We’ve historically divided the physician landscape in two parts: hospital-employed or independent. But over time, the “independent” segment has become more complex and inclusive of more types of groups who don’t fit the traditional definition of shareholder-owned and shareholder-governed. Even true independent groups don’t look like they once did, adapting in ways like receiving funding from a range of investors or adding more employed physicians.
So our standard way of thinking—hospital-employed or independent—has become obsolete. It’s time for a more nuanced approach to a diversified market.
When the pace of investment and aggregation in the independent space picked up, we conceptualized the changes primarily in terms of funder: private equity, a health plan, a health system, or another independent group.
That made sense at the time because each type of funder was using similar methods to partner with groups—health systems acquired, private equity invested directly in the independent group, and so forth.
But the market has shifted such that remaining independent groups are both stronger and more committed to independence. So organizations who want to partner with these groups have had to refine and diversify their value propositions—and often times are doing so without all-out acquisition. For more information on themes within these funder organizations, see our companion blog.
We set out to make sense of an ever-changing independent physician landscape in a way that would make it easier to understand for both independent groups and for those who work with them. Instead of dividing the landscape by funder, we assessed organizations based on their level of autonomy vs. integration, their growth model, and their geographic reach.
The map above has five physician practice archetypes and is oriented around two axes: local to national and autonomy to integration. The four archetypes on the top are larger in scale than a traditional independent medical group, often moving regionally and then nationally.
The archetypes are also ordered based on the degree of physician and practice autonomy, with organizations on the right using more of an integrated and standardized model for care delivery and sharing a brand identity.
So far, we’ve tracked two types of trends within this landscape. First, independent groups partner with national archetypes in one of two ways. Either the groups continue to exist as both independent groups and as part of the corporate identity OR they get integrated into the corporate entity. The exception is that we have not seen national chains integrate existing medical groups—though they may in the future.
The other trend we have seen is the evolution of some of these archetypes. We currently see service partners in the market shift to look more like coalitions. We assume we may see coalitions that start to look more like aggregators, and we know many aggregators have ambitions to function more like national chains.
Below you will find a brief description of each archetype as well as a more robust table of key characteristics.
Definitions of physician archetypes
Independent medical group
Independent medical groups are traditional shareholder-owned, shareholder-governed practices. They are governed by a board of physician shareholders, and shareholders derive direct profits from the group.
A service partner is an organization whose primary ambition is to make profits through providing a service, such as technology, data, or billing infrastructure, to physician groups. This type of partner may create some sort of alignment between practices since it sells to like-minded practices (e.g., those deep in value-based care, within the same specialty), but that alignment is more of a byproduct than the primary goal.
Coalitions are formed from physician practices who want to get benefits of scale without giving up any individual autonomy. They join a national organization to share resources, data, and/or knowledge, but each practice also retains its individual local identity and branding. Common coalition models include IPAs, ACOs, and membership models.
Aggregators are the most traditional approach to getting scale from independent medical groups. They acquire practices and usually employ their physicians. The range of aggregators is very diverse. It includes health plans, health systems, private equity investors, and independent medical groups who have shifted to become aggregators themselves.
We have historically referred to national chains as disruptors, but that name is inclusive of many organizations who are not physician practices and what qualifies as “disruptive” is ever-changing—so we needed a new name that better suited these groups. National chains are corporate organizations who develop a model (e.g., consumerism, value-based care, virtual health) and bring that model to scale, usually by building new practices or hiring new providers. These are highly integrated organizations, with each new location using the same care delivery model and infrastructure.
As the independent physician landscape evolves, it has implications not only for independent groups but for those who work with them. We hope that a shared terminology helps bridge some of the gaps in understanding this complex landscape.
For those who partner with independent groups, we’d suggest reading our companion blog for our take on the three biggest funders and questions to ask yourself to work successful with today’s physician groups.
Telehealth claim lines as a percentage of all medical claims dropped 13% in April, marking the third straight month of declines, according to new data from nonprofit Fair Health.
