|When Jeff Goldsmith and Ian Morrison talk, people listen (apologies to E.F. Hutton…Goldsmith and Morrison are old enough to get that reference, anyway). These two lions of health policy and strategy came together recently to pen an editorial in Health Affairs examining the impact of large integrated health systems on the nation’s response to COVID-19. |
Morrison and Goldsmith admit to often finding themselves on opposite sides of consolidation issue, but looking back over the past year, both agree the scale systems have built over decades has been foundational to their effective and rapid response to the pandemic, which they rate as “better than just about any other element of our society”.
Larger health systems were able to mobilize the resources to secure protective gear as supplies dwindled. They responded at a speed many would have thought impossible, doubling ICU capacity in a matter of days, and shifting care to telemedicine, implementing their five-year digital strategies during the last two weeks of March.
This kind of innovation would have been impossible without the investments in IT and electronic records enabled by scale—but systems also exhibited an impressive degree of “systemness”, making important decisions quickly, and mobilizing across regional footprints. Given the financial stresses experienced by smaller providers, consolidation is sure to increase. And the Biden healthcare team will likely bring more scrutiny to health system mergers.
Morrison and Goldsmith urge regulators to reconsider the role of health systems. The government should continue to pursue truly anticompetitive behavior that raises employer and consumer prices. But lawmakers should focus less on the sheer size of health systems and rather on their behavior, considering the potential societal impact a combined system might deliver—and creating policy that takes into account the role health systems have played in bolstering our public health infrastructure.
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. But some 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.
Jefferson’s hospital network will grow to 18 locations with Einstein’s three general acute care hospitals and an inpatient rehabilitation hospital.
The merger between Pennsylvania-based Jefferson Health and Einstein Healthcare Network can now close after the Federal Trade Commission voted to withdraw its opposition to the deal, Jefferson Health announced this week.
The deal is now expected to be finalized within the next six months.
Earlier this year, the FTC voted 4-0 to voluntarily dismiss its appeal to the Third Circuit of the district court, according to the commission’s case summary.
Once the deal is complete, Jefferson’s network of hospitals will grow to 18 with the addition of Einstein’s three general acute care hospitals and an inpatient rehabilitation hospital.
WHY IT MATTERS
Merger plans were first announced in 2018 in a deal estimated to be worth $599 million.
The FTC initially blocked the merger because it believed it would reduce competition in the Philadelphia and Montgomery counties.
It alleged the deal would give the two health systems control of at least 60% of the inpatient general acute care hospital services market in North Philadelphia, at least 45% of that market in Montgomery County, and at least 70% of the inpatient acute rehabilitation services market in the Philadelphia area.
But late last year, a federal judge blocked the FTC’s attempt to stop the merger. Judge Gerald Pappert of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania wrote that the FTC failed to demonstrate that there’s a credible threat of harm to competition. He pointed to other competitors in the region, such as Penn Medicine, Temple Health and Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic.
The FTC and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania attempted to appeal the court’s decision, but after Jefferson and Einstein filed a motion to withdraw the case, the commission unanimously voted to drop its appeal.
THE LARGER TREND
The FTC is taking a closer look at healthcare mergers and acquisitions to better understand how physician practice and healthcare facility mergers affect competition. Earlier this year, it sent orders to Aetna, Anthem, Florida Blue, Cigna, Health Care Service Corporation and United Healthcare to share patient-level claims data for inpatient, outpatient and physician services across 15 states from 2015 through 2020.
Although M&A activity was down in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kaufman Hall called the 79 transactions that did take place “remarkable” for falling within the range of the 92 deals from the year before.
The analysts expect activity to ramp up moving forward, however. They predict that as health systems evaluate their business strategies post-pandemic, those in strong positions will take advantage of other systems’ divestitures to grow their capabilities and expand into new markets.
ON THE RECORD
“We are excited to have Einstein and Jefferson come together, as our shared vision will enable us to improve the lives of patients, the health of our communities and enhance our health education and research capabilities,” said Ken Levitan, the interim president and CEO of Einstein Healthcare Network.
“By bringing our resources together, we can offer those we care for – particularly the historically underserved populations in Philadelphia and Montgomery County – even greater access to high-quality care.”
- The Federal Trade Commission has closed its investigation of the merger between Atrium Health Navicent and Houston Healthcare System following news the two have abandoned their plans for a deal.
- FTC staff had recommended commissioners challenge the merger on grounds that it would have led to “significant harm” for area residents and businesses in the form of higher healthcare costs, the FTC alleged.
- The tie-up between two of the largest systems in central Georgia would also hamper investment in facilities, technologies and expanded access to services, according to a statement released Wednesday.
