An overhaul for Medicare’s pay transformation program

The Biden administration is trying to jump start a Medicare program that pays health providers based on patient outcomes rather than by how many services they perform.

Why it matters: The alternative payment effort was created through the Affordable Care Act, but participation has plateaued since 2018 amid waning interest from providers.

Driving the news: The Biden administration finalized an overhaul of the initiative, known as the Medicare Shared Savings Program, on Tuesday. Changes include offering groups of providers in rural and other underserved areas upfront payments to help them start out in the program.

  • The rule includes other provisions to make it less financial risky for provider groups to join, and makes it easier for participants to earn money back from the government year after year — a central perk of joining the program.

Zoom out: Medicare traditionally pays on a “fee-for-service” basis pegged to the number of patients seen and volume of procedures performed.

  • But one of the main funding sources for Medicare is set to run dry in 2028 if the federal government doesn’t make changes. Advocates say the solution at least partially lies in value-based care programs, like the Shared Savings Program.
  • Under the program, doctors, hospitals and other providers join form groups known as accountable care organizations. ACOs take responsibility for the care of a set of traditional Medicare patients.
  • If ACOs reduce total care costs for their members, they can get back a portion of that savings from the government. ACOs at more advanced stages of the program must pay the government back if total patient spending crosses a threshold.

By the numbers: ACOs have saved the federal government more than $17 billion since 2012, according to the National Association of Accountable Care Organizations.

  • In 2022, 483 ACOs participated in the program and took care of more than 11 million Medicare enrollees. But that’s down from 517 ACOs participating in 2020.
  • CMS set a goal last year to bring all 63 million-plus Medicare beneficiaries into a value-based care model by 2030. ACOs are a key player in achieving the goal.

Go deeper: Providers and value-based care advocates are also pushing Congress to extend a 5% pay bump for providers that participate in advanced alternative payment models, including some tracks of the Medicare Shared Savings Program. The bonus expires Dec. 31.

  • “If the bonus is not continued, it will soften or dampen the momentum toward alternative payment models, because it would create this mentality, or the view, that we’re not serious about that transformation,” said Mara McDermott, vice president at McDermott+Consulting and executive director of the Value Based Care Coalition.
  • Losing the bonus would also make it harder to recruit new providers into alternative payment models, she added.
  • The American Medical Association and five other health care groups launched a separate coalition Tuesday to rally around an extension of the 5% bonus.
  • “Patients and the healthcare system in the United States quite literally cannot afford to return to the days before Medicare incentivized healthcare providers for generating good results,” Clif Gaus, CEO of the National Association of ACOs, said in a news release about the coalition.

Also notable: The rule finalized Tuesday outlines physician payment rates for 2023. Interventional radiologists and vascular surgeons will see the largest Medicare cuts among physician specialties next year, though the final cuts are slightly lower than what CMS proposed in July.

  • Congress could stave off the cuts when they come back to Washington later this month.
  • “The Medicare payment schedule released today puts Congress on notice that a nearly 4.5 percent across-the-board reduction in payment rates is an ominous reality unless lawmakers act before Jan. 1,” American Medical Association President Jack Resneck said in a statement.
  • CMS finalized a slew of other policy proposals Tuesday, including provisions to reduce barriers to behavioral health care.

Still a long way away from real “value” 

https://mailchi.mp/cd392de550e2/the-weekly-gist-october-21-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

The belief that healthcare should, and would, transition from “volume to value” was a key pillar of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). However, with more than a decade of experience and data to consider, there is little indication that either Medicare or the healthcare industry at large has meaningfully shifted away from fee-for-service payment. Using data from the National Association of Accountable Care Organizations, the graphic below shows that the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP)—the largest of the ACA’s payment innovations, with over 500 accountable care organizations (ACOs) reaching 11M assigned beneficiaries—has led to minimal savings for Medicare. In its first eight years, MSSP saved Medicare only $3.4B, or a paltry 0.06 percent, of the $5.6T that it spent over that time.  
 
