More Aggressive Review of Hospital Mergers Needed, Says FTC Commissioner

https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/strategy/more-aggressive-review-hospital-mergers-needed-says-ftc-commissioner?spMailingID=15662786&spUserID=MTg2ODM1MDE3NTU1S0&spJobID=1641165714&spReportId=MTY0MTE2NTcxNAS2

The problems include ‘a legal shield’ enjoyed by nonprofit hospitals, and the solutions include more retrospective analysis of close calls, says Rebecca Kelly Slaughter.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

The FTC is prohibited from enforcing antitrust laws against nonprofits, which poses a challenge, Slaughter said.

The commission should conduct another round of retrospective study on closed healthcare mergers, she said.

Commissioners should be ‘as aggressive as possible’ moving forward to preserve healthcare competition, she added.

Federal Trade Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter told a liberal think tank Tuesday that antitrust regulators should take a more assertive approach to protect competitive forces among healthcare providers.

Slaughter, a Democrat appointed to the FTC by President Trump and confirmed last year, made the remarks in a speech at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., where she took issue with what she described as “a legal shield for anticompetitive conduct” at nonprofit hospitals.

The FTC is allowed to review all hospital mergers, but it cannot enforce antitrust laws against nonprofits, including more than 45% of U.S. hospitals, she said.


“So, for example, if a non-profit hospital merger itself is not anticompetitive, but the newly merged entity engages in anticompetitive practices, the FTC is stuck on the sidelines,” Slaughter said in her prepared remarks.

“In effect, this means that all of the healthcare industry expertise that the FTC has worked for decades to, and continues to, develop cannot be deployed alongside the DOJ and state enforcers to stop anticompetitive practices by roughly half of all hospitals nationwide,” she added. “This is a significant lost opportunity.”

Slaughter called for greater scrutiny of horizontal and vertical mergers alike both in the future and in the past.

“I believe that the FTC should conduct a new round of retrospectives of healthcare provider mergers,” Slaughter said.

Studying the past has led the FTC to some of its biggest improvements in understanding market forces, as was the case with former Chairman Timothy J. Muris’ retrospective analysis of hospital mergers in the early 2000s, Slaughter said.

Moving forward, Slaughter said, the FTC should take another look at recently cleared “close-call hospital mergers” and those that were shielded from antitrust scrutiny by state laws despite posing significant concerns. This is consistent, she said, with a statement the FTC issued last fall when it decided not to challenge a proposed affiliation involving CareGroup Inc., Lahey Health System Inc., Seacoast Regional Health System, and others.

The FTC should also consider taking another look at vertical integration among healthcare providers, such as transactions involving hospitals and physician groups, she said.

“[W]e should be as aggressive as possible in challenging the mergers we encounter today, especially where the proposed consolidation involves new structural arrangements rather than traditional horizontal concerns,” Slaughter added. “It is important for parties considering mergers to know we will not shy away from challenging, for example, anticompetitive vertical organizations.”

“I am sensitive to the concern that we might lose litigation,” she added, “but our obligation is to identify the right outcome and fight for it.”

 

 

 

Grassley Renews Probe of Nonprofit Hospitals

https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/grassley-renews-probe-nonprofit-hospitals

The Iowa Republican has asked the IRS for data on how many of the nation’s approximately 3,000 tax-exempt hospitals are in compliance with charity care requirements.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

Grassley asked for information about whether tax-exempt hospitals are meeting the statutory requirements laid out in section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code.

The lawmaker is renewing his probe of tax-exempt hospitals after hearing reports that ‘at least some of these tax-exempt hospitals have cut charity care, despite increased revenue.’

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley has renewed efforts to ensure that nonprofit hospitals are earning their tax-exempt status by providing enough services for low-income people.

In a letter to Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Charles Rettig, the Iowa Republican asked for data on how many hospitals are in compliance with the requirements for tax-exempt status and the status of IRS examinations of those not in compliance.

“Making sure that tax-exempt hospitals abide by their community benefit standards is a very important issue for me,” Grassley said in his letter.

