The Trend of Health System Mergers Continues

While healthcare is delivered locally, the business of healthcare
is regional, and the regions are only getting bigger.
Hospital
and health system mergers alike have continued to shift from
local to regional, and the recently announced merger between Advocate Aurora
Health and Atrium Health clearly highlights that the regions are only getting
bigger.


Advocate Aurora, with a presence in Illinois and Wisconsin, and Atrium Health,
with a presence in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will
combine to create a $27 billion health system that will span six states and make it
one of the leading healthcare delivery systems in the country. The combined
organization, which will transition to a new brand, Advocate Health, will operate
67 hospitals and over 1,000 sites of care, employ nearly 150,000 teammates, and
serve 5.5 million patients. Together, Advocate Health will become the 6th largest
system in the country behind Kaiser Permanente, HCA Healthcare, CommonSpirit
Health, Ascension, and Providence.


We have seen a number of large health systems come together recently,
including Intermountain Healthcare + SCL Health to create a $15 billion revenue
system, Spectrum Health + Beaumont ($14 billion), NorthShore University Health
System + Edward-Elmhurst Healthcare
($5 billion), LifePoint Health + Kindred
Healthcare
($14 billion), and Jefferson Health + Einstein Healthcare Network ($8
billion).


The exact reasoning for each merger differs slightly, but one of the common
threads across all is scale.
But not scale in the traditional M&A sense. Rather,
scale in covered lives; scale in physician infrastructure and alignment; scale in
clinical and operational capabilities; scale in technology, innovation, and
partnerships with non-traditional players; scale for capital access; and scale for
insurance risk to compete in a value-based world. It is no longer the strong
acquiring the weak. Rather, strong players are coming together to gain scale to
face the headwinds in a unified manner.

For Advocate Aurora and Atrium, coming together is about leveraging their combined clinical excellence,
advancing data analytics capabilities and digital consumer infrastructure, improving affordability, driving health equity, creating a next-generation workforce, research, and environmental sustainability. Together, they have pledged $2 billion to disrupt the root causes of health inequities across underserved communities and create more than 20,000 new jobs.


Both Advocate Aurora and Atrium are no strangers to mergers. Advocate and Aurora came together in 2018, and prior to that Advocate was intending to merge with NorthShore before being blocked due to anti-trust. Atrium has grown over the years, merging with systems such as Navicent Health in Georgia in 2018, Wake Forest Baptist Health in North Carolina 2020, and Floyd Health System in Georgia in 2021. In the newly proposed merger, Advocate Aurora and Atrium are coming together via a joint operating arrangement where each entity will be responsible for their own liabilities and maintain ownership of their respective assets but operate together under the new parent entity and board. This may allow the combined entity more flexibility in local decision-making. The current CEOs, Jim Skogsbergh and Eugene Woods will serve as co-CEOs for the first 18 months, at which point Skogsbergh will retire, and Woods will take over as the sole CEO.


Mergers can come in various shapes and structures, but the driving forces behind consolidation are not unique. With the need to compete in value-based care, adequately manage risk, gain scale across covered lives, physicians, and points of access, successfully deliver affordable high-quality care, and the need to deal with the vertical and horizontal consolidation of the large-scale payers, the markets that health systems operate in must be large enough to be effective and relevant. We fully expect to see more of these larger scale health system mergers in the near term.


The physical delivery of healthcare is local, but, again, the business of healthcare is not; it is regional, and the regions are only getting bigger.

Mass General Brigham to cut spending by $70M a year

Boston-based Mass General Brigham submitted a cost-reduction plan to Massachusetts regulators May 16, which includes a promise to cut healthcare spending by $70 million a year. 

The health system was ordered by the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission in January to develop a plan to reduce costs after the watchdog determined it had pushed healthcare spending above acceptable levels in the last few years. Specifically, the commission found that Mass General Brigham had substantially higher-than-average commercial spending from 2014 to 2019. The health system spent $293 million those years, more than any other provider in the state.

To achieve its spending reduction goal, Mass General Brigham said it would focus on four items: cutting prices, reducing utilization, shifting care to lower-cost sites and expanding value-based care. 

A key savings driver in Mass General Brigham’s plan is to lower outpatient and ConnectorCare rates to improve affordability. ConnectorCare is a program of subsidized private health insurance plans for patients whose family income doesn’t exceed 300 percent of the federal poverty level and who are not eligible for MassHealth, Medicare or other affordable health coverage. The health system expects to save about $53.8 million in spending a year through reducing these rates.

“Mass General Brigham is committed to expanding access to consumers, particularly in ambulatory care. To achieve improved access, we are focused on decreasing the price variation between Mass General Brigham pricing and the marketplace,” Mass General Brigham said in the performance improvement plan. 

