Steward Health Care is abandoning its proposal to sell five Utah hospitals to HCA Healthcare, and New Jersey-based RWJBarnabas Health dropped its plan to purchase New Brunswick, NJ-based Saint Peter’s Healthcare System. These pivots come just weeks after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed suits to block the transactions, saying they would reduce market competition. The FTC said in a statement that these deals “should never have been proposed in the first place,” and “…the FTC will not hesitate to take action in enforcing the antitrust laws to protect healthcare consumers who are faced with unlawful hospital consolidation.”
The Gist: These latest mergers follow the fate of the proposed Lifespan and Care New England merger in Rhode Island, and the New Jersey-based Hackensack Meridian Health and Englewood Health merger, which were both abandoned after FTC challenges earlier this year.
Antitrust observers find these recent challenges unsurprising, as all were horizontal, intra-market deals of the kind that commonly raise antitrust concerns. What will be more telling is whether antitrust regulators can successfully mount challenges of cross-market mergers, or vertical mergers between hospitals, physicians, and insurers.
Consumers and employers recently filed lawsuits against Hartford HealthCare, HCA Healthcare, and Advocate Aurora Health, accusing the health systems of using their market power to increase prices through anticompetitive contracting practices. New reporting from the Wall Street Journal finds that all three suits are receiving funding from billionaire John Arnold, through his charitable foundation Arnold Ventures, which has sponsored several efforts to reduce healthcare spending. While the health systems say that the claims are baseless, the law firm leading the suits, Fairmark Partners, says that it’s attempting to enforce antitrust laws through the courts.
The Gist: Amid the Biden administration’s increased scrutiny of health system anticompetitive behavior, state governments and philanthropic groups are also taking a more active role in challenging hospital deals and contracting practices.
While these groups have targeted hospital prices because they’re a significant source of increased healthcare spending, these lawsuits do little to address the perverse underlying incentives that push hospitals to seek higher prices from commercial patients, to cross-subsidize what they view as insufficient pricing from public payers.
LHC, a postacute care behemoth with several hundred home health and hospice locations, as well as a dozen long-term care hospitals, would greatly expand Optum’s ability to provide home-based and long-term care. The FTC’s second request for information threatens to delay the deal, which was set to close in the latter half of this year.
The Gist: The LHC deal is the second UnitedHealth Group (UHG) transaction that antitrust regulators have targeted recently. The Department of Justice filed alawsuit earlier this year to block UHG’s acquisition of Change Healthcare, alleging that acquiring a direct competitor for claims solutions would reduce competition.
The FTC has historically focused its efforts on horizontal integration, but the LHC scrutiny, in combination with a recent inquiry into pharmacy benefit managers, indicates its focus may be expanding to vertical integration.
High health care prices in the U.S. make it hard for people to access care, difficult for employers to provide insurance, and challenging for policymakers to balance health care spending with other budgetary priorities. That’s why it’s important to understand what drives prices higher and identify policies to keep prices from getting so high.
In a new paper in Health Affairs, Vilsa Curto, Anna Sinaiko and Meredith Rosenthal examined whether hospital and health systems’ acquisition of and contracting with physician practices – two forms of what is often called vertical integration – has led to higher prices for physician services. The researchers combined four sets of data from Massachusetts from 2013-2017 for their analysis.
They found that:
The percent of physicians who joined health systems grew meaningfully: The percent of primary care physicians who remained independent dropped from 42% in 2013 to 31.5% in 2017, and the percent of independent specialists fell from 26% to 17%.
Over this same period, prices for physician services rose. Price increases were especially large – 12% for primary care physicians and 6% for specialists – when physicians joined health systems that had a high share of admissions in their area.
This study stands out for several reasons. First, it shows vertical integration drives up health care prices. Second, the authors highlight actions states can and are considering taking to monitor and curb vertical integration, including antitrust enforcement and enacting laws to promote competition.
