The Big Tech of Health Care

https://prospect.org/health/big-tech-of-health-care-united-optum-change-merger/

Optum, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth, provides data analytics and infrastructure, a pharmacy benefit manager called OptumRx, a bank providing patient loans called Optum Bank, and more.

It’s not often that the American Hospital Association—known for fun lobbying tricks like hiring consultants to create studies showing the benefits of hospital mergers—directly goes after another consolidation in the industry.

But when the AHA caught wind of UnitedHealth Group subsidiary Optum’s plans, announced in January 2021, to acquire data analytics firm Change Healthcare, they offered up some fiery language in a letter to the Justice Department. The acquisition … will concentrate an immense volume of competitively sensitive data in the hands of the most powerful health insurance company in the United States, with substantial clinical provider and health insurance assets, and ultimately removes a neutral intermediary.”

If permitted to go through, Optum’s acquisition of Change would fundamentally alter both the health data landscape and the balance of power in American health care. UnitedHealth, the largest health care corporation in the U.S., would have access to all of its competitors’ business secrets. It would be able to self-preference its own doctors. It would be able to discriminate, racially and geographically, against different groups seeking insurance. None of this will improve public health; all of it will improve the profits of Optum and its corporate parent.

Despite the high stakes, Optum has been successful in keeping this acquisition out of the public eye. Part of this PR success is because few health care players want to openly oppose an entity as large and powerful as UnitedHealth. But perhaps an even larger part is that few fully understand what this acquisition will mean for doctors, patients, and the health care system at large.

If regulators allow the acquisition to take place, Optum will suddenly have access to some of the most secret data in health care.

UnitedHealth is the largest health care entity in the U.S., using several metrics. United Healthcare (the insurance arm) is the largest health insurer in the United States, with over 70 million members, 6,500 hospitals, and 1.4 million physicians and other providers. Optum, a separate subsidiary, provides data analytics and infrastructure, a pharmacy benefit manager called OptumRx, a bank providing patient loans called Optum Bank, and more. Through Optum, UnitedHealth also controls more than 50,000 affiliated physicians, the largest collection of physicians in the country.

While UnitedHealth as a whole has earned a reputation for throwing its weight around the industry, Optum has emerged in recent years as UnitedHealth’s aggressive acquisition arm. Acquisitions of entities as varied as DaVita’s dialysis physicians, MedExpress urgent care, and Advisory Board Company’s consultants have already changed the health care landscape. As Optum gobbles up competitors, customers, and suppliers, it has turned into UnitedHealth’s cash cow, bringing in more than 50 percent of the entity’s annual revenue.

On a recent podcast, Chas Roades and Dr. Lisa Bielamowicz of Gist Healthcare described Optum in a way that sounds eerily similar to a single-payer health care system. “If you think about what Optum is assembling, they are pulling together now the nation’s largest employers of docs, owners of one of the country’s largest ambulatory surgery center chains, the nation’s largest operator of urgent care clinics,” said Bielamowicz. With 98 million customers in 2020, OptumHealth, just one branch of Optum’s services, had eyes on roughly 30 percent of the U.S. population. Optum is, Roades noted, “increasingly the thing that ate American health care.”

Optum has not been shy about its desire to eventually assemble all aspects of a single-payer system under its own roof. “The reason it’s been so hard to make health care and the health-care system work better in the United States is because it’s rare to have patients, providers—especially doctors—payers, and data, all brought together under an organization,” OptumHealth CEO Wyatt Decker told Bloomberg. “That’s the rare combination that we offer. That’s truly a differentiator in the marketplace.” The CEO of UnitedHealth, Andrew Witty, has also expressed the corporation’s goal of “wir[ing] together” all of UnitedHealth’s assets.

Controlling Change Healthcare would get UnitedHealth one step closer to creating their private single-payer system. That’s why UnitedHealth is offering up $13 billion, a 41 percent premium on the public valuation of Change. But here’s why that premium may be worth every penny.

Change Healthcare is Optum’s leading competitor in pre-payment claims integrity; functionally, a middleman service that allows insurers to process provider claims (the receipts from each patient visit) and address any mistakes. To clarify what that looks like in practice, imagine a patient goes to an in-network doctor for an appointment. The doctor performs necessary procedures and uses standardized codes to denote each when filing a claim for reimbursement from the patient’s insurance coverage. The insurer then hires a reviewing service—this is where Change comes in—to check these codes for accuracy. If errors are found in the coded claims, such as accidental duplications or more deliberate up-coding (when a doctor intentionally makes a patient seem sicker than they are), Change will flag them, saving the insurer money.

