Uber Health is partnering with e-prescription startup ScriptDrop in a deal expanding the ride-hailing giant’s prescription delivery footprint from a few cities to dozens of U.S. states.
Uber first forayed into medication delivery in several metro areas in August through a deal with digital delivery marketplace NimbleRx, as the pandemic caused a surge in patient demand for the service.
With this latest deal, Uber’s hundreds of thousands of drivers will be accessible to pharmacies using ScriptDrop in 37 states across the U.S. ScriptDrop, a third-party tech platform connecting patients and pharmacies with couriers nationwide, will pay Uber for the cost of each delivery.
But the San Francisco-based company is also hoping the crowded but lucrative at-home prescription drug delivery market will be profitable, following mounting losses last year as the coronavirus pandemic pummeled ride-hailing companies.
Growth in Uber’s delivery business has outpaced plummeting ridesharing revenue during COVID-19. In fourth quarter earnings released February, Uber’s gross bookings in its mobility business were down 50% year over year, while gross bookings in its delivery segment were up 130%.
This latest deal suggests Uber is doubling down on delivery, banking that demand for at-home drug delivery remains high beyond COVID-19.
ScriptDrop integrates with a pharmacy’s software system to provide same-day shipping medication delivery options, and also has a consumer-facing portal for drop-offs. As of today, Uber is integrated with ScriptDrop via an application programming interface, and will become the default option for select pharmacies depending on location and driver availability, the companies said.
ScriptDrop doesn’t share the exact number of U.S. pharmacies working with its platform, but a spokesperson told Healthcare Dive they partner with thousands. ScriptDrop clients include prominent pharmacies like Albertsons, Kmart and Safeway; pharmacy systems such as PDX and a number of courier companies, health systems and insurers.
The partnership is operational in 37 states as of today, including California, Florida, New York and Texas. Uber and ScriptDrop have additional plans for near-term expansion, in some cases in new states in the next couple of weeks, the spokesperson said.
Uber first launched consumer-facing prescription delivery in several U.S. cities through the Uber Eats app, in the partnership with NimbleRx. That’s grown from a pilot in Seattle and Dallas to cities including New York, Miami, Austin and Houston, with more metro areas to come, according to Uber.
Prescription drug delivery companies have reported skyrocketing utilization during COVID-19. Columbus, Ohio-based ScriptDrop has said delivery volume jumped 363% from February to April last year, while revenue tripled between October 2019 and October 2020. The startup announced a $15 million funding round in October to drive growth, bringing its total funding to $27 million since launching in 2017.
Partially as a result of COVID-19 tailwinds, the prescription tech sector, which includes e-prescription vendors like NimbleRx and ScriptDrop, is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 16%, the quickest of the enterprise health and wellness segments, according to a February report from Pitchbook.
Despite consumer demand for at-home prescription delivery, it’s a crowded market. Most major pharmacies, including CVS Health and Walgreens, have hustled to build out their delivery networks in the past few years, facing potential disruption from outside entrants, notably Amazon.
Amazon is expanding its virtual care pilot program, Amazon Care, to employees and outside companies nationwide beginning this summer in a major evolution of its telehealth initiative, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drive unprecedented demand for virtual care.
Amazon will also offer its on-demand primary care service to other Washington state-based companies and plans to expand its in-person service to Washington, D.C., Baltimore and other cities in the following months, the e-commercebehemoth announced Wednesday.
Amazon Care launched 18 months ago as a pilot program in Washington state offering free telehealth consults and in-home visits for a fee for its employees and their families.
The nationwide expansion, and the potential of the e-retailer’s heft and technological know-how leveraged in the medical delivery space, threatens existing telehealth providers and retail giants like CVS Health and Walgreens that maintain their own networks of community health clinics.
Amazon Care has two main components: urgent and primary care telehealth with a nurse or doctor via an app, and in-person care, along with prescription delivery, to the home. The Seattle-based company says it will offer the gamut from preventative care like annual vaccinations, to on-demand urgent care including COVID-19 testing, to services like family planning.
Amazon plans to roll out the virtual care offering for its employees and third party companies nationwide this year, but in-person services will only be available shortly after in Washington state and near its second headquarters in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, a spokesperson said.
