Cross-subsidy economics are increasingly challenged for America’s hospitals. Aging Baby Boomers are moving from commercial insurance to Medicare, decreasing the share of patients with lucrative private coverage, and insurers are increasingly reticent to provide the rate increases providers need to make up for the worsening mix.
At a recent executive retreat, one health system debated the best strategies to increase their capture of commercial volume. Most of the conversation focused on traditional market-based tactics to increase access and awareness in fast-growing, higher income areas of their service region.
For instance, the system’s chief marketing officer was pushing to increase advertising in the rapidly expanding suburbs, and advocated building ambulatory surgery centers in a wealthy area of town with a boom of new home construction.
The chief strategy officer shared a different perspective, supporting an employer-focused strategy. His logic: “In most businesses,the CEO and the janitor have the same benefit plans. If we only focus on the wealthy parts of town, we’re missing a big portion of the workers with good insurance.” He advocated for a new round of direct-to-employer contracting outreach, hoping to steer workers to high-value primary and specialty care solutions.
In reality, any system looking to move commercial share will need to do both—but even the best playbook for building commercial volume is unlikely to close the growing cross-subsidy gap. To maintain profitability in the long term, health systems must reduce costs for managing Medicare patients by delivering lower-cost care in lower-cost settings, with lower-cost staff.
According to a Wall Street Journal report, CVS is expected to submit a bid to purchase Dallas-based Signify Health, which supports physicians, payers, and health systems with tools and technology to provide in-home care. Signify acquired accountable care organization manager Caravan Health earlier this year. Last week, the Journalreported that Signify, valued at more than $4B, was looking for buyers. While CVS is said to be interested, so are private equity firms and other managed care companies.
The Gist: CVS CEO Karen Lynch told investors during last week’s earnings call that the company plans to grow its primary care and home health offerings through mergers and acquisitions. The Signify bid, along with reports that CVS considered acquiring concierge primary care company One Medical, suggests that the retail pharmacy and insurance giant is charging ahead with its strategy of creating a vertically-integrated healthcare company.
As several newly public digital health and value-based care companies have seen share prices plummet and capital dry up in a cooling economy, they are becoming targets for large insurers and tech companies who have seen their own fortunes grow during the pandemic. Watch for more announcements from these “platform assemblers” in the months to come.
Despite the hype, accountable care organizations (ACOs) and other Medicare-driven payment reform programs intended to improve quality and lower healthcare spending haven’t bent the cost curve to the extent many had hoped.
A recent and provocative opinion piece in STAT News, from health policy researcher Kip Sullivan and two single-payer healthcare advocates, calls for pressing pause on value-based payment experimentation. The authors argue that current attempts to pay for value have ill-defined goals and hard-to-measure quality metrics that incentivize reducing care and upcoding, rather than improving outcomes.
The Gist: We agree with the authors that current value-based care experiments have been disappointing.
The intention is good, but the execution has been bogged down by entrenched industry dynamics and slow-to-move incumbents. One fair criticism: ACOs and other “total cost management” reforms largely focus on the wrong problem. They address utilization, rather than excessive price.
But we’re having a price problem in the US, not a utilization problem.Europeans, for example, have more physician visits each year than Americans, yet spend less per-person on healthcare. It’s our high prices—for everything from physician visits to hospital stays to prescription drugs—that drive high healthcare spending.
The root cause: our third-party payer structure actively discourages real efforts to lower price—every player in the value chain, including providers, brokers, and insurers, does better economically as prices increase. That’s why price control measures like reference pricing or price caps have been nonstarters among industry participants.
Recent reforms that increase price transparency, while not the entire solution, at least shine a light on the real challenges our healthcare system faces.
Citi, The American Hospital Association (AHA) and the Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA) recently hosted the 22nd annual Not-for-Profit Healthcare Investor Conference. The event was in person, after being virtual in 2021 and canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic. Leaders from over 25 diverse health systems, as well as private equity and fund managers, presented in panel discussions and traditional formats. The following summary attempts to synthesize key themes and particularly interesting work by leading health systems. The conference title was “Refining the Now, Reshaping What’s Next.”
