Sutter Health faces class-action lawsuit over pricing: 4 things to know

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/finance/sutter-health-faces-class-action-lawsuit-over-pricing-4-things-to-know.html?oly_enc_id=2893H2397267F7G

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A class-action lawsuit alleging Sutter Health violated California’s antitrust laws by using its market power to overcharge patients is slated to open Sept. 23, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Four things to know:

1. The lawsuit dates back to 2014. Self-funded employers and union trusts initially filed the case, which was later joined with a lawsuit brought in 2018 by California’s attorney general.

2. In March, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said a six-year investigation revealed Sutter restricted health insurers from providing consumers with more low-cost health plan options, and the health system set excessively high out-of-network prices. Sutter also allegedly restricted publication of provider cost information, which impeded transparency.

3. Sutter could be liable for as much as $2.7 billion. The plaintiffs are seeking up to $900 million in damages, and that amount can be tripled under California’s antitrust law, according to the Los Angeles Times.

4. Sutter denies the allegations. Regarding the lawsuit, a health system spokesperson released the following statement to the Los Angeles Times:

“This lawsuit irresponsibly targets Sutter’s integrated system of hospitals, clinics, urgent care centers and affiliated doctors serving millions of patients throughout Northern California. While insurance companies want to sell narrow networks to employers, integrated networks like Sutter’s benefit patient care and experience, which leads to greater patient choice and reduces surprise out-of-network bills to our patients.”

Access the full Los Angeles Times article here.

 

 

 

Another round of debate over hospital consolidation

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Are hospital mergers a good thing or a bad thing?

Much of the answer to that question depends on what happens after the merger—does the combined organization provide better, more efficient care, or does it use its increased leverage to raise prices? Yet another round of back and forth on this issue took place this week, as the American Hospital Association (AHA) released the results of a study it commissioned from economic analysis firm Charles River Associates (CRA), while a group of academic antitrust specialists countered with their own briefing in response.

The AHA study, based on interviews with select health system leaders and econometric analysis by CRA, shows (surprise, surprise) that consolidation decreases hospital expenses by 2.3 percent, reduces mortality and readmissions, and reduces revenue per admission by 3.5 percent—indicating that the “savings” from consolidation are being passed along to purchasers. The economists, including Martin Gaynor at Carnegie Mellon, Zack Cooper at Yale, and Leemore Dafny at Harvard, countered in their briefing (surprise, surprise) that CRA’s research was biased in favor of hospitals, and cited numerous academic studies that indicate that hospital consolidation drives overall healthcare costs higher.

Beyond the predictable debate, our view is that consolidation can and should lead to better quality and lower prices—but that it largely hasn’t delivered on that promise. The prospect of “integrated care” that’s often touted by consolidation advocates hasn’t materialized in most places, both because hospital executives haven’t pushed hard enough on strategies to produce it, and because the market lacks sufficient incentives to encourage it.

AHA says hospital mergers are good — economists say otherwise

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/hospital-transactions-and-valuation/aha-says-hospital-mergers-are-good-economists-say-otherwise.html

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The American Hospital Association released a report stating that hospital acquisitions allow providers to provide better care at a lower cost to patients.

The report, which revisited an analysis concluding similar results three years ago, found acquisitions decrease cost due to the increased size of a combined system as well as clinical standardization.

Specifically, the AHA said hospital acquisitions lead to a 2.3 percent reduction in annual operating expenses at acquired hospitals. The study also said readmission and mortality rates decline at merging hospitals, and acquired hospitals see revenues per admission decline 3.5 percent, suggesting “savings that accrue to merging hospitals are passed on to patients and their health plans.”

However, the AHA’s findings — which were largely based on interviews with leaders of 10 health systems who weren’t randomly surveyed — contradict a wealth of economic data published that argues the opposite.

Last year, researchers found hospitals in monopoly markets, compared to hospitals in markets with four or more competitors, have prices that are 12 percent higher. In markets with four or more competitors, hospitals have lower prices and take on more financial risk, researchers said. Another independent analysis found hospital prices rise after hospitals combine. Researchers have also questioned whether consolidation really leads to better quality.

