When Hospitals Merge to Save Money, Patients Often Pay More

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Massachusetts officials attach stiff conditions to Beth Israel-Lahey merger


Dive Brief:

  • Massachusetts public health officials have set tough new conditions for the proposed merger of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Lahey Health that will require the parties to demonstrate they’re holding down costs while ensuring access to low-income patients, The Boston Globe reports.
  • The conditions, laid out at a Wednesday meeting of the state’s Public Health Council, include yearly reporting of how the hospitals will apply savings from the merger to enhance care quality and access to services. If savings surpass the state’s 3.1% benchmark for controlling healthcare costs, the new system will have to put more money back into services and community hospitals and clinics.
  • The conditions also require the system, within six months, to develop a plan to increase services to Medicaid patients and, within two years, ensure full participation by Beth Israel-Lahey physicians in the state Medicaid program.

Dive Insight:

The conditions follow a Health Policy Commission report that warned the merger could result in a $128.4 million to $170.8 million increase in healthcare spending for inpatient, outpatient and adult primary care services and up to $59.7 million for specialty physician services.

The commission concluded that while the merger could lead to improvements in quality and efficiencies, the companies hadn’t explained how that would happen. The new conditions call for a second report in five years to assess the merger’s impact on healthcare costs and services in the state.

BIDMC CEO Kevin Tabb called the commission’s conditions “strict,” but said they won’t discourage the planned merger. “While the conditions are unprecedented, we are eager to move forward together as Beth Israel Lahey Health,” he told Healthcare Dive via email. “The status quo in this market is unacceptable, and it’s time to do something different.”

As mergers and acquisitions continue in healthcare, potential problems could lead to more stringent conditions. Research has shown, for example, that horizontal mergers can drive up costs. Once completed, Beth Israel-Lahey Health would rival Partners HealthCare System in terms of market share in Massachusetts. The new company could use its increased bargaining power to raise prices for commercial payers, increasing healthcare spending.

A recent National Bureau of Economic Research analysis also played down the extent to which hospital mergers increase efficiencies. According to NBER, acquired hospitals save just 1.5% of total costs following a merger — or an average of $176,000 a year.

And a recent University of California-Berkeley study of health system consolidation in the state found that highly concentrated markets led to higher hospital and physician service fees, as well as higher Affordable Care Act premiums, especially in northern California.



Behind Rising Health-Care Bills: Secret Hospital Deals


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Last year, Cigna Corp. and the New York hospital system Northwell Health discussed developing an insurance plan that would offer low-cost coverage by excluding some other health-care providers, according to people with knowledge of the matter. It never happened.

The problem was a separate contract between Cigna and New York-Presbyterian, the powerful hospital operator that is a Northwell rival. Cigna couldn’t find a way to work around restrictive language that blocked it from selling any plans that didn’t include New York-Presbyterian.

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Consolidation in California’s Health System Leads to Higher Prices and Premiums


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The Issue

Integration and consolidation among health care providers and health plans has the potential to improve the coordination and quality of patient care. However, when markets become highly concentrated — served by a single or a few large health care organizations — competition is curtailed and health care prices and insurance premiums tend to rise.

In a Commonwealth Fund–supported study in Health Affairs, researchers explored the effect of market consolidation across California between 2010 and 2016 on outpatient visit prices and premiums for individual coverage on the Covered California marketplace. The study focused on two measures of consolidation: the percentage of physicians in practices owned by hospitals and the total market share controlled by hospitals, health plans, and physician practices in a particular area.

What the Study Found

  • The number of physicians in hospital-owned practices increased from 25 percent to 40 percent across select California counties between 2010 and 2016.
  • Hospital employment increased more steeply among specialists than primary care physicians. Among the specialties studied (i.e., cardiology, hematology/oncology, orthopedics, and radiology), employment rose to 54 percent from 20 percent. In comparison, primary care physician employment increased to 38 percent from 26 percent.
  • Premiums for individual coverage rose the most, by 12 percent, in areas with both high consolidation among hospitals and a high percentage of hospital-owned physician practices.
  • Prices of specialty outpatient visits were 9 percent higher in areas with 100 percent hospital-physician employment compared to areas with average levels. Prices of primary care visits were 5 percent higher in areas with high versus average hospital-physician employment.
  • Seven counties were identified as “hot spots,” or markets with concerning levels of health care mergers and consolidation that could be limiting competition.

