|When Jeff Goldsmith and Ian Morrison talk, people listen (apologies to E.F. Hutton…Goldsmith and Morrison are old enough to get that reference, anyway). These two lions of health policy and strategy came together recently to pen an editorial in Health Affairs examining the impact of large integrated health systems on the nation’s response to COVID-19. |
Morrison and Goldsmith admit to often finding themselves on opposite sides of consolidation issue, but looking back over the past year, both agree the scale systems have built over decades has been foundational to their effective and rapid response to the pandemic, which they rate as “better than just about any other element of our society”.
Larger health systems were able to mobilize the resources to secure protective gear as supplies dwindled. They responded at a speed many would have thought impossible, doubling ICU capacity in a matter of days, and shifting care to telemedicine, implementing their five-year digital strategies during the last two weeks of March.
This kind of innovation would have been impossible without the investments in IT and electronic records enabled by scale—but systems also exhibited an impressive degree of “systemness”, making important decisions quickly, and mobilizing across regional footprints. Given the financial stresses experienced by smaller providers, consolidation is sure to increase. And the Biden healthcare team will likely bring more scrutiny to health system mergers.
Morrison and Goldsmith urge regulators to reconsider the role of health systems. The government should continue to pursue truly anticompetitive behavior that raises employer and consumer prices. But lawmakers should focus less on the sheer size of health systems and rather on their behavior, considering the potential societal impact a combined system might deliver—and creating policy that takes into account the role health systems have played in bolstering our public health infrastructure.
Employers — including companies, state governments and universities — purchase health care on behalf of roughly 150 million Americans. The cost of that care has continued to climb for both businesses and their workers.
For many years, employers saw wasteful care as the primary driver of their rising costs. They made benefits changes like adding wellness programs and raising deductibles to reduce unnecessary care, but costs continued to rise. Now, driven by a combination of new research and changing market forces — especially hospital consolidation — more employers see prices as their primary problem.
The prices employers pay hospitals have risen rapidly over the last decade. Those hospitals provide inpatient care and increasingly, as a result of consolidation, outpatient care too. Together, inpatient and outpatient care account for roughly two-thirds of employers’ total spending per employee.
By amassing and analyzing employers’ claims data in innovative ways, academics and researchers at organizations like the Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI) and RAND have helped illuminate for employers two key truths about the hospital-based health care they purchase:
1) PRICES VARY WIDELY FOR THE SAME SERVICES
Data show that providers charge private payers very different prices for the exact same services — even within the same geographic area.
For example, HCCI found the price of a C-section delivery in the San Francisco Bay Area varies between hospitals by as much as:$24,107
Research also shows that facilities with higher prices do not necessarily provide higher quality care.
2) HOSPITALS CHARGE PRIVATE PAYERS MORE
Data show that hospitals charge employers and private insurers, on average, roughly twice what they charge Medicare for the exact same services. A recent RAND study analyzed more than 3,000 hospitals’ prices and found the most expensive facility in the country charged employers:4.1xMedicare
Hospitals claim this price difference is necessary because public payers like Medicare do not pay enough. However, there is a wide gap between the amount hospitals lose on Medicare (around -9% for inpatient care) and the amount more they charge employers compared to Medicare (200% or more).
A small but growing group of companies, public employers (like state governments and universities) and unions is using new data and tactics to tackle these high prices. (Learn more about who’s leading this work, how and why by listening to our full podcast episode in the player above.)
Note that the employers leading this charge tend to be large and self-funded, meaning they shoulder the risk for the insurance they provide employees, giving them extra flexibility and motivation to purchase health care differently. The approaches they are taking include:
Some employers are implementing so-called tiered networks, where employees pay more if they want to continue seeing certain, more expensive providers. Others are trying to strongly steer employees to particular hospitals, sometimes know as centers of excellence, where employers have made special deals for particular services.
Purdue University, for example, covers travel and lodging and offers a $500 stipend to employees that get hip or knee replacements done at one Indiana hospital.
Negotiating New Deals
There is a movement among some employers to renegotiate hospital deals using Medicare rates as the baseline — since they are transparent and account for hospitals’ unique attributes like location and patient mix — as opposed to negotiating down from charges set by hospitals, which are seen by many as opaque and arbitrary. Other employers are pressuring their insurance carriers to renegotiate the contracts they have with hospitals.
In 2016, the Montana state employee health plan, led by Marilyn Bartlett, got all of the state’s hospitals to agree to a payment rate based on a multiple of Medicare. They saved more than $30 million in just three years. Bartlett is now advising other states trying to follow her playbook.
In 2020, several large Indiana employers urged insurance carrier Anthem to renegotiate their contract with Parkview Health, a hospital system RAND researchers identified as one of the most expensive in the country. After months of tense back-and-forth, the pair reached a five-year deal expected to save Anthem customers $700 million.