FTC Acting Chairwoman Rebecca Kelly Slaughter said in the statement, “This is great news for patients in central Georgia.”
When the deal was originally announced, Atrium Health Navicent promised to spend $150 million on Houston over a decade, earmarking the money for routine capital expenditures and strategic growth initiatives, according to a previous review of the transaction by the state attorney general’s office.
After engaging with consultants at Kaufman Hall in 2017, leaders at Houston, an independent system, decided they needed to find a strategic partner to weather long-term challenges and ultimately picked Navicent.
Navicent recently merged with North Carolina-based Atrium Health, formerly known as Carolinas HealthCare System. At the time, the deal gave Atrium a foothold in the state of Georgia.
Healthcare consolidation has continued at a steady clip despite the pandemic, and the FTC will be closely investigating any deal involving close competitors. The agency is seeking to expand its arsenal to block future mergers by researching new theories of harm.
The FTC attempted to block a hospital deal in Philadelphia last year but has since abandoned its challenge after a series of setbacks in court. The judge was not swayed that the consolidation of providers would lead to an increase in prices given the plethora of healthcare options in the area.
UnitedHealth subsidiary Optum signed a definitive agreement to acquire Atrius Health, a 715-physician group based in Newton, Mass., according to The Boston Globe.
Optum said March 2 the agreement was signed the evening of March 1 after UnitedHealth’s board approved the transaction. Atrius’ board also unanimously approved the deal.
The deal will need approval from Massachusetts’ Health Policy Commission, the Department of Public Health and the Federal Trade Commission.
If the deal is approved, it would expand Optum’s presence in Massachusetts. The organization had previously acquired Worcester, Mass.-based Reliant Medical Group in April 2018.
Optum reportedly had been interested in purchasing Atrius, which has 30 locations in Massachusetts, for a few years and submitted a bid for it in 2019 when the medical group was looking for a partner. In 2019, Atrius decided to remain independent. However, Atrius said it decided to reignite potential partnership talks again due to the pressures of the pandemic.
“We looked at many alternatives and chose [Optum] because of cultural alignment, the benefit we could provide for patients, the stability it could provide for our practice, and the help we can provide to the commonwealth as it pertains to managing medical spend,” Atrius President and CEO Steven Strongwater, MD, told the Boston Business Journal.
This week Brookdale Senior Living, the nation’s largest operator of senior housing, with 726 communities across 43 states and annual revenues of about $3B, announced the sale of 80 percent of its hospice and home-based care division to hospital operator HCA Healthcare for $400M. The transaction gives HCA control of Brookdale’s 57 home health agencies, 22 hospice agencies, and 84 outpatient therapy locations across a 26-state footprint, marking its entry into new lines of business, and allowing it to expand revenue streams by continuing to treat patients post-discharge, in home-based settings.
Like other senior living providers, Brookdale has struggled economically during the COVID pandemic; its home and hospice care division, which serves 17,000 patients, saw revenue drop more than 16 percent last year. HCA, meanwhile, has recovered quickly from the COVID downturn, and has signaled its intention to focus on continued growth by acquisition across 2021.
In separate news, Optum, the services division of insurance giant UnitedHealth Group, was reported to have struck a deal to acquire Landmark Health, a fast-growing home care company whose services are aimed at Medicare Advantage-enrolled, frail elderly patients. Landmark, founded in 2014, also participates in Medicare’s Direct Contracting program.
The transaction is reportedly valued at $3.5B, although neither party would confirm or comment on the deal. The acquisition would greatly expand Optum’s home-based care delivery services, which today include physician home visits through its HouseCalls program, and remote monitoring through its Vivify Health unit.
The Brookdale and Landmark deals, along with earlier acquisitions by Humana and others, indicate that the home-based care space is heating up significantly, reflecting a broader shift in the nexus of care to patients’ homes—a growing preference among consumers spooked by the COVID pandemic.
Along with telemedicine, home-based care may represent a new front in the tug-of-war between providers and payers for the loyalty of increasingly empowered healthcare consumers.
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.
Employers — including companies, state governments and universities — purchase health care on behalf of roughly 150 million Americans. The cost of that care has continued to climb for both businesses and their workers.
For many years, employers saw wasteful care as the primary driver of their rising costs. They made benefits changes like adding wellness programs and raising deductibles to reduce unnecessary care, but costs continued to rise. Now, driven by a combination of new research and changing market forces — especially hospital consolidation — more employers see prices as their primary problem.
The prices employers pay hospitals have risen rapidly over the last decade. Those hospitals provide inpatient care and increasingly, as a result of consolidation, outpatient care too. Together, inpatient and outpatient care account for roughly two-thirds of employers’ total spending per employee.