Making Amazon Care available to outside companies puts Amazon in direct competition with virtual care giants like Teladoc, Amwell and Doctor on Demand, which bring in a sizable chuck of their revenue through deals with employer and payer clients.
Amazon is in discussions with a number of outside companies on supplying Amazon Care, the spokesperson said.
It’s unclear what differentiates the virtual care offering alone from other vendors. Most telehealth platforms are available to consumers right now at little to no cost and offer relatively short wait times, though Amazon contends it provides free access to a medical professional in 60 seconds or less and will eventually link telehealth with in-home care across the U.S.
The timing for the broader U.S. rollout couldn’t be better for Amazon, as telehealth has seen exponential growth during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of historic consumer demand and investor interest, virtual care giants have spent billions to gobble up market share and build out their suite of services.
The race to offer end-to-end telehealth offerings has resulted in a flurry of recent M&A, the most notable deal being Teladoc’s $18.5 billion acquisition of chronic care manager Livongo last year. In February, Cigna’s health services arm Evernorth also bought vendor MDLive for undisclosed amount. The insurer plans to sell MDLive’s telehealth offerings to third-party clients and offer it to beneficiaries. And just on Tuesday, telemedicine company Doctor on Demand announced plans to merge with clinical navigator Grand Rounds to try and better coordinate virtual care.
Shares in publicly traded telehealth vendors dove following Amazon Care’s announcement Wednesday. As of late morning, Teladoc’s stock had dropped 7.4%, while Amwell was down 6.7%.
But heft doesn’t necessarily translate to disruption in healthcare.Earlier this year, Amazon, J.P. Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway disbanded their venture to lower healthcare costs after three years of stagnancy. One reason was a failure for its initiatives to take precedence at its three separate parent companies, all pursuing their own avenues to cut costs.
Now going at it alone, Amazon has a slew of independent initiatives to reshape the U.S. healthcare industry. The $386 billion company bought and launched its own online pharmacy, PillPack, a few years ago, and also partnered last year with employer health provider Crossover Health to offer employee primary care clinics. Currently, Amazon and Crossover operate clinics in 17 locations across Arizona, California, Kentucky, Michigan and Texas.
However, though Amazon Care does give patients the option to fill prescriptions through Amazon Pharmacy, it operates independently of the other services. It remains to be seen how Amazon Care could tie in with these other businesses, but the answer to that question could have major ramifications for current market leaders.
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.
Haven began informing employees Monday that it will shut down by the end of next month, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.
Many of the Boston-based firm’s 57 workers are expected to be placed at Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway or JPMorgan Chase as the firms each individually push forward in their efforts, the people said.
One key issue facing Haven was that each of the three founding companies executed their own projects separately with their own employees, obviating the need for the joint venture to begin with, according to the people, who declined to be identified speaking about the matter.
Haven, the joint venture formed by three of America’s most powerful companies to lower costs and improve outcomes in health care, is disbanding after three years, CNBC has learned exclusively.
The company began informing employees Monday that it will shut down by the end of next month, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.
Many of the Boston-based firm’s 57 workers are expected to be placed at Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway or JPMorgan Chase as the firms each individually push forward in their efforts, and the three companies are still expected to collaborate informally on health-care projects, the people said.
The announcement three years ago that the CEOs of Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase had teamed up to tackle one of the biggest problems facing corporate America – high and rising costs for employee health care – sent shock waves throughout the world of medicine. Shares of health-care companies tumbled on fears about how the combined might of leaders in technology and finance could wring costs out of the system.
The move to shutter Haven may be a sign of how difficult it is to radically improve American health care, a complicated and entrenched system of doctors, insurers, drugmakers and middlemen that costs the country $3.5 trillion every year. Last year, Berkshire CEO Warren Buffett seemed to indicate as much, saying that were was no guarantee that Haven would succeed in improving health care.
One key issue facing Haven was that while the firm came up with ideas, each of the three founding companies executed their own projects separately with their own employees, obviating the need for the joint venture to begin with, according to the people, who declined to be identified speaking about the matter.
