Despite the hype, accountable care organizations (ACOs) and other Medicare-driven payment reform programs intended to improve quality and lower healthcare spending haven’t bent the cost curve to the extent many had hoped.
A recent and provocative opinion piece in STAT News, from health policy researcher Kip Sullivan and two single-payer healthcare advocates, calls for pressing pause on value-based payment experimentation. The authors argue that current attempts to pay for value have ill-defined goals and hard-to-measure quality metrics that incentivize reducing care and upcoding, rather than improving outcomes.
The Gist: We agree with the authors that current value-based care experiments have been disappointing.
The intention is good, but the execution has been bogged down by entrenched industry dynamics and slow-to-move incumbents. One fair criticism: ACOs and other “total cost management” reforms largely focus on the wrong problem. They address utilization, rather than excessive price.
But we’re having a price problem in the US, not a utilization problem.Europeans, for example, have more physician visits each year than Americans, yet spend less per-person on healthcare. It’s our high prices—for everything from physician visits to hospital stays to prescription drugs—that drive high healthcare spending.
The root cause: our third-party payer structure actively discourages real efforts to lower price—every player in the value chain, including providers, brokers, and insurers, does better economically as prices increase. That’s why price control measures like reference pricing or price caps have been nonstarters among industry participants.
Recent reforms that increase price transparency, while not the entire solution, at least shine a light on the real challenges our healthcare system faces.
This is a guest post by Taylor J. Christensen, M.D. (@taylorjayc). Dr. Christensen is an internal medicine physician and health policy researcher with a background in business strategy and health services research.
Since any mystery in the healthcare system intrigues me, I’ve been working on understanding pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) lately.
Why did PBMs arise in the first place, and how did they come to have this somewhat strange role in the drug market? Let’s look at the evolution of PBMs, which I will categorize into three distinct phases.
Forewarning: There isn’t a lot of publicly available information on this stuff, so some of this is my best piecing together of things I’ve read plus supplemented by direct communications with people who work for insurers or PBMs.
Way back before PBMs, people used to pay for medications 100% up front out of pocket. They’d keep their receipts and then submit them all to their insurer later for partial reimbursement according to their insurance plan’s formulary.
That clearly had some downsides. If a patient couldn’t afford the full price up front, they would be stuck choosing which of their meds they’re not going to get, which is bad for both patients (nonadherence) and pharmacies (lost sales). Insurers also had to spend tons of time reconciling shoeboxes full of receipts.
If only there were a way to integrate an insurer’s formulary into the pharmacy’s computer system so that patients only pay their exact copay at the time they fill a prescription! Everyone would be a lot happier. Patients wouldn’t have to forego quite so many medications, pharmacies wouldn’t lose out on as many medication sales, and insurers wouldn’t have to deal with people sending in shoeboxes full of receipts. Win win win.
Enter the precursors to pharmacy benefit managers—they were essentially groups of software engineers tasked with working with pharmacies to get insurers’ formularies into the pharmacies’ computer systems. And they succeeded! After that, when a patient showed up to fill a prescription, the pharmacy would simply enter the patient’s insurance information into their system and the exact co-pay for that medicine would magically appear on the cash register’s screen. The patient paid their amount, and the transaction was then sent to the insurer to reimburse the rest.
But how did these precursor PBMs evolve into today’s PBMs that, among other things, “manage benefits”? My guess is that it went something like this . . .
These precursor PBMs got pretty good at integrating formularies into pharmacies’ systems, so they began to expand their customer base by helping lots of other insurers do the same thing.
Soon they became more familiar with all the complexities and intricacies of formularies than anyone else. And, as companies are wont to do, they leveraged that competency to make more money by offering a new service, which they maybe pitched to insurers like this:“Hey insurer, we already know all the details of your formulary. And we know where you could save money since formularies are kind of our thing. Why don’t you outsource your formulary-making efforts to us? We’ll make you a better formulary and charge less than it’s costing you to do it in-house right now. No-brainer, right?” And thus, not too long after their inception, PBMs officially started managing pharmacy benefits.
But that’s not where the story ends.
Phase 3 (dun dun dun)
Soon these PBMs found that they had amassed significant indirect control over which medicines patients get. Set a lower copay for a medicine and, sooner or later, more patients will end up taking it. And the one making the formulary is the one who sets the copays.
