Sitting in the dark before 6 am in my Los Angeles house with my face lit up by yet another Zoom screen, wearing a stylish combination of sweatpants, dress shirt and last year’s JPM conference badge dangling around my neck for old times’ sake, I wonder at the fact that it’s J.P. Morgan Annual Healthcare Conference week again and we are where we are. Quite a year for all of us – the pandemic, the healthcare system’s response to the public health emergency, the ongoing fight for racial justice, the elections, the storming of the Capital – and the subject of healthcare winds its way through all of it – public health, our healthcare system’s stability, strengths and weaknesses, the highly noticeable healthcare inequities, the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid and vaccines, healthcare politics and what the new administration will bring as healthcare initiatives.
I will miss seeing you all in person this year at the J.P. Morgan Annual Healthcare Conference and our annual Sheppard Mullin reception – previously referred to as “standing room only” events and now as “possible superspreader events.” What a difference a year makes. I admit that I will miss the feeling of excitement in the rooms and hallways of the Westin St. Francis and all of the many hotel lobbies and meeting rooms surrounding it. Somehow the virtual conference this year lacks that je ne sais quoi of being stampeded by rushing New York-style street traffic while in an antiquated San Francisco hotel hallway and watching the words spoken on stage transform immediately into sharp stock price increases and drops. There also is the excitement of sitting in the room listening to paradigm shifting ideas (teaser – read the last paragraph of this post for something truly fascinating). Perhaps next year, depending on the vaccine…
So, let’s start there. Today was vaccine day at the JPM Conference, with BioNTech, Moderna, Novovax and Johnson & Johnson all presenting. Lots of progress reported by all of the companies working on vaccines, but the best news of the day was the comment from BioNTech that the UK and South Africa coronavirus variants likely are still covered by the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. BioNTech’s CEO, Prof. Uğur Şahin, M.D., promised more data and analysis to be published shortly on that.
We also saw continued excitement for mRNA vaccines, not only for COVID-19 but also for other diseases. There is a growing focus (following COVID-19 of course) on vaccines for cancer through use of neoantigen targets, and for a long list of infectious disease targets. For cancer, though, there continues to be a growing debate over whether the best focus is on “personalized” vaccines or “off the shelf” vaccines – personalized vaccines can take longer to make and have much, much higher costs and infrastructure requirements. We expect, however, to see very exciting news on the use of mRNA and other novel technologies in the next year or two that, when approved and put into commercialization, could radically change the game, not only as to mortality, but also by eliminating or significantly reducing the cost of care with chronic conditions (which some cancers have become, thanks to technological advancement). We are fortunate to be in that gap now between “care” and “cure,” where we have been able with modern medical advances to convert many more disease states into manageable chronic care conditions. Together with today’s longer lifespans, that, however, carries a much higher price tag for our healthcare system. Now, with some of these recent announcements, we look forward to moving from “care” to “cure” and substantially dropping the cost of care to our healthcare system.
Continuing consolidation also was a steady drumbeat underlying the multiple presentations today on the healthcare services side of the conference – health plans, health systems, physician organizations, home health. The drive to scale continues, as we have seen from the accelerated pace of mergers and acquisitions in the second half of 2020, which continues unabated in January 2021. There was today’s announcement of the acquisition by Amerisource Bergen of Walgreens Boots Alliance’s Alliance Healthcare wholesale business (making Walgreens Boots Alliance the largest single shareholder of Amerisource Bergen at nearly 30% ownership), following the announcement last week of Centene’s acquisition of Magellan Health (coming fast on the heels of Molina Healthcare’s purchase of Magellan’s Complete Care line of business).
On the mental health side – a core focus area for Magellan Health – Centene’s Chief Executive Officer, Michael Neidorff, expressed the common theme that we have been seeing in the past year that mental health care should be integrated and coordinated with primary and specialty care. He also saw value in Magellan’s strong provider network, as access to mental health providers can be a challenge in some markets and populations. The behavioral/mental health sector likely will see increased attention and consolidation in the coming year, especially given its critical role during the COVID-19 crisis and also with the growing Medicaid and Medicare populations. There are not a lot of large assets left independent in the mental health sector (aside from inpatient providers, autism/developmental disorder treatment programs, and substance abuse residential and outpatient centers), so we may see more roll-up focus (such as we have seen recently with the autism/ABA therapy sector) and technology-focused solutions (text-based or virtual therapy).