The most obvious potential outcome of the merger is that the flow of data will allow Optum/UnitedHealth to preference their own entities and physicians above others.

To accurately review the coded claims, Change’s technicians have access to all of their clients’ coverage information, provider claims data, and the negotiated rates that each insurer pays.

Change also provides other services, including handling the actual payments from insurers to physicians, reimbursing for services rendered. In this role, Change has access to all of the data that flows between physicians and insurers and between pharmacies and insurers—both of which give insurers leverage when negotiating contracts. Insurers often send additional suggestions to Change as well; essentially their commercial secrets on how the insurer is uniquely saving money. Acquiring Change could allow Optum to see all of this.

Change’s scale (and its independence from payers) has been a selling point; just in the last few months of 2020, the corporation signed multiple contracts with the largest payers in the country.

Optum is not an independent entity; as mentioned above, it’s owned by the largest insurer in the U.S. So, when insurers are choosing between the only two claims editors that can perform at scale and in real time, there is a clear incentive to use Change, the independent reviewer, over Optum, a direct competitor.

If regulators allow the acquisition to take place, Optum will suddenly have access to some of the most secret data in health care. In other words, if the acquisition proceeds and Change is owned by UnitedHealth, the largest health care corporation in the U.S. will own the ability to peek into the book of business for every insurer in the country.

Although UnitedHealth and Optum claim to be separate entities with firewalls that safeguard against anti-competitive information sharing, the porosity of the firewall is an open question. As the AHA pointed out in their letter to the DOJ, “[UnitedHealth] has never demonstrated that the firewalls are sufficiently robust to prevent sensitive and strategic information sharing.”

In some cases, this “firewall” would mean asking Optum employees to forget their work for UnitedHealth’s competitors when they turn to work on implementing changes for UnitedHealth. It is unlikely to work. And that is almost certainly Optum’s intention.

The most obvious potential outcome of the merger is that the flow of data will allow Optum/UnitedHealth to preference their own entities and physicians above others. This means that doctors (and someday, perhaps, hospitals) owned by the corporation will get better rates, funded by increased premiums on patients. Optum drugs might seem cheaper, Optum care better covered. Meanwhile, health care costs will continue to rise as UnitedHealth fuels executive salaries and stock buybacks.

UnitedHealth has already been accused of self-preferencing. A large group of anesthesiologists filed suit in two states last week, accusing the company of using perks to steer surgeons into using service providers within its networks.

Even if UnitedHealth doesn’t purposely use data to discriminate, the corporation has been unable to correct for racially biased data in the past.

Beyond this obvious risk, the data alterations caused by the Change acquisition could worsen existing discrimination and medical racism. Prior to the acquisition, Change launched a geo-demographic analytics unit. Now, UnitedHealth will have access to that data, even as it sells insurance to different demographic categories and geographic areas.

Even if UnitedHealth doesn’t purposely use data to discriminate, the corporation has been unable to correct for racially biased data in the past, and there’s no reason to expect it to do so in the future. A study published in 2019 found that Optum used a racially biased algorithm that could have led to undertreating Black patients. This is a problem for all algorithms. As data scientist Cathy O’Neil told 52 Insights, “if you have a historically biased data set and you trained a new algorithm to use that data set, it would just pick up the patterns.” But Optum’s size and centrality in American health care would give any racially biased algorithms an outsized impact. And antitrust lawyer Maurice Stucke noted in an interview that using racially biased data could be financially lucrative. “With this data, you can get people to buy things they wouldn’t otherwise purchase at the highest price they are willing to pay … when there are often fewer options in their community, the poor are often charged a higher price.”

The fragmentation of American health care has kept Big Data from being fully harnessed as it is in other industries, like online commerce. But Optum’s acquisition of Change heralds the end of that status quo and the emergence of a new “Big Tech” of health care. With the Change data, Optum/UnitedHealth will own the data, providers, and the network through which people receive care. It’s not a stretch to see an analogy to Amazon, and how that corporation uses data from its platform to undercut third parties while keeping all its consumers in a panopticon of data.

