Pennsylvania unions have filed a complaint with the Department of Justice alleging integrated hospital giant UPMC is abusing its dominant market position to suppress wages and retain workers.
On Thursday, SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania and a coalition of labor unions filed a 55-page complaint against UPMC, the largest private employer in the state, saying the hospital system’s size has allowed it to stamp out wage growth, “drastically increase” workload and keep workers from departing to other jobs.
The unions are asking federal regulators to investigate UPMC for antitrust violations, citing its dominance of the healthcare market in select regions of Pennsylvania. UPMC denied allegations of wage suppression.
The Pittsburgh-based system has seen a rise in labor complaints, according to the unions, as the system has grown into its 41-hospital footprint through a series of mergers and acquisitions. UPMC, which also operates 800 doctors offices and clinics and a handful of health insurance offerings, reported $26 billion in operating revenue last year.
Attempts in the last decade to organize UPMC’s hourly workers have been unsuccessful, according to SEIU.
Matt Yarnell, president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, called the complaints groundbreaking on a Thursday call with reporters, saying that no entity has ever filed a complaint arguing that mobility restrictions and labor violations are anticompetitive, and in violation of antitrust law.
The complaint alleges that, for every 10% increase in market share, the wages of UPMC workers falls 30 to 57 cents an hour on average. UPMC hospital workers face an average 2% wage gap compared to non-UPMC facilities, according to a study cited in the complaint.
In addition, the labor groups allege that UPMC’s staffing ratios have fallen over the past decade, resulting in its staffing ratios being 19% lower on average compared with non-UPMC care sites as of 2020.
The unions are going after UPMC for being a “monopsony,” or a company that controls buying in a given marketplace, including controlling a large number of jobs. UPMC has some 92,000 workers, according to the complaint, and has cut off avenues of competition through non-compete agreements, in addition to preventing employees from unionizing.
“If, as we believe, UPMC is insulated from competitive market pressures, it will be able to keep workers’ wages and benefits — and patient quality — below competitive levels, while at the same time continually imposing further restraints and abuses on workers to maintain its market dominance,” the complaint states. “Because we believe this conduct is contrary to Section 2 of the Sherman Act, we respectfully urge the Department of Justice to investigate UPMC and take action to halt this conduct.”
In response to the allegations, UPMC said it has the highest entry-level pay of any provider in the state, and offers “above-industry” employee benefits. UPMC’s average wage is more than $78,000, Paul Wood, UPMC’s chief communications officer, told Healthcare Dive in a statement.
“There are no other employers of size and scope in the regions UPMC serves that provide good paying jobs at every level and an average wage of this magnitude,” Wood said.
Healthcare workers are increasingly pushing for better working conditions and pay amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as hospitals grapple with recruitment and retention issues driven by burnout and heightened labor costs.
Kaiser Permanente on Wednesday announced it is acquiring Geisinger Health, and Geisinger will operate independently under a new subsidiary of Kaiser called Risant Health.
The combination of the two companies will need to be reviewed by federal and state agencies, but if approved, the two companies will have more than $100 billion in combined annual revenue.
Geisinger will operate independently as part of Risant Health, which will be headquartered in Washington, D.C. and will be led by Geisinger president and CEO Jaewon Ryu. The health systems said they intend to acquire four or five more hospital systems to fold into Risant in an effort to reach $30 billion to $35 billion in total revenue over the next five years.
In an interview, Ryu and Kaiser chair and CEO Greg Adams said Risant will specifically target hospital systems already working to move into value-based care.
According to Adams, Risant Health “is a way to really ensure that not-for-profit, value-based community health is not only alive but is thriving in this country.”
“If we can take much of what is in our value-based care platform and extend that to these leading community health systems, then we extend our mission,” Adams said. “We reach more people, we drive greater affordability for health care in this country.”
Why we’re ‘cautiously optimistic’ about this acquisition
Just when you thought healthcare couldn’t get more interesting, Kaiser and Geisinger announce their union through newly established Risant Health. At first pass, it is hard to see a downside with this deal — and that’s something that raises my “spidey-senses.”
Kaiser and Geisinger are coming together through a vehicle that could allow them to clear an increasingly skeptical Federal Trade Commission. It affords two health systems — both in comparatively weaker financial positions than before the pandemic — the ability to get bigger through the merger. Its pitch is decidedly hospital- (and in the future provider) led, with Geisinger retaining its brand and elevating its CEO to the head of Risant. It also gives Geisinger and future partners the latitude to pursue their own payer relationships.
In addition, it is ostensibly a play to increase providers’ control over the nature and pace of value-based care (VBC) adoption. In its press release, Kaiser acknowledges that its closed network model of care management hasn’t scaled well to other markets. And Geisinger, with its own health plan and a track-record of developing its own VBC incentives, is no neophyte and brings a clear wealth of expertise.
Without a doubt, the offer to future partners is compelling: “Come for the size and stay for the value-based care.” But like all things in life, it’s all in the details. And that’s where my “spidey-sense” kicks in.
Partnership and affiliation models alone do not make the hard work of VBC easier. While this emerging group could become a valuable, provider-led clearing house for VBC concepts, applying them in communities remains a stubborn challenge that requires individual work and leadership.
The true test of the concept will come when the first new partner joins. How they decide to participate and whether the model has the right mix of scale and flexibility is what I’ll be watching closely. The overall objective and success measure of this endeavor remains somewhat opaque, but I would say that the concept has real legs here. Right now, I’m leaning toward “cautiously optimistic.”
Welcome to the “Lessons from the C-suite” series, featuring Advisory Board President Eric Larsen’s conversations with the most influential leaders in healthcare.
In this edition, Bill Gassen, President and CEO of Sanford Health and James Hereford, President and CEO of Fairview Health Services talk with Eric about the planned merger that will create the 11th largest health system in the United States that would span North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota.
The two CEOs describe the urgency and intent behind the merger, why not all disruptors are equally disruptive, and why it takes more than size to harness scale in healthcare.
