As the economic situation has worsened over the past few months, we’ve been working with several health systems to recalibrate strategy. For many, the anticipated “post-COVID recovery” period has turned into a struggle to reverse declining (often negative) margins, while still scrambling to address mounting workforce shortages. All this amid continued pressure from disruptive competitors and ever-rising consumer expectations.
In the graphic above, we’ve pulled together some of the most important changes we believe health systems need to make. These range from improvements to the operating model (shifting to a team-based approach to staffing, greater use of automation where appropriate, and moving to asset-light capital strategies) to transformations of the clinical model (moving care into lower-cost outpatient and community settings, integrating virtual care into clinical delivery, and creating tighter alignment with key physicians).
In general, the goal is to deliver lower-cost care in less expensive settings, using less expensive staff.
But those cost-saving strategies will need to be coupled with a new go-to-market approach, including new payment models that reward systems for shifting away from high-cost (and highly reimbursed) care models.
Employers and consumers will expect more solution-based offerings, which integrate care across the continuum into coherent bundles of service. This will require a more deliberate focus on service line strategies, moving away from a fragmented, inpatient-centric model.
Contracting approaches must align payment with this shift, changing incentives to reward coordinated, cost-effective, outcomes-driven care.
A key insight from our discussions with health system leaders: short-term cost-cutting initiatives to “stop the bleed” won’t suffice—instead, more permanent solutions will be required that address not only the core operating model, but also the approach to revenue generation.
The post-COVID environment is turning out to be a lot tougher than many had expected, to say the least.
High health care prices in the U.S. make it hard for people to access care, difficult for employers to provide insurance, and challenging for policymakers to balance health care spending with other budgetary priorities. That’s why it’s important to understand what drives prices higher and identify policies to keep prices from getting so high.
In a new paper in Health Affairs, Vilsa Curto, Anna Sinaiko and Meredith Rosenthal examined whether hospital and health systems’ acquisition of and contracting with physician practices – two forms of what is often called vertical integration – has led to higher prices for physician services. The researchers combined four sets of data from Massachusetts from 2013-2017 for their analysis.
They found that:
The percent of physicians who joined health systems grew meaningfully: The percent of primary care physicians who remained independent dropped from 42% in 2013 to 31.5% in 2017, and the percent of independent specialists fell from 26% to 17%.
Over this same period, prices for physician services rose. Price increases were especially large – 12% for primary care physicians and 6% for specialists – when physicians joined health systems that had a high share of admissions in their area.
This study stands out for several reasons. First, it shows vertical integration drives up health care prices. Second, the authors highlight actions states can and are considering taking to monitor and curb vertical integration, including antitrust enforcement and enacting laws to promote competition.
Finally, the Massachusetts data allow the public to better appreciate what’s happening across the state. Many earlier studies on health care consolidation have been limited to a subset of insurers, physicians or patients. Massachusetts is a leader when it comes to creating and sharing its data thanks to its all-payer claims database, which pulls together all the health care bills from private insurers and public programs like Medicare and Medicaid in the state. This critical information helps to illuminate patterns of care and prices and connect them to issues like consolidation and competition.Neither the federal government nor most states track how vertical integration mergers influence health care prices.
As these findings demonstrate, acquisitions and other forms of vertical integration impact what people pay for health care services. Given that prices in this sector continue to climb, this paper underscores the need for more state and national data to understand the downstream effects on all of us who use and participate in the U.S. health care system.
A consultant colleague recently recounted a call from a health system looking for support in physician alignment. He mused, “It’s never a good sign when I hear that the medical group reports to the system CFO [chief financial officer].” We agree. It’s not that CFOs are necessarily bad managers of physician networks, or aren’t collaborative with doctors—as you’d expect from any group of leaders, there are CFOs who excel at these capabilities, and ones that don’t.
The reporting relationship reveals less about the individual executive, and more about how the system views its medical group: less as a strategic partner, and more as “an asset to feed the [hospital] mothership.” Or worse, as a high-cost asset that is underperforming, with the CFO brought in as a “fixer”, taking over management of the physician group to “stop the bleed.”
