Members of an influential congressional advisory committee on Medicare are torn on how best to regulate telehealth after the COVID-19 public health emergency, hinting at the difficulty Washington faces as it looks to impose guardrails on virtual care without restricting its use after the pandemic ends.
During a Thursday virtual meeting, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission expressed its support of telehealth broadly, but many members noted snowballing use of the new modality could create more fraud and abuse in the system down the line.
Key questions of how much Medicare reimburses for telehealth visits and what type of visits are paid for won’t be easily answered, MedPAC commissioners noted. “This is a really, really difficult nut to crack,” Michael Chernew, MedPAC chairman and a healthcare policy professor at Harvard Medical School, said.
Virtual care has kept much of the industry running during the coronavirus pandemic, allowing patients to receive needed care at home. Much of this was possible due to the declaration of a public health emergency early 2020, allowing Medicare to reimburse for a greater swath of telehealth services and nixing other restrictions on virtual care.
However, much of that freedom is only in place for the duration of the public health emergency, leaving regulators and legislators scrambling to figure which new flexibilities they should codify, and which perhaps are best left in the past along with COVID-19.
It’s a tricky debate as Washington looks to strike a balance between keeping access open and costs low.
In a Thursday meeting, MedPAC debated a handful of policy proposals to try and navigate this tightrope. Analysts floated ideas like making some expansions permanent for all fee-for-service clinicians; covering certain telehealth services for all beneficiaries that can be received in their homes; and covering telehealth services if they meet CMS’ criteria for an allowable service.
But many MedPAC members were wary of making any concrete near-term policy changes, suggesting instead the industry should be allowed to test drive new telehealth regulations after COVID-19 without baking them in permanently.
“I don’t think what we’ve done with the pandemic can be considered pilot testing. I think a lot of this is likely to go forward no matter what we do because the gate has been opened, and it’s going to be really hard to close it,” Marjorie Ginsburg, founder of the Center for Healthcare Decisions, said. But “I see this just exploding into more fraud and abuse than we can even begin imagining.”
Paul Ginsburg, health policy chair at the Brookings Institution, suggested a two-year pilot of any changes after the public health emergency ends.
However, it would be “regressive” to roll back all the gains virtual care has made over the past year, according to Jonathan Perlin, CMO of health system HCA.
“These technologies are such a part of the environment that at this point, I fear [it] would be anachronistic not to accept that reality,” Perlin said.
Among other questions, commissioners were split on how much Medicare should pay for telehealth after the pandemic ends.
That parity debate is perhaps the biggest question mark hanging over the future of the industry. Detractors argue virtual care services involve lower practice costs, as remote physicians not in an office don’t need to shell out for supplies and staff. Paying at parity could distort prices, and cause fee-for-service physicians to prioritize delivering telehealth services over in-person ones, some commissioners warned.
Other MedPAC members pointed out a lower payment rate could stifle technological innovation at a pivotal time for the healthcare industry.
MedPAC analysts suggested paying lower rates for virtual care services than in-person ones, and paying less for audio-only services than video.
Commissioners agreed audio-only services should be allowed, but that a lower rate was fair. Commissioner Dana Gelb Safran, SVP at Well Health, suggested CMS should consider outlining certain services where video must be used out of clinical necessity.
Previously, telehealth services needed a video component to be reimbursed. Proponents argue expanded access to audio-only services will improve care access, especially for low-income populations that might not have the broadband access or technology to facilitate a video visit.
Another major concern for commissioners is how permanently expanding telehealth access would affect direct-to-consumer telehealth giants like Teladoc and Amwell. If all telehealth services delivered at home are covered, that could allow the private companies to “really take over the industry,” Larry Casalino, health policy chief in the Weill Cornell Department of Healthcare Policy and Research, said.
Because of the lower back-end costs for virtual care than in-office services, paying vendors the same rate as in-office physicians could drive a lot of brick-and-mortar doctors out of business, commissioners warned.
Sitting in the dark before 6 am in my Los Angeles house with my face lit up by yet another Zoom screen, wearing a stylish combination of sweatpants, dress shirt and last year’s JPM conference badge dangling around my neck for old times’ sake, I wonder at the fact that it’s J.P. Morgan Annual Healthcare Conference week again and we are where we are. Quite a year for all of us – the pandemic, the healthcare system’s response to the public health emergency, the ongoing fight for racial justice, the elections, the storming of the Capital – and the subject of healthcare winds its way through all of it – public health, our healthcare system’s stability, strengths and weaknesses, the highly noticeable healthcare inequities, the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid and vaccines, healthcare politics and what the new administration will bring as healthcare initiatives.
