The High Price of Lowering Health Costs for 150 Million Americans

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https://one.npr.org/?sharedMediaId=968920752:968920754

The Problem

Employers — including companies, state governments and universities — purchase health care on behalf of roughly 150 million Americans. The cost of that care has continued to climb for both businesses and their workers.

For many years, employers saw wasteful care as the primary driver of their rising costs. They made benefits changes like adding wellness programs and raising deductibles to reduce unnecessary care, but costs continued to rise. Now, driven by a combination of new research and changing market forces — especially hospital consolidation — more employers see prices as their primary problem.

The Evidence

The prices employers pay hospitals have risen rapidly over the last decade. Those hospitals provide inpatient care and increasingly, as a result of consolidation, outpatient care too. Together, inpatient and outpatient care account for roughly two-thirds of employers’ total spending per employee.

By amassing and analyzing employers’ claims data in innovative ways, academics and researchers at organizations like the Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI) and RAND have helped illuminate for employers two key truths about the hospital-based health care they purchase:

1) PRICES VARY WIDELY FOR THE SAME SERVICES

Data show that providers charge private payers very different prices for the exact same services — even within the same geographic area.

For example, HCCI found the price of a C-section delivery in the San Francisco Bay Area varies between hospitals by as much as:$24,107

Research also shows that facilities with higher prices do not necessarily provide higher quality care. 

2) HOSPITALS CHARGE PRIVATE PAYERS MORE

Data show that hospitals charge employers and private insurers, on average, roughly twice what they charge Medicare for the exact same services. A recent RAND study analyzed more than 3,000 hospitals’ prices and found the most expensive facility in the country charged employers:4.1xMedicare

Hospitals claim this price difference is necessary because public payers like Medicare do not pay enough. However, there is a wide gap between the amount hospitals lose on Medicare (around -9% for inpatient care) and the amount more they charge employers compared to Medicare (200% or more).

Employer Efforts

A small but growing group of companies, public employers (like state governments and universities) and unions is using new data and tactics to tackle these high prices. (Learn more about who’s leading this work, how and why by listening to our full podcast episode in the player above.)

Note that the employers leading this charge tend to be large and self-funded, meaning they shoulder the risk for the insurance they provide employees, giving them extra flexibility and motivation to purchase health care differently. The approaches they are taking include:


Steering Employees

Some employers are implementing so-called tiered networks, where employees pay more if they want to continue seeing certain, more expensive providers. Others are trying to strongly steer employees to particular hospitals, sometimes know as centers of excellence, where employers have made special deals for particular services.

Purdue University, for example, covers travel and lodging and offers a $500 stipend to employees that get hip or knee replacements done at one Indiana hospital.

Negotiating New Deals

There is a movement among some employers to renegotiate hospital deals using Medicare rates as the baseline — since they are transparent and account for hospitals’ unique attributes like location and patient mix — as opposed to negotiating down from charges set by hospitals, which are seen by many as opaque and arbitrary. Other employers are pressuring their insurance carriers to renegotiate the contracts they have with hospitals.

In 2016, the Montana state employee health planled by Marilyn Bartlett, got all of the state’s hospitals to agree to a payment rate based on a multiple of Medicare. They saved more than $30 million in just three years. Bartlett is now advising other states trying to follow her playbook.

In 2020, several large Indiana employers urged insurance carrier Anthem to renegotiate their contract with Parkview Health, a hospital system RAND researchers identified as one of the most expensive in the country. After months of tense back-and-forth, the pair reached a five-year deal expected to save Anthem customers $700 million.

Legislating, Regulating, Litigating

Some employer coalitions are advocating for more intervention by policymakers to cap health care prices or at least make them more transparent. States like Colorado and Indiana have passed price transparency legislation, and new federal rules now require more hospital price transparency on a national level. Advocates expect strong industry opposition to stiffer measures, like price caps, which recently failed in the Montana legislature. 

Other advocates are calling for more scrutiny by state and federal officials of hospital mergers and other anticompetitive practices. Some employers and unions have even resorted to suing hospitals like Sutter Health in California.