The Big Picture

The significant price increases in California markets with high hospital-physician employment and hospital consolidation point to the need for careful scrutiny of health care mergers and acquisitions. Additional research is needed to determine if the price increases are tied to improvements in patient care. For instance, if care is more expensive because it is more comprehensive, then overall utilization and spending should decrease. At the same time, regulatory laws and actions may be needed to prevent some health care organizations from attaining unfair market advantages that shut out rivals and raise prices.

The Bottom Line

In California, hospital acquisition of physician practices, particularly in markets with limited hospital competition, is associated with higher prices for outpatient visits and higher insurance premiums on the individual marketplace.



Congress Is Making Quiet Progress on Drug Costs


Progress on drug costs

While the Trump administration has taken small steps to implement its blueprint to lower prescription drug prices, Congress has recently made quiet progress on some policies that could help lower drug costs for patients.

First, both the Senate and House advanced legislation to ban “gag clauses” that prevent pharmacists from telling patients that they can save money on medications by paying for them out of pocket. Certain prescription benefit managers (PBMs) have used gag clauses as part of their formulary design. While this is not a widespread industry practice, a 2016 survey of community pharmacists found that nearly 60 percent had encountered a gag clause in the previous 10 months. Two bills (S. 2553 and H.R. 6733) would prohibit private Medicare plans from instituting gag clauses. A third, related bill (S. 2554) — passed by the Senate on Monday with overwhelming support — prohibits private health insurance plans from using them. While they enable pharmacists to advise patients on how to spend less at the pharmacy counter, these bans won’t necessarily lower the prices of drugs.

Second, a lesser-known provision of S. 2554, added by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), could help lower drug prices by shedding light on patent-settlement agreements between drug manufacturers. Brand-name manufacturers sometimes use these agreements to extend their monopolies and keep drug prices higher by directly and indirectly compensating generic manufacturers for voluntarily delaying generics from coming to market. The Congressional Budget Office has found that setting a standard to rein in these types of settlements would produce $2.4 billion in savings over 10 years.

The HELP committee provision would require manufacturers of biologics (large-molecule drugs) and biosimilars (nearly identical copies of original biologics) to report patent-settlement agreements to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) — an important step in understanding and preventing abuse of what is sometimes referred to as “pay for delay.”

Pay-for-Delay Stalls Drug Competition, Costing Patients Billions

In 2003, Congress required patent-settlement agreements between brand-name and generic small-molecule drug manufacturers to be filed with the FTC for review after they are made. (Currently most drugs sold are small-molecule drugs, but the biologics market is growing rapidly.) Such agreements effectively delay the sale of lower-cost generic drugs by nearly 17 months longer than agreements without payments, according to a 2010 report by the FTC. These anticompetitive agreements cost taxpayers approximately $3.5 billion each year.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in FTC v. Actavis that a brand-name drug manufacturer’s payment to a generic competitor to settle patent litigation can violate antitrust law. After the Court’s decision, the number of pay-for-delay agreements declined two years in a row. With drug companies now required to report these settlements to the FTC, the agency has been able to act to protect patients from anticompetitive deals that delay cheaper, generic drug products from coming to market. The FTC reviews reported settlements and, if it determines an agreement violates antitrust law, the agency challenges the agreement in the courts.

For example, in 2008 the FTC sued Cephalon, Inc., for paying four generic companies $300 million to delay marketing of their generic versions of Cephalon’s sleep-disorder drug, Provigil, until 2012. In 2015, the FTC reached a settlement with Cephalon’s owner, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Ltd., which agreed to ending pay-for-delay agreements for all their U.S. operations. The company also paid $1.2 billion in compensation for Cephalon’s anticompetitive behavior.

FTC Reporting Requirement Does Not Apply to Biologic and Biosimilar Manufacturers

The FTC reporting requirement applies only to small-molecule drugs, however, and not to far more expensive biologics and biosimilars. The potential savings of having biosimilars available for sale are significant: even one biosimilar competing against a brand-name biologic can result in a 35 percent lower price for patients and payers. Without delays in competition with brand-name biologics, biosimilars could save $54 billion to $250 billion over 10 years.

