Consumers and employers recently filed lawsuits against Hartford HealthCare, HCA Healthcare, and Advocate Aurora Health, accusing the health systems of using their market power to increase prices through anticompetitive contracting practices. New reporting from the Wall Street Journal finds that all three suits are receiving funding from billionaire John Arnold, through his charitable foundation Arnold Ventures, which has sponsored several efforts to reduce healthcare spending. While the health systems say that the claims are baseless, the law firm leading the suits, Fairmark Partners, says that it’s attempting to enforce antitrust laws through the courts.
The Gist: Amid the Biden administration’s increased scrutiny of health system anticompetitive behavior, state governments and philanthropic groups are also taking a more active role in challenging hospital deals and contracting practices.
While these groups have targeted hospital prices because they’re a significant source of increased healthcare spending, these lawsuits do little to address the perverse underlying incentives that push hospitals to seek higher prices from commercial patients, to cross-subsidize what they view as insufficient pricing from public payers.
LHC, a postacute care behemoth with several hundred home health and hospice locations, as well as a dozen long-term care hospitals, would greatly expand Optum’s ability to provide home-based and long-term care. The FTC’s second request for information threatens to delay the deal, which was set to close in the latter half of this year.
The Gist: The LHC deal is the second UnitedHealth Group (UHG) transaction that antitrust regulators have targeted recently. The Department of Justice filed alawsuit earlier this year to block UHG’s acquisition of Change Healthcare, alleging that acquiring a direct competitor for claims solutions would reduce competition.
The FTC has historically focused its efforts on horizontal integration, but the LHC scrutiny, in combination with a recent inquiry into pharmacy benefit managers, indicates its focus may be expanding to vertical integration.
The Federal Reserve just raised interest rates by three-quarters of a percentage point, the biggest single increase in interest rates since 1994. It’s another move in the Fed’s effort to tackle the fastest inflation in four decades.
I understand the Fed’s urgency, but it has entered dangerous territory. If the Fed continues down this path – as it has signaled it will – the economy will be plunged into a recession. Every time over the last half century the Fed has raised interest rates this much and this quickly, it has caused a recession.
Besides, interest rate increases will not remedy the major causes of the current inflation – huge pent-up worldwide demand from two years of pandemic, shortages of goods and services responding to that demand, Putin’s war in Ukraine, and big profitable corporations with enough pricing power to use inflation as a cover for pushing up prices even further.
The Fed assumes that price increases are being driven by wage increases — so-called “wage-price inflation.” That’s incorrect. Wages are lagging behind inflation. A more accurate description of what we’re now seeing might be called “profit-price inflation” — prices driven upward by corporations seeking increased profits. (See chart below, from the Economic Policy Institute.)
A recession will be especially harmful to people who are most vulnerable to downturns in the economy — who are the first to be fired (and last to be hired again when the economy turns upward): lower-wage workers, disproportionately women and people of color.
Two lawsuits against hospital mergers announced the same day may look like the FTC under Chair Lina Khan (pictured) is flexing its muscle to restrain deals that raise prices. But those complaints are “more smoke than fire,” Ken Field, a former FTC lawyer and current co-chair of Jones Day’s global health care practice, told STAT’s Tara Bannow.
The real target shouldn’t be the mergers in Utah and New Jersey between hospitals, antitrust experts said, but something called vertical mergers, in which hospitals buy up physician groups. After such deals, doctors spent $73 million more on 10 common imaging and lab tests over four years, a 2021 Health Affairs study found.
An FTC spokesperson didn’t comment on the agency’s strategy with respect to hospital consolidation.
The momentum behind Medicare Advantage is only growing as more baby boomers age into eligibility, and experts don’t expect the energy around the program to slow down any time soon.
A recent analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a record 3,834 plans were available for the 2022 plan year in MA, which represents an 8% increase over 2021 and the largest number on the market in a decade.
Open enrollment for Medicare ended Dec. 7, and enrollment numbers will begin trickling out as the year winds down. In 2021, 26 million Medicare beneficiaries, or about 42% of those eligible for the program, were enrolled in an MA plan.
“As Medicare Advantage enrollment continues to grow, insurers seem to be responding by offering more plans and choices to the people on Medicare,” the KFF analysts said.
Part of the appeal of MA to an increasingly savvy consumer base is that it offers additional benefits beyond those afforded people in traditional Medicare, such as vision and dental coverage as well as supports for members’ social needs.
Sachin Jain, M.D., CEO of SCAN Health Plan, told Fierce Healthcare that people are increasingly shopping around for plans, building greater awareness of MA as a whole as well as of the different types of benefits beneficiaries could select.
“We’re seeing that consumers are more sophisticated today than they were a decade ago,” he said. “I think people are realizing that fee-for-service Medicare doesn’t cover a lot of things.”
The KFF report shows that more than 90% of non-group MA plans offer some kind of vision, hearing, telehealth or dental benefits and that most (89%) include prescription drug coverage as well.
