In our decades of working in healthcare, we’ve never seen a time when payer-provider negotiations have been more tense. Emboldened insurers, having seen strong growth during the pandemic, are entering contract negotiations with an aggressive posture.
“They weren’t even willing to discuss a rate increase,” one CFO shared as he described his health system’s recent negotiations with a large national insurer. “The plan’s opening salvo was a fifteen percent rate cut!”
Health systems are feeling lucky to get even a two or three percent rate bump, well short of the historical average of seven percent—and far short of what would be needed to account for skyrocketing labor, supply, and drug costs. According to executives we work with, efforts to describe the current labor crisis and resulting cost impacts with payers are largely falling on deaf ears.
This scenario is playing out in markets across the country, with more insurers and health systems announcing that they are “terming” their contract, publicly stating they will cut ties should the stalemate in negotiations persist.
Speaking off the record, a system executive shared how this played out for them. With negotiations at an impasse, a large insurer began the process of notifying beneficiaries that the system would soon be out-of-network, and patients would be reassigned to new primary care providers. The health plan assumed that the other systems in the market would see this as a growth opportunity—and was shocked when they discovered that other providers were already operating at capacity, unable to accommodate additional patients from the “terminated” system.
Mounting concerns about access brought the plan back to the table. Even in the best of times, a major insurer cutting ties with a health system is extremely disruptive for consumers, who must shift their care to new providers or pay out-of-network rates. But given current capacity challenges in hospitals nationwide, major network disruptions can be even more dire for patients—and may force payers and providers to walk back from the brink of contract termination.
ERIN, Tenn. — Kyle Kopec gets a kick out of leading tours through the run-down hospitals his boss is buying, pointing out what he calls relics of poor management left by a revolving door of operators.
For instance, at a hospital in this town of 1,700 about a 90-minute drive northwest from Nashville, the X-ray machine is beyond repair.
“This system is so old, it’s been using a floppy disk,” said Kopec, 23, marveling at the bendy black square that hardly has enough memory to hold a single digital photo. “I’ve never actually seen a floppy disk in use. I’ve seen them in the Smithsonian.”
There’s a point to exposing these rural hospitals’ state of disrepair — the company Kopec works for, Braden Health, is buying buildings worth millions of dollars for next to nothing with a promise to keep running them as health centers serving their communities. Braden for its part, thinks it can run them more effectively than the previous owners and turn a profit.
The hospitals Braden Health is taking over sit in one of the worst spots in one of the worst states for rural hospital closures. Tennessee has experienced 16 closures since 2010 — second only to the far more populous state of Texas, which has had at least 21 closures.
The local governments that own these facilities are finding that remarkably few companies — with any level of experience — are interested in buying them. And those that are willing don’t want to pay much, if anything.
“When you’re on the ropes or even got your head under water, it’s really difficult to negotiate with any terms of strength,” said Michael Topchik, director of the Chartis Center for Rural Health, which tracks distressed rural hospitals closely. “And so you, oftentimes, are choosing whoever is willing to choose you.”
At this point, large health systems have already acquired or affiliated with the hospitals that have the fewest problems, Topchik said. The hospitals that are left are those that other potential buyers passed on. Turning a profit on a small rural hospital with mostly older or low-income patients can be challenging. Some operators who take over rural hospitals have gotten in trouble with insurers and even law enforcement for shady billing practices.
“You can make it profitable,” Topchik said. “But it takes an awful lot to get there.”
Dr. Beau Braden, who runs Braden Health, used his savings and some inherited wealth to get into the hospital-buying business in 2020. An emergency room doctor and addiction specialist, he previously tried to build a hospital in southwestern Florida, where he owns the large rural clinic in Ave Maria. After running into regulatory roadblocks, he saw more opportunity in reopening hospitals — which brought him to Tennessee.
“A lot of people aren’t willing to put in the time, effort, energy, and work for a small hospital with less than 25 beds. But it needs just as much time, energy, and effort as a hospital with 300 beds,” Braden said. “I just see there’s a huge need in rural hospitals and not a lot of people who can focus their time doing it.”
