Geisinger, AtlantiCare sever merger

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/hospital-transactions-and-valuation/geisinger-atlanticare-sever-merger.html

HFMA: Mergers will significantly impact care delivery system ...

Danville, Pa.-based Geisinger and Atlantic City, N.J.-based AtlantiCare have reached an agreement to part ways, the two health systems announced March 31. 

AtlantiCare has been part of the Geisinger system since 2015, when the Danville, Pa.-based system acquired it.

The decision to separate comes after months of negotiations between the two parties after AtlantiCare voted to break away from Geisinger in September 2019.

In response to the September vote, Geisinger sued AtlantiCare in an attempt to stop the health system from leaving. In the lawsuit, Geisinger accused AtlantiCare of violating the signed merger agreement.

The merger agreement, signed in 2014, allowed AtlantiCare to terminate the merger within 10 years, but only if Geisinger became controlled by a for-profit organization or affiliated with a religious organization. Neither of those circumstances occurred, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit didn’t disclose the reason the New Jersey health system wanted to regain its independence.

However, now the two parties have reached a mutual agreement to go their separate ways. 

Geisinger has also agreed to drop the lawsuit.

“Throughout this process, both Geisinger and AtlantiCare have been guided by the desire to do what is best for the people and communities we serve in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We believe this agreement best supports the long-term health and wellness of our communities and makes the best use of our nonprofit resources today and into the future. We remain committed to working together to ensure the continued delivery of high-quality healthcare services,” the two systems said in a joint statement.

The separation of the two organizations is expected to take six to 18 months. 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazon Worker Fired After Staging Walkout Over Company’s Handling Of Coronavirus Risk

https://www.yahoo.com/huffpost/amazon-fires-worker-chris-smalls-033240313.html

Amazon Worker Fired After Staging Walkout Over Company's Handling ...

Amazon fired an employee who helped organize a walkout at one of its fulfillment centers over the company’s response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic on Monday.

Chris Smalls, the employee who helped organize the demonstration, said he felt Amazon had failed to enact adequate measures to protect workers at the facility as many Americans turn to online shopping as stay-at-home mandates expand around the country. Smalls was one of a small group who walked out at a fulfillment center on Staten Island, demanding the company close the site and sanitize it before reopening. He said Amazon had notified employees at the warehouse of one confirmed case of the virus but claimed there were several others that hadn’t yet been reported.

Shortly after the strike, Smalls was terminated after working at Amazon for five years.

“Amazon would rather fire workers than face up to its total failure to do what it should to keep us, our families, and our communities safe,” Smalls said in a statement obtained by HuffPost. “I am outraged and disappointed, but I’m not shocked. As usual, Amazon would rather sweep a problem under the rug than act to keep workers and working communities safe.”

Amazon disputed Smalls’ account in a statement on Monday, saying he had been warned several times for “violating social distancing guidelines” and had been fired after failing to stay home. The company said Smalls’ claims were “simply unfounded.”

“He was also found to have had close contact with a diagnosed associate with a confirmed case of COVID-19 and was asked to remain home with pay for 14 days, which is a measure we’re taking at sites around the world,” a company spokesperson told HuffPost. “Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite today, March 30, further putting the teams at risk. This is unacceptable and we have terminated his employment as a result of these multiple safety issues.”

The company also said just 15 employees out of 5,000 at its Staten Island location had participated in the demonstration.

“Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis,” the spokesperson said. “Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable.”

The Washington Post notes workers in at least 21 Amazon warehouses and shipping facilities in the U.S. have tested positive for the virus.

Employees at several other major companies staged walkouts on Monday. Workers at Instacart, the grocery delivery company, went on strike nationwide to demand better protections, including hazard pay and expanded paid sick leave. And employees at Whole Foods, owned by Amazon, said they planned to hold a nationwide “sick out” on Tuesday.

Workers at the Staten Island warehouse were first told last week that an employee had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, but they told HuffPost’s Emily Peck that business was “normal” and “running just as it had been” after the declaration. Others said they were afraid of getting sick at work, saying there wasn’t enough protection equipment on site, such as hand sanitizer or masks.

Amazon said it has extended a range of benefits to help protect workers during the pandemic, including extended paid leave options for some employees and increased health and safety measures. Employees diagnosed with COVID-19 are entitled to up to two weeks of paid leave, and Amazon says it notifies workers at sites with infected individuals.

The ongoing efforts by warehouse workers throughout the coronavirus pandemic have garnered support from several lawmakers. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wrote Monday that the employees were simply “demanding dignity.”

“When people work an hourly job, it’s suggested in many ways that you‘re unimportant or expendable,” she wrote on Twitter. “Except you aren’t. Everyone deserves safe work, paid leave, & a living wage.”

 

 

 

The U.S. Tried to Build a New Fleet of Ventilators. The Mission Failed.

