HOSPITALS SEE NEGATIVE MARGINS FOR SIXTH CONSECUTIVE MONTH

https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/finance/hospitals-see-negative-margins-sixth-consecutive-month

Expenses are still weighing heavily on hospitals, health systems, and physician’s practices as the cost of care continues to rise.

Hospitals, health systems, and physician’s practices are still struggling under the weight of significant financial pressure, that the rise in patient volume and revenue can’t seem to outweigh.

The increase in patient volume and revenue has not been able to offset the historically high operating margins these organizations are facing, according to data from Kaufman Hall’s National Hospital Flash Report and Physician Flash Report. Hospitals, health systems, and physician’s practices dealt with negative margins in June for the sixth consecutive month this year.

“To say that 2022 has challenged healthcare providers is an understatement,” Erik Swanson, a senior vice president of data and analytics with Kaufman Hall, said in an email report. “It’s unlikely that hospitals and health systems can undo the damage caused by the COVID-19 waves of earlier this year, especially with material and labor costs at record highs this summer.”

The median Kaufman Hall year-to-date operating margin index for hospitals was -0.09% through June, for the sixth month of cumulative negative actual operating margins. However, the median change in operating margin in June was up 30.8% compared to May, but down 49.3% from June 2021.

Hospital revenues for June continued to trend upward, even as volumes evened out, according to the Kauffman Hall data. Organizations saw a 2.1% drop in patient length of stay. Both patient days and emergency department visits each dropped by 2.6% in June when compared to May. Hospital’s gross operating revenue was up 1.2% in June from May.

Expenses have been dragging down hospital margins for months, however, June saw a slight month-over-month improvement as total hospital expenses dropped 1.3%, despite this, year-over-year expenses are still up 7.5% from June 2021. Physician practices saw a drop in provider compensation, according to the Kaufman Hall data, however, this wasn’t enough to offset expenses. The competitive labor market for healthcare support staff resulted in a new high for total direct expense per provider FTE in Q2 2022 of $619,682—up 7% from the second quarter of 2021 and 12% from the second quarter of 2020.

“Given the trends in the data, physician practices need to focus on efficiency in the second half of 2022,” Matthew Bates, managing director and Physician Enterprise service line lead with Kaufman Hall, said in the email report. “Amid historically high expenses, shifting some services away from physicians to advanced practice providers like nurse practitioners or physician assistants could help rein in the costs of treating an increased patient load while taking some of the weight off the shoulders of physicians.”

Tower Health fires physician accused of prescribing ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19

Tower Health doctor fired for allegedly prescribing ivermectin,  hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID

A Pennsylvania physician accused of prescribing ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine to treat and prevent COVID-19 has been terminated from Tower Health, PennLive reported Feb. 4.

Edith Behr, MD, is allegedly linked to Christine Mason, a woman who used a Facebook account to connect people to a physician for hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin prescriptions. A social media user claimed Dr. Behr was the source of the prescriptions and reported her to authorities and her employer, according to PennLive

West Reading, Pa.-based Tower Health officials became aware of the allegations against Dr. Behr Feb. 2 and took immediate action. 

“Tower Health became aware yesterday of the allegations involving Dr. Edith Behr prescribing ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of COVID-19,” Tower Health said in a Feb. 3 statement to PennLive. “We investigated the matter and, as a result, Dr. Behr’s employment with Tower Health Medical Group has been terminated effective immediately.”

Dr. Behr was a surgeon at Phoenixville (Pa.) Hospital, which is owned by Tower Health, according to the report. 

Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine have not been approved by the FDA for prevention or treatment of COVID-19.

Rand: Most health systems pay physicians based on volume, not quality

Rand: Most health systems pay physicians based on volume, not quality

Physicians employed by group practices owned by health systems are mostly paid based on the volume of care, despite recent insurance companies’ efforts to pay based on quality, a Jan. 28 Rand study published in Jama Health Forum found.

Seventy percent of practices follow a volume-based compensation plan, according to the analysis. For more than 80 percent of primary care physicians and more than 90 percent of physician specialists, volume-based compensation is the most common.

Although many health systems have financial incentives for quality and cost, only 9 percent of primary care providers and 5 percent of specialists have compensation based on those criteria.

