A complete financial recovery for many organizations is still far away, findings from Kaufman Hall indicate.
For the past three years, Kaufman Hall has released annual healthcare performance reports illustrating how hospitals and health systems are managing, both financially and operationally.
This year, however, with the pandemic altering the industry so broadly, the report took a different approach: to see how COVID-19 impacted hospitals and health systems across the country. The report’s findings deal with finances, patient volumes and recovery.
The report includes survey answers from respondents almost entirely (96%) from hospitals or health systems. Most of the respondents were in executive leadership (55%) or financial roles (39%). Survey responses were collected in August 2020.
Findings from the report indicate that a complete financial recovery for many organizations is still far away. Almost three-quarters of the respondents said they were either moderately or extremely concerned about their organization’s financial viability in 2021 without an effective vaccine or treatment.
Looking back on the operating margins for the second quarter of the year, 33% of respondents saw their operating margins decline by more than 100% compared to the same time last year.
Revenue cycles have taken a hit from COVID-19, according to the report. Survey respondents said they are seeing increases in bad debt and uncompensated care (48%), higher percentages of uninsured or self-pay patients (44%), more Medicaid patients (41%) and lower percentages of commercially insured patients (38%).
Organizations also noted that increases in expenses, especially for personal protective equipment and labor, have impacted their finances. For 22% of respondents, their expenses increased by more than 50%.
IMPACT ON PATIENT VOLUMES
Although volumes did increase over the summer, most of the improvement occurred in areas where it is difficult to delay care, such as oncology and cardiology. For example, oncology was the only field where more than half of respondents (60%) saw their volumes recover to more than 90% of pre-pandemic levels.
More than 40% of respondents said that cardiology volumes are operating at more than 90% of pre-pandemic levels. Only 37% of respondents can say the same for orthopedics, neurology and radiology, and 22% for pediatrics.
Emergency department usage is also down as a result of the pandemic, according to the report. The respondents expect that this trend will persist beyond COVID-19 and that systems may need to reshape their business model to account for a drop in emergency department utilization.
Most respondents also said they expect to see overall volumes remain low through the summer of 2021, with some planning for suppressed volumes for the next three years.
Hospitals and health systems have taken a number of approaches to reduce costs and mitigate future revenue declines. The most common practices implemented are supply reprocessing, furloughs and salary reductions, according to the report.
Executives are considering other tactics such as restructuring physician contracts, making permanent labor reductions, changing employee health plan benefits and retirement plan contributions, or merging with another health system as additional cost reduction measures.
THE LARGER TREND
Kaufman Hall has been documenting the impact of COVID-19 hospitals since the beginning of the pandemic. In its July report, hospital operating margins were down 96% since the start of the year.
As a result of these losses, hospitals, health systems and advocacy groups continue to push Congress to deliver another round of relief measures.
Earlier this month, the House passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill called the HEROES Act, 2.0. The bill has yet to pass the Senate, and the chances of that happening are slim, with Republicans in favor of a much smaller, $500 billion package. Nothing is expected to happen prior to the presidential election.
The Department of Health and Human Services also recently announced the third phase of general distribution for the Provider Relief Fund. Applications are currently open and will close on Friday, November 6.
Braven Health teams two of the largest provider systems in New Jersey with one of the largest insurers in the state.
Hackensack Meridian Health and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey have teamed up as equal provider and payer owners of the newly-created Medicare Advantage business, Braven Health.
RJWBarnabas Health in New Jersey, is about to come onboard as a 10% minority owner, subject to state approvals.
“A lot of organizations have a provider and payer partnership,” said Patrick Young, president of Population Health at Hackensack. “The payer is still the payer and the provider is still the provider. This transcends that.”
While Medicare accounts for a large portion of hospital revenue – about 40% – providers do not reap the rewards that Medicare Advantage plans do.
“We don’t do well financially for care to a Medicare member because the rates are low,” said Young, who formerly worked for Aetna. “The Medicare population is the fastest growing, but there’s no advantage to being the provider. The only organizations making money are the insurers.”
Hackensack felt that getting into the insurance space specifically around Medicare was strategic for growth.
“Medicare is the fastest growing population,” Young said, adding, “It’s the fastest growing population we lose money on.”
