|Fourteen of the nation’s largest health systems announced this week that they have joined together to form a new, for-profit data company aimed at aggregating and mining their clinical data. Called Truveta, the company will draw on the de-identified health records of millions of patients from thousands of care sites across 40 states, allowing researchers, physicians, biopharma companies, and others to draw insights aimed at “improving the lives of those they serve.” |
Health system participants include the multi-state Catholic systems CommonSpirit Health, Trinity Health, Providence, and Bon Secours Mercy, the for-profit system Tenet Healthcare, and a number of regional systems. The new company will be led by former Microsoft executive Terry Myerson, who has been working on the project since March of last year. As large technology companies like Amazon and Google continue to build out healthcare offerings, and national insurers like UnitedHealth Group and Aetna continue to grow their analytical capabilities based on physician, hospital, and pharmacy encounters, it’s surprising that hospital systems are only now mobilizing in a concerted way to monetize the clinical data they generate.
Like Civica, an earlier health system collaboration around pharmaceutical manufacturing, Truveta’s launch signals that large national and regional systems are waking up to the value of scale they’ve amassed over time, moving beyond pricing leverage to capture other benefits from the size of their clinical operations—and exploring non-merger partnerships to create value from collaboration. There will inevitably be questions about how patient data is used by Truveta and its eventual customers, but we believe the venture holds real promise for harnessing the power of massive clinical datasets to drive improvement in how care is delivered.
- Haven began informing employees Monday that it will shut down by the end of next month, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.
- Many of the Boston-based firm’s 57 workers are expected to be placed at Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway or JPMorgan Chase as the firms each individually push forward in their efforts, the people said.
- One key issue facing Haven was that each of the three founding companies executed their own projects separately with their own employees, obviating the need for the joint venture to begin with, according to the people, who declined to be identified speaking about the matter.
Haven, the joint venture formed by three of America’s most powerful companies to lower costs and improve outcomes in health care, is disbanding after three years, CNBC has learned exclusively.
The company began informing employees Monday that it will shut down by the end of next month, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.
Many of the Boston-based firm’s 57 workers are expected to be placed at Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway or JPMorgan Chase as the firms each individually push forward in their efforts, and the three companies are still expected to collaborate informally on health-care projects, the people said.
The announcement three years ago that the CEOs of Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase had teamed up to tackle one of the biggest problems facing corporate America – high and rising costs for employee health care – sent shock waves throughout the world of medicine. Shares of health-care companies tumbled on fears about how the combined might of leaders in technology and finance could wring costs out of the system.
The move to shutter Haven may be a sign of how difficult it is to radically improve American health care, a complicated and entrenched system of doctors, insurers, drugmakers and middlemen that costs the country $3.5 trillion every year. Last year, Berkshire CEO Warren Buffett seemed to indicate as much, saying that were was no guarantee that Haven would succeed in improving health care.
One key issue facing Haven was that while the firm came up with ideas, each of the three founding companies executed their own projects separately with their own employees, obviating the need for the joint venture to begin with, according to the people, who declined to be identified speaking about the matter.
Coming just three years after the initial rush of fanfare about the possibilities for what Haven could accomplish, its closure is a disappointment to some. But insiders claim that it will allow the founding companies to implement ideas from the project on their own, tailoring them to the specific needs of their employees, who are mostly concentrated in different cities.
The move comes after Haven’s CEO, Dr. Atul Gawande, stepped down from day-to-day management of the nonprofit in May, a change that sparked a search for his successor.
Brooke Thurston, a spokeswoman for Haven, confirmed the company’s plans to close and gave this statement:
″The Haven team made good progress exploring a wide range of healthcare solutions, as well as piloting new ways to make primary care easier to access, insurance benefits simpler to understand and easier to use, and prescription drugs more affordable,” Thurston said in an email.
“Moving forward, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase & Co. will leverage these insights and continue to collaborate informally to design programs tailored to address the specific needs of our individual employee populations and locations,” she said.
