We’ve been having “year ahead” discussions with our health system members over the past few weeks, although it’s been difficult for some to carve out time for planning in the midst of the Omicron surge.
One common theme is that, from a financial perspective, 2022 is expected to be a more difficult year. For many systems, despite the trying COVID situation, the past two years have been financial record-setters. In 2020, systems benefited from a massive infusion of COVID relief funding from the government, and in 2021, they continued to enjoy enhanced reimbursement due to COVID, plus had a resurgence of volume as patients sought care that was previously postponed.
2022 looks to be a more “normal” year—meaning a return to the financial pressures of pre-pandemic times. Those include mounting price compression from payers, an accelerating shift of care from inpatient to outpatient settings, and increasing competition for patients from disruptors and others. At the same time, patient acuity will continue to rise, with patients presenting sicker and with more comorbidities. The cost of caring for those patients will escalate, as the workforce shortage drives labor costs higher and supply chain woes persist.
We’d anticipate a year or more of belt-tightening among many health systems, as they adjust to the post-pandemic environment.
Large insurers Humana and Cigna, along with “insurtech” startups Bright Health and Alignment Healthcare, all lowered expectations for their MA membership growth after missing 2022 enrollment targets. The companies blamed fierce competition for the nation’s estimated 29.5M MA lives, and highlighted a focus on diversifying revenue through other business arms like healthcare delivery and service sales.
The Gist: Insurers’ missed expectations are leading some to question whether the MA market is beginning to weaken, but these concerns are overblown, with last fall’s enrollment affected by the pandemic, which hindered brokers’ ability to reach seniors.
Some MA-focused startups are finding challenges in their attempts to scale, and their stock prices will continue to retreat from the lofty valuations that drove their public offerings.
Insurers still have plenty of running room to grow their MA books of business, but will face increasing scrutiny of their ability to manage patients and control costs for the aging population.
Another challenging year defined by the continued COVID-19 fight and vaccination drives has created a unique healthcare landscape. Pandemic-induced telehealth booms, continued strain due to understaffing and pressure from big tech disruptors are just some of the issues that have presented themselves this year.
Here are five major trends that hospitals and health systems may see in 2022. While some present challenges, others present significant opportunities for healthcare facilities.
Record numbers of workers have quit their jobs in 2021, with some 4.4 million people quitting in September. That means that 1 in 4 people quit their jobs this year across all industries. Around 1 in 5 healthcare workers have left their positions, creating issues with understaffing and lack of resources in hospitals and health systems. Stress, burnout and lack of balance have all been cited as reasons for staff leaving their roles. An increase in violence toward medical professionals, continued COVID-19 surges and low pay and benefits have contributed to the exodus of healthcare workers. None of those problems seems poised to disappear come 2022, so the new year could bring continued workforce and staffing challenges.
Pressure from disruptors
Big tech and retail giants have continued their push into healthcare this year. Companies like Apple, Amazon and Google stepped up their game in the wearables market. Pharmacy and retail chains Walmart and CVS Health both detailed their intended expansions into primary care. The pandemic also encouraged big corporations outside the healthcare sector, like Pepsi and Delta Airlines, to consider hiring CMOs to make sense of public health regulations guide them on their policy. These moves all mean there is a tightening of competition for the top physicians and hospital executives. Going into 2022, health systems may be under pressure to hang onto top talent and keep patients from using other convenient health services offered by retail giants.
The unequal toll of the pandemic on people of color both medically and economically helped shed a light on the rampant inequities in American healthcare and society at large. Indigineous, Black and Hispanic people were much more likely than white or Asian people to suffer severe illness or require hospitalization as a result of COVID-19. Increasing numbers of hospitals, health systems and organizations are starting initiatives to advance health equity and focus on the socioeconomic drivers of health. The American Medical Association launched a language guide to encourage greater awareness about the power of language. Z-code usage has also been encouraged by CMS to increase knowledge and data about the social determinants of health. Next year, the perspective of health as holistic instead of just a part of an individual’s life will continue, with special attention being paid to social drivers.