Finally, the Massachusetts data allow the public to better appreciate what’s happening across the state. Many earlier studies on health care consolidation have been limited to a subset of insurers, physicians or patients. Massachusetts is a leader when it comes to creating and sharing its data thanks to its all-payer claims database, which pulls together all the health care bills from private insurers and public programs like Medicare and Medicaid in the state. This critical information helps to illuminate patterns of care and prices and connect them to issues like consolidation and competition.Neither the federal government nor most states track how vertical integration mergers influence health care prices.
As these findings demonstrate, acquisitions and other forms of vertical integration impact what people pay for health care services. Given that prices in this sector continue to climb, this paper underscores the need for more state and national data to understand the downstream effects on all of us who use and participate in the U.S. health care system.
The digital platform is designed to provide consumers with a coordinated healthcare experience across care settings. It’s being sold to Aetna’s fully insured and self-insured plan sponsors, as well as CVS Caremark clients, and is due to go live next year. According to CVS Health, the new offering “enables consumers to choose care when and where they want,” whether that’s virtually, in a retail setting (including at a MinuteClinic or HealthHUB), or through at-home services.
Patients will have access to primary care, on-demand care, medication management, chronic condition management, and mental health services, as well as help in identifying other in-network care providers.
The Gist: CVS Health has been working to integrate its retail clinics, care delivery assets, and health insurance business. This new virtual-first care platform is aimed at coordinating care and experience across the portfolio, and streamlining how individuals access the range of services available to them.
CVS is not alone in focusing here: UnitedHealth Group, Cigna, and others have announced virtual-first health plans with a similar value proposition. Any payer or provider who aims to own the consumer relationship must field a similar digital care platform that streamlines and coordinates service offerings, lest they find themselves in a market where many patients turn first to CVS and other disruptors for their care needs.
The momentum behind Medicare Advantage is only growing as more baby boomers age into eligibility, and experts don’t expect the energy around the program to slow down any time soon.
A recent analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a record 3,834 plans were available for the 2022 plan year in MA, which represents an 8% increase over 2021 and the largest number on the market in a decade.
Open enrollment for Medicare ended Dec. 7, and enrollment numbers will begin trickling out as the year winds down. In 2021, 26 million Medicare beneficiaries, or about 42% of those eligible for the program, were enrolled in an MA plan.
“As Medicare Advantage enrollment continues to grow, insurers seem to be responding by offering more plans and choices to the people on Medicare,” the KFF analysts said.
Part of the appeal of MA to an increasingly savvy consumer base is that it offers additional benefits beyond those afforded people in traditional Medicare, such as vision and dental coverage as well as supports for members’ social needs.
Sachin Jain, M.D., CEO of SCAN Health Plan, told Fierce Healthcare that people are increasingly shopping around for plans, building greater awareness of MA as a whole as well as of the different types of benefits beneficiaries could select.
“We’re seeing that consumers are more sophisticated today than they were a decade ago,” he said. “I think people are realizing that fee-for-service Medicare doesn’t cover a lot of things.”
The KFF report shows that more than 90% of non-group MA plans offer some kind of vision, hearing, telehealth or dental benefits and that most (89%) include prescription drug coverage as well.
Elena McFann, president of Medicare at Anthem, told Fierce Healthcare that throughout the open enrollment period, plans built with benefits that target the social determinants of health and promote whole-person care resonated strongly with members.
Anthem, for example, offers plans that include a slate of essential extra benefits that members can choose from based on what they need the most. Options include grocery cards, transportation benefits and in-home supports.
She said that the grocery benefits and flex cards that allow members to purchase additional hearing, vision and dental coverage have proven particularly popular in this enrollment season.
“What those all point to is the concept of flexibility and helping them lead healthier lives where they really need the help where they are in their journey,” McFann said.
As these benefits prove popular, an increasing number of plans are offering them in tandem. The Better Medicare Alliance released a survey late last month that found the number of plans including supplemental benefits grew by 43% for the 2022 plan year.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has issued additional flexibilities that allow MA plans to address members’ social determinants of health as the program’s enrollment continues to swell.
Jain said SCAN has seen similar interest in supplemental benefits, and that flexibility afforded to MA plans to adapt to seniors’ needs and expectations is a critical factor in the program’s success.
