Given regulatory barriers and structural differences in practice, private equity firms have been slow to acquire and roll up physician practices and other care assets in other countries in the same way they’ve done here in the US. But according a fascinating piece in the Financial Times, investors have targeted a different healthcare segment, one ripe for the “efficiencies” that roll-ups can bring—small veterinary practices in the UK and Ireland.
British investment firm IVC bought up hundreds of small vet practices across the UK, only to be acquired itself by Swedish firm Evidensia, which is now the largest owner of veterinary care sites, with more than 1,500 across Europe. Vets describe the deals as too good to refuse: one who sold his practice to IVC said “he ‘almost fell off his chair’ on hearing how much it was offering. The vet, who requested anonymity, says IVC mistook his shock for hesitation—and increased its offer.” (Physician executives in the US, take note.) IVC claims that its model provides more flexible options, especially for female veterinarians seeking more work-life balance than offered by the typical “cottage” veterinary practice.
But consumers have complained of decreased access to care as some local clinics have been shuttered as a result of roll-ups. Meanwhile prices, particularly for pet medications like painkillers or feline insulin, have risen as much as 40 percent—and vets aren’t given leeway to offer the discounts they previously extended to low-income customers. And with IVC attaining significant market share in some communities (for instance, owning 17 of 32 vet practices in Birmingham), questions have arisen about diminished competition and even price fixing.
The playbook for private equity is consistent across human and animal healthcare: increase leverage, raise prices for care, and slash practice costs, all with little obvious value for consumers. It remains to be seen whether and how consumers will push back—either on behalf of their beloved pets, or for the sake of their own health.
- About 36% of nonelderly adults and 29% of children in the U.S. have delayed or foregone care because of concerns of being exposed to COVID-19 or providers limiting services due to the pandemic, according to new reports from the Urban Institute and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
- Of those who put off care, more than three-quarters had one or more chronic health conditions and one in three said the result of not getting treatment was worsening health or limiting their ability to work and perform regular daily activities, the research based on polling in September showed.
- However, the types of care being delayed are fairly routine. Among those surveyed, 25% put off dental care, while 21% put off checkups and 16% put off screenings or medical tests.
The early days of the pandemic saw widespread halts in non-emergency care, with big hits to provider finances.
In recent months, health systems have emphasized the services can be provided in hospitals and doctors offices safely as long as certain protocols are followed, and at least some research has backed them up. Groups like the American Hospital Association have launched ad campaigns urging people to return for preventive and routine care as well as emergencies.
But patients are apparently still wary, according to the findings based on surveys of about 4,000 adults conducted in September.
The research shows another facet of the systemic inequities harshly spotlighted by the pandemic. People of color are more likely to put off care than other groups. While 34% of Whites said they put off care, that percentage rose to 40% among Blacks and 36% among Latinos.
Income also played a role, as 37% of those with household incomes at or below 250% of the poverty level put off care, compared to 25% of those with incomes above that threshold.
Putting off care has had an impact industrywide, as the normally robust healthcare sector lost 30,000 jobs in January. Molina Healthcare warned last week that utilization will remain depressed for the foreseeable future.
Younger Americans were also impacted, with nearly 30% of parents saying they delayed at least one type of care for their children, while 16% delayed multiple types of care. As with adults, dental care was the most common procedure that was put off, followed by checkups or other preventative healthcare screenings.
The researchers recommended improving communications among providers and patients.
“Patients must be reassured that providers’ safety precautions follow public health guidelines, and that these precautions effectively prevent transmission in offices, clinics, and hospitals,” they wrote. “More data showing healthcare settings are not common sources of transmission and better communication with the public to promote the importance of seeking needed and routine care are also needed.”
UnitedHealth Group, both the nation’s largest health insurer and largest employer of physicians, just announced plans to continue to rapidly grow the number of physicians in its Optum division.
This week CEO Dave Wichmann told investors in the company’s fourth quarter earnings call that Optum entered 2021 with over 50,000 employed or affiliated physicians, and expects to add at least 10,000 more across the year. (For context, HCA Healthcare, the largest for-profit US health system, employs or affiliates with roughly 46,000 physicians, and Kaiser Permanente employs about 23,300.) Optum is already making progress toward its ambitious goal with the announcement last week that the company is in talks to acquire Atrius Health, a 715-physician practice in the Boston area.
As was the case with other health plans, United’s health insurance business took an expected hit last quarter due to increased costs from COVID testing and treatment, combined with rebounding healthcare utilization. Optum, however, saw revenue up over 20 percent, which drove much of the company’s overall fourth quarter growth.
Expect United, and other large insurers, flush with record profits from last year, to continue to expand their portfolio of care, digital and analytics assets (see also Optum’s recently announced plan to acquire Change Healthcare for $13B) as they looks to grow integrated insurance and care delivery offerings.
It’s part of what we expect to be a 2021 “land grab” for strategic advantage in healthcare, as providers, health plans, and disruptors look to create comprehensive platforms to secure long-term consumer loyalty.
Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler’s action against Aliera Healthcare, Inc. (Aliera) ordering the company to stop selling health insurance illegally was upheld on Nov. 13 after the company appealed. Today, Aliera was ordered to pay a $1 million fine. It has 90 days to appeal.
Kreidler took action against Aliera and its partner, Trinity Healthshare, Inc. (Trinity) in May 2019 after an investigation revealed that since August 2018, the companies sold 3,058 policies to Washington consumers and collected $3.8 million in premium. Trinity agreed to Kreidler’s order.
“Aliera and Trinity promised to provide people with coverage when they needed it only to leave consumers with huge medical bills,” said Kreidler. “I’m taking action today to send a message to all scam artists – if you harm our consumers, you will pay heavily.
“Shopping for health insurance can be very stressful – especially if you have to worry about being ripped off. True insurance companies have to meet rigorous standards before they can sell coverage to consumers. These companies are hiding behind a federal and state exemption that exists for legitimate health care sharing ministries and using it to rake in profit across the country on the backs of vulnerable consumers.”
Aliera, an unlicensed insurance producer in Washington, administered and marketed health coverage on behalf of Trinity HealthShare. Trinity represents itself as a health care sharing ministry. Such ministries are exempt from state insurance regulation only if they meet statutory requirements. If so, they do not have to meet the same consumer protections guaranteed under the Affordable Care Act. This includes providing coverage for anyone with a pre-existing medical condition.
A legal health care sharing ministry is a nonprofit organization whose members share a common set of ethical or religious beliefs and share medical expenses consistent with those beliefs.
Kreidler’s office has received more than 20 complaints from consumers. Some believed they were buying health insurance without knowing they had joined a health care sharing ministry. Many discovered this when the company denied their claims because their medical conditions were considered pre-existing under the plan.
“Real health care sharing ministries can offer a valuable service to their members,” Kreidler said. “Unfortunately, we’re seeing players out there trying to use the exemptions for legitimate ministries to skirt insurance regulation and mislead trusting consumers. I want these outfits to know we’re on to them and we will hold them accountable.”
Kreidler’s investigation found Aliera:
- Sold insurance without a Washington insurance producer license.
- Represented an unauthorized insurer, Trinity.
- Operated an unlicensed discount plan organization.
Kreidler’s investigation into Trinity found that it failed to meet key federal and state requirements:
Trinity was formed on June 27, 2018, without any members. Federal and state laws require that health care sharing ministries be formed before Dec. 31, 1999, and their members to have been actively sharing medical costs.
At the beginning of the pandemic, physicians and health systems implemented telemedicine solutions with unprecedented speed. In doing so, they went from mostly lagging behind payers and disruptors in digital medicine, to becoming the anchors who kept patients and doctors connected during the greatest health crisis in a century.
But over the past few weeks, we’ve detected a marked shift in the tone and focus of conversations around telemedicine with doctors and executives. Universally, systems have seen a drop in virtual visits as in-person care has returned—and most agree that today’s levels of telemedicine visits are lower than ideal.
“We peaked at 45 percent of outpatient visits delivered virtually in early May. Now telemedicine accounts for just five percent,” one physician leader told us. “I don’t know what ‘percent virtual’ is ideal, but I’m pretty sure it’s more than five percent.” Another leader described a shift from “rally to reality”.
At the height of the crisis, the entire system was singularly focused on keeping patients connected to care, bolstered by a loosening of regulatory and payment restrictions.
As systems now plan for a long-term virtual care strategy, we’re sensing a shift in focus to pre-COVID challenges: operations (centralization is needed to create a sustainable model, but each doctor wants to do virtual visits his own way), payment (should we really invest before we’re sure health plans will continue to pay at parity?), and turf battles (reemerging political discussions of who “owns” virtual care strategy).
Health plans, retailers and disruptors recognize the power of virtual care to build relationships and loyalty with consumers—and will invest heavily behind it. Providers have the advantage today. But to keep it, they’ll have to get out of their own way and continue to build, scale and refine their virtual care platforms.
Provider executives already know America’s hospitals and health systems are seeing rapidly deteriorating finances as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. They’re just not yet sure of the extent of the damage.
By the end of June, COVID-19 will have delivered an estimated $200 billion blow to these institutions with the bulk of losses stemming from cancelled elective and nonelective surgeries, according to the American Hospital Association.
A recent Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA)/Guidehouse COVID-19 survey suggests these patient volumes will be slow to return, with half of provider executive respondents anticipating it will take through the end of the year or longer to return to pre-COVID levels. Moreover, one-in-three provider executives expect to close the year with revenues at 15 percent or more below pre-pandemic levels. One-in-five of them believe those decreases will soar to 30 percent or beyond.
Available cash is also in short supply. A Guidehouse analysis of 350 hospitals nationwide found that cash on hand is projected to drop by 50 days on average by the end of the year — a 26% plunge — assuming that hospitals must repay accelerated and/or advanced Medicare payments.
While the government is providing much needed aid, just 11% of the COVID survey respondents expect emergency funding to cover their COVID-related costs.
The figures illustrate how the virus has hurled American medicine into unparalleled volatility. No one knows how long patients will continue to avoid getting elective care, or how state restrictions and climbing unemployment will affect their decision making once they have the option.
