In our work over the years advising health systems on M&A, we’ve been struck by how often “social issues” cause deals that are otherwise strategically sound to go off the rails.
Of course, it’s an old chestnut that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, but what’s been notable, especially recently, is how early in the process hot-button governance and leadership issues enter the discussions.
Where is the headquarters going to be? Who’s going to be the CEO of the combined entity? And most vexingly, how many board seats is each organization going to get? That last issue is particularly troublesome, as it’s often where negotiations get bogged down. But as one health system board member recently pointed out to us, getting hung up on whether board seats are split 7-6 or 8-5 is just silly—in her words, “If you’re in a position where board decisions turn on that close of a margin, you’ve got much bigger strategic problems.”
It’s an excellent point. While boards shouldn’t just rubber stamp decisions made by management, it’s incumbent on the CEO and senior leaders to enfranchise and collaborate with the board in setting strategy, and critical decisions should rarely, if ever, come down to razor-thin vote tallies.
If a merger makes sense on its merits, and the strategic vision for the combined organization is clear, quibbling over how many seats each legacy system “gets” seems foolish. No board should go into a merger anticipating a future in which small majorities determine the outcome of big decisions.
We are better served by a system that seeks to keep people healthy, not wait until they get sick.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that there’s a much better way to keep people healthy while reducing stress on our health care system at the same time. This will not only help mitigate risks from any future public health crisis, but also improve the well being and health of people in our community.
Utah’s Intermountain Healthcare, along with our community and health care colleagues, are leading a movement to do just that.
We greatly value and appreciate all our government, community and health care partners that coordinate closely with us to address the pandemic and provide care for our communities. It’s been a statewide team effort and will continue to be a team effort.
The roots of a deeply flawed national health care model that had taken hold long ago proved to create both systemic and personal health risks. According to a recent study, the U.S. had far more people hospitalized, more people with chronic conditions, double the obesity rates and the highest rate of preventable deaths among comparable nations. This was before the pandemic ever started. Our national health system was perfectly designed to be overwhelmed under the COVID-19 stress.
Moreover, many people who have died from COVID-19 were in poor health to begin with or were managing preventable chronic conditions.The flawed national health care system was never designed to support their goal to stay healthy. Instead, it was designed to wait until they got sick and then treat them.
Utah has one of the lowest death rates from COVID-19 in the nation. It’s at least partly true that this can be attributed to the superb care by medical providers in the state. But the data show a more interesting story. People in our state are in better health compared to those in other states.
We play outside more, drink less and smoke less than people in other states. Our rate of obesity is far lower than most other states. It’s no surprise that our recorded COVID-19 death rate is among the lowest in the nation. In fact, three of the top five healthiest states also have the three of the top six lowest recordable death rates from COVID-19. We don’t believe that’s a coincidence.
Over the last several years, Intermountain has focused more resources on keeping people healthy and out of hospitals. Vaccines have long been a critical part of this strategy. And while that garners most of the immediate headlines, we’ve geared our entire system’s strategy to focus on keeping people and communities well.
For example, Intermountain is a world leader in precision genomics medicine that aims to better treat and prevent genetic diseases. The opportunity to participate in the biggest, voluntary research of its kind is available for anyone in our community at no cost. With our community’s help, we can eventually share what we learn with others across the country and the world to help keep everyone healthier.
We are investing in addressing social determinants of health to keep people out of emergency rooms or other clinical settings for unneeded visits. Social determinants of health are influences that affect people’s long-term health, such as stable housing, joblessness, hunger, unsafe neighborhoods and access to transportation.
We’ve been working with and providing funding to multiple local nonprofit agencies that address these issues, and have provided financial support for a three-year pilot in Utah to see how community partnerships can address those influences in low-income ZIP codes. Often, simple and affordable changes can help prevent unnecessary health issues.
We’ve integrated mental health care with primary care because we know that mental health is essential to a person’s overall health. Long before the pandemic hit our shores, we deployed telehealth services that helps care for people closer to their homes and families. It’s not simply a matter of convenience for those we serve, but can lead to better health outcomes for less money.
All of us can’t wait to get back to some sense of normal. But for the nation’s health system, going back to normal shouldn’t be an option. We must do better. And Intermountain is determined to partner with Utahns and do what we all do best – lead the nation and the world by setting a better example.
We had occasion this week, when asked to weigh in on a health system’s “primary care strategy”, to assert once again that primary care is not a thing.
We were being intentionally provocative to make a point: what we traditionally refer to as “primary care” is actually a collection of different services, or “jobs to be done” for a patient (to borrow a Clayton Christensen term).