“When you’re in the business of serving seniors, a lot of what you have to do is anticipate needs that those seniors may not anticipate that they have, give them things they didn’t know they needed,” he said.
McFann said that beneficiaries value plans like these that unite brands they trust and recognize and that partners like Kroger enable insurers to more effectively meet seniors where they are. In its co-branded plans, members can access benefits like Healthy Grocery Cards and stipends to purchase over-the-counter health items.
She said that there has been significant “excitement” around those plans, which are available in four states, during the current enrollment period.
“It gives the Medicare eligibles a sense of familiarity and a sense of comfort, again meeting them on their terms,” McFann said.
However, while many established insurers have set ambitious growth targets in this market and new startups enter the space regularly, they still have plenty of work to do if they want to catch up with the market’s dominant forces: UnitedHealthcare, Humana and Blues plans.
UHC and Humana together account for 45% of the MA market in 2021, according to the KFF analysis. Humana offers plans in 85% of counties and UHC in 74% for 2022.
That means, 89% of Medicare eligibles have access to a Humana plan and 90% have access to a UHC MA plan if they choose, according to the report.
Competition is continuing to grow, though, and both McFann and Jain said they don’t feel the momentum around MA slowing down anytime soon.
“It is those extras and social drivers of health solutions that really have caught on with the Medicare-eligible segment and we expect to see that expand even further,” McFann said.
Everyone agrees that the US healthcare system is not working so great. Compared to the rest of the world, our healthcare is extremely expensive and yet we suffer worse health by many measures. And we can’t seem to agree on what’s to blame, or what we should do about it. Do we have too much, or not enough, competition? Should the government intervene in health care markets more or less?
Basic economics can help us better understand what’s happening.
As with any exchange of goods and services, the standard competitive market model has the familiar upward sloping supply curve and downward sloping demand curve, illustrating that when prices are higher, demand decreases and supply increases as sellers are incentivized to produce more of that good or service at its higher price. Sellers and buyers arrive at what quantity to produce and consume and at what price based on where these two lines intersect, called the equilibrium. Both buyer and seller are happy with the deal they’ve struck!
But not every market works this way. There are actually standards that need to be met in order for a market to fit this model and for it to work efficiently for both the buyer and seller.
First, there must exist multiple sellers competing to sell the same goods or services and new sellers must be able to easily enter the market.
There must be a sufficient open exchange of information between buyer and seller about price, availability, and value of a service or good.
And buyers must make, or be in a position to make, rational decisions using the information they possess about the market.
Healthcare does not meet these standards and when these standards are not met, the equilibrium cannot be reached or accurately known. Any price and quantity that falls outside of the equilibrium is considered a market failure. Using only this model, we can see how healthcare’s market failures contribute to high prices.
To start, it’s true that healthcare is failing the market standards when it comes to competition. The number of sellers in the market is decreasing due to both an increase in barriers to entry and due to consolidation, including hospital mergers. This causes an imbalance in power of the seller over the buyer that can begin to reflect what economists call monopolistic competition where sellers can charge a price above the perfect competition equilibrium. In the extreme, when there is only one seller, the market is a monopoly.
So then, don’t we just need more competition? Unfortunately, a lack of competition isn’t the only reason that healthcare fails the market standards.
Another failure is that consumers in healthcare, patients, do not have all the information that providers, like doctors and hospitals, do. This is known as asymmetric information. Patients often have no idea before getting care how much it will cost, what the prices available to them elsewhere are, or what the quality will be. When consumers are in the dark about these basic features, the true demand and supply will be different than the model. The true demand may be lower if patients knew ahead of time how much it cost or how much less valuable the service is compared to how it is promoted. This means prices can be set higher than they likely would be if the true demand was known.
Even if patients had full information, they are not always in a position to act as rational consumers. A patient’s decision may be influenced by their concern for their health, or their ability to think rationally may itself be affected by their condition.
So, as you can see, the problem is that a lack of competition only accounts for part of the reason why healthcare doesn’t meet the market standards. No matter how much the government either steps back to allow for more competition or invests to foster competition, the market will never fix ALL of these failures on its own. Healthcare is not and can never be a free market. It simply does not fit this model.