Question: Bill and James, let’s jump right in. The two of you are architecting one of the most significant health system mergers of 2023 — a combination of Sanford Health and Fairview, which on its completion, will result in the 11th largest health system in the US. The discussions have attracted, understandably, a lot of interest and scrutiny not just in each of your communities, but nationally. Some may not be aware, but this is not the first time that Sanford and Fairview have considered coming together. Bill, let’s start with you – why is this time different?
Gassen: Eric, you’re right. This is not the only time our two organizations have considered the idea of merging. James and I, and our respective boards and organizations, have examined every element of the union and are confident that this is the right time to proceed. We have executed a Letter of Intent (LOI) and submitted an HSR filing that has been reviewed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The parties provided substantial amounts of information to the FTC and the HSR process and it is now complete. There is an unwavering commitment from our respective leaders and our organizations to see this through.
It is a false choice for anyone to believe that James or I or anybody else has the benefit of sitting back and saying, well, maybe I’ll just maintain the world that I live in today. The healthcare status quo is gone. What is in front of us is taking the steps needed to ensure that we can continue to provide the best possible service for our patients, employees, and communities. Taking control over our destiny. We want to come together in a merger between our two organizations to put us in a position to fundamentally change and to be an agent for the modernization of the way care is delivered into the future. Our organizations exist only to serve patients, employees, and our communities. That is not up for debate. What we have in front of us is a decision to make that better for generations to come.
Hereford: I think Bill articulated that very well. Our purpose is to combine to improve and sustain our ability to offer world class healthcare. It is not simply a function of scale, you have to combine that with an intent to drive change, to improve value, and to innovate. And that’s a rare thing to have that intent. We have that intent today.
Avoiding the ‘Noah’s Ark’ problem
Q: Let’s go a bit deeper into the horizontal consolidation among health systems. This isn’t a new phenomenon — in fact, our $1.4 trillion hospital sector is already massively consolidated, with the top 100 systems controlling almost $900 billion in revenue. But with this degree of concentration, a lot of disillusionment: we just haven’t seen compelling or provable quality improvements, let alone the scale of cost reductions projected. Some of this might be what I call the “Noah’s Ark” problem—two of everything (two CEOs, two headquarters, two EHRs, etc.) … in other words, very little rationalization of back-office infrastructure or staffing.
I think about the proposed Sanford-Fairview merger differently. I might even characterize it as more a “vertical” merger, instead of “horizontal” — a combination of different and complementary capabilities instead of overlapping or competing ones — including Sanford’s proprietary health plan and virtual hospital investments, bringing Fairview’s specialty pharmacy and post-acute companies into the combination — for example. Am I thinking about this the right way?
Gassen: I think your characterization is right, Eric. We are different but very complementary organizations. We are contiguous as it relates to geography, but there is no overlap. We serve distinctly different populations in a similar part of the country. Roughly two-thirds of the patients who have been served today at Sanford Health come to us from a rural community. While most of those who Fairview serves come from much more densely populated urban communities. Both of those subsets of our population are experiencing similar challenges. There’s a need for financial sustainability, both on the provider side as well as on the patient side of the house.
When you think about our service mix, there are a number of complementary areas that make our union additive. Specialty and subspecialty expertise at Fairview coupled with a robust primary care backbone from Sanford plus our Virtual Care initiative and significant philanthropic investment will come together to create powerful healthcare solutions.
The fact that at Sanford alone we have $350 million solely dedicated to, and available for, scaling virtual care is amazing. And when you think about applying that investment to Sanford and Fairview, the opportunities are limitless. We’re going to be able to serve both our rural and urban communities, allowing us to truly transform the way in which healthcare is delivered and experienced in this part of the country.
And for those outside our orbit, they’ll say, “I want to partner with a combined Sanford Fairview” because that is much more attractive. And at the end of the day, partnering with us means that we’re all in a better position to transform the way in which we deliver care, how care is accessed, and how quality is improved. And do it in a financially sustainable way that allows us to deliver equitable care to more people in the upper Midwest.
Hereford: Here’s why scale matters: If you’re one hospital and you drive an innovation that requires a capital of investment of $1 million, that’s an expensive solution. But if you’ve got 100 hospitals, the size of that investment you made on a scale basis is much smaller. Therefore, your ability to drive the needed level of innovation is expanded significantly. To truly improve healthcare delivery, we must challenge ourselves to do things differently, but you have to have a certain level of scale to be able to do that.
Health system transformation must happen now
Q:I want to expand on the earlier point you made that the old health system status quo is forever gone. 2022, for health systems, was something of an Armageddon year — the worst on record with 11 out of 12 months with negative margins; supply chain costs up 17% versus pre-pandemic; health systems collectively spending an extra $125 billion on Labor last year compared to 2021. So not a great “state of the union” for acute-care centric health systems. How does this macroeconomic backdrop factor into your planning?
Hereford: Conceptually, cognitively, I would offer that hospital CEOs probably all know that the good old days are gone. But you don’t see organizations responding as if they’re gone. And we’re on the precipice of a significant cliff. The fundamental things that have defined healthcare and not-for-profit healthcare for decades have fundamentally shifted. We need to change in response.
We’re going to have 80,000 people when we combine. The challenge for us as leaders is going to be how do we shift the mindset and change the way we think about care delivery while maintaining essential services that persist with challenging economics. We are a high capital, low margin business that is critical to society.
Gassen: James, it’s as you and I talk about a lot. We don’t get the benefit of hitting pause, taking a year to revamp the industry because it’s 24 by 7 by 365. There are no breaks.
And while we’re doing that and while we are delivering essential services, the 45,000 incredible caregivers at Sanford and the 35,000 incredible caregivers at Fairview, collectively, are going to figure out how we evolve together as a unified organization to continue to elevate that critical work of patient care. And we don’t get reimbursed for a lot of those services. But those are essential services that people need.
If we want to be able to meet the needs of vulnerable patients and communities, we must face the increased pressure to lower costs and increase scale to drive positive margins. Those areas are few and far between in not-for-profit healthcare delivery. So, it necessitates that we continue to evolve and think differently about the work that we do driving down costs.