Elena McFann, president of Medicare at Anthem, told Fierce Healthcare that throughout the open enrollment period, plans built with benefits that target the social determinants of health and promote whole-person care resonated strongly with members.
Anthem, for example, offers plans that include a slate of essential extra benefits that members can choose from based on what they need the most. Options include grocery cards, transportation benefits and in-home supports.
She said that the grocery benefits and flex cards that allow members to purchase additional hearing, vision and dental coverage have proven particularly popular in this enrollment season.
“What those all point to is the concept of flexibility and helping them lead healthier lives where they really need the help where they are in their journey,” McFann said.
As these benefits prove popular, an increasing number of plans are offering them in tandem. The Better Medicare Alliance released a survey late last month that found the number of plans including supplemental benefits grew by 43% for the 2022 plan year.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has issued additional flexibilities that allow MA plans to address members’ social determinants of health as the program’s enrollment continues to swell.
Jain said SCAN has seen similar interest in supplemental benefits, and that flexibility afforded to MA plans to adapt to seniors’ needs and expectations is a critical factor in the program’s success.
“When you’re in the business of serving seniors, a lot of what you have to do is anticipate needs that those seniors may not anticipate that they have, give them things they didn’t know they needed,” he said.
McFann said that beneficiaries value plans like these that unite brands they trust and recognize and that partners like Kroger enable insurers to more effectively meet seniors where they are. In its co-branded plans, members can access benefits like Healthy Grocery Cards and stipends to purchase over-the-counter health items.
She said that there has been significant “excitement” around those plans, which are available in four states, during the current enrollment period.
“It gives the Medicare eligibles a sense of familiarity and a sense of comfort, again meeting them on their terms,” McFann said.
However, while many established insurers have set ambitious growth targets in this market and new startups enter the space regularly, they still have plenty of work to do if they want to catch up with the market’s dominant forces: UnitedHealthcare, Humana and Blues plans.
UHC and Humana together account for 45% of the MA market in 2021, according to the KFF analysis. Humana offers plans in 85% of counties and UHC in 74% for 2022.
That means, 89% of Medicare eligibles have access to a Humana plan and 90% have access to a UHC MA plan if they choose, according to the report.
Competition is continuing to grow, though, and both McFann and Jain said they don’t feel the momentum around MA slowing down anytime soon.
“It is those extras and social drivers of health solutions that really have caught on with the Medicare-eligible segment and we expect to see that expand even further,” McFann said.
A recent piece in JAMA argues that policymakers need to be proactive in addressing how the rise of MA enrollment will affect the Medicare program as a whole, including its role in national quality and utilization measurement, rural healthcare access, and graduate medical education. The ability to monitor care delivered to the traditional, fee-for-service Medicare beneficiary population has been critical for assessing cost growth and shifting care patterns, distributing subsidies, and basing MA payments—all things that will become increasingly difficult as traditional Medicare becomes both smaller and less representative of the entire Medicare population.
The Gist: Traditional Medicare has been a springboard for national healthcare policy goals and industry-wide innovations. However, consumers’ preference for, and policy shifts supporting, the growth of Medicare Advantage are proving to be unstoppable.
Providers must prepare for a future in which a shrinking minority of beneficiaries are enrolled in traditional Medicare. If current trends continue, Medicare policymakers must bolster ongoing support for medical education, and build a higher standard of transparency and quality reporting for MA carriers and providers to maintain the sustainability of one of the country’s greatest healthcare data resources.
While healthcare is delivered locally, the business of healthcare is regional, and the regions are only getting bigger. Hospital and health system mergers alike have continued to shift from local to regional, and the recently announced merger between Advocate Aurora Health and Atrium Health clearly highlights that the regions are only getting bigger.
Advocate Aurora, with a presence in Illinois and Wisconsin, and Atrium Health, with a presence in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will combine to create a $27 billion health system that will span six states and make it one of the leading healthcare delivery systems in the country. The combined organization, which will transition to a new brand, Advocate Health, will operate 67 hospitals and over 1,000 sites of care, employ nearly 150,000 teammates, and serve 5.5 million patients. Together, Advocate Health will become the 6th largest system in the country behind Kaiser Permanente, HCA Healthcare, CommonSpirit Health, Ascension, and Providence.
We have seen a number of large health systems come together recently, including Intermountain Healthcare + SCL Health to create a $15 billion revenue system, Spectrum Health + Beaumont ($14 billion), NorthShore University Health System + Edward-Elmhurst Healthcare ($5 billion), LifePoint Health + Kindred Healthcare ($14 billion), and Jefferson Health + Einstein Healthcare Network ($8 billion).
The exact reasoning for each merger differs slightly, but one of the common threads across all is scale. But not scale in the traditional M&A sense. Rather, scale in covered lives; scale in physician infrastructure and alignment; scale in clinical and operational capabilities; scale in technology, innovation, and partnerships with non-traditional players; scale for capital access; and scale for insurance risk to compete in a value-based world. It is no longer the strong acquiring the weak. Rather, strong players are coming together to gain scale to face the headwinds in a unified manner.