In 1963, economist and later Nobel prize winner, Kenneth Arrow, warned us about this looming healthcare crisis. He explains that “If the actual market differs significantly from the competitive model […] coordination of purchases and sales must take place”
That coordination he is referring to is government intervention.
Dr. Mike Chernew, Health Economist and Professor of Health Policy at Harvard Medical School agrees…“an unregulated health care market is unlikely to lead to desired outcomes.”
In reality, health care always has, and always will, involve a combination of both government intervention and market forces to control prices and increase quality. The debate isn’t really whether or not the government should intervene, but by how much and in what way.
The combined health system will become the sixth largest nationwide, with $27B in revenue and 67 hospitals across six Midwest and Southeast states. The system will be based in Charlotte, and known as Advocate Health, though Atrium will continue to use its name in its markets.
Atrium CEO Gene Woods is slated to ultimately lead the combined entity, after an 18-month co-CEO arrangement with Advocate Aurora CEO Jim Skogsbergh. While the cross-market merger is unlikely to create antitrust concerns about increased pricing leverage, the Biden administration has been making noises about applying stricter scrutiny to the impact of health system consolidation on labor market competition.
The Gist: Earlier this year, Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare and Colorado-based SCL Health combined to create a 33-hospital, $14B health system, which became the 11th largest nationwide. While these mega-mergers of regional systems can realize cost savings from back-office synergies, there is a significant opportunity to create larger “platforms” of care to win consumer loyalty, deploy digital capabilities, attract talent, and become more desirable partners for nontraditional players like Amazon, Walmart, and One Medical.
It will be critical to watch whether the governance and cultural challenges that often hinder health system mergers come into play here. Advocate Aurora has had two prospective mergers fall apart in recent years, the first with Chicago-based NorthShore University HealthSystem, and the second with Michigan-based Beaumont Health (who subsequently finalized a merger with Spectrum Health earlier this year).
But the combination with Atrium is structured as a joint operating agreement, essentially creating a new superstructure atop the two legacy systems. This may allow the combined entity more flexibility in local decision-making, but the ultimate question will be how the combined entity will create value for consumers. Time will tell.
While healthcare workers battle burnout, hospitals have been ramping up wages and other benefits to recruit and retain workers. It has created a culture of competition among health systems as well as travel agencies that offer considerably higher pay.
But other healthcare organizations are not hospitals’ only competitors. Some hospitals, particularly those in rural areas, are struggling to match rising employee pay among nonindustry employers such as Target and Walmart.
“We monitor and we’ve been looking and we ask around in the community and we can ask who’s paying what,” Troy Bruntz, CEO of Community Hospital in McCook, Neb., told Becker’s. “So we know where Walmart is on different things, and we’re OK. But if Walmart tried to match what Target’s doing, that would not be good.”
At Target, the hourly starting wage now ranges from $15-$24. The organization is making a $300 million investment total to boost wages and benefits, including health plans. Starting pay is dependent on the job, the market and local wage data, according to NPR.
Walmart raised the hourly wages for 565,000 workers in 2021 by at least $1 an hour, The New York Times reported. The company’s average hourly wage is $16.40, with the lowest being $12 and the highest being $17.
Meanwhile, Costco raised its minimum wage to $17 an hour, according to NPR. The federal minimum wage is $7.25.
Estimated employment for healthcare practitioners and technical occupations is 8.8 million, according to the latest data released March 31 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This includes nurse practitioners, physicians, registered nurses, physician assistants and respiratory therapists, among others.
In sales and related occupations, estimated employment is 13.3 million, according to the bureau. This includes retail salespersons, cashiers and first-line supervisors of retail salespersons, among others.
While retail companies up their wages, at least one hospital CEO is monitoring the issue. Healthcare leaders weigh their options
Mr. Bruntz said rising wages among retailers is an issue his organization monitors. Although Target does not have a store in McCook, there is a Walmart, where pay is increasing.