Hackensack went looking for a payer partner in the complicated and highly regulated insurance market. The health system sent requests for proposals, looking not only for experience in the market, but for an organization whose value-based goals aligned with its own.
“We have value-based arrangements with all the major payers,” Young said.
It chose Horizon as its strategic partner.
Braven Health teams two of the largest provider systems in New Jersey with one of the largest insurers in the state.
Starting January 1, Braven Health’s Medicare Advantage plans will be available in eight counties: Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, Passaic and Union.
WHY THIS MATTERS
Insurers and pharmacies have long been elbowing into the healthcare space.
UnitedHealth Group has been buying physician practices and is reportedly one of the nation’s largest employers of doctors. CVS Health, owner of Aetna, launched Health Hubs within its pharmacies. Walmart recently announced an expansion of its health clinics.
The move by Hackensack could be seen as another battle in the arms race to regain competitive ground. But it also recognizes the need for providers to work collaboratively with payers to get claims and other data needed to improve outcomes and lower cost in the move to value-based care.
Joint ventures are the next logical progression of payment models, moving away from fee-for-service and toward value, shared risk and accountability arrangements.
The integration model of provider and payer isn’t new.
The Geisinger Health System, Highmark Health in Pennsylvania and Kaiser Permanente in California are three of the largest and best-known integrated systems.
Horizon competitors such as Aetna, Cigna and Oscar and other Blue plans such as Highmark are in provider/payer partnerships.
One of the nation’s largest nonprofit health systems, Ascension, and health payer Centene are also among the joint ventures offering Medicare Advantage plans. In 2018, there were about 28 joint venture plans in the United States, with at least nine of these offering MA plans, according to DRG.
Braven Health plans use Horizon BCBSNJ’s existing Medicare Advantage managed care networks, meaning that every doctor and hospital that participates in these networks will also be in-network for comparable Braven Health plans.
This gives Braven Health Medicare Advantage members access to more than 51,000 providers and 82 network hospitals in the Hackensack and RWJBarnabas systems in New Jersey.
As a Blue Cross Blue Shield plan, Braven Health’s members choosing a PPO plan will also have access to the BCBS national Medicare Advantage PPO network.
Braven is a separate legal entity with its own board. It also has a Practitioner Council, made up of physicians representing various specialties, that will provide recommendations to the Braven Health CEO and board of directors on ways to improve the plan from the practitioner’s perspective.
It’s still early in the open enrollment process, but so far Braven Health CEO Luisa Y. Charbonneau said she is encouraged by the response to the plans. Braven creates a closer, collaborative relationship for better health, based in part on the exchange of data, according to Charbonneau.
“You can make the best decisions when there is transparent data between all parties, as well as have innovation,” Charbonneau said. “I think we see across the United States, where physicians, providers and the insurer are all aligned to be patient-centered, that’s where we’re going to see the best outcomes and financial outcomes.”
THE LARGER TREND
Close to 40% of Medicare members now choose a Medicare Advantage plan over traditional Medicare, as the plans run by private insurers offer additional benefits and some, including Braven Health, are offering zero premiums in specific 2021 plans.
The market is only expected to grow as baby boomers age into retirement.
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.
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Providence, a 51-hospital system based in Renton Wash., received $651 million in federal grants in the first half of this year, but it wasn’t enough to offset the system’s losses tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The health system reported revenues of $12.5 billion in the first six months of this year, down from $12.6 billion in the same period a year earlier, according to financial documents released Aug. 17. Though the health system reported a rebound in patient volumes after the suspension of non-emergency procedures in March and April, net patient service revenue was down 10 percent year over year.
Providence’s expenses also increased. For the first two quarters of this year, the health system reported operating expenses of $12.7 billion, up 3 percent year over year. The increase was attributed to higher labor costs and increased personal protective equipment and pharmaceutical spend.
Reduced patient volumes combined with increased costs drove an operating loss of $221 million in the first half of this year. In the first half of 2019, Providence reported operating income of $250 million.
After factoring in nonoperating items, Providence ended the first six months of 2020 with a net loss of $538 million, compared to net income of $985 million in the same period of 2019.