Ideally the medical group would be led by a senior physician leader, often with the title of chief clinical officer or chief physician executive, who has oversight of all of the system’s physician network relationships, and can coordinate work across all these entities, sitting at the highest level of the executive team, reporting to the CEO. Of course, these kinds of physician leaders—with executive presence, management acumen, respected by physician and executive peers—can be difficult to find.
Having a respected physician leader at the helm is even more important in a time of crisis, whether they lead alone or are paired with the CFO or another executive. Systems should have a plan to build the leadership talent needed to guide doctors through the coming clinical, generational, and strategic shifts in practice.
We recently caught up with a health system chief clinical officer, who brought up some recent news about CVS. “I was really disappointed to hear that they’re going to start employing doctors,” he shared, referring to the company’s announcement earlier this month that it would begin to hire physicians to staff primary care practices in some stores. He said that as his system considered partnerships with payers and retailers, CVS stood out as less threatening compared to UnitedHealth Group and Humana, who both directly employ thousands of doctors: “Since they didn’t employ doctors, we saw CVS HealthHUBs as complementary access points, rather than directly competing for our patients.”
As CVS has integrated with Aetna, the company is aiming to expand its use of retail care sites to manage cost of care for beneficiaries. CEO Karen Lynch recently described plans to build a more expansive “super-clinic” platform targeted toward seniors, that will offer expanded diagnostics, chronic disease management, mental health and wellness, and a smaller retail footprint. The company hopes that these community-based care sites will boost Aetna’s Medicare Advantage (MA) enrollment, and it sees primary care physicians as central to that strategy.
It’s not surprising that CVS has decided to get into the physician business, as its primary retail pharmacy competitors have already moved in that direction. Last month, Walgreens announced a $5.2B investment to take a majority stake in VillageMD, with an eye to opening of 1,000 “Village Medical at Walgreens” primary care practices over the next five years. And while Walmart’s rollout of its Walmart Health clinics has been slower than initially announced, its expanded clinics, led by primary care doctors and featuring an expanded service profile including mental health, vision and dental care, have been well received by consumers. In many ways employing doctors makes more sense for CVS, given that the company has looked to expand into more complex care management, including home dialysis, drug infusion and post-operative care. And unlike Walmart or Walgreens, CVS already bears risk for nearly 3M Aetna MA members—and can immediately capture the cost savings from care management and directing patients to lower-cost servicesin its stores.
But does this latest move make CVS a greater competitive threat to health systems and physician groups? In the war for talent, yes. Retailer and insurer expansion into primary care will surely amp up competition for primary care physicians, as it already has for nurse practitioners. Having its own primary care doctors may make CVS more effective in managing care costs, but the company’s ultimate strategy remains unchanged: use its retail primary care sites to keep MA beneficiaries out of the hospital and other high-cost care settings.
Partnerships with CVS and other retailers and insurers present an opportunity for health systems to increase access points and expand their risk portfolios. But it’s likely that these types of partnerships are time-limited. In a consumer-driven healthcare market, answering the question of “Whose patient is it?” will be increasingly difficult, as both parties look to build long-term loyalty with consumers.
We recently shared an updated perspective on the independent physician landscape. Notably absent from this map, but an important player in this space, are entities, like health plans, private equity, and health systems, who partially or wholly fund some independent physician groups.
We intentionally left these funders off the map because they don’t work in a uniform way with all physician groups. The reality is that funders have their handprints all over this map—and just knowing what type of funder you’re working with doesn’t necessarily tell you how they work with physician groups.
Funders work across the physician landscape because they recognize two things:
First, in order to play in today’s physician market, funders need to be flexible in how they work with physicians in order to appeal to the wide variety of groups and build a bigger market presence.
Second, building or buying these physician group archetypes outright is not the only way to work with them. Many funders instead opt to invest in them—either through dollars or resources.
Key funders to watch
There are three key funders we track the closest: private equity, health plans, and health systems. Below are brief overviews of how they commonly work with independent groups and our predictions for where you might see them go next.
Private equity (PE): Consistent approach with still to be proven outcomes
The goal of PE firms is to make money on their investments. To do this, these firms buy shares of practices in order to have partial ownership. In return, physician groups get the capital they need to make investments—investments that in theory drive profits for both the physician shareholders and the PE investors. Unlike other funders, PE is rarely associated with full acquisition.