Legislating, Regulating, Litigating
Some employer coalitions are advocating for more intervention by policymakers to cap health care prices or at least make them more transparent. States like Colorado and Indiana have passed price transparency legislation, and new federal rules now require more hospital price transparency on a national level. Advocates expect strong industry opposition to stiffer measures, like price caps, which recently failed in the Montana legislature.
Other advocates are calling for more scrutiny by state and federal officials of hospital mergers and other anticompetitive practices. Some employers and unions have even resorted to suing hospitals like Sutter Health in California.
Employers face a few key barriers to purchasing health care in different and more efficient ways:
Hospitals tend to have much more market power than individual employers, and that power has grown in recent years, enabling them to raise prices. Even very large employers have geographically dispersed workforces, making it hard to exert much leverage over any given hospital. Some employers have tried forming purchasing coalitions to pool their buying power, but they face tricky organizational dynamics and laws that prohibit collusion.
Employers can attempt to lower prices by renegotiating contracts with hospitals or tailoring provider networks, but the work is complicated and rife with tradeoffs. Few employers are sophisticated enough, for example, to assess a provider’s quality or to structure hospital payments in new ways. Employers looking for insurers to help them have limited options, as that industry has also become highly consolidated.
Employers say they primarily provide benefits to recruit and retain happy and healthy employees. Many are reluctant to risk upsetting employees by cutting out expensive providers or redesigning benefits in other ways. A recent KFF survey found just 4% of employers had dropped a hospital in order to cut costs.
Employers play a unique role in the United States health care system, and in the lives of the 150 million Americans who get insurance through work. For years, critics have questioned the wisdom of an employer-based health care system, and massive job losses created by the pandemic have reinforced those doubts for many.
Assuming employers do continue to purchase insurance on behalf of millions of Americans, though, focusing on lowering the prices they pay is one promising path to lowering total costs. However, as noted above, hospitals have expressed concern over the financial pressures they may face under these new deals. Complex benefit design strategies, like narrow or tiered networks, also run the risk of harming employees, who may make suboptimal choices or experience cost surprises. Finally, these strategies do not necessarily address other drivers of high costs including drug prices and wasteful care.
Health insurers are no longer immune from federal antitrust scrutiny for conduct considered the business of insurance.
The Competitive Health insurance Reform Act of 2020 became law on January 13, a move praised by the Department of Justice but opposed by health insurers.
Health insurers are no longer immune from federal antitrust scrutiny for conduct considered the business of insurance and regulated by state law.
With enactment of the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act, the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission have expanded authority to prosecute alleged anticompetitive behavior, including data sharing between insurers.
The McCarran-Ferguson Act previously afforded immunity by exempting from federal antitrust laws certain conduct considered the “business of insurance.” This exemption has sometimes been interpreted by courts to allow a range of what the Justice Department considered “harmful” anticompetitive conduct in health insurance markets.
The new law aims to promote more competition in health insurance markets by limiting the scope of conduct that’s exempt from antitrust laws. This move was praised by the Trump Justice Department shortly before the former president left office.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT?
The antitrust scrutiny is coming at a time when insurers are under a deadline to meet interoperability standards to share information with patients that meet Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources, or FHIR, standards.
Eliminating the exemption undermines the goal of affordable coverage by adding administrative red tape and reducing market competition, according to Matt Eyles, president and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans.
“The McCarran-Ferguson Act recognized that all healthcare is local, and that states should be able to govern their own health insurance markets,” Eyles said in December. “Removal of this exemption adds tremendous administrative costs while delivering absolutely no value for patients and consumers. It will unnecessarily add layers of bureaucracy, destabilize markets, create conflicting federal and state oversight requirements, and lead to costly litigation.”
The National Association of Insurance Commissioners sent a letter to Senate leaders on December 2 voicing its concern for the bill’s passage.
“The premise of the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act is that collusion among health insurance companies is permitted under state law and that the McCarran-Ferguson Act somehow currently protects these practices. This is not true. The McCarran-Ferguson antitrust exemption for health insurance does not allow or encourage conspiratorial behavior but simply leaves oversight of insurance, including health insurance, to the states – and state laws do not allow collusion,” commissioners said.
“The potential for bid rigging, price-fixing and market allocation is of great concern to state insurance regulators and we share your view that such practices would be harmful to consumers and should not be tolerated. However, we want to assure you that these activities are not permitted under state law,” commissioners wrote.
While insurers have not been thrilled with the move, Consumer Reports said the legislation is good for providers who have felt pressured into contract terms that benefit insurers.
THE LARGER TREND
The Justice Department has a track record of successfully enforcing the antitrust laws against health insurers. Over the past five years, the department has enforced the antitrust laws against health insurers involved in transactions valued at over $160 billion.