Larsen:And that’s increasingly becoming difficult — even for big players. I’ve been writing ruefully about the “billion-dollar club” — preeminent health systems like Ascension, MGB and Cleveland Clinic each posting more than a billion dollars in total losses (and even more in some cases, e.g., $4.5 billion for Kaiser). But Sanford, in contrast, is one of just a small handful of health systems that somehow managed to end 2022 in the black, with a $188 million operating income last year. Bill, any reflections on how you and the team did that?
Gassen: We count ourselves very, very blessed to be among the few who had the opportunity to experience positive margins in 2022. I would give first and foremost credit to an exceptionally talented team inside and outside the organization. They do a wonderful job of focusing their attention on that which matters most, which is patient care.
It’s also a very well-constructed organization from the ground up. We benefit coming into both the pandemic and then through the financial headwinds in 2022 with a well-diversified set of assets and geographies. On the acute side it’s largely contained across Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota.
In Minnesota, and across those above geographies, we have a great complement of assets across our provider sponsored health plan, hospitals, clinics, post-acute care, as well as our research enterprise, all of which, collectively, allowed us to do a better job than some of our peers at weathering that “economic storm” you mentioned earlier.
But, most importantly, it’s just the time that we’ve had to mature as an organization. And with that time, we’ve integrated more deeply as one singular operating company. Sanford Health is not a holding company. The decisions that we make, we make as one singular integrated system and that is a part of that special sauce that’s allowed us to be successful.
Everything that I’ve described has just given us a little bit of a head start and now it’s incumbent upon us to maximize that time.
The imagined and real disruption in healthcare
Q:Bill, you mentioned time is of the essence. And so far, we’ve mostly localized our discussion today talking about health system-specific competitive issues, which makes sense. But it also makes sense to lift up and survey the healthcare ecosystem outside of health systems and note the fact that even when Sanford and Fairview combine and represent $14 billion in revenue, it will still be comparatively tiny to some of the non-traditional players seeking to disrupt healthcare. We have trillion-dollar market cap companies like Amazon investing aggressively into the primary care, pharmacy, and home enablement spaces. We have Fortune 10 companies like UnitedHealth Group and CVS-Aetna vertically integrating and building out sophisticated ambulatory delivery systems. And we have retailers like Walmart and Best Buy transitioning into parts of the healthcare delivery chain as well. So, while Sanford-Fairview will be sizable by most conventional healthcare metrics, it has some pretty formidable competition. How do you assess the new competitive landscape emerging?
Hereford: So, I thought a lot about this because I do think it’s one of the most significant aspects of our industry right now. The opportunity for a CVS-Aetna is that they are proximate to a lot of people in the US. And there’s a lot of things that they could do for patients with a simple presentation of acute symptoms or for fairly simple chronic disease and stabilization. But that is not what drives the cost of health care in the US. It’s when people get very sick.
People receiving specialist care in hospitals are having complex procedures. They’re being treated for complex cancers. And we’re doing an amazing job of advancing the science and the technologies that we can apply to that. But that doesn’t happen in a drug store. That does not happen in a store front primary care office. That happens in organizations like ours. Our challenge is to create the same level of convenience, the same level of access, or partner in a smart way to achieve that.
Our job is to think about total cost of care within the context of delivering very complex care. That isn’t simply a function of primary care and that, I think, is our fundamental challenge. We can translate that into real total cost of care savings.
Gassen: For James and me, in our respective roles and responsibilities, this is our incredibly rewarding and incredibly difficult work. Because those other organizations aren’t required to provide care to everyone. They’re not required to provide free care. They’re not required to be able to provide services for which there is no margin. We don’t get to cherry pick.
It’s our responsibility to really be all things from a healthcare delivery perspective to all people, which means that we are always going to be challenged with how we do that in a financially sustainable way. I think it’s the beauty of where we find ourselves as an industry because out of that necessity comes that innovation that we’ve been talking about here because we can’t continue at current course and speed.
Larsen:When we start to talk about giants in healthcare we tend to index on their size and market cap and, as a result, we lump vertically integrating players and technology companies under the same umbrella. I think that’s a mistake. You have focused healthcare payers like CVS Aetna and UHG that are combining their underwriting business (and ownership of the premium dollar) with an ambulatory delivery network, with an emphasis on home and virtual care. To me that’s a very real and consequential development – and very different from what Big Tech is aspiring to do in our space.
Hereford: Eric, I agree.The world is so clearly changing and that is where the market and a number of very large healthcare organizations are betting. I do think that people who see the overall size of the healthcare marketplace and say “we want to be a part of that” but without any clear way of making sustainable margins.
Gassen: In contrast with the large public companies, as a not-profit health care system, it’s a fact of life that we operate on thin margins. But there are a lot of dollars floating around for other players in the healthcare ecosystem. Which to your point, is why people get enticed to enter into the healthcare space. Our goal with the transaction is to remain financially solid, with the resources needed to invest in our communities, while staying true to our non-profit mission.
Larsen:Your comments, Bill, underscore the power of being a ‘payvider’ in healthcare, which of course Sanford is. You’re in rarefied company — only a dozen or so health systems can claim this, and they have one thing in common — a very mature health plan function (average age of 44 years). So Intermountain, Geisinger, Kaiser, Sentara, Sanford and a small handful of others fit this bill. I presume a major part of the envisioned benefit of the merger is extending Sanford Health plan into Fairview. Can I get you both to comment on that?
Gassen: I certainly agree with you Eric about the importance of being a “payvider.” And of course, I’d also say there is a scale component to that, too. Today our health plan only has 220,000 covered lives. But it is a very valuable and strategic component of the larger Sanford Health system.
As we come together with Fairview into a combined system, we now have the opportunity to bring the Sanford Health plan and its additional options and opportunities for members to a much larger community. And one that’s backed by a combined system. It offers greater choices for the two million people across North Dakota, South Dakota, and Western Minnesota.
When we do that, it puts us in the best possible position to coordinate care that allows for the best outcomes, and as a consequence, also results in a better financial position for us. And so, when we think ahead to the opportunity to now apply the infrastructure that we’ve built to the greater Twin Cities market and beyond to bring that together with the care delivery assets and expertise of Fairview Health Services, we get really excited about the opportunities we unlock not just for the combined organization, but for importantly, for all the members within that community.
