Amazon is expanding its virtual care pilot program, Amazon Care, to employees and outside companies nationwide beginning this summer in a major evolution of its telehealth initiative, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drive unprecedented demand for virtual care.
Amazon will also offer its on-demand primary care service to other Washington state-based companies and plans to expand its in-person service to Washington, D.C., Baltimore and other cities in the following months, the e-commercebehemoth announced Wednesday.
Amazon Care launched 18 months ago as a pilot program in Washington state offering free telehealth consults and in-home visits for a fee for its employees and their families.
The nationwide expansion, and the potential of the e-retailer’s heft and technological know-how leveraged in the medical delivery space, threatens existing telehealth providers and retail giants like CVS Health and Walgreens that maintain their own networks of community health clinics.
Amazon Care has two main components: urgent and primary care telehealth with a nurse or doctor via an app, and in-person care, along with prescription delivery, to the home. The Seattle-based company says it will offer the gamut from preventative care like annual vaccinations, to on-demand urgent care including COVID-19 testing, to services like family planning.
Amazon plans to roll out the virtual care offering for its employees and third party companies nationwide this year, but in-person services will only be available shortly after in Washington state and near its second headquarters in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, a spokesperson said.
Making Amazon Care available to outside companies puts Amazon in direct competition with virtual care giants like Teladoc, Amwell and Doctor on Demand, which bring in a sizable chuck of their revenue through deals with employer and payer clients.
Amazon is in discussions with a number of outside companies on supplying Amazon Care, the spokesperson said.
It’s unclear what differentiates the virtual care offering alone from other vendors. Most telehealth platforms are available to consumers right now at little to no cost and offer relatively short wait times, though Amazon contends it provides free access to a medical professional in 60 seconds or less and will eventually link telehealth with in-home care across the U.S.
The timing for the broader U.S. rollout couldn’t be better for Amazon, as telehealth has seen exponential growth during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of historic consumer demand and investor interest, virtual care giants have spent billions to gobble up market share and build out their suite of services.
The race to offer end-to-end telehealth offerings has resulted in a flurry of recent M&A, the most notable deal being Teladoc’s $18.5 billion acquisition of chronic care manager Livongo last year. In February, Cigna’s health services arm Evernorth also bought vendor MDLive for undisclosed amount. The insurer plans to sell MDLive’s telehealth offerings to third-party clients and offer it to beneficiaries. And just on Tuesday, telemedicine company Doctor on Demand announced plans to merge with clinical navigator Grand Rounds to try and better coordinate virtual care.
Shares in publicly traded telehealth vendors dove following Amazon Care’s announcement Wednesday. As of late morning, Teladoc’s stock had dropped 7.4%, while Amwell was down 6.7%.
But heft doesn’t necessarily translate to disruption in healthcare.Earlier this year, Amazon, J.P. Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway disbanded their venture to lower healthcare costs after three years of stagnancy. One reason was a failure for its initiatives to take precedence at its three separate parent companies, all pursuing their own avenues to cut costs.
Now going at it alone, Amazon has a slew of independent initiatives to reshape the U.S. healthcare industry. The $386 billion company bought and launched its own online pharmacy, PillPack, a few years ago, and also partnered last year with employer health provider Crossover Health to offer employee primary care clinics. Currently, Amazon and Crossover operate clinics in 17 locations across Arizona, California, Kentucky, Michigan and Texas.
However, though Amazon Care does give patients the option to fill prescriptions through Amazon Pharmacy, it operates independently of the other services. It remains to be seen how Amazon Care could tie in with these other businesses, but the answer to that question could have major ramifications for current market leaders.
A key Medicare advisory panel is calling for a 2% bump to Medicare payments for acute care hospitals for 2022 but no hike for physicians.
The report, released Monday from the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC)—which recommends payment policies to Congress—bases payment rate recommendations on data from 2019. However, the commission did factor in the pandemic when evaluating the payment rates and other policies in the report to Congress, including whether policies should be permanent or temporary.
“The financial stress on providers is unpredictable, although it has been alleviated to some extent by government assistance and rebounding service utilization levels,” the report said.