To help offset financial damage, Providence received $651 million in federal grants made available under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
“We knew we were in for a marathon the moment we admitted our first patient with COVID-19 seven months ago,” Providence President and CEO Rod Hochman, MD, said in an earnings release. “Our caregivers have been on the front lines ever since, and we are incredibly proud and grateful for all they are doing to serve our communities during the greatest crisis of our lifetime.”
In its earnings release, Providence mapped out a three-part plan for the future. As part of that plan, the system said it is focused on improving testing capacity and turnaround times and advancing clinical research and best practices in the treatment of COVID-19. The system is also revising its operating model and cost structure.
IN THE New York Times, Stephen I. Sadove, chairman and chief executive of Saks Inc., explains that it is culture that drives results:
It starts with leadership at the top, which drives a culture. Culture drives innovation and whatever else you’re trying to drive within a company — innovation, execution, whatever it’s going to be. And that then drives results.
When I talk to Wall Street, people really want to know your results, what are your strategies, what are the issues, what it is that you’re doing to drive your business. They’re focused on the bottom line. Never do you get people asking about the culture, about leadership, about the people in the organization. Yet, it’s the reverse, because it’s the people, the leadership, the culture and the ideas that are ultimately driving the numbers and the results.
While we know that our most important resource is our people, it’s not so easy to get people “all in”—convincing people to “truly buy into their ideas and the strategy they’ve put forward, to give that extra push that leads to outstanding results.”
All In by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton explains why some managers are able to get their employees to commit wholeheartedly to their culture and give that extra push that leads to outstanding results and how managers at any level, can build and sustain a profitable, vibrant work-group culture of their own. All In takes the principles found in their previous books—The Orange Revolution and The Carrot Principle—and expands on them and places them in a wider context.
They begin by explaining that it all rests on the “belief factor.” People want to believe, but given the fact that “failure could cost them their future security why shouldn’t they be at least a little dubious about your initiatives?” But belief is key. “As leaders we must first allow people on our teams to feel like valuable individuals, respecting their views and opening up to their ideas and inputs, even while sharing a better way forward. It’s a balancing act that requires some wisdom.”
To have a culture of belief employees must feel not only engaged, but enabled and energized. What’s more, “each element of E+E+E can be held hostage by an imbalance in the other two.”
The authors have created a 7 step guide to develop a culture where people buy-in:
Define your burning platform. “Your ability to identify and define the key “burning” issue you face and separate it from the routine challenges of the day is the first step in galvanizing your employees to believe in you and in your vision and strategy.”
Create a customer focus. “Your organization must evolve into one that not only rewards employees who spot customer trends or problems, but one that finds such challenges invigorating, one that empowers people at all levels to respond with alacrity and creativity.”
Develop agility. “Employees are more insistent than ever that their managers see into the future and do a decent job of addressing the coming challenges and capitalizing on new opportunities.”
Share everything. “When we aren’t sure what’s happening around us, we become distrustful….In a dark work environment, where information is withheld or not communicated properly, employees tend to suspect the worst and rumors take the place of facts. It is openness that drives out the gray and helps employees regain trust in culture.”
Partner with your talent. “Your people have more energy and creativity to give. There are employees now in your organization walking around with brilliant ideas in their pocket. Some will never share them because they don’t have the platform to launch those ideas on their own. Most, however, will never reveal them because they don’t feel like a partner in the organization.”
Root for each other. “Our research shows incontrovertible evidence that employees respond best when they are recognized for things they are good at and for those actions where they had to stretch. It is this reinforcement that makes people want to grow to their full shape and stature.”
Establish clear accountability. “To grow a great culture, you need to cultivate a place where people have to do more than show up and fog a mirror; they have to fulfill promises—not only collectively but individually.” And this has to be a positive idea.
Gostick and Elton explain that the “modern leader provides the why, keeps an ear close to those they serve, is agile and open, treats their people with deference, and creates a place where every step forward is noted and applauded.”
The authors skillfully examine high-performing cultures and present the elements that produce them. A leader at any level can implement these ideas to drive results. A great learning tool.