The dip was greater than the drop of 5.1% in March, but not as large as the decrease of almost 16% in February. However, overall utilization remains significantly higher than pre-COVID-19 levels.
The decline appears to be driven by a rebound in in-person services, researchers said. Mental health conditions bucked the trend, however, as the percentage of telehealth claim lines associated with mental conditions — the No. 1 telehealth diagnosis — continued to rise nationally and in every U.S. region.
The coronavirus spurred an unprecedented increase in telehealth utilization early last year. But early data from 2021 suggests demand is slowing as vaccinations ramp up and COVID-19 cases decrease across the U.S.
Fair Health has used its database of over 33 billion private claims records to analyze the monthly evolution of telehealth since May last year. Telehealth usage peaked among the privately insured population last April, before easing through September and re-accelerating starting in October, as the coronavirus found a renewed foothold in the U.S.
In January, virtual care claims made up 7% of all medical claim lines, but that fell to 5.9% in February, 5.6% in March and just 4.9% in April, suggesting a steady deceleration in telehealth demand.
The deceleration in April was seen in all U.S. regions, but was particularly pronounced in the South, Fair Health said, which saw a 12.2% decrease in virtual care claims.
The trend doesn’t bode well for the ballooning virtual care sector, which has enjoyed historic levels of funding during COVID-19. Just halfway through the year, 2021 has already blown past 2020’s record for digital health funding, with a whopping $14.7 billion. This latest data suggests dampening utilization could throw cold water on the red-hot marketplace.
And policymakers are still mulling how many telehealth flexibilities should be allowed after the public health emergency expires, expected at the end of this year. Virtual care enjoys broad support on both sides of the aisle and the Biden administration’s top health policy regulators, including CMS administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, have said they support permanently adopting virtual care coverage waivers, but returned restrictions on telehealth access could also stymie use.
Fair Health also found that nationally, mental health conditions increased from 57% from all telehealth claims in March to 59% in April. That month, psychotherapeutic/psychiatric codes jumped nationally as a percentage of telehealth procedure codes, while evaluation and management codes dropped, suggesting a continued need for virtual access to mental health services, which can be some of the rarest and most expensive medical services to find in one’s own geographic area.
Also in April, acute respiratory diseases and infections increased as a percentage of claim lines nationally, and in the Midwest and South, while general signs and symptoms joined the top five telehealth diagnoses in the West. Both trends suggest a return to non-COVID-19 respiratory conditions, like colds and bronchitis, and more ‘normal’ conditions like stomach viruses, researchers said.
This week, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal challenging Medicare’s 2019 regulation calling for “site-neutral payment” for services provided by hospitals in outpatient settings, clearing the way for the rule’s implementation. The appeal was filed by the American Hospital Association (AHA), along with numerous hospitals and health systems, after a lower court ruling last year upheld the change to Medicare’s reimbursement policies.
The rule aims to level the playing field betweenindependent providers and hospital-owned clinics by curtailing hospitals’ ability to charge higher “facility fees” for services provided in locations they own. Site-neutral payment has been a longstanding target of criticism by health economists and policymakers, who cite the pricing advantage as a driver of consolidation in the industry, which has tended to push the cost of care upward.
The AHA expressed disappointment in the Court’s decision not to hear the appeal,saying that the changes to payment policy “directly undercut the clear intent of Congress to protect them because of the many real and crucial differences between them and other sites of care.” The primary difference, of course, is hospitals’ need to fully allocate their costs across all the services they bill for, making care in lower-acuity settings more expensive than similar care delivered by practices that don’t have to subsidize inpatient hospitals and other costly assets.
Over the years that legitimate business need has turned into adeliberate business model—purchasing independent practices in order to take advantage of higher hospital pricing. As Medicare looks to manage Baby Boomer-driven cost growth, and employers and consumers grapple with rising health spending, expect increasingly rigorous efforts to push back against these kinds of pricing strategies.
We spoke this week with a medical group president looking to deploy a more consistent consumer experience across his health system’s physician practices, beginning with primary care.
