More Aggressive Review of Hospital Mergers Needed, Says FTC Commissioner

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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.”

 

 

 

House Subcommittee Takes Dim View of Healthcare Consolidation

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Lawmakers and witnesses alike cited the ill-effects of hospital mergers and acquisitions in a long list of industry behavior they find troubling.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

An economics and health policy professor from Carnegie Mellon suggested lawmakers should give the FTC more power to review nonprofit mergers.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle expressed dissatisfaction with the healthcare industry’s consolidation trend and voiced support for legislative action.

A hearing of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee would not have been a comfortable place Thursday for any healthcare executive touting the benefits of a planned merger or acquisition.

Lawmakers and witnesses took turns criticizing rampant consolidation among hospitals and other healthcare companies. While the public is often told these deals will lead to improved efficiency and higher quality care, those purported benefits frequently fail to materialize, they said.

Since the hearing grouped payer and provider consolidation with anticompetitive concerns about the pharmaceutical industry—an area that both major parties have expressed interest in addressing through congressional action—the discussion could signal how lawmakers will approach any legislation to address the problems they perceive.

Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican from Georgia and the committee’s ranking member, said hospital consolidation has had an especially detrimental impact on rural communities in his state.


“These communities often already have few options for quality care, so as hospital consolidation has increased over the past 10 years, rural communities like my own have been hurt the most,” Collins said.

“At times, these mergers and acquisitions can help rural communities by keeping facilities open, but often they result in full or partial closures and shifting patients from nearby facilities to those hours away,” he added.

Some problems caused by consolidation, such as increased travel times for emergency services, can “literally mean the difference in life and death,” Collins said.

Jerry Nadler, a Democrat from New York and the committee’s chairman, said there’s no question that the recent spate of mergers has contributed to the industry’s problems.

“It is well documented that hospital mergers can lead to higher prices and lower quality of care,” Nadler said.

Martin Gaynor, PhD, an economics and health policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a founder of the Health Care Cost Institute, said in his testimony that there have been nearly 1,600 hospital mergers in the past 20 years, leading most regions to be dominated by one large health system apiece.

“This massive consolidation in healthcare has not delivered for Americans. It has not given us better care or enhanced efficiency,” Gaynor said. “On the contrary, extensive research evidence shows us that consolidation between close competitors results in higher prices, and patient quality of care suffers for lack of competition.”

Since hospitals that have fewer competitors can better negotiate favorable payment terms, this consolidated landscape “poses a serious challenge for payment reform,” he added.

“Our healthcare system is based on markets. That system is only going to work as well as the markets that underpin it,” Gaynor said. “Unfortunately, these markets do not function as well as they could or should.”

Gaynor recommended several possible policy changes, including an end to policies that make it harder for new competitors to enter a market and compete and an expanded authority for the Federal Trade Commission to review potentially anticompetitive conduct by nonprofit entities. He also said lawmakers should consider imposing FTC reporting requirements for even small transactions to enhance the tracking capabilities of enforcement agencies.

To support his claims, in his written testimony, Gaynor pointed to research he completed with Farzad Mostashari of Aledade Inc. and Paul B. Ginsburg of The Brookings Institution.

 

 

 

 

AHA Pushes Back on Politico’s Description of 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

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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.

 

 

 

 

The Financial Impact of Medicare for All on Hospitals

 

 

With all of the focus on M4A recently, in its many permutations, we’re hearing a growing concern among hospital executives and physician leaders that their economics could be in serious peril. (For more on this, see the below anecdote from “on the road”.) That concern is justified, as you can see from the graphic below.

On the left, we show data on payment-to-cost ratio for hospitals since the start of the 2000s. As you can see, hospitals rely heavily on a cross-subsidy model—Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement covers only 86 to 88 percent of the total cost of inpatient care delivery. Hospitals make up this difference, and generate a positive margin, by negotiating rates for commercially-insured patients that cover almost 145 percent of costs. As health systems have consolidated and built negotiating leverage, that percentage has steadily risen over the past several years, more than offsetting losses on publicly-insured patients.