We’re increasingly convinced that virtual physician visits are just one part of a continuum of care that can be delivered in the convenience and safety of the patient’s home. Health systems that can deliver “care anywhere”—an integrated platform of virtual services consumers can access from home (or wherever they are) for both urgent needs and overall health management, coordinated with in-person resources—have an unprecedented opportunity to build loyalty at a time when consumers are seeking a trusted source of safe, available care solutions.
The graphic above outlines the key components of a comprehensive home-based care model,
which requires the integration of three main elements:
a technology backbone,
a supply chain to provide services like labs and diagnostics,
and a tiered, flexible workforce.
Of course, these infrastructure needs will increase with care acuity level, ranging from a simple virtual visit to home-delivered vaccination, all the way to hospital-level care at home. Delivering safe, accessible care within the home can be the foundation for an access platform that creates ongoing consumer loyalty—especially for systems who can build a financial model less dependent on payers’ long-term support for telemedicine reimbursement “parity”.
Provider executives already know America’s hospitals and health systems are seeing rapidly deteriorating finances as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. They’re just not yet sure of the extent of the damage.
By the end of June, COVID-19 will have delivered an estimated $200 billion blow to these institutions with the bulk of losses stemming from cancelled elective and nonelective surgeries, according to the American Hospital Association.
A recent Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA)/Guidehouse COVID-19 survey suggests these patient volumes will be slow to return, with half of provider executive respondents anticipating it will take through the end of the year or longer to return to pre-COVID levels. Moreover, one-in-three provider executives expect to close the year with revenues at 15 percent or more below pre-pandemic levels. One-in-five of them believe those decreases will soar to 30 percent or beyond.
Available cash is also in short supply. A Guidehouse analysis of 350 hospitals nationwide found that cash on hand is projected to drop by 50 days on average by the end of the year — a 26% plunge — assuming that hospitals must repay accelerated and/or advanced Medicare payments.
While the government is providing much needed aid, just 11% of the COVID survey respondents expect emergency funding to cover their COVID-related costs.
The figures illustrate how the virus has hurled American medicine into unparalleled volatility. No one knows how long patients will continue to avoid getting elective care, or how state restrictions and climbing unemployment will affect their decision making once they have the option.
All of which leaves one thing for certain: Healthcare’s delivery, operations, and competitive dynamics are poised to undergo a fundamental and likely sustained transformation.
Here are six changes coming sooner rather than later.
1. Payer-provider complexity on the rise; patients will struggle.
The pandemic has been a painful reminder that margins are driven by elective services. While insurers show strong earnings — with some offering rebates due to lower reimbursements — the same cannot be said for patients. As businesses struggle, insured patients will labor under higher deductibles, leaving them reluctant to embrace elective procedures. Such reluctance will be further exacerbated by the resurgence of case prevalence, government responses, reopening rollbacks, and inconsistencies in how the newly uninsured receive coverage.
Furthermore, the upholding of the hospital price transparency ruling will add additional scrutiny and significance for how services are priced and where providers are able to make positive margins. The end result: The payer-provider relationship is about to get even more complicated.
2. Best-in-class technology will be a necessity, not a luxury.
COVID has been a boon for telehealth and digital health usage and investments. Two-thirds of survey respondents anticipate using telehealth five times more than they did pre-pandemic. Yet, only one-third believe their organizations are fully equipped to handle the hike.
If healthcare is to meet the shift from in-person appointments to video, it will require rapid investment in things like speech recognition software, patient information pop-up screens, increased automation, and infrastructure to smooth workflows.
Historically, digital technology was viewed as a disruption that increased costs but didn’t always make life easier for providers. Now, caregiver technologies are focused on just that.
The new necessities of the digital world will require investments that are patient-centered and improve access and ease of use, all the while giving providers the platform to better engage, manage, and deliver quality care.
After all, the competition at the door already holds a distinct technological advantage.
3. The tech giants are coming.
Some of America’s biggest companies are indicating they believe they can offer more convenient, more affordable care than traditional payers and providers.
Begin with Amazon, which has launched clinics for its Seattle employees, created the PillPack online pharmacy, and is entering the insurance market with Haven Healthcare, a partnership that includes Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase. Walmart, which already operates pharmacies and retail clinics, is now opening Walmart Health Centers, and just recently announced it is getting into the Medicare Advantage business.