The discussion quickly turned to two large primary care practices, acquired several years ago, whose doctors are extremely resistant to change. “These guys have built a fee-for-service model that has been extremely lucrative,” the executive shared. “It was a battle getting them on centralized scheduling a few years ago, and now they’re pushing back against telemedicine.”
With ancillary income included, many of these “entrepreneurial” primary care doctors are making over $700K annually, while the rest of the system’s full-time primary care physicians average around $250K.
The situation raises several questions. Standardized access and consistent experience are foundational to consumer strategy; in the words of one CEO, if our system’s name is on the door, any of our care sites should feel like they are part of the same system, from the patient’s perspective.
But how can we get physicians on board with “systemization” if they think it puts their income at risk? Should the system guarantee income to “keep them whole”, and for how long? And is it possible to create consensus across a group of doctors with a three-fold disparity in income, and widely divergent interests? While there are no easy answers, putting patients and consumers first must be the guiding goal of the system.
Three Ascension hospitals in Texas agreed to pay $20.9 million for allegedly paying multiple physician groups above fair market value for services, according to a recent news release from the HHS’ Office of Inspector General.
The three Texas hospitals are Ascension’s Dell Seton Medical Center in Austin, Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin and Ascension Seton Williamson in Roundrock. Ascension self-disclosed the conduct to the inspector general.
The hospitals allegedly violated the Civil Monetary Penalties Law, including provisions related to physician self-referrals and kickbacks in seven instances, according to the April 30 news release.
Some of the allegations the report outlined include Dell Seton paying an Austin physician practice above fair market value for on-call coverage; Ascension Seton Austin paying an Austin practice above fair market value for transplant on-call coverage and administrative services; and Ascension Seton Williamson paying a practice above fair market value to lease the practice’s employed registered nurses and surgical technologists who assisted in surgeries at the hospital.
The release did not disclose the physician groups allegedly involved.
UnitedHealth subsidiary Optum signed a definitive agreement to acquire Atrius Health, a 715-physician group based in Newton, Mass., according to The Boston Globe.
Optum said March 2 the agreement was signed the evening of March 1 after UnitedHealth’s board approved the transaction. Atrius’ board also unanimously approved the deal.
The deal will need approval from Massachusetts’ Health Policy Commission, the Department of Public Health and the Federal Trade Commission.
If the deal is approved, it would expand Optum’s presence in Massachusetts. The organization had previously acquired Worcester, Mass.-based Reliant Medical Group in April 2018.
Optum reportedly had been interested in purchasing Atrius, which has 30 locations in Massachusetts, for a few years and submitted a bid for it in 2019 when the medical group was looking for a partner. In 2019, Atrius decided to remain independent. However, Atrius said it decided to reignite potential partnership talks again due to the pressures of the pandemic.
“We looked at many alternatives and chose [Optum] because of cultural alignment, the benefit we could provide for patients, the stability it could provide for our practice, and the help we can provide to the commonwealth as it pertains to managing medical spend,” Atrius President and CEO Steven Strongwater, MD, told the Boston Business Journal.
The FTC wants to figure out how hospitals’ acquisitions of physician practices has affected competition.
The agency sent orders to some of the nation’s largest insurance companies, including UnitedHealthcare, Anthem, Aetna, Cigna, Florida Blue and Health Care Service Corporation.
This action is part of a larger effort underway at the agency to consider new questions and areas of study to help it understand the ultimate impact of mergers. The hope is that those studies will yield evidence to better equip the agency to legally challenge mergers in the future.
Health economists cheered the news online following the FTC’s Thursday’s announcement about studying physician practice buy-ups.
Martin Gaynor, former director of FTC’s Bureau of Economics, tweeted: “This is a big deal – a huge # of physician practices are now owned by hospitals.” Gaynor is a health economist at Carnegie Mellon.
In the orders, the FTC asks the insurers for data such as the total billed charges of all health providers, total deductibles, copays and coinsurance paid by the patient. It also asks for data tied to each inpatient admission and outpatient and physician episodes during the time period in question, which will likely result in a barrage of data for the agency to review.