Braden Health’s corporate headquarters has 40 employees, according to Kopec, who is Braden’s second in command as the company’s chief compliance officer. He had limited work experience in hospitals before helping lead a hospital-buying spree at Braden Health.
Braden Health is a limited liability company and privately held, so it doesn’t have to publicly share much about its financial figures. But in filings for a certificate of need that outlines why a health care facility should be allowed to operate, Braden revealed $2 million in monthly revenue from the one hospital it ran in Lexington, Tennessee, and its balance sheet showed more than $7.5 million cash on hand.
Since buying that Lexington hospital in 2020, Braden Health has signed deals for three other failing or failed hospitals and has looked at acquiring at least 10 others, mostly in Tennessee and North Carolina. Braden Health’s strategy is to build mini-networks to share staff and supplies.
At the hospital in Erin, much of the facility’s equipment is older than Kopec. And he said using outdated technology has caused Medicare to penalize the hospital with reduced payments.
The attic houses a ham radio system that seemingly never got much use, Kopec said on his way out to the roof. He wanted to show how the giant HVAC system can be controlled only from a rusty side panel accessible by a ladder. Down below, an emergency room has never been used. During a recent renovation that predated Braden Health’s ownership, its doors were built too narrow for a gurney, among other design flaws.
An old operating room is temporarily housing the ER while Braden Health starts work on new renovations. The Tennessee attorney general, who must approve any sale of a public hospital to private investors, signed off in July.
To prevent this hospital’s closure in 2013, Houston County bought it for $2.4 million and raised taxes locally to subsidize operations. “We had no business being in the hospital business,” Mayor James Bridges said. “The majority of county governments do not have the expertise and the education and knowledge that it takes to run health care facilities in 2022.”
Those with the most experience, like big corporate hospital chains based in Nashville, have been getting out of the small hospital business, too.
Communities have seen unqualified managers come and go. In Decatur County, where Braden Health is also taking over the local hospital, the previous CEO was indicted on theft charges that remain pending. And the Tennessee comptroller determined the hospital helped endanger the finances of the entire county.
“You’re looking to someone who supposedly knows what to do, who can supposedly solve the issue. And you trust them, then you’re disappointed,” said Lori Brasher, a member of Decatur County’s economic development board. “And not disappointed once, but disappointed multiple times.”
Brasher expressed much more confidence in Braden Health, which she said has concrete plans to reopen, though the timing has been delayed by an unresolved insurance claim from a burst water line that flooded a wing of the hospital.
Local residents still have trouble stomaching the sticker price: $100 for a property valued at $1.4 million by the local tax assessor. In addition to that low price, Braden Health won tax breaks for committing to invest $2 million into the building.
The Houston County hospital is valued at $4.1 million by the property assessor. But the final sale price was just $20,000 — and that wasn’t for the land or the building. Kopec said the amount was for a 2016 ambulance with 180,000 miles — deemed the only equipment with any remaining value.
An agreement with Braden Health to take over the shuttered hospital in Haywood County, Tennessee, valued at $4.6 million, was a similarly symbolic payment. All told, Braden Health is getting more than $10 million worth of real estate for less than the price of an appendectomy.
Kopec contends the value for each property is essentially negative given that the hospitals require so much investment to comply with health care standards and — according to the company’s purchase agreements — must be run as hospitals. If not, the hospitals revert to the counties.
Most of the funding for restoring these facilities comes directly from Braden, who thinks people overestimate the value of hospitals his company is taking over.
“If you look honestly at a lot of transactions that take place with rural hospitals and how many liabilities are tied up with them, there’s really not a lot of value there,” he said. Braden recently paid off a $2.3 million debt with Medicare for the Houston County hospital.
He said there’s no secret sauce, in his mind, except that small hospitals require just as much diligence as big medical centers — especially since their profit margins are so thin and patient volume so low. He wants to improve technology in ways that health plans reward hospitals, limit nurse staffing when business is slow, and watch medical supply inventories to cut waste.
It’s a tall order. Braden said he can understand any skepticism, even from the hospitals’ employees. They’ve heard turnaround promises before, and even they can be wary of the care they’d get at such run-down facilities.