Employer Challenges

Employers face a few key barriers to purchasing health care in different and more efficient ways:

Provider Power

Hospitals tend to have much more market power than individual employers, and that power has grown in recent years, enabling them to raise prices. Even very large employers have geographically dispersed workforces, making it hard to exert much leverage over any given hospital. Some employers have tried forming purchasing coalitions to pool their buying power, but they face tricky organizational dynamics and laws that prohibit collusion.

Sophistication

Employers can attempt to lower prices by renegotiating contracts with hospitals or tailoring provider networks, but the work is complicated and rife with tradeoffs. Few employers are sophisticated enough, for example, to assess a provider’s quality or to structure hospital payments in new ways. Employers looking for insurers to help them have limited options, as that industry has also become highly consolidated.

Employee Blowback

Employers say they primarily provide benefits to recruit and retain happy and healthy employees. Many are reluctant to risk upsetting employees by cutting out expensive providers or redesigning benefits in other ways.recent KFF survey found just 4% of employers had dropped a hospital in order to cut costs.

The Tradeoffs

Employers play a unique role in the United States health care system, and in the lives of the 150 million Americans who get insurance through work. For years, critics have questioned the wisdom of an employer-based health care system, and massive job losses created by the pandemic have reinforced those doubts for many.

Assuming employers do continue to purchase insurance on behalf of millions of Americans, though, focusing on lowering the prices they pay is one promising path to lowering total costs. However, as noted above, hospitals have expressed concern over the financial pressures they may face under these new deals. Complex benefit design strategies, like narrow or tiered networks, also run the risk of harming employees, who may make suboptimal choices or experience cost surprises. Finally, these strategies do not necessarily address other drivers of high costs including drug prices and wasteful care. 

How Transparent is Price Transparency?

With nearly 30% of workers now having a high deductible health plan
and a typical family being responsible for on average the first $8,000 of
costs,
consumers are increasingly weighing care versus cost.
Historically, with a small copay, you would conveniently take care of an
ailment without shopping around, but with the average person now bearing the brunt of the initial
costs, wouldn’t you want to know how much a service costs and what other providers are
charging before you “buy” the service?


CMS believes “consumers should be able to know, long before they open a medical bill, roughly
how much a hospital will charge for items and services it provides.
” Cue the hospital price
transparency rule that just went into effect January 1, 2021. Hospitals are now required to post
their standard charges, including the rates they negotiate with insurers, and the discounted price a
hospital is willing to accept directly from a patient if paid in cash. As a consumer, the intent is to
make it “easier to shop and compare prices across hospitals and estimate the cost of care before
going to the hospital.”


There are a few different angles to analyze here:


Are hospitals following the rules?

Each hospital must post online a comprehensive machine readable file with all items and services, including gross charges, actual negotiated prices with insurers, and the cash price for patients who are uninsured. Additionally, hospitals must post the
costs for 300 common “shoppable” services in a “consumer-friendly format
.” Some hospitals and
health systems have done a good job at posting these prices in a digestible format, like the
Cleveland Clinic or Sutter Health, but others have posted complicated spreadsheets, relied on
online cost estimator tools, or simply not posted them at all. An analysis from consulting firm
ADVI of the top 20 largest hospitals in the U.S. found that not all of them appeared to completely
comply with this mandate. In some instances, data was not able to be downloaded in a useable
format, others did not post the DRG or service codes, and the variability in the terms/categories
used simply created difficulty in comparing pricing information across hospitals. CMS has stated
that a failure to comply with the rules could result in a fine of up to $300 per day. As with most
new rules, there are growing pains, and hospitals will likely get better at this over time, assuming
the data is being used for its original intent.


Is this helpful to consumers?

Consumers will able to see the variation in prices for the exact
same service or procedure between hospitals and get an estimate of what they will be charged
before getting the care. But how likely is the average person to go to their hospital’s website, look
at a price, and change their decision about where to get care?
In addition, awareness of these
price transparency tools is still low among consumers. Frankly, it is competitors and insurers that
have been first in line to review the data.
Looking through a number of hospital websites, and even certain state agency sites that have done a good job at summarizing the costs, like Florida Health Price Finder, the price transparency tools are helpful, but appear to be much more suited for relatively standardized services that can be scheduled in advance, like a knee replacement. It’s highly unlikely you will be telling your ambulance driver what hospital to go to based on cost while in cardiac arrest…Plus, it’s all still confusing – even physicians have shared their bewilderment, when trying to decipher and compare pricing. Conceptually, price transparency should be beneficial to consumers, but it will take time; and it will need to involve not just the hospitals posting rates, but the outpatient care facilities as well. Knowing what you will pay before you decide to go to a physician’s office or a clinic or an urgent care or an ED will hopefully help drive consumers to make more educated decisions in the future.


