We recently caught up with a health system chief clinical officer, who brought up some recent news about CVS. “I was really disappointed to hear that they’re going to start employing doctors,” he shared, referring to the company’s announcement earlier this month that it would begin to hire physicians to staff primary care practices in some stores. He said that as his system considered partnerships with payers and retailers, CVS stood out as less threatening compared to UnitedHealth Group and Humana, who both directly employ thousands of doctors: “Since they didn’t employ doctors, we saw CVS HealthHUBs as complementary access points, rather than directly competing for our patients.”
As CVS has integrated with Aetna, the company is aiming to expand its use of retail care sites to manage cost of care for beneficiaries. CEO Karen Lynch recently described plans to build a more expansive “super-clinic” platform targeted toward seniors, that will offer expanded diagnostics, chronic disease management, mental health and wellness, and a smaller retail footprint. The company hopes that these community-based care sites will boost Aetna’s Medicare Advantage (MA) enrollment, and it sees primary care physicians as central to that strategy.
It’s not surprising that CVS has decided to get into the physician business, as its primary retail pharmacy competitors have already moved in that direction. Last month, Walgreens announced a $5.2B investment to take a majority stake in VillageMD, with an eye to opening of 1,000 “Village Medical at Walgreens” primary care practices over the next five years. And while Walmart’s rollout of its Walmart Health clinics has been slower than initially announced, its expanded clinics, led by primary care doctors and featuring an expanded service profile including mental health, vision and dental care, have been well received by consumers. In many ways employing doctors makes more sense for CVS, given that the company has looked to expand into more complex care management, including home dialysis, drug infusion and post-operative care. And unlike Walmart or Walgreens, CVS already bears risk for nearly 3M Aetna MA members—and can immediately capture the cost savings from care management and directing patients to lower-cost servicesin its stores.
But does this latest move make CVS a greater competitive threat to health systems and physician groups? In the war for talent, yes. Retailer and insurer expansion into primary care will surely amp up competition for primary care physicians, as it already has for nurse practitioners. Having its own primary care doctors may make CVS more effective in managing care costs, but the company’s ultimate strategy remains unchanged: use its retail primary care sites to keep MA beneficiaries out of the hospital and other high-cost care settings.
Partnerships with CVS and other retailers and insurers present an opportunity for health systems to increase access points and expand their risk portfolios. But it’s likely that these types of partnerships are time-limited. In a consumer-driven healthcare market, answering the question of “Whose patient is it?” will be increasingly difficult, as both parties look to build long-term loyalty with consumers.
Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare and one of its subsidiaries have entered into a definitive agreement to acquire Towson, Md.-based SurgCenter Development.
Under the agreement, Tenet and its subsidiary United Surgical Partners International will acquire ownership interests in 92 ambulatory surgery centers and related ambulatory support services for approximately $1.2 billion. Of the 92 ASCs, 16 of them are under development and have not yet opened.
Under the deal, expected to close in the fourth quarter of this year, SurgCenter and USPI will also enter into an agreement to develop at least 50 centers over a five-year period.
“We are extremely pleased to announce this transformative transaction and partnership, which builds upon USPI’s position as a premier growth partner and SCD’s track record of developing high-quality centers with leading physicians,” Saum Sutaria, MD, CEO of Tenet Healthcare, said in a Nov. 8 news release. “By welcoming these centers into our company, USPI will maintain its reach as the largest ambulatory platform for musculoskeletal services, a high-growth service line.”
Tenet said it expects the deal to generate strong financial returns.
Health insurers licensed by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association face steep financial penalties from that organization if they merge with a competitor that doesn’t sell BCBS insurance, Axios’ Bob Herman writes.
Why it matters: Blue Cross Blue Shield is one of the most recognizable health insurance names in the country, and the powerful association behind that brand wants to keep its dominance in local markets.
Case in point: Triple-S Management, a BCBS affiliate in Puerto Rico, sold itself in August to the parent company of the Florida Blues for $900 million.
If Triple-S sold itself to a non-BCBS company, therefore terminating its license with the BCBSA, Triple-S would have faced a $96 million surcharge, according to merger documents filed by Triple-S.
The $96 million charge, based on a fee of $98.33 per member, was called a “re-establishment fee.”