I will miss seeing you all in person this year at the J.P. Morgan Annual Healthcare Conference and our annual Sheppard Mullin reception – previously referred to as “standing room only” events and now as “possible superspreader events.” What a difference a year makes. I admit that I will miss the feeling of excitement in the rooms and hallways of the Westin St. Francis and all of the many hotel lobbies and meeting rooms surrounding it. Somehow the virtual conference this year lacks that je ne sais quoi of being stampeded by rushing New York-style street traffic while in an antiquated San Francisco hotel hallway and watching the words spoken on stage transform immediately into sharp stock price increases and drops. There also is the excitement of sitting in the room listening to paradigm shifting ideas (teaser – read the last paragraph of this post for something truly fascinating). Perhaps next year, depending on the vaccine…
So, let’s start there. Today was vaccine day at the JPM Conference, with BioNTech, Moderna, Novovax and Johnson & Johnson all presenting. Lots of progress reported by all of the companies working on vaccines, but the best news of the day was the comment from BioNTech that the UK and South Africa coronavirus variants likely are still covered by the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. BioNTech’s CEO, Prof. Uğur Şahin, M.D., promised more data and analysis to be published shortly on that.
We also saw continued excitement for mRNA vaccines, not only for COVID-19 but also for other diseases. There is a growing focus (following COVID-19 of course) on vaccines for cancer through use of neoantigen targets, and for a long list of infectious disease targets.For cancer, though, there continues to be a growing debate over whether the best focus is on “personalized” vaccines or “off the shelf” vaccines – personalized vaccines can take longer to make and have much, much higher costs and infrastructure requirements. We expect, however, to see very exciting news on the use of mRNA and other novel technologies in the next year or two that, when approved and put into commercialization, could radically change the game, not only as to mortality, but also by eliminating or significantly reducing the cost of care with chronic conditions (which some cancers have become, thanks to technological advancement). We are fortunate to be in that gap now between “care” and “cure,” where we have been able with modern medical advances to convert many more disease states into manageable chronic care conditions. Together with today’s longer lifespans, that, however, carries a much higher price tag for our healthcare system. Now, with some of these recent announcements, we look forward to moving from “care” to “cure” and substantially dropping the cost of care to our healthcare system.
Continuing consolidation also was a steady drumbeat underlying the multiple presentations today on the healthcare services side of the conference – health plans, health systems, physician organizations, home health. The drive to scale continues, as we have seen from the accelerated pace of mergers and acquisitions in the second half of 2020, which continues unabated in January 2021. There was today’s announcement of the acquisition by Amerisource Bergen of Walgreens Boots Alliance’s Alliance Healthcare wholesale business (making Walgreens Boots Alliance the largest single shareholder of Amerisource Bergen at nearly 30% ownership), following the announcement last week of Centene’s acquisition of Magellan Health (coming fast on the heels of Molina Healthcare’s purchase of Magellan’s Complete Care line of business).
On the mental health side – a core focus area for Magellan Health – Centene’s Chief Executive Officer, Michael Neidorff, expressed the common theme that we have been seeing in the past year that mental health care should be integrated and coordinated with primary and specialty care. He also saw value in Magellan’s strong provider network, as access to mental health providers can be a challenge in some markets and populations. The behavioral/mental health sector likely will see increased attention and consolidation in the coming year, especially given its critical role during the COVID-19 crisis and also with the growing Medicaid and Medicare populations.There are not a lot of large assets left independent in the mental health sector (aside from inpatient providers, autism/developmental disorder treatment programs, and substance abuse residential and outpatient centers), so we may see more roll-up focus (such as we have seen recently with the autism/ABA therapy sector) and technology-focused solutions (text-based or virtual therapy).
There was strong agreement among the presenting health plans and capitated providers (Humana, Centene, Oak Street and multiple health systems) today that we will continue to see movement toward value-based care (VBC) and risk-based reimbursement systems, such as Medicare Advantage, Medicare direct contracting and other CMS Innovation Center (CMMI) programs and managed Medicaid. Humana’s Chief Executive Officer, Bruce Broussard, said that the size of the MA program has grown so much since 2010 that it now represents an important voting bloc and one of the few ways in which the federal government currently is addressing healthcare inequities – e.g., through Over-the-Counter (OTC) pharmacy benefits, benefits focused on social determinants of health (SDOH), and healthcare quality improvements driven by the STARS rating program. Broussard also didn’t think Medicare Advantage would be a negative target for the Biden administration and expected more foreseeable and ordinary-course regulatory adjustments, rather than wholesale legislative change for Medicare Advantage.
There also was agreement on the exciting possibility of direct contracting for Medicare lives at risk under the CMMI direct contracting initiative. Humana expressed possible interest in both this year’s DCE program models and in the GEO regional risk-based Medicare program model that will be rolling out in the next year. Humana sees this as both a learning experience and as a way to apply their chronic care management skills and proprietary groups and systems to a broader range of applicable populations and markets. There is, however, a need for greater clarity and transparency from CMMI on program details which can substantially affect success and profitability of these initiatives.