All of which leaves one thing for certain: Healthcare’s delivery, operations, and competitive dynamics are poised to undergo a fundamental and likely sustained transformation.
Here are six changes coming sooner rather than later.
1. Payer-provider complexity on the rise; patients will struggle.
The pandemic has been a painful reminder that margins are driven by elective services. While insurers show strong earnings — with some offering rebates due to lower reimbursements — the same cannot be said for patients. As businesses struggle, insured patients will labor under higher deductibles, leaving them reluctant to embrace elective procedures. Such reluctance will be further exacerbated by the resurgence of case prevalence, government responses, reopening rollbacks, and inconsistencies in how the newly uninsured receive coverage.
Furthermore, the upholding of the hospital price transparency ruling will add additional scrutiny and significance for how services are priced and where providers are able to make positive margins. The end result: The payer-provider relationship is about to get even more complicated.
2. Best-in-class technology will be a necessity, not a luxury.
COVID has been a boon for telehealth and digital health usage and investments. Two-thirds of survey respondents anticipate using telehealth five times more than they did pre-pandemic. Yet, only one-third believe their organizations are fully equipped to handle the hike.
If healthcare is to meet the shift from in-person appointments to video, it will require rapid investment in things like speech recognition software, patient information pop-up screens, increased automation, and infrastructure to smooth workflows.
Historically, digital technology was viewed as a disruption that increased costs but didn’t always make life easier for providers. Now, caregiver technologies are focused on just that.
The new necessities of the digital world will require investments that are patient-centered and improve access and ease of use, all the while giving providers the platform to better engage, manage, and deliver quality care.
After all, the competition at the door already holds a distinct technological advantage.
3. The tech giants are coming.
Some of America’s biggest companies are indicating they believe they can offer more convenient, more affordable care than traditional payers and providers.
Begin with Amazon, which has launched clinics for its Seattle employees, created the PillPack online pharmacy, and is entering the insurance market with Haven Healthcare, a partnership that includes Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase. Walmart, which already operates pharmacies and retail clinics, is now opening Walmart Health Centers, and just recently announced it is getting into the Medicare Advantage business.
Meanwhile, Walgreens has announced it is partnering with VillageMD to provide primary care within its stores.
The intent of these organizations clear: Large employees see real business opportunities, which represents new competition to the traditional provider models.
It isn’t just the magnitude of these companies that poses a threat. They also have much more experience in providing integrated, digitally advanced services.
4. Work locations changes mean construction cost reductions.
If there’s one thing COVID has taught American industry – and healthcare in particular – it’s the importance of being nimble.
Many back-office corporate functions have moved to a virtual environment as a result of the pandemic, leaving executives wondering whether they need as much real estate. According to the survey, just one-in-five executives expect to return to the same onsite work arrangements they had before the pandemic.
Not surprisingly, capital expenditures, including new and existing construction, leads the list of targets for cost reductions.
Such savings will be critical now that investment income can no longer be relied upon to sustain organizations — or even buy a little time. Though previous disruptions spawned only marginal change, the unprecedented nature of COVID will lead to some uncomfortable decisions, including the need for a quicker return on investments.
5. Consolidation is coming.
Consolidation can be interpreted as a negative concept, particularly as healthcare is mostly delivered at a local level. But the pandemic has only magnified the differences between the “resilients” and the “non-resilients.”
All will be focused on rebuilding patient volume, reducing expenses, and addressing new payment models within a tumultuous economy. Yet with near-term cash pressures and liquidity concerns varying by system, the winners and losers will quickly emerge. Those with at least a 6% to 8% operating margin to innovate with delivery and reimagine healthcare post-COVID will be the strongest. Those who face an eroding financial position and market share will struggle to stay independent..
6. Policy will get more thoughtful and data-driven.
The initial coronavirus outbreak and ensuing responses by both the private and public sectors created negative economic repercussions in an accelerated timeframe. A major component of that response was the mandated suspension of elective procedures.
While essential, the impact on states’ economies, people’s health, and the employment market have been severe. For example, many states are currently facing inverse financial pressures with the combination of reductions in tax revenue and the expansion of Medicaid due to increases in unemployment. What’s more, providers will be subject to the ongoing reckonings of outbreak volatility, underscoring the importance of agile policy that engages stakeholders at all levels.
As states have implemented reopening plans, public leaders agree that alternative responses must be developed. Policymakers are in search of more thoughtful, data-driven approaches, which will likely require coordination with health system leaders to develop flexible preparation plans that facilitate scalable responses. The coordination will be difficult, yet necessary to implement resource and operational responses that keeps healthcare open and functioning while managing various levels of COVID outbreaks, as well as future pandemics.
Healthcare has largely been insulated from previous economic disruptions, with capital spending more acutely affected than operations. But the COVID-19 pandemic will very likely be different. Through the pandemic, providers are facing a long-term decrease in commercial payment, coupled with a need to boost caregiver- and consumer-facing engagement, all during a significant economic downturn.
While situations may differ by market, it’s clear that the pre-pandemic status quo won’t work for most hospitals or health systems.