These include a range of things: urgent care, chronic disease management, medication management, virtual care, women’s health services, pediatrics, routine maintenance, and on and on. What they have in common is that they’re a patient’s “first call”: the initial point of contact in the healthcare system for most things that most patients need. It’s a distinction with a difference, in our view.
If you set out to address “primary care strategy”, you’re going to end up in a discussion about physician manpower, practices, and economics at a level of generalization that often misses what patients really need. Rather than the traditional E pluribus unum (out of many, one) approach that many take, we’d advise an Ex uno plures (out of one, many) perspective.
Ask the question “What problems do patients have when they first contact the healthcare system?” and then strategize around and resource each of those problems in the way that best solves them. That doesn’t mean taking a completely fragmented approach—it’s essential to link each of those solutions together in a coherent ecosystem of care that helps with navigation and information flow (and reimbursement).
But continuing to perpetuate an entity called “primary care” increasingly seems like an antiquated endeavor, particularly as technology, payment, and consumer preferences all point to a more distributed and easily accessible model of care delivery.
Many physician practices weathered 2020 better than they would have predicted last spring. We had anticipated many doctors would look to health systems or payers for support, but the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans kept practices going until patient volume returned. But as they now see an end to the pandemic, many doctors are experiencing a new round of uncertainty about the future. Post-pandemic fatigue, coupled with a long-anticipated wave of retiring Baby Boomer partners, is leading many more independent practices to consider their options. And layered on top of this, private equity investors are injecting a ton of money into the physician market, extending offers that leave some doctors feeling, according to one doctor we spoke with, that“you’d have to be an idiot to say no to a deal this good”.
2021 is already shaping up to be a record year for physician practice deals.Butsome of our recent conversations made us wonder if we had time-traveled back to the early 2000s, when hospital-physician partnerships were dominated by bespoke financial arrangements aimed at securing call coverage and referrals. Some health system leaders are flustered by specialist practices wanting a quick response to an investor proposal. Hospitals worry the joint ventures or co-management agreements that seemed to work well for years may not be enough, and wonder if they should begin recruiting new doctors or courting competitors, “just in case” current partners might jump ship for a better deal.
In contrast to other areas of strategy, where a ten-year vision can guide today’s decisions, it has always been hard for health systems to take the long view with physician partnerships.
When most “strategies” are really just responses to the fires of the day, health systems run the risk of relationships devolving to mere economic terms.Health systems may find themselves once again with a messy patchwork of doctors aligned by contractual relationships, rather than a tight network of physician partners who can work together to move care forward.
Even though signs point to a post-COVID spike in health system mergers, retailers, insurers, and other healthcare industry players already far exceed health system scale. Even the largest of the “mega health systems” pale in comparison to other healthcare companies up and down the value chain, as shown in the graphic above. And with the exception of pharma, these other industry players have seen revenues surge during the pandemic, while health system growth has stagnated.
According to a recent report from Kaufman Hall, hospitals saw a three percent reduction in annual total gross revenue in 2020.The majority of the decrease stemmed from a six percent decline in outpatient revenue, as volumes plummeted during the pandemic.
The largest companies listed here, including Walmart, Amazon, CVS, and UnitedHealth Group, continue to double down on vertical integration strategies, configuring an array of healthcare assets into platform businesses focused on delivering value to consumers.
To remain relevant, health systems will need to increase their focus on this strategy as well, assembling the right capabilities for a marketplace driven by value, at a scale that enables rapid innovation and sustainability.
We spend a lot of our time helping health system executives craft and communicate enterprise-level strategy: entering new markets or businesses, developing new services, responding to competitive threats, exploring partnership opportunities. Strategy is about the “what” and “when”—what moves are we going to make, and when is the right time to make them?Answering those questions requires an understanding of industry and market forces, organizational capabilities, and consumer needs. But there’s another important component that often goes missing in the rush to get to the “how” of strategy execution: the “why”.
Yet understanding why we’re pursuing one path and not another is critical for aligning stakeholders: physicians, operators, and (importantly) the board. Joan Didion famously wrote that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live”, and we’d agree; the “why” is about storytelling. What’s the strategic narrative, or story, that frames our intended actions? Making sure that everyone involved—including our patients and consumers—has a clear understanding of why we’re opening a new facility, or launching a new service, or entering into a new partnership, is a key to success.