Humana, Centene and Oak Street all sang the praises of capitated medical groups for Medicare Advantage and, per Michael Neidorff, the possibility of utilizing traditional capitated provider models for Medicaid membership as well. The problem, as noted by the speakers, is that there is a scarcity of independent capitated medical groups and a lack of physician familiarity and training. We may see a more committed effort by health plans to move their network provider groups more effectively into VBC and risk, much like we have seen Optum do with their acquired fee for service groups. Privia Health also presented today and noted that, while the market focus and high valuations today are accorded to Medicare lives, attention needs to be paid to the “age in” pipeline, as commercial patients who enroll in original Medicare and Medicare Advantage still would like to keep their doctors who saw them under commercial insurance. Privia’s thesis in part is to align with patients early on and retain them and their physicians, so as to create a “farm system” for accelerated Medicare population growth. Privia’s Chief Executive Officer, Shawn Morris, also touted Privia’s rapid growth, in part attributable to partnering with health systems.
As written in our notes from prior JPM healthcare conferences, health systems are continuing to look outside to third parties to gain knowledge base, infrastructure and management skills for physician VBC and risk arrangements. Privia cited their recent opening of their Central Florida market in partnership with Health First and rapid growth in providers by more than 25% in their first year of operations.
That being said, the real market sizzle remains with Medicare Advantage and capitation, percent of premium arrangements and global risk. The problem for many buyers, though, is that there are very few assets of size in this line of business. The HealthCare Partners/DaVita Medical Group acquisition by Optum removed that from the market, creating a high level of strategic and private equity demand and a low level of supply for physician organizations with that expertise. That created a focus on groups growing rapidly in this risk paradigm and afforded them strong valuation, like with Oak Street Health this past year as it completed its August 2020 initial public offering. Oak Street takes on both professional and institutional (hospital) risk and receives a percent of premium from its contracting health plans. As Oak Street’s CEO Mike Pykosz noted, only about 3% of Medicare dollars are spent on primary care, while approximately two-thirds are spent on hospital services. If more intensive management occurs at the primary care level and, as a result, hospitalizations can be prevented or reduced, that’s an easy win that’s good for the patient and the entire healthcare system (other than a fee for service based hospital).Pykosz touted his model of building out new centers from scratch as allowing greater conformity, control and efficacy than buying existing groups and trying to conform them both physically and through practice approaches to the Oak Street model. He doesn’t rule out some acquisitions, but he noted as an example that Oak Street was able to swiftly role out COVID-19 protocols rapidly and effectively throughout his centers because they all have the same physical configuration, the same staffing ratio and the same staffing profiles. Think of it as a “franchise” model where each Subway store, for example, will have generally the same look, feel, size and staffing. He also noted that while telehealth was very helpful during the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 and will continue as long as the doctors and patients wish, Oak Street believes that an in-person care management model is much more effective and telehealth is better for quick follow-ups or when in-person visits can’t occur.
Oak Street also spoke to the topic of Medicare Advantage member acquisition, which has been one of the more difficult areas to master for many health plans and groups, resulting in many cases with mergers and acquisitions becoming a favored growth vehicle due to the difficulties of organic membership growth. Interestingly, both Oak Street and Humana reported improvements in membership acquisition during the COVID-19 crisis. Oak Street credited digital marketing and direct response television, among other factors. Humana found that online direct-to-consumer brokers became an effective pathway during the COVID-19 crisis and focused its energy on enhancing those relationships and improving hand-offs during the membership enrollment process. Humana also noted the importance of brand in Medicare Advantage membership marketing.
Staying with Medicare Advantage, there is an expectation of a decrease in Medicare risk adjustment revenue in 2021, in large part due to the lower healthcare utilization during the COVID crisis and the lesser number of in-person visits during which HCC-RAF Medicare risk adjustment coding typically occurs. That revenue drop however likely will not significantly decrease Medicare Advantage profitability though, given the concomitant drop in healthcare expenses due to lower utilization, and per conference reports, is supposed to return to normal trend in 2022 (unless we see utilization numbers fall back below 90% again). Other interesting economic notes from several presentations, when taken together, suggest that while many health systems have lost out on elective surgery revenue in 2020, their case mix index (CMI) in many cases has been much higher due to the COVID patient cases. We also saw a number of health systems with much lower cash days on hand numbers than other larger health systems (both in gross and after adjusting for federal one-time stimulus cash payments), as a direct result of COVID. This supports the thesis we are hearing that, with the second wave of COVID being higher than expected, in the absence of further federal government financial support to hospitals, we likely will see an acceleration of partnering and acquisition transactions in the hospital sector.
Zoetis, one of the largest animal health companies, gave an interesting presentation today on its products and service lines. In addition to some exciting developments re: monoclonal antibody treatments coming on line for dogs with pain from arthritis, Zoetis also discussed its growing laboratory and diagnostics line of business. The animal health market, sometime overshadowed by the human healthcare market, is seeing some interesting developments as new revenue opportunities and chronic care management paradigms (such as for renal care) are shifting in the animal health sector. This is definitely a sector worth watching.