Policymakers had hoped that a Medicare-led move to value would prompt commercial payers to follow suit, but that also hasn’t happened. The proportion of payment to health systems in capitated or other risk-based arrangements barely budged from 2013 to 2020—remaining negligible for most organizations, and rarely amounting to enough to influence strategy. The proportion of risk-based payment for doctors is slightly higher, but still far below what is needed to enable wholesale change in care across a practice.

While Medicare has other options if it wants to increase value-based payment, like making ACOs mandatory, it’s harder to see how the trend in commercial payment will improve, as large payers, who are buying up scores of care delivery assets themselves, seem to have little motivation to deal providers in on risk. 

While financial upside of moving to risk hasn’t been significant enough to move the market to date, we aren’t suggesting health systems throw out their population management playbook—to meet mounting cost labor pressures, systems must deliver lower cost care, in lower cost settings, with lower cost staff, just to maintain economic viability moving forward.

Health Panel recommends Regular Anxiety Screenings for Adults

https://mailchi.mp/e60a8f8b8fee/the-weekly-gist-september-23-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

The US Preventative Services Task Force, which is appointed by an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services, issued draft guidance this week recommending that all adults under age 65 be screened for symptoms of anxiety disorders.

The panel made a similar recommendation for children and teenagers earlier this year. COVID accelerated an already widespread mental health crisis, with the prevalence of anxiety and depression increasing by 25 percent globally during the first year of the pandemic. The panel’s recommendations are not mandatory, but carry strong influence over primary care physician practices. Draft guidance will be finalized in the coming months after a review of public comments.

The Gist: Policymakers and providers are right to respond to the population-wide increase in anxiety and depression brought on by COVID, and regular screenings will surely help quantify the scope of a problem we’re now facing.

However, given our nation’s undersupply of behavioral health practitioners, widespread screenings are likely to unleash a flood of demand that traditional providers will struggle to meet. Given virtual care’s staying power in the behavioral health space, we hope that the inevitable wave of mental health diagnoses will be matched with innovative care models designed to treat this growing issue at scale.

JP Morgan Chase’s Morgan Health invests $30M in Centivo

https://mailchi.mp/efa24453feeb/the-weekly-gist-july-22-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

Centivo, a Buffalo, New York-based health plan administrator for self-funded employers, has clients in 13 states. Founded in 2019, the company works with national and mid-market employers and health system partners to deliver a consumer-forward, access-driven model, creating customized provider networks that include free primary care and an unlimited virtual care option.

The company aims to reduce consumer out-of-pocket exposure and overall employee healthcare costs by identifying and partnering with high-performing providers in each market it serves. Using this model, Centivo is able to lower costs for self-insured employers by at least 15 percent compared to traditional insurers, through narrow networks with low-cost, high-quality providers.

Morgan Health, which has styled itself as a private sector version of Medicare’s innovation center, has invested $85M in companies that look to transform employer-sponsored healthcare—taking stakes in Seattle-based primary-care company Vera Whole Health and Nashville-based Embold Health, in addition to Centivo.  

The Gist: We’ve had the opportunity to work directly with the Centivo team since its early days, as outside advisors. We’ve been continually impressed by the company’s success in navigating the complicated landscape of self-funded employers, broker relationships, and incumbent health systems. 

The “ground war” of piecing together these bespoke offerings for employers stands in stark contrast to the approach of traditional payers, who simply aggregate scale and rely on brute-force pricing leverage to manage employer cost trend. 

It’s also an interesting juxtaposition to Amazon and other “disruptors”, who bring a relatively naïve, Silicon Valley view to healthcare, and often find themselves frustrated by just how hard it is to drive change amid overwhelming complexity.   

The missing Americans: early death in the United States 1933-2021

Figure. Excess deaths in the U.S. relative to other wealthy nations, 1933-2021. Source: Human Mortality Database. Note: Figure shows the difference between the number of deaths that occurred in the U.S. each year and the number of deaths that would have occurred if the U.S. had age-specific mortality rates equal to the average of other wealthy nations. The comparison set includes Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The average of other wealthy nations excludes Portugal prior to 1940, Austria and Japan prior to 1947, Germany prior to 1956, and Luxembourg prior to 1960. From 1960, all countries are represented (solid dots).

