Hospital volume return remains uneven, while virtual care holds

https://mailchi.mp/df8b77a765df/the-weekly-gist-may-6-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

More than two years after the pandemic’s onset, some types of hospital volume still haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. The graphic above uses recent data from analytics firm Strata Decision Technology to track monthly hospital volume across various care settings. 

While outpatient volume continues to exceed pre-COVID levels, inpatient, emergency department (ED), and observation volume is still below the 2019 baseline. The unpredictability of volume trends is likely to continue, as COVID continues to ebb and flow regionally, and care continues to shift outpatient.

By contrast, the volume of virtual care visits has remained consistent, even as consumers return to in-person outpatient visits, driving up the overall level above the pre-pandemic baseline. Some of this increase in outpatient visit volume has been driven by consumers turning to urgent care clinics or doctors’ offices—either in-person or virtually—for their lower-acuity care needs.

While temporary reimbursement and licensing policies for telehealth have been the main stumbling blocks for many organizations’ longer-term planning for virtual visits, about half of states have now implemented permanent payment parity for telemedicine. As such, provider organizations that are still taking a “wait and see approach” must develop an economically sustainable virtual care model to reduce costs and meet evolving consumer demands.

How the pandemic may fundamentally change the health-care system

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/03/11/how-pandemic-may-fundamentally-change-health-care-system/

Welcome to Friday’s Health 202, where today we have a special spotlight on the pandemic two years in.

🚨 The federal government is about to be funded. The Senate sent the long-term spending bill to President Biden’s desk last night after months of intense negotiations. 

Two years since the WHO declared a pandemic, what health-care system changes are here to stay?

Nurses screened patients at a drive-through testing site in March 2020. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Exactly two years ago, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic and much of American life began grinding to a halt. 

That’s when the health-care system, which has never been known for its quickness, sped up. The industry was forced to adapt, delivering virtual care and services outside of hospitals on the fly. Yet, the years-long pandemic has exposed decades-old cracks in the system, and galvanized efforts to fix them.

Today, as coronavirus cases plummet and President Biden says Americans can begin resuming their normal lives, we explore how the pandemic could fundamentally alter the health-care system for good. What changes are here to stay — and what barriers are standing in the way?

A telehealth boom

What happened: Telehealth services skyrocketed as doctors’ offices limited in-person visits amid the pandemic. The official declaration of a public health emergency eased long-standing restrictions on these virtual services, vastly expanding Medicare coverage. 

But will it stick? Some of these changes go away whenever the Biden administration decides not to renew the public health emergency (PHE). The government funding bill passed yesterday extends key services roughly five months after the PHE ends, such as letting those on Medicare access telehealth services even if they live outside a rural area.

But some lobbyists and lawmakers are pushing hard to make such changes permanent. Though the issue is bipartisan and popular, it could be challenging to pass unless the measures are attached to a must-pass piece of legislation. 

  • “Even just talking to colleagues, I used to have to spend three or four minutes while they were trying desperately not to stare at their phone and explain to them what telehealth was … remote patient monitoring, originating sites, and all this wonky stuff,”said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a longtime proponent of telehealth.
  • “Now I can go up to them and say, ‘So telehealth is great, right?’ And they say, ‘yes, it is.’ ”
A new spotlight on in-home care

What happened: The infectious virus tore through nursing homes, where often fragile residents share rooms and depend on caregivers for daily tasks. Ultimately, nearly 152,000 residents died from covid-19.

The devastation has sparked a rethinking of where older adults live and how they get the services they need — particularly inside their own homes. 

  • “That is clearly what people prefer,” said Gail Wilensky, an economist at Project HOPE who directed the Medicare and Medicaid programs under President George H.W. Bush. “The challenge is whether or not it’s economically feasible to have that happen.”

More money, please: Finding in-home care — and paying for it — is still a struggle for many Americans. Meanwhile, many states have lengthy waitlists for such services under Medicaid.

Experts say an infusion of federal funds is needed to give seniors and those with disabilities more options for care outside of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. 

For instance, Biden’s massive social spending bill included tens of billions of dollars for such services. But the effort has languished on Capitol Hill, making it unclear when and whether additional investments will come. 

A reckoning on racial disparities

What happened: Hispanic, Black, and American Indian and Alaska Native people are about twice as likely to die from covid-19 than White people. That’s according to age-adjusted data from a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report

In short, the coronavirus exposed the glaring inequities in the health-care system. 

  • “The first thing to deal with any problem is awareness,” said Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association. “Nobody can say that they’re not aware of it anymore, that it doesn’t exist.”

But will change come? Health experts say they hope the country has reached a tipping point in the last two years. And yet, any real systemic change will likely take time. But, Benjamin said, it can start with increasing the number of practitioners from diverse communities, making office practices more welcoming and understanding biases. 

