Pandemic propels health systems to mull insurer acquisitions, partnerships


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Nearly a year after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the U.S., some of the nation’s largest health systems made a case for the need to accelerate toward value-based arrangements and potentially acquiring or partnering with health plans to become an integrated system.

Amid new records for deaths and cases from the novel coronavirus, executives gathered virtually for J.P. Morgan’s 39th annual healthcare conference, which typically draws prominent healthcare leaders to San Francisco at the start of each year.

The pandemic has been a heavily discussed topic during the digital gathering. One theme has been health systems either acknowledging they are on the hunt for health insurer acquisitions and partnerships or advocating for such arrangements as result of the challenges.

Anu Singh, managing director and the leader of the mergers, acquisitions and partnerships practice at consultancy Kaufman Hall, said it’s a natural migration for health systems, though it does come with some risk.

“If you want to move into the realm of being a population health manager, and take greater responsibility for your patient bases, you’re going to have to be thinking about maintaining their health,” Singh said. “And that’s typically something that, at least traditionally and historically, has been driven a little bit more by the health plan.”

For Utah’s Intermountain Healthcare, the lessons of the pandemic are clear: The industry needs to move away from a system that rewards volume. Intermountain is a fully integrated system that manages both providers and an insurance unit.

“It is becoming increasingly apparent that systems that are well integrated, especially systems that understand how to take risks, have prospered in the face of the terrible burden, caring for people in the midst of the first pandemic in 100 years,” Intermountain CEO Marc Harrison said Monday.

From his vantage point, Harrison said it has been interesting to watch the consternation around telehealth visits.

“Lots of folks who are really still caught in the volume-based system are actively switching patients back from tele- or distance to in-person visits so they can maximize revenue,” he said. “I understand that. But that’s a really great example of poorly aligned incentives.”

Intermountain has managed to stay in the black as many other systems have struggled financially as a result of the pandemic driving down patient volumes. It reported net income of $167 million through the first nine months of 2020, compared with $919 million the year prior.

Another integrated system, Baylor Scott and White Health, the largest nonprofit system in Texas, said such diversification has helped buoy its finances as hospital and clinic operations bottomed out in the spring due to the virus.

Baylor Scott and White illustrated this point by showing how operating income for its clinical segment took a nosedive in the spring while operating income for its health plan remained relatively steady.

The theme of integrated health systems also seemed to be on the minds of investors. CommonSpirit Health executives were asked during their presentation if buying or creating a health plan was on their radar as the system has a sizable footprint of 140 hospitals across the country.

“I think this is a interesting question, one that of course we’ve discussed many times strategically,” CFO Daniel Morissette said, noting the system does have a number of regional plans. “At this time, we have no plan of having a national CommonSpirit branded plan.” However, Morissette said the system would consider a partnership opportunity.

On the other hand, Midwest-based Advocate Aurora Health said it is actively on the hunt for a potential insurer deal as part of its long-term strategy.

“We do believe that having health plan capability, not necessarily having our own, but partnering for health plan capability, is going to be critical to our success, and we are taking steps to do that,” CEO Jim Skogsbergh said during the virtual conference.

Kaufman Hall said in its latest report that it expects more payer-provider partnerships as a result of the pandemic. “Limitations on fee-for-service payment structures exposed by the pandemic may increase the number of payer-provider partnerships around new payment and care delivery models,” according to the report.

Singh of Kaufman Hall said it’s not surprising that some may lean more toward a partnership due to the risks of starting a new venture, especially an insurance unit that can have “catastrophic loss”. Systems with less experience of moving toward implementing value-based initiatives may be more vulnerable to such risk.

It’s why he thinks partnerships may be a good fit, at least at first. Payers and providers can work together to improve the health of certain populations and then share in the cost savings.

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