CFOs need to prep for healthcare’s lagging inflation

Healthcare costs are expected to jump 6.0% next year. CFOs must prepare accordingly, advises WTW’s Tim Stawicki.

CFOs need to be prepared for a “higher tail” of medical inflation — even if general inflation eases in the near future, Tim Stawicki, chief actuary, North America health & benefits of Willis Towers Watson (WTW) told CFO Dive.

With the Consumer Price Index (CPI)  rising to 8.5% in July and the recent rise in the core Producer Price Index (PPI), the Federal Reserve will probably look to hike interest rates even farther. 

“CFOS need to be prepared for the case that if general inflation eases, there may be two or three more years where they need to think about how they are managing the costs of health care plans,” he said in an interview. 

Inflation, which can more immediately impact consumer prices, works somewhat differently when it comes to costs of medical care. “Employers are paying healthcare costs based on contracts that their insurer has with providers, which are multiple years in length. So if a deal with the hospital or contract does not come up until 2023, then that provider has the opportunity to renegotiate higher prices for three years,” said Stawicki. 

The recent Best Practices in Healthcare Survey by WTW consisting of 455 U.S. employers found that employers project their healthcare costs will jump 6.0% next year compared with an average 5.0% increase expected by the end of this year.

Further, employers see little relief in sight — seven in 10 (71%) expect moderate to significant increases in costs over the next three years. Additionally, over half of respondents (54%) expect their costs will be over budget this year.

Balancing talent retention and healthcare costs

Talent retention has also remained an entrenched challenge for CFOs over recent months and continues to be top of mind. 

Given inflationary pressures and a potential looming recession, employers are having trouble finding the workers they need to run their businesses. A rise in healthcare benefit costs will make this all the more challenging, said Stawicki. “Employers are looking around and saying ‘I need to find talent to help me run my business and I can’t do that if I have an ineffective program in healthcare benefits,’” he said. 

There is a direct link between business outcomes and in particular employee productivity and employees’ ability to manage their health and financial environment, according to WTW’s Global Benefits Attitude Survey. “Losing the ability to offer programs and benefits that meet employee needs is impacting business,” said Stawicki.

It comes down to finding the balance between cost management in an environment where talent is hard to come by, he said. In order for CFOs to be successful in financing benefit programs they need to look at finding ways to partner with their counterparts in human resources, said Stawicki. 

Sixty-seven percent of employers said that managing company costs was a top priority in the company’s August Best Practices in Healthcare Survey, versus the 42% who said that achieving affordability for employees was a top priority. In the near future, CFOs need to establish a relationship with HR counterparts that can facilitate “ways to manage company costs without shifting it to employees,” said Stawicki. 

Ultimately, company costs remain paramount for employers but running a successful business will also require keeping employee affordability top of mind.

Insurers raise Affordable Care Act (ACA) plan premiums next year

https://mailchi.mp/efa24453feeb/the-weekly-gist-july-22-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

After a few years of relatively unchanged monthly premiums, a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of 72 rate filings for 2023 finds a median 10 percent increase. Insurers say the biggest driver is rising medical costs, driven by higher rates for provider services and pharmaceuticals, as well as a return to pre-pandemic utilization levels. Insurers aren’t expecting COVID-19 or federal policy changes—including a potential extension of enhanced subsidies—to have much of an impact on rates. 

The Gist: High inflation and the growing wage-price spiral have left providers with much higher costs, which is sure to drive up the overall cost of healthcare. Where provider systems have the leverage to demand higher rates from insurers, this will inevitably drive up premiums—an effect that is already starting to show up in the individual insurance market.

If Congressional Democrats are able to extend ACA subsidies, most ACA enrollees won’t actually feel these premium increases, but as contracts in the group market come up for renewal, we’d expect inflation in employer-sponsored premiums as well. Given the cost-sharing now built into most benefit plans, individual consumers will likely see healthcare join gas, food, and housing as household costs that are experiencing unsustainable inflationary increases.

Democrats revive legislation to lower prescription drug prices

https://mailchi.mp/9e0c56723d09/the-weekly-gist-july-8-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

Senate Democrats have reached a deal to give Medicare the power to negotiate drug prices, starting next year. The legislation includes provisions similar to those in the Build Back Better (BBB) Act, such as capping seniors’ out-of-pocket drug costs to $2,000 per year and limiting how fast drugmakers can raise prices.

This smaller package has support from moderate Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), who blocked passage of the BBB last year. Manchin is reportedly open to using some of the estimated $1T in revenue from prescription drug negotiations to fund an extension of Affordable Care Act (ACA) insurer tax credits, which are set to expire this year. 

The Gist: With a closely divided Senate and competing priorities, Democrats have been unable to pass significant healthcare reform since taking control in 2021. 