Coming just three years after the initial rush of fanfare about the possibilities for what Haven could accomplish, its closure is a disappointment to some. But insiders claim that it will allow the founding companies to implement ideas from the project on their own, tailoring them to the specific needs of their employees, who are mostly concentrated in different cities.
The move comes after Haven’s CEO, Dr. Atul Gawande, stepped down from day-to-day management of the nonprofit in May, a change that sparked a search for his successor.
Brooke Thurston, a spokeswoman for Haven, confirmed the company’s plans to close and gave this statement:
″The Haven team made good progress exploring a wide range of healthcare solutions, as well as piloting new ways to make primary care easier to access, insurance benefits simpler to understand and easier to use, and prescription drugs more affordable,” Thurston said in an email.
“Moving forward, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase & Co. will leverage these insights and continue to collaborate informally to design programs tailored to address the specific needs of our individual employee populations and locations,” she said.
Better leadership is needed on both ends of the chain, expert says.
The U.S. drug supply chain works well in the middle, but the beginning and end leave much room for improvement, according to Stephen Schondelmeyer, PharmD, PhD, of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
“When a manufacturer imports a drug into the U.S. and sells it to wholesalers and then it goes to group purchasing organizations and through hospital institutional systems, that system works very well,” Schondelmeyer said last week at a public workshop of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine’s Committee on Security of Medical Product Supply Chain. “But where problems occur is when the API [active pharmaceutical ingredient] is not being produced or is not available, or is not shipped to the finished dose manufacturer to make enough.” With the current “just in time” manufacturing system, “inventories may only last a month” before supplies dry up, he said.
Leadership on this issue “is certainly needed at the top, but also needed at the end,” said Schondelmeyer, who is co-principal investigator of the Resilient Drug Supply Project at the university’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
For example, he said, “I routinely meet with groups of pharmacy directors at major hospital systems. I have heard stories from pharmacy directors … who have said they had remdesivir allocated by their state; it showed up in their hospital’s lab. Nobody in the lab knew what it was or why it arrived, and it sat there for several days before they figured out this was a drug and pharmacy should be managing this … You can run a marathon, but if you don’t finish the last 200 yards, you don’t finish the marathon, and that’s what happened with remdesivir.”
“We need to be predicting not only demand changes but what things can create a supply disruption, because a lot of shortages we have are from supply disruption,” Schondelmeyer said. In the COVID-19 era, this could include unexpected political moves such as export bans — such as those recently put in place in India and the United Kingdom — which could mean that “we could find whole categories of drugs not available in the U.S., and we don’t have the capacity to replace that supply, in the short run at least,” he said.
Pharmaceuticals are a very unique market, he added. “We established a pharmaceutical market based on monopolies when drugs first come on the market, via intellectual property, and even later on, when you’re down to two or three generics they function like an oligopoly. We have a marketplace that has extreme asymmetries of information, where people selling a drug know a lot more than people buying the drug. We have to establish an infrastructure to understand the pharmaceutical market and the flow of products so we can correct the market when it’s not working.”
“Our current system of fixing drug shortages is a ‘fail and fix’ system,” he said. The list of shortages “is a list of products that have already failed. I think we should have a system that has supply chain maps that identify critical stages — even pre-API — that can suggest where we might have a failure, and do something before the failure occurs. I suggest we move from ‘fail and fix’ to ‘predict and prevent.'”
Schondelmeyer said he and his colleagues are trying to build such supply chain maps, “but really the government should be doing that … I don’t fault the FDA; the FDA may or may not be the right place to do that.” But more agencies and other players need to be involved because “no one player in the market can solve this problem alone.”
Schondelmeyer displayed percentages of various drug types that were in shortage. Among 156 “critical acute care drugs” — those that must be used within hours or days of an illness’s onset to avoid serious outcomes or death — the FDA found 25.6% were in shortage, while the American Society of Hospital Pharmacists (ASHP) found that 41.7% of them were in shortage, “and this was even before COVID-19,” he said. Among a list of 40 “critical COVID-19 drugs,” the FDA has listed 45% of them as being in shortage, while the ASHP rated 75% as being in shortage. “Most were in short supply even before COVID-19 hit,” he added. “These are alarming levels of shortage and they have persisted.”