 

Conservatives buck Trump over worries of ‘socialist’ drug pricing

https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/456457-conservatives-buck-trump-over-worries-of-socialist-drug-pricing?utm_source=&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=24010

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Conservatives are growing increasingly uneasy with the Trump administration’s new drug pricing policy.

President Trump is desperately seeking an elusive political win in his efforts to lower prescription drug costs, but he faces a hard sell to conservative groups and GOP lawmakers as he touts ideas traditionally favored by Democrats and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

In a rare break with Trump, conservatives are now pushing back against key administration policies and accusing the president of supporting what they call Sanders-style socialism.

The president has embraced importing drugs from Canada, as well as an international pricing policy that would bar Medicare from paying more than other countries for prescription drugs.

The moves are designed to co-opt Democratic talking points and position Trump as a populist champion of the free market.

Trump has made lowering drug prices a top priority of his presidency, but he has suffered some high-profile setbacks in recent weeks.

Drug importation and the international pricing caps proposal are the only remaining policies remaining that the White House can use to make a splash heading into 2020.

Trump has frequently railed against “global freeloading” and said he doesn’t think it’s fair that the U.S. subsidizes research and development in other countries.

Last year he went to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and announced the plan to cap U.S. payments for expensive drugs, over the objections of some White House advisers.

Those objections later spread to include conservative groups.

Facebook ads this year from FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group, urged people to tell HHS Secretary Alex Azar to oppose “socialist-style price controls.”

Another ad warned the administration against “importing socialist European drug prices in America.”

Separately, a website sponsored by the American Conservative Union rails against the administration’s pricing index, calling it an experiment “directly out of the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton government health care takeover playbook.”

In the GOP-controlled Senate, a bill backed by the administration is facing Republican opposition over a provision that would impose a limit on drug price increases in Medicare’s Part D prescription drug program.

The legislation would force drug companies to pay money back to the government if their prices rise faster than inflation.

The Senate Finance Committee approved the measure late last month in a 19-9 vote — all Democrats voted for it, and all nine “no” votes came from Republicans. Some GOP senators said they were concerned because they think the Medicare Part D provision violates traditional free-market principles.

The bill faces long odds of making it to the Senate floor without substantial changes.

“I’m not comfortable with putting price controls on drugs,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), a member of the Finance Committee, told The Hill.

Toomey offered an amendment to strip out the provision, which failed on a tie vote of 14-14. All but two Republicans voted for his amendment.

Aside from capping drug payments, Trump has also softened his stance on importing drugs from Canada. The administration last week announced a proposal that would set the groundwork for states or wholesalers to launch pilot programs to safely import drugs.

Shipping in drugs from abroad has long been a goal of progressives like Sanders, but has also won the support of libertarian-leaning conservatives like GOP Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Ted Cruz (Texas) and Mike Lee (Utah).

But with Trump looking for a win on drug pricing, political analysts and health experts argue he doesn’t necessarily care about gaining the support of conservatives.

“This is the administration throwing down a wild card,” said health care consultant Alex Shekhdar, founder of Sycamore Creek Healthcare Advisors. “In order to win in 2020, they need to take into consideration independents and anyone else who thinks drug prices are an issue.”

Joe Antos, a health care expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said it doesn’t matter if the policies Trump is embracing are traditionally Democratic ones.

“Just because Democrats endorsed it in the past, doesn’t mean Trump can’t take ownership and call it his idea. He might not call them Republican ideas, but he’ll call them Donald Trump ideas,” Antos said.

But some GOP senators cautioned against letting Democrats play too much of a role.

After the Finance Committee advanced the drug-pricing bill, Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told reporters that Republicans don’t want Trump negotiating with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

A competing bill from House Democrats is far more sweeping than the Senate’s, and includes direct Medicare negotiation on drug prices.

“It seems to me that the Grassley-Wyden approach is a very moderate approach to what could come out,” Grassley said, referring to the bill backed by him and Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee.

But a stalled bill could still work to Trump’s advantage, according to Antos, who said the president doesn’t necessarily need to lower drug prices, he just needs to convince the public he is trying. 

In that sense, Antos argued, Republicans haven’t offered anything better, and they will eventually support whatever the administration does.