Two of the places we’ve seen the most private equity investment are in consolidation of specialty practices (usually at the national level) or value-based care investments in primary care practices (across all archetypes).
Private equity is gaining traction as a physician group partner because they often try to preserve some degree of physician autonomy and they’ve learned to nuance their investments and pitches based on the group they’re seeking to work with.
We predict: PE will continue to back the full range of archetypes on this map—investing in both independent groups directly and the national archetypes.
What we’ll be watching:
What will happen to the handful of major PE investments in the independent physician group space that will be reaching their 5-7 year mark
What level of physician autonomy will PE firms continue to preserve as PE gains stronger footholds in the physician landscape
Health plans: The most eager to transform (incrementally)
Health plans are often predominantly associated with a single physician archetype for a given plan. For example, when you think about UnitedHealthcare, you might think of their sister company, OptumCare, and an aggregation strategy. Or, you might think of Blues plans most commonly as service partners.
However, when you dig deeper, the story is much more nuanced. Plans and their parent companies like UnitedHealth Group do often aggregate practices, but they also sell and integrate services via service partner models. And several Blues plans are now building practices from the ground up. To top it off, some plans are even adopting an investment strategy like Anthem with Privia.
Perhaps more than any other funder, health plans often adopt a range of strategies to develop their physician strategy and maintain their existing networks. And even cases where plans aren’t funding entities themselves, they’re thinking of new ways to work with the growing range of physician groups.
We predict: Health plans will move away from a uniform approach to physician practice partnership and towards more multifaceted approaches to appeal to a wide range of providers.
What we’ll be watching:
Will health plans diversify their suite of approaches based on the groups they’re pursuing
Will health plans tailor their value proposition for each partnership approach
Health systems: Playing catch up to evolve
We often tend to think about health systems as aggregators—they buy independent physician groups and add them to their employed medical groups. But we’re seeing two physician market shifts that are causing health systems to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach.
One, the remaining independent groups are growing in size and, two, they are less willing to be acquired. On top of that, as private equity firms and payers continue to diversify their strategies, health systems must adapt to keep pace—or risk being seen as the least attractive partner.
As a result, more health systems are telling us about their new approaches to physician partnerships, like starting an MSO to act as a service partner or convening coalitions between themselves and independent groups.
We predict: Health systems will face increasing pressure to diversify how they are operating with physician groups. Similar to health plans, we expect to see a pivot away from an aggregation-only approach. To learn more, read our take on how health systems and independent groups should think about partnership.
What we’ll be watching:
How quickly will health systems stand up additional partnership approaches
Will health systems in markets where they’re the dominant partner proactively adjust their partnership approach versus wait for the market to shift first
Your checklist to work successfully with today’s physician groups
As you evaluate your partnership strategy, here’s our starter list of questions to ask yourself:
Clarify your partnership goals:
What are my organization’s goals for physician partnership broadly?
What are the archetypes I currently fund or partner with?
Do these archetypes serve my organization’s stated goals?
Identify the right partnership approaches for your organization
What new archetypes should I build or work with to advance my organization’s goals and target new physician groups?
Do I need to build this archetype myself or is it better to fund one that exists?
If funding, should I wholly own or invest in the archetype?
Define your value proposition to physicians
Have I adjusted my value proposition for each of the archetypes I fund or partner with?
Am I clearly articulating my value proposition in a way that speaks to physicians’ needs and wants?
Does my value proposition align with what I’m actually delivering? For example, if I say I’m preserving autonomy, how am I doing that?
How does my value proposition compare and compete with others in the market?
Map out the power dynamics of the archetypes you want to work with
Who has the ultimate decision-making power in the organization? (Hint: Decision-making power gets more diffuse as you move from right to left, national chain to service partner.)
Who are the key stakeholders who influence decision-making?
Many physician practices weathered 2020 better than they would have predicted last spring. We had anticipated many doctors would look to health systems or payers for support, but the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans kept practices going until patient volume returned. But as they now see an end to the pandemic, many doctors are experiencing a new round of uncertainty about the future. Post-pandemic fatigue, coupled with a long-anticipated wave of retiring Baby Boomer partners, is leading many more independent practices to consider their options. And layered on top of this, private equity investors are injecting a ton of money into the physician market, extending offers that leave some doctors feeling, according to one doctor we spoke with, that“you’d have to be an idiot to say no to a deal this good”.