Meanwhile, Walgreens has announced it is partnering with VillageMD to provide primary care within its stores.
The intent of these organizations clear: Large employees see real business opportunities, which represents new competition to the traditional provider models.
It isn’t just the magnitude of these companies that poses a threat. They also have much more experience in providing integrated, digitally advanced services.
4. Work locations changes mean construction cost reductions.
If there’s one thing COVID has taught American industry – and healthcare in particular – it’s the importance of being nimble.
Many back-office corporate functions have moved to a virtual environment as a result of the pandemic, leaving executives wondering whether they need as much real estate. According to the survey, just one-in-five executives expect to return to the same onsite work arrangements they had before the pandemic.
Not surprisingly, capital expenditures, including new and existing construction, leads the list of targets for cost reductions.
Such savings will be critical now that investment income can no longer be relied upon to sustain organizations — or even buy a little time. Though previous disruptions spawned only marginal change, the unprecedented nature of COVID will lead to some uncomfortable decisions, including the need for a quicker return on investments.
5. Consolidation is coming.
Consolidation can be interpreted as a negative concept, particularly as healthcare is mostly delivered at a local level. But the pandemic has only magnified the differences between the “resilients” and the “non-resilients.”
All will be focused on rebuilding patient volume, reducing expenses, and addressing new payment models within a tumultuous economy. Yet with near-term cash pressures and liquidity concerns varying by system, the winners and losers will quickly emerge. Those with at least a 6% to 8% operating margin to innovate with delivery and reimagine healthcare post-COVID will be the strongest. Those who face an eroding financial position and market share will struggle to stay independent..
6. Policy will get more thoughtful and data-driven.
The initial coronavirus outbreak and ensuing responses by both the private and public sectors created negative economic repercussions in an accelerated timeframe. A major component of that response was the mandated suspension of elective procedures.
While essential, the impact on states’ economies, people’s health, and the employment market have been severe. For example, many states are currently facing inverse financial pressures with the combination of reductions in tax revenue and the expansion of Medicaid due to increases in unemployment. What’s more, providers will be subject to the ongoing reckonings of outbreak volatility, underscoring the importance of agile policy that engages stakeholders at all levels.
As states have implemented reopening plans, public leaders agree that alternative responses must be developed. Policymakers are in search of more thoughtful, data-driven approaches, which will likely require coordination with health system leaders to develop flexible preparation plans that facilitate scalable responses. The coordination will be difficult, yet necessary to implement resource and operational responses that keeps healthcare open and functioning while managing various levels of COVID outbreaks, as well as future pandemics.
Healthcare has largely been insulated from previous economic disruptions, with capital spending more acutely affected than operations. But the COVID-19 pandemic will very likely be different. Through the pandemic, providers are facing a long-term decrease in commercial payment, coupled with a need to boost caregiver- and consumer-facing engagement, all during a significant economic downturn.
While situations may differ by market, it’s clear that the pre-pandemic status quo won’t work for most hospitals or health systems.
[Readers’ Note: This is the first of two articles on the Future of Hospitals in Post-COVID America. This article
examines how market forces are consolidating, rationalizing and redistributing acute care assets within the
broader industry movement to value-based care delivery. The second article, which will publish next month,
examines gaps in care delivery and the related public policy challenges of providing appropriate, accessible
and affordable healthcare services in medically-underserved communities.]
In her insightful 2016 book, The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore,
Michelle Wucker coins the term “Gray Rhinos” and contrasts them with “Black Swans.” That distinction is
highly relevant to the future of American hospitals.
Black Swans are high impact events that are highly improbable and difficult to predict. By contrast, Gray
Rhinos are foreseeable, high-impact events that we choose to ignore because they’re complex, inconvenient
and/or fortified by perverse incentives that encourage the status quo. Climate change is a powerful example
of a charging Gray Rhino.
In U.S. healthcare, we are now seeing what happens when a Gray Rhino and a Black Swan collide.
Arguably, the nation’s public health defenses should anticipate global pandemics and apply resources
systematically to limit disease spread. This did not happen with the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, COVID-19 hit the public healthcare infrastructure suddenly and hard. This forced hospitals and health systems to dramatically reduce elective surgeries, lay off thousands and significantly change care delivery with the adoption of new practices and services like telemedicine.