COVID-19 led to a large increase in U.S. deaths. However, even before the pandemic, the U.S. had higher death rates than other wealthy nations. How many deaths could be avoided if the U.S. had the same mortality rates as its peers?

In a new study, we quantify the annual number of U.S. deaths that would have been averted over nearly a century if the U.S. had age-specific mortality rates equal to the average of 18 similarly wealthy nations. We refer to these excess U.S. deaths as “missing Americans.”

The annual number of “missing Americans” increased steadily beginning in the late 1970s, reaching 626,353 in 2019 (Figure). Excess U.S. deaths jumped sharply to 991,868 in 2020 and 1,092,293 in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, nearly 1 out of every 3 U.S. deaths would have been averted if U.S. mortality rates had equaled those of its peer nations. Half of these excess deaths were among U.S. residents under 65 years. We estimate that the 1.1M excess deaths in 2021 were associated with 25M years of life lost, accounting for the number of years the deceased would otherwise be expected to live.

We also compared mortality rates of U.S. racial and ethnic groups with the international benchmark. Black and Native Americans accounted for a disproportionate share of the “missing Americans.” However, the majority of “missing Americans” were White non-Hispanic persons.

Our findings are consistent with recent reports that the life expectancy gap between the U.S. and peer nations widened during the pandemic, with U.S. life expectancy falling from 78.9 to 76.6 years. Life expectancy is widely reported, but it is a complex measure and may be misinterpreted as reflecting small differences in mortality at advanced ages.

In fact, the greatest relative differences in mortality between the U.S. and peer countries occur before age 65. In 2021, half of all deaths to U.S. residents under 65 years – and 90% of the increase in under-65 mortality since 2019 – would have been avoided if the U.S. had the mortality rates of other wealthy nations. In addition to the loss of life, these early deaths often leave behind child (and elder) dependents without key social and economic support.

Our calculations were based on recently released mortality data, obtained from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention WONDER Database and the Human Mortality Database. The international comparison group included all available countries with relatively complete mortality data starting in 1960 or earlier, after excluding former communist countries. Our paper builds on prior analyses of excess deaths by our study team and by others.

We find a very large increase in excess U.S. deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this spike occurred on top of a growing trend that reached 600,000 excess deaths in 2019. Future COVID-19 deaths could be reduced with broader vaccine uptake, worker protections, and masking during surges. Even if COVID-19 mortality were eliminated, however, the U.S. would likely suffer hundreds of thousands of excess deaths each year, with many linked to firearms, opioids, and obesity.

Addressing excess deaths in the U.S. will require public health and social policies that target the root causes of U.S. health malaise, including fading economic opportunities and rising financial insecurity, structural racism, and failures of institutions at all levels of government to invest adequately in population health.

Podcast: All Healthcare Is Politics?

Does Your Vote Affect Your Healthcare?

What role should the federal government play in addressing major healthcare issues? And does the way you vote affect your prospects for a long and healthy life? We talked about it on today’s episode of the 4sight Friday Roundup podcast.

  • David Johnson is CEO of 4sight Health.
  • Julie Vaughan Murchinson is Partner of Transformation Capital and former CEO of Health Evolution.
  • David Burda is News Editor and Columnist of 4sight Health.

Subscribe on Apple PodcastsSpotify, and other services.

Becoming a healthcare platform

https://mailchi.mp/d73a73774303/the-weekly-gist-may-27-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

As we’ve been discussing over the past few years, several environmental forces—shifting consumer behavior, evolving demographics, new technology, and a flood of new market entrants—are pushing health systems to adopt a more consumer-centric business model. Systems must develop the capabilities needed to create an omnichannel consumer loyalty and population management platform. This platform will be the foundation for connecting consumers, curating providers, and coordinating care.
 
