Pandemic propels health systems to mull insurer acquisitions, partnerships

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Nearly a year after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the U.S., some of the nation’s largest health systems made a case for the need to accelerate toward value-based arrangements and potentially acquiring or partnering with health plans to become an integrated system.

Amid new records for deaths and cases from the novel coronavirus, executives gathered virtually for J.P. Morgan’s 39th annual healthcare conference, which typically draws prominent healthcare leaders to San Francisco at the start of each year.

The pandemic has been a heavily discussed topic during the digital gathering. One theme has been health systems either acknowledging they are on the hunt for health insurer acquisitions and partnerships or advocating for such arrangements as result of the challenges.

Anu Singh, managing director and the leader of the mergers, acquisitions and partnerships practice at consultancy Kaufman Hall, said it’s a natural migration for health systems, though it does come with some risk.

“If you want to move into the realm of being a population health manager, and take greater responsibility for your patient bases, you’re going to have to be thinking about maintaining their health,” Singh said. “And that’s typically something that, at least traditionally and historically, has been driven a little bit more by the health plan.”

For Utah’s Intermountain Healthcare, the lessons of the pandemic are clear: The industry needs to move away from a system that rewards volume. Intermountain is a fully integrated system that manages both providers and an insurance unit.

“It is becoming increasingly apparent that systems that are well integrated, especially systems that understand how to take risks, have prospered in the face of the terrible burden, caring for people in the midst of the first pandemic in 100 years,” Intermountain CEO Marc Harrison said Monday.

From his vantage point, Harrison said it has been interesting to watch the consternation around telehealth visits.

“Lots of folks who are really still caught in the volume-based system are actively switching patients back from tele- or distance to in-person visits so they can maximize revenue,” he said. “I understand that. But that’s a really great example of poorly aligned incentives.”

Intermountain has managed to stay in the black as many other systems have struggled financially as a result of the pandemic driving down patient volumes. It reported net income of $167 million through the first nine months of 2020, compared with $919 million the year prior.

Another integrated system, Baylor Scott and White Health, the largest nonprofit system in Texas, said such diversification has helped buoy its finances as hospital and clinic operations bottomed out in the spring due to the virus.

Baylor Scott and White illustrated this point by showing how operating income for its clinical segment took a nosedive in the spring while operating income for its health plan remained relatively steady.

The theme of integrated health systems also seemed to be on the minds of investors. CommonSpirit Health executives were asked during their presentation if buying or creating a health plan was on their radar as the system has a sizable footprint of 140 hospitals across the country.

“I think this is a interesting question, one that of course we’ve discussed many times strategically,” CFO Daniel Morissette said, noting the system does have a number of regional plans. “At this time, we have no plan of having a national CommonSpirit branded plan.” However, Morissette said the system would consider a partnership opportunity.

On the other hand, Midwest-based Advocate Aurora Health said it is actively on the hunt for a potential insurer deal as part of its long-term strategy.

“We do believe that having health plan capability, not necessarily having our own, but partnering for health plan capability, is going to be critical to our success, and we are taking steps to do that,” CEO Jim Skogsbergh said during the virtual conference.

Kaufman Hall said in its latest report that it expects more payer-provider partnerships as a result of the pandemic. “Limitations on fee-for-service payment structures exposed by the pandemic may increase the number of payer-provider partnerships around new payment and care delivery models,” according to the report.

Singh of Kaufman Hall said it’s not surprising that some may lean more toward a partnership due to the risks of starting a new venture, especially an insurance unit that can have “catastrophic loss”. Systems with less experience of moving toward implementing value-based initiatives may be more vulnerable to such risk.

It’s why he thinks partnerships may be a good fit, at least at first. Payers and providers can work together to improve the health of certain populations and then share in the cost savings.

What makes a Bad Vaccine?

A Covid-19 vaccine, amazingly, is close. Why am I so worried?

A mere six months after identifying the SARS-CoV-2 virus as the cause of Covid-19, scientists are on the precipice of a having a vaccine to fight it. Moderna and the National Institutes of Health recently announced the start of a Phase 3 clinical trial, joining several others in a constructive rivalry that could save millions of lives.

