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.
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.
The Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Co. launched its online pharmacy in January, offering low-cost versions of high-cost generic drugs. And it all started with a cold email.
Alex Oshmyansky, MD, PhD, fired off an email to Mr. Cuban with a simple subject line: “Cold pitch.” The then 33-year-old radiologist told Mr. Cuban about work he was doing in Denver with a compounding pharmacy and the business plan behind a company he founded in 2018, Osh’s Affordable Pharmaceuticals.
“I asked him a simple question, because this was when the whole pharma bro thing was going down,” Mr. Cuban said on NPR podcast The Limits, referring to convicted felon Martin Shkreli. “I was like, ‘Look, if this guy can jack up the prices 750 percent for lifesaving medicines, can we go the opposite direction? Can we cut the pricing? Are there inefficiencies in this industry that really allow us to do it and really make a difference?'”
Dr. Oshmyansky answered yes. Their weekly email correspondence continued for months. The Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Co. was quietly founded in May 2020, and Dr. Oshmyansky now serves as its CEO. The company is organized as a public-benefit corporation, meaning it is for-profit but claims its social mission of improving public health is just as important as the bottom line.
“We basically created a vertically integrated manufacturing company that will start with generic drugs,” Mr. Cuban told NPR. A major component of the strategy is to bypass pharmacy benefit managers, which Mr. Cuban likens to bouncers at a club.
“They’re the ones who say, ‘Hey, I’m controlling access to all the big insurance companies. If you want this insurance company to sell your drug, you’ve got to pay the cover charge. All these drugs pay the cover charge to these PBMs through rebates, and because they’re paying the cover charges, the prices are jacked up,” Mr. Cuban told NPR. “We said we’re going to create our own PBM, we’re going to work directly with the manufacturers, and we’re not going to charge the cover charge.”
The Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Co. marks the prices of its drugs up 15 percent, charges a $3 pharmacy fee to pay the pharmacists it works with, and a fee for shipping. “That’s it,” Mr. Cuban said on NPR. “There’s no other added costs. The manufacturers love what we’re doing for that reason.”
Others have set out before to disrupt pharma the way Mr. Cuban and Dr. Oshmyansky intend, but their downfall is cooperating or giving in to the PBMs, the entrepreneur noted.
“People always ask, well why didn’t somebody do this before? The reality is there’s so much money there, it’s hard not to be greedy,” Mr. Cuban said on the podcast. “If you get to any scale at all, those PBMs will start throwing money at you and saying, ‘Look, just play the game.’”
Mr. Cuban has indicated he has no intention to play the game.
“I could make a fortune from this,” Mr. Cuban told Texas Monthly last fall. “But I won’t. I’ve got enough money. I’d rather f— up the drug industry in every way possible.”
We recently shared an updated perspective on the independent physician landscape. Notably absent from this map, but an important player in this space, are entities, like health plans, private equity, and health systems, who partially or wholly fund some independent physician groups.
We intentionally left these funders off the map because they don’t work in a uniform way with all physician groups. The reality is that funders have their handprints all over this map—and just knowing what type of funder you’re working with doesn’t necessarily tell you how they work with physician groups.
Funders work across the physician landscape because they recognize two things:
- First, in order to play in today’s physician market, funders need to be flexible in how they work with physicians in order to appeal to the wide variety of groups and build a bigger market presence.
- Second, building or buying these physician group archetypes outright is not the only way to work with them. Many funders instead opt to invest in them—either through dollars or resources.
Key funders to watch
There are three key funders we track the closest: private equity, health plans, and health systems. Below are brief overviews of how they commonly work with independent groups and our predictions for where you might see them go next.
Private equity (PE): Consistent approach with still to be proven outcomes
The goal of PE firms is to make money on their investments. To do this, these firms buy shares of practices in order to have partial ownership. In return, physician groups get the capital they need to make investments—investments that in theory drive profits for both the physician shareholders and the PE investors. Unlike other funders, PE is rarely associated with full acquisition.
Two of the places we’ve seen the most private equity investment are in consolidation of specialty practices (usually at the national level) or value-based care investments in primary care practices (across all archetypes).
Private equity is gaining traction as a physician group partner because they often try to preserve some degree of physician autonomy and they’ve learned to nuance their investments and pitches based on the group they’re seeking to work with.
We predict: PE will continue to back the full range of archetypes on this map—investing in both independent groups directly and the national archetypes.
What we’ll be watching:
- What will happen to the handful of major PE investments in the independent physician group space that will be reaching their 5-7 year mark
- What level of physician autonomy will PE firms continue to preserve as PE gains stronger footholds in the physician landscape
Health plans: The most eager to transform (incrementally)
Health plans are often predominantly associated with a single physician archetype for a given plan. For example, when you think about UnitedHealthcare, you might think of their sister company, OptumCare, and an aggregation strategy. Or, you might think of Blues plans most commonly as service partners.
However, when you dig deeper, the story is much more nuanced. Plans and their parent companies like UnitedHealth Group do often aggregate practices, but they also sell and integrate services via service partner models. And several Blues plans are now building practices from the ground up. To top it off, some plans are even adopting an investment strategy like Anthem with Privia.
Perhaps more than any other funder, health plans often adopt a range of strategies to develop their physician strategy and maintain their existing networks. And even cases where plans aren’t funding entities themselves, they’re thinking of new ways to work with the growing range of physician groups.
We predict: Health plans will move away from a uniform approach to physician practice partnership and towards more multifaceted approaches to appeal to a wide range of providers.