In comparison, many see the current American hospital business model as a Gray Rhino that has been charging toward
unsustainability for years with ever-building momentum.
Even with massive and increasing revenue flows, hospitals have long struggled with razor-thin margins, stagnant payment rates and costly technology adoptions. Changing utilization patterns, new and disruptive competitors, pro-market regulatory rules and consumerism make their traditional business models increasingly vulnerable and, perhaps, unsustainable.
Despite this intensifying pressure, many hospitals and health systems maintain business-as-usual practices because transformation is so difficult and costly. COVID-19 has made the imperative of change harder to ignore or delay addressing.
For a decade, the transition to value-based care has dominated debate within U.S. healthcare and absorbed massive strategic,
operational and financial resources with little progress toward improved care outcomes, lower costs and better customer service. The hospital-based delivery system remains largely oriented around Fee-for-Service reimbursement.
Hospitals’ collective response to COVID-19, driven by practical necessity and financial survival, may accelerate the shift to value-based care delivery. Time will tell.
This series explores the repositioning of hospitals during the next five years as the industry rationalizes an excess supply of acute care capacity and adapts to greater societal demands for more appropriate, accessible and affordable healthcare services.
It starts by exploring the role of the marketplace in driving hospital consolidation and the compelling need to transition to value-based care delivery and payment models.
COVID’s DUAL SHOCKS TO PATIENT VOLUME
Many American hospitals faced severe financial and operational challenges before COVID-19. The sector has struggled to manage ballooning costs, declining margins and waves of policy changes. A record 18 rural hospitals closed in 2019. Overall, hospitals saw a 21% decline in operating margins in 2018-2019.
COVID intensified those challenges by administering two shocks to the system that decreased the volume of hospital-based activities and decimated operating margins.
The first shock was immediate. To prepare for potential surges in COVID care, hospitals emptied beds and cancelled most clinic visits, outpatient treatments and elective surgeries. Simultaneously, they incurred heavy costs for COVID-related equipment (e.g. ventilators,PPE) and staffing. Overall, the sector experienced over $200 billion in financial losses between March and June 20204.
The second, extended shock has been a decrease in needed but not necessary care. Initially, many patients delayed seeking necessary care because of perceived infection risk. For example, Emergency Department visits declined 42% during the early phase of the pandemic.
Increasingly, patients are also delaying care because of affordability concerns and/or the loss of health insurance. Already, 5.4 million people have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance. This will reduce incremental revenues associated with higher-paying commercial insurance claims across the industry. Additionally, avoided care reduces patient volumes and hospital revenues today even as it increases the risk and cost of future acute illness.
The infusion of emergency funding through the CARES Act helped offset some operating losses but it’s unclear when and even whether utilization patterns and revenues will return to normal pre-COVID levels. Shifts in consumer behavior, reductions in insurance coverage, and the emergence of new competitors ranging from Walmart to enhanced primary care providers will likely challenge the sector for years to come.
The disruption of COVID-19 will serve as a forcing function, driving meaningful changes to traditional hospital business models and the competitive landscape. Frankly, this is long past due. Since 1965, Fee-for-Service (FFS) payment has dominated U.S. healthcare and created pervasive economic incentives that can serve to discourage provider responsiveness in transitioning to value-based care delivery, even when aligned to market demand.
Telemedicine typifies this phenomenon. Before COVID, CMS and most health insurers paid very low rates for virtual care visits or did not cover them at all. This discouraged adoption of an efficient, high-value care modality until COVID.
Unable to conduct in-person clinical visits, providers embraced virtual care visits and accelerated its mass adoption. CMS and
commercial health insurers did their part by paying for virtual care visits at rates equivalent to in-person clinic visits. Accelerated innovation in care delivery resulted.
THE COMPLICATED TRANSITION TO VALUE
Broadly speaking, health systems and physician groups that rely almost exclusively on activity-based payment revenues have struggled the most during this pandemic. Vertically integrated providers that offer health insurance and those receiving capitated payments in risk-based contracts have better withstood volume losses.