The U S Tried to Build a New Fleet of Ventilators The Mission ...

As the coronavirus spreads, the collapse of the project helps explain America’s acute shortage.

Thirteen years ago, a group of U.S. public health officials came up with a plan to address what they regarded as one of the medical system’s crucial vulnerabilities: a shortage of ventilators.

The breathing-assistance machines tended to be bulky, expensive and limited in number. The plan was to build a large fleet of inexpensive portable devices to deploy in a flu pandemic or another crisis.

Money was budgeted. A federal contract was signed. Work got underway.

And then things suddenly veered off course. A multibillion-dollar maker of medical devices bought the small California company that had been hired to design the new machines. The project ultimately produced zero ventilators.

That failure delayed the development of an affordable ventilator by at least half a decade, depriving hospitals, states and the federal government of the ability to stock up. The federal government started over with another company in 2014, whose ventilator was approved only last year and whose products have not yet been delivered.

Today, with the coronavirus ravaging America’s health care system, the nation’s emergency-response stockpile is still waiting on its first shipment. The scarcity of ventilators has become an emergency, forcing doctors to make life-or-death decisions about who gets to breathe and who does not.

The stalled efforts to create a new class of cheap, easy-to-use ventilators highlight the perils of outsourcing projects with critical public-health implications to private companies; their focus on maximizing profits is not always consistent with the government’s goal of preparing for a future crisis.

“We definitely saw the problem,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, who ran the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2009 to 2017. “We innovated to try and get a solution. We made really good progress, but it doesn’t appear to have resulted in the volume that we needed.”

The project — code-named Aura — came in the wake of a parade of near-miss pandemics: SARS, MERS, bird flu and swine flu.

Federal officials decided to re-evaluate their strategy for the next public health emergency. They considered vaccines, antiviral drugs, protective gear and ventilators, the last line of defense for patients suffering respiratory failure. The federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile had full-service ventilators in its warehouses, but not in the quantities that would be needed to combat a major pandemic.

In 2006, the Department of Health and Human Services established a new division, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, with a mandate to prepare medical responses to chemical, biological and nuclear attacks, as well as infectious diseases.

In its first year in operation, the research agency considered how to expand the number of ventilators. It estimated that an additional 70,000 machines would be required in a moderate influenza pandemic.

The ventilators in the national stockpile were not ideal. In addition to being big and expensive, they required a lot of training to use. The research agency convened a panel of experts in November 2007 to devise a set of requirements for a new generation of mobile, easy-to-use ventilators.

In 2008, the government requested proposals from companies that were interested in designing and building the ventilators.

The goal was for the machines to be approved by regulators for mass development by 2010 or 2011, according to budget documents that the Department of Health and Human Services submitted to Congress in 2008. After that, the government would buy as many as 40,000 new ventilators and add them to the national stockpile.

The ventilators were to cost less than $3,000 each. The lower the price, the more machines the government would be able to buy.

Companies submitted bids for the Project Aura job. The research agency opted not to go with a large, established device maker. Instead it chose Newport Medical Instruments, a small outfit in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Newport, which was owned by a Japanese medical device company, only made ventilators. Being a small, nimble company, Newport executives said, would help it efficiently fulfill the government’s needs.

Ventilators at the time typically went for about $10,000 each, and getting the price down to $3,000 would be tough. But Newport’s executives bet they would be able to make up for any losses by selling the ventilators around the world.

“It would be very prestigious to be recognized as a supplier to the federal government,” said Richard Crawford, who was Newport’s head of research and development at the time. “We thought the international market would be strong, and there is where Newport would have a good profit on the product.”

Federal officials were pleased. In addition to replenishing the national stockpile, “we also thought they’d be so attractive that the commercial market would want to buy them, too,” said Nicole Lurie, who was then the assistant secretary for preparedness and response inside the Department of Health and Human Services. With luck, the new generation of ventilators would become ubiquitous, helping hospitals nationwide better prepare for a crisis.

The contract was officially awarded a few months after the H1N1 outbreak, which the C.D.C. estimated infected 60 million and killed 12,000 in the United States, began to taper off in 2010. The contract called for Newport to receive $6.1 million upfront, with the expectation that the government would pay millions more as it bought thousands of machines to fortify the stockpile.

Project Aura was Newport’s first job for the federal government. Things moved quickly and smoothly, employees and federal officials said in interviews.

Every three months, officials with the biomedical research agency would visit Newport’s headquarters. Mr. Crawford submitted monthly reports detailing the company’s spending and progress.

The federal officials “would check everything,” he said. “If we said we were buying equipment, they would want to know what it was used for. There were scheduled visits, scheduled requirements and deliverables each month.”

In 2011, Newport shipped three working prototypes from the company’s California plant to Washington for federal officials to review.