Will this ultimately drive down costs?

I sure hope so. Revealing actual negotiated prices between hospitals and insurers should
push the more expensive hospitals in the area to reduce prices, especially if consumers start using the other hospitals, instead.
However, it could also have an inverse effect, with lower cost hospitals insisting on a payment increase from insurers; thereby driving up costs. In the end, as has historically been the case, the market power of certain providers will likely dictate the direction of costs in a given region. That is, until both price AND quality become fully transparent and the consumer is armed with the tools to shop for the best care at the lowest cost – consumerism here we come.

Molina expects utilization to remain depressed in 2021

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/molina-expects-utilization-to-remain-depressed-in-2021/594895/

Dive Brief:

  • Molina’s net income fell sharply in the fourth quarter as the insurer was forced to refund rates to some of its state partners as COVID-19 continues to depress normal care utilization, CEO Joe Zubretsky told investors Thursday.
  • Although utilization remained curtailed, COVID-19 costs were higher in the fourth quarter than any other quarter in 2020, Zubretsky said. As such, Molina’s medical care ratio for the quarter increased to 90.8% from 86% the prior-year period.
  • Still, Molina remained in the black for the full year of 2020. Looking ahead, the company expects utilization to improve, though does not expect it to rebound entirely. At the same time, the company expects direct COVID-19 costs to come in lower than last year.

Dive Insight:

Insurers have largely remained unbruised from the pandemic, unlike some providers, but the fourth quarter was a different story.

The pandemic took a bite out of Molina’s net income in the fourth quarter as the company reported that figure fell to $34 million from $168 million in Q4 2019.

The biggest contributor to the impact on the bottom line was Medicaid refunds to states, including California, Michigan and Ohio. States have clawed back some of the money they pay insurers like Molina as members continue to defer care, which is a benefit to insurers as they then pay out less.

Molina painted a clearer picture of this scenario during Thursday’s conference call with investors.

For the full year, Molina estimated that medical cost suppression amounted to $620 million while direct COVID-19 costs amounted to $200 million. In other words, curbed utilization continued to outweigh direct COVID-19 costs, resulting in a $420 million benefit from the pandemic, which the company characterized as a surplus.

But states took back a total of $565 million through rate refunds. Overall, the net impact of COVID-19 was a $180 million hit to Molina for 2020 when factoring in other costs.

Looking ahead, executives seemed cautiously optimistic for 2021 but noted headwinds from the pandemic will persist. While the forecast reflects future growth, Zubretsky said, “it is a constrained picture” of the company’s potential earnings.

Some of those headwinds include Medicare risk scores that don’t fully capture the acuity of their Medicare members. As seniors put off care in 2020, companies like Molina were unable to capture diagnosis codes to help them determine how sick members are and the ultimate risk they pose.

Still, there are some bright spots. As the public health emergency is likely to be continued throughout the remainder of the year, it means that redeterminations will remain halted, or, in other words, Medicaid members will not be kicked off coverage.

This was a boon for Molina in 2020, as it allowed them to pick up a significant number of new members. Overall, it was a major catalyst for Medicaid membership growth in 2020, Zubretsky said.

Molina expects care utilization to improve this year but not fully return to normal. Instead, it expects utilization suppression to be about one third of 2020 levels.

Molina, which solely focuses its portfolio on government sponsored and marketplace plans, said it expects to pick up as many as 30,000 additional members during the Affordable Care Act special enrollment period.

Opening up a special enrollment period was one of the first moves made by the new administration in the White House. Zubretsky seems enthused by the recent moves through executive orders and the unfolding bill developments in Congress that are looking to raise premium subsidies on the exchanges.

Those early actions “just couldn’t be better for government sponsored managed care, and we’re pleased to see that progress already being made,” Zubretsky said.

Chicago’s Mercy Hospital files for bankruptcy

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Mercy Hospital & Medical Center in Chicago filed for bankruptcy protection Feb. 10, amid its plan to close that has been contested in the community.