There was strong agreement among the presenting health plans and capitated providers (Humana, Centene, Oak Street and multiple health systems) today that we will continue to see movement toward value-based care (VBC) and risk-based reimbursement systems, such as Medicare Advantage, Medicare direct contracting and other CMS Innovation Center (CMMI) programs and managed Medicaid. Humana’s Chief Executive Officer, Bruce Broussard, said that the size of the MA program has grown so much since 2010 that it now represents an important voting bloc and one of the few ways in which the federal government currently is addressing healthcare inequities – e.g., through Over-the-Counter (OTC) pharmacy benefits, benefits focused on social determinants of health (SDOH), and healthcare quality improvements driven by the STARS rating program. Broussard also didn’t think Medicare Advantage would be a negative target for the Biden administration and expected more foreseeable and ordinary-course regulatory adjustments, rather than wholesale legislative change for Medicare Advantage.
There also was agreement on the exciting possibility of direct contracting for Medicare lives at risk under the CMMI direct contracting initiative. Humana expressed possible interest in both this year’s DCE program models and in the GEO regional risk-based Medicare program model that will be rolling out in the next year. Humana sees this as both a learning experience and as a way to apply their chronic care management skills and proprietary groups and systems to a broader range of applicable populations and markets. There is, however, a need for greater clarity and transparency from CMMI on program details which can substantially affect success and profitability of these initiatives.
Humana, Centene and Oak Street all sang the praises of capitated medical groups for Medicare Advantage and, per Michael Neidorff, the possibility of utilizing traditional capitated provider models for Medicaid membership as well. The problem, as noted by the speakers, is that there is a scarcity of independent capitated medical groups and a lack of physician familiarity and training. We may see a more committed effort by health plans to move their network provider groups more effectively into VBC and risk, much like we have seen Optum do with their acquired fee for service groups. Privia Health also presented today and noted that, while the market focus and high valuations today are accorded to Medicare lives, attention needs to be paid to the “age in” pipeline, as commercial patients who enroll in original Medicare and Medicare Advantage still would like to keep their doctors who saw them under commercial insurance. Privia’s thesis in part is to align with patients early on and retain them and their physicians, so as to create a “farm system” for accelerated Medicare population growth. Privia’s Chief Executive Officer, Shawn Morris, also touted Privia’s rapid growth, in part attributable to partnering with health systems.
As written in our notes from prior JPM healthcare conferences, health systems are continuing to look outside to third parties to gain knowledge base, infrastructure and management skills for physician VBC and risk arrangements. Privia cited their recent opening of their Central Florida market in partnership with Health First and rapid growth in providers by more than 25% in their first year of operations.
That being said, the real market sizzle remains with Medicare Advantage and capitation, percent of premium arrangements and global risk. The problem for many buyers, though, is that there are very few assets of size in this line of business. The HealthCare Partners/DaVita Medical Group acquisition by Optum removed that from the market, creating a high level of strategic and private equity demand and a low level of supply for physician organizations with that expertise. That created a focus on groups growing rapidly in this risk paradigm and afforded them strong valuation, like with Oak Street Health this past year as it completed its August 2020 initial public offering. Oak Street takes on both professional and institutional (hospital) risk and receives a percent of premium from its contracting health plans. As Oak Street’s CEO Mike Pykosz noted, only about 3% of Medicare dollars are spent on primary care, while approximately two-thirds are spent on hospital services. If more intensive management occurs at the primary care level and, as a result, hospitalizations can be prevented or reduced, that’s an easy win that’s good for the patient and the entire healthcare system (other than a fee for service based hospital). Pykosz touted his model of building out new centers from scratch as allowing greater conformity, control and efficacy than buying existing groups and trying to conform them both physically and through practice approaches to the Oak Street model. He doesn’t rule out some acquisitions, but he noted as an example that Oak Street was able to swiftly role out COVID-19 protocols rapidly and effectively throughout his centers because they all have the same physical configuration, the same staffing ratio and the same staffing profiles. Think of it as a “franchise” model where each Subway store, for example, will have generally the same look, feel, size and staffing. He also noted that while telehealth was very helpful during the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 and will continue as long as the doctors and patients wish, Oak Street believes that an in-person care management model is much more effective and telehealth is better for quick follow-ups or when in-person visits can’t occur.