Dr. Frieden, who ran the C.D.C. at the time, got a demonstration in a small conference room attached to his office. “I got all excited,” he said. “It was a multiyear effort that had resulted in something that was going to be really useful.”

In April 2012, a senior Health and Human Services official testified before Congress that the program was “on schedule to file for market approval in September 2013.” After that, the machines would go into production.

Then everything changed.

The medical device industry was undergoing rapid consolidation, with one company after another merging with or acquiring other makers. Manufacturers wanted to pitch themselves as one-stop shops for hospitals, which were getting bigger, and that meant offering a broader suite of products. In May 2012, Covidien, a large medical device manufacturer, agreed to buy Newport for just over $100 million.

Covidien — a publicly traded company with sales of $12 billion that year — already sold traditional ventilators, but that was only a small part of its multifaceted businesses. In 2012 alone, Covidien bought five other medical device companies, in addition to Newport.

Newport executives and government officials working on the ventilator contract said they immediately noticed a change when Covidien took over. Developing inexpensive portable ventilators no longer seemed like a top priority.

Newport applied in June 2012 for clearance from the Food and Drug Administration to market the device, but two former federal officials said Covidien had demanded additional funding and a higher sales price for the ventilators. The government gave the company an additional $1.4 million, a drop in the bucket for a company Covidien’s size.

Government officials and executives at rival ventilator companies said they suspected that Covidien had acquired Newport to prevent it from building a cheaper product that would undermine Covidien’s profits from its existing ventilator business.

Some Newport executives who worked on the project were reassigned to other roles. Others decided to leave the company.

“Up until the time the company sold, I was really happy and excited about the project,” said Hong-Lin Du, Newport’s president at the time of its sale. “Then I was assigned to a different job.”

In 2014, with no ventilators having been delivered to the government, Covidien executives told officials at the biomedical research agency that they wanted to get out of the contract, according to three former federal officials. The executives complained that it was not sufficiently profitable for the company.

The government agreed to cancel the contract. The world was focused at the time on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The research agency started over, awarding a new contract for $13.8 million to the giant Dutch company Philips. In 2015, Covidien was sold for $50 billion to another huge medical device company, Medtronic. Charles J. Dockendorff, Covidien’s former chief financial officer, said he did not know why the contract had fallen apart. “I am not aware of that issue,” he said in a text message.

Robert J. White, president of the minimally invasive therapies group at Medtronic who worked at Covidien during the Newport acquisition, initially said he had no recollection of the Project Aura contract. A Medtronic spokeswoman later said that Mr. White was under the impression that the contract had been winding down before Covidien bought Newport.

In a statement Sunday night, after the article was published, Medtronic said, “The prototype ventilator, developed by Newport Medical, would not have been able to meet the specifications required by the government, nor at the price required.” Medtronic said that one problem was that the machine was not going to be usable with newborns.

It wasn’t until last July that the F.D.A. signed off on the new Philips ventilator, the Trilogy Evo. The government ordered 10,000 units in December, setting a delivery date in mid-2020.

As the extent of the spread of the new coronavirus in the United States became clear, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, revealed on March 15 that the stockpile had 12,700 ventilators ready to deploy. The government has since sped up maintenance to increase the number available to 16,660 — still fewer than a quarter of what officials years earlier had estimated would be required in a moderate flu pandemic.

Last week, the Health and Human Services Department contacted ventilator makers to see how soon they could produce thousands of machines. And it began pressing Philips to speed up its planned shipments.

The stockpile is “still awaiting delivery of the Trilogy Evo,” a Health and Human Services spokeswoman said. “We do not currently have any in inventory, though we are expecting them soon.”

 

 

 

 

BANKS PRESSURE HEALTH CARE FIRMS TO RAISE PRICES ON CRITICAL DRUGS, MEDICAL SUPPLIES FOR CORONAVIRUS

https://theintercept.com/2020/03/19/coronavirus-vaccine-medical-supplies-price-gouging/

Image result for BANKS PRESSURE HEALTH CARE FIRMS TO RAISE PRICES ON CRITICAL DRUGS, MEDICAL SUPPLIES FOR CORONAVIRUS

IN RECENT WEEKS, investment bankers have pressed health care companies on the front lines of fighting the novel coronavirus, including drug firms developing experimental treatments and medical supply firms, to consider ways that they can profit from the crisis.

The media has mostly focused on individuals who have taken advantage of the market for now-scarce medical and hygiene supplies to hoard masks and hand sanitizer and resell them at higher prices. But the largest voices in the health care industry stand to gain from billions of dollars in emergency spending on the pandemic, as do the bankers and investors who invest in health care companies.

Over the past few weeks, investment bankers have been candid on investor calls and during health care conferences about the opportunity to raise drug prices. In some cases, bankers received sharp rebukes from health care executives; in others, executives joked about using the attention on Covid-19 to dodge public pressure on the opioid crisis.