The Chapter 11 plan includes the discontinuation of inpatient acute care services, Mercy’s owner, Livonia, Mich.-based Trinity Health, said in a bankruptcy filing

Mercy said it plans to cease operations of all departments, except for basic emergency services, on May 31. 

“There have been many steps that preceded the difficult decision to file for Chapter 11,” Trinity said. 

In a news release announcing the bankruptcy, Mercy said it was losing staff and “experiencing mounting financial losses” that are challenging its ability to provide safe patient care. 

Mercy said its losses have averaged about $5 million per month and reached $30.2 million for the first six months of fiscal year 2021. Further, the hospital has accumulated debt of more than $303.2 million over the last seven years, and the hospital needs more than $100 million in upgrades and modernizations.

The Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing comes just weeks after the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board rejected Trinity’s plan to build an outpatient center in the neighborhood where it is closing the 170-year-old inpatient hospital. The same board unanimously rejected Trinity’s plan to close the hospital in December.

The December vote from the review board came after months of protests from physicians, healthcare advocates and community organizers, who say that closing the hospital would create a healthcare desert on Chicago’s South Side. 

The state review board has a meeting to discuss the closure March 16. 

How can hospitals weather the financial storms of 2021?

Patient volumes were uneven in 2020, and a new report shows volumes will likely remain below pre-pandemic levels in 2021. This indicates challenges for hospitals looking to stabilize their finances — but there are some key strategies that can help.

Though hospital finances recovered to some extent by the end of 2020, the industry is not out of the woods yet. However, with strategic investments, especially in outpatient care and technology, hospitals and health systems can help buoy their finances in this challenging time, industry observers said.

Patient volumes have fluctuated wildly after the Covid-19 pandemic hit as Covid-19 patients flocked to hospitals and those needing or seeking elective surgery and other care staying away. Not surprisingly, this has had a significant impact on health systems’ financial health.

But outpatient settings and digital solutions offer some revenue-generating opportunities for hospitals.

“A number of the major players and some of the bigger regional systems in the country now are in a place where they get more of their revenue from the outpatient side as opposed to the inpatient side,” said Dr. Sanjay Saxena, global healthcare leader, Payers, Providers, Health Care Systems & Services and managing director at Boston Consulting Group, in a phone interview.

In fact, outpatient care was the only healthcare setting that saw an increase in patient volumes in 2020. Though emergency department visits and inpatient volumes were down from July to December last year compared to the same period in 2019, outpatient volumes actually increased by 5%, according to a report by consumer credit reporting agency TransUnion.

Healthcare providers that have well-established and expansive outpatient and ambulatory care businesses will be able to weather patient volume trends better in 2021 than those who do not, said Saxena.

Take HCA Healthcare, for example. The Nashville, Tennessee-based healthcare giant’s revenues jumped to $14.2 billion in the fourth quarter of last year, up from $13.5 billion in the same period in 2019. HCA’s ability to move care outside of the inpatient setting to the ambulatory environment really helped their financial performance, said Saxena.

On the other hand, smaller and more rural hospitals, which depend heavily on ED and inpatient care, may face a challenging year, he added.

Another key investment for hospitals will be in digital solutions to help them manage the ups and downs of patient volume.

Resilience as a broad topic for provider executives is absolutely top of mind,” said Gurpreet Singh, health services leader at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, in a phone interview. “And resiliency can be achieved in a number of different ways. One way is [figuring out] — can you predict demand a little bit better?”

Patient demand forecasting solutions will be popular, with 74% of health executives recently surveyed by PwC’s Health Research Institute saying their organizations would invest more in predictive modeling in 2021.

Further, hospitals will see savings in some unexpected places. For example, with an increasingly remote and mobile healthcare workforce, hospitals may see cost savings on real estate and facility leases, said Singh.

They can use these savings to invest further in telehealth and at-home care programs to expand care outside of the four walls of the hospital, he added.

The industry has to come to terms with changes brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, including the shifts in care delivery and patient preferences.

“Some of these things are structurally significant changes,” said Saxena. “Organizations ignore these things…at their peril. Some leading organizations and systems will find a way to embrace [these changes] and leapfrog others in the market coming out of 2021.”