To achieve this vision, health systems must deliver value across two dimensions: increasing their proximity to the consumer (our y-axis) and their proximity to the premium dollar (our x-axis), as shown in the graphic above. Traditionally, health systems have operated primarily in the lower-left quadrant, as “care suppliers.” Some have spent considerable time and resources across the last decade, pushing closer to the premium dollar, to become “population managers.” But, importantly, managing population health is neither patient-facing, nor something consumers demand and seek.

To build deeper consumer loyalty, health systems must also move up the y-axis, creating a “care ecosystem” that provides “anywhere, anytime” care through multiple channels, including virtual and home-based solutions. And for certain populations, like Medicare Advantage, it will make sense for many systems to also explore becoming the “premium owner”, owning the full care budget and ensuring the incentives to design a consumer-centric offering. 

The ideal health system platform should combine all four of these identities, tailored to the local market situation.

Payers discuss Medicare Advantage (MA) misses at JP Morgan healthcare conference

https://mailchi.mp/92a96980a92f/the-weekly-gist-january-14-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

2021 JP Morgan Healthcare Conference | Zoetis

Large insurers Humana and Cigna, along with “insurtech” startups Bright Health and Alignment Healthcare, all lowered expectations for their MA membership growth after missing 2022 enrollment targets. The companies blamed fierce competition for the nation’s estimated 29.5M MA lives, and highlighted a focus on diversifying revenue through other business arms like healthcare delivery and service sales.    

The Gist: Insurers’ missed expectations are leading some to question whether the MA market is beginning to weaken, but these concerns are overblown, with last fall’s enrollment affected by the pandemic, which hindered brokers’ ability to reach seniors. 

Some MA-focused startups are finding challenges in their attempts to scale, and their stock prices will continue to retreat from the lofty valuations that drove their public offerings.

Insurers still have plenty of running room to grow their MA books of business, but will face increasing scrutiny of their ability to manage patients and control costs for the aging population.

America Is Not Ready for Omicron

America was not prepared for COVID-19 when it arrived. It was not prepared for last winter’s surge. It was not prepared for Delta’s arrival in the summer or its current winter assault. More than 1,000 Americans are still dying of COVID every day, and more have died this year than last. Hospitalizations are rising in 42 states. The University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, which entered the pandemic as arguably the best-prepared hospital in the country, recently went from 70 COVID patients to 110 in four days, leaving its staff “grasping for resolve,” the virologist John Lowe told me. And now comes Omicron.

Will the new and rapidly spreading variant overwhelm the U.S. health-care system? The question is moot because the system is already overwhelmed, in a way that is affecting all patients, COVID or otherwise. “The level of care that we’ve come to expect in our hospitals no longer exists,” Lowe said.

The real unknown is what an Omicron cross will do when it follows a Delta hook. Given what scientists have learned in the three weeks since Omicron’s discovery, “some of the absolute worst-case scenarios that were possible when we saw its genome are off the table, but so are some of the most hopeful scenarios,” Dylan Morris, an evolutionary biologist at UCLA, told me. In any case, America is not prepared for Omicron. The variant’s threat is far greater at the societal level than at the personal one, and policy makers have already cut themselves off from the tools needed to protect the populations they serve. Like the variants that preceded it, Omicron requires individuals to think and act for the collective good—which is to say, it poses a heightened version of the same challenge that the U.S. has failed for two straight years, in bipartisan fashion.

The coronavirus is a microscopic ball studded with specially shaped spikes that it uses to recognize and infect our cells. Antibodies can thwart such infections by glomming onto the spikes, like gum messing up a key. But Omicron has a crucial advantage: 30-plus mutations that change the shape of its spike and disable many antibodies that would have stuck to other variants. One early study suggests that antibodies in vaccinated people are about 40 times worse at neutralizing Omicron than the original virus, and the experts I talked with expect that, as more data arrive, that number will stay in the same range. The implications of that decline are still uncertain, but three simple principles should likely hold.

