There’s been a lot of hand wringing over the ongoing feeding frenzy among private equity (PE) firms for physician practice acquisition, which has caused health system executives everywhere to worry about the displacement effect on physician engagement strategies (not to mention the inflationary impact on practice valuations).
While we’ve long believed that PE firms are not long-term owners of practices, instead playing a roll-up function that will ultimately end in broader aggregation by vertically-integrated insurance companies, a recent conversation with one system CEO reframed the phenomenon in a way we hadn’t thought of before. It’s all about ademographic shift, she argued.
There’s a generation of Boomer-aged doctors who followed their entrepreneurial calling and started their own practices, and are now nearing retirement age without an obvious path to exit the business. Many didn’t plan for retirement—rather than a 401(k), what they have is equity in the practice they built.
What the PE industry is doing now is basically helping those docs transition out of practice by monetizing their next ten years of income in the form of a lump-sum cash payout. You could have predicted this phenomenon decades ago.
The real question is what happens to the younger generations of doctors left behind, who have another 20 or 30 years of practice ahead of them? Will they want to work in a PE-owned (or insurer-owned) setting, or would they prefer health system employment—or something else entirely?
The answer to that question will determine the shape of physician practice for decades to come…at least until the Millennials start pondering their own retirement.
Clinician burnout, lay-offs, and other healthcare workforce challenges coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic are creating issues for primary care, according to a new survey.
About 40 percent of over 700 primary care clinicians recently surveyed by the Larry A. Green Center, Primary Care Collaborative (PCC), and 3rd Conversation worry that primary care won’t exist in five years’ time. Meanwhile, about a fifth say they expect to leave primary care within the next three years.
“Primary care is the front door to the healthcare system for most Americans, and the door is coming off its hinges,” Christine Bechtel, co-founder of 3rd Conversation, a community of patients and clinicians, said in a press release. “The fact that 40 [percent] of clinicians are worried about the future of primary care is of deep concern, and it’s time for new public policies that value primary care for the common good that it is.”
The threat to primary care comes as practices ramp up vaccination efforts. The survey found that more than half of respondents (52 percent) report receiving enough or more than enough vaccines for their patients, and 31 percent are partnering with local organizations or government to prioritize people for vaccination.
Stress levels at primary care practices are also decreasing compared to the height of the pandemic, according to survey results. However, over one in three, or 36 percent, of respondents say they are experiencing hardships, such as feeling constantly lethargic, having trouble finding joy in anything, and/or struggling to maintain clear thinking.
Clinician fatigue could spell trouble for the primary care workforce and the field itself, researchers indicated.
“The administration has now recognized the key role primary care is able to play in reaching vaccination goals,” Rebecca Etz, PhD, co-director of The Larry A. Green Center, said in the release. “While the pressure is now on primary care to convert the most vaccine-hesitant, little has been done to support primary care to date. Policymakers need to bear witness to the quiet heroism of primary care – a workforce that suffered five times more COVID-related deaths than any other medical discipline.”
Many primary care clinicians are hoping the federal government steps in to change policy and bolster primary care and the healthcare workforce. The government can start with how primary care is paid, respondents agreed.
About 46 percent of clinicians responding to the survey said policy should change how primary care is financed so that the field is not in direct competition with specialty care. The same percentage of clinicians also said policy to change how primary care is paid by shifting reimbursement from fee-for-service.
Over half of clinicians (56 percent) also agreed that policy should protect primary care as a common good and make it available to all regardless of ability to pay.
Alternative payment models helped providers during the COVID-19 pandemic, research from healthcare improvement company Premier, Inc. showed. Their study found that organizations in alternative payment models were more likely to leverage care management, remote patient monitoring, and population health data during the pandemic compared to organizations that relied on fee-for-service revenue.
“Many of the practices, especially in primary care, have been extremely cash strapped and have been struggling for many years,” Sanjay Doddamani, MD, toldRevCycleIntelligence last year.
“This has been a big moment for us to act in accelerating our performance-based incentive payments to our primary care doctors. We moved up our schedule of payments so that they could at least have some continued flow of funds,” added the chief physician executive and COO at Southwestern Health Resources, a clinically integrated network based in Texas.
Value-based contracting could be the key to primary care’s existence in the future, that is, if practices get on board with alternative payment models. A majority of respondents to the latest Value-Based Care Assessment from Insights said over 75 percent of their organization’s revenue is from fee-for-service contracts. This was especially true for respondents working in physician practices, of which 64 percent relied almost entirely on fee-for-service payments.