If all 50 Senate Democrats can coalesce around this deal, it could pass under reconciliation rules without Republican support, allowing the party to deliver on its longstanding promise to lower prescription drug prices. 

It would also help Democrats avoid a problematic “October surprise”: consumers receiving notices that their health insurance and drug plan premiums will be increasing just weeks ahead of the midterm elections. 

UnitedHealth was this quarter’s most profitable payer—again

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/payers/unitedhealth-was-quarters-most-profitable-payer-again

Each of the six major national payers exceeded Wall Street’s expectations for profit in the first quarter, with UnitedHealth Group out in front as the most profitable company.

The health insurance giant continues its streak of profitability in the first quarter, earning $5 billion in profit. The next-highest company, CVS Health, earned $2.3 billion in profit.

UnitedHealth executives said that the company saw double-digit growth at both UnitedHealthcare, its health plan arm, and Optum. Optum, in particular, has been a bright spot for growth over the past several quarters.

UHG also beat the Street for revenue, bringing in $80.1 billion. That’s a hike of nearly $10 billion compared to the first quarter of 2021, where the company brought in $70.2 billion.

CVS came in second on profit and also on revenue, bringing in $76.8 billion. That’s a double-digit revenue increase from its first-quarter 2021 haul of $69.1 billion. 

Revenues were up across its business lines, including a 9% increase at CVS Pharmacy despite a downturn in COVID-19 vaccinations and testing volume in the quarter. Revenues at Aetna, the company’s health plan wing, were up by 12.8%.

Anthem slots in at third place for profitability, earning $1.8 billion in the quarter. That’s up from $1.7 billion in the prior-year quarter. The insurer also had the fourth-highest revenue in the quarter, earning $38.1 billion.

Cigna lands in fourth place for profit and third place for revenue in the quarter, according to its report released Friday. It earned $1.18 billion in profit for the quarter, up from $1.16 billion a year before.

Revenues at Cigna hit $44 billion, up from $41 billion in the first quarter of 2021.

Humana earned $930 million in profit for the quarter for the fifth-highest earnings among the six companies. Its profits increased from $828 million in the first quarter of 2021. The insurer does land last on the list in revenue, with $24 billion for the quarter.

Centene is in sixth for profitability, earning $849 million for the quarter. That’s up from $699 million in the first quarter of 2021. Centene earned $37.2 billion in revenue for first quarter of 2022, up from $30 billion in the prior-year quarter.

Why insurers, health systems are breaking up

Insurers and health systems across the U.S. have been at odds during the most recent cycle of contract negotiations, and terminated contracts are affecting thousands of patients.

As hospitals continue to recover financially from the COVID-19 pandemic and deal with higher supply costs and employee wages, many organizations have tightening margins and hope to negotiate higher rates with insurers as a result. Hospitals are also pointing to rising inflation as a reason for needing higher rates.

One recent example is Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Broward Health’s public breakup with UnitedHealthcare. Thousands of the insurer’s beneficiaries went out of network with Broward April 1 after the two sides failed to agree on a new contract. Broward reportedly asked UnitedHealthcare for a pay increase to the same level UnitedHealthcare pays other South Florida health systems.

UnitedHealthcare said Broward’s rate increase request would amount to 88 percent higher reimbursement for its providers in the next four years, which the insurer said was “unreasonable.” Negotiations continue, but patients are out of network in the meantime.

Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi and the University of Mississippi Medical Center let their contract expire April 1 after they failed to agree on pay rate increases, according to the Clarion Ledger. The medical center treated more than 50,000 patients in the 18 months before the contract expiration.

LouAnn Woodward, MD, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the medical center’s school of medicine, said the health system wants “fair reimbursement” from Blue Cross & Blue Shield to reinvest in its facilities and programs. The insurer said the medical center wanted a 30 percent overall rate increase, including a 50 percent increase for some services, according to the newspaper report.

Physician groups and surgery centers aren’t immune from insurer conflicts. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois terminated its contract with Springfield (Ill.) Clinic late last year, knocking 100,000 beneficiaries out of network.

Colorado’s “public option” primed to move forward

https://mailchi.mp/097beec6499c/the-weekly-gist-april-30-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

What a Difference a Year Makes in Colorado's Case for a Public Option Plan  | Kaiser Health News

We’ve closely tracked Colorado’s pursuit of its own public option insurance plan, which seems now to have reached a compromise that will allow a bill to move forward, according to reporting from Colorado Public Radio. The saga began two years ago when state legislators passed a law requiring Democratic Governor Jared Polis’ administration to develop a public option proposal. Amid the pandemic and broad industry opposition, progress stalled last year on the proposal. Lawmakers picked up the proposal this session, and have made progress on a compromise bill now poised to pass the state’s Democratic legislature.