The problem? Those lucrative commercial patients only account for a third of admissions, as shown at the bottom right. And across the past decade and a half, commercial admissions have dropped by more than 20 percent. In other words, hospitals have been consolidating and raising commercial rates on a declining book of business in order to compensate for underpayment on a growing volume of government-paid cases.

Now imagine that the commercial business disappeared entirely, and you can see what would happen—hospital finances would crater. Under M4A, Medicare rates would have to go up substantially to make up for the lost margin on commercial cases. Even if M4A turned out to be “Medicare Advantage for More”, trading commercial admissions (say, for the 55-65 population) for MA admissions (which are generally paid at Medicare FFS rates), this would create a difficult situation for hospitals.

In our view, this economic reality is not getting discussed enough in the current debate over M4A

 

Hospitals Stand to Lose Billions Under ‘Medicare for All’

For a patient’s knee replacement, Medicare will pay a hospital $17,000. The same hospital can get more than twice as much, or about $37,000, for the same surgery on a patient with private insurance.

Or take another example: One hospital would get about $4,200 from Medicare for removing someone’s gallbladder. The same hospital would get $7,400 from commercial insurers.

The yawning gap between payments to hospitals by Medicare and by private health insurers for the same medical services may prove the biggest obstacle for advocates of “Medicare for all,” a government-run system.

If Medicare for all abolished private insurance and reduced rates to Medicare levels — at least 40 percent lower, by one estimate — there would most likely be significant changes throughout the health care industry, which makes up 18 percent of the nation’s economy and is one of the nation’s largest employers.

Some hospitals, especially struggling rural centers, would close virtually overnight, according to policy experts.

Others, they say, would try to offset the steep cuts by laying off hundreds of thousands of workers and abandoning lower-paying services like mental health.

he prospect of such violent upheaval for existing institutions has begun to stiffen opposition to Medicare for all proposals and to rattle health care stocks. Some officials caution that hospitals providing care should not be penalized in an overhaul.

Dr. Adam Gaffney, the president of Physicians for a National Health Program, warned advocates of a single-payer system like Medicare for all not to seize this opportunity to extract huge savings from hospitals. “The line here can’t be and shouldn’t be soak the hospitals,” he said.

“You don’t need insurance companies for Medicare for all,” Dr. Gaffney added. “You need hospitals.”

Soaring hospital bills and disparities in care, though, have stoked consumer outrage and helped to fuel populist support for proposals that would upend the current system. Many people with insurance cannot afford a knee replacement or care for their diabetes because their insurance has high deductibles.

Proponents of overhauling the nation’s health care argue that hospitals are charging too much and could lower their prices without sacrificing the quality of their care. High drug prices, surprise hospital bills and other financial burdens from the overwhelming cost of health care have caught the attention (and drawn the ire) of many in Congress, with a variety of proposals under consideration this year.

But those in favor of the most far-reaching changes, including Senator Bernie Sanders, who unveiled his latest Medicare for all plan as part of his presidential campaign, have remained largely silent on the question of how the nation’s 5,300 hospitals would be paid for patient care. If they are paid more than Medicare rates, the final price tag for the program could balloon from the already stratospheric estimate of upward of $30 trillion over a decade. Senator Sanders has not said what he thinks his plan will cost, and some proponents of Medicare for all say these plans would cost less than the current system.

The nation’s major health insurers are sounding the alarms, and pointing to the potential impact on hospitals and doctors. David Wichmann, the chief executive of UnitedHealth Group, the giant insurer, told investors that these proposals would “destabilize the nation’s health system and limit the ability of clinicians to practice medicine at their best.”

Hospitals could lose as much as $151 billion in annual revenues, a 16 percent decline, under Medicare for all, according to Dr. Kevin Schulman, a professor of medicine at Stanford University and one of the authors of a recent article in JAMA looking at the possible effects on hospitals.

“There’s a hospital in every congressional district,” he said. Passing a Medicare for all proposal in which hospitals are paid Medicare rates “is going to be a really hard proposition.”