By amassing and analyzing employers’ claims data in innovative ways, academics and researchers at organizations like the Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI) and RAND have helped illuminate for employers two key truths about the hospital-based health care they purchase:
1) PRICES VARY WIDELY FOR THE SAME SERVICES
Data show that providers charge private payers very different prices for the exact same services — even within the same geographic area.
For example, HCCI found the price of a C-section delivery in the San Francisco Bay Area varies between hospitals by as much as:$24,107
Research also shows that facilities with higher prices do not necessarily provide higher quality care.
2) HOSPITALS CHARGE PRIVATE PAYERS MORE
Data show that hospitals charge employers and private insurers, on average, roughly twice what they charge Medicare for the exact same services. A recent RAND study analyzed more than 3,000 hospitals’ prices and found the most expensive facility in the country charged employers:4.1xMedicare
Hospitals claim this price difference is necessary because public payers like Medicare do not pay enough. However, there is a wide gap between the amount hospitals lose on Medicare (around -9% for inpatient care) and the amount more they charge employers compared to Medicare (200% or more).
A small but growing group of companies, public employers (like state governments and universities) and unions is using new data and tactics to tackle these high prices. (Learn more about who’s leading this work, how and why by listening to our full podcast episode in the player above.)
Note that the employers leading this charge tend to be large and self-funded, meaning they shoulder the risk for the insurance they provide employees, giving them extra flexibility and motivation to purchase health care differently. The approaches they are taking include:
Some employers are implementing so-called tiered networks, where employees pay more if they want to continue seeing certain, more expensive providers. Others are trying to strongly steer employees to particular hospitals, sometimes know as centers of excellence, where employers have made special deals for particular services.
Purdue University, for example, covers travel and lodging and offers a $500 stipend to employees that get hip or knee replacements done at one Indiana hospital.
Negotiating New Deals
There is a movement among some employers to renegotiate hospital deals using Medicare rates as the baseline — since they are transparent and account for hospitals’ unique attributes like location and patient mix — as opposed to negotiating down from charges set by hospitals, which are seen by many as opaque and arbitrary. Other employers are pressuring their insurance carriers to renegotiate the contracts they have with hospitals.
In 2016, the Montana state employee health plan, led by Marilyn Bartlett, got all of the state’s hospitals to agree to a payment rate based on a multiple of Medicare. They saved more than $30 million in just three years. Bartlett is now advising other states trying to follow her playbook.
In 2020, several large Indiana employers urged insurance carrier Anthem to renegotiate their contract with Parkview Health, a hospital system RAND researchers identified as one of the most expensive in the country. After months of tense back-and-forth, the pair reached a five-year deal expected to save Anthem customers $700 million.
Legislating, Regulating, Litigating
Some employer coalitions are advocating for more intervention by policymakers to cap health care prices or at least make them more transparent. States like Colorado and Indiana have passed price transparency legislation, and new federal rules now require more hospital price transparency on a national level. Advocates expect strong industry opposition to stiffer measures, like price caps, which recently failed in the Montana legislature.
Other advocates are calling for more scrutiny by state and federal officials of hospital mergers and other anticompetitive practices. Some employers and unions have even resorted to suing hospitals like Sutter Health in California.
Employers face a few key barriers to purchasing health care in different and more efficient ways:
Hospitals tend to have much more market power than individual employers, and that power has grown in recent years, enabling them to raise prices. Even very large employers have geographically dispersed workforces, making it hard to exert much leverage over any given hospital. Some employers have tried forming purchasing coalitions to pool their buying power, but they face tricky organizational dynamics and laws that prohibit collusion.
Employers can attempt to lower prices by renegotiating contracts with hospitals or tailoring provider networks, but the work is complicated and rife with tradeoffs. Few employers are sophisticated enough, for example, to assess a provider’s quality or to structure hospital payments in new ways. Employers looking for insurers to help them have limited options, as that industry has also become highly consolidated.
Employers say they primarily provide benefits to recruit and retain happy and healthy employees. Many are reluctant to risk upsetting employees by cutting out expensive providers or redesigning benefits in other ways. A recent KFF survey found just 4% of employers had dropped a hospital in order to cut costs.
Employers play a unique role in the United States health care system, and in the lives of the 150 million Americans who get insurance through work. For years, critics have questioned the wisdom of an employer-based health care system, and massive job losses created by the pandemic have reinforced those doubts for many.
