The No. 1 lesson from the 2021 JP Morgan Healthcare Conference: Healthcare is ‘too vital to fail’

Chronic Conditions | HENRY KOTULA

The annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference is one of the best ways to diagnose the financial condition of the healthcare industry. Every January, every key stakeholder — providers, payers, pharmaceutical companies, tech companies, medical device and supply companies as well as bankers, venture capital and private equity firms — comes together in one exam room, even when it is virtual, for their annual check-up. But as we all know, this January is unlike any other as this past year has been unlike any other year.

You would have to go back to the banking crisis of 2008 to find a similar moment from an economic perspective. At the time, we were asking, “Are banks too big to fail?” The concern behind the question was that if they did fail, the economic chaos that would follow would lead to a collapse with the consumer ultimately picking up the tab. The rest is history.

Healthcare is “Too Vital to Fail” 

2020 was historic in too many ways to count. But in a year when healthcare providers faced the worst financial crisis in the history of healthcare, the headline is that they are still standing. And what they proved is that in contrast to banks in 2008 that were seen by many as “too big to fail,” healthcare providers in 2020 proved that they were “too vital to fail.” 

One of the many unique things about the COVID-19 pandemic is we are simultaneously experiencing a health crisis, where healthcare providers are the front line in the battle, and an economic crisis, felt in a big way in healthcare given the unique role hospitals play as the largest employer in most communities. Hospitals and health systems have done the vast majority of testing, treating, monitoring, counseling, educating and vaccinating all while searching for PPE and ventilators, and conducting clinical trials. And that’s just the beginning of the list.

Stop and think about that for a minute. What would we have done without them? Thinking through that question will give you some appreciation for the critical, challenging and central role that healthcare providers have had to play over the past year.

Simply stated, healthcare providers are the heart of healthcare, both clinically (essentially 100 percent of the care) and financially (over 50 percent of the $4 trillion annual spend on U.S. healthcare). Over the last year they stepped up and they stepped in at the moment where we needed them the most. This was despite the fact that, like most businesses, they were experiencing calamitous losses with no assurances of any assistance. 

Healthcare is “Pandemic-Proof”

This was absolutely the worst-case scenario and the biggest test possible for our nation’s healthcare delivery system. Patient volume and therefore revenue dropped by over 50 percent when the panic of the pandemic was at its peak, driving over $60 billion in losses per month across hospitals and healthcare providers. At the same time, they were dramatically increasing their expenses with PPE, ventilators and additional staff. This was not heading in a good direction. While failure may not have been seen as an option, it was clearly a possibility. 

The CARES Act clearly provided a temporary lifeline, providing funding for our nation’s hospitals to weather the storm. While there are more challenging times ahead, it is now clear that most are going to make it to the other side. The system of care in our country is often criticized, but when faced with perhaps the most challenging moment in the history of healthcare, our nation’s hospitals and health systems stepped up heroically and performed miraculously. The work of our healthcare providers on the front line and those who supported them was and is one thing that we all should be exceptionally proud of and thankful for. In 2020, they proved that not only is our nation’s healthcare system too vital to fail, but also that it is “pandemic proof.” 

Listening to Front Line at the 2021 J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference 

There has never been a more important year to listen to the lessons from healthcare providers. They are and were the front line of our fight against COVID-19. If there was a class given about how to deal with a pandemic at an institutional level, this conference is where those lessons were being taught.  

This year at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, CEOs, and CFOs from many of the most prestigious and most well-respected health systems in the world presented including AdventHealth, Advocate Aurora Health, Ascension, Baylor Scott & White Health, CommonSpirit Health, Henry Ford Health System, Intermountain Healthcare, Jefferson Health, Mass General Brigham, Northwell Health, OhioHealth, Prisma Health, ProMedica Health System, Providence, Spectrum Health and SSM Health.

I’ve been in healthcare for 30 years and this is my fifth year of writing up the summary of the non-profit provider track of the conference for Becker’s Healthcare to help share the wisdom of the crowd of provider organizations that share their stories. Clearly, this year was different and not because the presentations were virtual, but because they were inspirational. 

What did we learn? The good news is that they have made many changes that have the potential to move healthcare in a much better direction and to get to a better place much faster. So, this year instead of providing you a nugget from each presentation, I am going to take a shot at summarizing what they collectively have in motion to stay vital after COVID.

10 Moves Healthcare Providers are Making to Stay Vital After-COVID

As a leader in healthcare, you will never have a bigger opportunity to drive change than right now. Smart leaders are framing this as essentially “before-COVID (BC)” and “after-COVID (AC)” and using this moment as their burning platform to drive change. Credit to the team at Providence for the acronym, but every CEO talked about this concept. As the saying goes, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” Well, we’ve certainly had a crisis, so here is a list of what the top health systems are doing to ensure that they don’t waste it and that they stay vital after-COVID:

1. Take Care of Your Team and They’ll Take Care of You: In a crisis, you can either come together as a team or fall apart. Clearly there has been a significant and stunning amount of pressure on healthcare providers. Many are fearing that mental health might be our nation’s next pandemic in the near future because they are seeing it right now with their own team. Perhaps one of their biggest lessons from this crisis has been the need to address the mental, physical and spiritual health of both team members as well as providers. They have put programs in place to help and have also built a tremendous amount of trust with their team by, in many cases, not laying off and/or furloughing employees. While they have made cuts in other areas such as benefits, this collective approach proved incredibly beneficial. And the last point here that relates to thinking differently about their team is that similar to other businesses, many health systems are making remote arrangements permanent for certain administrative roles and moving to a flexible approach regarding their team and their space in the future. 

2. Focus on Health Equity, Not Just Health Care: This was perhaps the most notable and encouraging change from presentations in past years at J.P. Morgan. I have been going to the conference for over a decade, and I’ve never heard someone mention this term or outline their efforts on “health equity” — this year, nearly everyone did. In the past, they have outlined many wonderful programs on “social determinants of health,” but this year they have seen the disproportionate impact of COVID on low-income communities bringing the ongoing issue of racial disparities in access to care and outcomes to light. As the bedrock of employment in their community, this provides an opportunity to not just provide health care, but also health equity, taking an active role to help make progress on issues like hunger, homelessness, and housing. Many are making significant investments in a number of these and other areas. 

3. Take the Lead in Public Health — the Message is the Medicine: One of the greatest failings of COVID, perhaps the greatest lesson learned, is the need for clear and consistent messaging from a public health perspective. That is a role that healthcare providers can and should play. In the pandemic, it represented the greatest opportunity to save lives as the essence of public health is communication — the message is the medicine. A number of health systems stepped into this opportunity to build trust and to build their brand, which are essentially one in the same. Some organizations have created a new role — a Chief Community Health Officer — which is a good way to capture the work that is in motion relative to social determinants of health as well as health equity. Many understand the opportunity here and will take the lead relative to vaccine distribution as clear messaging to build confidence is clearly needed.

