Affiliation improves rural hospital sustainability

https://mailchi.mp/161df0ae5149/the-weekly-gist-december-10-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

In 2020, a record-breaking 19 rural hospitals closed their doors due to a combination of worsening economic conditions, changing payer mix, and declining patient volumes. But many more are looking to affiliate with larger health systems to remain open and maintain access to care in their communities. The graphic above illustrates how rural hospital affiliations (including acquisitions and other contractual partnerships) have increased over time, and the resulting effects of partnerships.

Affiliation rose nearly 20 percent from 2007 to 2016; today nearly half of rural hospitals are affiliated with a larger health system.

Economic stability is a primary benefit: the average rural hospital becomes profitable post-affiliation, boosting its operating margin roughly three percent in five years. But despite improved margins, many affiliated rural hospitals cut some services, often low-volume obstetrics programs, in the years following affiliation. 

Overall, the relationship likely improves quality: a recent JAMA study found that rural hospital mergers are linked to better patient mortality outcomes for certain conditions, like acute myocardial infarction. Still, the ongoing tide of rural hospital closures is concerning, leaving many rural consumers without adequate access to care. Late last month, the Department of Health and Human Services announced it would distribute another $7.5B in American Rescue Plan Act funds to rural providers. 

While this cash infusion may forestall some closures, longer-term economic pressures, combined with changing consumer demands, will likely push a growing number of rural hospitals to seek closer ties with larger health systems.

Senate bill would make telehealth reimbursement permanent for certain services

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/senate-bill-would-make-telehealth-reimbursement-permanent-certain-services

A bipartisan group of senators have introduced a bill to make telehealth reimbursement permanent for certain services such as those provided by physical therapists, audiologists, occupational therapists and speech language pathologists.

Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) introduced the “Expanded Telehealth Access Act” on Thursday, according to The Hill.

If passed, the legislation would extend telehealth reimbursement policies that were temporarily added during the COVID-19 public health emergency.

WHY THIS MATTERS

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has long said that Congressional action is needed to make emergency telehealth measures permanent.

But on Tuesday, CMS released new actions that will allow Medicare to pay for mental health virtual visits furnished by Rural Health Clinics and Federally-Qualified Health Centers. This is through telecommunications technology such as audio-only telehealth calls.

Telehealth is particularly important for rural areas where patients may have to travel long distances for care.

The Senate bill has the support of the American Telehealth Association, the American Physical Therapy Association, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and the American Occupational Therapy Association, among others, according to the report.

The biggest issue in telehealth reimbursement remains. This is whether providers will be continued to be paid at in-person parity for a telehealth visit. 

THE LARGER TREND

The Senate Bill is a companion to a House bill introduced in March by Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) called the Expanded Telehealth Access Act.

In May, Senator Daines, one of the sponsors of Thursday’s legislation, with Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), proposed the “Telehealth Expansion Act of 2021” to permanently allow first-dollar coverage of virtual care under high-deductible health plans.

Health system consolidation as a “safety net”

https://mailchi.mp/26f8e4c5cc02/the-weekly-gist-july-16-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Might health care consolidation be slowing and if so, why and what might it  mean? A perspective on where we are, how we got here and what is next. —  CASTLING PARTNERS

One of the underappreciated ways in which health systems create value in our healthcare economy, as was recently the topic of discussion with the CEO of an organization we work with, is their role as a “safety net”. We weren’t talking about safety-net providers in the traditional sense—those which serve low-income populations. Rather, we were talking about the ability of larger health systems to acquire and invest in smaller hospitals that might otherwise risk going out of business entirely due to economic pressures.

When economic shocks hit, as was recently the case with COVID, we often see firms close; think of all the restaurant and hospitality businesses forced to shut down over the past year. As the economy rebounds, new business spring up to take their places—that kind of “creative destruction” is commonplace in the larger economy. But when a hospital is forced to shut its doors, it’s a different story, one that could be potentially disastrous for the community. 

Often the most economically vulnerable hospitals are sole providers for their communities; without them, critical medical services could be much less accessible for patients. Enter multi-hospital health systems, which have often stepped in to acquire hospitals in jeopardy. 

By providing access to capital, technology, and management infrastructure, systems have probably kept hundreds of such smaller hospitals in business over the past several decades. Policy analysts are quick to criticize health systems for value destruction: leveraging scale to raise prices, and so forth.