MedPAC recommended that targeted and temporary funding policies are the best way to help providers rather than a permanent hike for payments that gets increased over time.
“Overall, these recommendations would reduce Medicare spending while preserving beneficiaries’ access to high-quality care,” the report added.
MedPAC expects the effects of the pandemic, which have hurt provider finances due to a drop in healthcare use, to persist into 2021 but to be temporary.
It calls for a 2% update for inpatient and outpatient services for 2022, the same increase it recommended for 2021.
The latest report recommends no update for physicians and other professionals. The panel also does not want any hikes for four payment systems: ambulatory surgical centers, outpatient dialysis facilities, skilled nursing facilities and hospices.
MedPAC also recommends Congress reduce the aggregate hospice cap by 20% and that “ambulatory surgery centers be required to report cost data to [Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)],” the report said.
But it does call for long-term care hospitals to get a 2% increase and to reduce payments by 5% for home health and inpatient rehabilitation facilities.
The panel also explores the effects of any policies implemented under the COVID-19 public health emergency, which is likely to extend through 2021 and could continue into 2022.
For instance, CMS used the public health emergency to greatly expand the flexibility for providers to be reimbursed for telehealth services. Use of telehealth exploded during the pandemic after hesitancy among patients to go to the doctor’s office or hospital for care.
“Without legislative action, many of the changes will expire at the end of the [public health emergency],” the report said.
MedPAC recommends Congress temporarily continue some of the telehealth expansions for one to two years after the public health emergency ends. This will give lawmakers more time to gather evidence on the impact of telehealth on quality and Medicare spending.
“During this limited period, Medicare should temporarily pay for specified telehealth services provided to all beneficiaries regardless of their location, and it should continue to cover certain newly-covered telehealth services and certain audio-only telehealth services if there is potential for clinical benefit,” according to a release on the report.
After the public health emergency ends, Medicare should also return to paying the physician fee schedule’s facility rate for any telehealth services. This will ensure Medicare can collect data on the cost for providing the services.
“Providers should not be allowed to reduce or waive beneficiary cost-sharing for telehealth services after the [public health emergency],” the report said. “CMS should also implement other safeguards to protect the Medicare program and its beneficiaries from unnecessary spending and potential fraud related to telehealth.”
The Medicare Act “prohibits Medicare payment for services that are not furnished within the United States,” according to the filing.
RemoteICU, a telemedicine provider group, is suing the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for not reimbursing telehealth services provided by physicians who are located outside the United States, according to a federal lawsuit filed last week in Washington.
RICU wants reimbursement for telehealth services provided within the U.S., but not necessarily by a physician who lives within its borders.
The company employs physicians who live outside the country, but are U.S. board-certified critical-care specialists and licensed in one or more U.S. jurisdictions. With RICU’s telecommunications system, these physicians can provide critical-care services in U.S. hospital ICUs, the lawsuit said.
“Although RICU’s physicians live abroad, they serve as full-time, permanent staff members of the U.S. hospitals at which they serve patients,” the company said in the court filing.
“By employing U.S.-licensed intensivists who live overseas, RICU has enabled the American healthcare system to recapture talent that would otherwise be lost to it – and this has helped to alleviate the ongoing shortage of intensivists in American hospitals.“
However, after the company reached out to several officials from HHS and CMS, it was notified that Medicare could not reimburse the client hospitals for RICU’s services, because the Medicare Act “prohibits Medicare payment for services that are not furnished within the United States,” according to the filing.
The company is seeking a preliminary injunction to stop HHS and CMS from denying Medicare reimbursement for telehealth services on the basis of a provider’s physical location outside of the United States at the time of service.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT?
RICU claims that, by failing to reimburse for the critical care telehealth services provided by its physicians, HHS and CMS are causing “immediate harm both to RICU and to the public.”
It argues that it’s filling a gap in critical care that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“There remains [a] significant unmet need for critical care services, as desperately sick patients have overwhelmed ICU resources across the country,” RICU said in the court filing.
“In some cases, lack of adequate care can mean the difference between life or death. And one of the groups most at risk from death and serious illness due to COVID-19 is the elderly – the very same population that relies upon Medicare.”