4. Make the Home and Everywhere a Venue of Care: A number of presenters stated that “COVID didn’t change our strategy, it accelerated it.” For the most part, they were referring to virtual visits, which increased dramatically now representing around 10 percent of their visits vs. 1 percent before-COVID. One presenter said, “Digital has been tested and perfected during COVID,” but that is only considering the role we see digital playing in this moment. It is clear some organizations have a very narrow tactical lens while others are looking at the opportunity much more strategically. For many, they are looking at a “care anywhere and everywhere” strategy. From a full “hospital in the home” approach to remote monitoring devices, it is clear that your home will be seen as a venue of care and an access point moving forward. The pandemic of 2020 may have sparked a new era of “post-hospital healthcare” — stay tuned.

5. Bury Your Budget and Pivot to Planning: The budget process has been a source of incredible distrust, dissatisfaction and distraction for every health system for decades. The chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic forced every organization to bury their budget last year. With that said, many of the organizations that presented are now making a permanent shift away from a “budget-based culture” where the focus is on hitting a now irrelevant target set that was set six to nine months ago to a “performance-based culture” where the focus is on making progress every day, week, month and quarter. Given that the traditional annual operating budget process has been the core of how health systems have operated, this shift to a rolling forecast and a more dynamic planning process is likely the single most substantial and permanent change in how hospitals and health systems operate due to COVID. In other words, it is arguably a much bigger headline than what’s happened with virtual visits.

6. Get Your M&A Machine in Motion: It was clear from the presentations that activity around acquisitions is going to return, perhaps significantly. These organizations have strong balance sheets and while the strong have gotten stronger during COVID, the weak have in many cases gotten weaker. Many are going to be opportunistic to acquire hospitals, but at the same time they have concluded that they can’t just be a system of care delivery. They are also focused on acquiring and investing in other types of entities as well as forming more robust partnerships to create new revenue streams. Organizations that already had diversified revenue streams in place came through this pandemic the best. Most hospitals are overly reliant on the ED and surgical volume. Trying to drive that volume in a value-based world, with the end of site of service differentials and the inpatient only list, will be an even bigger challenge in the future as new niche players enter the market. As I wrote in the headline of my summary two years ago,It’s the platform, stupid.” There are better ways to create a financial path forward that involve leveraging their assets — their platform — in new and creative ways. 

7. Hey, You, Get into the Cloud: With apologies for wrapping a Rolling Stones song into a conference summary, one of the main things touted during presentations was “the cloud” and their ability to pull clinical, operational and financial dashboards together to monitor the impact of COVID on their organization and organize their actions. Focus over the last decade has been on the clinical (implementing EHRs), but it is now shifting to “digitizing operations” with a focus on finance and operations (planning, cost accounting, ERPs, etc.) as well as advanced analytics and data science capabilities to automate, gather insight, manage and predict. It is clear that the cloud has moved from a curiosity to a necessity for health systems, making this one of the biggest areas of investment for every health system over the next decade.

8. Make Price Transparency a Key Differentiator: One of the great lessons from Amazon (and others) is that you can make a lot of money when you make something easy to buy. While many health systems are skeptical of the value of the price transparency requirements, those that have a deep understanding of both their true cost of care and margins are using this as an opportunity to prove their value and accelerate their strategy to become consumer-centric. While there is certainly a level of risk, no business has ever been unsuccessful because they made their product easier to understand and access. Because healthcare is so opaque, there is an opening for healthcare providers to build trust, which is their main asset, and volume, which is their main source of revenue, by becoming stunningly easy to do business with. This may be tough sledding for some as this isn’t something healthcare providers are known for. To understand this, spend a few minutes on Tesla’s website vs. Ford’s. The concept of making something easy, or hard, to buy will become crystal clear as fast as a battery-driven car can go from zero to 60.

9. Make Care More Affordable: This represents the biggest challenge for hospitals and health systems as they ultimately need to be on the right side of this issue or the trust that they have will disappear and they will remain very vulnerable to outside players. All are investing in advanced cost accounting systems (time-driven costing, physician costing, supply, and drug costing) to truly understand their cost and use that as a basis to price more strategically in the market. Some are dropping prices for shoppable services and using loss leader strategies to build their brand. The incoming Secretary of Health and Human Services has a strong belief regarding the accountability of health systems to be consumer centric. The health systems that understand this are working to get ahead of this issue as it is likely one of their most significant threats (or opportunities) over the next decade. This means getting all care to the right site of care, evaluating every opportunity to improve, and getting serious about eliminating the need for expensive care through building healthy communities. If you’re worried about Wal-Mart or Amazon, this is your secret weapon to keep them on the sideline.

10. Scale = Survival: One of the big lessons here is that the strong got stronger, the weak got weaker. For the strong, many have been able to “snapback” in financial performance because they were resilient. They were able to designate COVID-only facilities, while keeping others running at a higher capacity. To be clear, while most health systems are going to get to the other side and are positioned better than ever, there are many others that will continue to struggle for years to come. According to our data at Strata, we see 25 percent operating at negative margins right now and another 50 percent just above breakeven. They key to survival moving forward, for those that don’t have a captive market, will be scale. If this pandemic proved one thing relative to the future of health systems it is this — scale equals survival. 

When Will We Return to Normal?

Based on what the projections that these health systems shared, the “new normal” for health systems for the first half of 2021 will be roughly 95 percent of prior year inpatient volume with a 20 percent year-over-year drop in ED volume and a drop of 10-15 percent in observation visits. So, the pain will continue, but given the adjustments that were already made in 2020, it looks like they will be able to manage through COVID effectively. While there will be a pickup in the second half of 2021, the safe bet is that a “return to normal” pre-COVID volumes likely won’t occur until 2022. And there are some who believe that some of the volume should have never been there to begin with and we might see a permanent shift downward in ED volume as well as in some other areas.

With that said, I’ll steal a quote from Bert Zimmerli, the CFO of Intermountain Healthcare, who said, “Normal wasn’t ever nearly good enough in healthcare.” In that spirit, the goal should be to not return to normal, but rather to use this moment as an opportunity to take the positive changes driven by COVID — from technology to processes to areas of focus to a sense of responsibility — and make them permanent.

