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.
[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.
The coronavirus pandemic has torn through the global economy, suppressing consumer demand and industrial production. As countries look to an eventual recovery, but in a very different environment characterized by continuing distancing measures and loss of public confidence, businesses in many sectors, such as hospitality and retail, are asking how they can adapt to survive these new economic conditions. Yet perhaps surprisingly, those feeling threatened include independent primary care practices in the United States. Despite the USA being one of the most expensive healthcare systems in the world, many primary care practices are now facing financial collapse. Some estimates suggest that primary care practices will lose up to $15 billion during 2020 as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.
Covid-19 has highlighted a fundamental weakness in how primary care is paid for in the USA. Many practices are financed by fee-for-service (FFS) reimbursement. Put bluntly, providers make money from office visits, diagnostic tests, and procedures. This has long been criticized for encouraging an expansion of what is considered disease and overtreatment, contributing to the high cost of the American health system. However, it can only work as long as patients keep coming, and they are no longer doing so, at least not in sufficient numbers for many primary care practices to remain viable. The imposition of social distancing policies has seen a severe reduction in office visits, and with it a substantial decline in revenue. The pandemic has taught Americans that the financial model that underpins primary care needs to be reformed. It needs to move from a per-visit reimbursement to a per-patient reimbursement, in other words primary care capitation, as used in many other countries, including the UK.
If the existing reimbursement model is not reformed, the clinical and financial implications for struggling primary care practices, which could play a key role in the continuing coronavirus pandemic, will be far-ranging. From a clinical standpoint, primary care practices that need to lay off staff or close will not be able to respond effectively to an influx of patients who have been delaying care since the pandemic began. Given that primary care is often the entry point into the healthcare system, this could lead to severe reductions in access to routine health care as well as referrals to specialty providers for advanced complaints. From a financial standpoint, many of these independent practices may consider consolidation with larger health systems, something that has been shown to increase prices without improving quality in the long run.
To overcome these issues, insurers and primary care practices could work together to construct capitated payment models. In capitated contracts, providers are paid a risk-adjusted sum for each patient enrolled in the practice. Payment to providers is not reliant on volume of office visits, but rather delivering cost-effective care focused on the health of primary care patients.
As we noted above, this system is already widely used internationally, but there are also good examples in the USA. For example, Iora Health is a venture-backed primary care company that partners with insurers to obtain a flat $150 per-member-per-month (PMPM) fee for taking care of its patients. They also receive bonuses for reducing total cost of care (TCOC). As a result, they have been able to use their dollars for health-related interventions, such as hiring health coaches. They have also demonstrated significant reductions in hospitalizations and health spending along with high patient satisfaction scores. Most importantly, they were able to quickly adapt to the needs of their patient population in the pandemic using alternative models of care, such as online consultations, without the added stress of losing revenue.
There are also many other promising examples of both public and private payers designing capitated contracts for independent primary care practices. In the public sector, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) introduced the multi-payer Primary Care First (PCF) Model. Under PCF, primary care practices will receive a risk-adjusted population-based payment for patients as well as a flat fee for any office visits performed. In addition, there are bonuses for practices to limit hospitalizations, an expensive component of delivering care. However, this is still an experimental program that is supposed to begin in 2021, which may be too late for primary care practices that are already facing financial strain from the pandemic.
In the private sector, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBS NC) has created the Accelerate to Value program for independent primary care practices. Through this program, BCBS NC is offering independent primary care practices a supplemental stabilization payment, based on the number of members a particular practice serves. In return, it is asking them to remain open for patients and deliver care appropriate to the circumstances created by the pandemic. In the longer term, it also asks them to join an accountable care organization (ACO) and consider accepting capitation for future reimbursement.
While CMS and BCBS can offer blueprints for a path towards primary care capitation, there will be challenges to implement capitation at scale across the nation’s primary care system. A key defining aspect of the US healthcare system is its multitude of payers, from commercial to Medicaid to Medicare. For primary care capitation to succeed, practices will need to pursue multi-payer contracts that cover a critical mass of the patients they serve. Independent practices will also have to adapt to a fixed budget model where excess healthcare utilization could actually lead to financial losses, unlike in fee-for-service.
Ultimately, it is important to recognize that no payment model will be a panacea for healthcare providers during the pandemic and afterwards. However, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted clear deficiencies in the American fee for service system that have existed for almost a century. Covid-19 has created an opportunity for policymakers and providers to look anew at a model that is already implemented widely in other countries, and in parts of the US. At some point there will have to be an inquiry into the many failures that have characterized the American response to covid-19. Given the magnitude of the catastrophe that has befallen the US, in stark contrast to the relative successes achieved in many other countries, it will be essential to challenge many things once taken for granted. One must be the fee for service system that has so clearly undermined the resilience of the US health system. Covid-19 has provided an almost unprecedented opportunity to create a healthcare system that rewards providers caring for patients in a coordinated manner, rather than prioritizing expensive and often wasteful healthcare provision.
