.S. economy added 517,000 jobs in January, and the unemployment rate fell to 3.4% — the lowest level in over a half-century, the government said on Friday.
Why it matters:
Employers added jobs at an unexpectedly rapid pace, the latest sign of a hot labor market despite aggressive moves by the Federal Reserve to cool it down.
The numbers are more than double the 190,000 forecasters anticipated.
The extraordinary reportcomes as the Fed continues to dial back its pace of interest rates and prepares to raise rates further to restrain the economy and chill still-high inflation.
Fed chair Jerome Powell has acknowledged progress on slowing inflation in recent months while noting risks lie ahead. Among them is wage growth, which is rising at a pace still too swift for the Fed’s comfort.
In January, average hourly earnings rose 0.3% — or 4.4% over the previous year, according to Friday’s data.
The big picture:
The data also showed that employment in 2023 was even stronger than initially thought, with roughly 568,000 more jobs than previously reported.
The update was part of the Labor Department’s annual revisions, which incorporate more complete data from insurance records and updated seasonal adjustments.
CFOs are planning to increase their compensation spend in 2023, with 86% of finance chiefs noting they plan to raise it by at least 3% year-over-year, according to a recent survey by Gartner.
CFOs are still facing a tight labor market in 2023. As CFOs weigh increased turnover and a more remote workforce, “they’re thinking through, how do they use compensation as a lever to engage and retain talent across their workforce,” said Alexander Bant, chief of research in the Gartner finance practice.
Only 5% of the 279 CFOs surveyed stated they planned to reduce their compensation spend in 2023, according to Gartner.
While CFOs typically budget more for compensation every year, ongoing inflationary pressures and a still-tight labor market puts compensation plans “front and center” in CFOs’ “ability to engage and retain top talent,” Bant said in an interview.
However, this does not mean finance chiefs will be budgeting for sweeping pay raises across their entire workforce — CFOs are “not trying to keep up with inflation across the board,” Bant said.
Rather, they are working with other members of the C-Suite such as the chief human resource officer and using tools like advanced analytics to single out and reward top performers which might be at more risk of departing for other opportunities, he said.
“CFOs are being more deliberate about how they allocate that money,” Bant said.
While the pace of wage growth slowed in the fourth quarter of 2022, according to recent data from the Labor Department, tamping down fears of a wage-price spiral, the war on talent remains a top worry for finance chiefs. Raising compensation can allow companies to be more competitive in the face of ongoing talent shortages, especially as workforce needs change.
For those companies which are moving employees back into the office, for example, raising compensation can help them to better compete against the remote or hybrid work opportunities which are becoming increasingly common, for example, Bant said.
Upping compensation can also help firms to find or hold onto employees with the key skills they need in areas such as digital transformation. Despite cost pressures, 43% of finance chiefs said they plan to increase their companies’ technology spend by 10%or more, according to the Gartner survey.
“What we’re hearing is, ’Yes, we are right-sizing parts of our organization and reducing head count in certain areas, but at the same time, we still have open roles and we’re still searching for talent in those areas that align to our digital transformation priorities,” Bant said of the search for technology talent.
Such skills still come at a premium, for that matter, despite the recent spat of layoffs across high-profile tech companies such as Google parent Alphabet, IBM and Microsoft. While these companies have reduced staff, they may not be letting go of employees with critical hardcore coding, data analytics or artificial intelligence related skills, Bant said.
“There is more talent available from technology companies, but that doesn’t mean that talent necessarily has the technical skills to drive the digital transformations that many CFOs and their leadership teams need,” he said.
Radio Advisory’s Rachel Woods sat down with Advisory Board‘s Aaron Mauck and Natalie Trebes to talk about where leaders need to focus their attention on longer-term industry challenges—like growing competition, behavioral health infrastructure, and finding success in value-based care.
Rachel Woods: So I’ve been thinking about the last conversation that we had about what executives need to know to be prepared to be successful in 2023, and I feel like my big takeaway is that the present feels aggressively urgent. The business climate today is extraordinarily tough, there are all these disruptive forces that are changing the competitive landscape, right? That’s where we focused most of our last conversation.
But we also agreed that those were still kind of near-term problems. My question is why, if things feel like they are in such a crisis, do we need to also focus our attention on longer term challenges?
Aaron Mauck: It’s pretty clear that the business environment really isn’t sustainable as it currently stands, and there’s a tendency, of course, for all businesses to focus on the urgent and important items at the expense of the non-urgent and important items. And we have a lot of non-urgent important things that are coming on the horizon that we have to address.