Gilead Sciences, the company producing remdesivir, the most promising drug to treat Covid-19 symptoms, is one such firm facing investor pressure.

Remdesivir is an antiviral that began development as a treatment for dengue, West Nile virus, and Zika, as well as MERS and SARS. The World Health Organization has said there is “only one drug right now that we think may have real efficacy in treating coronavirus symptoms” — namely, remdesivir.

The drug, though developed in partnership with the University of Alabama through a grant from the federal government’s National Institutes of Health, is patented by Gilead Sciences, a major pharmaceutical company based in California. The firm has faced sharp criticism in the past for its pricing practices. It previously charged $84,000 for a yearlong supply of its hepatitis C treatment, which was also developed with government research support. Remdesivir is estimated to produce a one-time revenue of $2.5 billion.

During an investor conference earlier this month, Phil Nadeau, managing director at investment bank Cowen & Co., quizzed Gilead Science executives over whether the firm had planned for a “commercial strategy for remdesivir” or could “create a business out of remdesivir.”

Johanna Mercier, executive vice president of Gilead, noted that the company is currently donating products and “manufacturing at risk and increasing our capacity” to do its best to find a solution to the pandemic. The company at the moment is focused, she said, primarily on “patient access” and “government access” for remdesivir.

“Commercial opportunity,” Mercier added, “might come if this becomes a seasonal disease or stockpiling comes into play, but that’s much later down the line.”

Steven Valiquette, a managing director at Barclays Investment Bank, last week peppered executives from Cardinal Health, a health care distributor of N95 masks, ventilators and pharmaceuticals, on whether the company would raise prices on a range of supplies.

Valiquette asked repeatedly about potential price increases on a variety of products. Could the company, he asked, “offset some of the risk of volume shortages” on the “pricing side”?

Michael Kaufmann, the chief executive of Cardinal Health, said that “so far, we’ve not seen any material price increases that I would say are related to the coronavirus yet.” Cardinal Health, Kaufman said, would weigh a variety of factors when making these decisions, and added that the company is “always going to fight aggressively to make sure that we’re getting after the lowest cost.”

“Are you able to raise the price on some of this to offset what could be some volume shortages such that it all kind of nets out to be fairly consistent as far as your overall profit matrix?” asked Valiquette.

Kaufman responded that price decisions would depend on contracts with providers, though the firm has greater flexibility over some drug sales. “As you have changes on the cost side, you’re able to make some adjustments,” he noted.

The discussion, over conference call, occurred during the Barclays Global Healthcare Conference on March 10. At one point, Valiquette joked that “one positive” about the coronavirus would be a “silver lining” that Cardinal Health may receive “less questions” about opioid-related lawsuits.

Cardinal Health is one of several firms accused of ignoring warnings and flooding pharmacies known as so-called pill mills with shipments of millions of highly addictive painkillers. Kaufmann noted that negotiations for a settlement are ongoing.

Owens & Minor, a health care logistics company that sources and manufactures surgical gowns, N95 masks, and other medical equipment, presented at the Barclays Global Healthcare Conference the following day.

Valiquette, citing the Covid-19 crisis, asked the company whether it could “increase prices on some of the products where there’s greater demand.” Valiquette then chuckled, adding that doing so “is probably not politically all that great in the sort of dynamic,” but said he was “curious to get some thoughts” on whether the firm would consider hiking prices.

The inquiry was sharply rebuked by Owens & Minor chief executive Edward Pesicka. “I think in a crisis like this, our mission is really around serving the customer. And from an integrity standpoint, we have pricing agreements,” Pesicka said. “So we are not going to go out and leverage this and try to ‘jam up’ customers and raise prices to have short-term benefit.”

AmerisourceBergen, another health care distributor that supplies similar products to Cardinal Health, which is also a defendant in the multistate opioid litigation, faced similar questions from Valiquette at the Barclays event.

Steve Collis, president and chief executive of AmerisourceBergen, noted that his company has been actively involved in efforts to push back against political demands to limit the price of pharmaceutical products.

Collis said that he was recently at a dinner with other pharmaceutical firms involved with developing “vaccines for the coronavirus” and was reminded that the U.S. firms, operating under limited drug price intervention, were among the industry leaders — a claim that has been disputed by experts who note that lack of regulation in the drug industry has led to few investments in viral treatments, which are seen as less lucrative. Leading firms developing a vaccine for Covid-19 are based in Germany, China, and Japan, countries with high levels of government influence in the pharmaceutical industry.

AmerisourceBergen, Collis continued, has been “very active with key stakeholders in D.C., and our priority is to educate policymakers about the impact of policy changes,” with a focus on “rational and responsible discussion about drug pricing.”

Later in the conversation, Valiquette asked AmerisourceBergen about the opioid litigation. The lawsuits could cost as much as $150 billion among the various pharmaceutical and drug distributor defendants. Purdue Pharma, one of the firms targeted with the opioid litigation, has already pursued bankruptcy protection in response to the lawsuit threat.