What did PBMs do with that power? They tried to leverage it to get better drug prices from manufacturers, which would allow them to offer an equivalent but cheaper formulary to their customers (insurers). But how, if they are not actually in the drug supply chain (that goes from drug manufacturers à drug wholesalers à pharmacies à patients) could they do that?
They cleverly reached out to the drug manufacturers directly and said something like this:“Hey drug manufacturer, we don’t actually have a direct financial relationship with you (yet). But we have significant control over how many sales you get because we set patients’ copays. How about we guarantee that your drug will, from now on, be the only one from its category in the lowest-copay tier? This will increase your sales quite a bit! And, in exchange for helping you get more sales, you can send us a “rebate” on every sale. So this is how it will work. We already keep track of every drug transaction, so every quarter we will send you the data to show how many patients using our formulary bought your drug, and you will send us a $10 rebate for each one.”
Contrary to popular belief, PBMs don’t keep all of this rebate money. Remember, their goal is to outbid other PBMs to offer the best formulary for the cheapest. And if the PBM market is competitive, they will have some degree of price competition that will force them to pass along some of those rebates on to their customers (insurers) in the form of lower fees.
I spoke with someone who works at an insurer and is in charge of contracting with their insurer’s PBM, and this person indicated that it is very possible for an insurer to get multiple bids from PBMs and identify which one is the best deal. Although, with the complexity involved, this process generally requires a specialist healthcare consultant who is an expert on navigating PBM contracts. I spoke with such a consultant, who had also worked for PBMs directly before becoming a consultant to insurers, and this person estimated that PBMs only keep about 20% of the rebates they receive from drug manufacturers. Other studies have been done on this topic, but attribution is tricky since PBMs are able to rename the monies they are receiving from drug manufacturers to fudge the numbers, which is probably why the Government Accountability Office reported in 2019 that PBMs only retain about 1% of rebates.
Well, there you have it. Phase 3 was the start of all the wheeling-dealing complexities that give PBMs their shady reputation.
I believe this is helpful background to have when you’re trying to improve the drug market (i.e., solve the problem of expensive drugs) because without understanding the incentives of the parties involved, you cannot get to the root of the problems with that system.
Optum, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth, provides data analytics and infrastructure, a pharmacy benefit manager called OptumRx, a bank providing patient loans called Optum Bank, and more.
It’s not often that the American Hospital Association—known for fun lobbying tricks like hiring consultants to create studies showing the benefits of hospital mergers—directly goes after another consolidation in the industry.
But when the AHA caught wind of UnitedHealth Group subsidiary Optum’s plans, announced in January 2021, to acquire data analytics firm Change Healthcare, they offered up some fiery language in a letter to the Justice Department. “The acquisition … will concentrate an immense volume of competitively sensitive data in the hands of the most powerful health insurance company in the United States, with substantial clinical provider and health insurance assets, and ultimately removes a neutral intermediary.”
If permitted to go through, Optum’s acquisition of Change would fundamentally alter both the health data landscape and the balance of power in American health care. UnitedHealth, the largest health care corporation in the U.S., would have access to all of its competitors’ business secrets. It would be able to self-preference its own doctors. It would be able to discriminate, racially and geographically, against different groups seeking insurance. None of this will improve public health; all of it will improve the profits of Optum and its corporate parent.
Despite the high stakes, Optum has been successful in keeping this acquisition out of the public eye.Part of this PR success is because few health care players want to openly oppose an entity as large and powerful as UnitedHealth. But perhaps an even larger part is that few fully understand what this acquisition will mean for doctors, patients, and the health care system at large.
If regulators allow the acquisition to take place, Optum will suddenly have access to some of the most secret data in health care.
UnitedHealth is the largest health care entity in the U.S., using several metrics. United Healthcare (the insurance arm) is the largest health insurer in the United States, with over 70 million members, 6,500 hospitals, and 1.4 million physicians and other providers. Optum, a separate subsidiary, provides data analytics and infrastructure, a pharmacy benefit manager called OptumRx, a bank providing patient loans called Optum Bank, and more. Through Optum, UnitedHealth also controls more than 50,000 affiliated physicians, the largest collection of physicians in the country.