“The study results should aid the FTC’s enforcement mission by providing much more detailed information than is currently available about how physician practice mergers and healthcare facility mergers affect competition,” the agency said in a statement.
This area of study expands the agency’s current work. One area already of interest within this broader retrospective merger review program is the scrutiny of labor markets.
One area of concern for the FTC is states’ willingness to greenlight COPAs, or certificates of public advantage (COPAs), which essentially shield mergers from federal antitrust regulators in exchange for prolonged state oversight.
Sitting in the dark before 6 am in my Los Angeles house with my face lit up by yet another Zoom screen, wearing a stylish combination of sweatpants, dress shirt and last year’s JPM conference badge dangling around my neck for old times’ sake, I wonder at the fact that it’s J.P. Morgan Annual Healthcare Conference week again and we are where we are. Quite a year for all of us – the pandemic, the healthcare system’s response to the public health emergency, the ongoing fight for racial justice, the elections, the storming of the Capital – and the subject of healthcare winds its way through all of it – public health, our healthcare system’s stability, strengths and weaknesses, the highly noticeable healthcare inequities, the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid and vaccines, healthcare politics and what the new administration will bring as healthcare initiatives.
I will miss seeing you all in person this year at the J.P. Morgan Annual Healthcare Conference and our annual Sheppard Mullin reception – previously referred to as “standing room only” events and now as “possible superspreader events.” What a difference a year makes. I admit that I will miss the feeling of excitement in the rooms and hallways of the Westin St. Francis and all of the many hotel lobbies and meeting rooms surrounding it. Somehow the virtual conference this year lacks that je ne sais quoi of being stampeded by rushing New York-style street traffic while in an antiquated San Francisco hotel hallway and watching the words spoken on stage transform immediately into sharp stock price increases and drops. There also is the excitement of sitting in the room listening to paradigm shifting ideas (teaser – read the last paragraph of this post for something truly fascinating). Perhaps next year, depending on the vaccine…
So, let’s start there. Today was vaccine day at the JPM Conference, with BioNTech, Moderna, Novovax and Johnson & Johnson all presenting. Lots of progress reported by all of the companies working on vaccines, but the best news of the day was the comment from BioNTech that the UK and South Africa coronavirus variants likely are still covered by the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. BioNTech’s CEO, Prof. Uğur Şahin, M.D., promised more data and analysis to be published shortly on that.
We also saw continued excitement for mRNA vaccines, not only for COVID-19 but also for other diseases. There is a growing focus (following COVID-19 of course) on vaccines for cancer through use of neoantigen targets, and for a long list of infectious disease targets.For cancer, though, there continues to be a growing debate over whether the best focus is on “personalized” vaccines or “off the shelf” vaccines – personalized vaccines can take longer to make and have much, much higher costs and infrastructure requirements. We expect, however, to see very exciting news on the use of mRNA and other novel technologies in the next year or two that, when approved and put into commercialization, could radically change the game, not only as to mortality, but also by eliminating or significantly reducing the cost of care with chronic conditions (which some cancers have become, thanks to technological advancement). We are fortunate to be in that gap now between “care” and “cure,” where we have been able with modern medical advances to convert many more disease states into manageable chronic care conditions. Together with today’s longer lifespans, that, however, carries a much higher price tag for our healthcare system. Now, with some of these recent announcements, we look forward to moving from “care” to “cure” and substantially dropping the cost of care to our healthcare system.
Continuing consolidation also was a steady drumbeat underlying the multiple presentations today on the healthcare services side of the conference – health plans, health systems, physician organizations, home health. The drive to scale continues, as we have seen from the accelerated pace of mergers and acquisitions in the second half of 2020, which continues unabated in January 2021. There was today’s announcement of the acquisition by Amerisource Bergen of Walgreens Boots Alliance’s Alliance Healthcare wholesale business (making Walgreens Boots Alliance the largest single shareholder of Amerisource Bergen at nearly 30% ownership), following the announcement last week of Centene’s acquisition of Magellan Health (coming fast on the heels of Molina Healthcare’s purchase of Magellan’s Complete Care line of business).