For Advocate Aurora and Atrium, coming together is about leveraging their combined clinical excellence, advancing data analytics capabilities and digital consumer infrastructure, improving affordability, driving health equity, creating a next-generation workforce, research, and environmental sustainability. Together, they have pledged $2 billion to disrupt the root causes of health inequities across underserved communities and create more than 20,000 new jobs.
Both Advocate Aurora and Atrium are no strangers to mergers. Advocate and Aurora came together in 2018, and prior to that Advocate was intending to merge with NorthShore before being blocked due to anti-trust. Atrium has grown over the years, merging with systems such as Navicent Health in Georgia in 2018, Wake Forest Baptist Health in North Carolina 2020, and Floyd Health System in Georgia in 2021. In the newly proposed merger, Advocate Aurora and Atrium are coming together via a joint operating arrangement where each entity will be responsible for their own liabilities and maintain ownership of their respective assets but operate together under the new parent entity and board. This may allow the combined entity more flexibility in local decision-making. The current CEOs, Jim Skogsbergh and Eugene Woods will serve as co-CEOs for the first 18 months, at which point Skogsbergh will retire, and Woods will take over as the sole CEO.
Mergers can come in various shapes and structures, but the driving forces behind consolidation are not unique. With the need to compete in value-based care, adequately manage risk, gain scale across covered lives, physicians, and points of access, successfully deliver affordable high-quality care, and the need to deal with the vertical and horizontal consolidation of the large-scale payers, the markets that health systems operate in must be large enough to be effective and relevant. We fully expect to see more of these larger scale health system mergers in the near term.
The physical delivery of healthcare is local, but, again, the business of healthcare is not; it is regional, and the regions are only getting bigger.
The combined health system will become the sixth largest nationwide, with $27B in revenue and 67 hospitals across six Midwest and Southeast states. The system will be based in Charlotte, and known as Advocate Health, though Atrium will continue to use its name in its markets.
Atrium CEO Gene Woods is slated to ultimately lead the combined entity, after an 18-month co-CEO arrangement with Advocate Aurora CEO Jim Skogsbergh. While the cross-market merger is unlikely to create antitrust concerns about increased pricing leverage, the Biden administration has been making noises about applying stricter scrutiny to the impact of health system consolidation on labor market competition.
The Gist: Earlier this year, Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare and Colorado-based SCL Health combined to create a 33-hospital, $14B health system, which became the 11th largest nationwide. While these mega-mergers of regional systems can realize cost savings from back-office synergies, there is a significant opportunity to create larger “platforms” of care to win consumer loyalty, deploy digital capabilities, attract talent, and become more desirable partners for nontraditional players like Amazon, Walmart, and One Medical.
It will be critical to watch whether the governance and cultural challenges that often hinder health system mergers come into play here. Advocate Aurora has had two prospective mergers fall apart in recent years, the first with Chicago-based NorthShore University HealthSystem, and the second with Michigan-based Beaumont Health (who subsequently finalized a merger with Spectrum Health earlier this year).
But the combination with Atrium is structured as a joint operating agreement, essentially creating a new superstructure atop the two legacy systems. This may allow the combined entity more flexibility in local decision-making, but the ultimate question will be how the combined entity will create value for consumers. Time will tell.
Livonia, Mich.-based Trinity Health and Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health have signed an agreement for Trinity to acquire all MercyOne Health System assets and facilities.
Clive, Iowa-based MercyOne has 16 medical centers, 27 affiliate organizations and more than 420 care sites, according to a joint news release. It employs more than 20,000 people.
Trinity and CommonSpirit decided it would be best for MercyOne and the communities it serves for it to have a sole parent company, according to the news release. MercyOne facilities will transition to Trinity’s strategies and operations.
The transaction is expected to be finalized this summer.
“True to our shared Catholic mission, our goal is to provide high-quality, compassionate care with the best patient/member experience possible. We will accomplish that goal through a holistic approach, with a range of health services and technologies that are fully connected and coordinated,” Mike Slubowski, president and CEO of Trinity Health, said in the news release. “This agreement creates a fully integrated MercyOne to care for more people in a unified way.”
Salt Lake City-based Intermountain and Broomfield, CO-based SCL Health have now formed a 33-hospital, $14B nonprofit health system, which immediately becomes the 11th largest nationwide. The system will operate across seven states under the Intermountain brand, although the SCL hospitals will keep their legacy names and Catholic affiliation. Regulators signed off on the interstate merger after the systems agreed not to close any locations or services.
The Gist: Intermountain has been trying to build scale across the Mountain West in the last few years, having recently come up short in an attempt to merge with South Dakota-based Sanford Health.
The SCL deal will allowIntermountain to expand its SelectHealth insurance plan and integrated care model into the fast-growing Denver metro area, as well as into Kansas and Montana. As with any merger, the difficult work of combining cultures and demonstrating meaningful value for patients and consumers lies ahead.