“Republicans don’t have any alternative ideas,” Antos said. “Trump has full control of Republicans in Congress, so there’s just not going to be any response other than going along with what comes along.”

 

 

 

When a hospital wields monopoly power

https://www.axios.com/newsletters/axios-vitals-1b40c794-c913-4681-b2ac-7a6e9746718f.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axiosvitals&stream=top

Illustration of a giant health plus on top of a pile of cash, the ground underneath is cracking.

NorthBay Healthcare, a not-for-profit hospital system in California, recently gave a candid look into how it operates, telling investors it has used its negotiating clout to extract “very lucrative contracts” from health insurance companies.

Why it matters: This is a living example of the economic theories and research that suggest hospitals will charge whatever they want if they have little or no competition, Axios’ Bob Herman reports.

Details: NorthBay owns two hospitals and several clinics in California’s Solano County. Kaiser Permanente owns the only other full-service hospital in the county, and Sutter Health operates some medical offices. (A NorthBay spokesperson argued the system is “more akin to the David among two Goliaths.“)

Three health insurers have terminated their contracts with NorthBay over the past couple years. During a June 19 call with bondholders, executives explained why this has happened.

“We’ve been able to maintain very lucrative contracts without the competition. And what the payers are saying is, they would like us to be like 90% of the rest of the United States in terms of contract structure.”

Jim Strong, interim CFO, NorthBay Healthcare

Between the lines: NorthBay’s revenue has increased by 50% over the past few years, from $400 million in 2013 to $600 million in 2018, due in large part to its natural monopoly and oligopoly over hospital services.

  • This is exactly what we should expect to happen when sellers have the upper hand over buyers, economists say.

NorthBay also serves as a cautionary tale for price transparency, the policy fix du jour.

  • If the health care system is consolidated, consumers don’t have anywhere else to go,” said Sunita Desai, a health economist at NYU. “Even if they see the prices of a given hospital, they’re limited in terms of how much they can ‘shop’ across providers.”

 

 

 

Medical monopoly: An unusual hospital merger in rural Appalachia leaves residents with few options

https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/health/2019/06/23/ballad-health-merger-rural-hospital-closures/1342608001/

Protest organizer Dani Cook of Kingsport, Tennessee, conducts a Facebook Live outside Holston Valley Medical Center in Kingsport on May 7. The merger of Mountain State Health Alliance and Wellmont has led to the downgrading of the area's NICU and trauma center.

KINGSPORT, Tenn. – Molly Worley is an angry grandma.

For weeks she has stubbornly occupied a folding lawn chair on a grassy median outside Holston Valley Medical Center, sheltered from sweltering Appalachian summer sun by a thin tarp and flanked by a rotating crew staging a round-the-clock protest since May 1.

Behind them is the state-of-the-art neonatal intensive care unit where Worley’s newborn grandson spent his first weeks of life treated for opioid exposure.

In the same building is a Level I trauma center to respond to the most critical emergencies.

Both facilities will downgraded in the coming months, diverting the sickest babies and adults elsewhere.

The cuts are the latest fallout from an unusual and controversial merger between two former rival hospital systems headquartered in northeast Tennessee.

The newly formed company, Ballad Health, is now the sole hospital provider for a region the size of New Jersey. For nearly 1.2 million people people living in a largely rural stretch of 29 counties in northeast Tennessee and nearby parts of Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky, Ballad hospitals are the only inpatient option.

Mergers involving hospitals that compete for same patients face opposition from the Federal Trade Commission, which can block mergers on the grounds the combined company can limit patient choices, cut services, raise prices and diminish quality.

Ballad officials found a way to bypass FTC rules. They turned to Tennessee state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, who successfully carried legislation making the merger possible. Crowe is a longtime paid consultant with Ballad hospitals. 

Only a handful of other states have exempted similar hospital mergers from FTC anti-monopoly rules. Ballad’s is the largest.

CEO Alan Levine said the merger lets the hospital system save money and keep rural hospitals afloat in a state that is already No. 2 in the nation for closures.

Eliminating overlapping staff and services, including the trauma center and NICU, will free funds to invest in other public health initiatives. Ballad pledged to keep open all of its rural hospitals for five years and to invest $308 million in public health, medical education and other initiatives.