Richard Anderson, the chief executive of St. Luke’s University Health Network, called the proposals “naïve.” Hospitals depend on insurers’ higher payments to deliver top-quality care because government programs pay so little, he said.

“I have no time for all the politicians who use the health care system as a crash-test dummy for their election goals,” Mr. Anderson said.

The American Hospital Association, an industry trade group, is starting to lobby against the Medicare for all proposals. Unlike the doctors’ groups, hospitals are not divided. “There is total unanimity,” said Tom Nickels, an executive vice president for the association.

“We agree with their intent to expand coverage to more people,” he said. “We don’t think this is the way to do it. It would have a devastating effect on hospitals and on the system over all.”

Rural hospitals, which have been closing around the country as patient numbers dwindle, would be hit hard, he said, because they lack the financial cushion of larger systems.

Big hospital systems haggle constantly with Medicare over what they are paid, and often battle the government over charges of overbilling. On average, the government program pays hospitals about 87 cents for every dollar of their costs, compared with private insurers that pay $1.45.

Some hospitals make money on Medicare, but most rely on higher private payments to cover their overall costs.

Medicare, which accounts for about 40 percent of hospital costs compared with 33 percent for private insurers, is the biggest source of hospital reimbursements. The majority of hospitals are nonprofit or government-owned.

The profit margins on Medicare are “razor thin,” said Laura Kaiser, the chief executive of SSM Health, a Catholic health system. In some markets, her hospitals lose money providing care under the program.

She says the industry is working to bring costs down. “We’re all uber-responsible and very fixated on managing our costs and not being wasteful,” Ms. Kaiser said.

Over the years, as hospitals have merged, many have raised the prices they charge to private insurers.

“If you’re in a consolidated market, you are a monopolist and are setting the price,” said Mark Miller, a former executive director for the group that advises Congress on Medicare payments. He describes the prices paid by private insurers as “completely unjustified and out of control.”

Many hospitals have invested heavily in amenities like single rooms for patients and sophisticated medical equipment to attract privately insured patients. They are also major employers.

“You would have to have a very different cost structure to survive,” said Melinda Buntin, the chairwoman for health policy at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Everyone being on Medicare would have a large impact on their bottom line.”

People who have Medicare, mainly those over 65 years old, can enjoy those private rooms or better care because the hospitals believed it was worth making the investments to attract private patients, said Craig Garthwaite, a health economist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. If all hospitals were paid the same Medicare rate, the industry “should really collapse down to a similar set of hospitals,” he said.

Whether hospitals would be able to adapt to sharply lower payments is unclear.

“It would force health care systems to go on a very serious diet,” said Stuart Altman, a health policy professor at Brandeis University. “I have no idea what would happen. Nor does anyone else.”

But proponents should not expect to save as much money as they hope if they cut hospital payments. Some hospitals could replace their missing revenue by charging more for the same care or by ordering more billable tests and procedures, said Dr. Stephen Klasko, the chief executive of Jefferson Health. “You’d be amazed,’ he said.

While both the Medicare-for-all bill introduced by Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington, and the Sanders bill call for a government-run insurance program, the Jayapal proposal would replace existing Medicare payments with a whole new system of regional budgets.

“We need to change not just who pays the bill but how we pay the bill,” said Dr. Gaffney, who advised Ms. Jayapal on her proposal.

Hospitals would be able to achieve substantial savings by scaling back administrative costs, the byproduct of a system that deals with multiple insurance carriers, Dr. Gaffney said. Under the Jayapal bill, hospitals would no longer be paid above their costs, and the money for new equipment and other investments would come from a separate pool of money.

But the Sanders bill, which is supported by some Democratic presidential candidates including Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, does not envision a whole new payment system but an expansion of the existing Medicare program. Payments would largely be based on what Medicare currently pays hospitals.

Some Democrats have also proposed more incremental plans. Some would expand Medicare to cover people over the age of 50, while others wouldn’t do away with private health insurers, including those that now offer Medicare plans.

Even under Medicare for all, lawmakers could decide to pay hospitals a new government rate that equals what they are being paid now from both private and public insurers, said Dr. David Blumenthal, a former Obama official and the president of the Commonwealth Fund.

