Health Care in 2019: Year in Review

https://www.commonwealthfund.org/blog/2019/health-care-2019-year-review

Health care was front and center for policymakers and the American public in 2019. An appeals court delivered a decision on the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) individual mandate. In the Democratic primaries, almost all the presidential candidates talked about health reform — some seeking to build on the ACA, others proposing to radically transform the health system. While the ACA remains the law of the land, the current administration continues to take executive actions that erode coverage and other gains. In Congress, we witnessed much legislative activity around surprise bills and drug costs. Meanwhile, far from Washington, D.C., the tech giants in Silicon Valley are crashing the health care party with promised digital transformations. If you missed any of these big developments, here’s a short overview.

 

1. A decision from appeals court on the future of the ACA: On December 18, an appeals court struck down the ACA’s individual mandate in Texas v. United States, a suit brought by Texas and 17 other states. The court did not rule on the constitutionality of the ACA in its entirety, but sent it back to a lower court. Last December, that court ruled the ACA unconstitutional based on Congress repealing the financial penalty associated with the mandate. The case will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the timing of the SCOTUS ruling is uncertain, leaving the future of the ACA hanging in the balance once again.

 

2. Democratic candidates propose health reform options: From a set of incremental improvements to the ACA to a single-payer plan like Medicare for All, every Democratic candidate who is serious about running for president has something to say about health care. Although these plans vary widely, they all expand the number of Americans with health insurance, and some manage to reduce health spending at the same time.

 

3. Rise in uninsured: Gains in coverage under the ACA appear to be stalling. In 2018, an estimated 30.4 million people were uninsured, up from a low of 28.6 million in 2016, according to a recent Commonwealth Fund survey. Nearly half of uninsured adults may have been eligible for subsidized insurance through ACA marketplaces or their state’s expanded Medicaid programs.

 

4. Changes to Medicaid: States continue to look for ways to alter their Medicaid programs, some seeking to impose requirements for people to work or participate in other qualifying activities to receive coverage. In Arkansas, the only state to implement work requirements, more than 17,000 people lost their Medicaid coverage in just three months. A federal judge has halted the program in Arkansas. Other states are still applying for waivers; none are currently implementing work requirements.

 

5. Public charge rule: The administration’s public charge rule, which deems legal immigrants who are not yet citizens as “public charges” if they receive government assistance, is discouraging some legal immigrants from using public services like Medicaid. The rule impacts not only immigrants, but their children or other family members who may be citizens. DHS estimated that 77,000 could lose Medicaid or choose not to enroll. The public charge rule may be contributing to a dramatic recent increase in the number of uninsured children in the U.S.

 

6. Open enrollment numbers: As of the seventh week of open enrollment, 8.3 million people bought health insurance for 2020 on HealthCare.gov, the federal marketplace. Taking into account that Nevada transitioned to a state-based exchange, and Maine and Virginia expanded Medicaid, this is roughly equivalent to 2019 enrollment. In spite of the Trump administration’s support of alternative health plans, like short-term plans with limited coverage, more new people signed up for coverage in 2020 than in the previous year. As we await final numbers — which will be released in March — it is also worth noting that enrollment was extended until December 18 because consumers experienced issues on the website. In addition, state-based marketplaces have not yet reported; many have longer enrollment periods than the federal marketplace.

 

7. Outrage over surprise bills: Public outrage swelled this year over unexpected medical bills, which may occur when a patient is treated by an out-of-network provider at an in-network facility. These bills can run into tens of thousands of dollars, causing crippling financial problems. Congress is searching for a bipartisan solution but negotiations have been complicated by fierce lobbying from stakeholders, including private equity companies. These firms have bought up undersupplied specialty physician practices and come to rely on surprise bills to swell their revenues.

 

8. Employer health care coverage becomes more expensive: Roughly half the U.S. population gets health coverage through their employers. While employers and employees share the cost of this coverage, the average annual growth in the combined cost of employees’ contributions to premiums and their deductibles outpaced growth in U.S. median income between 2008 and 2018 in every state. This is because employers are passing along a larger proportion to employees, which means that people are incurring higher out-of-pocket expenses. Sluggish wage growth has also exacerbated the problem.

 

9. Tech companies continue inroads into health care: We are at the dawn of a new era in which technology companies may become critical players in the health care system. The management and use of health data to add value to common health care services is a prime example. Recently, Ascension, a huge national health system, reached an agreement with Google to store clinical data on 50 million patients in the tech giant’s cloud. But the devil is in the details, and tech companies and their provider clients are finding themselves enmeshed in a fierce debate over privacy, ownership, and control of health data.