The next step is up to the Department of Justice, which has jurisdiction over the acquisition (through an informal agreement, the DOJ monitors health insurance and other industries, while the FTC handles hospital mergers, pharmaceuticals, and more). The longer the review takes, the more likely it is that the public starts to realize that, as Dartmouth health policy professor Dr. Elliott Fisher said, “the harms are likely to outweigh the benefits.”

There are signs that the DOJ knows that to approve this acquisition is to approve a new era of vertical integration. In a document filed on March 24, Change informed the SEC that the DOJ had requested more information and extended its initial 30-day review period. But the stakes are high. If the acquisition is approved, we face a future in which UnitedHealth/Optum is undoubtedly “the thing that ate American health care.”

Non-operating income helps Providence claw back into black for 2020

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/non-operating-income-helps-providence-claw-back-into-black-for-2020/596370/

Dive Brief:

  • Though the COVID-19 pandemic hampered Providence’s operational performance in 2020, the regional nonprofit powerhouse still ended the year in the black with net income of $1 billion, down about 9% from 2019.
  • Providence ended 2020 with an operating loss of $306 million, compared to an operating income of $214 million in 2019. However, healthy non-operating income recouped operating losses and offset reimbursement shortfalls from Medicaid and Medicare coverage, Providence said in full-year financial results released Monday.
  • The system, which operates 51 hospitals spanning seven states, posted drastic net losses in the first half of 2020 due to the pandemic, but seems to have closed out the year on more stable financial footing though volumes remain down.

Dive Insight:

Like other major systems, the pandemic railroaded Providence’s operational performance in 2020, as state and local lockdowns and orders to pause non-emergency procedures contributed to an unprecedented drop in patient volumes starting in March. As a result, the West Coast system reported a significant dip in patient revenue, along with skyrocketing expenses for personal protective equipment, pharmaceuticals and labor.

Volumes as measured by adjusted admissions were down 9% for the fiscal year ended Dec. 31, Providence said. Despite the lower volume, operating revenues were actually up 3% year over year to $25.7 billion, driven by growth in capitation, premium and diversified revenue streams — and supported by the recognition of $957 million in federal COVID-19 grants to providers from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed a year ago.

However, operating expenses climbed 5% year over year to $26 billion, resulting in ​operating earnings before interest, depreciation and amortization of $1.1 billion, compared with $1.6 billion in 2019.

Overall, Providence’s financial results suggest the system was able to sidestep the worst of the pandemic’s financial effects, and mirrors 2020 reports from other major nonprofits.

Kaiser Permanente, which reported in early February, was also able to stay in the black despite COVID-19 deflating operating and net income, which fell about 19% and 15% respectively from 2019. Similarly, nonprofit Mayo Clinic reported a shrinking bottom line, with net income down almost 24% from 2019 though it remained profitable.

California-based nonprofit Sutter Health also squeaked to overall profitability in 2020 despite a operational loss of $321 million. The system, which said it expected to take several years to fully recover from COVID-19, launched a systemwide operational and financial review as a result of its weak operational performance.

For-profit operators weathered similar headwinds and were able to turn a profit in 2020, including Universal Health ServicesHCA HealthcareTenet and Community Health Systems.

A number of hospital executives have called out CARES grants and other federal aid as a key help in turning their finances around in 2020. However, despite the pandemic’s financial pressures, numerous major operators, including Kaiser Permanante, Mayo Clinic and HCA said they would return all or a portion of congressional aid, even as powerful hospital lobbies call on Washington for additional funds.

A recent Kaufman Hall report suggests providers could be overwhelmed by ongoing COVID-19 expenses following a surge in cases over the winter. Researchers estimate hospitals could lose anywhere from $53 billion to $122 billion in revenue in 2021 if pandemic pressures don’t abate, despite the glimmer of hope brought by ongoing vaccination efforts.

Despite increasing distribution of coronavirus vaccines, Moody’s Investors Service has placed a negative outlook on nonprofit hospitals in 2021.