Assuming employers do continue to purchase insurance on behalf of millions of Americans, though, focusing on lowering the prices they pay is one promising path to lowering total costs. However, as noted above, hospitals have expressed concern over the financial pressures they may face under these new deals. Complex benefit design strategies, like narrow or tiered networks, also run the risk of harming employees, who may make suboptimal choices or experience cost surprises. Finally, these strategies do not necessarily address other drivers of high costs including drug prices and wasteful care.
As the oft-cited 10,000 Baby Boomers continue to age into Medicare each day, Medicare Advantage (MA) enrollment keeps accelerating. The graphic above highlights growth in the MA ranks across the last decade, showing that enrollment has more than doubled since 2010. By the end of this year, an estimated 42 percent of Medicare beneficiaries will get their benefits through a private health insurer.
While seniors like MA plans for the growing number of supplemental benefits they can offer—which now include adult day care services, home-based palliative care, and in-home support services—health insurers are gravitating to these plans due to their attractive economics.
Health insurers’ average gross margin per member, per month (PMPM) for MA plans is significantly higher than in individual or group market plans, a spread that increased in 2020 due to reduced utilization. PMPM margins for MA plans were up an average of 35 percent through September 2020 compared to 2019.
Payers have been blanketing the market with plan options in recent years; the number of MA plans offered has increased 49 percent since 2017, although the MA market is increasingly concentrated. In spite of numerous headlines about venture-backed startups like Oscar, Bright Health Plan, and Devoted Health posting double- or triple-digit growth numbers, the MA market is still dominated by UnitedHealthcare and Humana, which together account for 44 percent of all MA enrollees nationwide.
Health insurers are no longer immune from federal antitrust scrutiny for conduct considered the business of insurance.
The Competitive Health insurance Reform Act of 2020 became law on January 13, a move praised by the Department of Justice but opposed by health insurers.
Health insurers are no longer immune from federal antitrust scrutiny for conduct considered the business of insurance and regulated by state law.
With enactment of the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act, the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission have expanded authority to prosecute alleged anticompetitive behavior, including data sharing between insurers.
The McCarran-Ferguson Act previously afforded immunity by exempting from federal antitrust laws certain conduct considered the “business of insurance.” This exemption has sometimes been interpreted by courts to allow a range of what the Justice Department considered “harmful” anticompetitive conduct in health insurance markets.
The new law aims to promote more competition in health insurance markets by limiting the scope of conduct that’s exempt from antitrust laws. This move was praised by the Trump Justice Department shortly before the former president left office.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT?
The antitrust scrutiny is coming at a time when insurers are under a deadline to meet interoperability standards to share information with patients that meet Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources, or FHIR, standards.
Eliminating the exemption undermines the goal of affordable coverage by adding administrative red tape and reducing market competition, according to Matt Eyles, president and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans.
“The McCarran-Ferguson Act recognized that all healthcare is local, and that states should be able to govern their own health insurance markets,” Eyles said in December. “Removal of this exemption adds tremendous administrative costs while delivering absolutely no value for patients and consumers. It will unnecessarily add layers of bureaucracy, destabilize markets, create conflicting federal and state oversight requirements, and lead to costly litigation.”
The National Association of Insurance Commissioners sent a letter to Senate leaders on December 2 voicing its concern for the bill’s passage.
“The premise of the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act is that collusion among health insurance companies is permitted under state law and that the McCarran-Ferguson Act somehow currently protects these practices. This is not true. The McCarran-Ferguson antitrust exemption for health insurance does not allow or encourage conspiratorial behavior but simply leaves oversight of insurance, including health insurance, to the states – and state laws do not allow collusion,” commissioners said.
“The potential for bid rigging, price-fixing and market allocation is of great concern to state insurance regulators and we share your view that such practices would be harmful to consumers and should not be tolerated. However, we want to assure you that these activities are not permitted under state law,” commissioners wrote.
While insurers have not been thrilled with the move, Consumer Reports said the legislation is good for providers who have felt pressured into contract terms that benefit insurers.
THE LARGER TREND
The Justice Department has a track record of successfully enforcing the antitrust laws against health insurers. Over the past five years, the department has enforced the antitrust laws against health insurers involved in transactions valued at over $160 billion.
The Act will help the department build on those successes by requiring health insurers to play by the same rules as competitors in other industries. It will clarify when health insurers qualify for the McCarran-Ferguson exemption, and it will enable the Antitrust Division to spend resources more efficiently to achieve desired results, the Justice Department said.
On January 13, Trump signed into law the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act of 2020, which limits the antitrust exemption available to health insurance companies under the McCarran-Ferguson Act. The act, sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore), passed the House of Representatives on Sept. 21, 2020 and passed the Senate on Dec. 22.