Healthcare is Hard: A Podcast for Insiders; June 11, 2020
Over the course of nearly 20 years as Chief Research Officer at The Advisory Board Company, Chas Roades became a trusted advisor for CEOs, leadership teams and boards of directors at health systems across the country. When The Advisory Board was acquired by Optum in 2017, Chas left the company with Chief Medical Officer, Lisa Bielamowicz. Together they founded Gist Healthcare, where they play a similar role, but take an even deeper and more focused look at the issues health systems are facing.
As Chas explains, Gist Healthcare has members from Allentown, Pennsylvania to Beverly Hills, California and everywhere in between. Most of the organizations Gist works with are regional health systems in the $2 to $5 billion range, where Chas and his colleagues become adjunct members of the executive team and board. In this role, Chas is typically hopscotching the country for in-person meetings and strategy sessions, but Covid-19 has brought many changes.
“Almost overnight, Chas went from in-depth sessions about long-term five-year strategy, to discussions about how health systems will make it through the next six weeks and after that, adapt to the new normal. He spoke to Keith Figlioli about many of the issues impacting these discussions including:
Corporate Governance. The decisions health systems will be forced to make over the next two to five years are staggeringly big, according to Chas. As a result, Gist is spending a lot of time thinking about governance right now and how to help health systems supercharge governance processes to lay a foundation for the making these difficult choices.
Health Systems Acting Like Systems. As health systems struggle to maintain revenue and margins, they’ll be forced to streamline operations in a way that finally takes advantage of system value. As providers consolidated in recent years, they successfully met the goal of gaining size and negotiating leverage, but paid much less attention to the harder part – controlling cost and creating value. That’s about to change. It will be a lasting impact of Covid-19, and an opportunity for innovators.
The Telehealth Land Grab. Providers have quickly ramped-up telehealth services as a necessity to survive during lockdowns. But as telehealth plays a larger role in the new standard of care, payers will not sit idly by and are preparing to double-down on their own virtual care capabilities. They’re looking to take over the virtual space and own the digital front door in an effort to gain coveted customer loyalty. Chas talks about how it would be foolish for providers to expect that payers will continue reimburse at high rates or at parity for physical visits.
The Battleground Over Physicians. This is the other area to watch as payers and providers clash over the hearts and minds of consumers. The years-long trend of physician practices being acquired and rolled-up into larger organizations will significantly accelerate due to Covid-19. The financial pain the pandemic has caused will force some practices out of business and many others looking for an exit. And as health systems deal with their own financial hardships, payers with deep pockets are the more likely suitor.”
Hospital beds are not filling up like they used to, but that doesn’t mean hospitals want their beds to be empty, Axios’ Bob Herman reports.
What they’re saying: Even though more patients are being treated in outpatient clinics rather than hospitals, “we’ll still be able to keep our beds pretty full,” Don Scanlon, chief financial officer at Mount Sinai Health System, said this week at an investor lunch held at Goldman Sachs headquarters in New York City.
Details: Mount Sinai, a not-for-profit hospital system based in Manhattan with $5 billion in annual revenue, is preparing to sell $475 million in bonds, and was making its pitch to bondholders about why buying that debt would be a good deal.
Between the lines: Mount Sinai’s discharges have trended down, but the hospital doesn’t want to lose the bigger dollars tied to inpatient stays. And the system wants to reassure municipal investors they will see returns.
As a result, Mount Sinai has invested more money in outpatient centers in other parts of New York that serve as “feeders” for its main city hospitals, Scanlon said.
The bottom line: Mount Sinai, Trinity Health, Banner Health and a host of other hospital systems have openly touted plans to boost or retain admissions even though they say they want to keep people out of the hospital. This is a fundamental disconnect between “value-based care” and the system’s financial incentives.
After selling more than 80 hospitals in three years, leaders of the large for-profit hospital operator are suggesting the worst may be behind them.
The troubled operator of rural hospitals is focusing now on growth-oriented markets.
The latest round of questions and accusations adds to the tumultuous past five years.
Some analysts say CHS isn’t poised for where the market is headed: outpatient services and value-based care.
Times have been tough for Community Health Systems Chairman and CEO Wayne T. Smith, who is voicing an optimistic message this year as the hospital operator continues to navigate choppy waters.
Smith and fellow CHS senior executives told investors this month that the company expects to complete its massive and long-running divestiture plan by the end of 2019, having already shed 81 hospitals from its portfolio in the three preceding years. The company, based in Franklin, Tennessee, operated 106 hospitals across 18 states as of the end of the first quarter.