Healthcare’s technology paradox
Q:The above commentary on scaling out to wider geographies and connecting and transforming care brings me to the paradox of digital health. One of the only bright lights to come out of the pandemic was what I would characterize as a “Renaissance moment” in digital health — unprecedented funding ($72 billion globally in 2021 alone) fueling the creation of almost 13,000 digital startups, spanning new diagnostics, therapeutics, clinical/non-clinical workflow, care augmentation, you name it. And while we’re now seeing a rough contraction, with lots of companies starved for capital and struggling to sell into healthcare incumbents, we are going to see some winners and some transformational platforms emerge.
The question is, will healthcare incumbents like health systems be able to take advantage of this? The data are sobering — it takes an estimated 23 months for a health system to deploy a digital health technology (once it signs a contract). And while technology tends to be deflationary — lowers costs as it augments productivity — that just hasn’t happened in healthcare, as costs inexorably keep going up. How will the combined Sanford-Fairview tackle this? Who wants to go first?
Hereford: Let me start because I want to respond to something you said, Eric. You’re right, technology has been deflationary in other sectors but only since about 1995. In the 1990s many books in that period were asking “why are we investing all this money in technology across all sectors and we’re not seeing productivity improvements?”
But out of that question came reengineering — where companies started to reconfigure processes and workflows as opposed to just applying technologies. Only then did they see the deflationary benefits of greater efficiencies from technologies. So, I think that has a lot to do with how we’ve applied technology. We’ve had federal stimulus to apply technology, but it’s to apply technology for its own sake. Not to challenge how we use technology to make it easier to be a doctor or nurse. How do we use technology to make people more effective and therefore more efficient?
Gassen: I think that change, especially fundamental shifts, and changes to a business won’t happen until you absolutely have to. And that’s human nature.
The challenge ahead of us is to interrogate how we as an industry interact with our patients and ask, “How can we fundamentally tear that down to the studs and rebuild it better and fit for today?”
But I also want to be clear about why we’re here as a health system. Our reality is that there is a patient at the end of every single decision that we make. So, we must be extremely careful about how we look at processes and implement change. We know they’re rarely perfect, but oftentimes we do deliver the best outcome for the patient. Our job is to be able to make the right change without causing harm.
Larsen:Bill, we’ve made the argument together in past conversations that this same creation moment for digital health solutions beautifully aligns to address the conventional disadvantages of American rural medicine: insufficient infrastructure (hospitals, surgery centers, etc.) and a scarcity of clinicians and non-clinicians for the workforce. Digital health holds the promise to turn those deficits into advantages. And, you know, Sanford’s been a pioneer in launching a $350 million virtual hospital. Perhaps you can unpack this.
Gassen: I’d say our work here really has its origins in the unwavering belief that one zip code should not determine the level of care that a person receives. Every patient has the right to access world class care. So, it’s incumbent upon us, those of us who find ourselves in the privileged position to be in leadership in healthcare delivery organizations like Sanford and Fairview, to take the necessary steps to deploy the appropriate resources and to find the right partners to ensure that whether you’re living in the most rural parts of the heartland or an urban center, you get the best quality care possible.
We take great pride in the fact that our organization was built on the belief that we know many of our patients choose to live in rural America. Two-thirds of the patients today at Sanford Health, whom we have the privilege of serving, come to us from rural America.
It’s with that front and center, the Virtual Care initiative at Sanford Health is allowing us the opportunity to deliver world class care. It’s about making certain that through basically all facets of digital transformation, we leverage our resources to extend excellence in primary care, in specialty and subspecialty care, and offer those individuals access to that care close to home.
The vision for us is to ensure that those who choose to live in rural America are not forced to sacrifice access to high quality, dependable care. That’s at the core of both our beliefs and actions.
Larsen:And James, I think you’ve been one of the most progressive CEOs in the industry on thinking about capitalizing on digital health, innovation and partnering with capital allocators. And we talked about a few of them — leading VCs like Thrive or SignalFire who are partnering broadly with health systems — and finding ways to shorten the innovation cycle.
Hereford: It comes back to intent and purpose. Our job is to make sure that everybody can access high quality care and so the opportunity is to really think about the commonalities and leverage that across both rural America, urban communities, suburbs, exurbs, etc. The other thing that I think is often overlooked in your Cambrian explosion is the volume of scientific advancements over the last two decades.
I love the hypothetical of a medical student who learned everything about medicine in 1950 and how fast the volume of clinical knowledge would have doubled then. They would have had about 50 years before the knowledge base doubled. Today, an amazing medical student with the ambition to learn the entire body of clinical knowledge would have about seven months to see it doubled. That’s how fast medicine is advancing.
We built this industry based on highly specialized, incredibly smart, incredibly committed people who can master these topics. This volume of information on clinical care theory, the body of knowledge on clinical application, all layered on to how the business of care works is cognitive overload. We have got to give them better tools. We have got to help support them. I think we’re in a unique place to be able to really do something about it and create real solutions for people.
Gassen: Where we’re at right now necessitates that. And again, thinking a level deeper as it relates to rural America, the opportunity is so incredibly ripe because it’s necessary. The only way that we’re going to be able to scale to the level we need is to leverage and maximize technology. And so therein creates that opportunity and that necessity makes us a very fertile ground for organizations to come in and partner with us, to be able to extend those services.
The current deal’s state of play
Q:So, we started our conversation about the merger and went broad to talk about industry trends and the wider landscape. But I do want to circle back to a couple of the outstanding specifics of the merger. Sanford and Fairview are merging. What will the University of Minnesota’s relationship be with the merged organization?
Gassen: Both James and I firmly believe, and have articulated in our conversation with you today, the virtues of bringing Sanford Health and Fairview Health services together are absolutely essential to ensuring the delivery of world class healthcare in the upper Midwest. And we are committed to creating the right relationship with the University of Minnesota for it to pursue its mission.
Hereford: We’ve always said that we wanted the University to be part of what we’re building. And, the University of Minnesota has indicated their desire to purchase the academic assets of the system and we stand ready to engage with them to support that. If that is the path that they pursue and can get state funding to support, then we can work with them to determine the nature of the relationship between the new system and the University of Minnesota.