Often valid criticism, but it would be myopic to overlook the fact that systems have also allowed many vulnerable communities to retain access to a viable local hospital. The pushback is often to posit that we simply have too many hospitals to begin with—but try telling that to patients and communities who have lost access to their local source of care.

Dollar General: Rural America’s new health hub?

Dollar Stores and food deserts: The latest struggle between Main Street and  corporate America - CBS News

Dollar General hired its first CMO and plans to become a destination for affordable healthcare offerings.  

The retail giant will bring an increased assortment of medical, dental and health aids to its shelves as part of its first major jump into the healthcare industry, according to a July 7 news release.

Three things to know:

  1. In the United States, 75 percent of the population lives within five miles of one of the chain’s 17,400 stores. The chain recognizes that it’s postured to deliver care to rural communities that are traditionally underserved in the healthcare ecosystem, the release said.
  2. “At Dollar General, we are always looking for new ways to serve, and our customers have told us that they would like to see increased access to affordable healthcare products and services in their communities,” said Todd Vasos, Dollar General CEO. “Our goal is to build and enhance affordable healthcare offerings for our customers, especially in the rural communities we serve.”
  3. The chain selected Albert Wu, MD, as its first CMO and vice president. Dr. Wu will strengthen relationships with healthcare service providers to build a network for its customers. In his previous position, Dr. Wu worked at McKinsey, where he oversaw the care model for 250,000 rural patients and drove $2-5 billion in revenue.

Could Dollar General help dramatically expand vaccine access?

https://mailchi.mp/94c7c9eca73b/the-weekly-gist-april-16-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

CDC in Talks With Dollar General to Expand Vaccinations

For some time, we’ve been focused on the efforts of Walmart to launch and grow a care delivery business, especially as it has piloted an expanded primary care clinic offering in a handful of states. We’ve long thought that access to basic care at the scale that Walmart brings could be transformative, given that more than half of Americans visit a Walmart store every week. Along those same lines, we’ve always wondered why Dollar General and Dollar Tree—each with around four times as many retail locations as Walmart—haven’t gotten into the retail clinic or pharmacy businesses.

(Part of the answer is ultra-lean staffingthis piece gives a good sense of the basic, and troubling, economics of dollar stores.) Now, as the federal government ramps up its efforts to widely distribute the COVID vaccines, it turns out that the CDC is actively discussing a partnership with Dollar General to administer the shots.

A fascinating new paper (still in preprint) from researchers at Yale shows why this could be a true gamechanger. The Biden administration, through its partnership with national and independent pharmacy providers, aims to have a vaccination site within five miles of 90 percent of the US population by next week. Compared to those pharmacy partners, researchers found, Dollar General stores are disproportionately located in areas of high “social vulnerability”, with lower income residents and high concentrations of disadvantaged groups. Particularly in the Southeast, a partnership with Dollar General would vastly increase access for low-income Black and Latino residents, allowing vaccine access within one mile for many, many more people. And the partnership could form the basis for future expansions of basic healthcare services to vulnerable and rural communities, particularly if some of the $7.5B in funding for COVID vaccine distribution went to helping dollar store locations bolster staffing and equipment to deliver basic health services. We’ll be watching with interest to see if the potential Dollar General partnership comes to fruition.

House extends moratorium on 2% Medicare sequester cuts through 2021

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/house-extends-moratorium-2-medicare-sequester-cuts-through-2021

APR 14MORE ON REIMBURSEMENT

House extends moratorium on 2% Medicare sequester cuts through 2021

President Biden is expected to sign the bill into law.

Susan Morse, Managing Editor

(Photo courtesy joe daniel price/Getty Images)

In a vote of 384-38, the House on Tuesday passed a bill that eliminates the 2% cut to Medicare payments until the end of 2021. However, the bill proposes to offset the change by increasing the sequester cuts in 2030.

WHY THIS MATTERS

The cuts were triggered by a federal budget sequestration.

Hospitals, physicians and other providers protested the 2% cuts as coming at a time when they were struggling financially and clinically to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill also makes several technical changes to the rural health clinic provisions that were included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act. Specifically, the CAA required that the payment rate for RHCs, including provider-based RHCs certified after Dec. 31, 2019, to be capped at $100 per visit, starting from April 1, 2021. 