“We can’t say too much,” Collis responded. But the executive hinted that his company is using its crucial role in responding to the pandemic crisis as leverage in the settlement negotiations. “I would say that this crisis, the coronavirus crisis, actually highlights a lot of what we’ve been saying, how important it is for us to be very strong financial companies and to have strong cash flow ability to invest in our business and to continue to grow our business and our relationship with our customers,” Collis said.

The hope that the coronavirus will benefit firms involved in the opioid crisis has already materialized in some ways. New York Attorney General Letitia James announced last week that her lawsuit against opioid firms and distributors, including Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, set to begin on March 20, would be delayed over coronavirus concerns.

MARKET PRESSURE has encouraged large health care firms to spend billions of dollars on stock buybacks and lobbying, rather than research and development. Barclays declined to comment, and Cowen & Co. did not respond to a request for comment.

The fallout over the coronavirus could pose potential risks for for-profit health care operators. In Spain, the government seized control of private health care providers, including privately run hospitals, to manage the demand for treatment for patients with Covid-19.

But pharmaceutical interests in the U.S. have a large degree of political power. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar previously served as president of the U.S. division of drug giant Eli Lilly and on the board of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a drug lobby group.

During a congressional hearing last month, Azar rejected the notion that any vaccine or treatment for Covid-19 should be set at an affordable price. “We would want to ensure that we work to make it affordable, but we can’t control that price because we need the private sector to invest,” said Azar. “The priority is to get vaccines and therapeutics. Price controls won’t get us there.”

The initial $8.3 billion coronavirus spending bill passed in early March to provide financial support for research into vaccines and other drug treatments contained a provision that prevents the government from delaying the introduction of any new pharmaceutical to address the crisis over affordability concerns. The legislative text was shaped, according to reports, by industry lobbyists.

As The Intercept previously reported, Joe Grogan, a key White House domestic policy adviser now serving on Donald Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force, previously served as a lobbyist for Gilead Sciences.

“Notwithstanding the pressure they may feel from the markets, corporate CEOs have large amounts of discretion and in this case, they should be very mindful of price gouging, they’re going to be facing a lot more than reputational hits,” said Robert Weissman, president of public interest watchdog Public Citizen, in an interview with The Intercept.

“There will be a backlash that will both prevent their profiteering, but also may push to more structural limitations on their monopolies and authority moving forward,” Weissman said.

Weissman’s group supports an effort led by Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., who has called on the government to invoke the Defense Production Act to scale up domestic manufacturing of health care supplies.

There are other steps the government can take, Weissman added, to prevent price gouging.

“The Gilead product is patent-protected and monopoly-protected, but the government has a big claim over that product because of the investment it’s made,” said Weissman.

“The government has special authority to have generic competition for products it helped fund and prevent nonexclusive licensing for products it helped fund,” Weissman continued. “Even for products that have no connection to government funding, the government has the ability to force licensing for generic competition for its own acquisition and purchases.”

Drug companies often eschew vaccine development because of the limited profit potential for a one-time treatment. Testing kit companies and other medical supply firms have few market incentives for domestic production, especially scaling up an entire factory for short-term use. Instead, Levin and Weissman have argued, the government should take direct control of producing the necessary medical supplies and generic drug production.

Last Friday, Levin circulated a letter signed by other House Democrats that called for the government to take charge in producing ventilators, N95 respirators, and other critical supplies facing shortages.

The once inconceivable policy was endorsed on Wednesday when Trump unveiled a plan to invoke the Defense Production Act to compel private firms to produce needed supplies during the crisis. The law, notably, allows the president to set a price ceiling for critical goods used in an emergency.

 

 

 

 

MedPAC’s report to Congress: 7 takeaways

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/finance/medpac-s-report-to-congress-7-takeaways.html?utm_medium=email

Image result for MedPAC

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission released its March 2020 report on Medicare payment policy to Congress, which includes a chapter analyzing the effects of hospital and physician consolidation in the healthcare sector.

Here are seven takeaways:

1. Medicare’s Insurance Trust Fund is likely to run out without changes. Trustees from Medicare estimate that the program’s Hospital Insurance Trust Fund, mostly funded through a payroll tax, will be depleted by 2026. To keep the fund solvent for the next 25 years, Medicare trustees advise that the payroll tax immediately be raised from 2.9 percent to 3.7 percent, or Part A spending to be reduced by 18 percent.