President-elect Joe Biden’s healthcare agenda: building on the ACA, value-based care, and bringing down drug prices.
In many ways, Joe Biden is promising a return to the Obama administration’s approach to healthcare:
- Building on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) through incremental expansions in government-subsidized coverage
- Continuing CMS’ progress toward value-based care
- Bringing down drug prices
- Supporting modernization of the FDA
Bolder ideas, such as developing a public option, resolving “surprise billing,” allowing for negotiation of drug prices by Medicare, handing power to a third party to help set prices for some life sciences products, and raising the corporate tax rate, could be more challenging to achieve without overwhelming majorities in both the House and the Senate.
Biden is likely to mount an intensified federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, enlisting the Defense Production Act to compel companies to produce large quantities of tests and personal protective equipment as well as supporting ongoing deregulation around telehealth. The Biden administration also will likely return to global partnerships and groups such as the World Health Organization, especially in the area of vaccine development, production and distribution.
What can health industry executives expect from Biden’s healthcare proposals?
Broadly, healthcare executives can expect an administration with an expansionary agenda, looking to patch gaps in coverage for Americans, scrutinize proposed healthcare mergers and acquisitions more aggressively and use more of the government’s power to address the pandemic. Executives also can expect, in the event the ACA is struck down, moves by the Biden administration and Democratic lawmakers to develop a replacement. Healthcare executives should scenario plan for this unlikely yet potentially highly disruptive event, and plan for an administration marked by more certainty and continuity with the Obama years.
All healthcare organizations should prepare for the possibility that millions more Americans could gain insurance under Biden. His proposals, if enacted, would mean coverage for 97% of Americans, according to his campaign website. This could mean millions of new ACA customers for payers selling plans on the exchanges, millions of new Medicaid beneficiaries for managed care organizations, millions of newly insured patients for providers, and millions of covered customers for pharmaceutical and life sciences companies. The surge in insured consumers could mirror the swift uptake in the years following the passage of the ACA.
Biden’s plan to address the COVID-19 pandemic
Biden is expected to draw on his experience from H1N1 and the Ebola outbreaks to address the COVID-19 pandemic with a more active role for the federal government, which many Americans support. These actions could shore up the nation’s response in which the federal government largely served in a support role to local, state and private efforts.
Three notable exceptions have been the substantial federal funding for development of vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Congress’ aid packages and the rapid deregulatory actions taken by the FDA and CMS to clear a path for medical products to be enlisted for the pandemic and for providers, in particular, to be able to respond to it.
Implications of Biden’s 2020 health agenda on healthcare payers, providers and pharmaceutical and life sciences companies
The US health system has been slowly transforming for years into a New Health Economy that is more consumer-oriented, digital, virtual, open to new players from outside the industry and focused on wellness and prevention. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated some of those trends. Once the dust from the election settles, companies that have invested in capabilities for growth and are moving forcefully toward the New Health Economy stand to gain disproportionately.
Shortages of clinicians and foreign medical students may continue to be an issue for a while
The Trump administration made limiting the flow of immigrants to the US a priority. The associated policy changes have the potential to exacerbate shortages of physicians, nurses and other healthcare workers, including medical students. These consequences have been aggravated by the pandemic, which dramatically curtailed travel into the US.
- Healthcare organizations, especially rural ones heavily dependent on foreign-born employees, may find themselves competing fiercely for workers, paying higher salaries and having to rethink the structure of their workforces.
- Providers should consider reengineering primary care teams to reflect the patients’ health status and preferences, along with the realities of the workforce on the ground and new opportunities in remote care.
Focus on modernizing the supply chain
Biden and lawmakers from both parties have been raising questions about life sciences’ supply chains. This focus has only intensified because of the pandemic and resulting shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), pharmaceuticals, diagnostic tests and other medical products.
- Investment in advanced analytics and cybersecurity could allow manufacturers to avoid disruptive stockouts and shortages, and deliver on the promise of the right treatment to the right patient at the right time in the right place.