What they’re saying: “The license agreements between the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and its licensees include various financial and other provisions that apply to terminations, mergers and sales of licensees,” BCBSA said in a statement.
“BCBSA is unable to confirm the financial implications of any other transactions that Triple-S may have considered in deciding to enter into this transaction.”
Enrollment in Medicare Advantage plans is increasing rapidly, and many insurers are expanding their MA offerings in a bid to grab larger portions of the market share. Medicare Advantage touts itself as having certain advantages over traditional Medicare, such as fitness benefits, coverage for hearing aids and eyeglasses, and limits on out-of-pocket spending.
This begs the question: Are enrollees in the two versions of Medicare fundamentally different, and what are their experiences like in terms of satisfaction?
New analysis from the Commonwealth Fund found that Medicare Advantage enrollees do not differ significantly from beneficiaries in traditional Medicare in terms of their age, race, income, chronic conditions, satisfaction with care, or access to care, after excluding Special Needs Plan (SNP) enrollees.
Both groups reported waiting more than a month for physician office visits, while similar shares of Medicare Advantage and traditional Medicare enrollees report that their out-of-pocket costs make it difficult to obtain care.
Ultimately, MA and traditional Medicare are serving similar populations, with beneficiaries having comparable healthcare experiences. The care management services provided by Medicare Advantage plans appear to neither impede access to care nor reduce concerns about costs.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT?
Beneficiaries weigh a number of trade-offs when deciding whether to enroll in Medicare Advantage plans or traditional Medicare. Unlike the latter, MA plans are required to place limits on enrollees’ out-of-pocket spending and to maintain provider networks. The plans also can provide benefits not covered by traditional Medicare, such as eyeglasses, fitness benefits and hearing aids.
Medicare Advantage plans are intended to manage and coordinate beneficiaries’ care. Some MA plans specialize in care for people with diabetes and other common chronic conditions, including Special Needs Plans. SNPs also focus on people who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid and on those who require an institutional level of care.
Traditional Medicare and MA enrollees have historically had different characteristics, with MA enrollees somewhat healthier. Black and Hispanic beneficiaries and those with lower incomes have tended to enroll in MA plans at higher rates than others, while traditional Medicare has historically performed better on beneficiary-reported metrics, such as provider access, ease of getting needed care, and overall care experience.
The Commonwealth Fund found that, after excluding beneficiaries in SNPs, beneficiaries enrolled in traditional Medicare do not differ significantly from MA enrollees on age, income, or receipt of a Part D low-income subsidy (LIS), which helps low-income individuals pay for prescription drugs. But beneficiaries in traditional Medicare are significantly more likely than MA enrollees to reside in a metropolitan area and more likely to live in a long-term-care or residential facility.
Beneficiaries in SNPs are different. Given the eligibility criteria for these plans, it’s not surprising that enrollees tend to have significantly lower incomes and a greater likelihood of receiving Medicaid benefits or LIS than other Medicare beneficiaries.
Enrollment in SNPs for people who require an institutional level of care has been growing rapidly, leading to a similar share of SNP enrollees and beneficiaries in traditional Medicare living in a long-term-care facility.
There are some areas in which Medicare Advantage plans appear to perform better than traditional Medicare. In particular, MA enrollees are more likely than those in traditional Medicare to have a treatment plan, to have someone who reviews their prescriptions, to have someone they can contact for help, and to receive a response to a health query relatively quickly.
By providing this additional help, Medicare Advantage plans are making it easier for enrollees to get the help they need to manage their healthcare conditions, the report found. Medicare experts have suggested providing a similar service to beneficiaries in traditional Medicare through care coordinators.
The results also raise questions about whether Medicare Advantage plans are receiving appropriate payments. MedPAC estimates that plans are paid 4% more than it would cost to cover similar people in traditional Medicare.
On the one hand, Medicare Advantage plans seem to be providing services that help their enrollees manage their care, and this added care management could be of significant value to both plan enrollees and the Medicare program. On the other hand, rates of hospitalizations and emergency room visits are similar for beneficiaries in Medicare Advantage plans and traditional Medicare. This calls into question the impact of the added services on healthcare use, spending and outcomes.