Thanking Our “Healthcare Heroes”

We’ll never see another 2020 again, hopefully. With that said, one of the silver linings of the year is everything we learned in healthcare. The most important lesson was this — in healthcare there are literally heroes everywhere. To each of them, I just want to say “thank you” for being there for us when we needed you the most. We should all be writing love letters to those on the front line who risked their lives to save others. Our nation’s healthcare system has taken a lot of criticism through the years from those on the outside, often with a blind eye to how things work in practice vs. in concept. But this year we all got to see first-hand what’s happening inside of healthcare — the heroic work of our healthcare providers and those who support them. 

They faced the worst crisis in the history of healthcare. They responded heroically and were there for our families and friends.

They proved that healthcare is too vital to fail. They proved that healthcare is pandemic-proof.

Thank you to our healthcare heroes.

What healthcare executives can expect under Biden presidency

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/hospital-management-administration/pwc-what-healthcare-executives-can-expect-under-biden-presidency.html?utm_medium=email

https://www.pwc.com/us/Biden2020healthagenda

President-elect Joe Biden’s healthcare agenda: building on the ACA, value-based care, and bringing down drug prices.

In many ways, Joe Biden is promising a return to the Obama administration’s approach to healthcare:

  • Building on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) through incremental expansions in government-subsidized coverage
  • Continuing CMS’ progress toward value-based care
  • Bringing down drug prices
  • Supporting modernization of the FDA

Bolder ideas, such as developing a public option, resolving “surprise billing,” allowing for negotiation of drug prices by Medicare, handing power to a third party to help set prices for some life sciences products, and raising the corporate tax rate, could be more challenging to achieve without overwhelming majorities in both the House and the Senate.

Biden is likely to mount an intensified federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, enlisting the Defense Production Act to compel companies to produce large quantities of tests and personal protective equipment as well as supporting ongoing deregulation around telehealth. The Biden administration also will likely return to global partnerships and groups such as the World Health Organization, especially in the area of vaccine development, production and distribution.

What can health industry executives expect from Biden’s healthcare proposals?

Broadly, healthcare executives can expect an administration with an expansionary agenda, looking to patch gaps in coverage for Americans, scrutinize proposed healthcare mergers and acquisitions more aggressively and use more of the government’s power to address the pandemic. Executives also can expect, in the event the ACA is struck down, moves by the Biden administration and Democratic lawmakers to develop a replacement. Healthcare executives should scenario plan for this unlikely yet potentially highly disruptive event, and plan for an administration marked by more certainty and continuity with the Obama years.

All healthcare organizations should prepare for the possibility that millions more Americans could gain insurance under Biden. His proposals, if enacted, would mean coverage for 97% of Americans, according to his campaign website. This could mean millions of new ACA customers for payers selling plans on the exchanges, millions of new Medicaid beneficiaries for managed care organizations, millions of newly insured patients for providers, and millions of covered customers for pharmaceutical and life sciences companies. The surge in insured consumers could mirror the swift uptake in the years following the passage of the ACA.

Biden’s plan to address the COVID-19 pandemic

Biden is expected to draw on his experience from H1N1 and the Ebola outbreaks to address the COVID-19 pandemic with a more active role for the federal government, which many Americans support. These actions could shore up the nation’s response in which the federal government largely served in a support role to local, state and private efforts.

Three notable exceptions have been the substantial federal funding for development of vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Congress’ aid packages and the rapid deregulatory actions taken by the FDA and CMS to clear a path for medical products to be enlisted for the pandemic and for providers, in particular, to be able to respond to it.

Implications of Biden’s 2020 health agenda on healthcare payers, providers and pharmaceutical and life sciences companies

The US health system has been slowly transforming for years into a New Health Economy that is more consumer-oriented, digital, virtual, open to new players from outside the industry and focused on wellness and prevention.  The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated some of those trends.  Once the dust from the election settles, companies that have invested in capabilities for growth and are moving forcefully toward the New Health Economy stand to gain disproportionately.

Shortages of clinicians and foreign medical students may continue to be an issue for a while

The Trump administration made limiting the flow of immigrants to the US a priority. The associated policy changes have the potential to exacerbate shortages of physicians, nurses and other healthcare workers, including medical students. These consequences have been aggravated by the pandemic, which dramatically curtailed travel into the US.

  • Healthcare organizations, especially rural ones heavily dependent on foreign-born employees, may find themselves competing fiercely for workers, paying higher salaries and having to rethink the structure of their workforces.
  • Providers should consider reengineering primary care teams to reflect the patients’ health status and preferences, along with the realities of the workforce on the ground and new opportunities in remote care.

Focus on modernizing the supply chain

Biden and lawmakers from both parties have been raising questions about life sciences’ supply chains. This focus has only intensified because of the pandemic and resulting shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), pharmaceuticals, diagnostic tests and other medical products.

  • Investment in advanced analytics and cybersecurity could allow manufacturers to avoid disruptive stockouts and shortages, and deliver on the promise of the right treatment to the right patient at the right time in the right place.

Drug pricing needs a long-term strategy

Presidents and lawmakers have been talking about drug prices for decades; few truly meaningful actions have been implemented. Biden has made drug pricing reform a priority.

  • Drug manufacturers may need to start looking past the next quarter to create a new pricing strategy that maximizes access in local markets through the use of data and analytics to engage in more value-based pricing arrangements.
  • New financing models may help patients get access to drugs, such as subscription models that provide unlimited access to a therapy at a flat rate.
  • Companies that prepare now to establish performance metrics and data analytics tools to track patient outcomes will be well prepared to offer payers more sustainable payment models, such as mortgage or payment over time contracts, avoiding the sticker shock that comes with these treatments and improving uptake at launch.
  • Pharmaceutical and life sciences companies will likely have to continue to offer tools for consumers like co-pay calculators and use the contracting process where possible to minimize out-of-pocket costs, which can improve adherence rates and health outcomes.

View interoperability as an opportunity to embrace, not a threat to avoid or ignore

While the pandemic delayed many of the federal interoperability rule deadlines, payers and providers should use the extra time to plan strategically for an interoperable future.

  • Payers should review business partnerships in this new regulatory environment.
  • Digital health companies and new entrants may help organizations take advantage of the opportunities that achieving interoperability may present.
  • Companies should consider the legal risks and take steps to protect their reputations and relationships with customers by thinking through issues of consent and data privacy.

Health organizations should review their policies and consider whether they offer protections for customers under the new processes and what data security risks may emerge. They should also consider whether business associate agreements are due in more situations.

Plan for revitalized ACA exchanges and a booming Medicare Advantage market

The pandemic has thrown millions out of work, generating many new customers for ACA plans just as the incoming Biden administration plans to enrich subsidies, making more generous plans within reach of more Americans.