Drug pricing needs a long-term strategy
Presidents and lawmakers have been talking about drug prices for decades; few truly meaningful actions have been implemented. Biden has made drug pricing reform a priority.
- Drug manufacturers may need to start looking past the next quarter to create a new pricing strategy that maximizes access in local markets through the use of data and analytics to engage in more value-based pricing arrangements.
- New financing models may help patients get access to drugs, such as subscription models that provide unlimited access to a therapy at a flat rate.
- Companies that prepare now to establish performance metrics and data analytics tools to track patient outcomes will be well prepared to offer payers more sustainable payment models, such as mortgage or payment over time contracts, avoiding the sticker shock that comes with these treatments and improving uptake at launch.
- Pharmaceutical and life sciences companies will likely have to continue to offer tools for consumers like co-pay calculators and use the contracting process where possible to minimize out-of-pocket costs, which can improve adherence rates and health outcomes.
View interoperability as an opportunity to embrace, not a threat to avoid or ignore
While the pandemic delayed many of the federal interoperability rule deadlines, payers and providers should use the extra time to plan strategically for an interoperable future.
- Payers should review business partnerships in this new regulatory environment.
- Digital health companies and new entrants may help organizations take advantage of the opportunities that achieving interoperability may present.
- Companies should consider the legal risks and take steps to protect their reputations and relationships with customers by thinking through issues of consent and data privacy.
Health organizations should review their policies and consider whether they offer protections for customers under the new processes and what data security risks may emerge. They should also consider whether business associate agreements are due in more situations.
Plan for revitalized ACA exchanges and a booming Medicare Advantage market
The pandemic has thrown millions out of work, generating many new customers for ACA plans just as the incoming Biden administration plans to enrich subsidies, making more generous plans within reach of more Americans.
- Payers in this market should consider how and where to expand their membership and appeal to those newly eligible for Medicare. Payers not in this market should consider partnerships or acquisitions as a quick way to enter the market, with the creation of a new Medicare Advantage plan as a slower but possibly less capital-intensive entry into this market.
- Payers and health systems should use this opportunity to design more tailored plan options and consumer experiences to enhance margins and improve health outcomes.
- Payers with cash from deferred care and low utilization due to the pandemic could turn to vertical integration with providers as a means of investing that cash in a manner that helps struggling providers in the short term while positioning payers to improve care and reduce its cost in the long term.
- Under the Trump administration, the FDA has approved historic numbers of generic drugs, with the aim of making more affordable pharmaceuticals available to consumers. Despite increased FDA generics approvals, generics dispensed remain high but flat, according to HRI analysis of FDA data.
- Pharmaceutical company stocks, on average, have climbed under the Trump administration, with a few notable dips due to presidential speeches criticizing the industry and the pandemic.
- Providers have faced some revenue cuts, particularly in the 340B program, and many entered the pandemic in a relatively weak liquidity position. The pandemic has led to layoffs, pay cuts and even closures. HRI expects consolidation as the pandemic continues to curb the flow of patients seeking care in emergency departments, orthopedic surgeons’ offices, dermatology suites and more.
Lawmakers and politicians often use bold language, and propose bold solutions to problems, but the government and the industry itself resists sudden, dramatic change, even in the face of sudden, dramatic events such as a global pandemic. One notable exception to this would be a decision by the US Supreme Court to strike down the ACA, an event that would generate a great deal of uncertainty and disruption for Americans, the US health industry and employers.
As Warren Buffett turns 90, the story of one of America’s most influential and wealthy business leaders is a study in the logic and discipline of understanding future value.
Patience, caution, and consistency. In volatile times such as these, it may be difficult for executives to keep those attributes in mind when making decisions. But there are immense advantages to doing so. For proof, just look at the steady genius of now-nonagenarian Warren Buffett. The legendary investor and Berkshire Hathaway founder and CEO has earned millions of dollars for investors over several decades (exhibit). But very few of Buffett’s investment decisions have been reactionary; instead, his choices and communications have been—and remain—grounded in logic and value.