Many people suggest that the supply chain problem can be solved by moving manufacturing for particular drug products from overseas to a U.S. plant, but that doesn’t quite solve the problem, said Schondelmeyer. “If we manufactured our entire supply of drugs in the U.S., it doesn’t solve the problem if you put all the manufacturing in one facility and it gets wiped out by a hurricane,” he said, recalling what happened when a hurricane hit Puerto Rico, the home of several medical product manufacturers. “Hospitals were scrambling to get things like normal saline. So simply bringing production back to the U.S. but concentrating it in one place doesn’t solve the problem — it just moves the problem.”
Khatereh Calleja, president and CEO of the Healthcare Supply Chain Association, agreed. “We’ve got to focus on this very issue of geographic diversity,” Calleja said. “Otherwise we’re creating a risk when we create that concentration.”
When people are discussing the supply chain, having a common language among institutions is also important, said Chris Liu, director of enterprise services for the state of Washington, “In hospitals, ‘conservation’ of PPE [personal protective equipment] means something different at every hospital you go to,” he said.
Another thing that needs to be taken on is the vulnerability of drug precursors, said James Lawler, director of international programs and innovation at the University of Nebraska’s Global Center for Health Security. “It’s one thing if the plant that makes the final small-molecule antibiotic … is in the U.S., but if all the precursor chemicals they require to synthesize that product come from overseas, you haven’t necessarily fixed your supply chain vulnerability.”
Sam’s Club partnered with primary care telehealth provider 98point6 to offer members virtual visits.
1. Sam’s Club now offers members access to telehealth visits through a text-based app run by 98point6.
2. Members can purchase a $20 quarterly subscription for the first three months; the regular sign-up fee is $30 per person. After the first three months, members pay $33.50 every three months.
3. The subscription gives members unlimited telehealth visits for $1 per visit. The service has board-certified physicians available 24 hours per day, seven days a week.
4. Members can also subscribe for pediatric care.
5. Physicians can diagnose and treat 400 conditions including cold and flu-like symptoms as well as allergies. They can also monitor chronic conditions including diabetes, depression and anxiety.
6. Members can use the app to obtain prescriptions and lab orders as well.
7. Sam’s Club has around 600 stores in the U.S. and Puerto Rico and millions of members.
“Offering access to telemedicine was on our roadmap in the pre-COVID world, but the current environment expedited the need for this service to be easily accessible, readily available and most of all, affordable,” said John McDowell, vice president of pharmacy operations and divisional merchandise at Sam’s Club. “Through providing access to the 98point6 app in a pilot, we quickly realized that our members were eager to have mobile telehealth options and we wanted to provide this healthcare solution to all of our members as a standalone option.”
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.
[Readers’ Note: This is the first of two articles on the Future of Hospitals in Post-COVID America. This article
examines how market forces are consolidating, rationalizing and redistributing acute care assets within the
broader industry movement to value-based care delivery. The second article, which will publish next month,
examines gaps in care delivery and the related public policy challenges of providing appropriate, accessible
and affordable healthcare services in medically-underserved communities.]
In her insightful 2016 book, The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore,
Michelle Wucker coins the term “Gray Rhinos” and contrasts them with “Black Swans.” That distinction is
highly relevant to the future of American hospitals.
Black Swans are high impact events that are highly improbable and difficult to predict. By contrast, Gray Rhinos are foreseeable, high-impact events that we choose to ignore because they’re complex, inconvenient and/or fortified by perverse incentives that encourage the status quo. Climate change is a powerful example
of a charging Gray Rhino.
In U.S. healthcare, we are now seeing what happens when a Gray Rhino and a Black Swan collide.
Arguably, the nation’s public health defenses should anticipate global pandemics and apply resources
systematically to limit disease spread. This did not happen with the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, COVID-19 hit the public healthcare infrastructure suddenly and hard. This forced hospitals and health systems to dramatically reduce elective surgeries, lay off thousands and significantly change care delivery with the adoption of new practices and services like telemedicine.
In comparison, many see the current American hospital business model as a Gray Rhino that has been charging toward unsustainability for years with ever-building momentum.