The pandemic helped the telemedicine industry take off in a big way. Telehealth was often the only healthcare option for many patients during the height of the lockdown measures introduced during the pandemic. Despite a return to in-person visits, telehealth has retained its popularity with patients. Some advocates argue that telehealth can help increase access to healthcare and improve health equity. About 40 percent of patients said that telehealth makes them more engaged and interact more frequently with their providers. However, while Americans see telehealth as the future of healthcare, a majority still prefer in-person visits. Regardless of patient opinion, telehealth will remain a key part of health strategy. In late December, the FCC approved $42.7 million in funding for telehealth for 68 healthcare providers. This suggests that there are investments and subsidies available in the future for health systems to bolster their telehealth services.
At the 2021 UN Climate Conference, Cop26, in Glasgow, Scotland, hospitals and health systems acknowledged the role they have to play in mitigating the effects of climate change. Hospitals and health systems shed light on the health-related effects of climate change, such as illness and disease from events like wildfires and extreme weather. Health systems are also becoming more aware of their own contributions to climate change, with the U.S. healthcare system emitting 27 percent of healthcare emissions worldwide. To that end, HHS created an office of climate change and health equity that will work alongside regulators to reduce carbon emissions from hospitals. More health systems too are taking charge and pledging net neutrality and zero carbon emissions goals, including Kaiser Permanente and UnitedHealth group. It’s expected that more systems will follow suit in the coming year and make more concrete plans to address emissions reduction.
We recently caught up with a health system chief clinical officer, who brought up some recent news about CVS. “I was really disappointed to hear that they’re going to start employing doctors,” he shared, referring to the company’s announcement earlier this month that it would begin to hire physicians to staff primary care practices in some stores. He said that as his system considered partnerships with payers and retailers, CVS stood out as less threatening compared to UnitedHealth Group and Humana, who both directly employ thousands of doctors: “Since they didn’t employ doctors, we saw CVS HealthHUBs as complementary access points, rather than directly competing for our patients.”
As CVS has integrated with Aetna, the company is aiming to expand its use of retail care sites to manage cost of care for beneficiaries. CEO Karen Lynch recently described plans to build a more expansive “super-clinic” platform targeted toward seniors, that will offer expanded diagnostics, chronic disease management, mental health and wellness, and a smaller retail footprint. The company hopes that these community-based care sites will boost Aetna’s Medicare Advantage (MA) enrollment, and it sees primary care physicians as central to that strategy.
It’s not surprising that CVS has decided to get into the physician business, as its primary retail pharmacy competitors have already moved in that direction. Last month, Walgreens announced a $5.2B investment to take a majority stake in VillageMD, with an eye to opening of 1,000 “Village Medical at Walgreens” primary care practices over the next five years. And while Walmart’s rollout of its Walmart Health clinics has been slower than initially announced, its expanded clinics, led by primary care doctors and featuring an expanded service profile including mental health, vision and dental care, have been well received by consumers. In many ways employing doctors makes more sense for CVS, given that the company has looked to expand into more complex care management, including home dialysis, drug infusion and post-operative care. And unlike Walmart or Walgreens, CVS already bears risk for nearly 3M Aetna MA members—and can immediately capture the cost savings from care management and directing patients to lower-cost servicesin its stores.
But does this latest move make CVS a greater competitive threat to health systems and physician groups? In the war for talent, yes. Retailer and insurer expansion into primary care will surely amp up competition for primary care physicians, as it already has for nurse practitioners. Having its own primary care doctors may make CVS more effective in managing care costs, but the company’s ultimate strategy remains unchanged: use its retail primary care sites to keep MA beneficiaries out of the hospital and other high-cost care settings.
Partnerships with CVS and other retailers and insurers present an opportunity for health systems to increase access points and expand their risk portfolios. But it’s likely that these types of partnerships are time-limited. In a consumer-driven healthcare market, answering the question of “Whose patient is it?” will be increasingly difficult, as both parties look to build long-term loyalty with consumers.
Health insurers licensed by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association face steep financial penalties from that organization if they merge with a competitor that doesn’t sell BCBS insurance, Axios’ Bob Herman writes.