This rate will increase over time based on the Medicare Economic Index, but will remain well below typical provider-based RHC rates. The bill would correct the Dec. 31, 2019, date to Dec. 31, 2020, and include both Medicare-enrolled RHCs located in a hospital with less than 50 beds and RHCs that have submitted an application for Medicare enrollment as of this date, according to the AHA.

THE LARGER TREND

Last year, Congress paused the 2% Medicare cuts, but they were to resume on April 1.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services instructed Medicare administrative contractors to hold all claims with dates of service on or after April 1 for a short period until potential legislation was enacted.

In March, the House passed the bill to delay the cuts, and the Senate approved it later that month, but with an amendment to delay through December 31 and ensure that the cost of the delay is paid for. 

PROVIDER REACTION

Providers have reacted positively to the news.

American Hospital Association president and CEO Rick Pollack said, “Even though our country is making great progress by vaccinating millions of people a day, it is clear that this pandemic is far from over and that there is an urgent need to keep hospitals, health systems and our heroic caregivers strong.”

American Medical Association president Dr. Susan R. Bailey said, “The Senate and House, Democrats and Republicans, have overwhelmingly acknowledged that cutting Medicare payments during a pandemic is ill-conceived policy. Physician practices are already distressed, and arbitrary 2% across-the-board Medicare cuts would have been devastating.”

America’s Essential Hospitals SVP of policy and advocacy Beth Feldpush said, “Extending the moratorium through the end of this year provides much-needed relief for essential hospitals, which continue to face heavy financial pressure from their frontline response to COVID-19. The sequester would weaken the ability of our hospitals to care for the communities of color that have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic.”

Walmart prepares 5,000+ pharmacies to administer the COVID vaccine

The CDC selected Walmart and Sam’s Club to help administer COVID-19 vaccines in communities across the United States.

Why it’s important: With 5,000+ pharmacy locations, the company can administer the vaccine in hard-to-reach parts of the country.

A Wall Street Giant Tapped $1.5 Billion in Federal Aid for Its Hospitals

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-09-14/a-wall-street-giant-tapped-1-5-billion-in-federal-aid-for-its-hospitals

LifePoint’s Castleview Hospital in Price, Utah.

Private equity firm, flush with cash, sees ‘upside’ and more acquisitions.

Like hospital chains across the U.S., LifePoint Health tapped federal relief money to blunt the cost of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a potent lifeline, a total of $1.5 billion.

But LifePoint is unusual in one respect, its owner: private equity firm Apollo Global Management, led by billionaire Leon Black.

LifePoint was certainly eligible for the money. But the extent of the federal assistance could contribute to concern in Washington over whether private equity-backed hospitals should have been. In July, the U.S. House passed a bill that would require health-care companies to disclose any private equity backing when seeking short-term loans from the federal Medicare program.

The reason for lawmakers’ concern: Private equity firms have ample access to cash. As recently as June, the Apollo fund that owns LifePoint had more than $2 billion to support its investments. Apollo, which manages $414 billion, recently told investors in an internal document that LifePoint was in such a strong market position that it was planning to make acquisitions of less fortunate hospitals.

The relief flowing to LifePoint illustrates a drawback of a government program designed to send out money quickly to every hospital, regardless of financial circumstances, according to Gerard Anderson, a health policy professor at Johns Hopkins University.

“This particular hospital system does not appear to need the money,” he said.

LifePoint and Apollo say they absolutely did. In their view, taxpayer money helped cover the soaring cost of treating Covid-19 patients and lost revenue because of the loss of fees from lucrative elective procedures. The assistance enabled the chain to retain all of its workers and provide essential service to its communities, they said.

“No health-care provider, including LifePoint, is immune to this, regardless of their ownership,” said LifePoint spokesperson Michelle Augusty.

Said an Apollo spokesperson: “Apollo is proud of LifePoint’s response to the Covid pandemic as they continue to provide vital care for both Covid and non-Covid patients.’’

LifePoint owns a far-flung collection of small-town hospitals, from Western Plains Medical Complex in Dodge City, Kansas, to Bourbon Community Hospital in Paris, Kentucky. For years, private equity has been pushing into every corner of American health care. Many medical professionals worry that these Wall Street-style investors will inevitably put profits before patients – something private equity denies.

LifePoint’s Willamette Valley Medical Center in McMinnville, Oregon.