“I was quoted a few months ago saying Walmart was approaching $15 an hour, and we can handle that,” Mr. Bruntz said. “But when it gets to $20 or $25, it’s going to be an issue.”
He also said he cannot solely increase the wages of the people making less than $15 or less than $25 because he has to be fair in terms of wages for different types of roles.
Specifically, he said he is concerned about what matching rising wages at retailers would mean for labor expenses, which make up about half of the hospital’s cost structure.
“I double that half, that’s 25 percent more expenses instantly,” Mr. Bruntz said. “And how is that going to ratchet to a bottom line anything less than a massive negative number? So it’s a huge problem.”
Clinical positions are not the only ones hospitals and health systems are struggling to fill; they are encountering similar difficulties with technicians and food service workers. Regarding these roles, competition from industries outside healthcare is particularly challenging.
This is an issue Patrice Weiss, MD, executive vice president and chief medical officer of Roanoke, Va.-based Carilion Clinic, addressed during a Becker’spanel discussion April 4. The organization saw workforce issues not just in its clinical staff, but among environmental services staff.
“When you look at what … even fast food restaurants were offering to pay per hour, well gosh, those hours are a whole lot better,” she said during the panel discussion. “There’s no exposure. You’re not walking into a building where there’s an infectious disease or patients with pandemics are being admitted.”
Amid workforce challenges, Community Hospital is elevating its recruitment and retention efforts.
Mr. Bruntz touted the hospital as a hard place to leave because of the culture while acknowledging the monetary efforts his organization is making to keep staff.
He said the hospital has a retention program where full-time employees get a bonus amount if they are at the employer on Dec. 31 and have been there at least since April 15. Part-time workers are also eligible for a bonus, though a lesser amount.
“It also encourages staff [who work on an as-needed basis] to go part-time or full-time, and [those who are] part-time to go full-time,” Mr. Bruntz said. “That’s another thing we’re doing is higher amounts for higher status to encourage that trend.”
Additionally, Community Hospital, which has 330 employees, offers a referral bonus to staff to encourage people they know to come work with them.
“We want staff to bring people they like. [We are] encouraging staff to be their own ambassadors for filling positions,” Mr. Bruntz said.
He said the hospital also will offer employees a sizable market wage adjustment not because of competition from Walmart but because of inflation.
Graham County Hospital in Hill City, Kan., is also affected by the tight labor market, although it has not experienced much competition with retail companies, CEO Melissa Atkins told Becker’s. However, the hospital is struggling with competition from other healthcare organizations, particularly when it comes to patient care departments and nursing. While many hospitals have struggled to retain employees from travel agencies, Graham County Hospital has mostly been able to avoid it.
“As the demand increases, so does the wage,” Ms. Atkins said. “In addition to other hospitals offering sign-on bonuses and increased wages, nurse agency companies are offering higher wages for traveling nurse aides and nurses. We are extremely fortunate in that we have not had to use agency nurses. Our current staff has stepped up and filled in the shortages [with additional incentive pay].”
To combat this trend, the hospital has increased hourly wages and shift differentials, as many healthcare organizations have done. It has also provided bonuses using COVID-19 relief funds.
Overall, Mr. Bruntz said he prefers “not to get into an arms race with wages” among nonindustry competitors.
“It’s not going to end well for anybody. We prefer not to use that,” he said. “At the same time, we’re trying to do as much as possible without being in a full arms race. But if Walmart started paying $25 for a door greeter and cashier, we would have to reassess.”
The Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department are seeking comments on ways merger guidelines should be updated, and physicians are raising concerns about private equity-backed buyouts of provider practices.
The FTC and the Justice Department announced in January that they’re seeking to revamp merger guidelines for businesses. Comments on how to “modernize the merger guidelines to better detect and prevent anticompetitive deals,” can be submitted to the agencies through April 21.
Comments are pouring in from physicians. Many of the comments are anonymous, but the commenters self-identify as physicians.
The physicians’ top concern are private equity-backed buyouts, according to an analysis by Law360. They’re also concerned by the profit-first attitude of healthcare and consolidation in the industry, according to the report.