On the mental health side – a core focus area for Magellan Health – Centene’s Chief Executive Officer, Michael Neidorff, expressed the common theme that we have been seeing in the past year that mental health care should be integrated and coordinated with primary and specialty care. He also saw value in Magellan’s strong provider network, as access to mental health providers can be a challenge in some markets and populations. The behavioral/mental health sector likely will see increased attention and consolidation in the coming year, especially given its critical role during the COVID-19 crisis and also with the growing Medicaid and Medicare populations.There are not a lot of large assets left independent in the mental health sector (aside from inpatient providers, autism/developmental disorder treatment programs, and substance abuse residential and outpatient centers), so we may see more roll-up focus (such as we have seen recently with the autism/ABA therapy sector) and technology-focused solutions (text-based or virtual therapy).
There was strong agreement among the presenting health plans and capitated providers (Humana, Centene, Oak Street and multiple health systems) today that we will continue to see movement toward value-based care (VBC) and risk-based reimbursement systems, such as Medicare Advantage, Medicare direct contracting and other CMS Innovation Center (CMMI) programs and managed Medicaid. Humana’s Chief Executive Officer, Bruce Broussard, said that the size of the MA program has grown so much since 2010 that it now represents an important voting bloc and one of the few ways in which the federal government currently is addressing healthcare inequities – e.g., through Over-the-Counter (OTC) pharmacy benefits, benefits focused on social determinants of health (SDOH), and healthcare quality improvements driven by the STARS rating program. Broussard also didn’t think Medicare Advantage would be a negative target for the Biden administration and expected more foreseeable and ordinary-course regulatory adjustments, rather than wholesale legislative change for Medicare Advantage.
There also was agreement on the exciting possibility of direct contracting for Medicare lives at risk under the CMMI direct contracting initiative. Humana expressed possible interest in both this year’s DCE program models and in the GEO regional risk-based Medicare program model that will be rolling out in the next year. Humana sees this as both a learning experience and as a way to apply their chronic care management skills and proprietary groups and systems to a broader range of applicable populations and markets. There is, however, a need for greater clarity and transparency from CMMI on program details which can substantially affect success and profitability of these initiatives.
Humana, Centene and Oak Street all sang the praises of capitated medical groups for Medicare Advantage and, per Michael Neidorff, the possibility of utilizing traditional capitated provider models for Medicaid membership as well. The problem, as noted by the speakers, is that there is a scarcity of independent capitated medical groups and a lack of physician familiarity and training. We may see a more committed effort by health plans to move their network provider groups more effectively into VBC and risk, much like we have seen Optum do with their acquired fee for service groups. Privia Health also presented today and noted that, while the market focus and high valuations today are accorded to Medicare lives, attention needs to be paid to the “age in” pipeline, as commercial patients who enroll in original Medicare and Medicare Advantage still would like to keep their doctors who saw them under commercial insurance. Privia’s thesis in part is to align with patients early on and retain them and their physicians, so as to create a “farm system” for accelerated Medicare population growth. Privia’s Chief Executive Officer, Shawn Morris, also touted Privia’s rapid growth, in part attributable to partnering with health systems.
As written in our notes from prior JPM healthcare conferences, health systems are continuing to look outside to third parties to gain knowledge base, infrastructure and management skills for physician VBC and risk arrangements. Privia cited their recent opening of their Central Florida market in partnership with Health First and rapid growth in providers by more than 25% in their first year of operations.