“Despite growth in value-based programs and the need to improve value in healthcare, physician compensation arrangements in health systems do not currently emphasize value,” Rachel Reid, the study’s lead author and a physician policy researcher at Rand, a nonprofit research organization, said in a news release emailed to Becker’s. “The payment systems that are most often in place are designed to maximize health system revenue by incentivizing providers within the system to deliver more services.”

The study looked at physician payment structures for 31 physician organizations affiliated with 22 health systems across four states. The researchers interviewed leaders, examined compensation documents and surveyed physician practices.

UnitedHealth’s profits

The second year of the pandemic did not dampen UnitedHealth Group’s finances, and the company actually surpassed its initial 2021 revenue and profit projectionsBob writes.

The big picture: UnitedHealth’s revenue has tripled from 2010 to 2021, and profit has almost quadrupled. The company continues to make more of its money from owning doctor groups and controlling pharmacy benefits instead of relying on health insurance.

MedPAC declines to recommend to Congress additional pay bumps for doctors, hospitals

Medicare spending costs money

A top Medicare advisory board did not recommend any new payment hikes for acute care hospitals or doctors for 2023, stating that targeted relief funding has helped blunt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), which makes recommendations to Congress and the federal government on Medicare issues, voted on the payment changes to Congress during its Thursday meeting. The panel decided against recommending any pay hikes.

The commission unanimously voted to update 2023 rates for acute care hospitals by the amounts determined under current law. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will publish its update to the current law payment rates this summer.

MedPAC estimated that the rates will increase 2% and that there would be 3.1% growth in hospital wages and benefits, but these “may be higher or lower by the time this is finalized,” said MedPAC staff member Alison Binkowski.

She added there will be another estimated 0.5% increase in inpatient rates.

MedPAC decided not to recommend any pay rates beyond current law after looking at the financial picture for hospitals and found the indicators of payment adequacy are generally positive.

Hospitals maintained strong access to capital thanks to substantial federal support, including targeted federal relief funds to rural hospitals which raised their all-payer total margin to a near-record total high,” Binkowski said.

She added fewer hospitals closed, and facilities continued to have positive marginal Medicare profits.

It was also difficult to interpret changes in quality that traditionally would determine whether a payment boost would be needed.

“For example, mortality rates increased in 2020, but this reflects the tragic effects of the pandemic on the elderly rather than a change in the quality of care provided to Medicare beneficiaries or the adequacy of Medicare payments,” Binkowski said.

Even though commission members agreed with the recommendation for hospitals, they were concerned whether it was enough to help facilities meet drastic increases in labor expenses.

“With labor, it is more than just a salary increase these hospitals are seeing,” said commission member Brian DeBusk.

He noted that hospitals haven’t just seen an increase in rates for contract or temporary nurses, but in nursing education as well.

MedPAC also recommended no changes to the statutory payment update for dialysis facilities and shouldn’t give a payment update to ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs) due to confidence in payment adequacy for the facilities.

“Despite the public health emergency, the number of ASCs increased by 2% in 2020,” said MedPAC staff member Daniel Zabinski. “The growth that we saw in the number of ASCs also suggests access to capital remains adequate.”

Physician fee schedule recommendation

The commission decided to take a similar estimate with the physician fee schedule, calling for any update to be tied to current law, which is estimated to have no change in spending.

Medicare payments to clinicians declined by $9 billion in 2020 but were offset thanks to congressional relief funds. Physicians also got a 4% bump to payments through 2022 compared to prior law.

The temporary rate hike is expected to go away at the start of 2023, but physician groups are likely to lobby Congress to keep the pay bump intact.

Physician groups already blasted the recommendation from MedPAC.

Anders Gilberg, senior vice president of government affairs for the Medical Group Management Association, tweeted that the recommendation was out of touch, especially after new reports of inflation.

“Hard to conceive of a more misguided recommendation to Congress at a time when practices face massive staffing shortages and skyrocketing expenses,” he tweeted.

CVS wants to employ doctors. Should health systems be worried?

https://mailchi.mp/96b1755ea466/the-weekly-gist-november-19-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

HealthHUB | CVS Health

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’ve been defining the independent physician landscape wrong—here’s a new approach

Physician groups and their funders—you've been thinking about their  relationship wrong

We’ve historically divided the physician landscape in two parts: hospital-employed or independent. But over time, the “independent” segment has become more complex and inclusive of more types of groups who don’t fit the traditional definition of shareholder-owned and shareholder-governed. Even true independent groups don’t look like they once did, adapting in ways like receiving funding from a range of investors or adding more employed physicians.