Larsen:And how about the other partners and players in the landscape? I’m thinking of the Minnesota Attorney General, the FTC, etc.
Gassen: We’ve engaged the elected officials across the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota, and we’ve continued to keep them apprised. We’ve also worked very closely with regulators and are happy to report that following its review, the Federal Trade Commission cleared the transaction and the HSR process is complete.
At this point in time, we are working closely with Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office in the state of Minnesota to ensure that he has sufficient information to complete his analysis under antitrust and charities laws to ensure that he’s continuing to protect the interests of all Minnesotans. We remain very engaged and look forward to the conclusion of that work.
The future focus of leadership
Q:Ok, I’d like to round out this conversation with a look to the future. Can you foreshadow your division of labor…where you will be converging and where will you be dividing and conquering as CEOs?
Hereford: One of the great positives of this deal and one of the great signals of the quality of the rationale here is that Bill and I went into this with the question: How do we set this up to be successful over the long term?
You may have noticed Bill and I are different ages. Bill has a lot more runway than I have, so it was not a difficult decision on my part to say “look, it’s important for me to help with the transition because it’s a big deal, right? And it’s not going to be over in a year.” But I can be that bridging function to help support the transition. This is a long-term play and Bill’s the person who’s going to be able to be in the seat to really see that through.
And given my interests I can take on the innovation that we’re talking about and how we make the membrane of this organization a little more permeable and a little bit more friendly to partners, while also being very demanding of partners in terms of the value they create, and we create within the system.
I’m really excited about the opportunity to do that. I do think the way that we have approached this is a very enlightened approach.
Gassen: Standing on the shoulders of James’ comments, one of the many aspects that makes this merger unique is the collegiality and foresight from our respective boards that see how incredibly valuable it is to be able to have co-CEOs working together, focusing first and foremost on ensuring that we’re bringing together the two organizations as one integrated, transformative healthcare delivery organization. I think James and I get up every morning with the goal of making sure that that happens every single day.
And it’s not just that James will work on the innovation piece because it brings him joy and energy but also, it’s where he has a deep level of experience and expertise. I get to focus more of my time and energy on the day-to-day of the two organizations coming together.
Together, James and I will be able to jointly balance the combination of the two organizations with day-to-day delivery and the transformative opportunities for us because of the unique nature of our backgrounds and expertise.
Hereford: And I think that’s a real advantage for the organization. I’m sure there are going be times when I’ll say “Bill, we’ve got to change. You’ve got to do this”. And he’s going to say “yeah, but I can’t do that. I can’t make that kind of change.”
But that’s the kind of dialogue that this structure sets up for us to hold that tension productively as opposed to responding to the tyranny of the urgent, which is ever present in a large health care delivery system. Transformation of care delivery systems will require the ability to manage those competing dynamics. I really appreciate both the structure but also how Bill is approaching this.
Gassen: I do think that what we just described here will prove to be one of the finer distinguishing factors that allows us to really be successful. Because you do oftentimes find yourself with a choice between A or B. And for us we get to choose C — “all of the above” — and go forward and do that.
In late February, Crystal Run Healthcare, a Middletown, NY-based physician group with nearly 400 providers, became part of UHG’s Optum division.
A local paper broke the news after obtaining an email from Crystal Run’s CEO, as neither company issued a press release, though UHG has since confirmed the acquisition. In addition to pandemic-related financial difficulties, Crystal Run recently shuttered its health plan after large losses, and its Medicare accountable care organization failed to earn savings in 2021.
Crystal Run expands Optum’s footprint in the Hudson Valley region north of New York City, following the acquisition of Mount Kisco, NY-based Caremount Medical in 2022. The company’s broader New York metro area footprint includes Connecticut-based ProHEALTH and New Jersey-based Riverside Medical Group, the three of which Optum has since integrated into a single tri-state medical group.
The Gist: Optum continues to secure its place as the country’s largest aggregator of physicians, now employing or aligning with over 70,000 doctors nationwide.
Not only does every new deal by UHG bolster its vertical integration strategy, but they also shine a light on gaps in federal antitrust regulations. UHG must only disclose deals that comprise a “significant” portion of its business, a threshold that excludes physician groups as large as Crystal Run—making it difficult to fully examine transactions that are subscale according to regulations, but may be significant for healthcare delivery in a local market.
Some state governments, including New York, are exploring ways to increase state antitrust scrutiny of provider acquisitions. But inmulti-state markets where only the federal government has the authority for full oversight, UHG’s acquisition strategies are proving difficult to even monitor, much less intervene.
In a matter of months, ChatGPT has radically altered our nation’s views on artificial intelligence—uprooting old assumptions about AI’s limitations and kicking the door wide open for exciting new possibilities.
One aspect of our lives sure to be touched by this rapid acceleration in technology is U.S. healthcare. But the extent to which tech will improve our nation’s health depends on whether regulators embrace the future or cling stubbornly to the past.
Why our minds live in the past
In the 1760s, Scottish inventor James Watt revolutionized the steam engine, marking an extraordinary leap in engineering. But Watt knew that if he wanted to sell his innovation, he needed to convince potential buyers of its unprecedented power. With a stroke of marketing genius, he began telling people that his steam engine could replace 10 cart-pulling horses. People at time immediately understood that a machine with 10 “horsepower” must be a worthy investment. Watt’s sales took off. And his long-since-antiquated meaurement of power remains with us today.
Even now, people struggle to grasp the breakthrough potential of revolutionary innovations. When faced with a new and powerful technology, people feel more comfortable with what they know. Rather than embracing an entirely different mindset, they remain stuck in the past, making it difficult to harness the full potential of future opportunities.
Too often, that’s exactly how U.S. government agencies go about regulating advances in healthcare. In medicine, the consequences of applying 20th-century assumptions to 21st-century innovations prove fatal.
Here are three ways regulators do damage by failing to keep up with the times:
1. Devaluing ‘virtual visits’
Established in 1973 to combat drug abuse, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) now faces an opioid epidemic that claims more than 100,000 lives a year.
One solution to this deadly problem, according to public health advocates, combines modern information technology with an effective form of addiction treatment.