Buffett learned his craft from “the father of value investing,” Columbia University professor and British economist Benjamin Graham. Perhaps as a result, Buffett typically doesn’t invest in opportunities in which he can’t reasonably estimate future value—there are no social-media companies, for instance, or cryptocurrency ventures in his portfolio. Instead, he banks on businesses that have steady cash flows and will generate high returns and low risk. And he lets those businesses stick to their knitting. Ever since Buffett bought See’s Candy Shops in 1972, for instance, the company has generated an ROI of more than 160 percent per year —and not because of significant changes to operations, target customer base, or product mix. The company didn’t stop doing what it did well just so it could grow faster. Instead, it sends excess cash flows back to the parent company for reinvestment—which points to a lesson for many listed companies: it’s OK to grow in line with your product markets if you aren’t confident that you can redeploy the cash flows you’re generating any better than your investor can.
As Peter Kunhardt, director of the HBO documentary Becoming Warren Buffett, said in a 2017 interview, Buffett understands that “you don’t have to trade things all the time; you can sit on things, too. You don’t have to make many decisions in life to make a lot of money.” And Buffett’s theory (roughly paraphrased) that the quality of a company’s senior leadership can signal whether the business would be a good investment or not has been proved time and time again. “See how [managers] treat themselves versus how they treat the shareholders .…The poor managers also turn out to be the ones that really don’t think that much about the shareholders. The two often go hand in hand,” Buffett explains.
Every few years or so, critics will poke holes in Buffett’s approach to investing. It’s outdated, they say, not proactive enough in a world in which digital business and economic uncertainty reign. For instance, during the 2008 credit crisis, pundits suggested that his portfolio moves were mistimed, he held on to some assets for far too long, and he released others too early, not getting enough in return. And it’s true that Buffett has made some mistakes; his decision making is not infallible. His approach to technology investments works for him, but that doesn’t mean other investors shouldn’t seize opportunities to back digital tools, platforms, and start-ups—particularly now that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated global companies’ digital transformations.
Still, many of Buffett’s theories continue to win the day. A good number of the so-called inadvisable deals he pursued in the wake of the 2008 downturn ended paying off in the longer term. And press reports suggest that Berkshire Hathaway’s profits are rebounding in the midst of the current economic downturn prompted by the global pandemic.
At age 90, Buffett is still waging campaigns—for instance, speaking out against eliminating the estate tax and against the release of quarterly earnings guidance. Of the latter, he has said that it promotes an unhealthy focus on short-term profits at the expense of long-term performance.
“Clear communication of a company’s strategic goals—along with metrics that can be evaluated over time—will always be critical to shareholders. But this information … should be provided on a timeline deemed appropriate for the needs of each specific company and its investors, whether annual or otherwise,” he and Jamie Dimon wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
Yes, volatile times call for quick responses and fast action. But as Warren Buffett has shown, there are also significant advantages to keeping the long term in mind, as well. Specifically, there is value in consistency, caution, and patience and in simply trusting the math—in good times and bad.
Healthcare is Hard: A Podcast for Insiders; June 11, 2020
Over the course of nearly 20 years as Chief Research Officer at The Advisory Board Company, Chas Roades became a trusted advisor for CEOs, leadership teams and boards of directors at health systems across the country. When The Advisory Board was acquired by Optum in 2017, Chas left the company with Chief Medical Officer, Lisa Bielamowicz. Together they founded Gist Healthcare, where they play a similar role, but take an even deeper and more focused look at the issues health systems are facing.
As Chas explains, Gist Healthcare has members from Allentown, Pennsylvania to Beverly Hills, California and everywhere in between. Most of the organizations Gist works with are regional health systems in the $2 to $5 billion range, where Chas and his colleagues become adjunct members of the executive team and board. In this role, Chas is typically hopscotching the country for in-person meetings and strategy sessions, but Covid-19 has brought many changes.