That being said, the real market sizzle remains with Medicare Advantage and capitation, percent of premium arrangements and global risk. The problem for many buyers, though, is that there are very few assets of size in this line of business. The HealthCare Partners/DaVita Medical Group acquisition by Optum removed that from the market, creating a high level of strategic and private equity demand and a low level of supply for physician organizations with that expertise. That created a focus on groups growing rapidly in this risk paradigm and afforded them strong valuation, like with Oak Street Health this past year as it completed its August 2020 initial public offering. Oak Street takes on both professional and institutional (hospital) risk and receives a percent of premium from its contracting health plans. As Oak Street’s CEO Mike Pykosz noted, only about 3% of Medicare dollars are spent on primary care, while approximately two-thirds are spent on hospital services. If more intensive management occurs at the primary care level and, as a result, hospitalizations can be prevented or reduced, that’s an easy win that’s good for the patient and the entire healthcare system (other than a fee for service based hospital).Pykosz touted his model of building out new centers from scratch as allowing greater conformity, control and efficacy than buying existing groups and trying to conform them both physically and through practice approaches to the Oak Street model. He doesn’t rule out some acquisitions, but he noted as an example that Oak Street was able to swiftly role out COVID-19 protocols rapidly and effectively throughout his centers because they all have the same physical configuration, the same staffing ratio and the same staffing profiles. Think of it as a “franchise” model where each Subway store, for example, will have generally the same look, feel, size and staffing. He also noted that while telehealth was very helpful during the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 and will continue as long as the doctors and patients wish, Oak Street believes that an in-person care management model is much more effective and telehealth is better for quick follow-ups or when in-person visits can’t occur.
Oak Street also spoke to the topic of Medicare Advantage member acquisition, which has been one of the more difficult areas to master for many health plans and groups, resulting in many cases with mergers and acquisitions becoming a favored growth vehicle due to the difficulties of organic membership growth. Interestingly, both Oak Street and Humana reported improvements in membership acquisition during the COVID-19 crisis. Oak Street credited digital marketing and direct response television, among other factors. Humana found that online direct-to-consumer brokers became an effective pathway during the COVID-19 crisis and focused its energy on enhancing those relationships and improving hand-offs during the membership enrollment process. Humana also noted the importance of brand in Medicare Advantage membership marketing.
Staying with Medicare Advantage, there is an expectation of a decrease in Medicare risk adjustment revenue in 2021, in large part due to the lower healthcare utilization during the COVID crisis and the lesser number of in-person visits during which HCC-RAF Medicare risk adjustment coding typically occurs. That revenue drop however likely will not significantly decrease Medicare Advantage profitability though, given the concomitant drop in healthcare expenses due to lower utilization, and per conference reports, is supposed to return to normal trend in 2022 (unless we see utilization numbers fall back below 90% again). Other interesting economic notes from several presentations, when taken together, suggest that while many health systems have lost out on elective surgery revenue in 2020, their case mix index (CMI) in many cases has been much higher due to the COVID patient cases. We also saw a number of health systems with much lower cash days on hand numbers than other larger health systems (both in gross and after adjusting for federal one-time stimulus cash payments), as a direct result of COVID. This supports the thesis we are hearing that, with the second wave of COVID being higher than expected, in the absence of further federal government financial support to hospitals, we likely will see an acceleration of partnering and acquisition transactions in the hospital sector.
Zoetis, one of the largest animal health companies, gave an interesting presentation today on its products and service lines. In addition to some exciting developments re: monoclonal antibody treatments coming on line for dogs with pain from arthritis, Zoetis also discussed its growing laboratory and diagnostics line of business. The animal health market, sometime overshadowed by the human healthcare market, is seeing some interesting developments as new revenue opportunities and chronic care management paradigms (such as for renal care) are shifting in the animal health sector. This is definitely a sector worth watching.
We also saw continuing interest, even in the face of Congressional focus this past year, on growing pharmacy benefit management (PBM) companies, which are designed to help manage the pharmacy spend. Humana listed growth of its PBM and specialty pharmacy lines of business as a focus for 2021, along with at-home care. In its presentation today, SSM Health, a health system in Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Illinois, and Missouri, spotlighted Navitus, its PBM, which services 7 million covered lives in 50 states.