While UnitedHealth as a whole has earned a reputation for throwing its weight around the industry, Optum has emerged in recent years as UnitedHealth’s aggressive acquisition arm. Acquisitions of entities as varied as DaVita’s dialysis physicians, MedExpress urgent care, and Advisory Board Company’s consultants have already changed the health care landscape. As Optum gobbles up competitors, customers, and suppliers, it has turned into UnitedHealth’s cash cow, bringing in more than 50 percent of the entity’s annual revenue.
On a recent podcast, Chas Roades and Dr. Lisa Bielamowicz of Gist Healthcare described Optum in a way that sounds eerily similar to a single-payer health care system. “If you think about what Optum is assembling, they are pulling together now the nation’s largest employers of docs, owners of one of the country’s largest ambulatory surgery center chains, the nation’s largest operator of urgent care clinics,” said Bielamowicz. With 98 million customers in 2020, OptumHealth, just one branch of Optum’s services, had eyes on roughly 30 percent of the U.S. population. Optum is, Roades noted, “increasingly the thing that ate American health care.”
Optum has not been shy about its desire to eventually assemble all aspects of a single-payer system under its own roof. “The reason it’s been so hard to make health care and the health-care system work better in the United States is because it’s rare to have patients, providers—especially doctors—payers, and data, all brought together under an organization,” OptumHealth CEO Wyatt Decker told Bloomberg. “That’s the rare combination that we offer. That’s truly a differentiator in the marketplace.” The CEO of UnitedHealth, Andrew Witty, has also expressed the corporation’s goal of “wir[ing] together” all of UnitedHealth’s assets.
Controlling Change Healthcare would get UnitedHealth one step closer to creating their private single-payer system. That’s why UnitedHealth is offering up $13 billion, a 41 percent premium on the public valuation of Change. But here’s why that premium may be worth every penny.
Change Healthcare is Optum’s leading competitor in pre-payment claims integrity; functionally, a middleman service that allows insurers to process provider claims (the receipts from each patient visit) and address any mistakes. To clarify what that looks like in practice, imagine a patient goes to an in-network doctor for an appointment. The doctor performs necessary procedures and uses standardized codes to denote each when filing a claim for reimbursement from the patient’s insurance coverage. The insurer then hires a reviewing service—this is where Change comes in—to check these codes for accuracy. If errors are found in the coded claims, such as accidental duplications or more deliberate up-coding (when a doctor intentionally makes a patient seem sicker than they are), Change will flag them, saving the insurer money.
The most obvious potential outcome of the merger is that the flow of data will allow Optum/UnitedHealth to preference their own entities and physicians above others.
To accurately review the coded claims, Change’s technicians have access to all of their clients’ coverage information, provider claims data, and the negotiated rates that each insurer pays.
Change also provides other services, including handling the actual payments from insurers to physicians, reimbursing for services rendered. In this role, Change has access to all of the data that flows between physicians and insurers and between pharmacies and insurers—both of which give insurers leverage when negotiating contracts. Insurers often send additional suggestions to Change as well; essentially their commercial secrets on how the insurer is uniquely saving money. Acquiring Change could allow Optum to see all of this.
Change’s scale (and its independence from payers) has been a selling point; just in the last few months of 2020, the corporation signed multiple contracts with the largest payers in the country.
Optum is not an independent entity; as mentioned above, it’s owned by the largest insurer in the U.S. So, when insurers are choosing between the only two claims editors that can perform at scale and in real time, there is a clear incentive to use Change, the independent reviewer, over Optum, a direct competitor.
If regulators allow the acquisition to take place, Optum will suddenly have access to some of the most secret data in health care. In other words, if the acquisition proceeds and Change is owned by UnitedHealth, the largest health care corporation in the U.S. will own the ability to peek into the book of business for every insurer in the country.
Although UnitedHealth and Optum claim to be separate entities with firewalls that safeguard against anti-competitive information sharing, the porosity of the firewall is an open question. As the AHA pointed out in their letter to the DOJ, “[UnitedHealth] has never demonstrated that the firewalls are sufficiently robust to prevent sensitive and strategic information sharing.”
In some cases, this “firewall” would mean asking Optum employees to forget their work for UnitedHealth’s competitors when they turn to work on implementing changes for UnitedHealth. It is unlikely to work. And that is almost certainly Optum’s intention.