Unlike the earlier versionthe new legislation would not lay the groundwork for a government-run insurance option, but rather would force insurers to offer a plan in which the benefits and premiums are defined and regulated by the state. The bill would also allow the state to regulate how much hospitals and doctors are paid.

In the current version, hospital reimbursement is set at a minimum of 155 percent of Medicare rates, and premiums are expected to be 18 percent lower than the current average. While state Republicans and some progressive Democrats are still opposed, the Colorado Hospital Association and State Association of Health Plans are neutral on the bill, largely eliminating industry opposition

The role hospitals played in fighting the pandemic surely paved the way toward the compromise bill, which is viewed as much more friendly to providers than the previous proposal. With the Biden administration unlikely to pursue Medicare expansion or a national public option, we expect more Democratic-run states to pursue these sorts of state-level efforts to expand coverage.

In the wake of the pandemic, providers are well-positioned to negotiate—and should use the goodwill they’ve generated to explore more favorable terms, rather than resorting to their usual knee-jerk opposition to these kinds of proposals.

‘We feel bullish’: Payers look ahead to 2021

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/we-feel-bullish-payers-look-ahead-to-2021/585211/

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Top executives at some of the biggest commercial insurers outlined their shifting strategies and what markets are growth opportunities in light of the recession at Morgan Stanley’s annual conference.

Top executives at some of the biggest commercial insurers provided a peak behind their curtains at Morgan Stanley’s annual investor conference this week, discussing the pace of utilization recovery and how they’re approaching rate setting and risk going into next year

Though there’s significant uncertainty around the future of the insurance industry, many remarks can be summed up in a line from Cigna CEO David Cordani: “We feel bullish on 2021.”

And despite the major role of government in regulating healthcare, most officials seemed agnostic on the presidential election looming in less than two months.

Payers are reporting skyrocketing profits amid the COVID-19 pandemic as patients deferred care in droves in the second quarter, sparking a congressional investigation into business practices. Use of healthcare services continues to recover from a nadir in March and April, and that recovery has continued into the third quarter, payer executives said. But the pace has differed by segment.

At the start of the pandemic, Humana saw beneficiary use drop to about 30% of pre-COVID-19 levels until mid-May, when it slowly started to tick back up. The Louisville, Kentucky-based insurer’s utilization is now still “a little below par,” but well above that depression and meeting internal expectations, CEO Bruce Broussard said.

CVS Health-owned Aetna has seen its commercial business come back faster than Medicare, CFO Eva Boratto said. Primary care and labs have seen a quicker rebound, but it’s been slower in inpatient and ambulatory.

Centene CEO Michael Neidorff predicts utilization will be between 65% to 80% of normal by the end of the year, but remains cautious due to the shifting nature of the pandemic, and how it could coincide with a potentially nasty flu season.

“We don’t know what other peaks we’re going to see,” Neidorff said.

2021 rate setting, strategic pivots

Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 is also shaping major payer’s go-to-market approaches and how they’re thinking about 2021 bids.

Humana, for example, studied both historical data prior to COVID-19 and did scenario planning around what the pandemic could do to factors like utilization, testing and treatment if it continued throughout the year. Eventually, the payer decided to base bid assumptions off trending historical information forward, according to Broussard.

“We were very oriented to pricing that was more conservative as we thought about the approach,” he said.

It appears Centene, contrastingly, is using 2020 data to risk score. When asked how the payer is approaching rate setting, Neidorff said: “We’re dealing with this year. And we’re saying that any concessions this year should not necessarily carry into next year, which is an entirely different year.”

Employers and plans nationwide are struggling with this issue. Only about 60% of employers are using 2020 claims to set rates for next year, while another 26% are calculating expected medical costs based on data from 2019, and 9% are using data from the first two months of 2020 alone, according to Credit Suisse.

The pandemic has also shifted insurers’ broader strategic priorities in 2021 and beyond, especially by hammering home the need for diversified revenue streams to keep afloat, top execs said.

“We’re in 37 states. If you have a stock that’s not performing well in your portfolio, you probably have some that are offsetting it,” Centene’s Neidorff said.

Humana has been investing in telesales, at-home and in-community offerings and digital capabilities, with an eye for growth. Broussard said Humana’s customers have been mostreactive to an omnichannel approach to care delivery.

For example, the payer is seeing home as an increasingly valid path for care a little more acute in service than in the past. As a result, Humana plans to continue investing in areas that dovetail with that trend, and those with biggest impact on downstream healthcare costs, including primary care, social determinants of health, behavioral health and pharmacy.

CVS has also accelerated development of its virtual care offering, eClinic, as a result of the pandemic and relaxed federal regulations. Visits are up 40% since the end of June, CEO Larry Merlo said, noting he believes the future of healthcare delivery is at the intersection between digital and physical.

Because of the pandemic, “we are seeing an accelerated shift to this multichannel, integrated approach,” Merlo said. “We did change some of our priorities, and accelerate some things that may have been further down the road.”