Still, as Kopec bounced through the Erin hospital’s halls, he greeted nurses and clerical staff by name with a confidence that belies his age and experience. He tells anyone who will listen that rural hospitals require specialized knowledge.
“They’re not the most complicated things in the world,” Kopec said. “But if you don’t know exactly how to run them, you’re just going to run them straight into the ground.”
In nearly every facet of our lives, all of us are routinely put in the position of trying to settle disputes or disagreements, whether it be with our spouses or significant others, our children, our siblings, co-workers, neighbors, contractors — you name it. It’s part of everyday life. Conflicts arise and we figure out how to resolve them.
Unfortunately, in the politically toxic environment in which we now live, compromise is now perceived as a sign of weakness. Elected leaders are routinely criticized and attacked by fellow party members and their constituents for trying to find middle ground on any issue, particularly those rooted in ideology. The bipartisan agreement reached in Congress last week on gun safety was a rare and welcome exception.
While they hold starkly different positions and come from states that are thousands of miles apart geographically and politically, Senators Chris Murphy, D-Conn., an outspoken proponent of stronger gun safety laws, and John Cornyn, R-Texas, a staunch Second Amendment advocate, found a way to set aside their differences and reach compromise on the so-called Bipartisan Safer Communities Act that was approved by the Senate 65-33 and the House by a margin of 234-193. President Joe Biden signed the legislation into law June 25.
While the new law does not go nearly as far as Senator Murphy and most of his fellow Democrats wanted by, for instance, banning the sale of assault rifles or at least increasing the age to buy them, the willingness to finally get something done after 30 years of Congressional gridlock was a long-overdue victory for common sense.
Bipartisanship has also been evident in Congressional support for military funding for Ukraine and the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, but little else.
Despite the glimmer of progress in our nation’s legislative branch of government, it appears that polarization now has a firm grip on our nation’s top court. In trying to find middle ground in deliberations on Roe v. Wade, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts sought this compromise with his five fellow conservatives and three liberals on the bench: support Mississippi’s prohibition against abortion after 15 weeks, but preserve some semblance of reproductive rights for women by not overturning Roe v. Wade or the court’s 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
“The Court’s decision to overrule Roe and Casey is a serious jolt to the legal system — regardless of how you view those cases,” Roberts wrote. His incremental approach found no takers among his entrenched colleagues on either the right or the left. Hence, constitutional protections for abortions that had stood for nearly 50 years — and are supported by the vast majority of Americans — were stripped away in a 5-4 vote, leaving the power to individual states.
Unfortunately, bipartisanship can be equally elusive in state capitals around the country, which does not bode well for reproductive rights advocates in 21 states where abortion is now illegal or have “trigger bans” that will take effect within 30 days of the Supreme Court’s June 24 ruling.
Regardless of whether the issue is abortion or other divisive topics such as immigration, gun safety, voting rights, bail reform or LGBTQ rights, governors and state legislators of one controlling party or another routinely dig in and take intractable positions, leaving little or no room for negotiation.
We would all be well served to reintroduce ourselves to the art of compromise, for the good of our family relationships, for the good of our respective professions, for the good of our country and society in general, and even for the good of our own personal health as we consider whether to consume that extra helping of food or another cocktail.
Moderation is key in our lifestyle choices and it could also go a long way in trying to find middle ground with those who have differing opinions. If adversaries are truly motivated to do the right thing, not political gamesmanship, they should always choose their words carefully, listen with an open mind and always be open to making concessions. In short, we should all start by embracing civility.
Workers at three Tenet Healthcare hospitals in Southern California will hold a rally May 6 to highlight their concerns about staffing, wages and benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the union that represents them.
The rally comes as the National Union of Healthcare Workers is in negotiations with Dallas-based Tenet for more than 600 direct Tenet employees at Fountain Valley Regional, including respiratory therapists, nursing assistants and X-ray technicians. The union is also in negotiations with the Compass Group, a food and support services provider, for about 225 housekeepers and food service workers at Tenet California hospitals in Fountain Valley, Los Alamitos and Lakewood, who are subcontracted by Tenet and employees of Compass.