A Cleveland Clinic-owned hospital system in Akron, Ohio, is paying the federal government $21.3 million to settle claims it illegally billed the Medicare program.
Akron General Health System allegedly overpaid physicians well above market value for referring physicians to the system, violating the Anti-Kickback Statute and Physician Self-Referral Law, and then billed Medicare for the improperly referred business, violating the False Claims Act, between August 2010 and March 2016.
Along with an AGHS whistleblower,the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, which acquired the system at the end of 2015, voluntarily disclosed to the federal government its concerns with the compensation arrangements, which were enacted by AGHS’ prior leadership, the Department of Justice said Friday.
The Anti-Kickback Statute forbids providers from paying for or otherwise soliciting other parties to get them to refer patients covered by federal programs like Medicare, while the Physician Self-Referral Law, otherwise known as the Stark Law, prohibits a hospital from billing for those services.Despite the laws and a bevy of other regulations resulting in a barrage of DOJ lawsuits and been a thorn in the side of providers for decades, fraud is still rampant in healthcare.
“Physicians must make referrals and other medical decisions based on what is best for patients, not to serve profit-boosting business arrangements,” HHS Office of Inspector General Special Agent in Charge Lamont Pugh said in a statement on the AGHS settlement.
Cleveland Clinic struck a deal with AGHS in 2014, agreeing to pay $100 million for minority ownership in the system. The agreement gave the clinic the option to fully acquire AGHS after a year, which it exercised as soon as that period expired in August 2015.
The settlement stems from a whistleblower suit brought by AGHS’s former Director of Internal Audit Beverly Brouse, who will receive a portion of the settlement, the DOJ said. The False Claims Act allows whistleblowers to share in the proceeds of a suit.
As fraud has increased in healthcare over the past decade — the DOJ reported 247 new matters for potential investigation in 2000, 427 in 2010 and 505 in 2019 — the federal government has renewed its efforts to crack down on illegal schemes. That’s resulted in the formation of groups like the Medicare Fraud Strike Force in 2007 and the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit in 2017, which has in turn resulted in the DOJ recovering huge sums in stings, settlements and guilty verdicts.
Some of the biggest settlements reach into the hundreds of millions, and involve billions in false claims.
In 2018, DOJ charged more than 600 people for falsely billing federal programs more than $2 billion; last year federal agencies charged almost 350 people for submitting more than $6 billion in false claims. That last case led to creation of a rapid response strike force to investigate fraud involving major providers in multiple geographies.
Other large settlements include Walgreens’ $270 million fine in 2019 to settle lawsuits accusing the pharmacy giant of improperly billing Medicare and Medicaid for drug reimbursements; hospital operator UHS’ $122 million settlement last summer finalizing a fraudulent billing case with the DOJ after being accused of fraudulently billing Medicare and Medicaid for services at its behavioral healthcare facilities; and West Virginia’s oldest hospital, nonprofit Wheeling Hospital, agreeing in September to pay $50 million to settle allegations it systematically violated the laws against physician kickbacks, improper referrals and false billing.
EHR vendor eClinicalWorks paid $155 million to settle False Claims Act allegations around misrepresentation of software capabilities in 2017, while Florida-based EHR vendor Greenway Health was hit with a $57.3 million fine in 2019 to to settle allegations the vendor caused users to submit false claims to the EHR Incentives Program.
A new report from consulting firm Avalere Health and the nonprofit Physicians Advocacy Institute finds that the pandemic accelerated the rise in physician employment, with nearly 70 percent of doctors now employed by a hospital, insurer or investor-owned entity.
Researchers evaluated shifts to employment in the two-year period between January 2019 and January 2021, finding that 48,400 additional doctors left independent practice to join a health system or other company, with the majority of the change occurring during the pandemic. While 38 percent chose employment by a hospital or health system,the majority of newly employed doctors are now employed by a “corporate entity”, including insurers, disruptors and investor-owned companies.
(Researchers said they were unable to accurately break down corporate employers by entity, and that the study likely undercounts the number of physician practices owned by private equity firms, given the lack of transparency in that segment.) Growth rates in the corporate sector dwarfed health system employment, increasing a whopping 38 percent over the past two years, in comparison to a 5 percent increase for hospitals.
We expect this pace will continue throughout this year and beyond, as practices seek ongoing stability and look to manage the exit of retiring partners, enticed by the outsized offers put on the table by investors and payers.
In theory, the idea of salaried compensation for employed physicians makes a lot of sense. For one thing, it’s blessedly simple, with the potential to remove the tensions that arise in shifting to value-based payment or implementing lower-cost (but lower-reimbursement) care models like telemedicine.