Providence came together in 2016 with the merger of Washington-based Providence Health & Services and California-based St. Joseph Health to create the nation’s fourth-biggest Catholic hospital chain. Its full-year earnings come a week after California Attorney General and Biden nominee for HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra disclosed his office is investigating whether Providence violated legal commitments in applying religious restrictions to medical care at a hospital in Orange County.​

How hospital operators fared financially in 2020

“For the most part providers were dependent on that CARES funding. I think they would have been in the red or break even without it,” Suzie Desai, a senior director at S&P Global Ratings, said.

The pandemic weighed heavily on the financial performance of not-for-profit hospitals in 2020, but some of the larger health systems remained profitable despite the upheaval — in large part thanks to substantial federal funding earmarked to prop up providers during the global health crisis. 

Industry observers have been closely watching to see how health systems ultimately fared in 2020. Now, with the fiscal-year ended and accounted for, analysts say the $175 billion in federal funds was crucial for providers’ bottom lines.

Without the stimulus funding, it is very likely we would have seen more issuers [hospitals/health] systems experience either lower profitable margins, or outright losses from operations,” Kevin Holloran, senior director of U.S. public finance for Fitch Ratings, said.  

Still, the pandemic put a squeeze on nonprofit hospital margins last year, according to a recent Moody’s report that showed the median operating margin was 0.5% in 2020 compared to 2.4% in 2019.

The first half of the year hit providers especially hard as volumes fell drastically, seemingly overnight. Revenue plummeted alongside the volume declines as the nation paused lucrative elective procedures to preserve medical resources.

One estimate showed hospitals lost more than $20 billion as they halted surgeries in the early months of the outbreak in the U.S. 

But as the year wore on, the outlook improved as some volumes returned closer to pre-pandemic levels. At the same time, health systems worked to cut expenses to mitigate the financial strain.

Still, some health systems did post operational losses even with the federal funds meant to help them. Moody’s found that 42% of 130 hospitals surveyed posted an operating loss, an increase from 23% the year prior. Yet, the 2019 survey included more hospitals, a total of 282.

Sutter Health, the Northern California giant, reported an operating loss for 2020 and said it was launching a “sweeping review” of its finances as the pandemic exacerbated existing challenges for the provider. Washington-based Providence also reported an operating loss for 2020. However, both Sutter and Providence were able to post positive net income thanks in large part to investment gains.    

Investment income can aid nonprofit operators even when core operations are stunted like during 2020. Though, initially, the pandemic put stress on the stock market as uncertainty around the virus and its duration ballooned. The stock market took a dive and it was reflected in some six-month financials as both operations and investments took a hit. 

“COVID and the stimulus is (hopefully) a once in a lifetime disruption of operations,” Holloran said, who noted analysts have been trying to assess whether the top line losses can be placed squarely on COVID-19. If that’s the case, analysts are typically more apt to keep the provider’s existing rating. 

“For the most part providers were dependent on that CARES funding. I think they would have been in the red or break even without it,” Suzie Desai, a senior director at S&P Global Ratings, said.

For example, Arizona’s Banner Health would have posted an operating loss without federal relief, according to their financial reports. Banner Health was able to work its way back to black after it reported a loss through the first six months of the year. The same was true for Midwest behemoth Advocate Aurora. 

The providers that were able to weather the storm of the pandemic tended to be integrated systems that had a health plan under their umbrella. 

Kaiser Permanente ended the year with both positive operating and net income and returned relief funds it received.   

“The integrated providers, yeah, were one group that just had a natural hedge with the insurance premiums still coming in,” Desai said.  

Still, the hospital lobby is hoping to secure more funding for its members as the threat of the virus is still present even amid large scale efforts to vaccinate a majority of Americans to reach a blanket of protection from the novel coronavirus and its variants.

The folly of fighting over board seats

https://mailchi.mp/3e9af44fcab8/the-weekly-gist-march-26-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

The Importance Of Board Seats During Fundraising

In our work over the years advising health systems on M&A, we’ve been struck by how often “social issues” cause deals that are otherwise strategically sound to go off the rails.

Of course, it’s an old chestnut that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, but what’s been notable, especially recently, is how early in the process hot-button governance and leadership issues enter the discussions.

Where is the headquarters going to be? Who’s going to be the CEO of the combined entity? And most vexingly, how many board seats is each organization going to get? That last issue is particularly troublesome, as it’s often where negotiations get bogged down. But as one health system board member recently pointed out to us, getting hung up on whether board seats are split 7-6 or 8-5 is just silly—in her words, “If you’re in a position where board decisions turn on that close of a margin, you’ve got much bigger strategic problems.” 

