The number of independent physician practices continued to decline nationwide as health systems, payers, and investors accelerated their physician acquisition and employment strategies during the pandemic.
The graphic above highlights recent analysis from consulting firm Avalere Health and the nonprofit Physicians Advocacy Institute, finding that nearly half of physician practices are now owned by hospital or corporate entities, meaning insurers, disruptors, or other investor-owned companies.
This increase has been driven mainly by a surge in the number of corporate-owned practices, which has grown over 50 percent across the last two years. (Researchers said they were unable to accurately break down corporate employers more specifically, and that the study likelyundercounts the number of practices owned by private equity firms, given the lack of transparency in that segment.)
It’s no surprise that we’re seeing an uptick in physician employment, as about a quarter of physicians surveyed a year ago claimed COVID was making them more likely to sell or partner with other entities, and last year saw independent physicians’ average salary falling below that of hospital-employed physicians.
We expect the move away from private practice will continue throughout this year and beyond, as physicians seek financial stability and access to capital for necessary investments to remain competitive.
We’ve been working with a CEO and his strategy team around their health system’s five-year strategic plan. It’s still early in development, and they’re considering some bold moves. Given that some of the ideas are disruptive, he astutely observed they needed to bring a clinical leader into the process before the strategy is fully developed, but he’s having trouble identifying the right physician to be part of the very small executive working group.
We began listing the important attributes, creatingarough job description for a “clinician strategist”: the ability to consider clinical and operational implications but not get bogged down in details; bold, big-picture thinking and a willingness to take risks; strong communication and leadership skills.
As the list grew longer, we began to wonder if we were really telling the CEO to chase a unicorn. Some of the characteristics that typically make for an outstanding clinician—reliance on data and evidence, lower risk tolerance—might conflict with embracing disruptive change. Much of strategic decision making is about finding “80-20” compromises, while doctors often tend to get bogged down in detail (for good reason) and are quick to poke holes.
And our ideal physician strategist, out of a desire to safeguard patient care, might sometimes find that the strategy team isn’t adequately considering the ramifications for quality and safety. Finding a physician leader who also has the skills of a chief strategy officer is indeed a rare thing. It’s probably a better bet to identify early-career doctors who have the right mindset and an interest in strategy and help them develop their leadership skills over time.
Regardless, this CEO’s instinct was correct. Bringing doctors into the strategy-setting process early is crucial, even if the perfect clinician strategist might prove difficult to find.
An estimate from the Partnership for America’s Healthcare Future predicts that nearly four out of five 60- to 64-year-olds would enroll in Medicare, with two-thirds transitioning from existing commercial plans, if “Medicare at 60” becomes a reality.
In the graphic above, we’ve modeled the financial impact this shift would have on a “typical” five-hospital health system, with $1B in revenue and an industry-average two percent operating margin.
If just over half of commercially insured 60- to 64-year-olds switch to Medicare, the health system would see a $61M loss in commercial revenue.
There would be some revenue gains, especially from patients who switch from Medicaid, but the net result of the payer mix shift among the 60 to 64 population would be a loss of $30M, or three percent of annual revenue, large enough to push operating margin into the red, assuming no changes in cost structure. (Our analysis assumed a conservative estimate for commercial payment rates at 240 percent of Medicare—systems with more generous commercial payment would take a larger hit.)
Coming out of the pandemic, hospitals face rising labor costs and unpredictable volume in a more competitive marketplace. While “Medicare at 60” could provide access to lower-cost coverage for a large segment of consumers, it would force a financial reckoning for many hospitals, especially standalone hospitals and smaller systems.
Legacy health brands are losing their significance as healthcare consumers place higher value on convenience than reputation. That’s the idea behind a July 1 tweet by Sachin Jain, MD, the CEO of Scan Group and Scan Health Plan.
“We are in an era of the declining significance of big healthcare brands,” he said.
To Dr. Jain, big healthcare brands are the ones commonly known for being the best in a specific specialty or renowned in their region. While many big healthcare brands have high quality performance metrics to hang their clout on, Dr. Jain believes reliance on name alone is problematic.
“There’s been an arrogance by a lot of healthcare organizations that have kind of sold on brand. There’s going to be a reckoning for some of those organizations. My personal view is that the next generation of healthcare consumers is going to be less aligned to think about brands in the same way,” Dr. Jain told Becker’s.
Today’s patients are paying more attention to convenience, digital access and price than reputation. Cost of care, ease of scheduling and accessibility are beating out recognition, Dr. Jain said.
At Scan, Dr. Jain said the Long Beach, Calif.-based Medicare Advantage insurer that serves more than 220,000 members is hyperfocused on staying as human as possible and fulfilling unmet needs for its community.
“Elite healthcare brands are entering this fun phase where they are becoming underdogs. They need to have a chip on their shoulders almost to thrive and perform in this next phase,” Dr. Jain said. “Because I’m not sure payers are necessarily going to continue to pay the same premiums per brand.”
