Amazon launches direct-to-consumer virtual care platform

https://mailchi.mp/4b683d764cf3/the-weekly-gist-november-18-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

On Tuesday, the e-commerce giant unveiled its latest healthcare endeavor, Amazon Clinic, a “virtual health storefront” that can asynchronously connect patients to third-party telemedicine providers. It offers diagnosis and treatment for roughly 20 low-acuity, elective health conditions—including acne, birth control, hair loss, and seasonal allergies—at flat, out-of-pocket rates. (The service does not currently accept insurance.) It also refills prescriptions, which customers can send to any pharmacy, including Amazon’s. At its launch, Amazon Clinic is available in 32 states. 

The Gist: This is exactly the kind of venture at which Amazon excels: creating a marketplace that’s convenient for buyers and sellers (patients and telemedicine providers), pricing it competitively to pursue scale over margins, and upselling customers by pairing care with Amazon’s other products or services (like Amazon Pharmacy). 

Its existing customer base and logistics expertise could position it to replace telemedicine storefront competitors, including Ro and Hims & Hers, as the leading direct-to-consumer healthcare platform, at least among those that don’t take insurance.

It bears watching to see how Amazon builds on this service, including whether it eventually incorporates insurance coverage, partners with health systems (similar to Hims & Hers), or connects Amazon Clinic to Prime in order to attract greater numbers of—generally young, healthy, and relatively wealthy—consumers.

Bright Health exits nine more states

https://mailchi.mp/4587dc321337/the-weekly-gist-october-14-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

Coming off a $1.2B net loss in 2021, Minneapolis-based insurtech Bright Health announced this week it will stop offering commercial and Medicare Advantage (MA) plans in all states except Florida and California, where it will solely offer MA plans. In its remaining markets, the company plans to focus on its care delivery and provider support business, NeueHealth. Bright has reportedly struggled to contain its medical spend, due to rapid growth and COVID-related costs; its claims processing backlog also earned a $1M fine from the Colorado Department of Insurance last April. Once valued at over $11B, Bright’s stock has lost 95 percent of its value since going public in June 2021. 

The Gist: The largest digital health IPO to date is now rapidly shrinking, not even two years later—and Bright is not alone amongst its peers. After years of hype, most insurtechs still have minimal market share, and most have yet to turn a profit. With a market cap now under $1B—and dropping by the day—Bright could be an easy pickup for an established health plan interested in its consumer-centric technology, though given reports of dissatisfied beneficiaries, the value of that technology is still unclear.