First, the bad news: In terms of catching the virus, everyone should assume that they are less protected than they were two months ago. As a crude shorthand, assume that Omicron negates one previous immunizing event—either an infection or a vaccine dose. Someone who considered themselves fully vaccinated in September would be just partially vaccinated now (and the official definition may change imminently). But someone who’s been boosted has the same ballpark level of protection against Omicron infection as a vaccinated-but-unboosted person did against Delta. The extra dose not only raises a recipient’s level of antibodies but also broadens their range, giving them better odds of recognizing the shape of even Omicron’s altered spike. In a small British study, a booster effectively doubled the level of protection that two Pfizer doses provided against Omicron infection.

Second, some worse news: Boosting isn’t a foolproof shield against Omicron. In South Africa, the variant managed to infect a cluster of seven people who were all boosted. And according to a CDC report, boosted Americans made up a third of the first known Omicron cases in the U.S. “People who thought that they wouldn’t have to worry about infection this winter if they had their booster do still have to worry about infection with Omicron,” Trevor Bedford, a virologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told me. “I’ve been going to restaurants and movies, and now with Omicron, that will change.”

Third, some better news: Even if Omicron has an easier time infecting vaccinated individuals, it should still have more trouble causing severe disease. The vaccines were always intended to disconnect infection from dangerous illness, turning a life-threatening event into something closer to a cold. Whether they’ll fulfill that promise for Omicron is a major uncertainty, but we can reasonably expect that they will. The variant might sneak past the initial antibody blockade, but slower-acting branches of the immune system (such as T cells) should eventually mobilize to clear it before it wreaks too much havoc.

To see how these principles play out in practice, Dylan Morris suggests watching highly boosted places, such as Israel, and countries where severe epidemics and successful vaccination campaigns have given people layers of immunity, such as Brazil and Chile. In the meantime, it’s reasonable to treat Omicron as a setback but not a catastrophe for most vaccinated people. It will evade some of our hard-won immune defenses, without obliterating them entirely. “It was better than I expected, given the mutational profile,” Alex Sigal of the Africa Health Research Institute, who led the South African antibody study, told me. “It’s not going to be a common cold, but neither do I think it will be a tremendous monster.”

That’s for individuals, though. At a societal level, the outlook is bleaker.

Omicron’s main threat is its shocking speed, as my colleague Sarah Zhang has reported. In South Africa, every infected person has been passing the virus on to 3–3.5 other people—at least twice the pace at which Delta spread in the summer. Similarly, British data suggest that Omicron is twice as good at spreading within households as Delta. That might be because the new variant is inherently more transmissible than its predecessors, or because it is specifically better at moving through vaccinated populations. Either way, it has already overtaken Delta as the dominant variant in South Africa. Soon, it will likely do the same in Scotland and Denmark. Even the U.S., which has much poorer genomic surveillance than those other countries, has detected Omicron in 35 states. “I think that a large Omicron wave is baked in,” Bedford told me. “That’s going to happen.”

More positively, Omicron cases have thus far been relatively mild. This pattern has fueled the widespread claim that the variant might be less severe, or even that its rapid spread could be a welcome development. “People are saying ‘Let it rip’ and ‘It’ll help us build more immunity,’ that this is the exit wave and everything’s going to be fine and rosy after,” Richard Lessells, an infectious-disease physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa, told me. “I have no confidence in that.”

To begin with, as he and others told me, that argument overlooks a key dynamic: Omicron might not actually be intrinsically milder. In South Africa and the United Kingdom, it has mostly infected younger people, whose bouts of COVID-19 tend to be less severe. And in places with lots of prior immunity, it might have caused few hospitalizations or deaths simply because it has mostly infected hosts with some protection, as Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at Emory University, explained in a Twitter thread. That pattern could change once it reaches more vulnerable communities. (The widespread notion that viruses naturally evolve to become less virulent is mistaken, as the virologist Andrew Pekosz of Johns Hopkins University clarified in The New York Times.) Also, deaths and hospitalizations are not the only fates that matter. Supposedly “mild” bouts of COVID-19 have led to cases of long COVID, in which people struggle with debilitating symptoms for months (or even years), while struggling to get care or disability benefits.