We also saw continuing interest, even in the face of Congressional focus this past year, on growing pharmacy benefit management (PBM) companies, which are designed to help manage the pharmacy spend. Humana listed growth of its PBM and specialty pharmacy lines of business as a focus for 2021, along with at-home care. In its presentation today, SSM Health, a health system in Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Illinois, and Missouri, spotlighted Navitus, its PBM, which services 7 million covered lives in 50 states.
One of the most different, interesting and unexpected presentations of the day came from Paul Markovich, Chief Executive Officer of Blue Shield of California. He put forth the thesis that we need to address the flat or negative productivity in healthcare today in order to both reduce total cost of care, improve outcomes and to help physicians, as well as to rescue the United States from the overbearing economic burden of the current healthcare spending. Likening the transformation in healthcare to that which occurred in the last two decades with financial services (remember before ATMs and banking apps, there were banker’s hours and travelers cheques – remember those?), he described exciting pilot projects that reimagine healthcare today. One project is a real-time claims adjudication and payment program that uses smart watches to record physician/patient interactions, natural language processing (NLP) to populate the electronic medical record, transform the information concurrently into a claim, adjudicate it and authorize payment. That would massively speed up cash flow to physician practices, reduce paperwork and many hours of physician EMR and billing time and reduce the billing and collection overhead and burden. It also could substantially reduce healthcare fraud.
Paul Markovich also spoke to the need for real-time quality information that can result in real-time feedback and incentivization to physicians and other providers, rather than the costly and slow HEDIS pursuits we see today. One health plan noted that it spends about $500 million a year going into physician offices looking at medical records for HEDIS pursuits, but the information is totally “in the rearview mirror” as it is too old when finally received and digested to allow for real-time treatment changes, improvement or planning. Markovich suggested four initiatives (including the above, pay for value and shared decision making through better, more open data access) that he thought could save $100 billion per year for the country.Markovich stressed that all of these four initiatives required a digital ecosystem and asked for help and partnership in creating one. He also noted that the State of California is close to creating a digital mandate and statewide health information exchange that could be the launching point for this exciting vision of data sharing and a digital ecosystem where the electronic health record is the beginning, but not the end of the healthcare data journey.
Like a lot of people, I have really gotten into listening to podcasts over the last year. They’re such an immersive way to learn about the world, and I like how the format lets you dive as deep on a topic as you want. So, I was inspired to start one of my own—but I knew I couldn’t do it on my own.
I couldn’t ask for a better partner on this project than Rashida Jones. A mutual friend suggested that the two of us might have a lot to talk about, and it turned out he was right. I already knew she was a talented actor, but I was impressed by her thoughtful perspective on the world. So, we decided to start a podcast that lets us think through some of today’s most pressing problems together. In our first episode, Rashida and I explore a big question that is top of mind for many people: what will the world look like after COVID-19?
I know it’s hard to imagine right now while new cases are surging around the world, but there will come a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us. I think it’s safe to assume that society will be changed forever, given how disruptive the virus has been to virtually every part of our lives.
Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go before life truly gets back to “normal.” Rashida and I were joined by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to discuss what to expect in the months to come. I’ve had the opportunity to work with Dr. Fauci on a number of global health issues over the years, including the quest for an HIV vaccine and cure. He’s such a quiet and unassuming guy normally, so it’s been wild to watch him become a huge celebrity.
Dr. Fauci and I are both optimistic that a vaccine will bring an end to the pandemic at some point in the near future. But what the world looks like after that is a lot less clear. I suspect that some of the digitization trends we’ve seen—especially in the areas of online learning, telemedicine, and remote work—will become a regular part of our lives. I hope this episode leaves you hopeful about the future and curious about what comes next.
Alignment between CEOs and CFOs has become even more essential during the pandemic.
Many health systems halted elective surgeries earlier this year at the height of the pandemic to conserve resources while caring for COVID-19 patients. Now, in many areas, those procedures are returning and hospitals are slowly resuming more normal operations. But damage has been done to the hospital’s bottom line. Moving forward, the relationship between top executives will be crucial to make the right decisions for patients and the overall health of their organizations.
During the Becker’s Healthcare CEO+CFO Virtual Forum on Aug. 11, CEOs and CFOs for top hospitals and health systems gathered virtually to share insights and strategies as well as discuss the biggest challenges ahead for their institutions. Click here to view the panels on-demand.
Here are six takeaways from the event:
1. The three keys to a strong CEO and CFO partnership are trust, transparency and communication.
2. It’s common for a health system CEO and CFO to have different priorities and different opinions about where investments should be made. To help come to an agreement, they should look at every decision as if it’s a decision being made by the organization as a whole and not an individual executive. For example, there are no decisions by the CFO. There are only decisions by the health system. The CFOs said it’s important to remember that the patient comes first and that health systems don’t exist to make money.
3. Technology has of course been paramount during the pandemic in terms of telehealth. But so are nontraditional partnerships with other health systems that have allowed providers to share research and education.