So our standard way of thinking—hospital-employed or independent—has become obsolete. It’s time for a more nuanced approach to a diversified market.

When the pace of investment and aggregation in the independent space picked up, we conceptualized the changes primarily in terms of funder: private equity, a health plan, a health system, or another independent group.

That made sense at the time because each type of funder was using similar methods to partner with groups—health systems acquired, private equity invested directly in the independent group, and so forth.

But the market has shifted such that remaining independent groups are both stronger and more committed to independence. So organizations who want to partner with these groups have had to refine and diversify their value propositions—and often times are doing so without all-out acquisition. For more information on themes within these funder organizations, see our companion blog.

We set out to make sense of an ever-changing independent physician landscape in a way that would make it easier to understand for both independent groups and for those who work with them. Instead of dividing the landscape by funder, we assessed organizations based on their level of autonomy vs. integration, their growth model, and their geographic reach.

The map above has five physician practice archetypes and is oriented around two axes: local to national and autonomy to integration. The four archetypes on the top are larger in scale than a traditional independent medical group, often moving regionally and then nationally.

The archetypes are also ordered based on the degree of physician and practice autonomy, with organizations on the right using more of an integrated and standardized model for care delivery and sharing a brand identity.

So far, we’ve tracked two types of trends within this landscape. First, independent groups partner with national archetypes in one of two ways. Either the groups continue to exist as both independent groups and as part of the corporate identity OR they get integrated into the corporate entity. The exception is that we have not seen national chains integrate existing medical groups—though they may in the future.

The other trend we have seen is the evolution of some of these archetypes. We currently see service partners in the market shift to look more like coalitions. We assume we may see coalitions that start to look more like aggregators, and we know many aggregators have ambitions to function more like national chains. 

Below you will find a brief description of each archetype as well as a more robust table of key characteristics.

Definitions of physician archetypes

Independent medical group

Independent medical groups are traditional shareholder-owned, shareholder-governed practices. They are governed by a board of physician shareholders, and shareholders derive direct profits from the group.

Service partner

A service partner is an organization whose primary ambition is to make profits through providing a service, such as technology, data, or billing infrastructure, to physician groups. This type of partner may create some sort of alignment between practices since it sells to like-minded practices (e.g., those deep in value-based care, within the same specialty), but that alignment is more of a byproduct than the primary goal.

Coalition

Coalitions are formed from physician practices who want to get benefits of scale without giving up any individual autonomy. They join a national organization to share resources, data, and/or knowledge, but each practice also retains its individual local identity and branding. Common coalition models include IPAs, ACOs, and membership models.

Aggregator

Aggregators are the most traditional approach to getting scale from independent medical groups. They acquire practices and usually employ their physicians. The range of aggregators is very diverse. It includes health plans, health systems, private equity investors, and independent medical groups who have shifted to become aggregators themselves.

National chain

We have historically referred to national chains as disruptors, but that name is inclusive of many organizations who are not physician practices and what qualifies as “disruptive” is ever-changing—so we needed a new name that better suited these groups. National chains are corporate organizations who develop a model (e.g., consumerism, value-based care, virtual health) and bring that model to scale, usually by building new practices or hiring new providers. These are highly integrated organizations, with each new location using the same care delivery model and infrastructure.

As the independent physician landscape evolves, it has implications not only for independent groups but for those who work with them. We hope that a shared terminology helps bridge some of the gaps in understanding this complex landscape.

For those who partner with independent groups, we’d suggest reading our companion blog for our take on the three biggest funders and questions to ask yourself to work successful with today’s physician groups.

Private equity as an enabler of Boomer doctor retirements

https://mailchi.mp/13ef4dd36d77/the-weekly-gist-august-27-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

How Much Money Does a Doctor Need to Retire? — Finity Group, LLC

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 a demographic 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.

Primary Care Faces Existential Threat Over Healthcare Workforce Woes

40% of primary care clinicians worry that the field won’t exist in five years as many in the healthcare workforce experience burnout and plan to leave the field.

 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, told RevCycleIntelligence 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.