In theory, the idea of salaried compensation for employed physicians makes a lot of sense. For one thing, it’s blessedly simple, with the potential to remove the tensions that arise in shifting to value-based payment or implementing lower-cost (but lower-reimbursement) care models like telemedicine.
However, medical group leaders have long feared that productivity would tank if doctors were put on salary. (As a consulting colleague said recently, the switch to salary would cause a 20+ percent drop in productivity in the medical group, creating a challenge akin to keeping an airline profitable after removing a quarter of the seats on its planes). We’ve been expecting that more doctors might seek stable compensation models in the wake of the pandemic, and so weren’t entirely surprised when the question of moving to straight salary came up in three conversations over the past two weeks.
In all three cases, leaders are hoping to create more predictability, and to decrease the resources and effort needed to execute against a menu of complex plans. They believe that a move to salary is inevitable, and their questions have more to do with timing.
Gauging when to make the move should be determined not by external market shifts, but by internal cultural and operational readiness. Are the systems in place to enable doctors to work at a high level of efficiency? And do we have the group collaboration needed to maintain high performance without paying doctors as if they are salesmen on commission?
Another wrinkle has popped up for groups who might be ready now: the past year has upended the benchmarks that groups might otherwise use to inform decisions on where to set salaries. Nevertheless, over time we expect more groups to move in this direction, with the hope of getting off the “hamster wheel” of compensation committee meetings and ever more exotic permutations of bonus plans, in search of a more stable model.
Michael Freed, the former CFO of Spectrum Health, said he was “stunned” when he heard that the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based system plans to pursue a merger with Southfield, Mich.-based Beaumont Health, for myriad reasons.
In a June 24 open letter to Spectrum’s board of directors, Mr. Freed said during his tenure they discussed possible mergers routinely and that a Spectrum-Beaumont combination “brought nothing new with it” and wouldn’t enhance value.
“The markets didn’t overlap, so there were no significant administrative savings opportunities. The ability of each hospital to grow wasn’t enhanced by adding the other to the ‘system,'” Mr. Freed wrote. “In short, I never saw how such a merger could improve health, enhance value or make care more affordable. I still don’t.”
Mr. Freed was Spectrum’s CFO from May 1995 to December 2013. During his tenure, he helped oversee the formation of Spectrum and a substantive period of growth for the Michigan system. Mr. Freed also served as CEO of Spectrum’s health plan, Priority Health, from May 2012 until he retired in January 2016.
In his letter, Mr. Freed outlined several reasons he was “stunned” by the pursuit of the merger that would create a health system with 22 hospitals, 305 outpatient centers and about $13 billion in operating revenue.
Mr. Freed wrote that the merger with Beaumont, which is based in Southfield, Mich., may not be in the best interest of West Michigan. He said the combination of the two systems raises questions about whether governance truly will remain in the region and with Spectrum, if financial transparency will continue and if Spectrum will continue to honor the consent decree it signed in 1997 establishing a set of operational guidelines.
If the merger moves forward, “debt can be placed on the books of West Michigan while investments EARNED IN West Michigan could be spent in SE Michigan … and vice versa,” Mr. Freed wrote. “If this entity should someday merge with other out-of-state entities, West Michigan could find itself investing in healthcare in other states as well, rather than in its own health.”
Mr. Freed raised concerns over the agreement between Spectrum and Beaumont to create a 16-person board of directors, seven of whom would come from Spectrum and seven from Beaumont. The CEO would come from Spectrum, and one new board member will be appointed.
“While this structure looks to favor Spectrum Health initially, it would only take the hiring of a board member more favorable to Beaumont Health and the replacement of the CEO (in favor of Beaumont Health) for Spectrum Health to find itself outvoted 9 to 7 on key issues,” Mr. Freed said.
Additionally, Mr. Freed noted that the merger has the potential for massive financial losses to West Michigan. In particular, Mr. Freed said losses would stem from the financial assets of Spectrum and Priority Health no longer residing in West Michigan.
“I’ll admit, I don’t see any value in this merger,” Mr. Freed wrote. “I only see the potential for massive financial loss, both historically and an undetermined amount going forward, to the region that produced all of Spectrum Health.”
Mr. Freed urged the Spectrum board to take a few steps before moving forward with the merger, including selling or divesting Priority Health.
“When you sign the documents that will permanently change this region, your signature will forever hold you accountable for the repercussions,” Mr. Freed wrote. “Please sign carefully.”
Spectrum Health told MiBiz it remains committed to the commitments in the 1997 consent agreement and that it “remains enthusiastic” about the merger.
“Spectrum Health is fully committed to fulfilling its consent decree obligations and will continue to uphold its tenets,” the health system said. “We remain confident that creating a new system not only meets our current obligations to our local communities but will also improve the health of individuals in West Michigan and throughout the state.”