Why it matters: Blue Cross Blue Shield is one of the most recognizable health insurance names in the country, and the powerful association behind that brand wants to keep its dominance in local markets.
Case in point: Triple-S Management, a BCBS affiliate in Puerto Rico, sold itself in August to the parent company of the Florida Blues for $900 million.
If Triple-S sold itself to a non-BCBS company, therefore terminating its license with the BCBSA, Triple-S would have faced a $96 million surcharge, according to merger documents filed by Triple-S.
The $96 million charge, based on a fee of $98.33 per member, was called a “re-establishment fee.”
What they’re saying: “The license agreements between the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and its licensees include various financial and other provisions that apply to terminations, mergers and sales of licensees,” BCBSA said in a statement.
“BCBSA is unable to confirm the financial implications of any other transactions that Triple-S may have considered in deciding to enter into this transaction.”
Conservative and industry groups are trying to whip up opposition to President Biden’s massive social spending plan by warning it will imperil Medicare benefits, Axios has learned.
Why it matters: “Medicscare” is a well-worn political tactic precisely because it can be effective. For Democrats, there’s zero room for defections against the $3.5 trillion proposal if they want to pass the bill.
What’s happening: Senior citizens in Arizona, represented by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), potential Democratic holdout, have started receiving large boxes labeled “Medical Shipment. Please open immediately.”
Inside, they find an empty prescription drug bottle and literature warning of Democratic plans to “ration Medicare Part D.” That’s a reference to a budget reconciliation bill provision that would allow the government to negotiate Medicare reimbursement rates for prescription drugs.
The mailers are the work of the Common Sense Leadership Fund, a Republican-aligned advocacy group. The mailers in Arizona specifically target Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), who’s up for re-election next year.
CSLF spokesman Colin Reed told Axios the group is mailing the packages to seniors and unaffiliated voters in Arizona and New Hampshire, where the group is targeting Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), who’s also up for re-election.
Another nonprofit advocacy group, A Healthy Future, is targeting the prescription drug portions of the bill in a digital ad campaign aimed at key Democratic votes.
The group has spent nearly $300,000 on Google, Facebook and Instagram ads aimed at Reps. Frank Pallone, Tom Malinowski and Andy Kim, all Democrats from New Jersey — where the drug industry has a huge economic footprint.
“This is a prescription for disaster,” its ads say. They urge calls to Congress to “oppose cutting Medicare to pay for the $3.5 trillion spending plan.”
It’s not clear who’s behind A Healthy Future — the group did not respond to inquiries from Axios — but its messaging on reconciliation and past policy fights track with drug industry priorities.
The big picture: Democrats have turned to drug pricing reforms to offset part of the legislation’s massive price tag, potentially paying for as much as $600 billion in new spending.
Yes, but: The Mediscare tactic is larger than just the drug pricing fight. Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-backed conservative advocacy group, is running its own ads warning of much larger impending Medicare cuts.
About 73% of health insurance markets are highly concentrated, and in 46% of markets, one insurer had a share of 50% or more, a new report from the American Medical Association shows. The report comes a few months after President Joe Biden directed federal agencies to ramp up oversight of healthcare consolidation.
The majority of health insurance markets in the U.S. are highly concentrated, curbing competition, according to a report released by the American Medical Association.
For the report, researchers reviewed market share and market concentration data for the 50 states and District of Columbia, and each of the 384 metropolitan statistical areas in the country.
They found that 73% of the metropolitan statistical area-level payer markets were highly concentrated in 2020. In 91% of markets, at least one insurer had a market share of 30%, and in 46% of markets, one insurer had a share of 50% or more.
Further, the share of markets that are highly concentrated rose from 71% in 2014 to 73% last year. Of those markets that were not highly concentrated in 2014, 26% experienced an increase large enough to enter the category by 2020.
In terms of national-level market shares of the 10 largest U.S. health insurers, UnitedHealth Group comes out on top with the largest market share in both 2014 and 2020, reporting 16% and 15% market share, respectively. Anthem comes in second with shares of 13% in 2014 and 12% in 2020.