4. When it comes to evaluating technology, there’s a difference between being on the cutting edge versus the bleeding edge. Investing in new technology requires firm exit strategies. If warning signs show an investment is not going to give the return a health system hoped for, they need to let go of ideals and stick to the exit strategy.
5. Communication and transparency with staff and the public is key while making challenging decisions. Many hard decisions, including furloughs or personnel reductions, were made this spring to protect the financial viability of healthcare organizations. These decisions, which were not made lightly, were critiqued highly by the public. One of the best ways to ensure the message was not getting lost in translation and to help navigate the criticism included creating a communication plan and sharing that with employees, physicians and the public.
6. The pandemic required hospitals to think on their feet and innovate quickly. Many of the usual ways to solve a problem could not be used during that time. For example, large systems had to rethink how to acquire personal protective gear. Typically, in a large health system amid a disaster, when a supply item is running low, organizations can call up another hospital in the network and ask them to send some supplies. However, everyone in the pandemic was running low on the same items, which required innovation and problem-solving that is outside of the norm.
IN THE New York Times, Stephen I. Sadove, chairman and chief executive of Saks Inc., explains that it is culture that drives results:
It starts with leadership at the top, which drives a culture. Culture drives innovation and whatever else you’re trying to drive within a company — innovation, execution, whatever it’s going to be. And that then drives results.
When I talk to Wall Street, people really want to know your results, what are your strategies, what are the issues, what it is that you’re doing to drive your business. They’re focused on the bottom line. Never do you get people asking about the culture, about leadership, about the people in the organization. Yet, it’s the reverse, because it’s the people, the leadership, the culture and the ideas that are ultimately driving the numbers and the results.
While we know that our most important resource is our people, it’s not so easy to get people “all in”—convincing people to “truly buy into their ideas and the strategy they’ve put forward, to give that extra push that leads to outstanding results.”
All In by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton explains why some managers are able to get their employees to commit wholeheartedly to their culture and give that extra push that leads to outstanding results and how managers at any level, can build and sustain a profitable, vibrant work-group culture of their own. All In takes the principles found in their previous books—The Orange Revolution and The Carrot Principle—and expands on them and places them in a wider context.
They begin by explaining that it all rests on the “belief factor.” People want to believe, but given the fact that “failure could cost them their future security why shouldn’t they be at least a little dubious about your initiatives?” But belief is key. “As leaders we must first allow people on our teams to feel like valuable individuals, respecting their views and opening up to their ideas and inputs, even while sharing a better way forward. It’s a balancing act that requires some wisdom.”
To have a culture of belief employees must feel not only engaged, but enabled and energized. What’s more, “each element of E+E+E can be held hostage by an imbalance in the other two.”
The authors have created a 7 step guide to develop a culture where people buy-in:
Define your burning platform. “Your ability to identify and define the key “burning” issue you face and separate it from the routine challenges of the day is the first step in galvanizing your employees to believe in you and in your vision and strategy.”
Create a customer focus. “Your organization must evolve into one that not only rewards employees who spot customer trends or problems, but one that finds such challenges invigorating, one that empowers people at all levels to respond with alacrity and creativity.”
Develop agility. “Employees are more insistent than ever that their managers see into the future and do a decent job of addressing the coming challenges and capitalizing on new opportunities.”
Share everything. “When we aren’t sure what’s happening around us, we become distrustful….In a dark work environment, where information is withheld or not communicated properly, employees tend to suspect the worst and rumors take the place of facts. It is openness that drives out the gray and helps employees regain trust in culture.”
Partner with your talent. “Your people have more energy and creativity to give. There are employees now in your organization walking around with brilliant ideas in their pocket. Some will never share them because they don’t have the platform to launch those ideas on their own. Most, however, will never reveal them because they don’t feel like a partner in the organization.”
Root for each other. “Our research shows incontrovertible evidence that employees respond best when they are recognized for things they are good at and for those actions where they had to stretch. It is this reinforcement that makes people want to grow to their full shape and stature.”
Establish clear accountability. “To grow a great culture, you need to cultivate a place where people have to do more than show up and fog a mirror; they have to fulfill promises—not only collectively but individually.” And this has to be a positive idea.
Gostick and Elton explain that the “modern leader provides the why, keeps an ear close to those they serve, is agile and open, treats their people with deference, and creates a place where every step forward is noted and applauded.”
The authors skillfully examine high-performing cultures and present the elements that produce them. A leader at any level can implement these ideas to drive results. A great learning tool.
Board directors and executives can pool their wisdom to help companies grapple with the challenge of a lifetime.
As Winston Churchill said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” We are seeing some faint signs of progress in the struggle to contain the pandemic. But the risk of resurgence is real, and if the virus does prove to be seasonal, the effect will probably be muted. It is likely never more important than now for boards of directors and executive management teams to tackle the right questions and jointly guide their organizations toward the next normal.