On Thursday, Grand Rapids-based Spectrum Health and Southfield-based Beaumont Health signed a letter of intent to merge, in a combination that would create a 22-hospital, $12B company that would become Michigan’s largest health system.
Spectrum CEO Tina Freese Decker will lead the combined company, while Beaumont CEO John Fox will assist with the merger, then depart. The proposed deal would not only create a system spanning much of Michigan, but would also allow for theexpansion of Spectrum’s health plan, Priority Health, which accounted for more than $5B of the system’s $8B in revenue, into the Detroit market.
This is the third proposed merger since 2019 for Beaumont, which saw its planned combinations with Ohio-based Summa Health fall apart early in the pandemic; the system’s planned merger with Illinois-based Advocate-Aurora Health was called off in 2020 amid pushback from the system’s medical staff. Both deals fell apart due to challenges in communication and cultural compatibility—which will likely also be the greatest potential stumbling blocks for a Spectrum-Beaumont partnership.
The recently abandoned combination between NC-based Cone Health and VA-based Sentara Healthcare also appears to have fallen apart due to cultural challenges, as have many other recent health system deals. Yet despite a string of cautionary tales, health system mergers continue apace—a sign of the pressure industry players are under to seek scale in order to contend with the growing ranks of disruptive (and well-funded) competitors.
Tenet, a major U.S. health system, has agreed to sell five hospitals in the Miami-Dade area for $1.1 billion to Steward Health Care System, a physician-owned hospital operator and health network.
The deal also includes the hospitals’ associated physician practices. Dallas-based Steward has agreed to continue using Tenet’s revenue cycle management firm, Conifer Health Solutions, following the completion of the deal, which is expected to close in the third quarter.
Further underscoring Tenet’s strategic focus, the sale will not include Tenet’s ambulatory surgery centers in Florida. Tenet will hold onto those assets as its ambulatory business becomes a bigger focus for the legacy hospital operator.
Dallas-based Tenet continues to bet on its ambulatory surgery business.
It’s noteworthy that this latest billion-dollar sale does not include any of its surgery centers in Florida, but half of its hospitals. Jefferies analyst Brian Tanquilut said the ambulatory segment now becomes even more important as it will contribute a majority of consolidated earnings in the near term.
The money generated from the sale could also pay for more ASCs, under Tenet’s unit, United Surgical Partners International (USPI), further bulking up Tenet’s ASC portfolio that already outnumbers its competitors.
Tenet is traditionally viewed as a hospital operator, even though its surgery center footprint dwarfs its hospital portfolio. Tenet operates 310 ASCs following a $1.1 billion deal in December to acquire 45 centers from SurgCenter Development. Tenet said Wednesday it operates 65 hospitals.
Of Tenet’s 10 Florida hospitals, Steward will buy up half, including Coral Gables Hospital, Florida Medical Center, Hialeah Hospital, North Shore Medical Center and Palmetto General Hospital.
Tanquilut said that leaves Tenet in control of its “core” south Florida business in the Boca and Palm Beach market, located about 75 miles north of the Miami area where Tenet is selling its hospitals.
During the volatile year of 2020, Tenet was able to post a profit of $399 million for the full year, which includes provider relief funding. As recovery continues, Tenet posted a profit of $97 million during the first quarter, which also includes federal relief due to the pandemic.
A number of the regional health systems we work with have either launched or are planning to launch their own Medicare Advantage (MA) plans. The good news is the breathless enthusiasm among hospitals for getting into the insurance business that followed the advent of risk-based contracting has been tempered in recent years.
Early strategies, circa 2012-15, involved health systems rushing into the commercial group and individual markets, only to run up against fierce competition from incumbent Blues plans, and an employer sales channel characterized by complicated relationships with insurance brokers.
Slowly, a lightbulb has gone off among system strategists that MA is where the focus should be, given demographic and enrollment trends, and the fact that MA plans can be profitable with a smaller number of lives than commercial plans. It’s also a space that rewards investments in care management, as MA enrollees tend to be “sticky”, remaining with one plan for several years, which gives population health interventions a chance to reap benefits.
But as systems “skate to where the puck is going” with Medicare risk, they’re confronting a new challenge: slow growth.Selling a Medicare insurance plan is a “kitchen-table sale”, involving individual consumer purchase decisions, rather than a “wholesale sale” to a group market purchaser. That means that consumer marketing matters more—and the large national carriers are able to deploy huge advertising budgets to drive seniors toward their offerings.
Regional systems are often outmatched in this battle for MA lives, and we’re beginning to hear real frustration with the slow pace of growth among provider systems that have invested here. Patience will pay off, but so will scale, most likely—the bigger the system, the bigger the investment in marketing can be. (Although even large, national health systems are still dwarfed by the likes of UnitedHealthcare, CVS Health, and Humana.)
Look for the pursuit of MA lives to further accelerate the trend toward consolidation among regional health systems.