“As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I oversaw an investigation into the billing practices of the Mosaic Life Care hospital. That investigation resulted in debt relief of almost $17 million for thousands of low-income patients.  This issue is still just as important to me now that I am chairman of the Senate Finance Committee,” Grassley wrote.


The Mosaic Life inquiry examined the billing and debt collection practices at the health system after news reports indicated it had sued low-income patients who should have qualified for charity care.

Grassley told Rettig that he was renewing his probe of tax-exempt hospitals after hearing “reports” that “at least some of these tax-exempt hospitals have cut charity care, despite increased revenue, calling into question their compliance with the standards set by Congress.”

He asked Rettig for information about whether tax-exempt hospitals are meeting the statutory requirements laid out in section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code, and he cited in his letter an article in Politico that suggested nonprofit hospitals were profiting from the Affordable Care Act while simultaneously cutting their charity care.

In February 2018, Grassley sent a letter to the IRS to inquire about how the agency reviews nonprofit hospital compliance.

Acting Commissioner David J. Kautter responded in April 2018 that the IRS reviews the status of about 1,000 U.S. tax-exempt hospitals each year by reviewing Forms 990, hospital websites, and other information in order to identify the hospitals with the highest likelihood of noncompliance.

Kautter said the IRS assigns either a compliance check or examination to those hospitals that appear to be most at risk of noncompliance.

Melinda Hatton, general counsel for the American Hospital Association, said her organization was confident that nonprofit hospitals are meeting their mission.

“In 2015, an AHA analysis of Schedule H filings reported that 13.3% of tax-exempt hospitals and health systems total expenses were devoted to community benefits programs, and that half of that spending was attributable to expenditures for providing financial assistance to needy patients and absorbing losses from Medicaid and other means-tested government program underpayments,” she said.

Hatton said an analysis by Ernst & Young for the AHA found that hospitals’ and health systems’ community benefit activities outweigh the value of their federal tax exemption by a factor of 11 to one. “According to the report, non-profit hospitals in 2013 were exempt from an estimated $6 billion in federal taxes and provided an estimated $67.4 billion in community benefits,” Hatton said.

“Making sure that tax-exempt hospitals abide by their community benefit standards is a very important issue for me.”

 

 

 

AHA Pushes Back on Politico’s Description of Nonprofit Hospital Financials

https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/finance/aha-pushes-back-politicos-description-nonprofit-hospital-financials

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he American Hospital Association’s general counsel said Politico “cherry-picked” metrics from a recent Moody’s report.

In a blog post Wednesday, American Hospital Association (AHA) General Counsel Melinda Hatton rebuked Politico’s characterization of a recent Moody’s report on nonprofit hospital financials in 2018.

Hatton charged that Politico “cherry-picked” metrics from the report, homed in on a “single measure of financial viability,” and “ignored much of the medians data that tell a more complete story.”

Writing that the story “does not accurately capture financial pressures facing hospitals,” Hatton continued that the Moody’s report only represents a mid-year glimpse at nonprofit hospital finances. 

The public back and forth began with the May 13 edition of Politico’s Pulse newsletter, which described the state of U.S. hospitals as “OK,” citing data from Moody’s that indicated nonprofit hospital revenues grew faster than costs for the first time since 2015.

While mentioning that the average operating margin of nonprofit hospitals was 1.7% last year, Politico also noted that average operating cash flow margins finished at 8%.

Politico stated that industry observers regard operating cash flow margin as a better reflection of “how much money a hospital is actually collecting” than the operating margin.

Politico’s description tied into the push for greater accountability from hospitals regarding high prices, specifically referencing a recent RAND Corp. study that found private insurers paid more than twice what Medicare paid to hospitals in 2017.

Hospital groups like the AHA and the Federal of American Hospitals pushed back on the RAND study from last week, taking issue with its sample size and reliance on Medicare payment rates as the benchmark for hospital prices.

Writing about the Moody’s report, Hatton wrote that while hospitals did experience a “modest uptick” in revenue growth last year, such growth trailed historical levels as hospitals faced challenging patient volumes, low reimbursement rates, and shifting payer mixes.

She also noted that the Moody’s report found that inpatient services remained flat in 2018, widespread provider consolidation has offered “stability in light of downward financial pressures,” and that hospitals are continuing to put “efficiency improvements” into place.