In Defense of Value: A Response to Ken Kaufman

In an Oct. 5, 2022, commentary, Ken Kaufman offers a full-throated and heartfelt defense of non-profit healthcare during a time of significant financial hardship. Ken describes 2022 as “the worst financial year for hospitals in memory.” His concern is legitimate. The foundations of the nonprofit healthcare business model appear to be collapsing. I’ve known and worked with Ken Kaufman for decades. He is the life force behind Kaufman Hall, a premier financial and strategic advisor to nonprofit hospitals and health systems. The American Hospital Association uses Kaufman Hall’s analysis of hospitals’ underlying financial trends to support its plea for Congressional funding. Beyond the red ink, Ken laments the “media free-for-all challenging the tax-exempt status, financial practices, and ostensible market power of not-for-profit hospitals and health systems.” He is referring to three recent investigative reports on nonprofits’ skimpy levels of charity care (Wall Street Journal), aggressive collection tactics (New York Times) and 340B drug purchasing program abuses (New York Times). Ken has never been timid about expressing his opinions. He’s passionate, partisan and proud. His defense of nonprofit healthcare chronicles their selfless care of critically ill patients, the 24/7 demands on their resources and their commitment to treating the uninsured. These “must have clinical services…don’t just magically appear.” Nonprofit healthcare needs “our support and validation in the face of extreme economic conditions and organizational headwinds. ”Given his personality, it’s not surprising that Ken’s strident rhetoric in defending nonprofit healthcare reminds me of the famous “You can’t handle the truth” exchange between Lieutenant Kaffee (Tom Cruise) and Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) from the 1992 movie “A Few Good Men.” Kaffee presses Jessup on whether he ordered a “code red” that led to the death of a soldier under his command. When Kaffee declares he’s entitled to the truth, Jessup erupts,… I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man that rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you say, “thank you” and be on your way. Should American society just say “thank you” to nonprofit healthcare and provide the massive incremental funding required to sustain their current operations?
Truth and Consequences
(Download PDF here)The social theorist Thomas Sowell astutely observed, “If you want to help someone, tell them the truth. If you want to help yourself, tell them what they want to hear.” In this commentary, Ken Kaufman is telling nonprofit healthcare exactly what they want to hear. The truth is more nuanced, troubling and inconvenient. Healthcare now consumes 20 percent of the national economy and the American people are sicker than ever. Despite the high healthcare funding levels, the CDC recently reported in U.S. life expectancy dropped almost a full year in 2021. Other wealthy nations experienced increases in life expectancy. Combining 2020 and 2021, the 2.7-year drop in U.S. life expectancy is the largest since the early 1920s. During an interview regarding the September 28, 2022, White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, Senator Cory Booker highlighted two facts that capture America’s healthcare dilemma. One in three government dollars funds healthcare expenditure. Half of Americans suffer from diabetes or pre-diabetes.As a nation, we’re chasing our tail by prioritizing treatment over prevention. Particularly in low-income rural and urban communities, there is a breathtaking lack of vital primary care, disease management and mental health services. Instead of preventing disease, our healthcare system has become adept at keeping sick people alive with a diminished life quality. There is plenty of money in the system to amputate a foot but little to manage the diabetes that necessitates the amputation. Despite mission statements to the contrary, nonprofit healthcare follows the money. The only meaningful difference between nonprofit and for-profit healthcare is tax status. Each seeks to maximize treatment revenues by manipulating complex payment formularies and using market leverage to negotiate higher commercial payment rates. According to Grandview Research, the market for revenue cycle management in 2022 is $140.4 billion and forecasted to grow at a 10% annual rate through 2030. By contrast, Ibis World forecasts the U.S. automobile market to grow 2.6% in 2022 to reach $100.9 billion. Unbelievably, in today’s America, processing medical claims is far more lucrative than manufacturing and selling cars and trucks. According to CMS’s National Expenditure Report for 2020, hospitals (31%) and physicians and clinical services (20%) accounted for over half of national healthcare expenditures. This included $175 billion allocated to providers through the CARES Act. Despite the massive waste embedded within healthcare delivery, the CARES Act funding gave providers the illusion that America would continue to fund its profligate and often ineffective operations. It’s not at all surprising that healthcare providers now want, even expect, more emergency funding. Change is hard. Not even during COVID did providers give up their insistence on volume-based payment. Providers did not embrace proven virtual care and hospital-at-home business practices until CMS guaranteed equivalent payment to existing in-hospital/clinic service provision. Even with parity payment and the massive CARES Act funding, there was uneven care access for COVID patients. Particularly in low-income communities, tens of thousands died because they did not receive appropriate care. More of the same approach to healthcare delivery will yield more of the same dismal results. Healthcare providers have had over a decade to advance value-based care (VBC). I define VBC as the right care at the right time in the right place at the right price. Instead of pursuing VBC, providers have doubled-down on volume-driven business models that attract higher-paying commercially-insured patients. Despite the relative ease of migrating service provision to lower-cost settings, providers insist on operating high-cost, centralized delivery models (think hospitals). They want society, writ large, to continue paying premium prices for routine care. It’s time to stop. As a country, we need less healthcare and more health.
A Fourth Question
(Download PDF here)

When I give speeches to healthcare audiences, I typically begin with three yes-or-no questions about U.S. healthcare to establish the foundation for my subsequent observations. Here they are. Question #1: The U.S. spends 20% of its economy on healthcare. The big country with the next highest percentage spend is France at 12%. How many believe we need to spend more than 20% of our economy to provide great healthcare to everyone in the country? No one ever raises their hand. Question #2: The CDC estimates that 90% of healthcare expenditure goes to treat individuals with chronic disease and mental health conditions. How many believe we’re winning the war against chronic disease and mental health conditions? No one ever raises their hand. Question #3: Given the answer to the previous two questions, how many believe the system needs to shift resources from acute and specialty care into health promotion, primary care, chronic disease management and behavioral health? Everyone raises their hands. This short exercise is quite revealing. It demonstrates that healthcare doesn’t have a funding problem. It has a distribution problem. It also demonstrates that providers aren’t adequately addressing our most critical healthcare challenge, exploding chronic disease and mental health conditions. Finally, the industry needs major restructuring.