And even if Omicron is milder, greater transmissibility will likely trump that reduced virulence. Omicron is spreading so quickly that a small proportion of severe cases could still flood hospitals. To avert that scenario, the variant would need to be substantially milder than Delta—especially because hospitals are already at a breaking point. Two years of trauma have pushed droves of health-care workers, including many of the most experienced and committed, to quit their job. The remaining staff is ever more exhausted and demoralized, and “exceptionally high numbers” can’t work because they got breakthrough Delta infections and had to be separated from vulnerable patients, John Lowe told me. This pattern will only worsen as Omicron spreads, if the large clusters among South African health-care workers are any indication. “In the West, we’ve painted ourselves into a corner because most countries have huge Delta waves and most of them are stretched to the limit of their health-care systems,” Emma Hodcroft, an epidemiologist at the University of Bern, in Switzerland, told me. “What happens if those waves get even bigger with Omicron?”

The Omicron wave won’t completely topple America’s wall of immunity but will seep into its many cracks and weaknesses. It will find the 39 percent of Americans who are still not fully vaccinated (including 28 percent of adults and 13 percent of over-65s). It will find other biologically vulnerable people, including elderly and immunocompromised individuals whose immune systems weren’t sufficiently girded by the vaccines. It will find the socially vulnerable people who face repeated exposures, either because their “essential” jobs leave them with no choice or because they live in epidemic-prone settings, such as prisons and nursing homes. Omicron is poised to speedily recap all the inequities that the U.S. has experienced in the pandemic thus far.

Here, then, is the problem: People who are unlikely to be hospitalized by Omicron might still feel reasonably protected, but they can spread the virus to those who are more vulnerable, quickly enough to seriously batter an already collapsing health-care system that will then struggle to care for anyone—vaccinated, boosted, or otherwise. The collective threat is substantially greater than the individual one. And the U.S. is ill-poised to meet it.

America’s policy choices have left it with few tangible options for averting an Omicron wave. Boosters can still offer decent protection against infection, but just 17 percent of Americans have had those shots. Many are now struggling to make appointments, and people from rural, low-income, and minority communities will likely experience the greatest delays, “mirroring the inequities we saw with the first two shots,” Arrianna Marie Planey, a medical geographer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told me. With a little time, the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna could be updated, but “my suspicion is that once we have an Omicron-specific booster, the wave will be past,” Trevor Bedford, the virologist, said.

Two antiviral drugs now exist that could effectively keep people out of the hospital, but neither has been authorized and both are expensive. Both must also be administered within five days of the first symptoms, which means that people need to realize they’re sick and swiftly confirm as much with a test. But instead of distributing rapid tests en masse, the Biden administration opted to merely make them reimbursable through health insurance. “That doesn’t address the need where it is greatest,” Planey told me. Low-wage workers, who face high risk of infection, “are the least able to afford tests up front and the least likely to have insurance,” she said. And testing, rapid or otherwise, is about to get harder, as Omicron’s global spread strains both the supply of reagents and the capacity of laboratories.

Omicron may also be especially difficult to catch before it spreads to others, because its incubation period—the window between infection and symptoms—seems to be very short. At an Oslo Christmas party, almost three-quarters of attendees were infected even though all reported a negative test result one to three days before. That will make Omicron “harder to contain,” Lowe told me. “It’s really going to put a lot of pressure on the prevention measures that are still in place—or rather, the complete lack of prevention that’s still in place.”

The various measures that controlled the spread of other variants—masks, better ventilation, contact tracing, quarantine, and restrictions on gatherings—should all theoretically work for Omicron too. But the U.S. has either failed to invest in these tools or has actively made it harder to use them. Republican legislators in at least 26 states have passed laws that curtail the very possibility of quarantines and mask mandates. In September, Alexandra Phelan of Georgetown University told me that when the next variant comes, such measures could create “the worst of all worlds” by “removing emergency actions, without the preventive care that would allow people to protect their own health.” Omicron will test her prediction in the coming weeks.