In April, LifePoint Chief Executive Officer David Dill and other hospital officials met with President Donald Trump. Dill urged Trump to keep helping hospitals, noting that LifePoint’s medical centers tend to be in the middle of the country, “smaller communities, which I know are communities very important to you,’’ according to a transcript of the meeting.

Rural hospitals are a very important part of the infrastructure in this country and also treating the uninsured and the Medicaid population as well,’’ Dill said.

Trump pointed out that the hospitals didn’t appear to be in the “hot spots.” Dill acknowledged they were handling only “a couple hundred Covid patients.” (The company said it has now cared for almost 20,000.)

In April, the month the government started distributing assistance, LifePoint borrowed $680 million in the capital markets. It also had access to $900 million in cash and an $800 million credit line, according to Moody’s Investors Service

By Apollo’s own account, LifePoint was doing just fine when the pandemic struck. In fact, it was thriving – and looking to expand. As of March 31, shortly before LifePoint got taxpayer dollars, Apollo’s investors were on track to double their money, internal documents show. On paper, they were sitting on a gain of more than $800 million.

“Independent hospital systems have greater difficulty weathering prolonged periods of financial stress,’’ Apollo wrote to its investors in May. “A  consolidation strategy will provide meaningful upside for Apollo funds’ investment.’’

Apollo said the crisis represented an opportunity: “The coronavirus pandemic will serve as a catalyst for additional M&A opportunities given the attractive scale and overall position of the LifePoint platform.”

Apollo is one of three private equity firms whose hospitals, as a group, received a total of about $2.5 billion in bailout grants and loans, according to an analysis of the latest federal records. That’s a conservative figure because it doesn’t count the many smaller sums distributed to subsidiaries.
LifePoint’s UP Health System-Marquette in Michigan.
Steward Health Care, a hospital  chain financed by private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, received $675 million in grants and loans. In May, Cerberus transferred ownership of Steward to a group of doctors in exchange for a note that can be converted into a 37.5% equity stake. Another hospital company, Prospect Medical Holdings, owned by private equity firm Leonard Green & Partners, took in $375 million.
Apollo’s LifePoint hospitals received the most: $941 million in subsidized loans and $535 million in outright grants. 
While Democratic lawmakers have said such firms could have instead tapped their own cash stockpiles, private equity industry representatives have said they have a duty to manage that money in the best interests of their investors, which include public pension plans.
A Wall Street Giant Tapped $1.5 Billion in Federal Aid for Its Hospitals -  Bloomberg

Apollo built its rural hospital empire through the acquisition of three regional hospital chains in 2015, 2016 and 2018.  Apollo Investment Fund VIII LP owns 76% of LifePoint, which is based in Brentwood, Tennessee.

Even though many individual rural hospitals are struggling, Apollo says it can operate them more efficiently by merging them together. LifePoint now owns 88 hospitals in 29 states. It had almost $9 billion of annual revenue last year.

Apollo says that on its watch, the chain has improved its infrastructure and technology, recruited care providers and built new centers.

And for rural hospitals, Apollo argues, bigger is better.

“We continue to believe that rural hospitals can benefit from being part of a larger well-run system that enables access to greater resources and infrastructure for improved patient care,” the Apollo spokesperson said.

 

 

Hospitals face closure as $100B in Medicare loans come due

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/finance/hospitals-face-closure-as-100b-in-medicare-loans-come-due.html?utm_medium=email

HCA posts a billion-dollar profit, bolstered by CARES Act funds - MedCity  News

CMS accelerated payments to hospitals and other healthcare providers at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to help temporarily relieve financial strain. It’s time to begin repaying the Medicare loans but that isn’t possible for some rural hospitals, according to NPR

CMS expanded the Accelerated and Advance Payment Program in late March to help offset financial damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. CMS announced April 26 that it was reevaluating pending and new applications for advance payments due to the availability of funds under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. As of May, CMS had paid out $100 billion in advance payments, the bulk of which went to hospitals. 

Hospitals and other healthcare providers are required to start repaying the Medicare loans this month. Most hospitals will have one year from the date the first loan payment was made to repay the loans, according to Kaiser Family Foundation.

Ozarks Community Hospital, 25-bed critical access hospital in Gravette, Ark., is one of the hospitals that applied for and accepted the Medicare loans. The hospital also received grants made available under the CARES Act, which do not have to be repaid.