“Almost overnight, Chas went from in-depth sessions about long-term five-year strategy, to discussions about how health systems will make it through the next six weeks and after that, adapt to the new normal. He spoke to Keith Figlioli about many of the issues impacting these discussions including:
- Corporate Governance. The decisions health systems will be forced to make over the next two to five years are staggeringly big, according to Chas. As a result, Gist is spending a lot of time thinking about governance right now and how to help health systems supercharge governance processes to lay a foundation for the making these difficult choices.
- Health Systems Acting Like Systems. As health systems struggle to maintain revenue and margins, they’ll be forced to streamline operations in a way that finally takes advantage of system value. As providers consolidated in recent years, they successfully met the goal of gaining size and negotiating leverage, but paid much less attention to the harder part – controlling cost and creating value. That’s about to change. It will be a lasting impact of Covid-19, and an opportunity for innovators.
- The Telehealth Land Grab. Providers have quickly ramped-up telehealth services as a necessity to survive during lockdowns. But as telehealth plays a larger role in the new standard of care, payers will not sit idly by and are preparing to double-down on their own virtual care capabilities. They’re looking to take over the virtual space and own the digital front door in an effort to gain coveted customer loyalty. Chas talks about how it would be foolish for providers to expect that payers will continue reimburse at high rates or at parity for physical visits.
- The Battleground Over Physicians. This is the other area to watch as payers and providers clash over the hearts and minds of consumers. The years-long trend of physician practices being acquired and rolled-up into larger organizations will significantly accelerate due to Covid-19. The financial pain the pandemic has caused will force some practices out of business and many others looking for an exit. And as health systems deal with their own financial hardships, payers with deep pockets are the more likely suitor.”
We’ve been working with a number of our members on the topic of “systemness”: helping think through how health systems can (finally) make progress on creating value from consolidation, moving from being a holding company of assets to a true, functioning system of care.
One critical aspect of that work is standardization—making sure that, where appropriate, operational and clinical processes are uniform across different clinics, hospitals and markets. That’s one of the core sources of corporate value for any company—it would be crazy for GE to make refrigerators differently in Hyderabad, India than in Louisville, KY, for instance. Of course, delivering healthcare is more complex than making refrigerators, and (as we point out in our work on systemness) there needs to be a certain zone of allowable variability in many operational and clinical areas.
Along these lines, a phrase that one physician executive used in a meeting recently caught my attention: he said what he tries to achieve are “standards, not standardization”. In other words, setting clinical and operational standards (for example, how much a knee implant should cost) rather than fully standardizing elements of care (what knee implant must our surgeons use).
Of course, there are lots of things that should be completely standardized across the system—especially in “back office” areas like marketing, HR, revenue cycle, and legal. And some clinical work can be standardized as well: care protocols and agreed-upon pathways for treatment. But allowing variability in clinical practice requires a more flexible approach—one built on standards that clinicians can build consensus around—rather than on rigid standardization. We’ll have more to share about our systemness work in weeks to come—it’s a critical topic for executives as cost pressures mount, and questions about the value of health system scale abound.
The Tewksbury, Massachusetts–based health system strives to post its first positive balance sheet in more than five years.
Stephen Forney, MBA, CPA, FACHE, excels in fixing “broken” organizations and he has built a track record of achieving financial turnarounds at seven healthcare facilities, he tells HealthLeaders in a recent interview.
Forney has over three decades of experience as a healthcare executive, with a primary focus on problem-solving. He began his career fixing problems in areas such as information technology and supply chain, an approach and skill he has carried over into financial operations in the C-suite.
“In finance, it wound up being the same thing. Pretty much every organization I’ve gone to has been broken in some way, shape, or form,” Forney says. “I’ve developed a specialty doing turnarounds and this will be my eighth.”
Forney speaks about his new CFO role at the Tewksbury, Massachusetts–based Catholic nonprofit health system Covenant Health, which he joined in mid-September, and how driving revenue and reducing expenses must go hand-in-hand to achieve financial balance.