The most obvious potential outcome of the merger is that the flow of data will allow Optum/UnitedHealth to preference their own entities and physicians above others. This means that doctors (and someday, perhaps, hospitals) owned by the corporation will get better rates, funded by increased premiums on patients. Optum drugs might seem cheaper, Optum care better covered. Meanwhile, health care costs will continue to rise as UnitedHealth fuels executive salaries and stock buybacks.
UnitedHealth has already been accused of self-preferencing. A large group of anesthesiologists filed suit in two states last week, accusing the company of using perks to steer surgeons into using service providers within its networks.
Even if UnitedHealth doesn’t purposely use data to discriminate, the corporation has been unable to correct for racially biased data in the past.
Beyond this obvious risk, the data alterations caused by the Change acquisition could worsen existing discrimination and medical racism. Prior to the acquisition, Change launched a geo-demographic analytics unit. Now, UnitedHealth will have access to that data, even as it sells insurance to different demographic categories and geographic areas.
Even if UnitedHealth doesn’t purposely use data to discriminate, the corporation has been unable to correct for racially biased data in the past, and there’s no reason to expect it to do so in the future. A study published in 2019 found that Optum used a racially biased algorithm that could have led to undertreating Black patients. This is a problem for all algorithms. As data scientist Cathy O’Neil told 52 Insights, “if you have a historically biased data set and you trained a new algorithm to use that data set, it would just pick up the patterns.” But Optum’s size and centrality in American health care would give any racially biased algorithms an outsized impact. And antitrust lawyer Maurice Stucke noted in an interview that using racially biased data could be financially lucrative. “With this data, you can get people to buy things they wouldn’t otherwise purchase at the highest price they are willing to pay … when there are often fewer options in their community, the poor are often charged a higher price.”
The fragmentation of American health care has kept Big Data from being fully harnessed as it is in other industries, like online commerce. But Optum’s acquisition of Change heralds the end of that status quo and the emergence of a new “Big Tech” of health care. With the Change data, Optum/UnitedHealth will own the data, providers, and the network through which people receive care. It’s not a stretch to see an analogy to Amazon, and how that corporation uses data from its platform to undercut third parties while keeping all its consumers in a panopticon of data.
The next step is up to the Department of Justice, which has jurisdiction over the acquisition (through an informal agreement, the DOJ monitors health insurance and other industries, while the FTC handles hospital mergers, pharmaceuticals, and more). The longer the review takes, the more likely it is that the public starts to realize that, as Dartmouth health policy professor Dr. Elliott Fisher said, “the harms are likely to outweigh the benefits.”
There are signs that the DOJ knows that to approve this acquisition is to approve a new era of vertical integration. In a document filed on March 24, Change informed the SEC that the DOJ had requested more information and extended its initial 30-day review period. But the stakes are high. If the acquisition is approved, we face a future in which UnitedHealth/Optum is undoubtedly “the thing that ate American health care.”
About 1 in 10 nursing homes in California and nationwide are owned by private equity (PE) investors, and new research suggests that death rates for residents of those facilities are substantially higher than at institutions with different forms of ownership.
Researchers from New York University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania found that the combination of subsidies from Medicare and Medicaid alongside incentives for PE owners to increase the value of their investments “could lead high-powered for-profitincentives to be misaligned with the social goal of affordable, quality care [PDF].” The researchers — Atul Gupta, Constantine Yannelis, Sabrina Howell, and Abhinav Gupta — reported that nursing homes owned by private equity entities were associated with a 10% increase in the short-term death rate of Medicare patients over a 12-year period. That means more than 20,000 people likely died prematurely in homes run by PE companies, according to their study, which was published in February by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).
In addition to the higher short-term death rates, these homes were found to have sharper declines in measures of patient well-being, including lower mobility, increased pain intensity, and increased likelihood of taking antipsychotic medications, which the study said are discouraged in the elderly because the drugs increase mortality in this age group. Meanwhile, the study found that taxpayer spending per patient episode was 11% higher in PE-owned nursing homes.
There’s nothing new about for-profit nursing homes, but private equity firms are a unique subset that in recent years has made significant investments in the industry, Dylan Scott reported in Vox. PE firms typically buy companies in pursuit of higher profits for shareholders than could be obtained by investing in the shares of publicly traded stocks. They then sell their investments at a profit, often within seven years of purchase. They often take on debt to buy a company and then put that debt on the newly acquired company’s balance sheet.