Even with massive and increasing revenue flows, hospitals have long struggled with razor-thin margins, stagnant payment rates and costly technology adoptions. Changing utilization patterns, new and disruptive competitors, pro-market regulatory rules and consumerism make their traditional business models increasingly vulnerable and, perhaps, unsustainable.
Despite this intensifying pressure, many hospitals and health systems maintain business-as-usual practices because transformation is so difficult and costly. COVID-19 has made the imperative of change harder to ignore or delay addressing.
For a decade, the transition to value-based care has dominated debate within U.S. healthcare and absorbed massive strategic, operational and financial resources with little progress toward improved care outcomes, lower costs and better customer service. The hospital-based delivery system remains largely oriented around Fee-for-Service reimbursement.
Hospitals’ collective response to COVID-19, driven by practical necessity and financial survival, may accelerate the shift to value-based care delivery. Time will tell.
This series explores the repositioning of hospitals during the next five years as the industry rationalizes an excess supply of acute care capacity and adapts to greater societal demands for more appropriate, accessible and affordable healthcare services.
It starts by exploring the role of the marketplace in driving hospital consolidation and the compelling need to transition to value-based care delivery and payment models.
COVID’s DUAL SHOCKS TO PATIENT VOLUME
Many American hospitals faced severe financial and operational challenges before COVID-19. The sector has struggled to manage ballooning costs, declining margins and waves of policy changes. A record 18 rural hospitals closed in 2019. Overall, hospitals saw a 21% decline in operating margins in 2018-2019.
COVID intensified those challenges by administering two shocks to the system that decreased the volume of hospital-based activities and decimated operating margins.
The first shock was immediate. To prepare for potential surges in COVID care, hospitals emptied beds and cancelled most clinic visits, outpatient treatments and elective surgeries. Simultaneously, they incurred heavy costs for COVID-related equipment (e.g. ventilators,PPE) and staffing. Overall, the sector experienced over $200 billion in financial losses between March and June 20204.
The second, extended shock has been a decrease in needed but not necessary care. Initially, many patients delayed seeking necessary care because of perceived infection risk. For example, Emergency Department visits declined 42% during the early phase of the pandemic.
Increasingly, patients are also delaying care because of affordability concerns and/or the loss of health insurance. Already, 5.4 million people have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance. This will reduce incremental revenues associated with higher-paying commercial insurance claims across the industry. Additionally, avoided care reduces patient volumes and hospital revenues today even as it increases the risk and cost of future acute illness.
The infusion of emergency funding through the CARES Act helped offset some operating losses but it’s unclear when and even whether utilization patterns and revenues will return to normal pre-COVID levels. Shifts in consumer behavior, reductions in insurance coverage, and the emergence of new competitors ranging from Walmart to enhanced primary care providers will likely challenge the sector for years to come.
The disruption of COVID-19 will serve as a forcing function, driving meaningful changes to traditional hospital business models and the competitive landscape. Frankly, this is long past due. Since 1965, Fee-for-Service (FFS) payment has dominated U.S. healthcare and created pervasive economic incentives that can serve to discourage provider responsiveness in transitioning to value-based care delivery, even when aligned to market demand.
Telemedicine typifies this phenomenon. Before COVID, CMS and most health insurers paid very low rates for virtual care visits or did not cover them at all. This discouraged adoption of an efficient, high-value care modality until COVID.
Unable to conduct in-person clinical visits, providers embraced virtual care visits and accelerated its mass adoption. CMS and
commercial health insurers did their part by paying for virtual care visits at rates equivalent to in-person clinic visits. Accelerated innovation in care delivery resulted.
THE COMPLICATED TRANSITION TO VALUE
Broadly speaking, health systems and physician groups that rely almost exclusively on activity-based payment revenues have struggled the most during this pandemic. Vertically integrated providers that offer health insurance and those receiving capitated payments in risk-based contracts have better withstood volume losses.
Modern Healthcare notes that while provider data is not yet available, organizations such as Virginia Care Partners, an integrated network and commercial ACO; Optum Health (with two-thirds of its revenue risk-based); and MediSys Health Network, a New Yorkbased NFP system with 148,000 capitated and 15,000 shared risk patients, are among those navigating the turbulence successfully. As the article observes,
…providers paid for value have had an easier time weathering the storm…. helped by a steady source of
income amid the chaos. Investments they made previously in care management, technology and social
determinants programs equipped them to pivot to new ways of providing care.