Without reimbursement, RICU says that some of its current clients, as well as potential customers, will not be able to offer its services.
The company argues that this causes “significant, unrecoverable monetary damages” because tele-ICU providers that use physicians located within the U.S. are eligible for reimbursement and therefore have a competitive edge over RICU.
Further, it says that it has already begun losing business because of hospitals’ inability to receive Medicare reimbursement.
“The Critical Care Ban is causing irreparable harm to RICU, which is suffering ongoing financial and reputational harms that cannot be remedied in the future,” the court filing said.
“The balance of the equities favors an injunction, because Defendants have already admitted that there is a desperate medical need for the critical care that RICU would provide but for the Critical Care Ban.
“And, finally, preliminary injunction would be in the public interest because, across the United States, Americans stricken by the COVID-19 pandemic are in desperate need of critical care – a need that RICU can help meet. It is not hyperbole to say that the requested injunctive relief is in the public interest because it could save lives.”
This week Brookdale Senior Living, the nation’s largest operator of senior housing, with 726 communities across 43 states and annual revenues of about $3B, announced the sale of 80 percent of its hospice and home-based care division to hospital operator HCA Healthcare for $400M. The transaction gives HCA control of Brookdale’s 57 home health agencies, 22 hospice agencies, and 84 outpatient therapy locations across a 26-state footprint, marking its entry into new lines of business, and allowing it to expand revenue streams by continuing to treat patients post-discharge, in home-based settings.
Like other senior living providers, Brookdale has struggled economically during the COVID pandemic; its home and hospice care division, which serves 17,000 patients, saw revenue drop more than 16 percent last year. HCA, meanwhile, has recovered quickly from the COVID downturn, and has signaled its intention to focus on continued growth by acquisition across 2021.
In separate news, Optum, the services division of insurance giant UnitedHealth Group, was reported to have struck a deal to acquire Landmark Health, a fast-growing home care company whose services are aimed at Medicare Advantage-enrolled, frail elderly patients. Landmark, founded in 2014, also participates in Medicare’s Direct Contracting program.
The transaction is reportedly valued at $3.5B, although neither party would confirm or comment on the deal. The acquisition would greatlyexpand Optum’s home-based care delivery services, which today include physician home visits through its HouseCalls program, and remote monitoring through its Vivify Health unit.
The Brookdale and Landmark deals, along with earlier acquisitions by Humana and others, indicate that the home-based care space is heating up significantly,reflecting a broader shift in the nexus of care to patients’ homes—a growing preference among consumers spooked by the COVID pandemic.
Along with telemedicine, home-based care may represent a new front in the tug-of-war between providers and payers for the loyalty of increasingly empowered healthcare consumers.
“I don’t think we have good enough information to show how we should be deploying telemedicine,” a physician leader recently told us. “If we can’t show that a virtual visit can adequately substitute for an in-person visit, then we should be focusing on making sure patients know it’s safe to come in.” It struck us that viewing telemedicine as a direct substitute for an office visit was a narrow and antiquated way to think about virtual care.
Moreover, the argument that telemedicine visits are potentially cost-increasing if they are “additive” to other care interactions, rather than “substitutive”, is rooted in fee-for-service payment: more patient-provider interactions equals more billable visits, and with more visits, we run the risk of increasing costs.
Telemedicine (both video and phone visits) likelytaps into pent-up demand for accessby patients who would otherwise not seek care. Some patients could be aided by more frequent, brief encounters; this is considered a failure only when viewed through the lens of fee-for-service payment. (Honestly, with primary care accounting for less than 6 percent of total healthcare spending, it’s hard to argue that additional telemedicine visits will be responsible for supercharging the cost of care.) Of course, there are many clinical situations in which in-person interaction—to perform a physical exam, measure vitals, observe a patient—is fundamental. Patients know this, and understand that sometimes they’ll need to be seen in person. But hopefully that next encounter will be more efficient, having already covered the basics.
The ideal care model will look different for different patients, and different kinds of clinical problems—but will likely be a blend of both virtual and in-person interactions, maximizing communication, information-gathering, and patient convenience.