2. MedPAC recommends boosting payment rate for three sectors:

  • Hospitals. MedPAC recommended a 3.3 percent raise in Medicare payments for hospitals next year. The commission said it wants to give hospitals a 2 percent boost overall and tie the other 1.3 percent to quality metrics to motivate hospitals to reduce mortality and improve patient satisfaction. Currently, CMS has scheduled a 2.8 percent increase in 2021 Medicare payments.
  • Outpatient dialysis services. MedPAC recommended that the End Stage Renal Disease Prospective Payment System base payment rate is raised by the amount determined under current law. This is projected to be a boost of 2 percent
  • Long-term care hospitals. The commission recommended a 2 percent increase in the payment rates for long-term care hospitals in 2021.

3. MedPAC recommends unchanged payment rates for four sectors:

  • Physicians: Under current law, there is no update to the 2021 Medicare fee schedule base payment rate for physicians who treat Medicare patients. MedPAC is recommending that CMS keeps the physician rate the same as it is this year.
  • Surgery centers. MedPAC recommended eliminating an expected 2.8 percent payment rate bump for surgery centers next year. It said its decision was due to not having enough cost data from surgery centers.
  • Skilled nursing. MedPAC is recommending skilled nursing facilities receive no change to their base rate next year to better align payments with costs while exerting pressure on providers to keep their cost growth low.
  • Hospice. MedPAC recommends that the hospice payment rates in 2021 be held at their 2020 levels

4. MedPAC recommends payment rate reductions for two sectors: 

  • Home health. The commission recommended a 7 percent reduction in home health payment rates for 2021.
  • Inpatient rehabilitation hospitals. MedPAC is recommending that CMS reduce the payment rate to inpatient rehabilitation facilities by 5 percent for fiscal year 2021.

5. MedPAC builds on its recommendation to revamp quality programs. MedPAC is furthering its recommendation to replace Medicare’s four current hospital quality programs with a single hospital value incentive program. MedPAC said it believes that this recommendation would provide hospitals  higher aggregate payments than they would get under current law.

6. MedPAC’s findings on hospital and physician consolidation. MedPAC said that consolidation gives providers greater market power, which has a statistically significant association with higher profit margins for treating non-Medicare patients. Higher non-Medicare margins also are associated with higher standardized costs per discharge. But the direct association between market power and standardized costs per discharge is statistically insignificant, the commission found.

“The effect of consolidation on hospitals’ costs is not clear in theory or from our current analysis. From a theoretical standpoint, the merger of two hospitals could initially create some efficiencies and bargaining power with suppliers. But over time, higher prices from commercial payers could loosen hospitals’ budget constraints and lead to higher cost growth, thus offsetting any efficiency gains,” MedPAC’s report states.

7. MedPAC’s findings on the 340B Drug Discount Program. MedPAC was asked to analyze whether the availability of 340B drug discounts creates incentives for hospitals to choose more expensive products than they would without the program. MedPAC studied the effect of 340B market share on higher drug spending on cancer treatments between 2009 and 2017. The commission found that for two of the five cancer types studied, 340B participation boosted prices by about $300 per patient per month. However, the boost in spending attributed to 340B was much smaller than the general increase in oncology spending, which includes rising prices and the launch of new products with high drug prices. For example, cancer drug spending grew by more than $2,000 per patient month for patients with breast cancer, lung cancer, and leukemia/lymphoma.

“The MedPAC report released today uses rigorous analysis and finds little evidence 340B participation influences cancer drug spending. Modest differences may be attributable to the types of patients treated in 340B facilities. The safety-net hospitals that participate in the 340B drug-pricing program are essential providers of cancer care in this nation, especially to patients who are living with low incomes, those living with disabilities, and patients requiring more complex oncology care,” said Maureen Testoni, president and CEO of 340B Health, an association that represents more than 1,400 hospitals participating in the 340B program.

Access MedPAC’s full report here. 

 

 

 

 

Experts agree that Trump’s coronavirus response was poor, but the US was ill-prepared in the first place

https://theconversation.com/experts-agree-that-trumps-coronavirus-response-was-poor-but-the-us-was-ill-prepared-in-the-first-place-133674?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20March%2017%202020%20-%201565314971&utm_content=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20March%2017%202020%20-%201565314971+Version+A+CID_6ce2ffeb273f535ccdcb368c4649a7ee&utm_source=campaign_monitor_us&utm_term=Experts%20agree%20that%20Trumps%20coronavirus%20response%20was%20poor%20but%20the%20US%20was%20ill-prepared%20in%20the%20first%20place

As the coronavirus pandemic exerts a tighter grip on the nation, critics of the Trump administration have repeatedly highlighted the administration’s changes to the nation’s pandemic response team in 2018 as a major contributor to the current crisis. This combines with a hiring freeze at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leaving hundreds of positions unfilled. The administration also has repeatedly sought to reduce CDC funding by billions of dollars. Experts agree that the slow and uncoordinated response has been inadequate and has likely failed to mitigate the coming widespread outbreak in the U.S.

As a health policy expert, I agree with this assessment. However, it is also important to acknowledge that we have underfunded our public health system for decades, perpetuated a poorly working health care system and failed to bring our social safety nets in line with other developed nations. As a result, I expect significant repercussions for the country, much of which will disproportionately fall on those who can least afford it.