They were able to flip the switch on telehealth, use data and analytics to pinpoint patients at risk for
COVID-19 infection, and deploy care managers to meet the medical and nonclinical needs of patients even
when access to an office visit was limited.
Supporting this post-COVID push for value-based care delivery, six former leaders from CMS wrote to Congress in
June 2020 calling for providers, commercial insurers and states to expand their use of value-based payment models to
encourage stability and flexibility in care delivery.
If value-based payment models are the answer, however, adoption to date has been slow, limited and difficult. Ten
years after the Affordable Care Act, Fee-for-Service payment still dominates the payer landscape. The percentage of overall provider revenue in risk-based capitated contracts has not exceeded 20%
Despite improvements in care quality and reductions in utilization rates, cost savings have been modest or negligible. Accountable Care Organizations have only managed at best to save a “few percent of Medicare spending, [but] the
amount varies by program design.”
While most health systems accept some forms of risk-based payments, only 5% of providers expect to have a majority (over 80%) of their patients in risk-based arrangements within 5 years.
The shift to value is challenging for numerous reasons. Commercial payers often have limited appetite or capacity for
risk-based contracting with providers. Concurrently, providers often have difficulty accessing the claims data they need
from payers to manage the care for targeted populations.
The current allocation of cost-savings between buyers (including government, employers and consumers), payers
(health insurance companies) and providers discourages the shift to value-based care delivery. Providers would
advance value-based models if they could capture a larger percentage of the savings generated from more effective
care management and delivery. Those financial benefits today flow disproportionately to buyers and payers.
This disconnection of payment from value creation slows industry transformation. Ultimately, U.S. healthcare will not
change the way it delivers care until it changes the way it pays for care. Fortunately, payment models are evolving to
incentivize value-based care delivery.
As payment reform unfolds, however, operational challenges pose significant challenges to hospitals and health
systems. They must adopt value-oriented new business models even as they continue to receive FFS payments. New
and old models of care delivery clash.
COVID makes this transition even more formidable as many health systems now lack the operating stamina and balance sheet strength to make the financial, operational and cultural investments necessary to deliver better outcomes, lower costs and enhanced customer service.
MARKET-DRIVEN CONSOLIDATION AND TRANSFORMATION
Full-risk payment models, such as bundled payments for episodic care and capitation for population health, are the
catalyst to value-based care delivery. Transition to value-based care occurs more easily in competitive markets with many attributable lives, numerous provider options and the right mix of willing payers.
As increasing numbers of hospitals struggle financially, the larger and more profitable health systems are expanding their networks, capabilities and service lines through acquisitions. This will increase their leverage with commercial payers and give them more time to adapt to risk-based contracting and value-based care delivery.
COVID also will accelerate acquisition of physician practices. According to an April 2020 MGMA report, 97% of
physician practices have experienced a 55% decrease in revenue, forcing furloughs and layoffs15. It’s estimated the
sector could collectively lose as much as $15.1 billion in income by the end of September 2020.
Struggling health systems and physician groups that read the writing on the wall will pro-actively seek capital or strategic partners that offer greater scale and operating stability. Aggregators can be selective in their acquisitions,
seeking providers that fuel growth, expand contiguous market positions and don’t dilute balance sheets.
Adding to the sector’s operating pressure, private equity, venture investors and payers are pouring record levels of
funding into asset-light and virtual delivery companies that are eager to take on risk, lower prices by routing procedures
and capture volume from traditional providers. With the right incentives, market-driven reforms will reallocate resources to efficient companies that generate compelling value.
As this disruption continues to unfold, rural and marginal urban communities that lack robust market forces will experience more facility and practice closures. Without government support to mitigate this trend, access and care gaps that already riddle American healthcare will unfortunately increase.
WINNING AT VALUE
The average hospital generates around $11,000 per patient discharge. With ancillary services that can often add up to
more than $15,000 per average discharge. Success in a value-based system is predicated on reducing those discharges and associated costs by managing acute care utilization more effectively for distinct populations (i.e. attributed lives).