The health system said it expects to save $10.8 million in spending a year by reducing unnecessary hospitalizations, emergency room visits and post-acute care and reducing use of high-cost outpatient imaging. 

The health system said it expects to save $5.3 million in spending a year by shifting care to lower-cost settings, such as moving to “hospital at home,” expanding telehealth or using other ambulatory sites. 

In addition to reducing utilization, shifting care to lower-cost sites and reducing price, Mass General Brigham said it is committed to expanding value-based care.

Payer contracts, physician pay still anchored in fee-for-service

The healthcare industry has made some strides in the “journey to value” across the last decade, but in reality, most health systems and physician groups are still very much entrenched in fee-for-service incentives.

While many health plans report that significant portions of their contract dollars are tied to cost and quality performance, what plans refer to as “value” isn’t necessarily “risk-based.” 

The left-hand side of the graphic below shows that, although a majority of payer contracts now include some link to quality or cost, over two-thirds of those lack any real downside risk for providers. 

Data on the right show a similar parallel in physician compensation. While the majority of physician groups have some quality incentives in their compensation models, less than a tenth of individual physician compensation is actually tied to quality performance. 

Though myriad stakeholders, from the federal government to individual health systems and physician groups, have collectively invested billions of dollars in migrating to value-based payment over the last decade, we are still far from seeing true, performance-based incentives translate into transformation up and down the healthcare value chain.  

Even the largest health systems dwarfed by industry giants

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Insurers, retailers, and other healthcare companies vastly exceed health system scale, dwarfing even the largest hospital systems. The graphic above illustrates how the largest “mega-systems” lag other healthcare industry giants, in terms of gross annual revenue. 

Amazon and Walmart, retail behemoths that continue to elbow into the healthcare space, posted 2021 revenue that more than quintuples that of the largest health system, Kaiser Permanente. The largest health systems reported increased year-over-year revenue in 2021, largely driven by higher volumes, as elective procedures recovered from the previous year’s dip.

However, according to a recent Kaufman Hall report, while health systems, on average, grew topline revenue by 15 percent year-over-year, they face rising expenses, and have yet to return to pre-pandemic operating margins. 

Meanwhile, the larger companies depicted above, including Walmart, Amazon, CVS Health, and UnitedHealth Group, are emerging from the pandemic in a position of financial strength, and continue to double down on vertical integration strategies, configuring an array of healthcare assets into platform businesses focused on delivering value directly to consumers.

Optum’s strategy for 2022 growth

Optum spent the last decade investing in significant growth, adding thousands of physicians to its network and purchasing ASC company Surgical Care Affiliates in 2017. Now the company is focusing more on its primary care network, data offerings and $115 billion pharmacy and medical care business line.

Optum, owned by UnitedHealth Group, has three divisions:

  • Optum Health, the healthcare provider division which includes physician groups and ambulatory surgery centers
  • Optum Insight, which houses the data analytics platforms designed to connect clinical, administrative and financial data
  • Optum Rx, a pharmacy benefits and care services business

Each division has a unique growth strategy focused on the patient and provider experience.

Provider growth
Optum Health now has 60,000 employed or aligned physicians and partners with 100 payers. Optum as a whole now works with 80 percent of health plans and 90 percent of hospitals and 90 percent of Fortune 100 companies.

Wyatt Decker, CEO of Optum Health, said in the 2021 earnings call in January that Optum Health is still a growth platform and the company will make investments to more deeply penetrate established markets. He expects Optum Health to deliver 8 percent to 10 percent margins annually going forward.

“Our approach strengthens the critical provider-patient relationship by empowering our primary care physicians with the latest information, insights and best practices to help them efficiently coordinate all patient care, manage referrals and identify higher-quality, lower-cost options,” the company said in its 2021 yearend highlights report.

ASCs certainly fit the high quality, low-cost care description, but Optum’s executives fell shy of mentioning whether the company would focus on growth in that sector during the 2021 earnings call.

Optum is also expanding its virtual care capabilities, focused on chronic care patients, and its behavioral health services. The company said it needs to add physicians, clinicians and technology to support patient care in those areas. Optum said it has its sights set on providing more whole-person, value-based care, scaling in new markets and having the key data insights to do it better than anyone else.

Value-based care
Last year, Optum and UnitedHealth Group’s health insurance business, UnitedHealthcare, worked together with external partners to grow in commercial and government payer markets, innovate and add 500,000 patients to their value-based contracts. Optum served 100 million patients, and 2 million of the patients were under fully accountable arrangements. Both companies also had a sharpened focus on the consumer experience.