“Many of the expenses hospitals’ are experiencing now, and will likely experience in the future, are beyond their control,” Hatton wrote. “Wages and benefits are the single largest cost for hospitals, and are likely to increase in the future as the nation experiences a robust labor market, and a nursing shortage persists in many communities. The high cost of specialty drugs is also a driver of the cost of care.”

“These complexities make for a nuanced story, but any story worth telling is worth telling well,” Hatton wrote.

 

 

 

 

 

Nonprofit Hospital Consolidation to Continue in 2019

https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/finance/nonprofit-hospital-consolidation-continue-2019

Despite increased scrutiny from regulators, nonprofit health systems will remain active through mergers and acquisitions this year, according to a new Moody’s report.

The deluge of M&A activity among nonprofit health systems is expected to continue on in 2019, with the potential for some “unconventional relationships,” according to a Moody’s report released Friday morning.

Driven by tight financial conditions challenging the nonprofit hospital business model, as well as the entrance of nontraditional corporate players to healthcare and the potential changes to the ACA, more M&A activity is expected throughout the year.

Moody’s expects nonprofit health systems to engage in partnerships with other hospitals but also seek to align with companies specializing in data analytics or ridesharing services to continue the transition from inpatient care to outpatient care.

Nonprofit health systems are also aiming to increase their footing when negotiating with payers, which involves strategic decisions to diversity service options and increase their geographic reach.

The report cites ProMedica’s acquisition of HCR Manorcare and Tower Health’s purchase of five for-profit acute care hospitals as examples of nonprofit systems taking a short-term credit hit to gain stable long-term positioning for the organization.

Though M&A activity is expected to be widespread and a primary objective for many nonprofit systems, the Moody’s report warned that additional scrutiny from state and federal regulators is on the way.

The requirements put in place on the CHI-Dignity Health merger by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, along with price increase restrictions imposed by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey on CareGroup and Lahey Health, are cited as examples of the terms health systems should expect to meet.

For-profits will tap into capital markets

The Moody’s report also indicates that for-profit hospitals will delve further into capital markets so long as they remain receptive and buoyed by low interest rates. This approach could lead to lower interest costs and improve liquidity, which would bolster their credit standing.

Jessica Gladstone, Moody’s associate managing director and lead analyst on for-profit hospitals, told HealthLeaders that rising interest rates would a material impact on many for-profit hospitals.

“High cash interest costs relative to earnings are already consuming the majority of cash for many FP hospital companies,” Gladstone said. “For companies with floating rate debt, rising interest rates (depending on the amount of the increase) could leave some FP hospitals with very little free cash flow left to pay down debt or otherwise invest to grow operations.”

Gladstone added that while many of the same headwinds facing for-profit hospitals remain a challenge in 2019, executives can be encouraged by the opportunities ahead to refinance high-cost debt and achieve cost savings.

Several deals are listed as potential opportunities that could benefit for-profit healthcare organizations in 2019 regarding changes to capital structure, interest cost savings, as well as M&A activity:

Additional highlights from the Moody’s report:

  • Expect smaller community and regional nonprofit hospitals to join cooperatives to gain leverage at the negotiating table on supply costs among other price points.
  • Growing investment by private equity firms in physician practices and ambulatory services, will put a pinch on nonprofit systems.
  • The entrance of Amazon, Walmart, and Apple can’t be discounted as another driver of M&A activity in 2019.
  • Vertical mergers like CVS-Aetna and the continued rise of telemedicine will drive patients away from traditional areas of care delivery, like hospitals.
  • Though major changes to the ACA remain unlikely due to the split government in Congress, smaller changes could still make a significant impact.
  • The report cites potential changes to site-neutral payments, Medicare quality-factor penalties, and DSH payment reductions as examples.

 

 

 

 

Antipating the Impact of the Baby Boom on Medicare

 

 
In perusing the excellent work of the Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker project, we recently came across an analysis (depicted on the left, below) of Medicare spending patterns broken down by age of beneficiary. Based on 2014 data, the analysis shows how much was spent per capita in traditional Medicare fee-for-service on beneficiaries of each age. (The analysis excludes Medicare Advantage data, and also doesn’t include beneficiaries aged 65, for whom a full year of spending data wasn’t available.)