This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
HealthLeaders: Covenant is coming off its fifth straight year of operating losses. What is contributing to those losses and how do you plan to address those financial challenges?
Forney: The thing is, most turnarounds—to a greater or lesser extent—look a lot alike. With organizations that have [financial] issues, there are obviously always unique aspects to every situation, but virtually every healthcare organization that’s not doing well is because of the same relatively small handful of issues.
[For example,] revenue cycle is probably No. 1. Productivity has not been well attended to; expenses haven’t had a lot of discipline around them in a broad sense. That’s not to say that all decisions are bad, but in a systematic fashion, things haven’t been looked at. Frequently, driving volume and growing the business needs a better focus.
In the case of Covenant … there has been a plan developed to address all those areas and we are addressing them already, even though we will be posting another operating loss in fiscal [year] 2019. But the trajectory is good and some of the things that we’re now looking at are what I would consider to be phase two–type initiatives. How do we accelerate and move them to the next level?
On October 1, we outsourced our revenue cycle. I’m pleased that we were able to get that accomplished. Obviously, it’s early but, at least anecdotally, initial trends look good.
HL: Where do you fall on the dynamic between focusing on expense control measures or revenue generation?
Forney: I always feel like you need to do both. Expense management and working towards expense strategies is easier, quicker, and more straightforward.
[Revenue growth strategies] take time, take effort, and tend to [have] a much higher degree of uncertainty around the volume projection. Those are necessary and they’re things that we need to invest in because, at some point, you can’t cut any more from your organization, you’ve got to grow the top line. To me, it’s sort of like step one is stabilize your revenue cycle and stabilize your expenses. Then while you’re doing that, work on growth that’s going to take place 12 to 18 months down the road.
HL: Are you optimistic about the federal government’s efforts to move the industry toward value-based care?
Forney: Going back about a decade, I thought the ACE program, which was [the federal government’s] bundled payment program, was a solid step in the right direction. It gave organizations a chance to collaborate in compliant fashion with physicians to bend the cost curve and have beneficiaries participate in the bending of the cost curve as well. I was with one of the pilot health systems that [participated], and it was a remarkable success.
Everybody got to win; CMS, patients, physicians, and systems won by creating value. Yes, I think that the government has a good role to play in [value-based care] because they have such a large group of patients that they’re willing to experiment like that. [The federal government] can come up with potentially novel ways to get people to buy into this.
HL: What is it like to be at the helm of a Catholic nonprofit system and how does it affect your leadership style?
Forney: From a philosophical standpoint, the principle of creating shareholder wealth and good stewardship are not significantly different. You’ve got an end goal in mind, which is, you’re taking care of the patients and a community. In one case, whatever excess is left goes to a private equity fund or shareholders. In the other case, [the excess] stays in your balance sheet and gets reinvested in the community.
HL: Given your three decades of healthcare experience, do you have advice for your fellow provider CFOs, especially some of the younger ones?
Forney: Focus on being that strategic right-hand person to the CEO. In my experience, that has been one of the things that marks a successful CFO from one that isn’t as successful.
CEOs are going to get ideas from everywhere. They’re outward and inward facing. They deal with the doctors and the community, and they’re going to get all sorts of great ideas.
The CFO needs to be that person [who is] grounded and says, ‘Well, what about this?’ That doesn’t mean saying no. The whole idea is how do you make it [sound] like a yes. To me, the CFO role just grounds all the discussions, from working with physicians to working with the community.
CFOs over the last couple of decades have been operationally oriented. Now they need to start becoming clinically oriented.
There’s a real benefit in being able to sit down and talk with a physician and understand [what] they’re doing. … It winds up becoming a way to help ground the clinicians in the hospital operations because now you’re having a dialogue with them instead of them just saying, ‘You don’t understand. You’re not a clinician.’ That would be something that I would have a young CFO try to stay focused on, even though it’s dramatically outside the comfort zone for people that typically go into accounting.