Union spokesperson Matt Artz told Becker’s workers contend Tenet has remained profitable during the pandemic, but it did not implement appropriate safety measures. He said Tenet also rejected proposals to better staff certain units, and it has rejected the union’s proposal to stop subcontracting out the housekeepers and food service workers who have struggled to afford healthcare.
The union said Tenet, a major for-profit hospital operator, has the financial means to address these issues. The company reported a $97 million profit in the first quarter of 2021. Tenet stock also recently hit a new 52-week high, according to an April 29 report from Zacks Equity Research.
“These profits are not helping workers or patients,” Christina Rodriguez, a respiratory therapist at Fountain Valley (Calif.) Regional Hospital, said in a May 5 news release. “They’re being made at the expense of patient care and the people who have put their health on the line to help patients during this pandemic. At the height of the surge, I would go home crying that we didn’t have enough staff to help patients struggling to survive.”
Tenet contends the issue is not about Tenet but rather about negotiations between Compass and the union. Tenet said it is focused on staff and patients.
“This matter is not about us. It’s about a negotiation strictly between the NUHW and the Compass Group, which is a vendor that provides a range of food, laundry and other support services to hospitals,” Tenet told Becker’s. “At all times, our main concern is the safety of our staff, the integrity of our facilities and the best possible outcomes for our patients, and we remain hopeful that the NUHW and Compass will reach a positive outcome at the conclusion of their respective negotiations.”
But the union said Tenet can decide whether to bring the subcontracted housekeepers and food service workers in-house, which would benefit them in terms of wages and health benefits.
Meanwhile, Compass said it will continue to negotiate in good faith, with union members.
“Our hardworking team members are at the heart of what we do, and their determination to provide best-in-class care and service is inspiring,” a Compass spokesperson told Becker’s.“We take pride in paying competitive wages and providing affordable benefits and continue to uphold our agreement with the NUHW. We have a long history of listening to our employees, working productively with unions, and will continue to meet and negotiate — always in good faith.”
Respiratory therapists, housekeepers, nursing assistants, medical technicians, dietary workers and others represented by the union said they plan to rally from 11 a.m. to noon May 6 outside Fountain Valley Regional.
The rally, scheduled after Tenet’s shareholders meeting, includes workers from Los Alamitos (Calif.) Medical Center and Lakewood (Calif.) Regional Medical Center. Union workers whose jobs are subcontracted to Compass will speak during the rally, the union said.
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.
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
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.
The union that represents 1,300 resident physicians at Ann Arbor-based Michigan Medicine said the health system is exploiting its members as both sides negotiate a new contract, according to Michigan Radio.
The University of Michigan House Officers Association and Michigan Medicine are trying to reach an agreement before the current contract expires in late June. But compensation remains a key sticking point.
Ruth Bickett-Hickok, MD, a second-year anesthesiology resident, told reporters May 18 she’s been treating COVID-19 patients and seeks a cost-of-living raise, according to Michigan Radio.
“Frankly I’m here because, for lack of a better term, Michigan [Medicine] residents right now are being exploited for their labor. Especially during this crisis,” said Dr. Bickett-Hickok, who is on the union board. She also cited her debt load for undergraduate and medical school in her reasoning for seeking a cost-of-living raise.
Overall, the union says it wants fair wages that recognize the risks physician residents have been willing to take on during the pandemic.
In a statement provided to Becker’s Hospital Review, Michigan Medicine spokesperson Mary Masson said the health system “recognizes the important role of the [union] members” and amid the pandemic “has honored the compensation package previously proposed to the HOA, which includes salary increases.”
Ms. Masson said Michigan Medicine is undergoing a $400 million expense reduction plan with furloughs and layoffs affecting about 1,400 full-time employees. Physician residents’ salaries range from $58,500 to $82,900 annually based on experience. Ms. Masson said to provide even higher salary increases, Michigan Medicine would have to eliminate additional jobs.
The union proposes that the health system use part of the university’s endowment funds to help cover the new labor deal.