It’s about sharing the vision of our desired role as a system, and the part we see ourselves playing in improving healthcare. We’re sometimes criticized for spending so much time on “framing” and drawing “pretty graphics”, but we’ve come to believe that the ability to succinctly and compellingly describe the “why” of strategy is as important as coming up with the vision in the first place.And then, of course, delivering on the “why”—a job made easier if all involved are clear on just what it is.
By the time President-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office on Wednesday, more than 400,000 Americans will have died of covid-19 — a dismal milestone in the deadly pandemic.
Yet the crucial task he faces— rapidly distributing coronavirus vaccines to the American public — is one that most experts one year ago didn’t think would even be an option by this point. Few expected multiple vaccines to be approved within a year — a record for vaccine development, by any measure. And although the rollout has been criticized, Israel and Great Britain are the only major nations the United States lags in vaccinations per capita and its daily rate of immunizations has more than doubled in the past two weeks.
“You have my word: We will manage the hell out of this operation,” Biden said in a speech on Friday, announcing his own vaccination plan.
Regardless of whether one views the vaccine effort up to this point as a failure or success, this much is true: Biden and his new administration will face an enormous task, not only in getting the vaccines distributed but also in ramping up testing, convincing Americans to follow public health recommendations and responding to the economic fallout from the pandemic.
Here are six key promises Biden is making about his pandemic response:
1. Administer 100 million doses of coronavirus vaccine during the first 100 days of his administration.
Biden previously cited this as a goal. He reiterated it Friday while rolling out a broader plan for coronavirus vaccinations
The plan would require a rate of 1 million immunizations per day — and the United States isn’t too far away from that goal right now. Nearly 800,000 Americans are getting shots every day on average. That’s a considerable improvement from two weeks ago, when the daily rate was closer to 350,000.
The 100-shot goal is “absolutely a doable thing,” Anthony S. Fauci, direct of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease, told NBC’s Chuck Todd yesterday.
“The feasibility of his goal is absolutely clear; there’s no doubt about it,” Fauci said. “That can be done.”
But top Biden advisers are also cautioning ramping up immunizations will be gradual and will require lots of coordination.
“The first days of that 100 days may be substantially slower than it will be towards the end,” Michael Osterholm, a member of Biden’s covid-19 task force, told Stat News.“It’s not going to occur quickly … you’re going to see the ramp-up occurring only when the resources really begin to flow.”
2. Set up mass vaccination clinics.
By the end of his first month in office, Biden has promised to open 100 federally managed clinics to administer shots. According to his vaccination plan, these sites would be set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The federal government would reimburse states for sending National Guard members to help run them.
Biden says he also wants to deploy mobile units to rural and underserved areas, along with boosting the role already being played by pharmacies in distributing shots.
This approach would diverge significantly from how things are being done now, with the Trump administration leaving it up to hospitals, doctors, pharmacies and state public health departments to administer the shots. Some cities and states have set up large vaccination sites, but many haven’t.
“Overall, the president-elect’s plan lays out a more muscular federal role than the Trump administration’s approach, which has relied heavily on each state to administer vaccines once the federal government ships them out,” Anne Gearan, Amy Goldstein and Laurie McGinley report.
“Many of the elements — such as seeking to expand the number of vaccination sites and setting up mobile vaccination clinics — were foreshadowed in a radio interview Biden gave last week and in an economic and health ‘relief plan’ he issued Thursday, which contains a $20 billion request of Congress to pay for a stepped-up campaign of mass vaccination,” our colleagues add.
3. Allow federally qualified health centers to directly access vaccines.
These community health centers — which receive higher government reimbursements but are required to accept all patients regardless of their ability to pay — are a core part of the nation’s safety net for low-income Americans.
Biden’s plan proposes a new program “to ensure [federally qualified health centers] can directly access vaccine supply where needed,” although here, too, it’s unclear exactly how that might work.
Under the Trump administration’s plan, these centers have been asked to enroll with state health departments as vaccine providers. States were then supposed to communicate to the federal government how many doses were needed and where they should go.
How well this is actually working is “all over the map,” said Amy Simmons Farber of the National Association of Community Health Centers. She said supplies vary from county to county and many health centers have received their supplies with little notice, making it challenging to prioritize and plan.
Farber declined to comment on the Biden plan, saying she doesn’t have a lot of details about it. But she’s “very encouraged by the recognition of the important role health centers have played in fighting the pandemic and the need to adequately resource them.”
4. Use the Defense Production Act to ensure plenty of vaccine supplies.
Several times over the course of the pandemic, President Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act, which allows the president to require companies to prioritize contracts deemed essential for national security.