The real questions about reforming healthcare are less about what to reform and more about how to undertake reform. The increasing media scrutiny that Ken Kaufman references as well as growing consumer frustrations with healthcare service provision, demonstrate that healthcare is losing the battle for America’s hearts and minds.

Markets are unforgiving. The operating losses most nonprofit providers are experiencing reflect a harsh reality. Their current business models are not sustainable. An economic reckoning is underway. The long arc of economics points toward value. As healthcare deconstructs, the nation’s acute care footprint will shrink, hospitals will close and value-based care delivery will advance. The process will be messy.

The devolving healthcare marketplace led me to ask a fourth question recently in Nashville during a keynote speech to the Council of Pharmacy Executives and Suppliers. Here it is. Question #4: As the healthcare system reforms, will that process be evolutionary (reflecting incremental change) or revolutionary (reflecting fundamental change). Two-thirds voted that the change would be revolutionary. That response is just one data point but it reflects why post-COVID healthcare reform is different than the reform efforts that have preceded it. The costs of maintaining status-quo healthcare are simply too high. From a policy perspective, either market-driven healthcare reforms will drive better outcomes at lower costs (that’s my hope) or America will shift to a government-managed healthcare system like those in Germany, France and Japan.

Like Ken Kaufman, I admire frontline healthcare workers and believe we need to make their vital work less burdensome. I also sympathize with health system executives who are struggling to overcome legacy business practices and massive operating deficits. Unfortunately, most are relying on revenue-maximizing playbooks rather than reconfiguring their operations to advance consumerism and value-based care delivery.

Unlike Ken Kaufman, I believe it’s time for some tough love with nonprofit healthcare providers. Payers must tie new incremental funding to concrete movement into value-based care delivery. This was the argument Zeke Emanuel, Merrill Goozner and I made in a two-part commentary (part 1part 2) in Health Affairs earlier this year. It’s also why the HFMA, where I serve on the Board, has made “cost effectiveness of health (CEoH)” its new operating mantra.

While this truth may be hard, it also is liberating. Freeing nonprofit organizations from their attachment to perverse payment incentives can create the impetus to embrace consumerism and value. Kinder, smarter and affordable care for all Americans will follow.

Telehealth blurs the line between Prescription and Over-the-Counter Drugs

https://mailchi.mp/e60a8f8b8fee/the-weekly-gist-september-23-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

 A recent STAT News article highlights a concerning new trend in direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical marketing, enabled by access to virtual care. Pitched as a tool for patient empowerment, pharmaceutical companies are now offering consumers immediate treatment for a variety of health conditions at the click of a button that says, “Talk to a doctor now.”

Over 90 percent of eligible patients receive a prescription for the drug they “clicked” on, after connecting with a virtual care provider on a third-party telehealth platform. Not only does this practice give drug companies direct access to prospective patients, but it also delivers lucrative data on patient age, zip code, and medication history that can be used to target marketing efforts.

The Gist: Articles like this remind us why the US is one of only two countries in the world that allows direct-to-consumer marketing of prescription drugs (the other, interestingly, is New Zealand). 

As the number of Americans with a primary care provider continues to decline, this kind of Amazon-style, easy-button drug shopping experience will be increasingly appealing to many consumers. But wherever innovation outpaces regulation, situations in which for-profit companies prioritize profits over providing the best care for patients are sure to occur.

While we support the idea of greater consumer empowerment in healthcare, we worry that this highly fragmented approach to consumer-driven health can result in abuse and patient harm.

Envisioning the “consumer-centered medical home”

https://mailchi.mp/9e0c56723d09/the-weekly-gist-july-8-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

Although the patient-centered medical home (PCMH) practice model was first conceived over 50 years ago, its rapid adoption coincided with the launch of ACOs and value-based care. Primary care practices which adopted the medical home model expanded access and support available to patients, enhanced focus on chronic disease management, and embraced team-based care, with a focus on practice and provider sustainability.