Modern Healthcare notes that while provider data is not yet available, organizations such as Virginia Care Partners, an integrated network and commercial ACO; Optum Health (with two-thirds of its revenue risk-based); and MediSys Health Network, a New Yorkbased NFP system with 148,000 capitated and 15,000 shared risk patients, are among those navigating the turbulence successfully. As the article observes,
…providers paid for value have had an easier time weathering the storm…. helped by a steady source of
income amid the chaos. Investments they made previously in care management, technology and social
determinants programs equipped them to pivot to new ways of providing care.
They were able to flip the switch on telehealth, use data and analytics to pinpoint patients at risk for
COVID-19 infection, and deploy care managers to meet the medical and nonclinical needs of patients even
when access to an office visit was limited.
Supporting this post-COVID push for value-based care delivery, six former leaders from CMS wrote to Congress in
June 2020 calling for providers, commercial insurers and states to expand their use of value-based payment models to
encourage stability and flexibility in care delivery.
If value-based payment models are the answer, however, adoption to date has been slow, limited and difficult. Ten
years after the Affordable Care Act, Fee-for-Service payment still dominates the payer landscape. The percentage of
overall provider revenue in risk-based capitated contracts has not exceeded 20%
Despite improvements in care quality and reductions in utilization rates, cost savings have been modest or negligible.
Accountable Care Organizations have only managed at best to save a “few percent of Medicare spending, [but] the
amount varies by program design.”
While most health systems accept some forms of risk-based payments, only 5% of providers expect to have a majority
(over 80%) of their patients in risk-based arrangements within 5 years.
The shift to value is challenging for numerous reasons. Commercial payers often have limited appetite or capacity for
risk-based contracting with providers. Concurrently, providers often have difficulty accessing the claims data they need
from payers to manage the care for targeted populations.
The current allocation of cost-savings between buyers (including government, employers and consumers), payers
(health insurance companies) and providers discourages the shift to value-based care delivery. Providers would
advance value-based models if they could capture a larger percentage of the savings generated from more effective
care management and delivery. Those financial benefits today flow disproportionately to buyers and payers.
This disconnection of payment from value creation slows industry transformation. Ultimately, U.S. healthcare will not
change the way it delivers care until it changes the way it pays for care. Fortunately, payment models are evolving to
incentivize value-based care delivery.
As payment reform unfolds, however, operational challenges pose significant challenges to hospitals and health
systems. They must adopt value-oriented new business models even as they continue to receive FFS payments. New
and old models of care delivery clash.
COVID makes this transition even more formidable as many health systems now lack the operating stamina and
balance sheet strength to make the financial, operational and cultural investments necessary to deliver better
outcomes, lower costs and enhanced customer service.
MARKET-DRIVEN CONSOLIDATION AND TRANSFORMATION
Full-risk payment models, such as bundled payments for episodic care and capitation for population health, are the
catalyst to value-based care delivery. Transition to value-based care occurs more easily in competitive markets with
many attributable lives, numerous provider options and the right mix of willing payers.
As increasing numbers of hospitals struggle financially, the larger and more profitable health systems are expanding
their networks, capabilities and service lines through acquisitions. This will increase their leverage with commercial
payers and give them more time to adapt to risk-based contracting and value-based care delivery.
COVID also will accelerate acquisition of physician practices. According to an April 2020 MGMA report, 97% of
physician practices have experienced a 55% decrease in revenue, forcing furloughs and layoffs15. It’s estimated the
sector could collectively lose as much as $15.1 billion in income by the end of September 2020.
Struggling health systems and physician groups that read the writing on the wall will pro-actively seek capital or
strategic partners that offer greater scale and operating stability. Aggregators can be selective in their acquisitions,
seeking providers that fuel growth, expand contiguous market positions and don’t dilute balance sheets.
Adding to the sector’s operating pressure, private equity, venture investors and payers are pouring record levels of
funding into asset-light and virtual delivery companies that are eager to take on risk, lower prices by routing procedures
and capture volume from traditional providers. With the right incentives, market-driven reforms will reallocate resources
to efficient companies that generate compelling value.