It’s an excellent point. While boards shouldn’t just rubber stamp decisions made by management, it’s incumbent on the CEO and senior leaders to enfranchise and collaborate with the board in setting strategy, and critical decisions should rarely, if ever, come down to razor-thin vote tallies.

If a merger makes sense on its merits, and the strategic vision for the combined organization is clear, quibbling over how many seats each legacy system “gets” seems foolishNo board should go into a merger anticipating a future in which small majorities determine the outcome of big decisions.

How many “lives” does a health plan need?

https://mailchi.mp/3e9af44fcab8/the-weekly-gist-march-26-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

A Dozen Facts About Medicare Advantage in 2019 | KFF

Doctors and health systems with a significant portion of risk-based contracts weathered the pandemic better than their peers still fully tethered to fee-for-service payment. Lower healthcare utilization translated into record profits, just as it did for insurers.

We’re now seeing an increasing number of health systems asking again whether they should enter the health plan business—levels of interest we haven’t seen since the “rush to risk” in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the Affordable Care Act a decade ago.

The discussions feel appreciably different this time around (which is a good thing, since many systems who launched plans in the prior wave had trouble growing and sustaining them). First, systems are approaching the market this time with a focus on Medicare Advantage, having seen that growing a base of covered lives with their networks is much easier than starting with the commercial market, where large insurers, particularly incumbent Blues plans, dominate the market, and many employers are still reticent to limit choice.

But foremost, there is new appreciation for the scale needed for a health plan to compete. In 2010, many executives set a goal of 100K covered lives as a target for sustainability; today, a plan with three times that number is considered small. Now many leaders posit that regional insurers need a plan to get to half a million lives, or more. (Somehow this doesn’t seem to hold for insurance startups: see the recent public offerings of Clover Health and Alignment Health, who have just 57K and 82K lives, respectively, nationwide.)

We’re watching for a coming wave of health system consolidation to gain the financial footing and geographic footprint needed to compete in the Medicare Advantage market, and would expect traditional payers to respond with regional consolidation of their own.
 

Hedge fund unloads $133M of Tenet shares

Glenview Capital Receives ISS Support To Replace HMA Board

Glenview Capital Management, the hedge fund run by Larry Robbins, has a 12.9 percent stake in Tenet Healthcare after recently selling shares of the Dallas-based company, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

Glenview sold 2.5 million shares of Tenet, a 65-hospital system, on March 22 for $53.3 per share, bringing in a total of $133.25 million. 

Tenet shares closed March 24 at $50.03 per share, down from $50.49 a day earlier, according to Yahoo Finance

Tenet ended 2020 with net income of $399 million on revenue of $17.64 billion, compared to a net loss of $215 million on revenue of $18.48 billion a year earlier. 

Doctor on Demand, Grand Rounds merge to create multibillion-dollar digital health company

Dive Brief:

  • Virtual care company Doctor on Demand and clinical navigator Grand Rounds have announced plans to merge, creating a multibillion-dollar digital health firm.
  • The goal of combining the two venture-backed companies, which will continue to operate under their existing brands for the time being, is to integrate medical and behavioral healthcare with patient navigation and advocacy to try to better coordinate care in the fragmented U.S. medical system.
  • Financial terms of the deal, which is expected to close in the first half of this year, were not disclosed, but it is an all-stock deal with no capital from outside investors, company spokespeople told Healthcare Dive.

Dive Insight:

The digital health boom stemming from the coronavirus pandemic resulted in a flurry of high-profile deals last year, including the biggest U.S. digital health acquisition of all time: Teladoc Health’s $18.5 billion buy of chronic care management company Livongo. Such tie-ups in the virtual care space come as a slew of growing companies race to build out end-to-end offerings, making them more attractive to potential payer and employer clients and helping them snap up valuable market share.

Ten-year-old Grand Rounds peddles a clinical navigation platform and patient advocacy tools to businesses to help their workers navigate the complex and disjointed healthcare system, while nine-year-old Doctor on Demand is one of the major virtual care providers in the U.S.

Merging is meant to ameliorate the problem of uncoordinated care while accelerating telehealth utilization in previously niche areas like primary care, specialty care, behavioral health and chronic condition management, the two companies said in a Tuesday release.