One of the most different, interesting and unexpected presentations of the day came from Paul Markovich, Chief Executive Officer of Blue Shield of California. He put forth the thesis that we need to address the flat or negative productivity in healthcare today in order to both reduce total cost of care, improve outcomes and to help physicians, as well as to rescue the United States from the overbearing economic burden of the current healthcare spending. Likening the transformation in healthcare to that which occurred in the last two decades with financial services (remember before ATMs and banking apps, there were banker’s hours and travelers cheques – remember those?), he described exciting pilot projects that reimagine healthcare today. One project is a real-time claims adjudication and payment program that uses smart watches to record physician/patient interactions, natural language processing (NLP) to populate the electronic medical record, transform the information concurrently into a claim, adjudicate it and authorize payment. That would massively speed up cash flow to physician practices, reduce paperwork and many hours of physician EMR and billing time and reduce the billing and collection overhead and burden. It also could substantially reduce healthcare fraud.
Paul Markovich also spoke to the need for real-time quality information that can result in real-time feedback and incentivization to physicians and other providers, rather than the costly and slow HEDIS pursuits we see today. One health plan noted that it spends about $500 million a year going into physician offices looking at medical records for HEDIS pursuits, but the information is totally “in the rearview mirror” as it is too old when finally received and digested to allow for real-time treatment changes, improvement or planning. Markovich suggested four initiatives (including the above, pay for value and shared decision making through better, more open data access) that he thought could save $100 billion per year for the country.Markovich stressed that all of these four initiatives required a digital ecosystem and asked for help and partnership in creating one. He also noted that the State of California is close to creating a digital mandate and statewide health information exchange that could be the launching point for this exciting vision of data sharing and a digital ecosystem where the electronic health record is the beginning, but not the end of the healthcare data journey.
As the coronavirus sickens tens of thousands of Americans while pressuring the bottom lines of medical providers, analysts worry the pandemic could also hit pause on the decades-long march toward value-based care, as hospitals and doctors look to recoup revenue in the short-term instead of putting more dollars at risk.
Massive health systems and independent physician offices alike are diverting funds to shore up resources like personal protective equipment, ventilators and staff to prepare for an expected influx of COVID-19 patients or to cope with those already there. Expenses are skyrocketing as providers halt non-essential visits including lucrative elective procedures like joint replacements, winnowing down a major source of revenue.
Clinicians in value-based payment arrangements face higher levels of financial risk than their fee-for-service counterparts. Money spent preparing for the coronavirus and treating COVID-19 patients will be a sunk cost and they could be dinged financially again at the end of the year when their spending and performance is evaluated.
Already, the coronavirus is leading providers to think about exiting the models.
A survey published this week of more than 220 accountable care organizations nationwide found almost 60% are likely to drop out of their risk-based model to avoid financial losses. Some 77% are “very concerned” about the coronavirus’ impact on their 2020 performance.
“The value-based movement is at a critical juncture,” wrote National Association of ACOs CEO Clif Gaus in a letter to CMS Administrator Seema Verma last month.
Fee-for-service still dominates — roughly 40% of healthcare payments made in 2018 were under fee-for-service, according to the Health Care Payment Learning & Action Network (LAN) — but it’s been on the downswing. One in three healthcare payments currently flows through some sort of alternative payment model, and that has been projected to grow.
Among the four main types of value-based arrangements — shared risk, global capitation, bundled care and shared savings — most require an upfront financial commitment. And providers are unlikely to put more capital at risk given the current economic situation, analysts told Healthcare Dive, instead focusing on making up the losses they sustained during the outbreak by ramping up capacity.
Doctor’s offices and hospitals will reschedule delayed procedures and even operate on weekends to recapture as much revenue as possible before they’re likely to consider taking on more risk.
“Even if you’re not in the hotspots, you are preparing right now. This puts on hold a lot of the initiatives that have been on the value-based side of things,” Jefferies senior healthcare analyst Brian Tanquilut told Healthcare Dive. “I don’t think the value-based discussion goes away, but I think it will take a recovery of the hospital system before it can go there.”