Members of an influential congressional advisory committee on Medicare are torn on how best to regulate telehealth after the COVID-19 public health emergency, hinting at the difficulty Washington faces as it looks to impose guardrails on virtual care without restricting its use after the pandemic ends.
During a Thursday virtual meeting, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission expressed its support of telehealth broadly, but many members noted snowballing use of the new modality could create more fraud and abuse in the system down the line.
Key questions of how much Medicare reimburses for telehealth visits and what type of visits are paid for won’t be easily answered, MedPAC commissioners noted. “This is a really, really difficult nut to crack,” Michael Chernew, MedPAC chairman and a healthcare policy professor at Harvard Medical School, said.
Virtual care has kept much of the industry running during the coronavirus pandemic, allowing patients to receive needed care at home. Much of this was possible due to the declaration of a public health emergency early 2020, allowing Medicare to reimburse for a greater swath of telehealth services and nixing other restrictions on virtual care.
However, much of that freedom is only in place for the duration of the public health emergency, leaving regulators and legislators scrambling to figure which new flexibilities they should codify, and which perhaps are best left in the past along with COVID-19.
It’s a tricky debate as Washington looks to strike a balance between keeping access open and costs low.
In a Thursday meeting, MedPAC debated a handful of policy proposals to try and navigate this tightrope. Analysts floated ideas like making some expansions permanent for all fee-for-service clinicians; covering certain telehealth services for all beneficiaries that can be received in their homes; and covering telehealth services if they meet CMS’ criteria for an allowable service.
But many MedPAC members were wary of making any concrete near-term policy changes, suggesting instead the industry should be allowed to test drive new telehealth regulations after COVID-19 without baking them in permanently.
“I don’t think what we’ve done with the pandemic can be considered pilot testing. I think a lot of this is likely to go forward no matter what we do because the gate has been opened, and it’s going to be really hard to close it,” Marjorie Ginsburg, founder of the Center for Healthcare Decisions, said. But “I see this just exploding into more fraud and abuse than we can even begin imagining.”
Paul Ginsburg, health policy chair at the Brookings Institution, suggested a two-year pilot of any changes after the public health emergency ends.
However, it would be “regressive” to roll back all the gains virtual care has made over the past year, according to Jonathan Perlin, CMO of health system HCA.
“These technologies are such a part of the environment that at this point, I fear [it] would be anachronistic not to accept that reality,” Perlin said.
Among other questions, commissioners were split on how much Medicare should pay for telehealth after the pandemic ends.
That parity debate is perhaps the biggest question mark hanging over the future of the industry. Detractors argue virtual care services involve lower practice costs, as remote physicians not in an office don’t need to shell out for supplies and staff. Paying at parity could distort prices, and cause fee-for-service physicians to prioritize delivering telehealth services over in-person ones, some commissioners warned.
Other MedPAC members pointed out a lower payment rate could stifle technological innovation at a pivotal time for the healthcare industry.
MedPAC analysts suggested paying lower rates for virtual care services than in-person ones, and paying less for audio-only services than video.
Commissioners agreed audio-only services should be allowed, but that a lower rate was fair. Commissioner Dana Gelb Safran, SVP at Well Health, suggested CMS should consider outlining certain services where video must be used out of clinical necessity.
Previously, telehealth services needed a video component to be reimbursed. Proponents argue expanded access to audio-only services will improve care access, especially for low-income populations that might not have the broadband access or technology to facilitate a video visit.
Another major concern for commissioners is how permanently expanding telehealth access would affect direct-to-consumer telehealth giants like Teladoc and Amwell. If all telehealth services delivered at home are covered, that could allow the private companies to “really take over the industry,” Larry Casalino, health policy chief in the Weill Cornell Department of Healthcare Policy and Research, said.
Because of the lower back-end costs for virtual care than in-office services, paying vendors the same rate as in-office physicians could drive a lot of brick-and-mortar doctors out of business, commissioners warned.