It’s a truly impressive a feat and a testament to the power of basic and applied medical sciences. Under normal circumstances, vaccine approvals are measured in decades. Milestones that once took months or years have been achieved in days or weeks. If these efforts are successful, the Covid-19 vaccine could take a place alongside the Apollo missions as one of history’s greatest scientific achievements.

I’m optimistic. And yet, as someone who studies drug development, I want to temper expectations with a dose of realism and perhaps a bit of angst. Behind the proud declarations, many science and medical professionals have been whispering concerns. These whispers have escalated into a murmur. It’s time to cry them loudly:

Hey, Food and Drug Administration: Don’t be rash! Premature approval of a sub-standard Covid-19 vaccine could have dire implications, and not just for this pandemic. It could harm public health for years, if not generations, to come.

Unfortunately, elements now in place make such a disastrous outcome not only possible but in fact quite likely. Specifically, the FDA and its staff of chronically overworked and underappreciated regulators will face enormous public and political pressure to approve a vaccine. Whether or not one worries about an “October surprise” aimed at the upcoming election, regulators will be pressed hard. Some will stand firm. Some may resign in protest. But others could break and allow a bad vaccine to be released.

What makes a “bad vaccine”? Insufficient protection against the disease it is designed for, unwanted side effects, or some combination of the two. If an approved Covid-19 vaccine turns out to be ineffective, this could unintentionally promote wider spread of the disease by individuals who presume they were protected from it. Likewise, a negative experience with one vaccine might discourage the use of other vaccines that are far more safe and effective, whether they are for Covid-19 or other vaccine-preventable diseases.

Some things take time. Under normal circumstances, ensuring that a vaccine’s effects are safe and durable requires years of study and monitoring. And there is some evidence that natural immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 infection could be transient, making sustained investigation all the more necessary. A merely short-term effect could encourage vaccinated individuals to resume risky behaviors, which would all but guarantee that the epidemic endures. And if unintended side effects turn out to include, for instance, chronic inflammatory or autoimmune disease, a bad vaccine could impart lifelong damage.

But wait, there’s worse! A bad Covid-19 vaccine could further undermine confidence in the many safe, reliable vaccines already in our public health arsenal. Vaccine skepticism and anti-science bias, propagated by B-list celebrities and Russian troll farms, have been gaining strength all year. Combined with disappointing Covid-19 outcomes, such malign forces could facilitate the reemergence of once-vanquished foes — polio, measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus — that once killed multitudes of children each year.

These are enormous risks. Placing all of our bets on a small set of untried vaccine technologies would be gobsmackingly foolish. Yet this is exactly what we are now doing. Most of the high-profile names capturing headlines are pursuing comparatively minor variations on a theme of genetic vaccines (those delivered via DNA or RNA). If one approach happens to work, the odds are higher the others will work as well. Disappointing results from one candidate, though, might presage failure across the board.

Rather than investing in a balanced portfolio of vaccines with different approaches — not to mention different therapies, devices, and diagnostics for treating Covid-19 — too many observers, too many companies, and too many governmental officials seem to be narrowly focused on hopes for a “savior” vaccine. Were that savior to fail, our national morale, already low, could plummet even further.

Don’t get me wrong. I, along with millions of Americans, want a Covid-19 vaccine. But we deserve one that’s been proven to be safe and effective.

It’s not too late to take a deep breath and devise a strategy to balance short- and long-term goals, including vaccination, improved diagnostics, and existing and novel treatments. We must support the FDA and hope that its scientists and physicians retain the strength and conviction to resist approving a substandard vaccine.

For encouragement, we should look to Frances Oldham Kelsey, a veritable patron saint of the FDA. In 1960, during her first month working for the agency, Kelsey was asked to approve a sedative called Kevadon, which had the potential to generate billions in revenue. Despite enormous pressure, Kelsey spotted a risk for toxicity and dug in her heels. She refused to rubber stamp the approval. Her actions saved the lives of countless babies. Kevadon, better known as thalidomide, proved to be one of the most dangerous and disfiguring drugs in history.

Kelsey passed away in 2015 at the age of 101. We must pray that her spirit inspires a new generation of FDA leaders with the courage to say, “No.”