Pleas for loss waivers
The National Association of ACOs told CMS in mid-March that ACOs in Medicare’s flagship ACO program the Shared Savings Program, along with other shared risk models like the Next Generation ACO model and the upcoming Direct Contracting initiative, could face losses beyond their control because of the pandemic.
CMS did pause some reporting requirements for value-based initiatives late last month. The agency pushed back the deadline for groups participating in the Medicare ACO program, Merit-based Incentive Payment System and the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program to report quality data, or waived reporting entirely for the fourth quarter of 2019. The relaxation was framed as a way to help value-based organizations free up time and resources amid the pandemic.
But provider groups including NAACOS and the American Hospital Association have lobbied aggressively for the Trump administration to forgive all ACO losses for 2020. CMS is reviewing their request.
But all normal rules have gone out the window, experts say, and it’s almost impossible to move the needle toward value in the future when providers are facing a tsunami of patients now.
“This is not about managing a population. This is about doing everything you can to keep these people alive,” Dean Ungar, vice president of Moody’s Investors Service, told Healthcare Dive. “Coronavirus is really a five-alarm fire. But if your building’s on fire, that doesn’t really tell you how to maintain your business in normal circumstances.”
Some, however, are more optimistic that the unique financial challenges brought on by the pandemic highlight the problems with the traditional fee-for-service model and could even nudge providers toward value-based arrangements down the line.
“If all of your revenue is based on patients walking in the door, when they can’t walk in the door anymore, you’re kind of up the creek without a paddle,” Dan Bowles, SVP of growth and network operations at accountable care organization Aledade told Healthcare Dive. “You need to find a way to create non-visit-based revenue.”
Some hope the pandemic could help the value-based movement in the long term as practices look for ways to uncouple revenue from patient volume. And, as medical costs continue to rise, accounting for 19% of the country’s GDP, any pause in the shift to value-based care due to the coronavirus is likely to be a short detour, not a complete derailment.
“Maybe some providers are going to see it in a different light when their business kind of dries up — see that there’s a benefit to it,” Ungar said. “Ultimately, it’s a trend of where things are going, but it’s a big ship and it’s moving slowly.”
And value-based care arrangements were built predominantly for the populations being hit hardest by the coronavirus: those with serious underlying medical conditions like chronic lung disease or severe obesity.
If those vulnerable patients were being treated in value-based arrangements, it’s possible more COVID-19 cases could have been caught earlier before they became life-threatening, Moody’s analyst Stefan Kahandaliyanage told Healthcare Dive. That could renew industry’s focus on managing the health of those most at-risk from novel infectious diseases in the future.
“Costs are very high and there’s been a pandemic,” Kahandaliyanage said. “Let’s get more healthy before the next pandemic comes.”
It turns out it’s not just the kids who aren’t getting snow days this year. This week, we spoke with an executive at a health system hit hard by Wednesday’s Nor’easter, and asked how the system was faring with the expected 18 inches of snowfall. He replied that the medical group was as busy as usual.
With all the work this spring to expand telemedicine capabilities, clinic staff were able to reach out to patients the day before the storm, and proactively convert a majority of scheduled in-person clinic visits to telemedicine. “Normally we would’ve been closed, and most appointments rescheduled for weeks down the road,” he told us. Instead, they were able to keep most of those visits in their scheduled time slot.
“Now that we have a systemwide process for telemedicine, I don’t think we’ll have a reason for the clinic to take a snow day again.” It’s a clear win-win for the system and patients: patient care seamlessly goes on. It’s easy to see the many use cases for the ability to toggle between in-person and virtual visits. A parent is stuck at home with a sick kid, and can’t make her endocrinologist appointment? Moved to virtual! A patient has an unexpected business trip taking him out of town? Don’t cancel, let’s do that follow-up visit via telemedicine.
We’ve been worried about the slowdown in progress made on telemedicine as patients switched back to in-person visits across the summer and fall. The ability to continue patient care during a record-breaking snowstorm is a perfect illustration of why it’s critical not to “backslide” with virtual care: meeting patients where they are, regardless of circumstances, is an essential part of building long-term loyalty and care continuity.