Biden says he will invoke DPA to ensure a steady stream of these supplies, which include glass vials, stoppers, syringes, needles and the capacity for companies to rapidly fill vaccine vials and finish packaging them.
5. Sign executive actions to combat the virus.
Biden has promised a raft of executive actions in his first ten days as president, laid out over the weekend in a memo from incoming White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain. They’ll include a number of pandemic-related orders.
On Inauguration Day, Biden intends to issue a mask mandate on federal property and for interstate travel, while encouraging all Americans to wear masks for what he’s calling a “100 Day Masking Challenge.”
The following day, Thursday, he’ll sign executive orders aimed at helping schools and businesses reopen safely, expanding testing, protecting workers and establishing clearer public health standards. And on Friday, Biden will direct his Cabinet secretaries to take immediate action to deliver economic relief to families.
“President-elect Biden will take action — not just to reverse the gravest damages of the Trump administration — but also to start moving our country forward,” Klain wrote.
6. Launch a vaccine education campaign.
The memo says Biden will run a “federally-run, locally-focused public education campaign.”
“The campaign will work to elevate trusted local voices and outline the historic efforts to deliver a safe and effective vaccine as part of a national strategy for beating covid-19,” it says.
But the transition team hasn’t detailed how the education campaign might differ from one launched by the Trump administration last month.
The Department of Health and Human Services said it plans to spend $250 million on efforts to promote vaccine awareness. It kicked off the effort with a $150,000 buy on YouTube for ads that feature Fauci and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn.
A complete financial recovery for many organizations is still far away, findings from Kaufman Hall indicate.
For the past three years, Kaufman Hall has released annual healthcare performance reports illustrating how hospitals and health systems are managing, both financially and operationally.
This year, however, with the pandemic altering the industry so broadly, the report took a different approach: to see how COVID-19 impacted hospitals and health systems across the country. The report’s findings deal with finances, patient volumes and recovery.
The report includes survey answers from respondents almost entirely (96%) from hospitals or health systems. Most of the respondents were in executive leadership (55%) or financial roles (39%). Survey responses were collected in August 2020.
Findings from the report indicate that a complete financial recovery for many organizations is still far away. Almost three-quarters of the respondents said they were either moderately or extremely concerned about their organization’s financial viability in 2021 without an effective vaccine or treatment.
Looking back on the operating margins for the second quarter of the year, 33% of respondents saw their operating margins decline by more than 100% compared to the same time last year.
Revenue cycles have taken a hit from COVID-19, according to the report. Survey respondents said they are seeing increases in bad debt and uncompensated care (48%), higher percentages of uninsured or self-pay patients (44%), more Medicaid patients (41%) and lower percentages of commercially insured patients (38%).
Organizations also noted that increases in expenses, especially for personal protective equipment and labor, have impacted their finances. For 22% of respondents, their expenses increased by more than 50%.
IMPACT ON PATIENT VOLUMES
Although volumes did increase over the summer, most of the improvement occurred in areas where it is difficult to delay care, such as oncology and cardiology. For example, oncology was the only field where more than half of respondents (60%) saw their volumes recover to more than 90% of pre-pandemic levels.
More than 40% of respondents said that cardiology volumes are operating at more than 90% of pre-pandemic levels. Only 37% of respondents can say the same for orthopedics, neurology and radiology, and 22% for pediatrics.
Emergency department usage is also down as a result of the pandemic, according to the report. The respondents expect that this trend will persist beyond COVID-19 and that systems may need to reshape their business model to account for a drop in emergency department utilization.
Most respondents also said they expect to see overall volumes remain low through the summer of 2021, with some planning for suppressed volumes for the next three years.
Hospitals and health systems have taken a number of approaches to reduce costs and mitigate future revenue declines. The most common practices implemented are supply reprocessing, furloughs and salary reductions, according to the report.
Executives are considering other tactics such as restructuring physician contracts, making permanent labor reductions, changing employee health plan benefits and retirement plan contributions, or merging with another health system as additional cost reduction measures.
THE LARGER TREND
Kaufman Hall has been documenting the impact of COVID-19 hospitals since the beginning of the pandemic. In its July report, hospital operating margins were down 96% since the start of the year.
As a result of these losses, hospitals, health systems and advocacy groups continue to push Congress to deliver another round of relief measures.
Earlier this month, the House passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill called the HEROES Act, 2.0. The bill has yet to pass the Senate, and the chances of that happening are slim, with Republicans in favor of a much smaller, $500 billion package. Nothing is expected to happen prior to the presidential election.