But the picture looks different when it comes to the market share of health insurers participating in the Affordable Care Act individual exchanges. In 2014, Anthem held the largest market share among the top 10 insurers on the exchanges, with a share of 14%. By 2020, Centene had taken the top spot, with a share of 18%, while Anthem had slipped to fifth place, with a share of just 4%.
Another key entrant into the top 10 list in 2020 was insurance technology company Oscar Health, with 3% of the market share in the exchanges at the national level.
“These [concentrated] markets are ripe for the exercise of health insurer market power, which harms consumers and providers of care,” the report authors wrote. “Our findings should prompt federal and state antitrust authorities to vigorously examine the competitive effects of proposed mergers involving health insurers.”
The payer industry hit back. In a statement provided to MedCity News, America’s Health Insurance Plans, a national payer association, said that Americans have many affordable choices for their coverage, pointing to the fact that CMS announced average premiums for Medicare Advantage plans will drop to $19 per month in 2022 from $21.22 this year.
“Health insurance providers are an advocate for Americans, fighting for lower prices and more choices for them,” said Kristine Grow, senior vice president of communications at America’s Health Insurance Plans, in an email. “We negotiate lower prices with doctors, hospitals and drug companies, and consumers benefit from lower premiums as a result.”
Further, the report does not mention the provider consolidation that also contributes to higher healthcare prices. Mergers and acquisitions among hospitals and health systems have continued steadily over the past decade, remaining relatively impervious to even the Covid-19 pandemic.
Scrutiny around consolidation in the healthcare industry may grow. In July, President Joe Biden issued an executive order urging federal agencies to review and revise their merger guidelines through the lens of preventing patient harm.
The Federal Trade Commission has already said that healthcare businesses will be one of its priority targets for antitrust enforcement actions.
This week, retail giant Walmart announced a partnership with Epic, the country’s most widely-used electronic health record (EHR) system, as the technology platform to support its health and wellness businesses. Epic will first be installed in four Walmart Health Center clinics slated to open in Florida early next year.
The company currently operates 20 health centers in Georgia, Arkansas and the Chicago area, offering an expanded range of services including comprehensive primary care, behavioral health, dental, hearing and vision care, as well as labs and other diagnostics. Skeptics have noted that Walmart has fallen behind in its ambitious plans to broadly roll out the expanded clinics, the first of which opened in an Atlanta exurb in 2019.
The partnership with Epic, which is used by more than 2,000 hospitals nationwide, signals that Walmart is serious about expanding its role as a healthcare provider—and sees opportunity in being able to share information and connect with health systems and doctors’ offices.
However, the vision of a “unified health record across care settings, geographies and multiple sources of health data” outlined by Walmart’s EVP of health and wellness may be more difficult to achieve than expected, if the experience of health systems, who have been stymied by upgrades and version mismatches in their quest for a unified EHR, is any indication.
Welcome, Walmart, to the wonderful world of EHRs—if you thought healthcare was complicated, just wait until you begin your first Epic install!
Contrary to what health care executives advertise, hospital mergers and acquisitions aren’t good for patients. They rarely improve access to health care or its quality, and they don’t reduce prices. But the system in place to stop them is often more bark than bite.
In 2018, the last year for which complete data are available, 72% of hospitals and more than 90% of hospital beds were affiliated with a health care system. Mergers and acquisitions are increasing the number of health care systems while decreasing the number of independently operated hospitals.
When hospitals buy provider practices, it leads to more unnecessary care and more expensive care, which increases overall spending. The same thing happens when hospitals merge or acquire other hospitals. These deals often increase prices and they don’t improve care quality; patients simply pay more for the same or worse care.
Mergers and acquisitions can negatively affect clinician morale as well. Some argue they lead to providers’ loss of autonomy and increase the emphasis on financial targets rather than patient care. They can also contribute to burnout and feeling unsupported.
Considerable machinery is in place at both the federal and state levels to stop “anticompetitive” mergers before they happen. But that machinery is limited by a lack of follow through.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Department of Justice have always had broad authority over mergers. By law, one or both of these entities must review for any antitrust concerns proposed deals of a certain size before the deals are finalized. After a preliminary review, if no competition issues are identified, the merger or acquisition is allowed to proceed. This is what happens in most cases. If concerns are raised, however, the involved parties must submit additional information and undergo a second evaluation.