  • Payers in this market should consider how and where to expand their membership and appeal to those newly eligible for Medicare. Payers not in this market should consider partnerships or acquisitions as a quick way to enter the market, with the creation of a new Medicare Advantage plan as a slower but possibly less capital-intensive entry into this market.
  • Payers and health systems should use this opportunity to design more tailored plan options and consumer experiences to enhance margins and improve health outcomes.
  • Payers with cash from deferred care and low utilization due to the pandemic could turn to vertical integration with providers as a means of investing that cash in a manner that helps struggling providers in the short term while positioning payers to improve care and reduce its cost in the long term.
  • Under the Trump administration, the FDA has approved historic numbers of generic drugs, with the aim of making more affordable pharmaceuticals available to consumers. Despite increased FDA generics approvals, generics dispensed remain high but flat, according to HRI analysis of FDA data.
  • Pharmaceutical company stocks, on average, have climbed under the Trump administration, with a few notable dips due to presidential speeches criticizing the industry and the pandemic.
  • Providers have faced some revenue cuts, particularly in the 340B program, and many entered the pandemic in a relatively weak liquidity position.  The pandemic has led to layoffs, pay cuts and even closures. HRI expects consolidation as the pandemic continues to curb the flow of patients seeking care in emergency departments, orthopedic surgeons’ offices, dermatology suites and more.

Lawmakers and politicians often use bold language, and propose bold solutions to problems, but the government and the industry itself resists sudden, dramatic change, even in the face of sudden, dramatic events such as a global pandemic. One notable exception to this would be a decision by the US Supreme Court to strike down the ACA, an event that would generate a great deal of uncertainty and disruption for Americans, the US health industry and employers.

Health industry has evaded major changes under Trump

Status quo in healthcare is no longer an option

President Trump vowed to overhaul the health care system, notably saying in one of his first post-election speeches that pharmaceutical companies were “getting away with murder” over their pricing tactics.

Yes, but: Four years later, not a lot has changed. If anything, the health care industry has become more financially and politically powerful, Axios’ Bob Herman reports.

“Most of the bigger ideas have either been stopped in the courts or just never got implemented,” said Cynthia Cox, a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation who follows the health care industry.

  • The administration killed its own regulation that would have changed behind-the-scenes negotiations between drug companies and pharmacy benefit managers.
  • One of the most consequential drug proposals — tying Medicare drug prices to lower prices negotiated abroad — is not remotely close to going into effect.
  • Forcing drug companies to disclose prices in TV ads was a small gambit, and the courts ultimately struck down the idea.

The other side: The policies the administration has seen through, so far, have been relatively modest.

Between the lines: Health care has consistently raked in large sums of profit every year of Trump’s presidency. That has been especially true during the pandemic.

Are you ready for price transparency?

https://interimcfo.wordpress.com/2020/10/22/are-you-ready-for-price-transparency/

Exploring the Fundamentals of Medical Billing and Coding

Abstract:  This article focuses on the correct strategic response to the impending implementation of price transparency on New Year’s Day of next year.

I have stated before that I have multiple articles in process at any given time.  Some of them have been ‘in process’ for years because newer topics sometimes rise to the queue’s top.  Price transparency is an example of such a case.  I have a friend who is developing AI-enabled solutions to help organizations respond to price transparency government diktats.  Few people beyond healthcare CFOs, healthcare financial consultants, and accountants have any useful understanding of how convoluted hospital pricing has become due to decades of ill-conceived government policy for the most part.

Another problem is endless confusion over terms.  People frequently interchange the terms ‘price’, ‘cost’, ‘payment’, and ‘reimbursement’ in situations where the polar opposite is true on the other side of the issue.  In other words, ‘cost’ to a payor is price or reimbursement to a provider.

Anyway, my friend’s questions finally inspired me to go to the Federal Register, acquire the final rule, and begin the process of learning where government is headed with these regulations.  There are probably at least fifty diatribe angles I could launch into over the final rule, but I will confine my rant to only a couple of points.  

First, the final draft of the rule is ‘only’ 331 pages long. The three-column final rule in the Federal Register is ‘only’ 83 pages long.  That pales compared to Obamacare that is over 1,200 pages long, so by government standards, this is but a trifle of regulation.  

Secondly, some parts of the final rule are actually funny.  For example, CMS estimates that the average hospital will spend only 150 staff hours in the first and 46 staff hours in subsequent years complying with price transparency requirements.  Is it constitutional for government to compel private enterprises to disclose the terms of what they thought were private contracts?  Apparently so.  Once government breaks this ice, will any agreement of any type ever be private?

As I have discussed price transparency with healthcare leaders, I sense that leaders are currently focused on technical compliance with the regulations.  With COVID on their plate simultaneously, they have little capacity to take on strategic financial planning.

The final rule lays out in excruciating detail what providers face complying with the regulation.  Reading the comments and responses is equally entertaining.  CMS repeatedly says something to the effect; we heard your concern, and we’re proceeding as planned anyway.  Litigation brought by the AHA and others has to date been unsuccessful in slowing stopping the price transparency snowball that is now most of the way down the mountain.

So, what are you supposed to do?  The CFO and CIO will work, possibly with consultants’ assistance, to prepare the organization’s data release.  Soon after the release occurs, expect the defecation to hit the rotary oscillator.  The press will call out organizations with high prices, and the rancor over learning what some systems have been able to get from third-party payors will be entertaining, to say the least.  Many people believe that one of the primary motivators of the massive consolidation occurring in the healthcare industry is the market leverage exerted by growing systems on third-party payors to obtain otherwise unachievable reimbursement rates.

Regardless of the course of action following price releases in January, the intended and most likely result of this initiative is to drive prices to a lower common denominator.  A lot of people think Medicare rates will become that benchmark.  There are two significant issues that I did not see addressed in the pricing rule that will have the effect of transferring substantial risk to providers.  

The first is that there will be little if any provision for recognition of complications, comorbidities, and hospital-acquired conditions that can dramatically impact the cost of care in a given diagnosis.  

The second is the elephant in the room. The current pricing system has developed over time to facilitate cross-subsidization among payors.  There is a reason that commercial rates are so high that has nothing to do with the cost of providing care.  I have stated before that, government has turned the entire healthcare industry into a taxing authority to extract tax from commercial payors for the benefit of government payors that routinely reimburse providers below the cost of providing care.  It has been entertaining to watch the reaction of Boards of Directors when they first realize that the healthcare system has been forced by government into a wealth redistribution mechanism.