They also have purchased a mix of large chains and independent facilities — “making it easier to isolate the specific effect of private equity acquisitions, rather than just a profit motive, on patient welfare.” About 11% of for-profit nursing homes are owned by PE, according to David Grabowski, professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. The NBER study covered 1,674 nursing homes acquired in 128 unique transactions.
While the owners of many nursing homes may not be planning to sell them, they also have strong incentives to keep costs low, which may not be good for patients. A study funded by CHCF, for instance, found that “early in the pandemic, for-profit nursing homes had COVID-19 case rates five to six times higher than those of nonprofit and government-run nursing homes. This was true of both independent nursing homes and those that are part of a corporate chain.”
Given the dramatic increase in PE ownership of nursing facilities coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the higher death rates are troubling. The year-over-year growth between 2019 and 2020 is especially striking. Before the pandemic, 2019 saw 33 private equity acquisitions of nursing homes valued at just over $483 million.In 2020, there were 43 deals valued at more than $1.5 billion, according to Bloomberg Law reporter Tony Pugh.
And PE interest in health care is not restricted to nursing homes, explained Gretchen Morgenson and Emmanuelle Saliba at NBC News. “Private equity’s purchases have included rural hospitals, physicians’ practices, nursing homes and hospice centers, air ambulance companies and health care billing management and debt collection systems.” Overall, PE investments in health care have increased more than 1,900% over the past two decades. In 2000, PE invested less than $5 billion. By 2017, investment had jumped to $100 billion.
Industry advocates argue that the investments are in nursing homes that would fail without an influx of PE capital. The American Investment Council said private equity firms invest in “nursing homes to help rescue, build, or grow businesses, often providing much-needed capital to strengthen struggling companies and employ Americans,” according to Bloomberg Law.
The Debate Over Staffing
A bare-bones nursing staff is implicated in poorer quality at PE-owned nursing homes, both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Staff is generally the greatest expense in nursing homes and a key place to save money. “Labor is the main cost of any health care facility — accounting for nearly half of its operating costs — so cutting it to a minimum is the fastest profit-making measure owners can take, along with paying lower salaries,” journalist Annalisa Merelli explained in Quartz.
Staffing shrinks by 1.4% after a PE purchase, the NBER study found.
The federal government does not set specific patient-to-nurse ratios. California and other states have set minimum standards, but they are generally “well below the levels recommended by researchers and experts to consistently meet the needs of each resident,” according to the journal Policy, Politics, & Nursing Practice.
According to nursing assistant Adelina Ramos, “understaffing was so significant [during the pandemic] that she and her colleagues . . . often had to choose which dying or severely ill patient to attend first, leaving the others alone.”
Ramos worked at the for-profit Genesis Healthcare, the nation’s largest chain of nursing homes, which accepted $180 million in state and federal funds during the COVID-19 crisis but remained severely understaffed. She testified before the US Senate Finance Committee in March as a part of a week long look into how the pandemic affected nursing homes. “Before the pandemic, we had this problem,” she said of staffing shortages. “And with the pandemic, it made things worse.”
$12.46 an Hour
In addition, low pay at nursing homes compounds staffing shortages by leading to extremely high rates of turnover. Ramos and her colleagues were paid as little as $12.46 an hour.
Loss of front-line staff leads to reductions in therapies for healthier patients, which leads to higher death rates, according to the NBER study. The effect of these cuts is that front-line nurses spend fewer hours per day providing basic services to patients. “Those services, such as bed turning or infection prevention, aren’t medically intensive, but they can be critical to health outcomes,” wrote Scott at Vox.
Healthier patients tend to suffer the most from this lack of basic nursing. “Sicker patients have more regimented treatment that will be adhered to no matter who owns the facility,” the researchers said, “whereas healthier people may be more susceptible to the changes made under private equity ownership.”
Growing Interest on Capitol Hill
In addition to the Senate Finance Committee hearings, the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing at the end of last month about the excess deaths in nursing homes owned by PE. “Private equity’s business model involves buying companies, saddling them with mountains of debt, and then squeezing them like oranges for every dollar,” said Representative Bill Pascrell (D-New Jersey), who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee’s oversight subcommittee.