Oak Street also spoke to the topic of Medicare Advantage member acquisition, which has been one of the more difficult areas to master for many health plans and groups, resulting in many cases with mergers and acquisitions becoming a favored growth vehicle due to the difficulties of organic membership growth. Interestingly, both Oak Street and Humana reported improvements in membership acquisition during the COVID-19 crisis. Oak Street credited digital marketing and direct response television, among other factors. Humana found that online direct-to-consumer brokers became an effective pathway during the COVID-19 crisis and focused its energy on enhancing those relationships and improving hand-offs during the membership enrollment process. Humana also noted the importance of brand in Medicare Advantage membership marketing.
Staying with Medicare Advantage, there is an expectation of a decrease in Medicare risk adjustment revenue in 2021, in large part due to the lower healthcare utilization during the COVID crisis and the lesser number of in-person visits during which HCC-RAF Medicare risk adjustment coding typically occurs. That revenue drop however likely will not significantly decrease Medicare Advantage profitability though, given the concomitant drop in healthcare expenses due to lower utilization, and per conference reports, is supposed to return to normal trend in 2022 (unless we see utilization numbers fall back below 90% again). Other interesting economic notes from several presentations, when taken together, suggest that while many health systems have lost out on elective surgery revenue in 2020, their case mix index (CMI) in many cases has been much higher due to the COVID patient cases. We also saw a number of health systems with much lower cash days on hand numbers than other larger health systems (both in gross and after adjusting for federal one-time stimulus cash payments), as a direct result of COVID. This supports the thesis we are hearing that, with the second wave of COVID being higher than expected, in the absence of further federal government financial support to hospitals, we likely will see an acceleration of partnering and acquisition transactions in the hospital sector.
Zoetis, one of the largest animal health companies, gave an interesting presentation today on its products and service lines. In addition to some exciting developments re: monoclonal antibody treatments coming on line for dogs with pain from arthritis, Zoetis also discussed its growing laboratory and diagnostics line of business. The animal health market, sometime overshadowed by the human healthcare market, is seeing some interesting developments as new revenue opportunities and chronic care management paradigms (such as for renal care) are shifting in the animal health sector. This is definitely a sector worth watching.
We also saw continuing interest, even in the face of Congressional focus this past year, on growing pharmacy benefit management (PBM) companies, which are designed to help manage the pharmacy spend. Humana listed growth of its PBM and specialty pharmacy lines of business as a focus for 2021, along with at-home care. In its presentation today, SSM Health, a health system in Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Illinois, and Missouri, spotlighted Navitus, its PBM, which services 7 million covered lives in 50 states.
One of the most different, interesting and unexpected presentations of the day came from Paul Markovich, Chief Executive Officer of Blue Shield of California. He put forth the thesis that we need to address the flat or negative productivity in healthcare today in order to both reduce total cost of care, improve outcomes and to help physicians, as well as to rescue the United States from the overbearing economic burden of the current healthcare spending. Likening the transformation in healthcare to that which occurred in the last two decades with financial services (remember before ATMs and banking apps, there were banker’s hours and travelers cheques – remember those?), he described exciting pilot projects that reimagine healthcare today. One project is a real-time claims adjudication and payment program that uses smart watches to record physician/patient interactions, natural language processing (NLP) to populate the electronic medical record, transform the information concurrently into a claim, adjudicate it and authorize payment. That would massively speed up cash flow to physician practices, reduce paperwork and many hours of physician EMR and billing time and reduce the billing and collection overhead and burden. It also could substantially reduce healthcare fraud.
Paul Markovich also spoke to the need for real-time quality information that can result in real-time feedback and incentivization to physicians and other providers, rather than the costly and slow HEDIS pursuits we see today. One health plan noted that it spends about $500 million a year going into physician offices looking at medical records for HEDIS pursuits, but the information is totally “in the rearview mirror” as it is too old when finally received and digested to allow for real-time treatment changes, improvement or planning. Markovich suggested four initiatives (including the above, pay for value and shared decision making through better, more open data access) that he thought could save $100 billion per year for the country. Markovich stressed that all of these four initiatives required a digital ecosystem and asked for help and partnership in creating one. He also noted that the State of California is close to creating a digital mandate and statewide health information exchange that could be the launching point for this exciting vision of data sharing and a digital ecosystem where the electronic health record is the beginning, but not the end of the healthcare data journey.