So, what happens as providers lose the ability to cross-subsidize the cost of care?  Very few hospitals (<10%) are profitable on Medicare, and it is doubtful that any hospital is breaking even on services provided to Medicaid patients.  In my experience, hospital reimbursement for self-pay patients is less than 5% of charges.  If the prices hospitals realize for services start falling and they lose the current ability to cross-subsidize the cost of care . . . . . well, you don’t need an MBA to understand the likely outcome.

What to do?  If (when) prices start falling and providers lose pricing leverage, the only place to turn is operating expense.  Hospitals that have failed to undertake serious, highly focused, and robust operating cost reduction programs that yield quantifiable results may not have a very bright future.  If your organization is not in the bottom quartile of operating cost compared to its peer group and part of your mission is to remain independent, you must be losing sleep.  In a recent article related to COVID Response, I argued that the time has come to get after clinical process variance that is the source of most of the high cost, waste, and abuse in the healthcare system. For most organizations, the days of sourcing cheaper supplies and sending nurses home early are, for the most part, over as there is little if any juice remaining in that lemon.

If, as a leader, you do not have a plan that gets you to break-even on Medicare within the next 12-18 months, you had better have a plan B, something like tuning up your CV.  I can help you with your response to price transparency, working on your CV, or helping manage your next career transition as the case may turn out.  I am as close as your phone.  Best of luck.

Contact me to discuss any questions or observations you might have about these articles, leadership, transitions, or interim services. I might have an idea or two that might be valuable to you. An observation from my experience is that we need better leadership at every level in organizations. Some of my feedback comes from people demonstrating interest in advancing their careers and inspiring content to address those inquiries.

The easiest way to keep abreast of this blog is to become a follower. You are then notified of all updates as they occur. To become a follower, click the “Following” bubble that usually appears near each web page’s bottom.

I encourage you to use the comment section at the bottom of each article to provide feedback and stimulate discussion. I welcome input and feedback that will help me to improve the quality and relevance of this work.

This article is an original work. I copyright this material with reproduction prohibited without attribution. I note and provide links to supporting documentation for non-original material. If you choose to link any of my articles, I’d appreciate a notification.

If you would like to discuss any of this content, provide private feedback or ask questions, I may be reached at ras2@me.com.

https://interimcfo.wordpress.com/

Administration Sketches Healthcare Plan, Signs Executive Order

https://www.medpagetoday.com/washington-watch/electioncoverage/88810?xid=fb_o&trw=no&fbclid=IwAR1OTD2FHXYsDzbKZ_H3MdTUNnvlxhe7kqEMtaZMXjRBpkHFksvvY-lHVGc

New Executive Order Applies to Foreign Third-Party Code | The Media Trust

Critics question value of provision addressing preexisting condition coverage.

President Trump presented his “America First Healthcare Plan” during a speech to healthcare professionals in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Thursday — a plan that mentioned preexisting condition coverage protections and surprise billing but did not seem to include comprehensive changes to the healthcare system.

“Under the America First Healthcare Plan, we will ensure the highest standard of care anywhere in the world, cutting-edge treatments, state-of-the-art medicine, groundbreaking cures, and true health security for you and your loved ones,” Trump said. “And we will do it rapidly, and it’s in very good order, and some of it has already been implemented.”

Executive Order Provisions

The president signed an executive order outlining the plan, but the order contained initiatives in only a few areas, including:

  • Preexisting condition coverage. The order says simply: “It has been and will continue to be the policy of the United States to ensure that Americans with preexisting conditions can obtain the insurance of their choice at affordable rates.” The order does not direct any government agency to enact a regulation nor request Congress to pass legislation. In August 2018, the Trump administration allowed the sale of “short-term, limited duration” insurance plans that could last for up to 3 years; these often exclude coverage for preexisting conditions but also typically cost less than comprehensive coverage.
  • Surprise billing. “Recognizing that both chambers of the Congress have made substantial progress towards a solution to end surprise billing, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) shall work with the Congress to reach a legislative solution by December 31, 2020,” the order says. “In the event a legislative solution is not reached by December 31, 2020, the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall take administrative action to prevent a patient from receiving a bill for out-of-pocket expenses that the patient could not have reasonably foreseen.”
  • Price transparency. “Within 180 days of the date of this order, the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall update the Medicare.gov Hospital Compare website to inform beneficiaries of hospital billing quality, including whether the hospital is in compliance with the Hospital Price Transparency Final Rule whether, upon discharge, the hospital provides patients with a receipt that includes a list of itemized services received during a hospital stay; and how often the hospital pursues legal action against patients, including to garnish wages, to place a lien on a patient’s home, or to withdraw money from a patient’s income tax refund,” the order reads.

Trump also announced another initiative, this one aimed at seniors. “Under my plan, 33 million Medicare beneficiaries will soon receive a card in the mail containing $200 that they can use to help pay for prescription drugs … The cards will be mailed out in coming weeks,” Trump said. The $6.6 billion cost of the cards will be paid for under the auspices of a Medicare demonstration program. These funds are ostensibly available via savings generated through Trump’s “most favored nation” executive order allowing Medicare to pay no more for certain prescription drugs than the price paid by other developed countries, a White House official said. That executive order has not yet been implemented, however, and court challenges are expected.

Final Rule Issued on Drug Importation

Trump also noted that the FDA issued a final rule on Thursday implementing the president’s July executive order earlier this month to allow for importation of certain less expensive prescription drugs from Canada. “This means a state or whatever — can go to Canada and buy drugs for a fraction of the price that they’re charging right now,” he said.

He also highlighted individual actions his administration had taken that mostly affected particular groups, including lowering insulin prices for certain Medicare beneficiaries, investing in childhood cancer research, and expanding health reimbursement accounts that employers can use to reimburse employees for medical expenses. The COVID-19 pandemic received scant mention other than a reference to slashing red tape to accelerate development of treatments for the disease, and a sentence about how the pandemic had greatly increased the use of telehealth.

During a telephone briefing with reporters Thursday afternoon, HHS Secretary Alex Azar highlighted the surprise billing provision. “The President is saying that all the relevant players — hospitals, doctors, insurance companies — had better get their act together and get legislation passed through Congress that protects patients against surprise medical bills from anybody — hospitals or doctors, doesn’t matter,” he said.

“Those special interest groups need to sort it out and figure out how that would work,” he continued. “There have been legislative packages that have come quite close on the Hill that are bipartisan, but…. the president is saying the time is now. And if they do not get legislation passed by January 1st, he is instructing me to use the full regulatory power of the U.S. government to protect patients against surprise medical bills.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), outgoing chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions (HELP) Committee, praised the surprise billing announcement. “The president is right to call on Congress to pass legislation this year to end surprise medical billing,” Alexander said in a statement, adding that a bill currently going through the House and Senate addresses the issue effectively. “Ending surprise medical bills is a problem that requires a permanent solution passed by Congress this year. The American people can’t afford to wait any longer.”

