Healthcare consolidation goes beyond usual players

Consolidation in the health system and health insurance industries has been a focus for years. But a new report sheds light on how the “bigger is better” mantra has taken hold in companies that make syringes, X-ray machines or other healthcare products.

The report, prepared by the Open Markets Institute using data from IBISWorld, shows a small handful of companies dominate their respective markets in certain healthcare sectors that tend to get less of a spotlight than their payer and provider counterparts. The largest three pharmacy and drugstore companies represent 67% of market share and the largest two ambulance manufacturers represent 83% of market share. Just two dialysis providers dominate 76% of market share.

Open Markets has released data on monopolization in other sectors of the economy, and Phil Longman, the group’s policy director, said with healthcare approaching 20% of the U.S. gross domestic product, it’s important to direct attention there, too.

“Pretty much anywhere you go in this economy, whether it’s eyeglasses or beer or automobiles or airplanes, if you ask the right questions, you’ll find it’s much more concentrated than it was before,” he said. “That’s true in healthcare, including all of its component parts.”

Pharmacy benefit management draws $453.4 billion in revenue, according to the report, and just four companies hold three-quarters of its market share: CVS, Express Scripts, UnitedHealth and Humana. The four largest healthcare consulting firms represent 76% of their sector, which draws $6 billion in revenue.

Two companies, LabCorp and Quest, have 37% of diagnostic and medical laboratory market share, a $52.6 billion industry, the report said. And three of the largest medical patient financing companies, Synchrony, Citigroup and Wells Fargo, make up 77% of that market, which draws $4.1 billion in revenue.

The report highlighted consolidation across several different healthcare manufacturers, including those that produce hospital beds, surgical apparel, PET imaging, pacemakers and wheelchairs. Three firms own 88% of the $10.6 billion orthopedic products manufacturing sector: Stryker Corp., Zimmer Holdings and Johnson & Johnson.

Healthcare in the U.S. costs more than in other countries because the prices are higher, Longman said. That’s almost always because there is a barrier to entry that thwarts competition. Longman noted that health systems typically purchase the supplies they need, from bed sheets to bandages, from group purchasing organizations.

“That adds up to serious money,” he said.

One of the factors driving consolidation across these subsectors of healthcare is the continued decline in government and commercial health insurance reimbursement for medical products and services, which puts the squeeze on the associated costs like equipment and doctor’s fees, said Beth Everett, managing director of healthcare banking and head of middle-market healthcare with MUFG in New York. Consolidation may help achieve healthcare cost reduction by creating economies of scale, she said. Whether this ultimately happens is “the million-dollar question,” Everett said.

Greater consolidation and integration in the healthcare system is widely recognized as necessary for improving patient care, Longman said. But it should come with some means of regulation to ensure the benefits of the resulting efficiencies go to the consumer. In this case, that hasn’t happened, and monopolistic corporations are holding the benefits of greater scale, efficiencies and coordination of care rather than passing them along.

“We’ve just really mismanaged competition policy in healthcare,” Longman said.


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