Payers double down on lucrative MA market

https://mailchi.mp/2c6956b2ac0d/the-weekly-gist-january-29-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

As the oft-cited 10,000 Baby Boomers continue to age into Medicare each day, Medicare Advantage (MA) enrollment keeps accelerating. The graphic above highlights growth in the MA ranks across the last decade, showing that enrollment has more than doubled since 2010. By the end of this year, an estimated 42 percent of Medicare beneficiaries will get their benefits through a private health insurer. 

While seniors like MA plans for the growing number of supplemental benefits they can offer—which now include adult day care services, home-based palliative care, and in-home support services—health insurers are gravitating to these plans due to their attractive economics. 

Health insurers’ average gross margin per member, per month (PMPM) for MA plans is significantly higher than in individual or group market plans, a spread that increased in 2020 due to reduced utilization. PMPM margins for MA plans were up an average of 35 percent through September 2020 compared to 2019.

Payers have been blanketing the market with plan options in recent years; the number of MA plans offered has increased 49 percent since 2017, although the MA market is increasingly concentrated. In spite of numerous headlines about venture-backed startups like Oscar, Bright Health Plan, and Devoted Health posting double- or triple-digit growth numbers, the MA market is still dominated by UnitedHealthcare and Humana, which together account for 44 percent of all MA enrollees nationwide.

Optum expects to acquire 10,000 more doctors in 2021

https://mailchi.mp/128c649c0cb4/the-weekly-gist-january-22-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Physician practice consolidation: It's only just begun - STAT

UnitedHealth Group, both the nation’s largest health insurer and largest employer of physicians, just announced plans to continue to rapidly grow the number of physicians in its Optum division.

This week CEO Dave Wichmann told investors in the company’s fourth quarter earnings call that Optum entered 2021 with over 50,000 employed or affiliated physicians, and expects to add at least 10,000 more across the year. (For context, HCA Healthcare, the largest for-profit US health system, employs or affiliates with roughly 46,000 physicians, and Kaiser Permanente employs about 23,300.) Optum is already making progress toward its ambitious goal with the announcement last week that the company is in talks to acquire Atrius Health, a 715-physician practice in the Boston area.
 
As was the case with other health plans, United’s health insurance business took an expected hit last quarter due to increased costs from COVID testing and treatment, combined with rebounding healthcare utilization. Optum, however, saw revenue up over 20 percent, which drove much of the company’s overall fourth quarter growth. 

Expect United, and other large insurers, flush with record profits from last year, to continue to expand their portfolio of care, digital and analytics assets (see also Optum’s recently announced plan to acquire Change Healthcare for $13B) as they looks to grow integrated insurance and care delivery offerings.

It’s part of what we expect to be a 2021 “land grab” for strategic advantage in healthcare, as providers, health plans, and disruptors look to create comprehensive platforms to secure long-term consumer loyalty.

What healthcare executives can expect under Biden presidency

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/hospital-management-administration/pwc-what-healthcare-executives-can-expect-under-biden-presidency.html?utm_medium=email

https://www.pwc.com/us/Biden2020healthagenda

President-elect Joe Biden’s healthcare agenda: building on the ACA, value-based care, and bringing down drug prices.

In many ways, Joe Biden is promising a return to the Obama administration’s approach to healthcare:

  • Building on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) through incremental expansions in government-subsidized coverage
  • Continuing CMS’ progress toward value-based care
  • Bringing down drug prices
  • Supporting modernization of the FDA

Bolder ideas, such as developing a public option, resolving “surprise billing,” allowing for negotiation of drug prices by Medicare, handing power to a third party to help set prices for some life sciences products, and raising the corporate tax rate, could be more challenging to achieve without overwhelming majorities in both the House and the Senate.

Biden is likely to mount an intensified federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, enlisting the Defense Production Act to compel companies to produce large quantities of tests and personal protective equipment as well as supporting ongoing deregulation around telehealth. The Biden administration also will likely return to global partnerships and groups such as the World Health Organization, especially in the area of vaccine development, production and distribution.

What can health industry executives expect from Biden’s healthcare proposals?

Broadly, healthcare executives can expect an administration with an expansionary agenda, looking to patch gaps in coverage for Americans, scrutinize proposed healthcare mergers and acquisitions more aggressively and use more of the government’s power to address the pandemic. Executives also can expect, in the event the ACA is struck down, moves by the Biden administration and Democratic lawmakers to develop a replacement. Healthcare executives should scenario plan for this unlikely yet potentially highly disruptive event, and plan for an administration marked by more certainty and continuity with the Obama years.