“Taken together, these efforts helped us add more than $30 billion in revenue for the year, about $10 billion above our initial outlook,” said Andrew Witty, CEO of UnitedHealth Group, during the earnings call, as transcribed by The Motley Fool. “And you should expect similar growth in the year ahead. We see an even greater demand for integration to bring together the fragmented pieces of the health system, to harness the tremendous innovation occurring in the marketplace, to help better align the incentives for providers, payers and consumers, and to organize the system around value.”

Data and information
Optum Insights aims to continue growing by acquiring Change Healthcare, a healthcare data and technology company.

“The combination will advance our ability to create products and services that improve the delivery of healthcare and reduce the high costs and inefficiencies that plague the health system,” Optum claimed on its fact sheet about the transaction. “We will share these innovations broadly to benefit those who engage with the health system today and well into the future.”

The acquisition could make the episode of care more seamless for patients and reduce administrative burden for providers, as well as give payers a comprehensive view of the patient’s health outcomes with the potential to reduce cost. But it could also give Optum and UnitedHealth Group an unfair advantage over competitors, the Justice Department argued in a lawsuit filed in February.

“Across Optum, we operate with the highest ethical standards in protecting confidential data and information of our clients and adhere to the safeguards we have had in place for more than a decade to ensure data is accessed and used only for permissible purposes,” according to a statement on Optum’s website responding to the Justice Department’s lawsuit. “We will not be distracted by the DOJ’s complaint and will continue to honorably serve our clients and consumers and those that engage in the health system.”

What is an insurance company in 2022?

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The largest health insurers are quickly becoming vertically integrated healthcare organizations that span the care and coverage continuum. While 2021 was a mixed year for these companies as healthcare volumes bounced back, their diversified portfolios helped cushion losses from higher claims.

The graphic above analyzes revenue growth by segment for the five largest insurers across the last two years. On average the insurance and pharmacy benefit management components of the companies grew at nine percent, while care delivery and integrated health services grew at much higher rates. UnitedHealth Group (UHG) and Anthem boasted the highest year-over-year revenue growth, driven by UHG’s Optum subsidiary and Anthem’s integrated health services.

Cigna and CVS Health each earned less than a quarter of their total revenue from their insurance arms last year. While Humana lags the others in topline revenue, it has assembled a robust portfolio of care delivery investments and partnerships, surpassed only by UHG. 

As antitrust scrutiny on vertical integration increases (case in point: the DOJ is now challenging UHG’s acquisition of Change Healthcare), insurers will face the hard task of integrating their portfolio of service—and demonstrating that they deliver value to consumers and patients.

Why Medicare’s Value-Based Payment Models aren’t working

CMS' Value-Based Programs | CMS

 A commentary piece in Health Affairs argues that CMS’s value-based payment (VBP) initiatives have not reached their full potential because they fail to take into account conflicting market dynamics.

The authors argue that VBP models won’t take hold unless CMS both increases the “carrots”, or positive incentives, that market dominant providers receive to support true care transformation, and sharpens the “sticks” by requiring participation in accountable care organization (ACO) models, decreasing the attractiveness of fee-for-service (FFS) payments, and banning anti-competitive commercial deals that discourage steering referrals toward lower-cost providers. 

The Gist: To date, CMS’s VBP efforts have largely fallen short of their two primary objectives: transforming care at scale across the country, and generating meaningful savings for the federal government.

With more and more seniors choosing Medicare Advantage (MA) each year, the federal government clearly views MA as the primary vehicle to control Medicare cost growth in the future—although savings will ultimately hinge on CMS cutting payments to insurers in the future. 

Over time, continuing to foster the growth of MA may prove more successful than overcoming the myriad complications of FFS-based VBP programs.

Rand: Most health systems pay physicians based on volume, not quality

Rand: Most health systems pay physicians based on volume, not quality

Physicians employed by group practices owned by health systems are mostly paid based on the volume of care, despite recent insurance companies’ efforts to pay based on quality, a Jan. 28 Rand study published in Jama Health Forum found.

Seventy percent of practices follow a volume-based compensation plan, according to the analysis. For more than 80 percent of primary care physicians and more than 90 percent of physician specialists, volume-based compensation is the most common.

Although many health systems have financial incentives for quality and cost, only 9 percent of primary care providers and 5 percent of specialists have compensation based on those criteria.

“Despite growth in value-based programs and the need to improve value in healthcare, physician compensation arrangements in health systems do not currently emphasize value,” Rachel Reid, the study’s lead author and a physician policy researcher at Rand, a nonprofit research organization, said in a news release emailed to Becker’s. “The payment systems that are most often in place are designed to maximize health system revenue by incentivizing providers within the system to deliver more services.”

The study looked at physician payment structures for 31 physician organizations affiliated with 22 health systems across four states. The researchers interviewed leaders, examined compensation documents and surveyed physician practices.