The office of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) will investigate the effects of nursing-home ownership on residents, she announced on March 17.
The hope is that the pandemic’s effect on older people will bring more attention to the issues that lead to substandard nursing home care. “Much more is needed to protect nursing home residents,” Denise Bottcher, the state director of AARP’s Louisiana office, told the Senate panel. “The consequence of not acting is that someone’s mother or father dies.”
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.
For a small group of vascular surgery centers in metropolitan Washington, D.C., it was local churches that turned out to be surprisingly lucrative.
It was at health screening fairs hosted by these houses of worship where Marty Makary, M.D., found surgeons drumming up business for pricey—and often unnecessary—leg stents. It’s among the collection of systemic and human examples Makary examines in his new book “The Price We Pay: What Broke American Health Care—and How to Fix It” as driving forces behind rising U.S. health costs.
Makary, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins and New York Times best-selling author, hits every segment of the market, from a health system in New Mexico that has sued 1 in 5 residents in town to a health insurance conference where brokers described over drinks why they usually aren’t helping employers get the best deal.
“Healthcare has adopted a business model that uses middlemen, price gouging and sometimes delivers care that can be inappropriate, and this bloated economy has a tremendous amount of waste,” Makary said. “So our research really asks the question: ‘What is the experience of the everyday American interfacing with our healthcare system?’”
I caught up with Makary recently to discuss some of the problems he highlights in his new book, which is being released Sept. 10, and some of his ideas on how we solve them.
FierceHealthcare: Why did you write this book?
Marty Makary: Hospitals are amazing places and there is a tremendous amount of public trust in hospitals. But I’ve been seriously concerned about the erosion of public trust by the price gouging and predatory billing practices that patients are describing all over America. Our research team found bills are marked up as much as 23 times higher than what hospitals will accept from Medicare. We kept hearing over and over again that, ‘No one is expected to pay these bills. Hospital CEOs assured me when I showed them inflated bills that nobody is expected to pay the sticker price.’ But that didn’t seem to match the stories we were hearing on the ground.
FH: One of the hospitals you highlight in this book in Carlsbad, New Mexico, had a practice of hiking prices and suing patients who were unable to pay. What did you find there?
MM:We decided to shift our research into the question: “Are Americans asked to pay the sticker price and if so, what happens when they can’t afford it?”
A woman sent me a message where not only was the bill inflated, but the care was—in her opinion, unnecessary—and the hospital had sued her. When I reached out, she said, “They’ve sued all my friends as well and garnished our paychecks.” I couldn’t believe this, and so I flew out to Carlsbad. The driver of the Chamber of Commerce taxi service that picked us up from the airport, the receptionist at the hotel, the waitress at the breakfast place, the clerk’s office staff, families in the courthouse: You couldn’t believe it. Everywhere you turned, people had been terrorized financially by this local community hospital. I thought: “Where is the spirit of medicine? Do these executives even know the consequences on the ground of these billing practices?”
FH: In the book, you mention many hospital executives don’t even know they’re suing patients.
MM:Oftentimes, there’s detachment. And when we’re detached from the consequences or problems, that’s when horrible things happen in societies historically. I found sometimes hospital executives, board members and certainly our research supports doctors not knowing about this practice. And when they find out, the clinicians are outraged. By and large, board members want it to stop … I think if you look at any major issue in the United States, whether it be race, poverty or healthcare, if we are not proximate to the problem, we tend to rationalize financial systems that enable the problem. In healthcare, what I’ve noticed is, when I would share these stories at conferences, other healthcare experts argued it was not a problem that was diabolical, they just weren’t proximate to the issue.
FH: You also document that many hospitals are doing the right thing.
MM: Most hospitals try to do the right thing. But I think it tells us a lot about the practice of suing patients and that it’s unnecessary. When all the revenue generated from suing patients amounts to less than the amount of the CEO pay increase in one year, which is something we’ve seen, the argument that it’s essential to sue patients in order for the hospital to be sustainable melts away.
FH: But obviously, the problem is not just about hospitals, right?