Grand Rounds and Doctor on Demand first started discussing a potential deal in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, as both companies saw surging demand for their offerings. COVID-19 completely overhauled how healthcare is delivered as consumers sought safe digital access to doctors, resulting in massive tailwinds for digital health companies and unprecedented investor interest in the sector.

Equity funding in digital health globally hit an all-time high of $26.5 billion in 2020, according to CB Insights, with mental and women’s health services seeing particularly fast growth in investor interest.

Both companies reported strong funding rounds in the middle of last year, catapulting Grand Rounds and Doctor on Demand to enterprise valuations of $1.34 billion and $821 million respectively, according to private equity marketplace SharesPost. Doctor on Demand says its current valuation is $875 million.

The combined entity will operate in an increasingly competitive space against such market giants as Teladoc, which currently sits at a market cap of $31.3 billion, and Amwell, which went public in September last year and has a market cap of $5.1 billion.

​Grand Rounds CEO Owen Tripp will serve as CEO of the combined business, while Doctor on Demand’s current CEO Hill Ferguson will continue to lead the Doctor on Demand business as the two companies integrate and will join the combined company’s board.

9 numbers that show how big Walmart’s role in healthcare is

Georgia Is First State For Walmart's 'Health Center' | 90.1 FM WABE

Walmart has continued to grow its presence in healthcare over the past few years, with expansions of its primary care clinics and the launch of its new insurance arm.

Here are nine numbers that show how big Walmart is in healthcare and how it plans to grow:

Walmart has opened 20 standalone healthcare centers and plans to open at least 15 more in 2021. The health centers offer primary care, urgent care, labs, counseling and other services.

Walmart’s board approved a plan in 2018 to scale to 4,000 clinics by 2029. However, that plan is in flux as the retail giant may be rolling back its clinic strategy, according to a February Insider report.

Walmart in January confirmed plans to offer COVID-19 vaccines in 11 states and Puerto Rico.

In 2020, Walmart established 600 COVID-19 testing sites.

Walmart said it believes expanding its standalone clinics will help bring affordable, quality healthcare to more Americans because 90 percent of Americans live within 10 miles of a Walmart store.

The Walmart Health model lowers the cost of delivering healthcare services by about 40 percent for patients, according to Walmart’s former health and wellness president Sean Slovenski.

In October, Walmart partnered with Medicare Advantage insurer Clover Health on its first health insurance plans, which will be available to 500,000 people in eight Georgia counties. 

Walmart’s insurance arm, Walmart Insurance Services, partnered with eight payers during the Medicare open enrollment period in 2020 to sell its Medicare products. Humana, UnitedHealthcre and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield were among the insurers offering the products.

Back to “a deal for every doc”?

https://mailchi.mp/b0535f4b12b6/the-weekly-gist-march-12-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Hospital Physician Partners and Lock Haven Hospital Announce New Emergency  Department Partnership

Many physician practices weathered 2020 better than they would have predicted last spring. We had anticipated many doctors would look to health systems or payers for support, but the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans kept practices going until patient volume returned. But as they now see an end to the pandemic, many doctors are experiencing a new round of uncertainty about the future. Post-pandemic fatigue, coupled with a long-anticipated wave of retiring Baby Boomer partners, is leading many more independent practices to consider their options. And layered on top of this, private equity investors are injecting a ton of money into the physician market, extending offers that leave some doctors feeling, according to one doctor we spoke with, that “you’d have to be an idiot to say no to a deal this good”.
 
2021 is already shaping up to be a record year for physician practice deals. But some of our recent conversations made us wonder if we had time-traveled back to the early 2000s, when hospital-physician partnerships were dominated by bespoke financial arrangements aimed at securing call coverage and referrals. Some health system leaders are flustered by specialist practices wanting a quick response to an investor proposal. Hospitals worry the joint ventures or co-management agreements that seemed to work well for years may not be enough, and wonder if they should begin recruiting new doctors or courting competitors, “just in case” current partners might jump ship for a better deal. 

In contrast to other areas of strategy, where a ten-year vision can guide today’s decisions, it has always been hard for health systems to take the long view with physician partnerships.

When most “strategies” are really just responses to the fires of the day, health systems run the risk of relationships devolving to mere economic terms. Health systems may find themselves once again with a messy patchwork of doctors aligned by contractual relationships, rather than a tight network of physician partners who can work together to move care forward.