But despite the model’s success, a recent conversation with a physician leader suggests that some of most progressive primary care practices are looking to move beyond the medical home. A primary care physician himself, he leads a network of hundreds of doctors, with nearly all the primary care practices PCMH-certified. He shared that “the medical home model in its traditional form doesn’t quite encapsulate what we’re trying to do now”. In his mind, it now feels paternalistic, focusing on what physicians think patients need without paying as much attention to what patients want from their healthcare. 
 
We started brainstorming how a “consumer-centered medical home” might look. Built on the foundation of the PCMH, it would deliver access on the patient’s terms, bringing care online and into the home. Team-based care, supported by technology and even artificial intelligence tools, would enable easy, ongoing communication with patients.

As the list grew, it became increasingly clear that while a small practice could adopt the PCMH, scale is critical for these enhanced capabilities—being able to deliver more services to patients without increasing provider burnout. A tall order for sure, but an exciting vision for primary care that builds consumer loyalty in a competitive marketplace, while keeping the focus on improved care management and outcomes. 

Setting the post-COVID agenda for health systems

https://mailchi.mp/9e0c56723d09/the-weekly-gist-july-8-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

As the economic situation has worsened over the past few months, we’ve been working with several health systems to recalibrate strategy. For many, the anticipated “post-COVID recovery” period has turned into a struggle to reverse declining (often negative) margins, while still scrambling to address mounting workforce shortages. All this amid continued pressure from disruptive competitors and ever-rising consumer expectations.

In the graphic above, we’ve pulled together some of the most important changes we believe health systems need to make. These range from improvements to the operating model (shifting to a team-based approach to staffing, greater use of automation where appropriate, and moving to asset-light capital strategies) to transformations of the clinical model (moving care into lower-cost outpatient and community settings, integrating virtual care into clinical delivery, and creating tighter alignment with key physicians).

In general, the goal is to deliver lower-cost care in less expensive settings, using less expensive staff. 

But those cost-saving strategies will need to be coupled with a new go-to-market approach, including new payment models that reward systems for shifting away from high-cost (and highly reimbursed) care models. 

Employers and consumers will expect more solution-based offerings, which integrate care across the continuum into coherent bundles of service. This will require a more deliberate focus on service line strategies, moving away from a fragmented, inpatient-centric model.

Contracting approaches must align payment with this shift, changing incentives to reward coordinated, cost-effective, outcomes-driven care. 

A key insight from our discussions with health system leaders: short-term cost-cutting initiatives to “stop the bleed” won’t suffice—instead, more permanent solutions will be required that address not only the core operating model, but also the approach to revenue generation. 

The post-COVID environment is turning out to be a lot tougher than many had expected, to say the least.

The tight labor market is impacting provider volumes

https://mailchi.mp/8e26a23da845/the-weekly-gist-june-17th-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

Health systems are on edge after two quarters of shaky financial performance, with skyrocketing labor and supply costs compressing margins. But in addition to cost challenges, many are also reporting a softening of demand, with profitable surgeries and other procedures and diagnostics being hit hard. Some report seeing a drop in elective services (as one COO told us, “We may have finally worked our way through the backlog of delayed procedures from 2020 and 2021”), but in many cases, hospitals are missing the staff necessary to open up much-needed surgical capacity.

One system reported having to shut down operating rooms due to a lack of surgical techsEven more pressing is a shortage in anesthesia capacity, with systems across the country having trouble staffing anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists. Some practitioners have been rolled up into large, investor-owned groups, which then have taken providers out-of-network for key insurers.

But regardless of ownership structure, a shortage of providers has led to “shoestring staffing” with little ability to cover absences or departures, leading to last-minute cancellations of procedures. Pediatric hospitals have been particularly hard-hit. Most rely on subspecialty-trained anesthesiologists, and as one physician leader pointed out, children’s hospitals use anesthesia not just for surgeries, but also for diagnostics, radiation therapy and other treatments where sedation isn’t required for adults. 

All in, the shortage of anesthesiologists is leading to critical treatment delays and exacerbating revenue concerns. Moreover, systems are facing frustrated consumers, who care little about the complexities of the healthcare workforce shortage and supply chain challenges that led to an abrupt cancellation of their care.