Decades of underfunding

Spending on public health has historically proven to be one of humanity’s best investments. Indeed, some of the largest increases in life expectancy have come as the direct result of public health interventions, such as sanitation improvements and vaccinations.

Even today, return on investments for public health spending is substantial and tends to significantly outweigh many medical interventions. For example, one study found that every US$10 per person spent by local health departments reduces infectious disease morbidity by 7.4%.

However, despite their importance to national well-being, public health expenditures have been neglected at all levels. Since 2008, for example, local health departments have lost more than 55,000 staff. By 2016, only about 133,000 full-time equivalent staff remained. State funding for public health was lower in 2016-2017 than in 2008-2009. And the CDC’s prevention and public health budget has been flat and significantly underfunded for years. Overall, of the more than $3.5 trillion the U.S. spends annually on health care, a meager 2.5% goes to public health.

Not surprisingly, the nation has experienced a number of outbreaks of easily preventable diseases. Currently, we are in the middle of significant outbreaks of hepatitis A (more than 31,000 cases), syphilis (more than 35,000 cases), gonorrhea (more than 580,000 cases) and chlamydia (more than 1,750,000 cases). Our failure to contain known diseases bodes ill for our ability to rein in the emerging coronavirus pandemic.

Failures of health care systems

Yet while we have underinvested in public health, we have been spending massive and growing amounts of money on our medical care system. Indeed, we are spending more than any other country for a system that is significantly underperforming.

To make things worse, it is also highly inequitable. Yet, the system is highly profitable for all players involved. And to maximize income, both for- and nonprofits have consistently pushed for greater privatization and the elimination of competitors.

As a result, thousands of public and private hospitals deemed “inefficient” because of unfilled beds have closed. This eliminated a significant cushion in the system to buffer spikes in demand.

At any given time, this decrease in capacity does not pose much of a problem for the nation. Yet in the middle of a global pandemic, communities will face significant challenges without this surge capacity. If the outbreak mirrors anything close to what we have seen in other countries, “there could be almost six seriously ill patients for every existing hospital bed.” A worst-case scenario from the same study puts the number at 17 to 1. To make things worse, there will likely be a particular shortage of unoccupied intensive care beds.

Of course, the lack of overall hospitals beds is not the most pressing issue. Hospitals also lack the levels of staffing and supplies needed to cope with a mass influx of patients. However, the lack of ventilators might prove the most daunting challenge.

Limits of the overall social safety net

While the U.S. spends trillions of dollars each year on medical care, our social safety net has increasingly come under strain. Even after the Affordable Care Actalmost 30 million Americans do not have health insurance coverage. Many others are struggling with high out-of-pocket payments.

To make things worse, spending on social programs, outside of those protecting the elderly, has been shrinking, and is significantly smaller than in other developed nations. Moreover, public assistance is highly uneven and differs significantly from state to state.

And of course, the U.S. heavily relies on private entities, mostly employers, to offer benefits taken for granted in other developed countries, including paid sick leave and child care. This arrangement leaves 1 in 4 American workers without paid sick leave, resulting in highly inequitable coverage. As a result, many low-income families struggle to make ends meet even when times are good.

Can the US adapt?

I believe that the limitations of the U.S. public health response and a potentially overwhelmed medical care system are likely going to be exacerbated by the blatant limitations of the U.S. welfare state. However, after weathering the current storm, I expect us to go back to business as usual relatively quickly. After all, that’s what happened after every previous pandemic, such as H1N1 in 2009 or even the 1918 flu epidemic.

The problems are in the incentive structure for elected officials. I expect that policymakers will remain hesitant to invest in public health, let alone revamp our safety net. While the costs are high, particularly for the latter, there are no buildings to be named, and no quick victories to be had. The few advocates for greater investments lack resources compared to the trillion-dollar interests from the medical sector.

Yet, if altruism is not enough, we should keep reminding policymakers that outbreaks of communicable diseases pose tremendous challenges for local health care systems and communities. They also create remarkable societal costs. The coronavirus serves as a stark reminder.

 

 

UnitedHealth likely to keep squeezing physician staffing firms

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/unitedhealth-likely-to-keep-squeezing-physician-staffing-firms/573679/

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The nation’s largest private insurer has been terminating its contracts with physician staffing firms in a bid to extract lower prices, part of a years-long pattern analysts say could spur other payers to follow.

UnitedHealthcare contends it is simply trying to curb the rising cost of healthcare by driving out high-cost providers that charge far more than the median rate in its network. The payer said it had hoped to keep these firms in network “at rates that reflect fair market prices,” a UnitedHealthcare spokesperson told Healthcare Dive.