All healthcare organizations should prepare for the possibility that millions more Americans could gain insurance under Biden. His proposals, if enacted, would mean coverage for 97% of Americans, according to his campaign website. This could mean millions of new ACA customers for payers selling plans on the exchanges, millions of new Medicaid beneficiaries for managed care organizations, millions of newly insured patients for providers, and millions of covered customers for pharmaceutical and life sciences companies. The surge in insured consumers could mirror the swift uptake in the years following the passage of the ACA.

Biden’s plan to address the COVID-19 pandemic

Biden is expected to draw on his experience from H1N1 and the Ebola outbreaks to address the COVID-19 pandemic with a more active role for the federal government, which many Americans support. These actions could shore up the nation’s response in which the federal government largely served in a support role to local, state and private efforts.

Three notable exceptions have been the substantial federal funding for development of vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Congress’ aid packages and the rapid deregulatory actions taken by the FDA and CMS to clear a path for medical products to be enlisted for the pandemic and for providers, in particular, to be able to respond to it.

Implications of Biden’s 2020 health agenda on healthcare payers, providers and pharmaceutical and life sciences companies

The US health system has been slowly transforming for years into a New Health Economy that is more consumer-oriented, digital, virtual, open to new players from outside the industry and focused on wellness and prevention.  The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated some of those trends.  Once the dust from the election settles, companies that have invested in capabilities for growth and are moving forcefully toward the New Health Economy stand to gain disproportionately.

Shortages of clinicians and foreign medical students may continue to be an issue for a while

The Trump administration made limiting the flow of immigrants to the US a priority. The associated policy changes have the potential to exacerbate shortages of physicians, nurses and other healthcare workers, including medical students. These consequences have been aggravated by the pandemic, which dramatically curtailed travel into the US.

  • Healthcare organizations, especially rural ones heavily dependent on foreign-born employees, may find themselves competing fiercely for workers, paying higher salaries and having to rethink the structure of their workforces.
  • Providers should consider reengineering primary care teams to reflect the patients’ health status and preferences, along with the realities of the workforce on the ground and new opportunities in remote care.

Focus on modernizing the supply chain

Biden and lawmakers from both parties have been raising questions about life sciences’ supply chains. This focus has only intensified because of the pandemic and resulting shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), pharmaceuticals, diagnostic tests and other medical products.

  • Investment in advanced analytics and cybersecurity could allow manufacturers to avoid disruptive stockouts and shortages, and deliver on the promise of the right treatment to the right patient at the right time in the right place.

Drug pricing needs a long-term strategy

Presidents and lawmakers have been talking about drug prices for decades; few truly meaningful actions have been implemented. Biden has made drug pricing reform a priority.

  • Drug manufacturers may need to start looking past the next quarter to create a new pricing strategy that maximizes access in local markets through the use of data and analytics to engage in more value-based pricing arrangements.
  • New financing models may help patients get access to drugs, such as subscription models that provide unlimited access to a therapy at a flat rate.
  • Companies that prepare now to establish performance metrics and data analytics tools to track patient outcomes will be well prepared to offer payers more sustainable payment models, such as mortgage or payment over time contracts, avoiding the sticker shock that comes with these treatments and improving uptake at launch.
  • Pharmaceutical and life sciences companies will likely have to continue to offer tools for consumers like co-pay calculators and use the contracting process where possible to minimize out-of-pocket costs, which can improve adherence rates and health outcomes.

View interoperability as an opportunity to embrace, not a threat to avoid or ignore

While the pandemic delayed many of the federal interoperability rule deadlines, payers and providers should use the extra time to plan strategically for an interoperable future.

  • Payers should review business partnerships in this new regulatory environment.
  • Digital health companies and new entrants may help organizations take advantage of the opportunities that achieving interoperability may present.
  • Companies should consider the legal risks and take steps to protect their reputations and relationships with customers by thinking through issues of consent and data privacy.

Health organizations should review their policies and consider whether they offer protections for customers under the new processes and what data security risks may emerge. They should also consider whether business associate agreements are due in more situations.