While the divestitures give CHS cash to pay down its debt, they are also part of a strategic effort to align CHS operations with the geographic areas where the company sees the greatest growth potential, Smith said.
“This has allowed the company to shift more of our resources to more sustainable markets, ones with better population growth, better economic growth, and lower unemployment, which provides us an opportunity for sustainable growth,” Smith said during the first-quarter earnings call this month.
“As we complete additional divestitures, we expect our same-store metrics to further improve,” he added. “This will lead to not only additional debt reduction but also better cash flow performance and lower leverage ratios.”
Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Thomas J. Aaron echoed that message at the Goldman Sachs Leveraged Finance Conference this month. While CHS was truly a rural hospital company 15 years ago, Aaron said the post-selloff organization is investing strategically in markets where it anticipates growth.
“We’d rather compete in a growing pie than have more market share in a pie that’s shrinking,” Aaron said.
“We feel like we’re well-positioned,” he said.
But the positive forecast is a bit of a tough sell, especially when you consider how bad the past five years have been:
Questionable HMA Acquisition: In 2014, CHS completed its $7.6 billion acquisition of Florida-based hospital operator Health Management Associates, Inc. (HMA), in what is widely viewed in hindsight as a bad move. In addition to a $260 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, a subsidiary of HMA pleaded guilty to criminal fraud last year for alleged misconduct that predated the acquisition by CHS—allegations that Smith knew about before the deal was final. “We were aware of the issues they had,” Aaron said this month. “We went ahead and closed on the transaction, confident that we could get the cost synergy, and we felt like they had some great assets.”
Major Stock Market Woes: In 2015, the price of CHS shares peaked at nearly $53 apiece, according to New York Stock Exchange data. But by the end of that year, shares had lost more than half of that value. Share prices continued to slide the following year and haven’t made a meaningful recovery since. They have been trading below $5 so far this year.
Lackluster Quorum Spin-off: In 2016, CHS spun off 38 hospitals to form Quorum Health Corporation. The spin-off severely underperformed expectations, and investors began asking questions. Quorum formally responded to those investors with a letter that acknowledged several reasons to question the “operational competence” of CHS leaders who backed the spin-off. A related dispute between Quorum and CHS ended in arbitration earlier this year.
Ongoing Hospital Divestitures: In 2017, CHS sold 30 hospitals, followed by another 13 hospitals in 2018, Aaron said. So far this year, CHS has announced the sale of at least seven more: one in Tennessee, two in Florida, and four in South Carolina. A spokesperson for CHS did not respond to HealthLeaders‘ request for additional information and comment.
Recurring Bankruptcy Questions: Industry analysts have wondered for years whether bankruptcy may be on the horizon for CHS. Those questions were renewed again this month when Ryan Heslop, a portfolio manager for Firefly Value Partners LP, took a short position against the company and said a CHS bankruptcy is likely in the next few years, as Reuters reported. About that same time, Smith invested more than $3 million in CHS stock, according to two Securities and Exchange Commission filings. (Smith, 73, who has been CEO for 22 years, now directly and indirectly controls about 2.8% of the company, as the Nashville Post reported.)
Call for CEO’s Ouster: With the release of a report this month titled “Other People’s Money,” the National Nurses United (NNU) group accused Smith of squandering CHS’ assets and called for him to be removed. “The fact that Smith remains at CHS’ helm, given a series of fatal calculations that set the company on a downward spiral, is a real wonder,” the NNU report states. Shareholders, however, voted overwhelmingly in favor of keeping Smith as a director and significantly increasing his incentive plan compensation, according to SEC filings.
Despite the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel rhetoric coming from CHS executives, there’s still real concern the company could come undone. That’s because CHS’ problems run deeper than its balance sheets, says Mark Cherry, MFA, a principal analyst at Market Access Insights for Decision Resources Group.
“Given the national trend toward provider consolidation, CHS might not remain intact even if it were financially healthy,” Cherry tells HealthLeaders in an email, adding that CHS seems to be unsuited for the industry’s ongoing shifts toward value-based payments and outpatient care delivery.
“There are only a few markets, like Scranton, Knoxville, and Northwest Arkansas, where CHS has enough presence to act as a stand-alone health system that can influence physician and patient behaviors,” Cherry says.
The structural problem is rooted in a bad strategic bet a decade ago, Cherry says.
“As markets and regions were coalescing around large integrated delivery networks focused on value-based care, CHS continued to invest in suburban facilities and demand high fee-for-service reimbursement,” Cherry says.
“Whereas operating a couple of suburban hospitals within a larger market once gave CHS access to better insured patients and leverage against payers who wanted to offer broad provider networks, the post-ACA landscape does not have as wide a uninsured discrepancy between urban and suburban areas,” he adds, “and payers are shifting to high-performance narrow networks, allowing them to cut CHS facilities out entirely if they are unwilling to compromise.”