The most recent action targeted Mednax, a firm that provides specialty services including anesthesia, neonatology and high-risk obstetrics in both urban and rural areas. United cut Mednax contracts in four states, pushing those providers out of network, potentially putting patients at risk of balance bills.

United also recently canceled its in-network contracts with U.S. Anesthesia Partners in Texas, starting in April, which caused Moody’s to change its outlook to negative for the provider group because the contracts represent 10% of its annual consolidated revenue.

These latest moves to end relationships with certain physician staffing firms seem to have escalated in recent years, Sarah Kahn, a credit analyst for S&P Global, told Healthcare Dive.

Since the insurer’s 2018 tussle with ER staffing firm Envision, “it’s sort of ramped up and become more aggressive and more abrupt and more pervasive,” Kahn said of the contract disputes.

 

United said the volume of negotiations it’s involved in has not changed in recent years, and added that it expects to renegotiate the same amount of contracts in 2020 that it did in 2019. However, United pointed a finger at a small number of physician staffing firms, backed by private equity, that are attempting to apply pressure on United to preserve the same high rates.

Private equity firms have been increasingly interested in healthcare over the past few years, accelerating acquisitions of medical practices from 2013 to 2016. Private equity acquired 355 physician practices, representing 1,426 sites of care and more than 5,700 physicians over that time frame, according to recent research in JAMA. The firms had a particular focus on anesthesiology with 69 practices acquired, followed by emergency physicians at 43.

Mednax is a publicly traded company. But Envision is owned by investment firm KKR; TeamHealth is owned by private equity firm Blackstone; and U.S. Anesthesia Partners is backed by Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe.

 

Proposed legislation around surprise billing may be influencing United’s actions, Kailash Chhaya, vice president and senior analyst at Moody’s, told Healthcare Dive. Congress has been weighing legislation that seeks to eliminate surprise billing, mainly through two vehicles, either using benchmark rates or arbitration.

If Congress ultimately decides on a bill that uses benchmark rates, or ties reimbursement for out-of-network providers to a benchmark rate (or average), it would benefit insurers like United to lower its average rate for certain services, Chhaya said. One way to do that is to end relationships with high-cost providers.

“It would help payers like UnitedHealth if that benchmark rate is low,” Chhaya said.

In late 2018, United threatened to drop Envision from its network, alleging the firm’s rates were responsible for driving up healthcare costs, according to a letter the payer sent hundreds of hospitals across the country. United and Envision eventually agreed to terms, but United seemed to outmuscle Envision as the deal secured “materially lower payment rates for Envision” that resulted in lower earnings, S&P Global analysts wrote in a recent report.

In 2019, United began terminating its contracts with TeamHealth, which has a special focus on emergency medicine. The terminations affect two-thirds of TeamHealth’s contracts through July 1. The squeeze from United caused Moody’s to also change Team Health’s outlook to negative as an eventual agreement would likely mean lower reimbursement and lower profitability for company, the ratings agency said.

“They’re trying to lower their payments to providers. Period,” David Peknay, director at S&P Global, told Healthcare Dive.​

 

Data shows prices — not usage — is driving healthcare spending. Physician staffing firms are frequently used for ER services and the ER and outpatient surgery experienced the largest growth in spending between 2014 and 2018, according to data from the Health Care Cost Institute.

United said it had been negotiating with TeamHealth since 2017 and does not believe TeamHealth should be paid significantly more than other in-network ER doctors for the same services. United alleges its median rate for chest pains is $340. But if a TeamHealth doctor provides the care it charges $1,508.​

“As Team Health continues to see more aggressive and inappropriate behavior by payors to either reduce, delay, or deny payments, we have increased our investment in legal resources to address specific situations where we believe payor behavior is inappropriate or unlawful,” according to a statement provided to Healthcare Dive.

TeamHealth said it will not balance bill patients in the interim.

 

The pressure from payers, particularly United, is unlikely to relent. The payer insures more than 43 million people in the U.S. through its commercial and public plans.

“I don’t think anyone is safe from such abrupt terminations,” Kahn said. However, United disputes the characterization of abruptly terminating contracts and says in many cases it has been negotiating with providers to no avail.

Likely targets in the future may include firms with a focus on emergency services, which tend to be high-cost areas, S&P’s analysts said. In their latest report, Kahn and Peknay pointed to The Schumacher Group, which is the third-largest player in emergency staffing services. However, it commands a market share of less than 10%, far less than its rivals Envision and TeamHealth.

Smaller firms may not be able to weather the pressure as effectively as very large staffing organizations.

For those smaller groups, it may be wise for them “to sit tight on their cash or prepare from some pressure,” Kahn said.

Although some believe it may influence other payers to follow suit, Dean Ungar, vice president and senior analyst with Moody’s, said United may be uniquely placed to exert this pressure because it has its own group of providers it can use and considerable scale.

“They are better positioned to play hardball,” Ungar said.