What we’ll be watching:
- Will health plans diversify their suite of approaches based on the groups they’re pursuing
- Will health plans tailor their value proposition for each partnership approach
Health systems: Playing catch up to evolve
We often tend to think about health systems as aggregators—they buy independent physician groups and add them to their employed medical groups. But we’re seeing two physician market shifts that are causing health systems to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach.
One, the remaining independent groups are growing in size and, two, they are less willing to be acquired. On top of that, as private equity firms and payers continue to diversify their strategies, health systems must adapt to keep pace—or risk being seen as the least attractive partner.
As a result, more health systems are telling us about their new approaches to physician partnerships, like starting an MSO to act as a service partner or convening coalitions between themselves and independent groups.
We predict: Health systems will face increasing pressure to diversify how they are operating with physician groups. Similar to health plans, we expect to see a pivot away from an aggregation-only approach. To learn more, read our take on how health systems and independent groups should think about partnership.
What we’ll be watching:
- How quickly will health systems stand up additional partnership approaches
- Will health systems in markets where they’re the dominant partner proactively adjust their partnership approach versus wait for the market to shift first
Your checklist to work successfully with today’s physician groups
As you evaluate your partnership strategy, here’s our starter list of questions to ask yourself:
- Clarify your partnership goals:
- What are my organization’s goals for physician partnership broadly?
- What are the archetypes I currently fund or partner with?
- Do these archetypes serve my organization’s stated goals?
- Identify the right partnership approaches for your organization
- What new archetypes should I build or work with to advance my organization’s goals and target new physician groups?
- Do I need to build this archetype myself or is it better to fund one that exists?
- If funding, should I wholly own or invest in the archetype?
- Define your value proposition to physicians
- Have I adjusted my value proposition for each of the archetypes I fund or partner with?
- Am I clearly articulating my value proposition in a way that speaks to physicians’ needs and wants?
- Does my value proposition align with what I’m actually delivering? For example, if I say I’m preserving autonomy, how am I doing that?
- How does my value proposition compare and compete with others in the market?
- Map out the power dynamics of the archetypes you want to work with
- Who has the ultimate decision-making power in the organization? (Hint: Decision-making power gets more diffuse as you move from right to left, national chain to service partner.)
- Who are the key stakeholders who influence decision-making?
The typical media coverage of the healthcare workforce crisis often focuses on the acute shortage of hospital-based nurses. For instance, the hospital forced to close a unit as nurses, burned out after 18 months of extra shifts taking care of COVID patients, leave for lower-stress, more predictable jobs in outpatient facilities or doctors’ offices.
But we’re hearing about a reverse trend in recent conversations with health system leaders. Instead of outpatient settings benefiting from an influx of nursing talent, ambulatory leaders report that nurses are now leaving for hospital or travel nursing positions that offer higher salaries and large sign-on bonuses. That’s forcing non-hospital settings to reduce operating room and endoscopy capacity.
Nor are shortages just in the nursing workforce. One system executive lamented that they had to cancel several non-emergent cardiac surgeries, not due to nurse staffing challenges; rather, they were short on surgical technicians. “Surgical techs aren’t leaving because of COVID,” the executive shared, “they’re leaving because the labor market is so strong, and they can make the same money doing something entirely different.”
For lower-wage workers in particular, the old value proposition of working for a health system, centered around good benefits, continuing education, and a long-term career path, isn’t providing the boost it used to. Workers are willing to trade those for improved work-life balance, predictability, and the perception of a “safer” workplace.
Stabilizing the healthcare workforce will ultimately require providers to rethink job design, the allocation of talent across settings of care, and the integration of technology in workflow. And it will require re-anchoring the work in the mission of serving the community.
But in the short term, many health systems will find themselves having to pay more to retain key workers, including but not limited to hospital nurses, to maintain patient access to care.
A new report from consulting firm Avalere Health and the nonprofit Physicians Advocacy Institute finds that the pandemic accelerated the rise in physician employment, with nearly 70 percent of doctors now employed by a hospital, insurer or investor-owned entity.
Researchers evaluated shifts to employment in the two-year period between January 2019 and January 2021, finding that 48,400 additional doctors left independent practice to join a health system or other company, with the majority of the change occurring during the pandemic. While 38 percent chose employment by a hospital or health system, the majority of newly employed doctors are now employed by a “corporate entity”, including insurers, disruptors and investor-owned companies.
(Researchers said they were unable to accurately break down corporate employers by entity, and that the study likely undercounts the number of physician practices owned by private equity firms, given the lack of transparency in that segment.) Growth rates in the corporate sector dwarfed health system employment, increasing a whopping 38 percent over the past two years, in comparison to a 5 percent increase for hospitals.
We expect this pace will continue throughout this year and beyond, as practices seek ongoing stability and look to manage the exit of retiring partners, enticed by the outsized offers put on the table by investors and payers.
As we reported recently, healthcare M&A hit record highs in the first quarter of 2021—with deal activity in the physician practice space surging 87 percent. The graphic above highlights private equity firms’ increasing investment in the sector over the last five years. Both the number and size of PE-backed healthcare deals have increased substantially from 2015 to 2020, up 39 and 45 percent respectively.
In 2020, physician practices and services comprised nearly a fifth of all transactions, with PE firms driving the majority. One in five physician transactions involved primary care practices—a signal that investors are banking on profits to be made in the shift to value-based care models.
Meanwhile, PE firms are still rolling up high-margin specialty practices, with ophthalmology, orthopedics, dermatology, and anesthesiology groups all receiving significant funding in 2020. PE investment in physician practices will likely continue to accelerate, as investors view healthcare as a promising place to deploy readily available capital.
But we remain convinced that private equity investors have little interest in being long-term owners of practices, and will ultimately look for an exit by selling “rolled-up” physician entities to health systems or insurers.