CVS is continuing to convert existing stores to health- and wellness-focused locations, called HealthHUBs, which devote a fifth of floor space to healthcare products and services. Currently, the Rhode Island-based giant has 275 HUBs up and running, despite pausing conversions for a time in March.

Cigna is also looking to drive revenue by moving beyond a payer’s traditional wheelhouse. On Wednesday, the insurer announced it was rebranding its health services division as Evernorth, in a next step for the Cigna-Express Scripts megamerger completed almost two years ago.

For its part, Centene is introducing more value-based contracts in 2021, after seeing providers it contracts with in alternative payment models are reporting stronger cash flow and patient relationships amid COVID-19 than those in fee-for-service relationships.

Going into next year, the payer is also focused on margin expansion, working with states to set rates and federal lobbying for friendly policies like an increased Medicaid match rate, Neidorff said.

Attractive markets

The COVID-19 recession booted millions of Americans off employer-sponsored insurance, though the full scope of the insurance crisis isn’t yet clear. Cigna’s Cordani noted the disenrollment in the first half of the year in its commercial population was lower than expected, helped by the fact the payer is less active in sectors hit hardest by the pandemic like travel and leisure.

But disenrollment could still snowball in the second half of 2020. As a result, a number of major commercial payers are building out offerings in two coverage backstops in the market: Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act exchanges.

Broussard said Humana sees ample opportunity in Medicaid — including the dually eligible — but wants to be more surgical in expansion moving forward, especially as states look for a more contemporary delivery of services and engagement with clinical programs. Humana is going to look for tuck-in acquisitions.

“Is there a way to enter the market in a small way, and leverage our capabilities and grow from that?,” Broussard said.

Cordani agreed that budget-strapped states are looking for new ways to lower costs, but said “Medicaid has always been a lower priority growth platform” for Cigna. Instead, the insurer sees the safety net program as an opportunity for Evernorth in the near term, more than its government business.

Of the 1.1 million new members Centene added from March through August, the majority were in Medicaid, but a significant portion were in the ACA exchanges, Neidorff said. Capitalizing on that momentum, Centene — already the largest payer in the exchanges — is adding 2 new states to its footprint for 2021. “I think we’ll grow in marketplace, given the level of people and the subsidies they get,” Neidorff said. “I see it as a positive going forward.”

Humana, however, is leery on entering the exchange market, given political uncertainty around the upcoming 2020 presidential election, according to its top exec.

“The exchange market has stabilized in a lot of different ways, but still has elements where it tends to be a sicker, more transient population,” Broussard said. “We’d rather not be in the situation where we go in and have to pull out because of the political realm.”

Payers also continue to forecast strong growth in Medicare Advantage. Currently, about 34% of Medicare beneficiaries are in the privately run Medicare plans. It’s a popular program: The Congressional Budget Office predicts MA’s share of the overall Medicare population will swell to 47% by 2029.

CVS is currently on track for mid-single-digit growth next year, and sees Aetna’s continued growth in MA as one of the building blocks to continued earnings power, Boratto said. 

Similarly, Cigna is well on track to meeting its goal of 10% to 15% annual organic growth in MA, Cordani said. Historically, Cigna has only been present in about 18% to 19% of the addressable government market, but is trying to eventually expand to 50%.​

Shrugging off election

Unlike years past when some payers worried of Democratic plans for Medicare and other aspects of insurance, most executives seemed to shrugged off the coming presidential election.

President Donald Trump has made undermining the ACA one of the chief goals of his first term, while Democrat nominee former Vice President Joe Biden’s healthcare plan revolves around shoring up the decade-old law, enacting a public option and lowering Medicare’s age of eligibility.

But executives noted Trump’s tenure hasn’t necessarily been bad for them, and having Biden at the helm could provide some opportunity for savvy operators.

Humana could be particularly at risk going into a period of political uncertainty. The payer has a smaller portfolio and fewer assets than some of its bigger peers, Ricky Goldwasser, managing director at Morgan Stanley, said.

But Broussard said regardless of whether the inhabitant of the White House is blue or red, they’ll likely support value-based payment models — a key tenet of its strategy. Additionally, the seemingly-threatening Medicare buy-in option is “very similar to MA,” Broussard said. “We’d see that as the opportunity to expand our ability to bring our capabilities to maybe a younger population, but with a lot of the same elements.”

Some industry experts see the public option, which has bipartisan support among voters, as a potential benefit for companies with leading market share in MA, like UnitedHealth, Humana and Aetna.

“We’ve had public options and done well in public options. So history says that’s fine,” Centene’s Neidorff said. “I think Biden would not be a threat, but an opportunity. I think a Trump re-election would just be more of what we’ve seen. And we’ve done OK with that.”