The owner of two pharmacies and a management company in Florida pleaded guilty Jan. 25 to his role in a $931 million healthcare fraud scheme. He is the seventh defendant to plead guilty in the scheme, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Larry Smith pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud, and his sentencing is set for Oct. 25. In his written plea agreement, Mr. Smith admitted to conspiring with others to defraud pharmacy benefit managers into paying for fraudulent prescriptions. As part of the plea agreement, Mr. Smith agreed to pay restitution of $24.9 million and forfeit approximately $3.1 million.
An indictment charged Mr. Smith and others with a nationwide conspiracy to defraud pharmacy benefit managers by submitting $931.4 million in bills for fraudulent prescriptions purchased from a telemarketing company. After improperly soliciting patient information, the marketing companies received approvals through telemedicine prescribers then sold the prescriptions to pharmacies in exchange for kickbacks, said Derrick Jackson, special agent in charge at HHS’ Office of Inspector General in Atlanta.
In September 2018, HealthRight, a telemedicine company, and its CEO Scott Roix pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud for their roles in the scheme. They agreed to pay $5 million in restitution. Mr. Roix’s sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 25.
Mihir Taneja, Arun Kapoor, Maikel Bolos and Sterling-Knight Pharmaceuticals also pleaded guilty in December 2020, according to the Justice Department.
Sitting in the dark before 6 am in my Los Angeles house with my face lit up by yet another Zoom screen, wearing a stylish combination of sweatpants, dress shirt and last year’s JPM conference badge dangling around my neck for old times’ sake, I wonder at the fact that it’s J.P. Morgan Annual Healthcare Conference week again and we are where we are. Quite a year for all of us – the pandemic, the healthcare system’s response to the public health emergency, the ongoing fight for racial justice, the elections, the storming of the Capital – and the subject of healthcare winds its way through all of it – public health, our healthcare system’s stability, strengths and weaknesses, the highly noticeable healthcare inequities, the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid and vaccines, healthcare politics and what the new administration will bring as healthcare initiatives.
I will miss seeing you all in person this year at the J.P. Morgan Annual Healthcare Conference and our annual Sheppard Mullin reception – previously referred to as “standing room only” events and now as “possible superspreader events.” What a difference a year makes. I admit that I will miss the feeling of excitement in the rooms and hallways of the Westin St. Francis and all of the many hotel lobbies and meeting rooms surrounding it. Somehow the virtual conference this year lacks that je ne sais quoi of being stampeded by rushing New York-style street traffic while in an antiquated San Francisco hotel hallway and watching the words spoken on stage transform immediately into sharp stock price increases and drops. There also is the excitement of sitting in the room listening to paradigm shifting ideas (teaser – read the last paragraph of this post for something truly fascinating). Perhaps next year, depending on the vaccine…
So, let’s start there. Today was vaccine day at the JPM Conference, with BioNTech, Moderna, Novovax and Johnson & Johnson all presenting. Lots of progress reported by all of the companies working on vaccines, but the best news of the day was the comment from BioNTech that the UK and South Africa coronavirus variants likely are still covered by the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. BioNTech’s CEO, Prof. Uğur Şahin, M.D., promised more data and analysis to be published shortly on that.
We also saw continued excitement for mRNA vaccines, not only for COVID-19 but also for other diseases. There is a growing focus (following COVID-19 of course) on vaccines for cancer through use of neoantigen targets, and for a long list of infectious disease targets.For cancer, though, there continues to be a growing debate over whether the best focus is on “personalized” vaccines or “off the shelf” vaccines – personalized vaccines can take longer to make and have much, much higher costs and infrastructure requirements. We expect, however, to see very exciting news on the use of mRNA and other novel technologies in the next year or two that, when approved and put into commercialization, could radically change the game, not only as to mortality, but also by eliminating or significantly reducing the cost of care with chronic conditions (which some cancers have become, thanks to technological advancement). We are fortunate to be in that gap now between “care” and “cure,” where we have been able with modern medical advances to convert many more disease states into manageable chronic care conditions. Together with today’s longer lifespans, that, however, carries a much higher price tag for our healthcare system. Now, with some of these recent announcements, we look forward to moving from “care” to “cure” and substantially dropping the cost of care to our healthcare system.
