A contentious time for payer-provider negotiations

https://mailchi.mp/59374d8d7306/the-weekly-gist-january-13-2023?e=d1e747d2d8

In our decades of working in healthcare, we’ve never seen a time when payer-provider negotiations have been more tense. Emboldened insurers, having seen strong growth during the pandemic, are entering contract negotiations with an aggressive posture.

“They weren’t even willing to discuss a rate increase,” one CFO shared as he described his health system’s recent negotiations with a large national insurer. “The plan’s opening salvo was a fifteen percent rate cut!”

Health systems are feeling lucky to get even a two or three percent rate bump, well short of the historical average of seven percent—and far short of what would be needed to account for skyrocketing labor, supply, and drug costs. According to executives we work with, efforts to describe the current labor crisis and resulting cost impacts with payers are largely falling on deaf ears.  
 
This scenario is playing out in markets across the country, with more insurers and health systems announcing that they are “terming” their contract, publicly stating they will cut ties should the stalemate in negotiations persist.

Speaking off the record, a system executive shared how this played out for them. With negotiations at an impasse, a large insurer began the process of notifying beneficiaries that the system would soon be out-of-network, and patients would be reassigned to new primary care providers. The health plan assumed that the other systems in the market would see this as a growth opportunity—and was shocked when they discovered that other providers were already operating at capacity, unable to accommodate additional patients from the “terminated” system. 

Mounting concerns about access brought the plan back to the table. Even in the best of times, a major insurer cutting ties with a health system is extremely disruptive for consumers, who must shift their care to new providers or pay out-of-network rates. But given current capacity challenges in hospitals nationwide, major network disruptions can be even more dire for patients—and may force payers and providers to walk back from the brink of contract termination. 

West Coast nonprofit health plans announce agreement to combine

https://mailchi.mp/e44630c5c8c0/the-weekly-gist-december-16-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

Two nonprofit insurers, Long Beach, CA-based SCAN Group and Portland, OR-based CareOregon, have agreed to merge. The new organization—which will take the name HealthRight Group, while retaining the SCAN and CareOregon brands in local markets—will have $6.8B in annual revenue and cover around 800K lives.

Continuing their previous areas of focus, SCAN will cater primarily to Medicare Advantage (MA) beneficiaries, and CareOregon will prioritize serving managed Medicaid enrollees. Executives from both companies cited scale as the primary motivation for the merger, with the companies aiming to both strengthen their foothold in current markets and expand their reach into new ones.

The deal, which still needs approval from state regulators, is expected to close in 2023.

The Gist: HealthRight stands to be a strong player in the booming government-backed, managed care market in states currently dominated by large payers like Kaiser Permanente and UnitedHealthcare. 

SCAN has differentiated itself with services dedicated to underserved populations, including creating a MA plan designed for LGBTQ+ seniors, and offering California’s only integrated dual-eligible, special needs plans. We expect the addition of CareOregon’s 319K managed Medicaid members to provide a larger platform for these targeted initiatives, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see more nonprofit insurers joining forces with HealthRight to better compete with current market heavyweights.  

Why large health insurers are buying up physicians

https://mailchi.mp/3a7244145206/the-weekly-gist-december-9-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

An enlightening piece published this week in Stat News lays out exactly how UnitedHealth Group (UHG) is using its vast network of physicians to generate new streams of profit, a playbook being followed by most other major payers. Already familiar to close observers of the post-Affordable Care Act healthcare landscape, the article highlights how UHG can use “intercompany eliminations”—payments from its UnitedHealthcare payer arm to its Optum provider and pharmacy arms—to achieve profits above the 15 to 20 percent cap placed on health insurance companies.

So far in 2022, 38 percent of UHG’s insurance revenue has flowed into its provider groups, up from 23 percent in 2017. And UHG expects next year’s intercompany eliminations to grow by 20 percent to a total of $130B, which would make up over half of its total projected revenue.

The Gist:

The profit motive behind payer-provider vertical integration is as clear as it is concerning for the state of competition in healthcare

UHG now employs or affiliates with 70K physicians—10K more than last year—seven percent of the US physician workforce, and the largest of any entity. 

Given the weak antitrust framework for regulating vertical integration, the federal government has proven unable to stop the acquisition of providers by payers. Eventually, profit growth for these vertically integrated payers will have to come from tightening provider networks, and not just acquiring more assets. That could prompt regulatory action or consumer backlash, if the government or enrollees determine that access to care is being unfairly restricted.