Recently, we spoke with a group of leading nonexecutive chairs and directors at companies around the world who serve on the McKinsey Resilience Advisory Council. They generously shared the personal insights and experiences gained from their organizations’ efforts to manage through the crisis and resume work. The 15 themes that emerged offer a guide to boards and executive teams everywhere. Together, they can debate these issues and set an effective context for the difficult decisions now coming up as companies plan their return to full activity.
Managing through the crisis
1. Boards must strike the right balance between hope for the future and the realism that organizations need to hear. There are many prognostications on what comes after COVID-19. Many will be helpful. Some will be right. Boards and managers may have some hopes and dreams of their own. Creating value and finding pockets of growth are possible. It is important to have these aspirations, because they form the core of an inner optimism and confidence that organizations need. However, leaders should not conflate aspirations with a prescience about the future.
2. The unknown portion of the crisis may be beyond anything we’ve seen in our professional lives. Boards and managers feel like they might be grappling with only 5 percent of the issues, while the vast majority are still lurking, unknown. Executives are incredibly busy, fighting fires in cash management and other areas. But boards need to add to their burden and ask them to prepare for a “next normal” strategy discussion. Managers need to do their best to find out what these issues are, and then work with boards to ensure that the organization can navigate them. The point isn’t to have a better answer. The point is to build the organizational capability to learn quickly why your answer is wrong, and pivot faster than your peers do. Resilience comes through speed. This may be a new capability that very few organizations have now, and they will likely need to spend real time building it.
3. Beware of a gulf between executives and the rank and file. Top managers are easily adapting to working from home and to flexible, ill-defined processes and ways of working, and they see it as being very effective and also the wave of the future. Many people in the trenches think it is the worst thing to happen to them (even those that are used to working remotely). Remote working is raising the divide between elites and the common man and woman. There is a real risk of serious tension in the social fabric of organizations and in local and national communities.
4. Don’t overlook the risks faced by self-employed professionals, informal workers, and small businesses. These groups are often not receiving sufficient support. But their role in the economy is vital, and they may be noticed only later, when it is too late.
5. Certain industries and sectors are truly struggling and require support. Several disrupted industries and many organizations in higher education, the arts, and sports are severely struggling and require support to safeguard their survival.
Return to work—the path ahead
6. Mid- to long-term implications and scenarios vary considerably. It’s important to differentiate between industries and regions. Some industries may never come back to pre-COVID-19 levels.
7. What went wrong? Boards and executives, but also academics, need to debate the question. Where should we have been focusing? Take three examples. Why did companies ignore the issue of inadequate resilience in their supply chain? The risks of single sourcing were well known and transparent. Also, why did we move headlong toward greater specialization in the workforce, when we knew that no single skill was permanently valuable? Finally, why did we refuse to evolve our business models, although we knew that technology and shifts in societal preferences were forcing us down a treadmill of ever decreasing value-creation potential?
8. How can we prevent a backlash to globalization? The tendency toward nationalism was already strong and is growing during the crisis. The ramifications will be challenging. For example, in pharmaceutical development, residents of the country where a pharma company has its headquarters may expect to get the drug first. Global companies, despite their experience, may find it harder to address and engage directly with diverse, volatile, and potentially conflicting stakeholders. In such times, societies may need someone to mediate between the private sector and some of these stakeholders.
9. Companies need help with government relations. Strong government interventions are occurring on the back of a serious loss of confidence in free-market mechanisms. There is little question that different governments will land on different answers to the debate around how free markets really ought to be structured. The corporate community has been thrust into a new relationship with government, and it is struggling. The government landscape is fragmented, with highly varied approaches and competencies. Companies are looking for a playbook; no one has an infrastructure to manage this complexity.
10. Where will the equity come from, and with what strings attached? Governments are propping up various sectors with new capital. What will they receive in return? Will they distort markets? How can companies manage this process carefully to emerge from the crisis with a stronger balance sheet? Further, much more capital is likely needed; presumably some of it will come from the private sector. Will capital markets be effective and trusted in such times? Who governs this overall process, and what role should the government play? Is it the time for more state funds?
11. The balance between profits and cash flow is tricky, and essential to get right. Many companies are caught right now and are sacrificing their bottom line in order to pay for their financing. That’s not sustainable; companies will need guidance on how to balance the two.
12. It may be time for responsible acquisitions, including to help restructure certain industries. Many “resilients” have “kept their powder dry,” and are now ready to acquire. But they need to be sensitive and allow sellers a good path to exit. We need guidelines for responsible acquisitions.
13. Cyberrisk is growing. Remote working increases the “attack surface” for criminals and state actors. Both are more active. Chief information officers and chief information security officers are grappling with the overwhelming demand for work-from-home technology and the need for stringent cybersecurity.
14. Innovation may never have been so important. Innovation has always been essential to solving big problems. The world is looking not just for new things but also for new ways of doing things (especially on the people side, where we need new behaviors, long-term rather than short-term), capabilities, and work ethics.