As this disruption continues to unfold, rural and marginal urban communities that lack robust market forces will
experience more facility and practice closures. Without government support to mitigate this trend, access and care gaps
that already riddle American healthcare will unfortunately increase.
WINNING AT VALUE
The average hospital generates around $11,000 per patient discharge. With ancillary services that can often add up to
more than $15,000 per average discharge. Success in a value-based system is predicated on reducing those
discharges and associated costs by managing acute care utilization more effectively for distinct populations (i.e.
This changes the orientation of healthcare delivery toward appropriate and lower cost settings. It also places greater
emphasis on preventive, chronic and outpatient care as well as better patient engagement and care coordination.
Such a realignment of care delivery requires the following:
A tight primary care network (either owned or affiliated) to feed referrals and reduce overall costs through
better preventive care.
A gatekeeper or navigator function (increasingly technology-based) to manage / direct patients to the most
appropriate care settings and improve coordination, adherence and engagement.
A carefully designed post-acute care network (including nursing homes, rehab centers, home care
services and behavioral health services, either owned or sufficiently controlled) to manage the 70% of
total episode-of-care costs that can occur outside the hospital setting.
An IT infrastructure that can facilitate care coordination across all providers and settings.
Quality data and digital tools that enhance care, performance, payment and engagement.
Experience with managing risk-based contracts.
A flexible approach to care delivery that includes digital and telemedicine platforms as well as nontraditional sites of care.
Aligned or incentivized physicians.
Payer partners willing to share data and offload risk through upside and downside risk contracts.
Engaged consumers who act on their preferences and best interests.
While none of these strategies is new or controversial, assembling them into cohesive and scalable business models is
something few health systems have accomplished. It requires appropriate market conditions, deep financial resources,
sophisticated business acumen, operational agility, broad stakeholder alignment, compelling vision, and robust
Providers that fail to embrace value-based care for their “attributed lives” risk losing market relevance. In their relentless pursuit of increasing treatment volumes and associated revenues, they will lose market share to organizations that
deliver consistent and high-value care outcomes.
CONCLUSION: THE CHARGING GRAY RHINO
America needs its hospitals to operate optimally in normal times, flex to manage surge capacity, sustain themselves
when demand falls, create adequate access and enhance overall quality while lowering total costs. That is a tall order
requiring realignment, evolution, and a balance between market and policy reform measures.
The status quo likely wasn’t sustainable before COVID. The nation has invested heavily for many decades in acute and
specialty care services while underinvesting, on a relative basis, in primary and chronic care services. It has excess
capacity in some markets, and insufficient access in others.
COVID has exposed deep flaws in the activity-based payment as well as the nation’s underinvestment in public health.
Disadvantaged communities have suffered disproportionately. Meanwhile, the costs for delivering healthcare services
consume an ever-larger share of national GDP.
Transformational change is hard for incumbent organizations. Every industry, from computer and auto manufacturing to
retailing and airline transportation, confronts gray rhino challenges. Many companies fail to adapt despite clear signals
that long-term viability is under threat. Often, new, nimble competitors emerge and thrive because they avoid the
inherent contradictions and service gaps embedded within legacy business models.
The healthcare industry has been actively engaged in value-driven care transformation for over ten years with little to
show for the reform effort. It is becoming clear that many hospitals and health systems lack the capacity to operate
profitably in competitive, risk-based market environments.
This dismal reality is driving hospital market valuations and closures. In contrast, customers and capital are flowing to
new, alternative care providers, such as OneMedical, Oak Street Health and Village MD. Each of these upstart
companies now have valuations in the $ billions. The market rewards innovation that delivers value.
Unfortunately, pure market-driven reforms often neglect a significant and growing portion of America’s people. This gap has been more apparent as COVID exacts a disproportionate toll on communities challenged by higher population
density, higher unemployment, and fewer medical care options (including inferior primary and preventive care infrastructure).
Absent fundamental change in our hospitals and health systems, and investment in more efficient care delivery and
payment models, the nation’s post-COVID healthcare infrastructure is likely to deteriorate in many American
communities, making them more vulnerable to chronic disease, pandemics and the vicissitudes of life.
Article 2 in our “Future of Hospitals” series will explore the public policy challenges of providing appropriate, affordable and accessible healthcare to all American communities.