Preexisting Condition Provision Panned

The preexisting condition provision drew scorn from Democratic legislators. The provision “offers no protection not already available through the existing Affordable Care Act (ACA) and no protection for millions of Americans with preexisting conditions if Trump is successful in packing the Supreme Court to destroy the ACA,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), chairman of the House Ways & Means Health Subcommittee, said in a statement.

But Azar said during the briefing that the ACA’s clause requiring insurers to cover preexisting conditions does no good if people aren’t able to afford insurance in the first place. “If you’re a couple, aged 55, living in Missouri, making $70,000 a year, Obamacare is going to cost you $30,000 in premiums and a $12,000 deductible,” he said.

Azar promised that the administration “will work with Congress or otherwise to ensure” that people with pre-existing conditions are protected, but he did not indicate how that would be made affordable to individuals without government subsidies of the sort Republicans have long opposed.

Bob Laszewski, president of Health Policy and Strategy Associates in Alexandria, Virginia, questioned how much good the executive order’s preexisting condition provision would do. “Trump and the Republicans couldn’t pass an alternative to Obamacare in 2017 when they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress,” he wrote in a blog post. “But, now he can just sign an executive order and everything is fixed? He has signed a number of healthcare-related executive orders and just about all of them are tied up in the byzantine federal regulatory process, or have faded away. This is just an election-year gimmick in an attempt to persuade voters that Trump has healthcare policy under control. There are a lot of governments in the world that operate by executive fiat. Ours is not one of them.”

 

 

 

 

Sam’s Club launches $1 telehealth visits for members: 7 details

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/telehealth/sam-s-club-launches-1-telehealth-visits-for-members-7-details.html?utm_medium=email

On-Demand Text-Based Primary Care App | 98point6

Sam’s Club partnered with primary care telehealth provider 98point6 to offer members virtual visits.

Seven details:

1. Sam’s Club now offers members access to telehealth visits through a text-based app run by 98point6.

2. Members can purchase a $20 quarterly subscription for the first three months; the regular sign-up fee is $30 per person. After the first three months, members pay $33.50 every three months.

3. The subscription gives members unlimited telehealth visits for $1 per visit. The service has board-certified physicians available 24 hours per day, seven days a week.

4. Members can also subscribe for pediatric care.

5. Physicians can diagnose and treat 400 conditions including cold and flu-like symptoms as well as allergies. They can also monitor chronic conditions including diabetes, depression and anxiety.

6. Members can use the app to obtain prescriptions and lab orders as well.

7. Sam’s Club has around 600 stores in the U.S. and Puerto Rico and millions of members.

Offering access to telemedicine was on our roadmap in the pre-COVID world, but the current environment expedited the need for this service to be easily accessible, readily available and most of all, affordable,” said John McDowell, vice president of pharmacy operations and divisional merchandise at Sam’s Club. “Through providing access to the 98point6 app in a pilot, we quickly realized that our members were eager to have mobile telehealth options and we wanted to provide this healthcare solution to all of our members as a standalone option.”

 

 

 

Administration’s Record on Health Care

President Trump’s Record on Health Care

President Trump's Record on Health Care | KFF

A review of Trump’s health care record so far. Avoiding the problematic issue of Trump’s alleged plan, analysts at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation released a report this week that examines President Trump’s record on health care over the last three and half years. Some highlights from the overview and the full analysis:

  • On the Affordable Care Act: “From the start of his presidential term, President Trump took aim at the Affordable Care Act, consistent with his campaign pledge leading up to the 2016 election. He supported many efforts in Congress to repeal the law and replace it with an alternative that would have weakened protections for people with pre-existing conditions, eliminated the Medicaid expansion, and reduced premium assistance for people seeking marketplace coverage. While the ACA remains in force, President Trump’s Administration is supporting the case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the ACA in its entirety that is scheduled for oral arguments one week after the election.”

 

  • On Medicare and Medicaid: “The Administration has proposed spending reductions for both Medicaid and Medicare, along with proposals that would promote flexibility for states but limit eligibility for coverage under Medicaid (e.g., work requirements).”

 

  • On drug prices: “The President has made prescription drug prices a top health policy priority and has issued several executive orders and other proposals that aim to lower drug prices; most of these proposals, however, have not been implemented, other than one change that would lower the cost of insulin for some Medicare beneficiaries with diabetes, and another that allows pharmacists to tell consumers if they could save money on their prescriptions. The Trump Administration has also moved forward with an initiative to improve price transparency in an effort to lower costs, though it is held up in the courts.”

 

  • On the response to the coronavirus: “The Trump administration has not established a coordinated, national plan to scale-up and implement public health measures to control the spread of coronavirus, instead choosing to have states assume primary responsibility for the COVID-19 response, with the federal government acting as back-up and ‘supplier of last resort.’ The President has downplayed the threat of COVID-19, given conflicting messages and misinformation, and often been at odds with public health officials and scientific evidence.”

 

President Trump’s Record on Health Care – Issue Brief

 

Administration’s talking health care again, with 2020 in mind

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/07/26/trumps-health-care-again-with-2020-election-381473?utm_source=ActiveCampaign&utm_medium=email&utm_content=Republicans+Roll+Out+%241+Trillion+Coronavirus+Relief+Plan&utm_campaign=TFT+Newsletter+07272020

Tell us: How has Trump handled healthcare in his first 100 days ...

Polls show voters say Joe Biden would handle the issue better. And Trump is running short on options to make concrete changes before November.

President Donald Trump is suddenly talking about health care again.

He signed several executive orders on drug pricing on Friday. He vowed to unveil some new health plan by the end of next week, although he hasn’t provided specifics or an explanation of how he’ll do it. His aides are touting a speech in which Trump will lay out his health care vision. White House counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway has been calling Trump “the health care president.”

Yet it’s unlikely to amount to much in terms of policy ahead of the election. There’s almost no chance Congress will enact any legislation on the issue before November and policy specialists say the executive orders in question will make changes only at the margins — if they make any changes at all. Trump has also previously vowed to roll out a grand health care plan without following through.

That leaves Trump with mostly rhetorical options — even if he insists otherwise — cognizant that voters consistently rank health care as a top priority and say Joe Biden, Trump’s presumptive 2020 rival, would handle the issue better than the president. Meanwhile, Trump is running for reelection having not replaced Obamacare or presented an alternative — all while urging the Supreme Court to overturn the decade-old health law. And millions of Americans are currently losing their health insurance as the coronavirus-gripped economy sputters.