We need to, as a matter of course, ask ourselves who’s advantaged and who’s disadvantaged” when crafting new initiatives, like drive-through testing sites, Benjamin said. “And then how do we create systems so that the people that are disadvantaged have the same opportunity.”

Amazon expands employer health solutions to 20+ new markets

Amazon Care Goes National With Hybrid Model | PYMNTS.com

Amazon Care, which contracts with employers, will now deliver its virtual care services nationwide. It also plans to expand its hybrid service offering—in which care is delivered by nurses dispatched to employees’ homes—to more than 20 new cities this year, including San Francisco, Miami, Chicago, and New York City. The company also announced it has secured new contracts with its subsidiary Whole Foods Market, as well as Hilton Hotels, semiconductor manufacturing company Silicon Labs, and staffing and recruiting firm TrueBlue.

The Gist: Amazon Care is looking to differentiate itself with a virtual-first, asset-light, hybrid service offering. But given the slow-moving and complex nature of employee health benefit contracting, Amazon’s recent moves could displace employer-facing point solutions, but present less of a threat to incumbent providers, instead offering a partnership opportunity for downstream care. 

Ultimately, Amazon could combine its care delivery offerings with its pharmacy and diagnostics businesses to launch a robust direct-to-consumer offering—should the company find healthcare a lucrative and manageable market. 

Babylon Health goes on a spending spree to boost its value-based care capabilities

https://mailchi.mp/d57e5f7ea9f1/the-weekly-gist-january-21-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

Babylon Health Expands Value-Based Care Model in California | HealthLeaders  Media

The digital health company Babylon recently completed a deal to acquire health kiosk manufacturer Higi Health, followed by an announcement this week that it is also buying episodic care management company DaytoDay Health. London-based Babylon, which went public last October, has moved quickly into the US market, acquiring two independent physician associations in California last year, and expanding its at-risk Medicaid contracts across five states. 

The Gist: Babylon has long rejected being called a “virtual care” or “telehealth” company in favor of being called a “digital-first value-based care” company. It now claims to manage more than 350,000 lives worldwide, which are the driving force behind its strong financials. 

We’d expect Babylon and other digital-first companies to seek out avenues to “own” attributable lives, as pure-play telemedicine services become increasingly commoditized.

HCA Healthcare and Tenet Healthcare acquire more outpatient assets

https://mailchi.mp/0b6c9295412a/the-weekly-gist-january-7-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

FGI releases outpatient facility guide | 2018-01-10 | Health Facilities  Management
  1. HCA has purchased MD Now Urgent Care, Florida’s largest urgent care chain, adding 59 urgent care centers to its existing 170. Meanwhile Tenet’s $1.1B deal to buy SurgCenter Development cements its position as the nation’s largest ambulatory surgery center (ASC) operator, eclipsing Envision-owned AMSURG and Optum-owned Surgical Care Affiliates. 

The Gist: Healthcare services are increasingly moving outpatient and even virtual—a trend only accelerated by the pandemic. With this latest acquisition, Tenet will now own or operate nearly seven times as many ASCs as hospitals. Such national, for-profit systems are looking to add more non-acute assets to their portfolios, to capitalize on a shift fueled by both consumer preference for greater convenience, and purchaser pressure to reduce care costs.  

Nonprofit health plans focus on reducing premiums, expanding benefits

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/nonprofit-health-plans-focus-reducing-premiums-expanding-benefits

Nonprofit payers have used a variety of strategies to address plan affordability throughout the next year, including reducing premiums by as much as 10% in some instances, finds a new report from the Alliance of Community Health Plans.

ACHP’s inaugural Report on Affordability found that when health plans manage premiums, provide enhanced benefits, smooth the way for access and reduce costs for governments and employers, the system – and outcomes – improve.

This is exemplified by some of the strategies employed by ACHP member plans, which largely reduced insurance premiums or held them flat, with some member companies reducing premiums by as much as 10%.

On top of that, every plan added new health benefits, or expanded existing ones, without increasing costs to consumers, the report found. Some of the additional benefits include free vaccines, transportation, hearing aids, reduced insulin costs, nutrition classes and meal services, smoking cessation programs and $0 co-pays for mental health visits.

Roughly three-quarters of ACPH plans moved acute and recovery services out of the hospital setting, which was deemed too expensive in most cases. By establishing hospital-at-home programs and remote patient monitoring, plans have generated significant savings for both consumers and the health system, plus improved consumer satisfaction, results showed.

Meanwhile, about two-thirds of the plans offered price transparency tools meant to allow consumers to make more-informed choices. They included information on inpatient and outpatient services, behavioral health, prescription drugs, lab and imaging services and other fees, and many provided options for several locations and virtual care, a move intended to reduce travel costs.