Some health care organizations seem willing to challenge this process. Leaders involved in a pending merger between Lifespan and Care New England in Rhode Island — which would leave 80% of the state’s inpatient market under one company’s umbrella — are preparing to move forward even if the FTC deems the deal anticompetitive. The companies will simply ask the state to approve the merger despite the FTC’s concerns.
The reality is that the FTC’s reach is limited when it comes to nonprofits, which most hospitals are. While the FTC can oppose anticompetitive mergers involving nonprofits, it cannot enforce action against them for anticompetitive behavior. So if a merger goes through, the FTC has limited authority to ensure the new entity plays fairly.
What’s more, the FTC has acknowledged it can’t keep up with its workload this year. It modified its antitrust review process to accommodate an increasing number of requests and its stagnant capacity. In July, the Biden administration issued an executive order about economic competition that explicitly acknowledges the negative impact of health care consolidation on U.S. communities. This is encouraging, signaling that the government is taking mergers seriously. Yet it’s unclear if the executive order will give the FTC more capacity, which is essential if it is to actually enforce antitrust laws.
At the state level, most of the antitrust power lies with the attorney general, who ultimately approves or challenges all mergers. Despite this authority, questionable mergers still go through.
In 2018, for example, two competing hospital systems in rural Tennessee merged to become Ballad Health and the only source of care for about 1.2 million residents. The deal was opposed by the FTC, which deemed it to be a monopoly. Despite the concerns, the state attorney general and Department of Health overrode the FTC’s ruling and approved the merger. (This is the same mechanism the Rhode Island hospitals hope to employ should the FTC oppose their merger.) As expected, Ballad Health then consolidated the services offered at its facilities and increased the fees on patient bills.
It’s clear that mechanisms exist to curb potentially harmful mergers and promote industry competition. It’s also clear they aren’t being used to the fullest extent. Unless these checks and balances lead to mergers being denied, their power over the market is limited.
Experts have been raising the alarm on health care consolidation for years. Mergers rarely lead to better care quality, access, or prices. Proposed mergers must be assessed and approved based on evidence, not industry pressure. If nothing changes, the consequences will be felt for years to come.
The Federal Trade Commission has been hit by a “tidal wave” of merger filings and cannot review them all before required deadlines.
The FTC is now sending letters to merging entities warning them that the agency may deem a combination unlawful even if the companies decide to merge.
“Companies that choose to proceed with transactions that have not been fully investigated are doing so at their own risk,” the regulator said in a statement Tuesday.
The alert may give pause to hospitals merging at a steady clip. Unwinding deals once they’re already consummated can be costly and complex. The premerger filings give regulators a chance to stop anticompetitive mergers before a deals closes, preventing harm to consumers and businesses in the meantime.
The FTC received 343 premerger filings in the month of July, more than three times the amount from July of last year, when 112 transactions were submitted for review.
So far this year, more than 2,000 transactions have been submitted through the month of July, according to figures with the FTC, eclipsing the 815 filings over the same time period last year.
Federal regulators have forced hospital to unwind mergers before.
The FTC forced ProMedica to unwind its buyup of St. Luke’s Hospital in the Toledo area after alleging the deal would severely hinder competition. The FTC later approved a divestiture plan in 2016 after a long battle in court.
It came even as the FTC had signaled it plans to prioritize enforcement in a number of key industries including healthcare.
Plus, last year the FTC said it was expanding a key tool in its arsenal to potentially help police future deals.
Mergers that exceed a certain threshold — currently $92 million — are required to submit a premerger filing with the FTC per the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act.
The filing initiates a review period in which the FTC and Department of Justice investigate the deal.
Typically, the agencies have 30 days to determine whether additional information is needed. If so, the deal is on hold until the companies respond with the needed information, and after that the agencies have a limited number of days to file a challenge if they deem the tie-up unlawful.
The FTC can also terminate the waiting period early, allowing the deal to proceed.
However, the agency maintains the right to challenge any deal regardless of whether it was reviewed or not.