THE LARGER TREND
Insurers are expanding their Medicare Advantage offerings at a decent clip, with Humana announcing last week it would debut a new Medicare Advantage PPO plan in 37 rural counties in North Carolina in response to market demand in the eastern part of the state.
Just last week, UnitedHealthcare, which already has significant market control with its MA plans, said it will strengthen its foothold in the space by expanding its MA plans in 2022, adding a potential 3.1 million members and reaching 94% of Medicare-eligible consumers in the U.S.
And for the third straight year, health insurer Cigna is expanding its Medicare Advantage plans, growing into 108 new counties and three new states – Connecticut, Oregon and Washington – which will increase its geographic presence by nearly 30%.
Centene is also getting in on the act, expanding MA into 327 new counties and three new states: Massachusetts, Nebraska and Oklahoma. In all, this represents a 26% expansion of Centene’s MA footprint, with the offering available to a potential 48 million beneficiaries across 36 states.
More than three years after signing a letter of intent to merge, Jefferson Health and Einstein Healthcare Network have finalized the deal.
The combination of the Philadelphia-based organizations brings together two academic medical centers and creates an integrated 18-hospital system with more than 50 outpatient and urgent care locations.
“The culmination of the multiyear process of bringing two great organizations with more than 300 combined years of service, clinical excellence and academic expertise is not just a merger,” said Stephen Klasko, MD, president of Thomas Jefferson University and CEO of Jefferson Health. “Einstein and the new Jefferson together represent an opportunity for the Philadelphia region to creatively construct a reimagining of healthcare, education, discovery, equity and innovation that will have national and international reverberations.”
The merger had previously faced antitrust scrutiny and delays from legal challenges. In particular, both the Federal Trade Commission and Pennsylvania’s attorney general sued the health systems in attempts to block the deal.
The FTC sued in February 2020, arguing that the combination of the two systems would reduce competition in both Philadelphia and Montgomery counties “to the detriment of patients.” An appellate court denied the FTC’s attempt to block the merger in December 2020, and the FTC officially dropped its challenge to the transaction in February 2021.
The Pennsylvania attorney general also dropped his opposition to the merger in January 2021 after the FTC lost its case.
Ken Levitan will continue serving as president and CEO of Einstein and add the role of executive vice president at Jefferson Health. In his new role, he will help guide the integration efforts.
About 73% of health insurance markets are highly concentrated, and in 46% of markets, one insurer had a share of 50% or more, a new report from the American Medical Association shows. The report comes a few months after President Joe Biden directed federal agencies to ramp up oversight of healthcare consolidation.
The majority of health insurance markets in the U.S. are highly concentrated, curbing competition, according to a report released by the American Medical Association.
For the report, researchers reviewed market share and market concentration data for the 50 states and District of Columbia, and each of the 384 metropolitan statistical areas in the country.
They found that 73% of the metropolitan statistical area-level payer markets were highly concentrated in 2020. In 91% of markets, at least one insurer had a market share of 30%, and in 46% of markets, one insurer had a share of 50% or more.
Further, the share of markets that are highly concentrated rose from 71% in 2014 to 73% last year. Of those markets that were not highly concentrated in 2014, 26% experienced an increase large enough to enter the category by 2020.
In terms of national-level market shares of the 10 largest U.S. health insurers, UnitedHealth Group comes out on top with the largest market share in both 2014 and 2020, reporting 16% and 15% market share, respectively. Anthem comes in second with shares of 13% in 2014 and 12% in 2020.
But the picture looks different when it comes to the market share of health insurers participating in the Affordable Care Act individual exchanges. In 2014, Anthem held the largest market share among the top 10 insurers on the exchanges, with a share of 14%. By 2020, Centene had taken the top spot, with a share of 18%, while Anthem had slipped to fifth place, with a share of just 4%.
Another key entrant into the top 10 list in 2020 was insurance technology company Oscar Health, with 3% of the market share in the exchanges at the national level.
“These [concentrated] markets are ripe for the exercise of health insurer market power, which harms consumers and providers of care,” the report authors wrote. “Our findings should prompt federal and state antitrust authorities to vigorously examine the competitive effects of proposed mergers involving health insurers.”