 

10. House passes drug-cost legislation: For the first time, the U.S. House of Representatives passed comprehensive drug-cost-control legislation, H.R. 3. Reflecting the public’s distress over high drug prices, the legislation would require that the government negotiate the price of up to 250 prescription drugs in Medicare, limit drug manufacturers’ ability to annually hike prices in Medicare, and place the first-ever cap on out-of-pocket drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries. This development is historic but unlikely to result in immediate change. Its prospects in the Republican–controlled Senate are dim.

 

 

 

Provider of the Year: Providence St. Joseph Health

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/provider-providence-st-joseph-health-dive-awards/566477/

The 51-hospital system, which traces its roots back to the 1850s,​ has maintained a stable ratings outlook amid industry headwinds and pursued tech partnerships this year to bolster its portfolio.

Providence St. Joseph Health, the fourth-largest U.S. nonprofit health system by number of hospitals, marked a busy 2019 with multiple efforts to dive into the tech sector and seek out partnerships to tackle the industry’s biggest challenges.

The Catholic system now operates 51 hospitals in eight states as the result of a July 2016 merger of Providence Health and Services and St. Joseph Health. While the organization is the dominant inpatient provider in all its markets, no single area accounts for more than 30% of its net operating revenue, showing good portfolio diversification, ratings agency have noted.

The system, which can trace its roots back to the 1850s when the Sisters of Providence set up hospitals, schools and orphanages throughout the Northwest, posted $24 billion in operating revenue last year. That metric has shown year-over-year increases since the $18 billion posted in 2014.

Providence CEO Rod Hochman told Healthcare Dive the health system hasn’t shied away from seeking partnerships as the industry swings toward value based care and other systemic changes.

“I think the message is: ‘You can’t do it alone,'” he said. “You can’t go out there and just do it yourself — you don’t have the scale to do it.”

In that vein, the system (which is formally rebranding to Providence over the next few years) was one of the founding members of generic drug company Civica Rx, which opened its headquarters and made its first delivery this year. That’s a coalition of hospitals working to make their own drugs, starting with antibiotics.

It’s also grouping up with One Medical to increase access to primary care and teaming with Cedars-Sinai to build a patient tower in southern California. And in February, the organization launched the population health management company Ayin Health Solutions to provide benefits management as well as risk evaluation and care coordination tools.

Providence has maintained a stable outlook from the three main ratings agencies even as other nonprofits struggled to stay above water. Kevin Holloran, senior director at Fitch Ratings, said the system has managed to think about margins the way a public company must while still adhering to the mission-driven thought process nonprofit organizations trumpet.

“Blending those two thoughts together sounds easy, but it’s not,” Holloran told Healthcare Dive. “It’s hard to do.”

Moody’s Investors Service issued a credit opinion recently on Providence, finding the system’s integrated structure that includes a health plan and 7,600 employed physicians creates “further cashflow diversification, and strengthens the organization’s competitive position.”

The analysts wrote they expect operating margins to continue to improve going into next year as it implements dozens of initiatives updating operating practices, cost structures and revenue systems. They note, however, the organization faces a challenge in transitioning disparate EHRs and its numerous joint ventures “may also entail a certain amount of execution and integration risk.”

Holloran pointed to two relatively recent hires as leading the way for Providence — both poaches from Microsoft. CFO Venkat Bhamidipati joined the organization two years ago and CIO B.J. Moore came on in January.

They migrated from the tech world to the traditionally loathe-to-change healthcare landscape, and have made a difference for Providence.

It puts the company in a strategic place for growth, Holloran said. “Now they’re sort of adding that missing piece, which is optimizing what they’ve got,” he said. “And a big piece of that is the technology, and they’re doing it in a unique and interesting way.”

This year, Providence acquired Lumedic, which uses blockchain tools for revenue cycle management, and Bluetree, an Epic consultancy. The health system also allows patients to schedule appointments through Amazon’s smart speaker Alexa.

In July, the health system announced an agreement with Microsoft to use the tech giant’s cloud and artificial intelligence tools in an effort to foster interoperability, improve outcomes and drive down costs.

The organization still has traditional struggles, however. Hochman, who is also the incoming chairman of the American Hospital Association, said the ongoing litigation surrounding the Affordable Care Act, coupled with payment changes and other CMS changes, creates a chaotic environment for providers.

“Every day they come up with something new, and it’s been the lack of predictability that’s been the biggest problem for us,” he said.