Is Healthcare Headed for Best of Times or Worst of Times?
Clearly the pandemic showed how essential and adaptive the US healthcare industry is, and especially how incredible healthcare workers continue to be. It also exposed and accelerated many underlying dynamics, such as impact of disparities, clinical labor shortages and supply chain challenges. On balance, at this year’s conference presenters remained quite optimistic about the future, and felt that despite enormous pain, the pandemic has helped to accelerate positive transformation across healthcare.
At the same time, almost all presenters referenced future headwinds from labor and supply inflation, concerns about increasing payment pressures, and the continued need to address disparities and social justice. That being said, there was not much disclosure at the conference about just how bad things could get in the future given accelerated operational and financial risks.
As usual at such a conference, there was much passion, creativity, sharing and celebration. While each organization and market differ somewhat, the following are common themes discussed.
Enormous Workforce Challenges – Every speaker referenced workforce as being THE key issue they are facing, specifically retirement, recruitment, retention, well-being and cost. We have talked for years about a future caregiver shortage, but this reality was accelerated by the pandemic. The majority of health systems saw single-digit turnover rates grow to 20-30%, and the cost of temporary labor such as traveling nurses, decimate operating margins. The many strategies discussed at the conference went beyond simply paying more to attract and retain staff. A key question is whether organization-specific strategies will be enough, or whether we need a broader societal and industry-wide collaborative effort to dramatically increase training slots for nurses and other allied health professionals.
Pandemic Stressed Organizations and Accelerated Transformation – At the 2021 virtual Citi/AHA/HFMA conference, many posited that the country was past the worst of the pandemic. (In fact this author’s summary of last year’s conference was titled “Sunrise After the Storm”). That was before the Omicron wave hit hard in Q1 2022. First-quarter 2022 operating margins were negative for most but not all healthcare systems due to cumulative impact of Omicron, temporary labor and supply costs, especially since the governmental support that partially offset those costs in 2020 ended. Organizations and their teams remain resilient, but highly stressed. Risks and challenges associated with future waves continue, as well as high reliance on foreign drug and supply manufacturing. While highly distracting and painful, many organizations discussed how the pandemic actually accelerated the pace of transformation. Necessity drives required action, and at least temporarily overcomes political and cultural barriers to change.
Growing Pursuit of Scale, Including through M&A and Partnerships – All health systems continue to be highly complex with multiple competing “big-dot” priorities. Multiple systems described their current M&A and growth strategies, pursuit of scale, as well as how these strategies were impacted by the pandemic. While the provider community remains highly unconsolidated on a national basis, mergers are more frequent, including between non-contiguous markets. Systems said that larger size, coupled with disciplined management, can reduce cost structure and improve quality and patient experience. While some pursue scale through organic growth initiatives or M&A, others described success in creating scale by leveraging partnerships with “best-in-class” niche organizations and other outside expertise.
Health Equity, Diversity and ESG as Core to Mission – Consistent with last year, most speakers discussed their efforts to address health equity, social justice, diversity, and Social Determinants of Health. Many health systems have developed robust strategies quickly as the pandemic spotlighted the impact of existing disparities. There is increasing interest in Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) initiatives, including environmental stewardship to improve the health of their communities and the world by reducing their carbon footprint and medical waste.
Patient-Centric Care Transformation Continues as a Priority – The pandemic significantly accelerated the shift to telehealth and virtual care. Many health systems are increasing their efforts to design care around the patient instead of the traditional provider centric focus. While the need for inpatient care will always continue, more care is taking place in settings closer to or at home, with digital enablement. Expansion of personalized medicine, genetic testing and therapies, and drug discovery are transforming how healthcare is provided.
Affordability and Value-Based Care – US healthcare costs as a percentage of GDP increased from 18% in 2019 to almost 20% in 2020, mainly driven by the pandemic. There remains a dichotomy between reliance on fee-for-service payment and commitment to value-based care. Although only 11% of commercial payment is currently through two-sided risk arrangements, almost all presenting health systems discussed their strategies to continue moving to value-based care and to improve affordability. Some systems are leveraging their integrated health plans and/or expanding risk-based contracts. Many are trying to reduce unnecessary care through adoption of evidence-based models and to shift care to less costly settings.