Thanks to TV shows and movies, we tend to think of
private equity bidding wars as involving fast-growing
Silicon Valley companies. But when Oak Street Health,
a Chicago-based network of seven primary care clinics,
began looking for investors last year, more than a dozen
firms flew to Chicago to court the physicians and most of
them ended up bidding for the group of seven primary care clinics, according to a report in Modern Healthcare.
Oak Street is not alone — almost any independent
physician group of scale these days is likely to be an
attractive target for so-called “smart money,” investors
and their advisers.
Increased regulatory requirements and complexity has led
many independent small groups to “throw up their hands
and decide to sell to or join larger entities,” says Andrew
Kadar, a managing director in L.E.K. Consulting’s healthcare
services practice, which advises private equity groups.
While many such physicians sell to a health system and
become salaried employees, investor-backed practice management groups may have certain advantages, Kadar says. “Each private equity firm has its own approach, but in general they tend to give physicians a continued degree of independence and are willing to invest in new tools and technology.”
What is private equity up to? What attracts these
titans of capitalism to one of the most bureaucratic,
heavily regulated industries in the United States? And
what does the acquisition spree mean for physicians?
Here are five things to know about private equity and
healthcare in 2019.
1. The feeding frenzy is just ramping up
The driving force behind investors’ interest in healthcare
is the amount of “dry powder” in the industry — the term
market watchers use for funds sitting idle and ready to
invest, which McKinsey estimates at around $1.8 trillion
Investors are hungry for deals, and healthcare providers
are an attractive target for multiple reasons:
• The healthcare industry is growing faster than the
GDP. Healthcare is a relatively recession-proof industry
(demand remains constant even during downturns).
• Many providers are currently not professionally
managed, and many specialties remain fragmented.
• Investors see an opportunity to create value by
increasing efficiencies and consolidating market power.
Thus, with many independent providers still competing
on their own, there remains ample opportunity to
roll up practices into a single practice-management
organization owned by investors. “A lot of deals are
making the headlines, but when you look closely you’ll
see that most specialties aren’t highly penetrated yet by
investors,” says Bill Frack, a former managing director at
L.E.K. Consulting who is now leading a new healthcare
delivery venture. “We are still at the beginning.”
2. Investors have various strategies for creating value
Far from the leveraged-buyout days of the 1980s, which
relied primarily on financial engineering to generate
returns, almost all private equity deals today require
investors to find ways to add value to organizations over
the course of their holding period (typically around five
to seven years). By and large, in healthcare they follow
two strategies for doing so.
The most prevalent play is to buy high-volume, high margin specialist groups such as anesthesiologists,
dermatologists, and orthopedic surgeons. The PE
group then looks to maximize fee-for-service revenue
in the group by ensuring that the team is correctly
and exhaustively coding patient encounters (via ICD10) and encouraging physicians to see more patients.
Simultaneously, they work to improve revenue-cycle
management and drive efficiencies of scale into sales
and back-office administration.
Private equity firms may also look to vertically integrate
by acquiring providers of services for which their
specialists were previously referring out. For instance, oncologist groups might buy radiation treatment centers;
orthopedic surgeons might acquire rehab centers;
dermatologists might acquire pathology labs to process
biopsies, and so on.
Investors exit either through a sale to a larger PE group or,
for the largest groups, through an initial public offering.
Consolidating fee-for-service providers “is a very mature
strategy, and there’s not a single specialty you could
name where an investor wouldn’t have an incentive to
[form a roll-up],” says Brandon Hull, who serves on the
advisory council of New Mountain Capital, a private
equity firm that is investing in healthcare, and is a longtime board member at athenahealth.
Hull says investors are starting to take another approach
to creating value — which he argues “is more virtuous
and aligned with social goals.” In this strategy, investors buy up general medicine specialists — such as internal
medicine, pediatrics, or ob-gyns — and then negotiate
value-based contracts from payers.