However, medical group leaders have long feared that productivity would tank if doctors were put on salary. (As a consulting colleague said recently, the switch to salary would cause a 20+ percent drop in productivity in the medical group, creating a challenge akin to keeping an airline profitable after removing a quarter of the seats on its planes). We’ve been expecting that more doctors might seek stable compensation models in the wake of the pandemic, and so weren’t entirely surprised when the question of moving to straight salary came up in three conversations over the past two weeks.
In all three cases, leaders are hoping to create more predictability, and to decrease the resources and effort needed to execute against a menu of complex plans. They believe that a move to salary is inevitable, and their questions have more to do with timing.
Gauging when to make the move should be determined not by external market shifts, but by internal cultural and operational readiness. Are the systems in place to enable doctors to work at a high level of efficiency? And do we have the group collaboration needed to maintain high performance without paying doctors as if they are salesmen on commission?
Another wrinkle has popped up for groups who might be ready now: the past year has upended the benchmarks that groups might otherwise use to inform decisions on where to set salaries. Nevertheless, over time we expect more groups to move in this direction, with the hope of getting off the “hamster wheel” of compensation committee meetings and ever more exotic permutations of bonus plans, in search of a more stable model.
We spoke this week with a medical group president looking to deploy a more consistent consumer experience across his health system’s physician practices, beginning with primary care.
The discussion quickly turned to two large primary care practices, acquired several years ago, whose doctors are extremely resistant to change. “These guys have built a fee-for-service model that has been extremely lucrative,” the executive shared. “It was a battle getting them on centralized scheduling a few years ago, and now they’re pushing back against telemedicine.”
With ancillary income included, many of these “entrepreneurial” primary care doctors are making over $700K annually, while the rest of the system’s full-time primary care physicians average around $250K.
The situation raises several questions. Standardized access and consistent experience are foundational to consumer strategy; in the words of one CEO, if our system’s name is on the door, any of our care sites should feel like they are part of the same system, from the patient’s perspective.
But how can we get physicians on board with “systemization” if they think it puts their income at risk? Should the system guarantee income to “keep them whole”, and for how long? And is it possible to create consensus across a group of doctors with a three-fold disparity in income, and widely divergent interests? While there are no easy answers, putting patients and consumers first must be the guiding goal of the system.
The payment gap was $63,000 for primary care doctors, $178,000 for medical specialists and $150,000 for surgeons.
Doctors who work for hospital outpatient facilities get much higher payments for their services from Medicare than doctors who practice independently, according to a new study.
The research, based on Medicare claims data from 2010-2016,found that the program’s payments for doctors’ work were, on average, $114,000 higher per doctor per year when billed by a hospital than when billed by a doctor’s independent practice.
Published in Health Services Research, results found that the amount Medicare would pay for outpatient care at doctors’ offices would have been 80% higher if the services had been billed by a hospital outpatient facility. In 2010, the average set of Medicare services independent doctors performed annually for patients was worth $141,000, but charging for the same group of services would have grossed $240,000 if a hospital outpatient facility billed for them.
The payment difference varied by specialty. The payment gap was $63,000 for primary care doctors, $178,000 for medical specialists and $150,000 for surgeons.
Moreover, the study found the differential grew over time. From 2010-2016, the average difference between hospital outpatient and private practice payments grew from 80% higher to 99% higher.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT?
The main reason for these large payment differences: facility fees. For each service a doctor performs, Medicare pays hospital outpatient facilities both a fee for the doctor’s work and a fee for the facility, whereas private practices receive only doctor fees.
Although the doctor fees are a bit lower in hospital outpatient locations, the facility fees more than make up for the difference, and the total payments to hospitals are reflected in higher doctor salaries and bonuses.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has been trying to correct this imbalance for years with policies that would pay both sites the same amount. In 2015, the Bipartisan Budget Act authorized CMS to impose site-neutral payments but grandfathered existing hospital outpatient facilities. Later, CMS expanded the equal payments to other hospital outpatient facilities, but the American Hospital Association sued to overturn this regulation.
The groups filed for a petition for a rehearing, which was denied.
In February, the Supreme Court acknowledged the AHA’s request for judicial review. The government response was due by March 15, but on March 3, Norris Cochran, acting Secretary of Health and Human Service asked for an extension until April 14 to file the government’s response, according to court documents.
The significant difference between Medicare payments to hospital outpatient facilities and independent offices has encouraged hospitals and health systems to buy doctor practices, but the study noted that good research about this has been lacking up to now.