“I think politically, the main objective will be to have something he can call a plan, but it will be smaller than a plan. Just something that he can talk about,” said Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health policy organization. “But it’s almost inconceivable that anything can be delivered legislatively before the election.”

Trump has long stumped on his pledges to kill Obamacare, the law his predecessor implemented that expanded Americans’ access to health insurance, set baseline standards for coverage, introduced penalties for not having insurance and guaranteed coverage for preexisting conditions. But conservatives say the law introduced too many mandates and drove up costs.

But after winning election in 2016, Trump failed to overturn the law in Congress — or even offer an agreed upon alternative to the law — despite holding the majority in both chambers on Capitol Hill. Democrats then retook the House in the 2018 midterms, essentially ending any chances the law, formally known as the Affordable Care Act, would be repealed.

Even some conservatives said the ongoing failure to present a concrete replacement plan is helping the Democrats politically.

Republicans, said Joe Antos, a health expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, “spent basically 2010 to today arguing that the ACA is no good. After 10 years, clearly there are some problems with starting all over again. I haven’t detected very strong interest, at least among elected officials, in revisiting that.”

But the coronavirus pandemic has added pressure to address health care costs, and Trump has lagged behind Biden on his handling of the issue in polls. Fifty seven percent of registered voters recently polled by Quinnipiac said Biden would do a better job on health care than Trump, while only 35 percent approved of Trump’s handling of health care as president. And on the issue of affordability, a CNBC poll found 55 percent of battleground voters favored Biden and the Democrats, compared with 45 percent who preferred Trump and the Republicans.

“At this point, there are two huge issues, jobs and the economy, and health care, i.e., the coronavirus. If anything that’s simply been magnified,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster and strategist. “Given the fact that it’s one of the top issues, it’s not like there’s a choice but to talk about it. If candidates aren’t making statements and proposing solutions around that, it’s a requirement. Both candidates have to address it.”

Biden has campaigned on expanding Obamacare while also promising to implement a “public option” similar to Medicare, which is government-run health insurance for seniors. On drug pricing, he and Trump embrace some of the same ideas, like allowing the safe importation of drugs from other countries where they are cheaper. Biden also supports direct Medicare negotiation of drug prices, a Democratic priority that Trump supported during the 2016 campaign before reversing course.

“Donald Trump has spent his entire presidency working to take health care away from tens of millions of Americans and gut coverage for preexisting conditions,” said Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesman. “If the Trump campaign wants to continue their pattern of highlighting the worst possible contrasts for Donald Trump, we certainly won’t stop them.”

The Trump administration insists it can point to several health care victories during Trump’s term.

Trump frequently notes the removal of the penalty for Americans who do not purchase insurance as a major victory, falsely claiming it is equivalent to overturning Obamacare.

Trump also signed an executive order last year to fight kidney disease to encourage home dialysis and increase the amount of kidney transplants, and he expanded telehealth medicine during the pandemic.

More recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld a Trump administration rule expanding the availability of short-term health plans, which Trump has touted as an alternative to Obamacare but Democrats deride as “junk.” The plans are typically cheaper than Obamacare coverage because they don’t provide the same level of benefits or consumer protections for preexisting conditions.

A federal judge in June similarly upheld another Trump administration rule requiring hospitals to disclose the prices they have negotiated with insurers. Price transparency in the health care system has long been a significant issue, with Americans rarely having clarity over how much their treatments will cost ahead of time. Trump called the win “bigger than health care itself,” in an apparent reference to Obamacare. It’s unclear whether transparency will force down health care prices, and hospitals opposing the rule have appealed the judge’s decision.

And on Friday at the White House, Trump held an event to sign four executive orders aimed at slashing drug pricing. The move aimed to tackle a largely unfulfilled signature campaign promise — that he would stop pharmaceutical companies from “getting away with murder.”

“We are ending the sellouts, betrayals and broken promises from Washington,” Trump said Friday.“You have a lot of broken promises from Washington.”

But the orders appeared largely symbolic for now, as they were not immediately enforceable, contained notable caveats and may not be completed before the election anyway. For instance, an order requiring drugmakers to pass along any discounts directly to seniors requires the health secretary to confirm the plan won’t result in higher premiums or drive up federal spending. But the White House had shelved that plan last summer over worries the move might hike seniors’ Medicare premiums ahead of the election and cost taxpayers $180 billion over the next decade.

Conway disputed that Trump had not made progress on issues like drug pricing.

“President Trump is directing the development of therapeutics and vaccines, has delivered lower prescription drug costs, increased transparency in pricing for consumers and is committed to covering preexisting conditions and offering higher quality health care with lower costs and more choices,” she said.

Yet a number of Trump’s other health care initiatives have faced hurdles — especially amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The opioid crisis, which the president had touted as a top priority and campaigned on in 2016, is getting worse. Drug overdose deaths hit a record high in 2019 and federal and state data shows they are skyrocketing in 2020.

“The overdose epidemic will not take a back seat simply because Covid-19 has hit us hard, and that needs to be reflected in policy,” said Andrew Kessler, founder and principal of Slingshot Solutions, a behavioral health consulting firm.

The president’s plan to end HIV by 2030 has similarly receded during the pandemic. And Trump’s proposal on improving kidney care — an issue that affects roughly 15 percent of American adults — is still in its early stages and will not be finalized until next year.

 

 

 

American patients can’t shop their way to a low cost healthcare system

American patients can’t shop their way to a low cost healthcare system

Hospital price transparency is a distraction from policies that could reduce costs without burdening patients, say Jamie Daw and Adam Sacarny.

 

The prices that hospitals charge privately insured patients in the US have long been shrouded in secrecy. These prices—which are negotiated between hospitals and private insurers—vary widely: the price for the same blood test could vary 39-fold within Tampa, Florida and the cost of a cesarean delivery varies by up to $24 000 in San Francisco, California.

A recent federal court decision stands to shine a light on opaque hospital pricing in the US. In a lawsuit brought forward by the American Hospital Association, a federal judge upheld a regulation issued by the Trump administration that will soon require hospitals to post a wealth of information on payment rates online.

This policy seems intuitive: in other sectors of the economy, consumers usually know the price of a service or product before they purchase it. By comparing prices, consumers can shop around and save money. In turn, sellers anticipate that behavior and are incentivized to keep prices low. Who wouldn’t want a virtuous circle like that in healthcare? 

The Trump administration argues that hospital price transparency will encourage value in healthcare by helping patients and employers find lower prices, while pressuring hospitals to cut them further. However, the potential effects—and who stands to benefit—are not so straightforward.

 

Firstly, giving consumers information on prices doesn’t necessarily mean that they will respond by seeking lower cost services. Studies have consistently found that patients tend not to use price transparency tools, and their effects on healthcare spending are small or nonexistent. Why? Shopping for healthcare services is often complicated or impossible. 