Priority Health’s cost estimator has tallied $13.8 million in shared savings and paid out roughly $4.1 million in rewards to members.

In a bid to improve access, all plans expanded telehealth offerings, smoothing access to mental healthcare as well as to specialties such as Medication Assisted Treatment, physical and occupational therapy, medication management, speech therapy and dialysis. Most eliminated co-pays and cost sharing.

WHAT’S THE IMPACT?

In the last year, ACHP members expanded the hospital-at-home care model, attempting to offer more efficient ways to provide acute and recovery care as well as care management in a home setting. The expansion of virtual care, complete with remote monitoring and social support, reduces the risk of infection, keeps patients comfortable at home and alleviates inpatient hospital bed shortages, according to the report.

For example, SelectHealth and its owner system, Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare, launched Connect Care Pro, a virtual hospital meant to enable access for patients in remote locations. The online, digital program connects more than 500 caregivers across the Intermountain system, enabling patients to receive both basic medical and specialty care without making a long journey, including by helicopter.

Presbyterian Health of New Mexico’s Complete Care, on the other hand, is a wrap-around program that combines primary, urgent and home care for patients with complex medical needs, including those with functional decline and at risk of needing long-term institutional care. Patients receive and manage their care from home, 24/7, including acute and palliative care, house-call and same-day visits, as well as medication management. In addition, care coordinators and social workers manage social needs, including transportation and food insecurity.

And the Home Care Recovery program from Wisconsin’s Security Health Plan and Marshfield Clinic Health System brings the elements of acute inpatient recovery to a patient’s home, eliminating fixed-cost allocations associated with traditional hospital-level care and reducing post-acute utilization and readmissions for 150 traditional inpatient conditions such as congestive heart failure, pneumonia and asthma.

THE LARGER TREND

A 2016 report from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services found that nonprofit organizations and health plans tend to receive higher star ratings than their for-profit counterparts.

For Medicare Part Ds, about 70% of the nonprofit contracts received four or more stars compared to 39% of the for-profit MA-Part-Ds. Similarly, roughly 63% of nonprofit prescription drug plans received four or more stars, compared to 24% of the for-profit PDPs.

What strategies will help to deliver telemedicine “at scale”?

https://mailchi.mp/72a9d343926a/the-weekly-gist-september-24-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Costs and benefits of telemedicine in the ICU | athenahealth

Every health system and physician group is now focused on strategies to make telemedicine more scalable across their networks. When we spoke recently with a chief medical information officer (CMIO) leading his system’s telemedicine strategy, he shared, “If there is one thing I wish executives would understand about telemedicine, it’s that it will never make doctors more efficient.”

His data show the average video visit takes just as long as an in-person encounter. True, there is no physical exam, but the virtual conversations can be lengthy. And adding in time lost to helping patients troubleshoot technology, some of his colleagues report that virtual visits may actually take a little longer.

He went on to explain that other kinds of virtual encounters, specifically asynchronous communication with a provider, sometimes supported by automated symptom triage engines like Zipnosis, are far more time-efficient ways to communicate with patients. Certain clinical situations may better lend themselves to these types of “e-visits”. Take dermatology, where sending a high-resolution picture of a rash to the clinician is more valuable than trying to view the problem live on a Zoom call.

Of course, video visits can be far more convenient for patients—and there is huge value in in providing access to patients wherever they are. But delivering telemedicine “at scale” to meet rising consumer expectations will require finding the right balance of asynchronous communication, telemedicine, and in-person visits to best fit specific clinical circumstances.

And we’ll need to rethink clinical workflow—centralizing some telemedicine delivery at the system level across individual practices.

Virtual mental health sees a big merger announced

https://mailchi.mp/13ef4dd36d77/the-weekly-gist-august-27-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Ginger and Headspace Will Merge to Meet Escalating Global Demand for Mental  Health Support | Business Wire

Two of the best-known companies in the virtual mental health space announced plans to merge this week, creating a $3B player poised to dominate this fast-growing segment of healthcare demand. 

Headspace, a direct-to-consumer provider of app-based “mindfulness” meditation programs, will combine with Ginger, which sells text- and video-based coaching and therapy services to employers and insurers. Between them, the two companies claim to serve over 100M users worldwide.

Headspace is best known as a consumer-focused app, while Ginger largely serves business and payer clients. The combined company, to be called Headspace Health, will surely look to consolidate offerings into a comprehensive mental health service for employees, targeting a benefits market that is rapidly becoming overwhelmed with startup providers of virtual point solutions.

Behavioral health telemedicine utilization skyrocketed during last year’s COVID surge, and has been the one area of virtual care not to fall back to earth since—we’ve learned that virtual is often a superior approach for many mental health services.