Continuing consolidation also was a steady drumbeat underlying the multiple presentations today on the healthcare services side of the conference – health plans, health systems, physician organizations, home health. The drive to scale continues, as we have seen from the accelerated pace of mergers and acquisitions in the second half of 2020, which continues unabated in January 2021. There was today’s announcement of the acquisition by Amerisource Bergen of Walgreens Boots Alliance’s Alliance Healthcare wholesale business (making Walgreens Boots Alliance the largest single shareholder of Amerisource Bergen at nearly 30% ownership), following the announcement last week of Centene’s acquisition of Magellan Health (coming fast on the heels of Molina Healthcare’s purchase of Magellan’s Complete Care line of business).
On the mental health side – a core focus area for Magellan Health – Centene’s Chief Executive Officer, Michael Neidorff, expressed the common theme that we have been seeing in the past year that mental health care should be integrated and coordinated with primary and specialty care. He also saw value in Magellan’s strong provider network, as access to mental health providers can be a challenge in some markets and populations. The behavioral/mental health sector likely will see increased attention and consolidation in the coming year, especially given its critical role during the COVID-19 crisis and also with the growing Medicaid and Medicare populations.There are not a lot of large assets left independent in the mental health sector (aside from inpatient providers, autism/developmental disorder treatment programs, and substance abuse residential and outpatient centers), so we may see more roll-up focus (such as we have seen recently with the autism/ABA therapy sector) and technology-focused solutions (text-based or virtual therapy).
There was strong agreement among the presenting health plans and capitated providers (Humana, Centene, Oak Street and multiple health systems) today that we will continue to see movement toward value-based care (VBC) and risk-based reimbursement systems, such as Medicare Advantage, Medicare direct contracting and other CMS Innovation Center (CMMI) programs and managed Medicaid. Humana’s Chief Executive Officer, Bruce Broussard, said that the size of the MA program has grown so much since 2010 that it now represents an important voting bloc and one of the few ways in which the federal government currently is addressing healthcare inequities – e.g., through Over-the-Counter (OTC) pharmacy benefits, benefits focused on social determinants of health (SDOH), and healthcare quality improvements driven by the STARS rating program. Broussard also didn’t think Medicare Advantage would be a negative target for the Biden administration and expected more foreseeable and ordinary-course regulatory adjustments, rather than wholesale legislative change for Medicare Advantage.
There also was agreement on the exciting possibility of direct contracting for Medicare lives at risk under the CMMI direct contracting initiative. Humana expressed possible interest in both this year’s DCE program models and in the GEO regional risk-based Medicare program model that will be rolling out in the next year. Humana sees this as both a learning experience and as a way to apply their chronic care management skills and proprietary groups and systems to a broader range of applicable populations and markets. There is, however, a need for greater clarity and transparency from CMMI on program details which can substantially affect success and profitability of these initiatives.
Humana, Centene and Oak Street all sang the praises of capitated medical groups for Medicare Advantage and, per Michael Neidorff, the possibility of utilizing traditional capitated provider models for Medicaid membership as well. The problem, as noted by the speakers, is that there is a scarcity of independent capitated medical groups and a lack of physician familiarity and training. We may see a more committed effort by health plans to move their network provider groups more effectively into VBC and risk, much like we have seen Optum do with their acquired fee for service groups. Privia Health also presented today and noted that, while the market focus and high valuations today are accorded to Medicare lives, attention needs to be paid to the “age in” pipeline, as commercial patients who enroll in original Medicare and Medicare Advantage still would like to keep their doctors who saw them under commercial insurance. Privia’s thesis in part is to align with patients early on and retain them and their physicians, so as to create a “farm system” for accelerated Medicare population growth. Privia’s Chief Executive Officer, Shawn Morris, also touted Privia’s rapid growth, in part attributable to partnering with health systems.
As written in our notes from prior JPM healthcare conferences, health systems are continuing to look outside to third parties to gain knowledge base, infrastructure and management skills for physician VBC and risk arrangements. Privia cited their recent opening of their Central Florida market in partnership with Health First and rapid growth in providers by more than 25% in their first year of operations.