MM: A lot of people are getting rich in healthcare. We’ve created tens of thousands of millionaires that are not patient-facing. If you look at the earnings on Wall Street of some of these healthcare companies, for example, UnitedHealth Group reported a 25% increase in earnings in a recent earnings report. How do earnings go up 25% in an actuarial insurance business? They said on their call it was in part due to their pharmacy benefit manager (PBM), a well-known middleman that profits from spread pricing and money games. Hospitals are on target this year for their highest margin in history—5.1% based on early 2019 data. At the same time rural hospitals are closing, large hospitals are making barrels of money. Although they are claiming razor-thin margins, the cost shift accounting is so sophisticated, that they can use their profit to buy new buildings, pay down debt, buy more real estate, increase executive pay. What we have right now is an arms race of profiteering in healthcare where all the stakeholders are making a lot of money except for one, and that’s the patient.
FH: In the book, you talk about efforts to address practice outliers like those vascular surgeons through the use of big data, which led to the creation of the “Improving Wisely” initiative. What did you do?
MM: Most doctors do the right thing or always try to. But the fraction that are responding to the consumerist culture or the perverse incentives or are just not practicing state of the art care can cost the system a lot more money than those who aren’t … Instead of hammering doctors that do the right thing with reporting burdens and other hassles, we can shunt those resources to address outliers identified in the data using metrics endorsed by the experts in each specialty, and gold card the good doctors so they don’t have to deal with reporting hassles and the expense of the reporting hassles.
In studying the issue of inappropriate care and delivering measures of the appropriateness of care, we’ve been meeting with individual specialists around the country and many of these doctors are telling us about the practice pattern that a fraction of specialists in their field are doing that represents overuse. Our work called “Improving Wisely” partners with associations to send outlier physicians their data around a specialty-endorsed measure of overuse. What we’ve seen is, among doctors, among outlier physicians who see their data with a confidential dear doctor letter, that 83% reduce their pattern of overuse. The initial project two years ago that cost $150,000 has resulted in $27 million worth of savings. This is an example of a high consensus approach that results in real savings that you just don’t see in other areas. By and large, politicians are talking about different ways to fund the broken healthcare system and not ways to fix it. We need to talk about how to fix it.
FH: In the book, you really seem to try to take on everyone: doctors, hospitals, air ambulances, workplace wellness companies, PBMs.
MM:Almost all the voices in healthcare are beholden to some special interest or stakeholder. We desperately need a global critique of how this system has gone awry and there’s a lot of finger-pointing going on right now, especially at the insurance companies and pharma. But the reality is, we all have a piece of this pie. I don’t think there’s really any one villain in the healthcare system. I don’t even think there’s much deliberate malfeasance that goes on. I think we have a system that’s largely run by people doing what they are told to do and they are doing it in a place where they may not be proximate to the hardship the system creates.
FH: So the big question: How do we fix the problems?
MM: For every problem I described, I tried to describe one of the most exciting disrupters in this space. With the pricing failure problem, I highlight the Free Market Medical Association and the individuals who are saying they are going to make all prices transparent and fair regardless of who’s paying whether it’s a patient or an insurance company. There’s one fair price. Keith Smith of the Surgery Center of Oklahoma is offering one fair true price. Not a sticker price but a true price, regardless of who’s paying. You look at MDsave and Clear Health Costs. They are offering ways for people to shop. If the government does nothing on healthcare, I’m still optimistic we are moving in the right direction because businesses in American are realizing that they’re getting ripped off on their healthcare and pharmacy plans. They’re increasingly doing direct contracting and looking closely at their health insurance benefits and pharmacy design and realizing there is a lot of money wasted.
One of the root issues in healthcare is the way we physicians are educated. It uses a model that’s highly flawed, relying highly on rote memorization of things that are easily available on the Internet today and omits training in effective communication, public policy and healthcare literacy. It turns out that many doctors feel paralyzed in fixing this broken system even as they’re suspicious of the waste in it. One of the goals of writing the book was creating healthcare literacy because we in the field are taught medical literacy but we’re never taught healthcare literacy. One of the exciting disrupters I had the privilege of spending time was the Sidney Kimmel Medical College (in Philadelphia). They have an academic standard in the admissions process. Once people meet that academic standard, everybody is considered based on their empathy, self-awareness and communication skills. It’s revolutionary as simple as it sounds. But they’re focusing on what matters.