Two questions arose in our minds after the Headspace/Ginger merger was announced. First, does the combined company bring a broad enough value proposition to overcome employer frustration with a highly fragmented market, or will the new Headspace Health eventually need to be part of a larger insurer platform to capture the opportunity in front of it? And second, does “mindfulness” even work?

The academic evidence is decidedly mixed, but the popularity of Headspace and other meditation apps, especially among Millennial consumers, might make that question moot. The mindfulness “wrapper” on more traditional mental health services may prove to be very popular with employees, and could become a must-have element of employers’ benefit packages.

Telehealth use falls nationally for third month in a row: Fair Health

Dive Brief:

  • Telehealth claim lines as a percentage of all medical claims dropped 13% in April, marking the third straight month of declines, according to new data from nonprofit Fair Health.
  • The dip was greater than the drop of 5.1% in March, but not as large as the decrease of almost 16% in February. However, overall utilization remains significantly higher than pre-COVID-19 levels.
  • The decline appears to be driven by a rebound in in-person services, researchers said. Mental health conditions bucked the trend, however, as the percentage of telehealth claim lines associated with mental conditions — the No. 1 telehealth diagnosis — continued to rise nationally and in every U.S. region.

Dive Insight:

The coronavirus spurred an unprecedented increase in telehealth utilization early last year. But early data from 2021 suggests demand is slowing as vaccinations ramp up and COVID-19 cases decrease across the U.S.

Fair Health has used its database of over 33 billion private claims records to analyze the monthly evolution of telehealth since May last year. Telehealth usage peaked among the privately insured population last April, before easing through September and re-accelerating starting in October, as the coronavirus found a renewed foothold in the U.S.

In January, virtual care claims made up 7% of all medical claim lines, but that fell to 5.9% in February, 5.6% in March and just 4.9% in April, suggesting a steady deceleration in telehealth demand.

The deceleration in April was seen in all U.S. regions, but was particularly pronounced in the South, Fair Health said, which saw a 12.2% decrease in virtual care claims.

The trend doesn’t bode well for the ballooning virtual care sector, which has enjoyed historic levels of funding during COVID-19. Just halfway through the year, 2021 has already blown past 2020’s  record for digital health funding, with a whopping $14.7 billion. This latest data suggests dampening utilization could throw cold water on the red-hot marketplace.

And policymakers are still mulling how many telehealth flexibilities should be allowed after the public health emergency expires, expected at the end of this year. Virtual care enjoys broad support on both sides of the aisle and the Biden administration’s top health policy regulators, including CMS administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, have said they support permanently adopting virtual care coverage waivers, but returned restrictions on telehealth access could also stymie use.

Fair Health also found that nationally, mental health conditions increased from 57% from all telehealth claims in March to 59% in April. That month, psychotherapeutic/psychiatric codes jumped nationally as a percentage of telehealth procedure codes, while evaluation and management codes dropped, suggesting a continued need for virtual access to mental health services, which can be some of the rarest and most expensive medical services to find in one’s own geographic area.

Also in April, acute respiratory diseases and infections increased as a percentage of claim lines nationally, and in the Midwest and South, while general signs and symptoms joined the top five telehealth diagnoses in the West. Both trends suggest a return to non-COVID-19 respiratory conditions, like colds and bronchitis, and more ‘normal’ conditions like stomach viruses, researchers said.

ED volume remains persistently down, but at higher acuity

https://mailchi.mp/f42a034b349e/the-weekly-gist-may-28-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

As we shared recently, post-pandemic healthcare volume is not returning evenly. While outpatient volume is rebounding quickly, other settings remain sluggish, especially the emergency department. We partnered with healthcare data analytics company Stratasan to take a closer look at ED volume decline. As shown in the graphic above, nationally, ED visits were down 27 percent in 2020, compared to 2019. ED-only volume (cases that started and ended in the ED) took a large hit across last year, down nearly a third from 2019. We expect that a portion of this ED-only volume will never fully recover to pre-COVID levels, with patient demand permanently shifting to lower-acuity care settings, including virtual, and some patients avoiding care altogether for minor ailments as they learn to “live with” problems like back pain.
 
ED-to-observation volume saw the greatest decline in 2020, likely as a result both of patients avoiding the ED, and presenting in the ED sicker, meeting the criteria for inpatient admission. However, ED-to-inpatient volume, which fell only seven percent in 2020, has been returning. In the second half of 2020, the ED-to-inpatient admission rate was 20 to 30 percent higher than the pre-COVID baseline. Across all three categories of ED volume, pediatrics saw steeper declines compared to adult cases. While some further ED volume rebound is anticipated, health systems should expect that fewer, but sicker, patients will be the new normal for hospital emergency departments. 

Fewer low-acuity patients utilizing high-cost emergency care is good news from a public health perspective, but health systems must bolster other access channels like urgent care and telemedicine to ensure patients have convenient access for emergent care needs.