Obviously, you think about the aging population. We have the baby boom reaching an age where they’re going to have multiple care needs that have to be addressed that constitute pretty significant challenges. That aging population is a central concern for all of us.
Costly specialty therapeutics that are coming down the pipeline that are going to yield great results for certain patient segments, but are going to be very expensive. Unmanaged behavioral needs, disagreements around appropriate spending. So we have lots of challenges, myriad of challenges we’re going to have to address simultaneously.
Natalie Trebes: Yeah, that’s right. And I would add that all of those things are at threshold moments where they are pivoting into becoming our real big problems that are very soon going to be the near term problems. And the environment that we talked about last time, it’s competitive chaos that’s happening right now, is actually the perfect time to be making some changes because all the challenges we’re going to talk about require really significant restructuring of how we do business. That’s hard to do when things are stable.
Woods: Yes. But I still think you’re going to get some people who disagree. And let me tell you why. I think there’s two reasons why people are going to disagree. The first reason is, again, they are dealing with not just one massive fire in front of them, but what feels like countless massive fires in front of them that’s just demanding all of their strategic attention. That was the first thing you said every executive needs to know going into this year, and maybe not know, but accept, if I’m thinking about the stages of grief.
But the second reason why I think people are going to push back is the laundry list of things that Aaron just spoke of are areas where, I’m not saying the healthcare industry shouldn’t be focused on them, but we haven’t actually made meaningful progress so far.
Is 2023 actually the year where we should start chipping away at some of those huge industry challenges? That’s where I think you’re going to get disagreement. What do you say to that?
Trebes: I think that’s fair. I think it’s partly that we have to start transforming today and organizations are going to diverge from here in terms of how they are affected. So far, we’ve been really kind of sharing the pain of a lot of these challenges, it’s bits and pieces here. We’re all having to eat a little slice of this.
I think different organizations right now, if they are careful about understanding their vulnerabilities and thinking about where they’re exposed, are going to be setting themselves up to pass along some of that to other organizations. And so this is the moment to really understand how do we collectively want to address these challenges rather than continue to try to touch as little of it as we possibly can and scrape by?
Woods: That’s interesting because it’s also probably not just preparing for where you have vulnerabilities that are going to be exposed sooner rather than later, but also where might you have a first mover advantage? That gets back to what you were talking about when it comes to the kind of competitive landscape, and there’s probably people who can use these as an opportunity for the future.
Mauck: Crises are always opportunities and even for those players across the healthcare system who have really felt like they’re boxers in the later rounds covering up under a lot of blows, there’s opportunities for them to come back and devise strategies for the long term that really yield growth.
We shouldn’t treat this as a time just of contraction. There are major opportunities even for some of the traditional incumbents if they’re approaching these challenges in the right fashion. When we think about that in terms of things like labor or care delivery models, there’s huge opportunities and when I talk with C-suites from across the sector, they recognize those opportunities. They’re thinking in the long term, they need to think in the long term if they’re going to sustain themselves. It is a time of existential crisis, but also a time for existential opportunity.
Trebes: Yeah, let’s be real, there is a big risk of being a first mover, but there is a really big opportunity in being on the forefront of designing the infrastructure and setting the table of where we want to go and designing this to work for you. Because changes have to happen, you really want to be involved in that kind of decision making.
Woods: And in the vein of acceptance, we should all accept that this isn’t going to be easy. The challenges that I think we want to focus on for the rest of this conversation are challenges that up to this point have seemed unsolvable. What are the specific areas that you think should really demand executive attention in 2023?
Trebes: Well, I think they break into a few different categories. We are having real debates about how do we decide what are appropriate outcomes in healthcare? And so the concept of measuring value and paying for value. We have to make some decisions about what trade-offs we want to make there, and how do we build in health equity into our business model and do we want to make that a reality for everyone?
Another category is all of the expensive care that we have to figure out how to deliver and finance over the coming years. So we’re talking about the already inadequate behavioral health infrastructure that’s seen a huge influx in demand.
We’re talking about what Aaron mentioned, the growing senior population, especially with boomers getting older and requiring a lot more care, and the pipeline of high-cost therapies. All of this is not what we are ready as the healthcare system as it exists today to manage appropriately in a financially sustainable way. And that’s going to be really hard for purchasers who are financing all of this.