 

 

 

Amazon launches new medical transcription service

https://mailchi.mp/1d8c22341262/the-weekly-gist-the-spotify-anxiety-edition?e=d1e747d2d8

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In addition to capturing your personal conversations at home through its ubiquitous Echos, Amazon is now in the business of recording physician-patient conversations. This week the company announced Amazon Transcribe Medical, a machine learning service for quickly creating accurate speech-to-text transcriptions for providers in clinical settings. Cerner, a co-developer, has already signed on as a customer “to develop a digital voice scribe that can ‘listen’ in the background during a patient’s visit”, transcribe the conversation into text, and automatically document the note in its electronic health record (EHR) system.

Amazon’s move into this space is a natural extension of both its “Transcribe Service”, which automatically converts speech to text with natural formatting and punctuation, and its “Comprehend Medical” technology, which can read and mine unstructured medical text for specific information.

While cloud rivals Microsoft and Google are also making a play for speech-to-text tools that work with EHRs, Amazon is looking to differentiate on the basis of providing highly accurate automatic speech recognition specifically designed to go directly into medical records. The company claims the service can understand the nuances of medical language, including the myriad abbreviations used by clinicians.

Amazon is focusing on an area ripe for improvement in cost, time, and patient experience. At a cost of less than a quarter of a cent per minute (!), Transcribe Medical looks like a very cost competitive alternative to what most providers are paying for medical transcription today—especially those who rely heavily on scribes.

It remains to be seen if providers and patients will be comfortable having their often very personal conversations added to Amazon’s cloud, word for word. Providers who adopt this new service should be as transparent as possible with their patients about their partnership with Amazon, as well as how personal data is being stored and used.

 

 

 

Best Buy’s healthcare strategy: Get insurers to pay

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/strategy/best-buy-s-healthcare-strategy-get-insurers-to-pay.html

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Best Buy is known as the largest specialty electronics retailer in the U.S., and a key part of its growth strategy is centered on digital health initiatives.

In the past year, Best Buy has spent roughly $1 billion on acquisitions to expand its healthcare services, according to Forbes. The company’s expansion into healthcare has helped it overcome broader declines in consumer electronic sales, according to Bloomberg.

Senior care is Best Buy’s niche in the healthcare services market. One million seniors are using the company’s health offerings, and Best Buy’s goal is to expand its services to 5 million seniors by fiscal 2025, according to MarketWatch.

“Today, most of the seniors we serve are utilizing easy-to-use mobile phone products and connected devices that are tailored for seniors and come with a range of relevant services,” Best Buy CEO Corie Barry said during an earnings call Nov. 26, according to a transcript from Seeking Alpha.

Ms. Barry also shed light on how Best Buy plans to expand its healthcare business. She said the company plans to scale its “five-star service” that connects seniors with caregivers, dispatches emergency personnel and more.

“We also expect to advance our commercial business where the services we provide for seniors are paid for by insurance providers. This includes services such as remote monitoring based solutions that provide meaningful insights to improve timely care and reduce the cost to serve frail seniors,” she said.

The company could generate as much as $46 billion in revenue from its commercial health business over the next 10 to 20 years, according to Bloomberg, which cited Morgan Stanley estimates.

 

 

 

Retail makes its case, telehealth and voice tech dominate: 6 takeaways from HLTH19

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/retail-makes-its-case-telehealth-and-voice-tech-dominate-6-takeaways-from/566548/

Headlines at HLTH 2019 included a peek behind the curtain at the secretive healthcare division of tech giant Google from ex-Geisinger CEO David Feinberg, Uber’s newly inked deal with Cerner and a preventive health push by Facebook sparking renewed data privacy concerns.

On the government side, outgoing head of CMS’ innovation center Adam Boehler suggested industry will be pleased with his replacement and CMS Administrator Seema Verma promised further Medicaid deregulation and “humility” in government.

But the four-day conference last week also covered some broader themes, including retail’s presence in the industry, the rise of telehealth and voice tech and the challenges of interoperability. Here are six of the biggest takeaways from Las Vegas.

Retail still defining its role in healthcare

Executives from Walmart and CVS taking to the main stage at HLTH to tout their initiatives.

Walmart’s VP of transformation, Marcus Osborne, talked up the company’s first health superstore in Dallas, Georgia, which opened this fall. The center provide patients with primary care, dental care, vision care and psychiatric and behavioral health counseling, with the goal of providing an integrated healthcare experience in the traditionally underserved area. Lab services and imaging are available on-site, as are nutrition and fitness classes.