 

Many of the most expensive services are for emergencies where there is little scope for patients to shop.

Even when a patient has time to compare prices for non-urgent procedures or tests, the complexity of healthcare payment systems and insurance products makes it next to impossible for a patient to preemptively calculate what they would personally pay for an encounter. Establishing that amount requires patients to know the cost-sharing parameters of their insurance plan, the set of services they will use during the encounter, and how aggressively the hospital will bill for those services.

Insurance also obscures patients’ incentives to shop by insulating them from healthcare prices.

While patients can be given strong incentives to shop—and an increasing number of American workers are enrolled in high deductible health plans with this aim—these incentives are created by hoisting financial risk on patients. This financially burdens American families and can result in patients forgoing appropriate care.

 

Beyond the challenges posed by patient shopping, the empirical evidence supporting price transparency is weak.

It could even backfire. Economists have pointed out that in sectors with low competition, price transparency can facilitate collusion and lead to higher prices. This fear was borne out in Denmark when authorities began publishing the prices of ready-mixed cement. Prices proceeded to converge and rise, and the authorities eventually abandoned the idea. The most hopeful evidence in the US healthcare system comes from New Hampshire, where prices for medical imaging fell by 3% after the state established a price transparency website. But even effects of this magnitude, while beneficial, would only make a tiny dent in lowering US healthcare costs. 

 

Price transparency efforts reflect a broad trend for American policy makers to turn to consumer-driven strategies to reduce healthcare costs.

These strategies are built on the assumption that patients ought to be responsible for navigating their way to high quality, low cost healthcare. However, the challenges faced by patients in assessing the complex cost-quality tradeoffs in healthcare limit the potential for price transparency to have the impact that the administration advertises.

Perhaps more troubling is that these efforts could distract policy makers from addressing the main drivers of US healthcare prices, such as rapid and ongoing consolidation. Concentrated hospital markets are becoming the norm in the US and are strongly associated with higher prices. Antitrust actions, such as preventing hospital mergers, could reduce and reverse consolidation, likely leading to lower prices.

Another option for policy makers is to assume a greater regulatory role over healthcare prices, including introducing price caps and an all-payer rate setting. A Supreme Court decision made it much more difficult for state governments to collect the data that would undergird these efforts. As a result, the information released under the transparency rule may end up being more useful for states considering new price regulations than for patients shopping for healthcare services.

 

If we want to reduce prices without burdening patients with financial risk, then policy makers need to address the emerging causes of rising healthcare costs directly. Efforts to control costs are most likely to succeed when policy makers tackle the structural drivers behind the most expensive health system in the world.

 

 

 

 

Walmart confirms a new avatar — it’s also a health insurance agency

https://medcitynews.com/2020/07/walmart-confirms-a-new-avatar-its-also-a-health-insurance-broker/?utm_campaign=MCN%20Daily%20Top%20Stories&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=90973681&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-81Jwk3CVNhJLTDzB0d_5dxRASKqJQULhnQYEg1uxEGxr-l_EbrHhNlSq7UcPZ103ku0wBylrpCk8Y0i1vrK7rRE5rJuA&utm_content=90973681&utm_source=hs_email

Should I buy health insurance from Walmart? - Castaline Insurance ...

Walmart quietly launched a new health insurance business. The company, called Walmart Insurance, was filed with the Arkansas Secretary of State last month.

Walmart is making clear what an executive declared in a virtual conference: that it is firmly in the healthcare business, not just in retail healthcare.

News emerged today that the company is planning to throw its weight around in another healthcare segment in need of an overhaul: insurance. A spokeswoman from the Bentonville, Arkansas retail behemoth confirmed that the company has created “Walmart Insurance Services LLC” to sell insurance policies. The business entity’s name was first filed with the Arkansas Secretary of State in late June.

“We currently offer access to insurance information in our Walmart Health locations, and we have a long-standing education program called Healthcare Begins Here to help people find the right insurance plan for them,” spokeswoman Marilee McInnis wrote in an email. “We’re expanding our current insurance services to now include the sale of insurance policies to our customers.”

A handful of job postings at a call center in the Dallas metro also match up with Walmart Insurance Services, as first pointed out by Talk Business & Politics. Walmart has listings for licensed insurance agents and Medicare sales supervisors.

“Yes, you read that right, Walmart now has an insurance agency,” the listings read.

It looks like the new subsidiary will be focused on selling Medicare Advantage plans, though the company was mum when asked for additional details. The spokeswoman’s statement about the “sale of insurance policies to our customers” also leaves open the possibility of Walmart expanding its services beyond senior shoppers in the future.

Medicare Advantage plans have been experiencing rapid growth in the past decade, with more than a third of all beneficiaries enrolled in a plan managed by a private insurer. That figure is expected to increase in the future.

 

Deeper into the pharmacy space

Separately, on Tuesday, Walmart announced that it had struck a partnership with  PBM startup Capital Rx, which provides health plans real-time information on prescription drug prices.

Walmart has been a big player in the pharmacy space for several years, and the company appears to be deepening that through this partnership

“‘Everyday low price’ has been a guiding principle at Walmart. We take pride in providing affordable prices to more than 160 million customers who shop Walmart each week,” Walmart Health and Wellness Vice President Luke Kleyn said in a news release. “Working with Capital Rx will allow us to do the same for prescription drugs,”

Capital Rx was founded just over two years ago by AJ Loiacono, a former insurance auditor, with the idea of providing drug prices as part of pharmacy benefit plans.

Loiacono started his career in the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry, where “everything that comes out of that plant has a price.”

When he moved over to the auditing and procurement side, working with payers and self-insured companies, he was shocked to find out that none of their contracts included drug prices. To solve this, the company uses Medicaid’s National Average Drug Acquisition Cost, rather than the average wholesale price, to calculate costs.

As a standalone company, Capital Rx was able to provide price information for retail drugs, but they weren’t able to do the same for mail and specialty drugs. The partnership with Walmart will “complete the model,” with Walmart providing mail and specialty drug fulfillment.

With the partnership, Capital Rx was able to quickly sign on some payers, though it hasn’t yet disclosed which ones.

“Walmart is a diversified company. We liked the fact that they were independent. They’re not part of a PBM or a health system today,” Loiacono said. “The other part of it is, they have scale.”

Loiacono also pointed to similar goals in price transparency — something Walmart emphasized when it shared the cash pay prices for its new health clinics.

“This is what we’re seeing a little bit more of as the future in the roadmap,” Loiacono said. “They’re making a serious investment in healthcare.”