That being said, the real market sizzle remains with Medicare Advantage and capitation, percent of premium arrangements and global risk. The problem for many buyers, though, is that there are very few assets of size in this line of business. The HealthCare Partners/DaVita Medical Group acquisition by Optum removed that from the market, creating a high level of strategic and private equity demand and a low level of supply for physician organizations with that expertise. That created a focus on groups growing rapidly in this risk paradigm and afforded them strong valuation, like with Oak Street Health this past year as it completed its August 2020 initial public offering. Oak Street takes on both professional and institutional (hospital) risk and receives a percent of premium from its contracting health plans. As Oak Street’s CEO Mike Pykosz noted, only about 3% of Medicare dollars are spent on primary care, while approximately two-thirds are spent on hospital services. If more intensive management occurs at the primary care level and, as a result, hospitalizations can be prevented or reduced, that’s an easy win that’s good for the patient and the entire healthcare system (other than a fee for service based hospital).Pykosz touted his model of building out new centers from scratch as allowing greater conformity, control and efficacy than buying existing groups and trying to conform them both physically and through practice approaches to the Oak Street model. He doesn’t rule out some acquisitions, but he noted as an example that Oak Street was able to swiftly role out COVID-19 protocols rapidly and effectively throughout his centers because they all have the same physical configuration, the same staffing ratio and the same staffing profiles. Think of it as a “franchise” model where each Subway store, for example, will have generally the same look, feel, size and staffing. He also noted that while telehealth was very helpful during the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 and will continue as long as the doctors and patients wish, Oak Street believes that an in-person care management model is much more effective and telehealth is better for quick follow-ups or when in-person visits can’t occur.
Oak Street also spoke to the topic of Medicare Advantage member acquisition, which has been one of the more difficult areas to master for many health plans and groups, resulting in many cases with mergers and acquisitions becoming a favored growth vehicle due to the difficulties of organic membership growth. Interestingly, both Oak Street and Humana reported improvements in membership acquisition during the COVID-19 crisis. Oak Street credited digital marketing and direct response television, among other factors. Humana found that online direct-to-consumer brokers became an effective pathway during the COVID-19 crisis and focused its energy on enhancing those relationships and improving hand-offs during the membership enrollment process. Humana also noted the importance of brand in Medicare Advantage membership marketing.
Staying with Medicare Advantage, there is an expectation of a decrease in Medicare risk adjustment revenue in 2021, in large part due to the lower healthcare utilization during the COVID crisis and the lesser number of in-person visits during which HCC-RAF Medicare risk adjustment coding typically occurs. That revenue drop however likely will not significantly decrease Medicare Advantage profitability though, given the concomitant drop in healthcare expenses due to lower utilization, and per conference reports, is supposed to return to normal trend in 2022 (unless we see utilization numbers fall back below 90% again). Other interesting economic notes from several presentations, when taken together, suggest that while many health systems have lost out on elective surgery revenue in 2020, their case mix index (CMI) in many cases has been much higher due to the COVID patient cases. We also saw a number of health systems with much lower cash days on hand numbers than other larger health systems (both in gross and after adjusting for federal one-time stimulus cash payments), as a direct result of COVID. This supports the thesis we are hearing that, with the second wave of COVID being higher than expected, in the absence of further federal government financial support to hospitals, we likely will see an acceleration of partnering and acquisition transactions in the hospital sector.
Zoetis, one of the largest animal health companies, gave an interesting presentation today on its products and service lines. In addition to some exciting developments re: monoclonal antibody treatments coming on line for dogs with pain from arthritis, Zoetis also discussed its growing laboratory and diagnostics line of business. The animal health market, sometime overshadowed by the human healthcare market, is seeing some interesting developments as new revenue opportunities and chronic care management paradigms (such as for renal care) are shifting in the animal health sector. This is definitely a sector worth watching.
We also saw continuing interest, even in the face of Congressional focus this past year, on growing pharmacy benefit management (PBM) companies, which are designed to help manage the pharmacy spend. Humana listed growth of its PBM and specialty pharmacy lines of business as a focus for 2021, along with at-home care. In its presentation today, SSM Health, a health system in Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Illinois, and Missouri, spotlighted Navitus, its PBM, which services 7 million covered lives in 50 states.