2021 is already shaping up to be a record year for physician practice deals.Butsome of our recent conversations made us wonder if we had time-traveled back to the early 2000s, when hospital-physician partnerships were dominated by bespoke financial arrangements aimed at securing call coverage and referrals. Some health system leaders are flustered by specialist practices wanting a quick response to an investor proposal. Hospitals worry the joint ventures or co-management agreements that seemed to work well for years may not be enough, and wonder if they should begin recruiting new doctors or courting competitors, “just in case” current partners might jump ship for a better deal.
In contrast to other areas of strategy, where a ten-year vision can guide today’s decisions, it has always been hard for health systems to take the long view with physician partnerships.
When most “strategies” are really just responses to the fires of the day, health systems run the risk of relationships devolving to mere economic terms.Health systems may find themselves once again with a messy patchwork of doctors aligned by contractual relationships, rather than a tight network of physician partners who can work together to move care forward.
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 results of a survey completed by 1,500 of Beaumont Health’s 5,000 physicians revealed a lack of confidence in the Southfield, Mich.-based system’s leadership and concern about its proposed merger with Advocate Aurora Health, according to Crain’s Detroit Business.
Crain’s reported the results of the survey after the results were presented to Beaumont’s board. The system confirmed this week that it is postponing a vote on the planned merger with Advocate Aurora until physician grievances are addressed.
The survey asked physicians to indicate whether they agreed or disagreed with several statements. Seventy-six percent of the physicians who answered the survey said they strongly or somewhat disagree with the statement “I have confidence in corporate leadership,” while 13 percent said they strongly or somewhat agree and 11 percent said they neither agree nor disagree, according to Crain’s.
Physicians were also asked about the proposed merger with Advocate Aurora, which has dual headquarters in Milwaukee and Downers Grove, Ill. According to Crain’s, 70 percent of physicians said they strongly or somewhat disagree with the following statement: “The proposed merger with Advocate Aurora Health is likely to enhance our capacity to provide compassionate, extraordinary care.” Nine percent of physicians said they somewhat or strongly agree with the statement and 21 percent said they neither agree nor disagree, according to the report.
In a statement to Becker’s Hospital Review, Beaumont said it is working to address the physicians’ concerns.
“Our physicians provided valuable input and feedback to us through the survey,” the health system said. “We take our physicians’ responses seriously and we have already started addressing many of their concerns. We know our talented and skilled physicians, nurses and staff have helped to make Beaumont the region’s leading health system and they are also key to our future. Our caregivers truly live our mission of providing compassionate, extraordinary care, every day. We recognize the importance of having an open dialogue. That’s why we continue to meet with numerous groups of physicians, nurses and staff to listen to them, address their concerns and work together with them to determine the best path forward for Beaumont.”
Beaumont and Advocate Aurora signed a nonbinding letter of intent in June to create a health system spanning Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. The merger would create a $17 billion system with 36 hospitals.
We’re hearing from medical groups around the country that in the past few weeks, office visit volumes have quickly approached pre-COVID levels. Some are even busier, running at 110 percent of their February volumes, or more. At the same time, practice has become more stressful, with doctors balancing virtual care with in-person visits, new safety procedures slowing operations, and staff and patients worried about COVID exposure. Everything feels different, and irrespective of the number of patients on today’s schedule, all of the changes make a physician feel like she’s working harder than before.
A chief clinical officer from a Midwestern health system relayed the discord this has created when discussing incentives: “Our doctors were fully on board with the need to reduce salaries back in April, so we all took a 15 percent pay cut through the summer. Now that they’re busy again, they want to be bumped back to 100 percent. But the system’s financial picture hasn’t changed.”
The growing disconnect between how hard many staff are working and the economic reality of the system isn’t unique to doctors. But physicians, most of whom have their compensation tied to individual productivity, may feel it more acutely. While there are no easy solutions, it’s critical to discuss this disconnect openly, rather than letting resentment fester under the surface.
The pandemic has brought to light the brittleness of health system and physician practice finances. Prescient systems will use this moment to work with their doctors to rethink practice and align compensation with the financial success of the system, while meeting doctors’ needs for stability and security.