15. The path ahead will surely have ups and downs and will require resilience. As lockdowns are relaxed, and segments of the economy reopen, viral resurgences and unforeseen events will keep growth from being a straight line going up. It will likely be a lengthy process of preserving “lives and livelihoods” over several months, if not years. The reality is that many or even most business leaders made choices over the past decades that traded resilience for a perceived increase in shareholder value. Now may be the moment to consider that the era of chipping away at organizational resilience in the name of greater efficiency may have reached its limits. This is not to say that there are no efficiencies to be sought or found, but more that the trade-off between efficiency and resiliency needs to be defined far more clearly than it has been in recent years.
It is the board’s responsibility to coach and advise its management team, especially when the terrain is trickier than usual. However, boards should not mistake the need for vigorous debate with the need for consensus. More than ever, a bias to action is essential, which will frequently mean getting comfortable with disagreement. Apart from all the operational focus needed for the return to work, it is even more important that boards and management teams take a step back to reflect upon these 15 core themes. In summary:
Take the time to recognize how the people who (directly or indirectly) depend on the company feel.
Have aspirations about the post-COVID world, but build the resilience to make them a reality.
Strengthen your capability to engage and work with regulators and the government.
Watch out for non-COVID risks, and make sure to carve out time to dedicate to familiar risks that have never gone away.
Find out what went wrong, and answer the uncomfortable truths that investigation uncovers.
More than 500 people now work at Google Health, mostly out of the Palo Alto offices formerly occupied by smart home group Nest.
It’s led by former Geisinger CEO David Feinberg, who reports to Google AI chief Jeff Dean, and key players include Google veteran Paul Muret, who runs product, and Chief Health Officer Karen DeSalvo.
Former Nest CTO Yoky Matsuoka, who oversaw a small team under Feinberg looking at home-health monitoring, has left the company.
Google’s health care projects, which were once scattered across the company, are now starting to come together under one team now working out of the Palo Alto offices formerly occupied by Nest, Google’s smart home group, according to several current and former employees.
Google Health, which represents the first major new product area at Google since hardware, began to organize in 2018, and now numbers more than 500 people working under David Feinberg, who joined the company in early 2019. Most of these people were reassigned from other groups within Google, although the company has been hiring and currently has over a dozen open roles.
Google and its parent company, Alphabet, are counting on new businesses as growth slows in its core digital advertising business. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, who was recently promoted from Google’s CEO to run the whole conglomerate, has saidhealth care offers the biggest potential for Alphabet to use artificial intelligence to improve outcomes over the next 5 to ten years.
Google’s health efforts date back more than a decade to 2006, when it attempted to create a repository of health records and data. Back then, it aimed to connect doctors and hospitals and help consumers aggregate their medical data. However, those early attempts failed in market and the company terminated this first “Google Health” product in 2012. Google then spent several years developing artificial intelligence to analyze imaging scans and other patient documents and identify diseases with the intent of predicting outcomes and reducing costs. It also experimented with other ideas, like adding an option for people searching for medical information to talk to a doctor.
The new Google Health unit is exploring some new ideas, such as helping doctors search medical records and improving health-related Google search results for consumers, but primarily consolidates existing teams that have been working in health for a while.
Google’s not the only tech giant working on new efforts centered around the health industry.Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft have all ramped up efforts in recent years, and have been building out their own teams.
Who’s important at Google Health?
In just over a year under Feinberg’s leadership, Google Health has grown to more than 500 employees, according to the company’s internal directory and people familiar with the company. These people asked for anonymity as they’re not authorized to comment publicly about the company’s plans.
Feinberg stood out in interviews for the job because he helped motivate Geisinger to start thinking more deeply about preventative health and not just treating the sick, according to people familiar with the hiring process. During his tenure at Geisinger, the hospital experimented with giving away healthy food to people with chronic conditions, including diabetes. It also pushed for more patients to have genetic tests to screen for diseases before it grew too late to treat them.
Feinberg works closely with Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian, who has named healthcare as one of biggest industry verticals for the business as it attempts to catch up with cloud front-runners Amazon and Microsoft.
Another key player at Google Health is Paul Muret, who had been an internal advocate for forming Google Health before Feinberg was hired, say two people who worked there. Muret is a veteran of the company who worked as a vice president of engineering for analytics, followed by video and apps. He’s now listed on LinkedIn as a product leader for “AI and Health,” and people in the organization say he’s in charge on the product side.
The company is now staffing up its team with health industry execs to show that it’s not just a group of Silicon Valley techies tinkering with artificial intelligence.
For instance, Feinberg helped recruit Karen DeSalvo as Google’s chief health officer. DeSalvo, who was the health commissioner of New Orleans, played a major role in rebuilding the city’s health systems in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Like Feinberg, she’s been a big advocate of the idea that there’s more to health than just health care. She’s pushed for hospitals to consider whether patients have access to transportation services, healthy food and a support system before sending them home.