The Act will help the department build on those successes by requiring health insurers to play by the same rules as competitors in other industries. It will clarify when health insurers qualify for the McCarran-Ferguson exemption, and it will enable the Antitrust Division to spend resources more efficiently to achieve desired results, the Justice Department said.
On January 13, Trump signed into law the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act of 2020, which limits the antitrust exemption available to health insurance companies under the McCarran-Ferguson Act. The act, sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore), passed the House of Representatives on Sept. 21, 2020 and passed the Senate on Dec. 22.
As happened with cars in the 1960s, price competition among brand-name drugs is hard to find.
Before 1973, when the Arab oil embargo upended the U.S. auto industry, Americans witnessed an annual ritual by carmakers. In the late summer, the Big Three — Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors — would release sticker prices for their products, always showing increases, of course.
Almost always, the increases from each company for similar models were nearly identical. If one company’s was out of line — substantially bigger or smaller than its erstwhile competitors’ — it quickly made an adjustment. Explicit collusion to fix prices was never proven, but the effect for consumers was the same.
Now, researchers report that something very similar seems to be occurring for big-market brand-name drugs, including anti-diabetic medications and blood thinners.
Average wholesale prices for products in five classes — direct-acting oral anticoagulants (DOACs), P2Y12 inhibitors, glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) agonists, dipeptidyl dipeptidase-4 (DPP-4) inhibitors, and sodium-glucose transport protein-2 (SGLT-2) inhibitors — increased in “lock-step” each year from 2015 to 2020, according to Joseph Ross, MD, of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and colleagues writing in JAMA Network Open.
These increases ranged from annual averages of 6.6% for DDP4 inhibitors to 13.5% for P2Y12 inhibitors — far outpacing not only inflation in general, but even the 2.1% average for all prescription drugs.
Within each class, Kendall τb correlation coefficients for average wholesale prices were as follows:
- DOACs: 0.98
- SGLT-2 inhibitors: 0.98
- DPP-4 inhibitors: 0.96
- GLP-1 agonists: 0.92
- P2Y12 inhibitors: 0.75
“These results suggest there was little price competition among the sponsors of these products,” Ross and colleagues wrote.
Although the analysis came with significant limitations — it didn’t account for rebates or other discounts, for example — the researchers said some patients must suffer from these increases.
“Rebates, list prices, and net prices have been growing for brand-name medications, and rebate growth has been shown to positively correlate with list price growth, thereby impacting costs faced by patients paying a percentage of (or the full) list price,“ the group noted. “Therefore, the lock-step price increases of brand-name medications, without evidence of price competition, raise concerns and would be expected to adversely affect patient adherence to medications and thus clinical outcomes.”
For the car buyers, the solution to lock-step price increases was imposed from outside: soaring gas prices in the mid-1970s prompted demand for vehicles with better fuel economy than domestic makers were prepared to sell. That opened the market to Japanese cars that not only got better mileage, but were also more reliable and (in many cases) cheaper than Big Three products. Thus ended Detroit’s ability to set prices.
How to rein in Big Pharma is less clear. For their part, Ross and colleagues suggested policies to limit such lock-step price hikes, shortened patent exclusivity periods, and faster introduction of generic equivalents.
Congress passed a bill that would end an antitrust exemption for health insurers, and the legislation is expected to be signed by President Donald Trump, according to The National Law Review.
On Sept. 21, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act of 2020, with the Senate passing the Act on Dec. 22, 2020.
The bill would repeal parts of the McCarran-Ferguson Act that exempt insurance businesses from most federal regulation, including antitrust regulation. When the bill passed the House, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who introduced the bill, said, “As long as this exemption is still on the books, health insurance companies legally can, and do, collude to drive up prices, limit competition, conspire to underpay doctors and hospitals, and overcharge consumers.”
Proponents of the McCarran-Ferguson Act have said it sets up important state authorities. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has said, “The McCarran-Ferguson Act is as relevant today as it was when it was adopted. It contains the basic delegation of authority from Congress to the states with respect to the regulation and taxation of the business of insurance. It has been affirmed as the law of the land in the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and in the Dodd-Frank Act.”
The Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act of 2020 was presented to President Trump for his signature on Jan. 1. He was expected to sign the legislation before pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol Jan. 6.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a lawsuit to stop Memphis, Tennessee-based Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare’s $250 million acquisition of two hospitals in the area owned by Tenet Healthcare.
The agency said in the federal lawsuit filed Friday that the acquisition of two Memphis-based hospitals known as Saint Francis would imperil competition in the area.
Competition would dampen for a “broad range of inpatient medical and surgical diagnostic and treatment services that require an overnight hospital stay,” the FTC said in a release Friday. “If the proposed acquisition is consummated, healthcare costs will rise.”
FTC said only four hospital systems provide general services to the area. If the deal goes through, the new health system would control approximately 60% of the Memphis market.