What’s interesting is how spending patterns differ across age cohorts—inpatient spending peaks at age 92 and then declines, spending on physician services peaks at age 85, skilled nursing and hospice spending ramp up quickly for much older beneficiaries. To see how these patterns might play out if applied to the Baby Boom generation, we combined the Peterson-Kaiser analysis with our earlier look at generational aging. The result is the chart on the right, below, which shows how each bucket of spending will increase over the coming 25 years given aging of the population.
 
A couple of interesting observations from this (admittedly imperfect) analysis.

First, the sheer size of the baby boom generation will drive a huge increase in Medicare spending over the next 25 years. And a full third or more of the total Medicare spend on Baby Boomers isn’t even captured here—that will come via payments to Medicare Advantage plans.

Second, inpatient care drives a huge amount of the total spend. It’s clear that an urgent priority is finding ways to shift spending from the light grey bars (inpatient) to the other segments—we need to pull forward the shift from inpatient to other settings from where it was in 2014’s population. Recall that this is traditional Medicare—strategies like accountable care organizations (ACOs) and other care management/population health reforms will be critical here.

Finally, in addition to changing the trend with innovations in care delivery models, we should expect technology and pharmaceuticals to play a role in inflecting the shape of this graph. Whether that impact will produce a net savings or a net increase in spending remains to be seen.

New Tax Will Help Washington Residents Pay for Long-Term Care

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In other healthcare news from the Evergreen State, Gov. Inslee also signed a law this week that will provide a new long-term care benefit for state residents starting in 2025. In the furthest-reaching legislation of its type nationally, the new Washington law puts in place a payroll tax of 0.58 percent starting in 2022, and creates a year-long, $100/day allowance for state residents that can be used to pay for nursing home fees, at-home caregivers, and other long-term care needs.

Family members who are full-time caregivers can also receive compensation. Like other states, Washington spends a growing portion of its state budget on paying for long-term care for aging residents, putting a heavy burden on the finances of its Medicaid program that’s expected to worsen as the Baby Boom generation ages. In addition to nursing and caregiver services, the new benefit can also be used for in-home meals, housing repairs, and other services that impact health status.

As with its “public option” plan, Washington has taken the lead on another healthcare coverage issue that will eventually need to be addressed nationwide: the fact that seniors are entering retirement entirely unprepared for the amount they’ll need to spend on long-term care.

Medicaid currently pays for two-thirds of nursing home care and 60 percent of all long-term care costs, and no state is currently prepared for the amount of spending that will be required over the next 25 years. Almost no one buys long-term care insurance, which is unaffordable for most. Any serious attempt to expand coverage over the next few years must take on this critical issue.

 

 

Launching the first “public option” insurance plan

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/05/16/723843559/will-washington-states-new-public-option-plan-reduce-heath-care-costs

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On Monday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law the nation’s first “public option” health plan, to be sold on the state’s individual health insurance exchange, starting during next year’s open enrollment period. Inslee, who is also a candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination, characterized the new plan as a “way for our state to push back” on the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The plan, called Cascade Care, is not quite the same as a true, government-run plan of the type proposed by some during the drafting of the ACA; rather, it creates a category of private insurance plans that will cap provider and facility rates at 160 percent of Medicare reimbursement, with the goal of lowering premiums for consumers who shop on Washington’s insurance marketplace.

The public option plan is meant to exert competitive pressure on other plans in the market in an attempt to drive premiums down, but experts expect the new plan to produce only a modest 5-10 percent savings for consumers. In 2018, average premiums on Washington’s exchange rose 38 percent, resulting in lower overall enrollment levels. Other states, including Colorado and Connecticut, are considering similar “public option” plans.

It’s notable that Washington’s approach is explicitly built around reducing payment to hospitals and doctors—any serious efforts to lower premiums will almost certainly have the same impact.

As the politics of healthcare continue to heat up, we’d expect more such proposals to gain traction across the country.