“When you give consumers options, they engage more,” Osborne said. “The healthcare system is designed to be complex when it should be simple.”

A primary care visit at Walmart Health Center costs a flat fee of $40. For an adult, getting a dental checkup and cleaning costs $50, and an eye appointment is $45. Therapy services are $1 per minute.

The store pits the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer directly against CVS Health, which is expanding its own health-focused clinics, called HealthHUBs, to 13 new markets by the end of next year.

Brick-and-mortar behemoths’ attempts to position themselves as the front door to healthcare are spurred by the increasing push of consumerism in healthcare.

“With the emergence of this retail health consumer, we’ve got to make healthcare more integrated than it’s been for several years now,” CVS CEO Larry Merlo said.

Limits of consumerism

But engagement is notoriously tricky, and consumerism can only take the industry so far. Healthcare startups providing a new way of accessing or managing care, like digital chat startups allowing consumers to talk via text with a remote physician or chronic care management companies, are struggling to establish trust with the consumer.

Hank Schlissberg, president of care manager Vively Health, a subsidiary of DaVita that assumes full risk for its population, compared the sea change in the industry to what’s happened with companies like AirBnB.

“I sleep in someone else’s bed. I shower in their shower. And we’ve convinced ourselves that’s totally normal,” he said. “All I want to do is provide people with free healthcare. And convincing people of that is much harder than we expected.”

Natalie Schneider, VP of Digital Health for Samsung, agreed, telling Healthcare Dive consumers are “routinely irrational” and don’t act in their own best interests. But “we’re seeing policyholders, health plans and others in healthcare not only account for this irrationality, but also capitalize on it” through incentives like providing a reward immediately following a healthy behavior.​

The wearables trend is a key example, experts said. Payers and providers alike are increasingly turning to the tech in an effort to engage consumers in wellness, fitness and preventive care activities. However, the ROI of trackers, whether from Apple Watch, Fitbit, Samsung or others, is still unproven.

“We’ve seen a lot of technologies and they’re often not that smart and very rarely wearable,” Tom Waller, who heads up the R&D lab of athleisure retailer lululemon, said. “We’re still patiently waiting for that perfect contextualization of data that will give us both a physical and emotional insight, and that we can use to augment an existing behavior to nudge someone in the right way.”

“At the end of the day, these patients are consumers, and consumers have been trained over the last 10 years to decide what quality they want, to decide when they want it and how they want to get it,” Robbie Cape, CEO of primary care startup 98point6, said. “Healthcare hasn’t caught up to that.”

Execution could stymie looming interoperability rules

Two rules to halt information blocking from HHS are expected to be finalized any day now. Despite the regulatory pressure, industry is “still a ways from true interoperability,” said Ed Simcox, CTO and acting CIO of HHS, due to a slew of factors like a lack of economic incentive for EHR vendors.

The rules would impose a slate of new requirements on healthcare companies. Payers in federal programs would have to provide their 125 million patients with free electronic access to their personal health data by the end of next year; healthcare companies would have to adopt standardized application programming interfaces allowing their disparate software systems to communicate; and any player found information blocking could be fined up to $1 million per violation.

Google Cloud’s director of global healthcare solutions, Aashima Gupta, warned that although the government might mandate new standards, that doesn’t mean industry will be able or willing to immediately adhere to them.

Additionally, the government is still playing catch-up to technology, and interoperability is no different, Pranay Kapadia, CEO of voice-enabled digital assistant Notable, told Healthcare Dive. The rules are the “right thing to do, and then there’ll be an evolution of it, and then there’ll be another evolution of it.”

​”This problem is much bigger than big tech or government or health systems or innovators,” Gupta said. “It’s an ecosystem problem. No player can do it alone.”

Despite the private sector’s uncertainly, Don Rucker, the head of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, said interoperability had fostered price and business model transparency in every other U.S. industry over the past few decades.

“Healthcare is just about the last one to resist,” Rucker said. “I don’t think that will be much longer.”

Telehealth and voice tech: the belles of the ball

Telehealth was unsurprisingly a big focus at HLTH, with themes touching on expansion to complex care needs, followup visits and chronic care management and barriers like state physician licensure.

It’s an “efficiency mechanism” that can help a lot in areas like primary care, Teladoc COO David Sides told Healthcare Dive.

Voice-enabled tech was another focus of chatter in Las Vegas. The technology, which allows physicians free use of their hands while enabling them to take notes or write a script, for example, is currently experiencing heavy hype from industry and Silicon Valley as a way to streamline the heavy EHR and documentation requirements on physicians.

