Oak Street faces DOJ inquiry into third-party marketing, transportation relationships


Dive Brief:

  • Oak Street Health, a value-based primary care network for adults on Medicare, is facing a Department of Justice inquiry into its relationships with third-party marketing agents and its provision of free transportation for members.
  • The DOJ is investigating whether Oak Street violated the False Claims Act, per a regulatory filing published Monday. On a call with investors Tuesday, management declined to provide additional information into the government’s request, saying it was too early to know for sure what exactly the agency is investigating but that they’re working to comply.
  • Otherwise, the provider had a generally solid third quarter with better-than-expected revenue and well-controlled medical costs, analysts said. Oak Street increased its full-year 2021 guidance following the results, which beat Wall Street expectations with topline revenue of $389 million, up 78% year over year and a quarterly record for the company.

Dive Insight:

The federal government is increasingly cracking down on alleged fraud, especially in the Medicare Advantage program. In privately run MA plans, CMS pays companies on a per-member basis, then adjusts payments based on the acuity or severity of their member’s health status, as supported by provider data like diagnostic codes. Generally, the sicker the member, the higher the plan’s reimbursement.

That’s led to allegations of plans hiking risk scores to overinflate members’ health needs, resulting in higher payments from CMS. Watchdogs have been finding higher incidence of fraud and abuse as the MA program becomes more popular, growing to cover more than 40% of all Medicare beneficiaries.

Oak Street isn’t a traditional plan itself, but enters into full-risk contracts with Medicare Advantage plans, and via CMS’ direct contracting program, in which it assumes full responsibility for patients’ medical expenses in exchange for a fixed per-member, per-month payment. The Chicago-based company is the latest target of a federal inquiry into whether it violated the False Claims Act.

According to the primary care company, the DOJ sent a civil investigative demand on Nov. 1 asking for information about Oak Street’s relationships with third-party marketers and transportation partners.

Oak Street does provide patients transportation to appointments when they need it and has various ways for finding new patients, including community partnerships, but it’s unclear what the DOJ is specifically investigating, CEO Mike Pykosz told investors.

“We have had no meaningful conversations with the government,” Pykosz said. “I’m not really sure what the link is.”

The CEO noted it’s not unusual for such inquiries to take months to resolve, particularly in the hyper-regulated healthcare industry, but said he wouldn’t speculate further.

A civil investigative demand is a form of administrative subpoena, and doesn’t denote any regulatory or legal action itself. However, it is used by the government to kick off investigating potential False Claims violations, and determine whether there’s sufficient evidence to warrant filing an action, according to the National Law Review.

Penalties for violating the act could range from $11,655 to $23,331 per violation, plus triple damages. Total penalties have resulted recently in some significant payouts from MA participants. Notably, in late August, integrated health system Sutter Health agreed to pay $90 million to settle whistleblower allegations of risk adjustment fraud, in the largest False Claims Act settlement against a hospital system in the MA program.

Analysts noted the inquiry, while in early stages, is a point of concern for Oak Street’s future stock performance.

“This creates a new potential risk factor that we are unlikely to get clarity on for some time,” SVB Leerink analyst Whit Mayo wrote in a note.

Oak Street, which also provides services to patients with a range of insurance options, had an otherwise solid quarter, eclipsing $1 billion of year-to-date revenue for the first time in the company’s history.

The highly infectious delta variant did contribute to higher expenses, as it has with other providers.

Oak Street reported $15 million in costs from COVID-19 admissions in the first half of the year, and another $10 million in the third quarter. COVID-19-related expenses surged in the latter half of August and continued into September, but tailed off early into the fourth quarter, CFO Tim Cook said.

The majority of Oak Street’s patients are in northern U.S. markets, however, which experienced coronavirus surges last year during the winter as more people stayed indoors.

“We will see what happens in November and December,” Cook said. “While COVID costs are going to be lower in Q4, unfortunately we’re not in a world where they’re going to be zero.”

In the quarter, the primary care provider’s medical claims expense doubled year over year to almost $310 million. Oak Street’s medical loss ratio of 82.2% was lower than analysts expected, though management said they expected it to be higher in the fourth quarter.

Pykosz and Cook called out medical costs from new patients brought in during 2021 as a system-wide stressor.

Because diagnoses from 2020 claims are used to determine 2021 risk scores, fewer claims last year could mean lower risk scores and lower payments for plans this year. Oak Street’s patients, especially older adults in low-income communities, used fewer services last year during COVID-19, which resulted in lower revenues this year even as costs expanded.

Management said they expected to get back on track in 2022 as patients new to Oak Street this year will contribute to higher reimbursement next year, closing the current medical-cost gap between tenured and new patients.

“This is certainly an outlier year from every other year we’ve had results,” Pykosz said.

Oak Street, which was founded in 2012 and went public in August 2020 at a $9 billion valuation, reported a net loss of almost $110 million in the quarter, compared to a loss of $59 million at the same time last year.

Oak Street continued expanding its membership and network in the quarter, reporting 69% at-risk patient growth and opening 15 new centers in seven new markets.

Oak Street’s competition in the value-based primary care space has ramped up this year, as peers One Medical acquired a rival value-based medical chain and VillageMD got a hefty new investment from drugstore partner Walgreens.

But Pykosz pointed to Oak Street’s exclusive relationship with senior group AARP and its acquisition of specialty telehealth provider RubiconMD as differentiators, while noting there’s room for a number of players in the space.

“At this point we don’t feel there’s a lot of pressure or competitive dynamics pressuring our performance,” Pykosz said.

In the third quarter, Oak Street served 100,500 risk-based patients, representing 76% of its total patient base. The company expects at-risk patient volume to grow to between 111,500 and 113,500 patients this year.

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