The payer industry hit back. In a statement provided to MedCity News, America’s Health Insurance Plans, a national payer association, said that Americans have many affordable choices for their coverage, pointing to the fact that CMS announced average premiums for Medicare Advantage plans will drop to $19 per month in 2022 from $21.22 this year.
“Health insurance providers are an advocate for Americans, fighting for lower prices and more choices for them,” said Kristine Grow, senior vice president of communications at America’s Health Insurance Plans, in an email. “We negotiate lower prices with doctors, hospitals and drug companies, and consumers benefit from lower premiums as a result.”
Further, the report does not mention the provider consolidation that also contributes to higher healthcare prices. Mergers and acquisitions among hospitals and health systems have continued steadily over the past decade, remaining relatively impervious to even the Covid-19 pandemic.
Scrutiny around consolidation in the healthcare industry may grow. In July, President Joe Biden issued an executive order urging federal agencies to review and revise their merger guidelines through the lens of preventing patient harm.
The Federal Trade Commission has already said that healthcare businesses will be one of its priority targets for antitrust enforcement actions.
Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare announced plans to merge with Broomfield, CO-based SCL Health to form a 33-hospital, $11B dollar system working in six states. The combined system will keep the Intermountain name, be based in Salt Lake City, and be led by Intermountain CEO Dr. Marc Harrison.
Harrison said that the merger will accelerate the evolution toward population health and value, and “swiftly advance that cause across a broader geography”—a similar value proposition to the system’s previously proposed combination with South Dakota-based Sanford Health, which fell apart last December after Sanford’s CEO stepped down following his controversial comments about mask-wearing.
Intermountain has long been regarded as a national leader in clinical quality, and its integrated payer-provider approach is often cited as a model for US healthcare. The merger with SCL Health will enable expansion of its SelectHealth insurance plan and integrated care model into Colorado, Montana and Kansas, including the fast-growing Denver metropolitan area, making the combined system a formidable player across the Mountain West.
But as we’ve written before, achieving that vision will require a level of integration not often realized in similar mergers, and the burden of proof is on health systems to demonstrate that the merger will create meaningful value for patients and consumers.
We’ll be watching closely to better understand their plans for lowering costs and improving access and quality for patients across the region.
Contrary to what health care executives advertise, hospital mergers and acquisitions aren’t good for patients. They rarely improve access to health care or its quality, and they don’t reduce prices. But the system in place to stop them is often more bark than bite.
In 2018, the last year for which complete data are available, 72% of hospitals and more than 90% of hospital beds were affiliated with a health care system. Mergers and acquisitions are increasing the number of health care systems while decreasing the number of independently operated hospitals.
When hospitals buy provider practices, it leads to more unnecessary care and more expensive care, which increases overall spending. The same thing happens when hospitals merge or acquire other hospitals. These deals often increase prices and they don’t improve care quality; patients simply pay more for the same or worse care.
Mergers and acquisitions can negatively affect clinician morale as well. Some argue they lead to providers’ loss of autonomy and increase the emphasis on financial targets rather than patient care. They can also contribute to burnout and feeling unsupported.
Considerable machinery is in place at both the federal and state levels to stop “anticompetitive” mergers before they happen. But that machinery is limited by a lack of follow through.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Department of Justice have always had broad authority over mergers. By law, one or both of these entities must review for any antitrust concerns proposed deals of a certain size before the deals are finalized. After a preliminary review, if no competition issues are identified, the merger or acquisition is allowed to proceed. This is what happens in most cases. If concerns are raised, however, the involved parties must submit additional information and undergo a second evaluation.
Some health care organizations seem willing to challenge this process. Leaders involved in a pending merger between Lifespan and Care New England in Rhode Island — which would leave 80% of the state’s inpatient market under one company’s umbrella — are preparing to move forward even if the FTC deems the deal anticompetitive. The companies will simply ask the state to approve the merger despite the FTC’s concerns.
The reality is that the FTC’s reach is limited when it comes to nonprofits, which most hospitals are. While the FTC can oppose anticompetitive mergers involving nonprofits, it cannot enforce action against them for anticompetitive behavior. So if a merger goes through, the FTC has limited authority to ensure the new entity plays fairly.