Talking is an “important element to how people interface with things,” Notable’s Kapadia said. “You have to think of things from a human perspective.”

Suki also announced at HLTH it expanded its relationship with Google’s cloud computing business. The digital assistant’s CEO, Punit Soni, told Healthcare Dive industry could expect to hear about two “very, very large deployment announcements” with health systems in the near future as providers become more comfortable levering the software to cut down documentation time for clinicians.

Solving for social determinants, preventive health

A slew of players rolled out initiatives targeting social determinants of health in Las Vegas.

​Uber Health is now available for providers to schedule non-emergency rides for their patients via Cerner’s EHR platform in a bid to provide better access to transportation for underserved populations. The one-year-old NEMT division of San Francisco-based Uber has roughly 1,000 partnerships across payers, healthcare tech companies and providers such as Boston Medical Center.

“You need to develop a benefit that serves the needs of your distinct population,” Jami Snyder, director of Arizona’s Medicaid and CHIP programs, said. The state recently partnered with ride-hailing company and Uber rival Lyft to provide rides for eligible Medicaid beneficiaries.

Kaiser Permanente rolled out a food insecurity initiative to connect eligible California residents with CalFresh, the state’s supplemental nutrition assistance or food stamp program. The integrated, nonprofit health system plans to reach out via text and mail to more than 600,000 Kaiser Permanente health plan members with a goal of getting 100,000 enrolled in CalFresh by spring 2020.

If the program is successful, Kaiser plans to expand it to the rest of the country, CEO Bernard Tyson, noting “healthcare across the ecosystem of health plays a very small part” in outcomes. “Things like behavior, genetics and where you live has a bigger impact.”​

On the preventive health side, Facebook launched a consumer health tool. Users plug in their age and sex in return for targeted heart, cancer and flu prevention measures, with information supplied by healthcare groups like the American Cancer Society.

The pilot for the $7 billion tech behemoth will be evaluated for six months to a year before being expanded to other preventable conditions to make consumers their “own health advocates,” Freddy Abnousi, Facebook’s head of health research, said. “The lion’s share of health outcomes is driven by social and behavioral variables.”

CVS is similarly working to combat SDOH factors by leveraging its reams of consumer data, Firdaus Bhathena, the retail pharmacy giant’s CDO, told Healthcare Dive. If someone doesn’t pick up their prescription, “there’s a number of ways we can engage with them,” including by text message or speaking to services in the local town, to see if transportation to the pharmacy, a lack of funds or some other issue is stopping the person from receiving the medication they need.

Funding disruption

Much of the industry runs today like non-healthcare companies ran 50 or 60 years ago, according to entrepreneur Mark Cuban.

“For that reason, they’re ripe for disruption,” Cuban said at HLTH.

Investors and startups alike are taking note. Venture capitalists, eager to fund new medical solutions and methods of care delivery, pumped $26.3 billion into more than 1,500 healthcare startups in just the first 10 months of 2018.

Providers looking to invest in new solutions or acquire startups are looking for a relatively mature corporate structure and an alignment with existing priorities in-house, according to Dan Nigrin, SVP and CIO at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“It starts with our organizational strategy,” agreed Rebecca Kaul, VP at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. An attractive startup presents “something that really drives change,” she said. “If you’re pitching a solution that isn’t at a given time part of our strategy, it may not be the right time for us to connect.”

Highmark Health CEO David Holmberg told Healthcare Dive its physicians lead system-wide conversations in what areas need investment. “Ultimately, that’s how you’ll get things to scale.”

Intermountain Healthcare is similarly interested in ways to manage and inject value into its operations. “We’re not interested in point solutions,” Dan Liljenquist, SVP of the Salt Lake City-based nonprofit provider said, adding he deletes and blocks emailed pitches he receives. “We’re interested in technologies that obviate the need for clinical interventions, that help people solve their own problems, and the way to do that is not a point solution but in a systemic, creative way.”

Payers have similar priorities and seek out companies to invest in that could provide value down the road. Cigna Ventures, which recently invested in precision medicine company GNS Healthcare, looks for new tools across the areas of insight and analytics, digital health and retail and all-around care delivery and enablement, for example.

“We’re looking for companies that are innovative and looking to solve important problems,” Tom Richards, global strategy and business development leader at Cigna, told Healthcare Dive, noting most companies start with a more focused solution and then expand.

For example, chronic disease platform Omada Health, which raised $50 million in a 2017 funding round led by Cigna Ventures, started with diabetes, but has since expanded its care management services to hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and behavioral and mental health.