This changes the orientation of healthcare delivery toward appropriate and lower cost settings. It also places greater
emphasis on preventive, chronic and outpatient care as well as better patient engagement and care coordination.
Such a realignment of care delivery requires the following:
A tight primary care network (either owned or affiliated) to feed referrals and reduce overall costs through
better preventive care.
A gatekeeper or navigator function (increasingly technology-based) to manage / direct patients to the most
appropriate care settings and improve coordination, adherence and engagement.
A carefully designed post-acute care network (including nursing homes, rehab centers, home care
services and behavioral health services, either owned or sufficiently controlled) to manage the 70% of
total episode-of-care costs that can occur outside the hospital setting.
An IT infrastructure that can facilitate care coordination across all providers and settings.
Quality data and digital tools that enhance care, performance, payment and engagement.
Experience with managing risk-based contracts.
A flexible approach to care delivery that includes digital and telemedicine platforms as well as nontraditional sites of care.
Aligned or incentivized physicians.
Payer partners willing to share data and offload risk through upside and downside risk contracts.
Engaged consumers who act on their preferences and best interests.
While none of these strategies is new or controversial, assembling them into cohesive and scalable business models is something few health systems have accomplished. It requires appropriate market conditions, deep financial resources,
sophisticated business acumen, operational agility, broad stakeholder alignment, compelling vision, and robust
Providers that fail to embrace value-based care for their “attributed lives” risk losing market relevance. In their relentless pursuit of increasing treatment volumes and associated revenues, they will lose market share to organizations that
deliver consistent and high-value care outcomes.
CONCLUSION: THE CHARGING GRAY RHINO
America needs its hospitals to operate optimally in normal times, flex to manage surge capacity, sustain themselves
when demand falls, create adequate access and enhance overall quality while lowering total costs. That is a tall order requiring realignment, evolution, and a balance between market and policy reform measures.
The status quo likely wasn’t sustainable before COVID. The nation has invested heavily for many decades in acute and
specialty care services while underinvesting, on a relative basis, in primary and chronic care services. It has excess
capacity in some markets, and insufficient access in others.
COVID has exposed deep flaws in the activity-based payment as well as the nation’s underinvestment in public health.
Disadvantaged communities have suffered disproportionately. Meanwhile, the costs for delivering healthcare services
consume an ever-larger share of national GDP.
Transformational change is hard for incumbent organizations. Every industry, from computer and auto manufacturing to
retailing and airline transportation, confronts gray rhino challenges. Many companies fail to adapt despite clear signals
that long-term viability is under threat. Often, new, nimble competitors emerge and thrive because they avoid the inherent contradictions and service gaps embedded within legacy business models.
The healthcare industry has been actively engaged in value-driven care transformation for over ten years with little to
show for the reform effort. It is becoming clear that many hospitals and health systems lack the capacity to operate profitably in competitive, risk-based market environments.
This dismal reality is driving hospital market valuations and closures. In contrast, customers and capital are flowing to
new, alternative care providers, such as OneMedical, Oak Street Health and Village MD. Each of these upstart
companies now have valuations in the $ billions. The market rewards innovation that delivers value.
Unfortunately, pure market-driven reforms often neglect a significant and growing portion of America’s people. This gap has been more apparent as COVID exacts a disproportionate toll on communities challenged by higher population
density, higher unemployment, and fewer medical care options (including inferior primary and preventive care infrastructure).
Absent fundamental change in our hospitals and health systems, and investment in more efficient care delivery and
payment models, the nation’s post-COVID healthcare infrastructure is likely to deteriorate in many American communities, making them more vulnerable to chronic disease, pandemics and the vicissitudes of life.
Article 2 in our “Future of Hospitals” series will explore the public policy challenges of providing appropriate, affordable and accessible healthcare to all American communities.
New approaches need to recognize patients’ wants and needs
In 1985, the very first Blockbuster store opened in Dallas — a new, modern videotape rental business with an expansive selection of video titles and computerized check-out. It was an immediate success. Demand quickly grew, customers were eager and willing to travel to the Blockbuster store, investors jumped in and three more stores opened after only one year. Blockbuster became the leading video tape rental chain with more than 9,000 stores around the world.