Until then, the march of consolidation is likely to continue.

Optum expecting $214B in revenue in 2023

UnitedHealth Group expects Optum to see a long-term double-digit revenue growth rate and bring in a range between $212 billion to $214 billion in 2023 revenues.

The Minnetonka, Minn.-based healthcare giant shared Nov. 29 it projects growth margins of over 20 percent for technology products and low- to mid-single-digit growth for pharmacy care services. 

2023 projections:

Optum Health
Revenues: $91 billion to $92 billion
Earnings: $7.4 billion to $7.6 billion

Optum Insight
Revenues: $18.6 billion to $19.3 billion
Earnings: $4.4 billion to $4.5 billion

OptumRx
Revenues: $105.5 billion to $106.5 billion
Earnings: $4.8 billion to $4.9 billion


UnitedHealth Group expects 2023 revenues of $357 billion to $360 billion, net earnings of $23.15 to $23.65 per share, and adjusted net earnings of $24.40 to $24.90 per share. Cash flows from operations are expected to be $27 billion to $28 billion.

UnitedHealthcare expects 2023 revenues to range from $274 billion to $276 billion. By the end of this year, the payer’s revenues are expected to hit $249.2 billion, up from $222.9 billion in 2021.

Inflation slowing as Wall Street looks bullish on healthcare sector

Wall Street’s roil has stabilized somewhat in recent days, with the S&P 500 brushing up against its 200-day moving average and rising more than 10 percent since its October lows, as of publication time.

The index’s 50-day moving average is trending up, according to financial data firm Refinitiv. But it still must climb another 7.4 percent to form a “golden cross,” which is when a stock or index’s short-term moving average rises above one of its longer-term moving averages. The S&P 500’s 20-day and 100-day moving averages are closer to the milestone, only needing increases of 5 percent and 1.2 percent, respectively.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average has already formed a small golden cross: its 20-day moving average is 1.2 percent higher than its 200-day moving average.

Investors Optimistic about Healthcare Sector

 Investors are most optimistic about the Healthcare sector, which is trading close to its 3-year average “price to earnings-per-share” ratio of 48.1x, according to Simply Wall Street.

 Analysts are expecting an annual earnings growth of 13.4 percent, higher than the sector’s past year earnings growth of 5 percent.

 Merck and Johnson & Johnson were among last week’s top gainers driving the market.

Inflation Appears to be Slowing

 The recent lower-than-expected inflation figures could indicate it is slowing.

 The Fed may continue raising rates, considering the strength in recent labor market and retail sales data.

Questioning the motives behind UnitedHealth Group (UHG)’s acquisition of Change Healthcare

https://mailchi.mp/4b683d764cf3/the-weekly-gist-november-18-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

UHG closed its $13B acquisition of data analytics company Change in early October, just weeks after the Justice Department failed in its bid to block the sale on antitrust grounds. In court proceedings, UHG denied it intended to use Change data to give its insurance arm, UnitedHealthcare, a competitive advantage against the rival insurers who use Change as an electronic data interchange clearinghouse.

But a new ProPublica report highlights how communications between UHG and consulting firm McKinsey & Co. point to this potential data advantage as one of the clear upsides from acquiring Change. The McKinsey report was explicitly dismissed by the US District Court judge who, in his ruling in UHG’s favor, was persuaded by testimony from senior executives and evidence of UHG’s history of maintaining internal data firewalls.

The Gist: UHG has a longstanding business interest in maintaining the trust of rival insurers that use its data analytics unit, OptumInsight. Voluntary and internally imposed firewalls between the UHG’s insurance arm and its other businesses are key to maintaining this trust. Although Justice Department lawyers could not provide convincing evidence that UHG has or intends to breach its firewalls, there is still reason to monitor any such activity closely. 

The failure of the McKinsey report to sway the court against the deal illustrates how difficult it is for the Justice Department to challenge vertical mergers, even when there is compelling evidence that such deals may impact competition.

Agents and brokers for Medicare Advantage plans using deceptive marketing tactics

https://mailchi.mp/cfd0577540a3/the-weekly-gist-november-11-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

 In their latest article scrutinizing the MA program, New York Times reporters Reed Abelson and Margot Sanger-Katz highlight MA marketing practices brought to light in a recent report from the Senate Finance Committee. Complaints to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) about MA marketing more than doubled from 2020 to 2021, as agents and brokers took advantage of oversight rules relaxed during the Trump administration. Some of the most egregious alleged abuses include agents switching seniors into new plans without their consent and exploiting individuals with cognitive impairments.