The longer-term future is uncertain. After Delta’s emergence, it became clear that the coronavirus was too transmissible to fully eradicate. Omicron could potentially shunt us more quickly toward a different endgameendemicitythe point when humanity has gained enough immunity to hold the virus in a tenuous stalemate—albeit at significant cost. But more complicated futures are also plausible. For example, if Omicron and Delta are so different that each can escape the immunity that the other induces, the two variants could co-circulate. (That’s what happened with the viruses behind polio and influenza B.)

Omicron also reminds us that more variants can still arise—and stranger ones than we might expect. Most scientists I talked with figured the next one to emerge would be a descendant of Delta, featuring a few more mutational bells and whistles. Omicron, however, is “dramatically different,” Shane Crotty, from the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, told me. “It showed a lot more evolutionary potential than I or others had hoped for.” It evolved not from Delta but from older lineages of SARS-CoV-2, and seems to have acquired its smorgasbord of mutations in some hidden setting: perhaps a part of the world that does very little sequencing, or an animal species that was infected by humans and then transmitted the virus back to us, or the body of an immunocompromised patient who was chronically infected with the virus. All of these options are possible, but the people I spoke with felt that the third—the chronically ill patient—was most likely. And if that’s the case, with millions of immunocompromised people in the U.S. alone, many of whom feel overlooked in the vaccine era, will more weird variants keep arising? Omicron “doesn’t look like the end of it,” Crotty told me. One cause for concern: For all the mutations in Omicron’s spike, it actually has fewer mutations in the rest of its proteins than Delta did. The virus might still have many new forms to take.

Vaccinating the world can curtail those possibilities, and is now an even greater matter of moral urgency, given Omicron’s speed. And yet, people in rich countries are getting their booster six times faster than those in low-income countries are getting their first shot. Unless the former seriously commits to vaccinating the world—not just donating doses, but allowing other countries to manufacture and disseminate their own supplies—“it’s going to be a very expensive wild-goose chase until the next variant,” Planey said.

Vaccines can’t be the only strategy, either. The rest of the pandemic playbook remains unchanged and necessary: paid sick leave and other policies that protect essential workers, better masks, improved ventilation, rapid tests, places where sick people can easily isolate, social distancing, a stronger public-health system, and ways of retaining the frayed health-care workforce. The U.S. has consistently dropped the ball on many of these, betting that vaccines alone could get us out of the pandemic. Rather than trying to beat the coronavirus one booster at a time, the country needs to do what it has always needed to do—build systems and enact policies that protect the health of entire communities, especially the most vulnerable ones

Individualism couldn’t beat Delta, it won’t beat Omicron, and it won’t beat the rest of the Greek alphabet to come.

Self-interest is self-defeating, and as long as its hosts ignore that lesson, the virus will keep teaching it.

Intermountain, SCL Health to create $11B system 

https://mailchi.mp/72a9d343926a/the-weekly-gist-september-24-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Trends In Hospital and Health System Marketing in a Rapidly Consolidating  Industry - Hirsch Healthcare Consulting

Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare announced plans to merge with Broomfield, CO-based SCL Health to form a 33-hospital, $11B dollar system working in six states. The combined system will keep the Intermountain name, be based in Salt Lake City, and be led by Intermountain CEO Dr. Marc Harrison.

Harrison said that the merger will accelerate the evolution toward population health and value, and “swiftly advance that cause across a broader geography”—a similar value proposition to the system’s previously proposed combination with South Dakota-based Sanford Health, which fell apart last December after Sanford’s CEO stepped down following his controversial comments about mask-wearing.

Intermountain has long been regarded as a national leader in clinical quality, and its integrated payer-provider approach is often cited as a model for US healthcare. The merger with SCL Health will enable expansion of its SelectHealth insurance plan and integrated care model into Colorado, Montana and Kansas, including the fast-growing Denver metropolitan area, making the combined system a formidable player across the Mountain West.

But as we’ve written before, achieving that vision will require a level of integration not often realized in similar mergers, and the burden of proof is on health systems to demonstrate that the merger will create meaningful value for patients and consumers.

We’ll be watching closely to better understand their plans for lowering costs and improving access and quality for patients across the region.