Inflation and Accelerating Financial Pressures – Health systems are facing unprecedented increases in labor and supply costs, that are likely to continue into the foreseeable future. At the same time, commercial payment rate adjustments are “sticky low” as insurers and employers push back on rate increases. Governmental payment rate increases are less than cost inflation. In addition to current cuts like the re-implementation of sequestration, longer-term cuts to provider assessment programs, provider-based billing, disproportionate share and Medicaid expansion may severely impact many organizations over time. Benefits like 340b discounts are also experiencing pressure. Post-pandemic clinical-volume trends remain unclear, and additional governmental support associated with future pandemic waves is unlikely. Adding to these challenges, declines in stock and bond prices are negatively impacting currently strong balance sheets.
Conclusion: Best or Worst of Times in Healthcare?
Time will tell, in retrospect, if the next five years will be the best of times, worst of times, or both in healthcare. Optimists point to the resiliency of healthcare organizations; enormous opportunity to reduce unnecessary cost through adoption of evidence-based care and scale; pipeline of new cures and technology; and opportunities to address social and health equity. Pessimists point to likely unprecedented financial pressures and operational challenges due to endemic labor and supply shortages; high-cost inflation vs. constrained payment rates; and future uncertainty about the pandemic, the economy and investment markets.
The situation will undoubtedly vary by market and organization as reflected in conference presentations, but all systems will likely face substantial pressure. As one speaker noted “humans have a great ability to respond to pain,” so this may be the inflection point where more healthcare systems radically accelerate necessary change to improve health, make healthcare more equitable and affordable, with higher quality and better outcomes. Some health systems are clearly doing that, with pace, nimbleness and passion. Can the industry as a whole accomplish it successfully?
Last week, we introduced our framework for value delivery as a “healthcare platform”, in which an organization’s proximity to both the consumer and to the premium dollar determines how it competes as a “care supplier,” a “care ecosystem,” a “premium owner,” or a “population manager.” Traditionally, different healthcare companies have operated primarily in one of these four domains. However, as shown in the graphic below, we’ve recently seen many shift their business into one or more additional quadrants, as they seek to expand their value propositions. UnitedHealth Group is an obvious example: it has moved well beyond the traditional insurance business, via numerous provider and care delivery acquisitions across the continuum.
Other players have shifted from their own “pure play” positions toward more comprehensive “platform” strategies as well: One Medical adding Iora Health to enhance population health capabilities; Walmart moving beyond retail and pharmacy services, partnering with Oak Street Health to expand its ability to manage Medicare patients; Amazon getting into the employer health business.
There’s a clear pattern emerging—value propositions are converging on a “strategic high ground” that encompasses all four dimensions of platform value, creating a comprehensive set of solutions to deliver accessible care, promote health, and grow consumer loyalty, with an aligned financial model centered on managing the total cost of care. Health systems looking to build platform strategies will find many of these competitors also vying for pride of place as the “platform of choice” for healthcare consumers and purchasers.
The for-profit, 39-hospital Steward system manages 171K lives across the Medicare Advantage, Medicare shared savings, and Medicare direct contracting programs. This deal will allow Miami-based CareMax, a publicly-traded, value-based care company with 42 senior centers (mostly in Florida) and 34K lives under management, to expand across Steward’s footprint, which includes Texas and Arizona, states with rapidly growing Medicare populations.
The Gist:This deal is an example of the rise of venture-funded MSO (medical services organization) services that aim to subsume and scale value-based care functions from hospitals and medical groups. Steward wagers it can find greater success in managing risk in partnership with CareMax, moving a greater share of its Medicare population into risk, and outsourcing care management and patient engagement functions.
Many health systems have spent substantial resources building out accountable care organizations and risk-based Medicare businesses over the last decade. While selling these assets to a company like CareMax may be one way to generate a return, particularly for those frustrated by lower-than-anticipated gains from moving to value-based care, it also requires relinquishing control of functions likely central to the future health system business model.
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.
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.
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. Whilethe 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.