It found little evidence of a direct relationship linking the size of the pay gap between hospital outpatient facilities and independent offices, with hospitals buying doctor practices, in particular medical specialties. But it did find that doctors whose services had larger pay gaps were more likely to have a hospital buy their practice than doctors whose services had a smaller pay gap.
In an accompanying commentary, Dr. Michael Chernew of Harvard Medical School in Boston said the study had found that the ability of hospitals and employed doctors to earn more from Medicare had resulted in a greater amount of integration.
THE LARGER TREND
However, the authors pointed out that the Medicare payment difference is only one of many factors that have contributed to the huge increase in the share of doctors employed at hospitals over the past decade. For example, they found a higher probability of a doctor going to work for a hospital in highly concentrated hospital markets and rural areas.
Other studies, they said, have established that some health systems use integration with doctors’ offices as a bargaining chip with commercial health insurance plans. Also, some doctors may find that independent practice is less viable than it used to be for a variety of reasons.
It has also been suggested that many younger doctors prefer hospital employment to private practice because they crave economic security and work-life balance.
It’s been estimated that even the payments to hospitals vs. doctors could save CMS $11 billion over 10 years. But the paper illustrates that the payment disparities can also create broader market distortions because consolidation of hospitals and doctors’ offices has been shown to lead to higher prices overall.
While telemedicine visits have decreased sharply since their early pandemic peak, we’re hearing from providers across the country that patient demand for email communication has persisted.
Many patients have missed meaningful in-person interactions with their doctors. But once they sign up for the portal and realize they can email, they don’t want to go back to spending time on holdor scheduling a visit to get a prescription refill or the answer to a simple question.
Email and messaging saves patients a lot of time, but the sheer amount has quickly become unmanageable for many doctors. “Last year I got half a dozen emails per week from patients,” one primary care physician told us. “Now I’m spending two hours a day answering MyChart messages, and I’m still not keeping up.”
And as many are quick to point out, there is little to no compensation for time spent emailing.Health systems and physician practices can’t “roll back” this service—removing this satisfier would expose them to losing patients altogether.
In the near term, systems must invest in the staff and infrastructure to create a centralized process to triage messages. And longer-term, they must align physician compensation and payment models away from visit-based economics and toward comprehensive patient communication and management.
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.
The financial impact on primary care practices due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been profound and will likely continue in the months ahead, according to a new study published in Health Affairs.
Visits of all types to medical practices declined 58% in March and April compared to the baseline average, and in-person patient encounters declined by 69%, the study found. Although visits are expected to have rebounded by June, volumes are still below pre-COVID-19 levels.
The drop in fee-for-service revenue for the 2020 calendar year is nearly $68,000 per physician, contributing to an estimated revenue decline of 12.5%. That’s a steep enough loss to threaten the financial viability of many practices. Losses to primary care practices nationwide could top $15 billion over the year — a number that could grow if the federal government reverts increased telemedicine payment rates.
The new study by researchers from Harvard Medical School and the American Board of Family Medicine attempts to put a price tag on that hit by running a microsimulation for projected 2020 revenues based on volume data for general practices, general internal medicine practices, general pediatric practices and family medicine practices.
As a result, they concluded that the average revenue loss per practice per physician will be $67,774, even taking into account revenue generated by telemedicine visits, which did not make up for the massive loss of patient volume during the spring.
That loss could be cut to as little as $28,265 per full-time physician if other staff is furloughed and salaries are cut to the 25th percentile of such cuts that took place during the peak of the stay-at-home orders.
Some practices are also projected to have steeper losses. Rural primary care practices are projected to lose $75,274 per physician. Other studies have suggested that pediatric practices have been hit harder than other primary care fields. Some organizations, such as the American Medical Group Association, say revenue won’t rebound fully even next year.
The study also conducted various alternate scenarios for the remainder of 2020, including a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall. The researchers estimated that would cut patient volumes by about half as much as what occurred during the spring. However, the financial hit would deepen even further, reaching $85,666 per physician.
Altogether, the study projects primary care practices will lose $15.1 billion in fee-for-service revenue this year, not even accounting for a second wave of the coronavirus. The study’s authors note that “this loss would balloon substantially if telemedicine payment rates revert back to pre-COVID-19 levels towards the end of the year.”
The study concluded that while primary care physicians as a whole have not been as hard hit as the hospital sector, the services they provide in managing chronic diseases such as diabetes and as the port of entry for many into the healthcare system makes them too valuable to suffer sustained levels of financial damage.