Google Health has also absorbed a small group from Nest that was looking into home-health monitoring, which would be particularly beneficial for seniors who are hoping to live independently. That group was led by former Nest CTO Yoky Matsuoka, sources say, but she recently left Alphabet, and has reportedly been working as a fellow at Panasonic. Matsuoka co-founded Google’s R&D arm, now called X, in 2011, and worked at Apple in between her stints at Google.
She’s not the only high-profile departure. A top business development leader, Virginia McFerran, who came from insurance giant UnitedHealth Group, has also left the company. To replace her, the team brought over Matt Klainer, a vice president from the consumer communications products group as its business development lead for Google Health.
Some health-related ‘Other Bets’ will remain separate
Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has a number of health-related “Other Bet” businesses that will remain independent from Google Health, including Verily, the life sciences group, and Calico, which is focused on aging.
“Our thesis has always been to apply these deep computer science capabilities across Google and our Other Bets to grow and develop into new areas,” noted Pichai, when describing the company’s work in health.
“The Alphabet structure allows us to have a portfolio of different businesses with different time horizons, without trying to stretch a single management team across different areas,” he continued.
Skyrocketing costs are being driven by bureaucracy.
This chart looks remarkably similar to a chart that tracks the growth of the administrative class in higher education. And that’s no accident. As the physician who shared the chart writes:
[The chart] outlines the growth of administrators in healthcare compared to physicians over the last forty years. And, it includes an overlay of America’s healthcare spending over that same time. Take a look at the yellow color. A picture is worth a thousand words, isn’t it?
You see, when you have that much administration, what you really have is a bunch of meetings. Lots of folks carrying their coffee from place to place. They are meeting about more policies, more protocols to satisfy government-created nonsense. But, this type of thing in healthcare isn’t fixing things. It’s not moving the needle.
What moves things is innovation.
Innovation, indeed. But it’s not easy to innovate in stagnant, hyper-regulated, captured sectors.
In Tyler Cowen’s 2011 book the Great Stagnation, he argued that the areas that were stagnating the most are education, healthcare, and government. Writing about Cowen’s book in his Wall Street Journal blog, Kelly Evans says:
A particular challenge we confront is that our progress as a society — chiefly, in extending and improving lives — is now at a point in which it appears to be undercutting our potential for further advancement. Part of this, Mr. Cowen observes, stems from well-meaning efforts to do more with education, government, and health care that instead seem to have backfired and left us with noncompetitive institutions closer to failing us than to serving us well.
With respect to healthcare, this chart gives us an indication of why these efforts are backfiring: The more an industry becomes like a regulated utility, the more administrators are required to enforce the regulations and administer the programs. And they, as well as the programs they administer, are expensive. All manner of distortions follow, and the costs of healthcare go up proportionally.
There also seems to be perverse incentives associated with subsidy: The more resources you dump in, the more expensive that industry becomes. You might shift the costs around on unsuspecting groups (like taxpayers), but in almost every case we see premium hikes and tuition increases in both of these industries, despite (or rather because of) the truckloads of federal largesse.
But they will have to stop at some point — one way or the other.
The US healthcare system has become something of a Frankenstein monster, with pieces stitched together ad hoc by regulators and special interests. The ACA seems to have ignored most of what really needed fixing and doubled down on the worst aspects of our system. Price transparency, affordability, innovation and competitive entrepreneurship have all gotten worse, not better. And the beast has grown to take over more than 17 percent of GDP.
(And if you think 17 percent is about right, consider that in Singapore healthcare takes up less than 3 percent of GDP.)
The trouble with any further healthcare reform is that a massive coalition of special interests in multiple sectors has formed as a husk around the entire industry — a care-tel, if you will — and they will be very difficult to dislodge.
Best Buy is known as the largest specialty electronics retailer in the U.S., and a key part of its growth strategy is centered on digital health initiatives.
In the past year, Best Buy has spent roughly $1 billion on acquisitions to expand its healthcare services, according to Forbes. The company’s expansion into healthcare has helped it overcome broader declines in consumer electronic sales, according to Bloomberg.
Senior care is Best Buy’s niche in the healthcare services market. One million seniors are using the company’s health offerings, and Best Buy’s goal is to expand its services to 5 million seniors by fiscal 2025, according to MarketWatch.
“Today, most of the seniors we serve are utilizing easy-to-use mobile phone products and connected devices that are tailored for seniors and come with a range of relevant services,” Best Buy CEO Corie Barry said during an earnings call Nov. 26, according to a transcript from Seeking Alpha.
Ms. Barry also shed light on how Best Buy plans to expand its healthcare business. She said the company plans to scale its “five-star service” that connects seniors with caregivers, dispatches emergency personnel and more.
“We also expect to advance our commercial business where the services we provide for seniors are paid for by insurance providers. This includes services such as remote monitoring based solutions that provide meaningful insights to improve timely care and reduce the cost to serve frail seniors,” she said.
The company could generate as much as $46 billion in revenue from its commercial health business over the next 10 to 20 years, according to Bloomberg, which cited Morgan Stanley estimates.