What’s more, the FTC has acknowledged it can’t keep up with its workload this year. It modified its antitrust review process to accommodate an increasing number of requests and its stagnant capacity. In July, the Biden administration issued an executive order about economic competition that explicitly acknowledges the negative impact of health care consolidation on U.S. communities. This is encouraging, signaling that the government is taking mergers seriously. Yet it’s unclear if the executive order will give the FTC more capacity, which is essential if it is to actually enforce antitrust laws.
At the state level, most of the antitrust power lies with the attorney general, who ultimately approves or challenges all mergers. Despite this authority, questionable mergers still go through.
In 2018, for example, two competing hospital systems in rural Tennessee merged to become Ballad Health and the only source of care for about 1.2 million residents. The deal was opposed by the FTC, which deemed it to be a monopoly. Despite the concerns, the state attorney general and Department of Health overrode the FTC’s ruling and approved the merger. (This is the same mechanism the Rhode Island hospitals hope to employ should the FTC oppose their merger.) As expected, Ballad Health then consolidated the services offered at its facilities and increased the fees on patient bills.
It’s clear that mechanisms exist to curb potentially harmful mergers and promote industry competition. It’s also clear they aren’t being used to the fullest extent. Unless these checks and balances lead to mergers being denied, their power over the market is limited.
Experts have been raising the alarm on health care consolidation for years. Mergers rarely lead to better care quality, access, or prices. Proposed mergers must be assessed and approved based on evidence, not industry pressure. If nothing changes, the consequences will be felt for years to come.
Two of the best-known companies in the virtual mental health space announced plans to merge this week, creating a $3B player poised to dominate this fast-growing segment of healthcare demand.
Headspace, a direct-to-consumer provider of app-based “mindfulness” meditation programs, will combine with Ginger, which sells text- and video-based coaching and therapy services to employers and insurers. Between them, the two companies claim to serve over 100M users worldwide.
Headspace is best known as a consumer-focused app, while Ginger largely serves business and payer clients. The combined company, to be called Headspace Health, will surely look to consolidate offerings into a comprehensive mental health service for employees, targeting a benefits market that is rapidly becoming overwhelmed with startup providers of virtual point solutions.
Behavioral health telemedicine utilization skyrocketed during last year’s COVID surge, and has been the one area of virtual care not to fall back to earth since—we’ve learned that virtual is often a superior approach for many mental health services.
Two questions arose in our minds after the Headspace/Ginger merger was announced. First, does the combined company bring a broad enough value proposition to overcome employer frustration with a highly fragmented market, or will the new Headspace Health eventually need to be part of a larger insurer platform to capture the opportunity in front of it? And second, does “mindfulness” even work?
The academic evidence is decidedly mixed, but the popularity of Headspace and other meditation apps, especially among Millennial consumers, might make that question moot. The mindfulness “wrapper” on more traditional mental health services may prove to be very popular with employees, and could become a must-have element of employers’ benefit packages.
One of the underappreciated ways in which health systems create value in our healthcare economy, as was recently the topic of discussion with the CEO of an organization we work with, is their role as a “safety net”. We weren’t talking about safety-net providers in the traditional sense—those which serve low-income populations. Rather, we were talking about the ability of larger health systems to acquire and invest in smaller hospitals that might otherwise risk going out of business entirely due to economic pressures.
When economic shocks hit, as was recently the case with COVID, we often see firms close; think of all the restaurant and hospitality businesses forced to shut down over the past year. As the economy rebounds, new business spring up to take their places—that kind of “creative destruction” is commonplace in the larger economy. But when a hospital is forced to shut its doors, it’s a different story, one that could be potentially disastrous for the community.
Often the most economically vulnerable hospitals are sole providers for their communities; without them, critical medical services could be much less accessible for patients. Enter multi-hospital health systems, which have often stepped in to acquire hospitals in jeopardy.
By providing access to capital, technology, and management infrastructure, systems have probably kept hundreds of such smaller hospitals in business over the past several decades. Policy analysts are quick to criticize health systems for value destruction: leveraging scale to raise prices, and so forth.
Often valid criticism, but it would be myopic to overlook the fact that systems have also allowed many vulnerable communities to retain access to a viable local hospital. The pushback is often to posit that we simply have too many hospitals to begin with—but try telling that to patients and communities who have lost access to their local source of care.