Thanks to the Covid-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) declaration, telehealth use skyrocketed during the pandemic. Out of necessity, regulators relaxed previous telemedicine restrictions, allowing more patients to access medical services remotely while enabling doctors to prescribe controlled substances, including buprenorphine, via video visits.
For people battling drug addiction, buprenorphine is a “Goldilocks” medication with just enough efficacy to prevent withdrawal yet not enough to result in severe respiratory depression, overdose or death. Research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that buprenorphine improves retention in drug-treatment programs. It has helped thousands of people reclaim their lives.
But because this opiate produces slight euphoria, drug officials worry it could be abused and that telemedicine prescribing will make it easier for bad actors to push buprenorphine onto the black market. Now with the PHE declaration set to expire, the DEA has laid out plans to limit telehealth prescribing of buprenorphine.
The proposed regulations would let doctors prescribe a 30-day course of the drug via telehealth, but would mandate an in-person visit with a doctor for any renewals. The agency believes this will “prevent the online overprescribing of controlled medications that can cause harm.”
The DEA’s assumption that an in-person visit is safer and less corruptible than a virtual visit is outdated and contradicted by clinical research. A recent NIH study, for example, found that overdose deaths involving buprenorphine did not proportionally increase during the pandemic. Likewise, a Harvard study found that telemedicine is as effective as in-person care for opioid use disorder.
Of course, regulators need to monitor the prescribing frequency of controlled substances and conduct audits to weed out fraud. Furthermore, they should demand that prescribing physicians receive proper training and document their patient-education efforts concerning medical risks.
But these requirements should apply to all clinicians, regardless of whether the patient is physically present. After all, abuses can happen as easily and readily in person as online.
The DEA needs to move its mindset into the 21st century because our nation’s outdated approach to addiction treatment isn’t working. More than 100,000 deaths a year prove it.
2. Restricting an unrestrainable new technology
Technologists predict that generative AI, like ChatGPT, will transform American life, drastically altering our economy and workforce. I’m confident it also will transform medicine, giving patients greater (a) access to medical information and (b) control over their own health.
So far, the rate of progress in generative AI has been staggering. Just months ago, the original version of ChatGPT passed the U.S. medical licensing exam, but barely. Weeks ago, Google’s Med-PaLM 2 achieved an impressive 85% on the same exam, placing it in the realm of expert doctors.
With great technological capability comes great fear, especially from U.S. regulators. At the Health Datapalooza conference in February, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Robert M. Califf emphasized his concern when he pointed out that ChatGPT and similar technologies can either aid or exacerbate the challenge of helping patients make informed health decisions.
Worried comments also came from Federal Trade Commission, thanks in part to a letter signed by billionaires like Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak. They posited that the new technology “poses profound risks to society and humanity.” In response, FTC chair Lina Khan pledged to pay close attention to the growing AI industry.
Attempts to regulate generative AI will almost certainly happen and likely soon. But agencies will struggle to accomplish it.
To date, U.S. regulators have evaluated hundreds of AI applications as medical devices or “digital therapeutics.” In 2022, for example, Apple received premarket clearance from the FDA for a new smartwatch feature that lets users know if their heart rhythm shows signs of atrial fibrillation (AFib). For each AI product that undergoes FDA scrutiny, the agency tests the embedded algorithms for effectiveness and safety, similar to a medication.
ChatGPT is different. It’s not a medical device or digital therapy programmed to address a specific or measurable medical problem. And it doesn’t contain a simple algorithm that regulators can evaluate for efficacy and safety. The reality is that any GPT-4 user today can type in a query and receive detailed medical advice in seconds. ChatGPT is a broad facilitator of information, not a narrowly focused, clinical tool. Therefore, it defies the types of analysis regulators traditionally apply.
In that way, ChatGPT is similar to the telephone. Regulators can evaluate the safety of smartphones, measuring how much electromagnetic radiation it gives off or whether the device, itself, poses a fire hazard. But they can’t regulate the safety of how people use it. Friends can and often do give each other terrible advice by phone.
Therefore, aside from blocking ChatGPT outright, there’s no way to stop individuals from asking it for a diagnosis, medication recommendation or help with deciding on alternative medical treatments. And while the technology has been temporarily banned in Italy, that’s unlikely to happen in the United States.
If we want to ensure the safety of ChatGPT, improve health and save lives, government agencies should focus on educating Americans on this technology rather than trying to restrict its usage.
3. Preventing doctors from helping more people
Doctors can apply for a medical license in any state, but the process is time-consuming and laborious. As a result, most physicians are licensed only where they live. That deprives patients in the other 49 states access to their medical expertise.
The reason for this approach dates back 240 years. When the Bill of Rights passed in 1791, the practice of medicine varied greatly by geography. So, states were granted the right to license physicians through their state boards.
In 1910, the Flexner report highlighted widespread failures of medical education and recommended a standard curriculum for all doctors. This process of standardization culminated in 1992 when all U.S. physicians were required to take and pass a set of national medical exams. And yet, 30 years later, fully trained and board-certified doctors still have to apply for a medical license in every state where they wish to practice medicine. Without a second license, a doctor in Chicago can’t provide care to a patient across a state border in Indiana, even if separated by mere miles.
The PHE declaration did allow doctors to provide virtual care to patients in other states. However, with that policy expiring in May, physicians will again face overly restrictive regulations held over from centuries past.
Given the advances in medicine, the availability of technology and growing shortage of skilled clinicians, these regulations are illogical and problematic. Heart attacks, strokes and cancer know no geographic boundaries. With air travel, people can contract medical illnesses far from home. Regulators could safely implement a common national licensing process—assuming states would recognize it and grant a medical license to any doctor without a history of professional impropriety.
But that’s unlikely to happen. The reason is financial. Licensing fees support state medical boards. And state-based restrictions limit competition from out of state, allowing local providers to drive up prices.
To address healthcare’s quality, access and affordability challenges, we need to achieve economies of scale. That would be best done by allowing all doctors in the U.S. to join one care-delivery pool, rather than retaining 50 separate ones.
Doing so would allow for a national mental-health service, giving people in underserved areas access to trained therapists and helping reduce the 46,000 suicides that take place in America each year.