But there are concerns that manufacturers are entering into pay-for-delay agreements to keep prices for these drugs artificially high. Since 2015, when the biosimilar pathway was implemented, the FDA has approved 12 biosimilars, yet only three are currently available to patients — likely because of patent litigation and pay-for-delay agreements.

FTC Review Is Part of the Solution

In his remarks upon releasing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Biosimilars Action Plan in July, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb noted the FTC’s key role in monitoring U.S. markets to protect consumers from anticompetitive behaviors, including those of prescription drug manufacturers. He also pointed out the patent litigation tactics manufacturers use to delay biosimilar competition.

As it does for the small-molecule drug market, the FTC can play a proactive role in monitoring what is happening in the biologic and biosimilar markets. At a workshop on drug pricing held last year, acting FTC chair Maureen Ohlhausen said that while her agency has been making progress in eliminating pay-for-delay agreements, it has not seen the last of them. She said they will remain a target. But to move forward, the FTC needs clearer authority to review patent settlements between biologic and biosimilar manufacturers.

With Senate passage of S. 2554 and its FTC reporting provision, Congress has taken an important step in encouraging a robust biosimilar market. (While the House has not passed a similar measure, the Senate bill could be added to a reconciliation of the House and Senate gag clause bills.) Engaging all the relevant market regulators — including the FTC, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the FDA — will inject needed competition into this nascent market and help lower drug prices for U.S. consumers.


Newly merged Advocate-Aurora sees 20% drop in operating income


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Dive Brief:

  • After finalizing its merger in April, Downers Grove, Illinois-based Advocate Aurora Health released a financial report on the combined company’s year-over-year performance showing a 20% drop in operating income to $220 million for the first six months of the year. The decline is partly due to $34 million in costs related to both the merger and implementation of a new EHR.
  • Total revenue increased 3% to nearly $6 billion for the first six months of the year, while revenue increased 3.5% to about $3 billion for the quarter. Net patient service revenue grew across most service lines, excluding inpatient volumes during the quarter, according to the financial statement.
  • While revenue climbed, so did expenses. The 27-hospital system increased its spending on salaries and wages, supplies and purchased services, and contracted medical services. Total expenses grew 4% to nearly $2.87 billion during the three months ended June 30, and increased 3.5% to $5.68 billion during the first six months of the year.

Dive Insight:

In line with industry trends, inpatient volumes for what is now the 10th-largest nonprofit health system in U.S. either slightly declined or remained flat during the reporting periods. 

About 85,000 patients were discharged from Advocate Aurora during the first six months of the year while more than 3 million patients during that time were seen either during a traditional doctor’s visit or through another outpatient setting. The system’s home care unit saw the largest increases during both reporting periods. 

Meanwhile, the company is not alone in its struggles to rein in EHR rollout costs. The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and Partners HealthCare in Boston have all experienced those costs weighing down financial performance, according to a previous report from Becker’s.

The financial report of the combined companies marks a milestone in Advocate’s quest for a partner to increase its scale. The system set its sights on Aurora after it had long tried to acquire NorthShore University Health System, a deal Advocate later dropped after pushback from antitrust regulators worried about price increases.

Analysts don’t expect the frenzied pace of M&A in the healthcare sector to slow down any time soon. The Advocate-Aurora deal was the largest regional transaction, Kaufman Hall reported, amid a year that turned out blockbuster deals threatening to shake up the status quo. 

As patients seek care in lower-acuity settings and as payers and providers team up to transform access to the industry, hospitals have eyed mergers to increase scale and offerings to attract more patients.

The consolidated financial statement details the results of the quarter ended June 30 and the first six months of the year.




Health care mega-mergers may get green light from feds


The Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C.


Antitrust regulators at the Department of Justice are expected to approve two major health care deals — CVS Health’s $69 billion buyout of Aetna and Cigna’s $67 billion deal for Express Scripts — within a matter of weeks, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Why it matters: The health insurance and pharmacy benefits industries would be even more heavily consolidated than they currently are, which has worried consumer advocates and providers. The WSJ reports the only required antitrust remedies would be for CVS and Aetna to divest overlapping assets in their Medicare prescription drug plans.