One component of Blockbuster’s financial model was the late fees it charged to customers who did not return a video tape to the store in time. These fees accounted for up to 16% of its revenue. In 1997, Reed Hastings was one of the customers affected by these fees. After one late rental, he was charged a hefty $40 late fee. His frustration inspired him to help create a company that would have no late charges. This new company also had the audacious idea to send DVDs straight to the customer’s home for a flat monthly fee. The company that Reed Hastings co-founded was Netflix.
Over time, Netflix changed and adapted with new technology and shifting consumer preferences.It moved on from mailing DVDs to using a streaming platform. It developed an algorithm to help make personalized video recommendations to Netflix users. It started producing its own video content. Over time, the company planted itself firmly within many homes and routines. Conversely, Blockbuster adapted to new platforms too slowly and too late. After its peak in 2004, Blockbuster started losing market share and relevance. Today, there is only one Blockbuster store left, a curious tourist attraction in Bend, Oregon.
Markets and industries change all the time. Distinguishing these important changes from temporary fads is essential. History has many examples of companies and organizations that did not sense important changes, did not change their approach, and as a result, ended up obsolete and irrelevant. A similar shift is happening today in healthcare, but there is more at stake than a late fee. Like Netflix, the healthcare industry needs to shift and adapt to consumer preferences.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an immediate impact on the health of our country and has also indelibly changed how patients interact with the healthcare system. Hospitals and providers around the country have had to quickly develop new strategies to connect with patients – to comply with social distancing guidelines, in an effort to slow down the spread of the virus. Consistent communication and accessibility is vital, especially given the disturbing trends in decreased preventive care visits and delayed emergency care. One solution is telehealth.
During this pandemic, we have seen that remote patient monitoring is valuable for patients with a wide variety of needs: certainly, those quarantined with coronavirus, but for healthy patients too – children in need of regularly scheduled well-child visits and adults who need routine care. Many patients have experienced telehealth for the first time and many have positive impressions, with nearly three quarters of patients who had a recent telehealth visit describing it as good or very good, according to a recent survey.
Even after the COVID-19 pandemic settles, these “temporary” approaches will permanently change patient attitudes towards technology and force healthcare providers to reexamine their approach to care. Telehealth will remain a convenient option and, in some cases, a necessary way to receive care. Embedding telehealth into standard practice of care enables providers to expand the access to people who otherwise might forgo care, and to people who may face barriers getting to a clinic, for example patients with inflexible job schedules or limited transportation.
Patients and providers are not the only people recognizing the benefits; government officials are too. While reimbursement rules were temporarily expanded to include telehealth, some states, such as Colorado and Idaho, are making COVID-19 telehealth expansions permanent.
There are many parallels to borrow from the Blockbuster example. As healthcare providers, we cannot be complacent and stick with old business models because they are what we are used to. We cannot wait for people to come to us. We cannot ignore these changing times and consumers’ changing preferences. In fact, if we adapt and provide care in ways that patients prefer, we could improve health outcomes.
The healthcare institutions that will grow and be successful during this time are those who are more like Netflix. Instead of waiting for patients to decide to seek healthcare when it may be too late (e.g., just like a Blockbuster “late fee”), we will actively reach out and remind our patients about the importance of timely healthcare services. Instead of ignoring changes in patient preferences and new technology, we will adapt quickly to new platforms for healthcare visits. Instead of waiting for patients to feel comfortable to return to a healthcare facility, we will show patients what our healthcare system is doing to ensure patient safety and protection from COVID-19. Most importantly, instead of being complacent, we will accept and develop new ways of providing care.
There was once a time that we thought that getting in a car, driving to a strip mall, and walking through aisles with thousands of video tapes was the only option to watch a movie at home. Now, many of us can get thousands of titles on our televisions, computers, and phones through several movie streaming platforms. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced healthcare systems to quickly adapt to new constraints; however, it may really be an opportunity to develop new models of care, to engage with our patients, and to make healthcare more accessible. As healthcare providers, we need to make the choice to be more like Netflix, and less like Blockbuster.