To succeed under these contracts, investor-backed medical
groups identify the most cost-effective proceduralists
and diagnosticians in their network and instruct general
practitioners to refer only to them; and they work hard
to play a larger role in patients’ health and thus keep
healthcare utilization down. Groups that employ this
approach include Privia and Iora Health. In this strategy,
investors typically exit by selling the organization to a
larger PE group, a payer, or a health system.
Interestingly, groups that pursue the first strategy often
transition to the second – for instance, an efficiently run
orthopedic group might start with a focus on growing
revenue by maximizing fee-for-service opportunities,
but then consider pursuing bundled payments for hip
replacements. Or an investor-backed oncology group
confident in its treatment protocols and ability to keep
operational costs down might accept capitated payments
for treating patients recently diagnosed with cancer.
3. Private equity can be a great deal for physicians
How these deals are structured depends on whether a
specialty group is the first group acquired by investors —
what is known in private-equity lingo as “the platform”—
or whether it’s being added to an existing group, what is
known as a “tuck-in.”
Physicians in the platform practice are often offered
substantial equity and can benefit from the group’s
appreciation — while, of course, being exposed to the risk that
their share-value may decrease if the group fails to deliver on
its intended value proposition. Physicians in subsequent tuckin groups tend to have simpler contracts with a salary base
and added incentives tied to productivity and other measures.
L.E.K.’s Frack says both models can be attractive, but
that a more simple employment model is probably best
suited to most physicians. “I would tell docs that if they
have a strong group of doctors, they don’t have much to
lose. Even if the deal falls flat for investors, the doctors
will likely just be acquired by another investor, and they
won’t be left holding the bag.”
4. Technology underpins it all
A similar private-equity healthcare frenzy in the 1990s failed
spectacularly. One reason for the collapse was that the
technology did not exist for investors to realize back-office
efficiencies and handle the complexity of value-based contracts.
Today, cloud-based EHR and revenue-cycle management
systems harness the power of network effects to help
provider organizations handle complex and unique
payer contracts, improve back-office efficiency through
automation and machine-learning, implement best practices
for care, and quickly onboard the new practices they acquire.
Technology is particularly important for the general
medicine specialist groups looking to win under fee-for-value contracts. “The moment you start to care about
a patient’s entire episode of care, you need a massive
upgrade of your back-end systems, including full
visibility into what’s happening to your patient outside
your office. Now the technology exists to truly achieve
care coordination,” New Mountain Capital’s Hull says.
5. Public perception can be a problem
Even if physicians believe a private equity deal is their
best option, there’s a public relations risk in tying a medical practice to capitalists whose ultimate goal is to earn a return. Most coverage of private equity in mainstream media outlets questions whether investors’ profit motive is bad for patients. Physician associations and medical journals have also raised concerns in a very public way.
Such public skepticism should worry anyone who
remembers the crash of the first private-equity wave in
the 1990s, says New Mountain Capital’s Hull, who ties
that crash to the failure of managed care. “The American
consumer perceived that doctors were getting bonuses
for denying them care; this became the grim punchline
of late-night talk shows, and the whole thing fell apart.”
Frack advises investors and physicians to “monitor
quality data like a hawk, so that the group can counter
anecdotal accounts of bad care.”
Hull adds that savvy investors should take a page from
the many healthcare startups that are laser-focused on building trust with patients, particularly when it comes
to end-of-life decisions and hospice care. “They know
that success in healthcare depends on patients trusting
their doctors to help them make the best medical
decisions,” Hull says.
Positioned to accommodate uncertainty L.E.K.’s Kadar argues out that whatever direction Washington decides to take healthcare, an efficient, professionally managed group practice with advantages
of scale is well-positioned to succeed — and private
equity is one way for physician groups to reach that goal.
“These groups can adapt more quickly than smaller,
independent practices, whether progressives or
conservatives are in power,” he says. As an example,
Kadar imagines a scenario in which Medicare-for-all
comes to pass. “It turns out that most [PE-backed] groups
do very well on Medicare Advantage contracts. If your
group is focused on delivering more efficient, effective care, with strong operations, you’re in a good position no matter what happens.”