Regulators need to catch up
Medicine is a complex profession in which errors kill people. That’s why we need healthcare regulations. Doctors and nurses need to be well trained, so that life-threatening medications can’t fall into the hands of people who will misuse them.
But when outdated thinking leads to deaths from drug overdoses, prevents patients from improving their own health and limits access to the nation’s best medical expertise, regulators need to recognize the harm they’re doing.
Healthcare is changing as technology races ahead. Regulators need to catch up.
Jaime King On Consolidation and Competition — The Trials and Triumphs of Health Care Antitrust Law New England Journal of Medicine March 18, 2023; 388:1057-1060 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp2201629
“Over the past 30 years, health care consolidation has gone largely unchecked by federal and state antitrust enforcers, which has resulted in higher prices, stagnant quality of care, and limited access to care for patients. Similarly, consolidation has contributed to the availability of fewer employment options, limited wage growth, longer hours, and staff shortages for health care providers.
Antitrust law is designed to prevent such harms, but its failure to evolve alongside the health care industry has led to pervasive consolidation, which now necessitates regulation in some markets to address market-power abuses that competitive forces can no longer govern…
Although mergers are often justified with promises of improved quality or patient access, evidence supporting these claims is lacking.
Clinical integration as envisioned in accountable care organizations, for example, requires substantial oversight, training, and investment that goes well beyond the financial integration involved in most mergers. Most studies have found either no changes or a reduction in quality after provider mergers. Consolidation can also limit access to care; post-merger facility closures, reductions in charity care, and elimination of abortion and other reproductive health services have often occurred.
Consolidation among insurers also affects health care prices and quality. Insurers with market power can increase premiums above competitive levels by exercising monopoly power or can push provider payments below competitive levels by exercising monopsony power. Lower premiums are commonly found in areas with more insurers, whereas in the absence of competition, insurers that obtain price concessions from providers may not pass savings on to consumers.4 Some evidence suggests, however, that moderate amounts of insurer consolidation may be associated with improved patient experience, since providers in such markets have an incentive to compete on quality.
Given the health care industry’s growing complexity, future oversight could involve a combination of more responsive antitrust enforcement and creative regulatory interventions. Combining competitive and regulatory forces may offer the only hope for controlling health care prices, restoring high-quality care, protecting health care workers, and preserving and expanding access to care.”
Earlier this month, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) quietly released joint revisions to three healthcare antitrust policy statements which it now considers “overly permissive”. While two of the policies date back to the 1990s and relate to information sharing, the most significant, published in 2011, stated that certain ACOs were “highly unlikely to raise significant competitive concerns”. Instead, the FTC and DOJ say their policy will be to review these arrangements on a case-by-case basis.
The Gist: While unlikely to alter the ACO landscape significantly, this new guidance signals a departure from Obama-era policies that gave outsized priority to ACO development in cost-reduction efforts. Until now, ACOs were passed over for scrutiny, while regulators focused on more traditional hospital mergers in an attempt to prevent outsized market leverage.
Moving forward, the Biden administration must strike a delicate balance between policies that encourage greater coordination amongst independent healthcare entities working together to improve patient care and lower costs, and the market leverage that such coordination can generate.
CommonSpirit Health announced Wednesday that it will acquire regional health system Steward Health Care in Utah for $685 million.
The deal marks CommonSpirit’s entry into Utah, expanding the hospital operator’s footprint to a total of 22 states.
CommonSpirit will acquire five hospitals from Steward, along with more than 40 clinics and other ambulatory services, the system said. The deal is expected to close later this year. CommonSpirit’s Centura Health will manage the Utah sites.
The acquisition comes on the heels of a thwarted attempt by HCA to purchase Steward Health Care last year.
The Federal Trade Commission was successful in blocking the deal after the agency alleged that a tie-up between the head-to-head competitors would harm patients around Salt Lake City by raising prices and lowering care quality.
CommonSpirit said the deal represents a “significant long-term growth opportunity” and extends the system’s reach into a new region that already has an established presence with a variety of services, including acute, post-acute and ambulatory care.
The Catholic health system released financial results Wednesday for the period ended Dec. 31, the nonprofit’s second quarter, which showed a $474 million operating loss. The system said labor shortages, higher staffing costs and a recent ransomware attack dragged on its results.
“CommonSpirit is taking a number of steps to bolster its financial sustainability,” the system said Wednesday.
But officials would not comment on whether those steps may include job cuts.
So far, the ransomware incident has cost the system $150 million, it said Wednesday. The figure includes lost revenue due to the interruption to business and costs to remediate the issue.
CommonSpirit said it is working with insurance carriers but is unable to predict the timing or amount it may receive following the cyber incident.
In any industry, market consolidation limits competition, choice and access to goods and services, all of which drive up prices.
But there’s another—often overlooked—consequence.
Market leaders that grow too powerful become complacent. And, when that happens, innovation dies. Healthcare offers a prime example.
And industry of monopolies
De facto monopolies abound in almost every healthcare sector: Hospitals and health systems, drug and device manufacturers, and doctors backed by private equity. The result is that U.S. healthcare has become a conglomerate of monopolies.
For two decades, this intense concentration of power has inflicted harm on patients, communities and the health of the nation. For most of the 21st century, medical costs have risen faster than overall inflation, America’s life expectancy (and overall health) has stagnated, and the pace of innovation has slowed to a crawl.
This article, the first in a series about the ominous and omnipresent monopolies of healthcare, focuses on how merged hospitals and powerful health systems have raised the price, lowered the quality and decreased the convenience of American medicine.
Future articles will look at drug companies who wield unfettered pricing power, coalitions of specialist physicians who gain monopolistic leverage, and the payers (businesses, insurers and the government) who tolerate market consolidation. The series will conclude with a look at who stands the best chance of shattering this conglomerate of monopolies and bringing innovation back to healthcare.
This is no incongruity. It’s what happens when hospitals and health systems merge and eliminate competition in communities.
Today, the 40 largest health systems own 2,073 hospitals, roughly one-third of all emergency and acute-care facilities in the United States. The top 10 health systems own a sixth of all hospitals and combine for $226.7 billion in net patient revenues.