“Every decision we make starts and ends with how can we best serve the community and what does the evidence show will lead to the best possible outcome,” Levine said.

“You don’t want a trauma center on every corner and you don’t want a NICU on every corner because it dilutes volume and hurts quality,” he said.

No rural hospitals owned by Ballad have been closed. 

Some residents, doctors, nurses, EMS workers and public officials say the changes by Ballad expose the dangers of a single system imposing decisions on health care services on a captive audience that has no other options. More than 23,000 people have signed a petition opposing Ballad’s proposed changes.

“Never ever have I been this outspoken about anything,” said Worley, 60. “This NICU saved my grandson’s life. With Ballad we have no other choice. They have a monopoly at every level of health care.”

As hospital systems across the country struggle to stay afloat, particularly in rural areas, Ballad’s plan is being closely watched by other states weighing whether to allow other hospitals to take a similar approach.

 

 

 

Healthcare consolidation goes beyond usual players

https://www.modernhealthcare.com/mergers-acquisitions/healthcare-consolidation-goes-beyond-usual-players?utm_source=modern-healthcare-daily-finance&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20190610&utm_content=article1-readmore

Consolidation in the health system and health insurance industries has been a focus for years. But a new report sheds light on how the “bigger is better” mantra has taken hold in companies that make syringes, X-ray machines or other healthcare products.

The report, prepared by the Open Markets Institute using data from IBISWorld, shows a small handful of companies dominate their respective markets in certain healthcare sectors that tend to get less of a spotlight than their payer and provider counterparts. The largest three pharmacy and drugstore companies represent 67% of market share and the largest two ambulance manufacturers represent 83% of market share. Just two dialysis providers dominate 76% of market share.

Open Markets has released data on monopolization in other sectors of the economy, and Phil Longman, the group’s policy director, said with healthcare approaching 20% of the U.S. gross domestic product, it’s important to direct attention there, too.

“Pretty much anywhere you go in this economy, whether it’s eyeglasses or beer or automobiles or airplanes, if you ask the right questions, you’ll find it’s much more concentrated than it was before,” he said. “That’s true in healthcare, including all of its component parts.”

Pharmacy benefit management draws $453.4 billion in revenue, according to the report, and just four companies hold three-quarters of its market share: CVS, Express Scripts, UnitedHealth and Humana. The four largest healthcare consulting firms represent 76% of their sector, which draws $6 billion in revenue.

Two companies, LabCorp and Quest, have 37% of diagnostic and medical laboratory market share, a $52.6 billion industry, the report said. And three of the largest medical patient financing companies, Synchrony, Citigroup and Wells Fargo, make up 77% of that market, which draws $4.1 billion in revenue.

The report highlighted consolidation across several different healthcare manufacturers, including those that produce hospital beds, surgical apparel, PET imaging, pacemakers and wheelchairs. Three firms own 88% of the $10.6 billion orthopedic products manufacturing sector: Stryker Corp., Zimmer Holdings and Johnson & Johnson.

Healthcare in the U.S. costs more than in other countries because the prices are higher, Longman said. That’s almost always because there is a barrier to entry that thwarts competition. Longman noted that health systems typically purchase the supplies they need, from bed sheets to bandages, from group purchasing organizations.

“That adds up to serious money,” he said.

One of the factors driving consolidation across these subsectors of healthcare is the continued decline in government and commercial health insurance reimbursement for medical products and services, which puts the squeeze on the associated costs like equipment and doctor’s fees, said Beth Everett, managing director of healthcare banking and head of middle-market healthcare with MUFG in New York. Consolidation may help achieve healthcare cost reduction by creating economies of scale, she said. Whether this ultimately happens is “the million-dollar question,” Everett said.

Greater consolidation and integration in the healthcare system is widely recognized as necessary for improving patient care, Longman said. But it should come with some means of regulation to ensure the benefits of the resulting efficiencies go to the consumer. In this case, that hasn’t happened, and monopolistic corporations are holding the benefits of greater scale, efficiencies and coordination of care rather than passing them along.

“We’ve just really mismanaged competition policy in healthcare,” Longman said.