One of the most different, interesting and unexpected presentations of the day came from Paul Markovich, Chief Executive Officer of Blue Shield of California. He put forth the thesis that we need to address the flat or negative productivity in healthcare today in order to both reduce total cost of care, improve outcomes and to help physicians, as well as to rescue the United States from the overbearing economic burden of the current healthcare spending. Likening the transformation in healthcare to that which occurred in the last two decades with financial services (remember before ATMs and banking apps, there were banker’s hours and travelers cheques – remember those?), he described exciting pilot projects that reimagine healthcare today. One project is a real-time claims adjudication and payment program that uses smart watches to record physician/patient interactions, natural language processing (NLP) to populate the electronic medical record, transform the information concurrently into a claim, adjudicate it and authorize payment. That would massively speed up cash flow to physician practices, reduce paperwork and many hours of physician EMR and billing time and reduce the billing and collection overhead and burden. It also could substantially reduce healthcare fraud.
Paul Markovich also spoke to the need for real-time quality information that can result in real-time feedback and incentivization to physicians and other providers, rather than the costly and slow HEDIS pursuits we see today. One health plan noted that it spends about $500 million a year going into physician offices looking at medical records for HEDIS pursuits, but the information is totally “in the rearview mirror” as it is too old when finally received and digested to allow for real-time treatment changes, improvement or planning. Markovich suggested four initiatives (including the above, pay for value and shared decision making through better, more open data access) that he thought could save $100 billion per year for the country.Markovich stressed that all of these four initiatives required a digital ecosystem and asked for help and partnership in creating one. He also noted that the State of California is close to creating a digital mandate and statewide health information exchange that could be the launching point for this exciting vision of data sharing and a digital ecosystem where the electronic health record is the beginning, but not the end of the healthcare data journey.
It turns out it’s not just the kids who aren’t getting snow days this year. This week, we spoke with an executive at a health system hit hard by Wednesday’s Nor’easter, and asked how the system was faring with the expected 18 inches of snowfall. He replied that the medical group was as busy as usual.
With all the work this spring to expand telemedicine capabilities, clinic staff were able to reach out to patients the day before the storm, and proactively convert a majority of scheduled in-person clinic visits to telemedicine. “Normally we would’ve been closed, and most appointments rescheduled for weeks down the road,” he told us. Instead, they were able to keep most of those visits in their scheduled time slot.
“Now that we have a systemwide process for telemedicine, I don’t think we’ll have a reason for the clinic to take a snow day again.” It’s a clear win-win for the system and patients: patient care seamlessly goes on. It’s easy to see the many use cases for the ability to toggle between in-person and virtual visits. A parent is stuck at home with a sick kid, and can’t make her endocrinologist appointment? Moved to virtual! A patient has an unexpected business trip taking him out of town? Don’t cancel, let’s do that follow-up visit via telemedicine.
We’ve been worried about the slowdown in progress made on telemedicine as patients switched back to in-person visits across the summer and fall. The ability to continue patient care during a record-breaking snowstorm is a perfect illustration of why it’s critical not to “backslide” with virtual care: meeting patients where they are, regardless of circumstances, is an essential part of building long-term loyalty and care continuity.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused national health care spending to go down this year — the first time that’s ever happened.
The big picture:Any big recession depresses the use of health services because people have less money to spend. But this pandemic has also directly attacked the health system, causing people to defer or skip care for fear of becoming infected.
By the numbers: Year-to-date spending on health services is down about 2% from last year. Health spending for the calendar year may end up lower than it was in 2019.
In April, when the pandemic forced many facilities to temporarily close, spending on health services had fallen an eye-popping 32% on an annualized basis.
The largest drop-offs were in outpatient care. Telehealth visits increased dramatically but did not make up all of the difference.
Context: This is the first time expenditures for patient care have fallen year-over-year since data became available in the 1960s.
What’s next: Spending and utilization have been recovering, but could fall again if the current spike in cases prompts either hospitals or patients to again hold off on elective care.
There has been a decline in cancer screenings and visits to manage chronic conditions, but it will take more research before we know precisely how this has affected outcomes.