CEO Paul Taylor said Ozarks Community Hospital’s revenue is still constrained, and he doesn’t know how it will pay back its $8 million Medicare loan. Payments for new Medicare claims will be offset to repay the loans, but losing those payments could force the hospital to close, Mr. Taylor told NPR.

“If I get no relief and they take the money … we won’t still be open,” he said.

Ozarks Community Hospital is one of more than 850 critical access hospitals in rural areas that received Medicare loans, according to NPR. Given the shaky financial footing of many rural hospitals before the pandemic, the strain of having Medicare payments withheld could be enough to force others to shut down. 

Before the pandemic, more than 600 rural hospitals across the U.S. were vulnerable to closure, according to an estimate from iVantage Health Analytics, a firm that compiles a hospital strength index based on data about financial stability, patients and quality indicators.

If the financial pressures tied to the pandemic force any of those hospitals to shut down, they’ll join the list of 131 rural hospitals that have closed over the past decade, according to the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research.

 

 

 

 

DOJ charges execs, others with elaborate $1.4B billing scheme using rural hospitals

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/doj-charges-execs-others-with-elaborate-14b-billing-scheme-using-rural-h/580785/

Office of Attorney Recruitment & Management | Department of Justice

Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Department of Justice is charging 10 defendants for an “elaborate” pass-through billing scheme that used small rural hospitals across three states as shells to submit fraudulent claims for laboratory testing to commercial insurers, jacking up reimbursement.
  • The defendants, including hospital executives, lab owners and recruiters, billed private payers roughly $1.4 billion from November 2015 to February 2018 for pricey lab testing, reaping $400 million.
  • The four rural hospitals used in the scheme are: Cambellton-Graceville Hospital, a 25-bed rural facility in Florida; Regional General Hospital of Williston, a 40-bed hospital in Florida; Chestatee Regional Hospital, a 49-bed facility in Georgia; and Putnam County Memorial Hospital, a 25-bed hospital in Missouri. Only Putnam emerged from the scheme relatively unscathed: Chestatee was sold to a health system that plans to replace it with a newer facility, Cambellton-Graceville closed in 2017 and RGH of Williston was sold for $100 to an accounting firm earlier this month.

Dive Insight:

The indictment, filed in the Middle District of Florida and unsealed Monday, alleges the 10 defendants, using management companies they owned, would take over rural hospitals often struggling financially. They would then bill commercial payers for millions of dollars for pricey urine analysis drug tests and blood tests through the rural hospitals, though the tests were normally conducted at outside labs, and launder the money to hide their trail and distribute proceeds.

The rural hospitals had negotiated rates with commercial insurers for higher reimbursement for tests than if they’d been run at an outside labs, so the facilities were used as a shell for fraudulent billing for often medically unnecessary tests, the indictment alleges.

The defendants, aged 34 to 60, would get urine and other samples by paying kickbacks to recruiters and healthcare providers, like sober homes and substance abuse treatment centers.

Screening urine tests, to determine the presence or absence of a substance in a patient’s system, is generally inexpensive and simple — it can be done at a substance abuse facility, a doctor’s office or a lab. But confirmatory tests, to identify concentration of a drug, are more precise and sensitive and have to be done at a sophisticated lab.

As such they’re more expensive and are typically reimbursed at higher rates than screening urine tests. None of the rural hospitals had the capacity to conduct confirmatory tests, or blood tests, on a large scale, but frequently billed in-network insurers, including CVS Health-owned Aetna, Florida Blue and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia, for the service from 2015 to 2018, the indictment says.

Rural hospitals are facing unprecedented financial stress amid the pandemic, but have been fighting to keep their doors open for years against shrinking reimbursement and lowering patient volume. That can give bad actors an opportunity to come in and assume control.

One of the defendants, Jorge Perez, 60, owns a Miami-based hospital operator called Empower, which has seen many of its facilities fail after insurers refused to pay for suspect billing. Half of rural hospital bankruptcies last year were affiliated with Empower, which controlled 18 hospitals across eight states at the height of the operation. Over the past two years, 12 of the hospitals have declared bankruptcy. Eight have closed, leaving their rural communities without healthcare and a source of jobs.

“Schemes that exploit rural hospitals are particularly egregious as they can undermine access to care in underserved communities,” Thomas South, a deputy assistant inspector general in the Office of Personnel Management Office of Inspector General, said in a statement.