“It would greatly reduce the opposition,” he said. “The general rule is the more you leave things alone, the easier it is.”

 

 

 

HEALTHCARE INDUSTRY MOST FOCUSED ON CONSOLIDATION, CONSUMERISM IN 2019

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A new Definitive Healthcare survey polled healthcare leaders on the most important trends of the year.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

Industry consolidation was listed as the most important trend of the year, leading the way with 25.2% of the votes, followed by consumerism at 14.4%.

Definitive tracked 803 mergers and acquisitions along with 858 affiliation and partnership announcements last year, a trend that is not expected to slow in 2019.

Thirty-five percent of healthcare M&A activity occurred in the long-term care field, according to CEO Jason Krantz.

Widespread industry consolidation as well as the growing influence of consumerism registered as the most important trends healthcare leaders are paying attention to in 2019, according to a Definitive Healthcare survey released Monday morning.

Industry consolidation was listed as the most important trend of the year, leading the way with 25.2% of the votes, followed by consumerism at 14.4%.

Other topics that received double-digit percentages of the vote were telehealth at 13.8%, AI and machine learning at 11.4%, and staffing shortages at 11.1%. Cybersecurity, EHR optimization, and wearables rounded out the list.

The top results are generally in-line with some of the top storylines from the past year in healthcare, including focus on several vertical megamergers and longstanding business models being redefined by consumer behavior.

Jason Krantz, CEO of Definitive Healthcare, told HealthLeaders that healthcare is becoming increasingly more complicated and leaders are looking at a host of business strategies to navigate industry challenges or emerging market conditions.

“Something that’s on the mind of all of the people that [Definitive Healthcare] has been talking to, whether they are pharma leaders, healthcare IT companies, or providers, is that they’re constantly grappling with all of these new regulations, consolidation, and new technologies,” Krantz said. “[They’re asking] ‘What does that mean for my business and how do I address my strategy as a result?'”

In 2018, Definitive tracked 803 mergers and acquisitions along with 858 affiliation and partnership announcements, a trend Krantz does not expect to slow in 2019.

While Krantz cited some of the major health system mergers from last year as examples, he said another area that is experiencing widespread M&A activity is the post-acute care side.

Thirty-five percent of healthcare M&A activity occurred in the long-term care field, according to Krantz, and this is indicative of hospitals seeking to control costs and drive down rising readmission rates.

It also relates to another issue likely to accelerate in the coming years, which are the staffing shortages facing providers.

The sector currently suffering the most are long-term care facilities, which struggle to maintain an adequate nursing workforce due to the advanced age of most doctors and nurses in the face of the rapidly aging baby boomer generation. Krantz warns that all providers are likely to face these issues going forward.

Krantz also expects consumerism to hold steady as a top issue facing healthcare, citing the growing popularity of urgent care centers and the interconnection of telehealth services to provide patients with care outside of the traditional delivery sites.

However, the growth of these are reliable business options are all dependent on figuring out an adequate reimbursement rates for telehealth services rendered, Krantz said, which has not been fully addressed.

“I think until [telehealth reimbursement rates] get completely figured out, it’s hard for the providers to invest heavily in it,” Krantz said. “This is why you see a lot of non-traditional providers getting into telehealth, but I think it is something that people are thinking about and they know they need to adjust to, though nobody’s stepping up and being first in [telehealth] right now.”

For AI, machine learning, wearables, and cybersecurity, though the responses are split into smaller amounts, Krantz emphasized their combined score, which encompasses more than 25% of total votes, as a sign that healthcare leaders are paying attention to the area despite market complexity.

He added that they are all interconnected issues that deal with technological changes health systems are aware they will have to address in the coming years.

One issue related to harnessing technological change is EHR optimization, which Krantz believes leaders on the provider side are finally starting to gain excitement around. He said most leaders who have waited years to set up a comprehensive EHR system and input data are in-line to now utilize the data in their respective system.

“There’s a lot of great data in there and people are starting to figure out how to utilize that and improve patient outcomes based on the sharing of data,” Krantz said.