The Gist: Media interest is finally catching up to the building legislative and regulatory pressure on Medicare Advantage. While earlier reporting has highlighted how plans can inflate payments from Medicare, this new story shows how the process of selecting a plan can be fraught for the seniors enrolled. 

Plan design is confusing even for industry insiders, so it is no surprise that seniors might find themselves ‘choosing’ plans that omit key providers, or even drug coverage they already rely on, particularly after being badgered or misled by agents and brokers.

Many of the regulatory fixes highlighted in the report can be implemented directly by CMS, but insurers, who remember the managed care backlash of the 90s, shouldn’t wait to tighten the reins on questionable marketing practices, lest they risk losing public support for one of their most lucrative business lines.

Oscar Health pulls out of major Medicare Advantage (MA) markets

https://mailchi.mp/cfd0577540a3/the-weekly-gist-november-11-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

In its Q3 earnings call, Oscar Health CEO Mario Schlosser revealed that the “insurtech” has pulled out of the MA market in Texas and New York, leaving it with only one Florida-based plan. Oscar entered the MA business with high hopes in 2020, but counted fewer than 5K MA members in Q3 2022.

Although its Affordable Care Act exchange enrollment has nearly doubled since last year, now covering more than 1M lives, Oscar is still struggling with high medical loss ratios, which have kept it from turning a profit. The company’s stock price is at an all-time low, having declined over 90 percent from its peak, shortly after its 2021 IPO.

The Gist: Like Bright HealthCare before them, Oscar pulling out of MA is another sign that the chance of meaningful disruption from “insurtechs” has nearly vanished. While still privately held, Oscar achieved fame in the early 2010s through catchy marketing that targeted a young, tech-savvy client base, and its move into MA before the pandemic signaled broader ambitions.

Oscar’s travails illustrate just how hard it is to start an insurance company from scratch, even with an intriguing and comprehensive technology platform. The company proved unable to overcome its lack of market power in negotiations with providers, and faced difficulty managing a small, unstable risk pool. 

Now that more traditional insurers are improving their mobile tech interfaces and telehealth offerings, the differentiated value Oscar offers to its members has clearly diminished.

Big payers ranked by Q3 profits

The nation’s largest payers have filed their third-quarter earnings reports, revealing which grew their profits the most year over year.

1. UnitedHealth Group: $5.3 billion
The company’s third quarter earnings increased over 28 percent year over year. Total net earnings in 2022 are $15.7 billion, an increase of 16.2 percent from $13.5 billion in 2021.

2. Cigna: $2.8 billion
The company’s third quarter earnings increased over 70 percent year over year. Total net earnings in 2022 are $5.5 billion, an increase of over 29 percent from $4.2 billion in 2021.

3. Elevance Health: $1.6 billion
The company’s third quarter earnings increased over 7 percent year over year. Total net earnings in 2022 are $5.06 billion, an increase of nearly 2 percent from $5 billion in 2021.

4. Humana: $1.2 billion
The company’s third quarter earnings decreased over 21 percent year over year. Total net earnings in 2022 are $2.8 billion, a decrease of over 4 percent from $2.9 billion in 2021.

5. Centene: $738 million
The company’s third quarter earnings increased over 26 percent year over year. Total net earnings in 2022 are $1.4 billion, an increase of over 89 percent from $748 million in 2021.

6. CVS Health: $3.4 billion losses
The company’s third quarter losses are attributable to an opioid legal settlement. Total net earnings in 2022 are $1.9 billion, a decrease of over 71 percent from $6.6 billion in 2021.

Pennsylvania hospital group to stop accepting Aetna insurance next year

Allentown, Pa.-based Lehigh Valley Health Network, which operates 13 hospitals and numerous care sites in Eastern Pennsylvania, will largely stop accepting Aetna insurance in 2023, Morning Call reported Nov. 10.

The move will be effective from March 13, LVHN said in a letter to employees. It comes after years of Aetna refusing to pay for care or delaying care for patients, the health group claimed.

LVHN, which has contracted with Aetna for 20 years, has been in dispute with the insurance company before, the report said. Back in 2000, the hospital group threatened to cut ties with Aetna over a dispute over care reimbursements. 

Some Aetna coverage will remain for emergency care or for serious treatments such as cancer care, according to the letter.

LVHN declined to comment to Morning Call, and Aetna could not be reached, the report said.

More details on the story, which comes at a time when people are enrolling in new healthcare plans, can be found here.