“It’s clear that patients in the Memphis area have benefited from the competitive pressure that Saint Francis brings to bear on Methodist, through lower rates, more options for insurers and patients, and quality improvements,” said Daniel Francis, deputy director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, in a statement.
FTC is seeking a preliminary injunction to halt the deal until completion of a trial next year.
This is the latest move by the FTC to combat hospital mergers. Last year, the FTC launched a probe into the effects of health system mergers on prices and healthcare quality.
Methodist and Tenet said in a joint statement they are reviewing the lawsuit and were bewildered by the move.
“We are surprised by the FTC action given the strong support for the transaction by local stakeholders, including leading local health plans, physicians, employers and community leaders,” the statement said.
Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare and Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Sanford Health have signed a letter of intent to merge.
The boards of both nonprofit organizations unanimously approved on Oct. 23 a resolution to support moving forward with the due diligence process. Pending regulatory and state approvals, the merger is expected to close in 2021.
“We’re hoping that the actions taken … just 72 hours ago will culminate in a combined organization next summer,” Kelby Krabbenhoft, president and CEO of Sanford Health, said during an Oct. 26 news conference.
Existing boards of trustees from both systems will join to form a combined board, and Gail Miller, chair of the Intermountain board, will serve as board chair of the merged organization.
Marc Harrison, MD, president and CEO of Intermountain, will serve as president and CEO of the combined system, which will operate 70 hospitals and employ more than 89,000 people. Mr. Krabbenhoft will serve as president emeritus.
“These are two great organizations with strong histories that are economically and clinically very strong,” Dr. Harrison said during the news conference. “This is something that should happen for the future of American healthcare.”
Intermountain will be the parent company of the combined organization, and the merged system will be headquartered in Salt Lake City.
In a court filing, Einstein Healthcare Network warned that a move by the Federal Trade Commission to block its merger with Jefferson Health could lead to a “death spiral” at its Philadelphia flagship safety-net hospital, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal.
In court documents opposing an FTC analysis of the merger, Einstein said that its financial condition has deteriorated since 2017, resulting in operating losses averaging about $30 million per year.
Einstein said it will incur even greater losses, largely because of the challenging payer mix and large underinsured or uninsured population of its flagship Philadelphia medical center.
Without a merger, “Einstein [would have to] dramatically cut its services at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia, leading to job losses and even further reductions in maintenance and needed investment, precipitating a ‘death spiral’ that would jeopardize access to health care for many of Philadelphia’s underserved residents,” Einstein wrote in the documents, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal.
The FTC announced in February its intent to sue to block the proposed merger, arguing that combining the two systems would reduce competition in Philadelphia and Montgomery counties.
“Jefferson and Einstein have a history of competing against each other to improve quality and service,” the FTC said in February. “The proposed merger would eliminate the robust competition between Jefferson and Einstein for inclusion in health insurance companies’ hospital networks to the detriment of patients.”
Einstein and Jefferson Health countered that a combined system still would face competition from other hospitals and operate in a challenging market dominated by one healthcare insurer, according to the report.
Charlotte, N.C.-based Atrium Health and Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Wake Forest Baptist Health have completed their merger, creating a 42-hospital system with more than 70,000 employees.
With the transaction complete, Wake Forest Baptist Health and Wake Forest School of Medicine will become the “academic core” of Atrium Health. The health system said it plans to build a second campus of the school of medicine in Charlotte.
“As the healthcare field goes through the most transformative period in our lifetime, in addition to a new medical school, our vision is to build a ‘Silicon Valley’ for healthcare innovation spanning from Winston-Salem to Charlotte,” Atrium President and CEO Eugene A. Woods said in a news release. “We are creating a nationally-leading environment for clinicians, scientists, investors and visionaries to collaborate on breakthrough technologies and cures. Everything we do will be focused on life changing care, for all, in urban and rural communities alike. And we will create jobs that provide inclusive opportunities to enhance the economic vitality of our entire region.”
Atrium cited an independent economic analysis that showed the direct and indirect annual employment impact of the combined system exceeds 180,000 jobs.
“The impact of the strategic combination will be far-reaching, elevating North Carolina as a clear destination of choice to receive medical care for people all across the nation,” said Julie Ann Freischlag, MD, CEO of Wake Forest Baptist Health and dean of Wake Forest School of Medicine. “Through our combined, nationally recognized clinical centers of excellence in multiple specialties, we will be able to expand our research in signature areas, such as cancer, cardiovascular, regenerative medicine and aging, and target bringing research breakthroughs to the community in less than half the time of the national average.”
Mr. Woods will serve as president and CEO of the combined system, and Dr. Freischlag was appointed chief academic officer for Atrium Health in addition to her current positions.
A 16-member board of directors appointed by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Hospital Authority and Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center will govern the new nonprofit enterprise.