Though the Federal Trade Commission and the Antitrust Division of the DOJ are charged with enforcing antitrust laws in healthcare markets and preventing anticompetitive conduct, legal loopholes and intense lobbying continue to spur hospital consolidation. Rarely are hospital M&A requests denied or even challenged.
The ills of hospital consolidation
The rapid and recent increase in hospital consolidation has left hundreds of communities with only one option for inpatient care.
But the lack of choice is only one of the downsides.
Hospital administrators know that state and federal statutes require insurers and self-funded businesses to provide hospital care within 15 miles of (or 30 minutes from) a member’s home or work. And they understand that insurers must accept their pricing demands if they want to sell policies in these consolidated markets. As a result, studies confirm that hospital prices and profits are higher in uncompetitive geographies.
These elevated prices negatively impact the pocketbooks of patients and force local governments (which must balance their budgets) to redirect funds toward hospitals and away from local police, schools and infrastructure projects.
Perhaps most concerning of all is the lack of quality improvement following hospital consolidation. Contrary to what administrators claim, clinical outcomes for patients are no better in consolidated locations than in competitive ones—despite significantly higher costs.
How hospitals could innovate (and why they don’t)
Hospital care in the United States accounts for more than 30% of total medical expenses (about $1.5 trillion). Even though fewer patients are being admitted each year, these costs continue to rise at a feverish pace.
If our nation wants to improve medical outcomes and make healthcare more affordable, a great place to start would be to innovate care-delivery in our country’s hospitals.
To illuminate what’s possible, below are three practical innovations that would simultaneously improve clinical outcomes and lower costs. And yet, despite the massive benefits for patients, few hospital-system administrators appear willing to embrace these changes.
Innovation 1: Leveraging economies of scale
In most industries, bigger is better because size equals cost savings. This advantage is known as economies of scale.
Ostensibly, when bigger hospitals acquire smaller ones, they gain negotiating power—along with plenty of opportunities to eliminate redundancies. These factors could and should result in lower prices for medical care.
Instead, when hospitals merge, the inefficiencies of both the acquirer and the acquired usually persist. Rather than closing small, ineffective clinical services, the newly expanded hospital system keeps them open. That’s because hospital administrators prefer to raise prices and keep people happy rather than undergo the painstaking process of becoming more efficient.
The result isn’t just higher healthcare costs, but also missed opportunities to improve quality.
Following M&A, health systems continue to schedule orthopedic, cardiac and neurosurgical procedures across multiple low-volume hospitals. They’d be better off creating centers of excellence and doing all total joint replacements, heart surgeries and neurosurgical procedures in a single hospital or placing each of the three specialties in a different one. Doing so would increase the case volumes for surgeons and operative teams in that specialty, augmenting their experience and expertise—leading to better outcomes for patients.
But hospital administrators bristle at the idea, fearing pushback from communities where these services close.
Innovation 2: Switching to a seven-day hospital
When patients are admitted on a Friday night, rather than a Monday or Tuesday night, they spend on average an extra day in the hospital.
This delay occurs because hospitals cut back services on weekends and, therefore, frequently postpone non-emergent procedures until Monday. For patients, this extra day in the hospital is costly, inconvenient and risky. The longer the patient stays admitted, the greater the odds of experiencing a hospital acquired infection, medical error or complications from underlying disease.
It would be possible for physicians and staff to spread the work over seven days, thus eliminating delays in care. By having the necessary, qualified staff present seven days a week, inpatients could get essential, but non-emergent treatments on weekends without delay. They could also receive sophisticated diagnostic tests and undergo procedures soon after admission, every day of the week. As a result, patients would get better sooner with fewer total inpatient days and far lower costs.
Hospital administrators don’t make the change because they worry it would upset the doctors and nurses who prefer to work weekdays, not weekends.
Innovation 3: Bringing hospitals into homes
During Covid-19, hospitals quickly ran out of staffed beds. Patients were sent home on intravenous medications with monitoring devices and brief nurse visits when needed.
Building on this success, hospitals could expand this approach with readily available technologies.
Whereas doctors and nurses today check on hospitalized patients intermittently, a team of clinicians set up in centralized location could monitor hundreds of patients (in their homes) around the clock.
By sending patients home with devices that continuously measure blood pressure, pulse and blood oxygenation—along with digital scales that can calibrate fluctuations in a patient’s weight, indicating either dehydration or excess fluid retention—patients can recuperate from the comforts of home. And when family members have questions or concerns, they can obtain assistance and advice through video.
Despite dozens of advantages, use of the “hospital at home” model is receding now that Covid-19 has waned.
That’s because hospital CEOs and CFOs are paid to fill beds in their brick-and-mortar facilities. And so, unless their facilities are full, they prefer that doctors and nurses treat patients in a hospital bed rather than in people’s own homes.
Opportunities for hospital innovations abound. These three are just a few of many changes that could transform medical care. Instead of taking advantage of them, hospital administrators continue to construct expensive new buildings, add beds and raise prices.
Last Thursday, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a proposed rule that would ban employers from imposing noncompete agreements on their employees. Noncompetes affect roughly 20 percent of the American workforce, and healthcare providers would be particularly impacted by this change, as far greater shares of physicians—at least 45 percent of primary care physicians, according to one oft-cited study—are bound by such agreements.
The rulemaking process is expected to be contentious, as the US Chamber of Commerce has declared the proposal “blatantly unlawful”. While it is unclear whether the rule would apply to not-for-profit entities, the American Hospital Association has released a statement siding with the Chamber of Commerce and urging that the issue continue to be left to states to determine.
The Gist: Should this sweeping rule go into effect, it would significantly shift bargaining power in the healthcare sector in favor of doctors, allowing them the opportunity to move away from their current employers while retaining local patient relationships.
The competitive landscape for physician talent would change dramatically, particularly for revenue-driving specialists, who would have far greater flexibility to move from one organization to another, and to push aggressively for higher compensation and other benefits.
Given that the FTC cited suppressed competition in healthcare as an outcome of current noncomplete agreements, the burden will be on organizations that employ physicians—including health systems and insurers, as well as private equity-backed corporate entities—to prove that physician noncompetes areessential to their operations and do not raise prices, as the FTC has suggested.