4 of the biggest healthcare trends CVS Health says to watch in 2021

COVID-19 accelerated a number of trends already brewing in the healthcare industry, and that’s not likely to change this year, according to a new report from CVS Health.

The healthcare giant released its annual Health Trends Report on Tuesday, and the analysis projects several industry trends that are likely to define 2021 in healthcare, ranging from technology to behavioral health to affordability.

“We are facing a challenging time, but also one of great hope and promise,” CVS CEO Karen Lynch said in the report. “As the pandemic eventually passes, its lessons will serve to make our health system more agile and more responsive to the needs of consumers.”

Here’s a look at four of CVS’ predictions:

1. A looming mental health crisis

Behavioral health needs were a significant challenge in healthcare prior to COVID-19, but the number of people reporting declining mental health jumped under the pandemic.

Cara McNulty, president of Aetna Behavioral Health, said in a video attached to the report that it will be critical to “continue the conversation around mental health and well-being” as we emerge from the pandemic and to reduce stigma so people who need help seek it out.

“We’re normalizing that it’s important to take care of our mental well-being,” she said.

Data released in December by GoodRx found that prescription fills for depression and anxiety medications hit an all-time high in 2020. GoodRx researchers polled 1,000 people with behavioral health conditions on how they were navigating the pandemic, and 63% said their depression and/or anxiety symptoms worsened.

McNulty said symptoms to look for when assessing whether someone is struggling with declining mental health include whether they’re withdrawn or agitated or if there’s a notable difference in their self-care routine.

2. Pharmacists take center stage

CVS dubbed 2021 “the year of the pharmacist” in its report.

The company expects pharmacists to be a key player in a number of areas, especially in vaccine distribution as that process inches toward broader access. They also offer a key touchpoint to counsel patients about their care and direct them to appropriate services, CVS said.

CVS executives said in the report that they see a significant opportunity for pharmacists to have a positive impact on the social determinants of health. 

“We’ve found people are not only open and willing to share social needs with their pharmacists but in many cases, they listen to and act on the advice and recommendations of pharmacists,” Peter Simmons, vice president of transformation, pharmacy delivery and innovation at CVS Health, said in the report.

3. Finding ways to mitigate the cost of high-price therapies

Revolutionary drugs and therapies are coming to market with eye-popping price tags; it’s not uncommon to see new pharmaceuticals priced at $1 million or more. For pharmacy benefit managers, this poses a major cost challenge.

To address those prices, CVS expects value-based contracting to take off in a big way. And drugmakers are comfortable with the idea, according to the report. Novartis, for example, is offering insurers a five-year payment plan for its $2 million gene therapy Zolgensma, with refunds available if the drug doesn’t achieve desired results.

CVS said the potential for these therapies is clear, but many payers want to see some type of results before they fork over hundreds of thousands.

“Though the drug may promise to cure these patients for life, these are early days in their use,” said Joanne Armstrong, M.D., enterprise head of women’s health and genomics at CVS Health, in the report. “What we’re saying is, show us the clinical value proposition first.”

CVS said it’s also offering a stop-loss program for gene therapy to self-funded employers contracted with Aetna and/or Caremark to assist them in capping the expenses associated with these drugs.

4. Getting into the community to address diabetes

Diabetes risk is higher among vulnerable populations, such as Black patients, and addressing it will require local and community-based solutions, CVS executives said in the report. Groups at the highest risk for the disease are less likely to live in areas with easy access to a supermarket, for example, which boosts their risk of unhealthy eating, according to the report.

The two key hurdles to addressing this issue are access and affordability. The rise in retail clinics and ambulatory care centers can get at the access issue, as they can offer a way to better meet patients where they are.

At CVS’ MinuteClinics, patients can walk in and receive a number of services to assist them in managing diabetes, including screenings, consultations with providers and connections to diabetes educators who can assist with lifestyle changes.

Retail locations can also assist with medication costs, creating a one-stop-shop experience that’s easier for many diabetes patients to slot into their daily lives, CVS said.

“Diabetes is a case study in how a more connected experience can translate to simpler, affordable and more accessible care for underserved communities,” said Dan Finke, executive vice president of CVS Health and president of its healthcare benefits division.