Plan for revitalized ACA exchanges and a booming Medicare Advantage market

The pandemic has thrown millions out of work, generating many new customers for ACA plans just as the incoming Biden administration plans to enrich subsidies, making more generous plans within reach of more Americans.

  • Payers in this market should consider how and where to expand their membership and appeal to those newly eligible for Medicare. Payers not in this market should consider partnerships or acquisitions as a quick way to enter the market, with the creation of a new Medicare Advantage plan as a slower but possibly less capital-intensive entry into this market.
  • Payers and health systems should use this opportunity to design more tailored plan options and consumer experiences to enhance margins and improve health outcomes.
  • Payers with cash from deferred care and low utilization due to the pandemic could turn to vertical integration with providers as a means of investing that cash in a manner that helps struggling providers in the short term while positioning payers to improve care and reduce its cost in the long term.
  • Under the Trump administration, the FDA has approved historic numbers of generic drugs, with the aim of making more affordable pharmaceuticals available to consumers. Despite increased FDA generics approvals, generics dispensed remain high but flat, according to HRI analysis of FDA data.
  • Pharmaceutical company stocks, on average, have climbed under the Trump administration, with a few notable dips due to presidential speeches criticizing the industry and the pandemic.
  • Providers have faced some revenue cuts, particularly in the 340B program, and many entered the pandemic in a relatively weak liquidity position.  The pandemic has led to layoffs, pay cuts and even closures. HRI expects consolidation as the pandemic continues to curb the flow of patients seeking care in emergency departments, orthopedic surgeons’ offices, dermatology suites and more.

Lawmakers and politicians often use bold language, and propose bold solutions to problems, but the government and the industry itself resists sudden, dramatic change, even in the face of sudden, dramatic events such as a global pandemic. One notable exception to this would be a decision by the US Supreme Court to strike down the ACA, an event that would generate a great deal of uncertainty and disruption for Americans, the US health industry and employers.

Health industry has evaded major changes under Trump

Status quo in healthcare is no longer an option

President Trump vowed to overhaul the health care system, notably saying in one of his first post-election speeches that pharmaceutical companies were “getting away with murder” over their pricing tactics.

Yes, but: Four years later, not a lot has changed. If anything, the health care industry has become more financially and politically powerful, Axios’ Bob Herman reports.

“Most of the bigger ideas have either been stopped in the courts or just never got implemented,” said Cynthia Cox, a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation who follows the health care industry.

  • The administration killed its own regulation that would have changed behind-the-scenes negotiations between drug companies and pharmacy benefit managers.
  • One of the most consequential drug proposals — tying Medicare drug prices to lower prices negotiated abroad — is not remotely close to going into effect.
  • Forcing drug companies to disclose prices in TV ads was a small gambit, and the courts ultimately struck down the idea.

The other side: The policies the administration has seen through, so far, have been relatively modest.

Between the lines: Health care has consistently raked in large sums of profit every year of Trump’s presidency. That has been especially true during the pandemic.

Intermountain, Sanford to merge into 70-hospital system

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/hospital-transactions-and-valuation/intermountain-sanford-to-merge-into-70-hospital-system.html?utm_medium=email

Top 10 Largest Health Systems in the U.S.

Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare and Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Sanford Health have signed a letter of intent to merge. 

The boards of both nonprofit organizations unanimously approved on Oct. 23 a resolution to support moving forward with the due diligence process. Pending regulatory and state approvals, the merger is expected to close in 2021. 

“We’re hoping that the actions taken … just 72 hours ago will culminate in a combined organization next summer,” Kelby Krabbenhoft, president and CEO of Sanford Health, said during an Oct. 26 news conference. 

Existing boards of trustees from both systems will join to form a combined board, and Gail Miller, chair of the Intermountain board, will serve as board chair of the merged organization. 

Marc Harrison, MD, president and CEO of Intermountain, will serve as president and CEO of the combined system, which will operate 70 hospitals and employ more than 89,000 people. Mr. Krabbenhoft will serve as president emeritus. 

“These are two great organizations with strong histories that are economically and clinically very strong,” Dr. Harrison said during the news conference. “This is something that should happen for the future of American healthcare.” 

Intermountain will be the parent company of the combined organization, and the merged system will be headquartered in Salt Lake City.