POPULATION HEALTH TRENDS TO WATCH, TRENDS TO QUESTION IN 2019

https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/clinical-care/population-health-trends-watch-trends-question-2019?utm_source=silverpop&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=ENL_190319_LDR_BRIEFING_resend%20(1)&spMailingID=15320844&spUserID=MTY3ODg4NTg1MzQ4S0&spJobID=1601503618&spReportId=MTYwMTUwMzYxOAS2

Healthcare organizations cannot afford to ignore consumers in 2019, as a number of major trends shape the future of care delivery (and a number of other trends warrant more critical thinking).

This article was first published March 18, 2019, by MedPage Today.

By Joyce Frieden, news editor, MedPage Today

PHILADELPHIA — The consumer will be where it’s at for population health in 2019, David Nash, MD, MBA, said here Monday at a Population Health Colloquium sponsored by Thomas Jefferson University.

“Whatever business model empowers the consumer, wherever she is,” including at home, will spell success, according to Nash, who is dean of Jefferson’s School of Population Health. “That’s where population health must go.”

Nash noted that back in 1990, Kodak, Sears, and General Electric were the most important companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average; all those companies have disappeared or almost disappeared today.

“If we ignore the consumer, it will be at our peril,” Nash said, citing home healthcare, telehealth, and the use of wearables among the trends to watch in the coming year.

Nash, who is a columnist for MedPage Today, also cited these other trends to watch:

  • The growth of Medicare Advantage and managed Medicaid. “These are two programs that are working,” he said. “They’re working because they deliver value — high-quality care with fewer errors — and they follow our mantra: no outcome, no income.”
  • Tax reform. “Whatever your politics are [on this issue], park it at the door,” he said. “The sugar high is over, and now we’re in a carbohydrate coma. We’ve got the biggest deficits in American history; if we continue to spend money we don’t have, what will that do to healthcare? I think it will bite us in the butt when [it] comes to the Medicare trust fund.”
  • Precision medicine and population health. “[There is a notion] that precision medicine and population health are actually kissing cousins,” said Nash. “They are inexorably linked.”
  • Continued deal-making. The CVS/Aetna, UnitedHealth Group/DaVita, and Humana’s deals with Kindred Healthcare and Curo Health Services are just some of the more recent examples, he said. And he noted, the healthcare company formed by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase now has a name: Haven. “It’s a place where they’re going to figure it all out and they’ll let us know when they do.”
  • Continued delivery system consolidation. “Big surprise there,” he said sarcastically. “The real question is will they deliver value? Will they deliver synergies?” Nash noted that his own institution is a good example of this trend, having gone from one or two hospitals 5 years ago to 16 today with another two in the works.
  • Population health technology. “The gravy train of public money into this sector will [soon] be over; now the real challenge is for the IT [information technology] systems on top of those legacy companies; can they create the patient registry information and close the feedback loop, and give doctors, nurses, and pharmacists the information they need to improve care?”
  • The rise of “population health intelligence.” “That’s our term for predictive analytics, big data, artificial intelligence, and augmented intelligence … It says we don’t want to create software writers — we want doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and others who can glean the usable information from the terabyte of information coming our way, to [know how to interpret it].”
  • Pharmaceutical industry disruption. “This is really under the thumb of consumers … It’s all about price, price, price,” Nash said. “We’ve got to find a way to rationalize the pricing system. If we don’t, we’re going to end up with price controls, and as everybody in this room with a background in this area knows, those don’t work either.”
  • More venture capital money. Nash described his recent experience at the JPMorgan Chase annual healthcare conference, where people were paying $1,000 a night for hotel rooms that would normally cost $250, and being charged $20 just to sit in the lobby of one hotel. “What was going on there? It was more private-sector venture money coming into our industry than ever before. [These investors] know that when there’s $1 trillion of waste in an industry, it’s ripe for disruption.”
  • Workforce development. This is needed for the entire industry, said Nash. “More folks know a lot more [now] about population health, quality measurement and management, Lean 6 Sigma, and improving processes and reducing waste. The only way we’re going to reduce that waste of $1 trillion is to have the right kind of workforce ready to go.”

Lawton Burns, PhD, MBA, director of the Wharton Center of Health Management and Economics at the University of Pennsylvania here, urged the audience to look critically at some of these possible trends.

“You need to look for evidence for everything you hear,” said Burns, who coauthored an article with his colleague Mark Pauly, PhD, about the need to question some of the commonly accepted principles of the healthcare business.

Some of the ideas that merit more critical thinking, said Burns and Pauly, are as follows:

  • Economies of scale
     
  • Synergy
     
  • Consolidation
     
  • Big data
     
  • Platforms
     
  • One-stop shops
     
  • Disruption
     
  • Killer apps
     
  • Consumer engagement

“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with those 10 things, but we ought to seriously consider” whether they’re real trends, Burns said. As for moving “from volume to value” in healthcare reimbursement, that idea “is more aspiration than reality” at this point, he said. “This is a slow-moving train.”

Burns also questioned the motives behind some recent healthcare consolidations. In reality, “most providers are positioning themselves to dominate local markets and stick it to the payers — let’s be honest,” he said. “You have to think when you hear about providers doing a merger, you have to think what’s the public rationale and what’s the private rationale? The private one is [often] more sinister than you realize.”

“IF WE IGNORE THE CONSUMER, IT WILL BE AT OUR PERIL.”

 

 

 

 

Segment 5 – Why Is U.S. Healthcare So Expensive?

Segment 5 – Why Is U.S. Healthcare So Expensive?

Slide06

 

This segment reviews the “Perfect Storm” of reasons for unrestrained increase of healthcare spending in the U.S.

In Episode 4, we zeroed in on what I call the Real Problem with healthcare — relentlessly rising costs.

In this Episode, we will look at why the US spends so much on healthcare. As you can imagine, there are many reasons, not just one. In fact, it’s a perfect storm of bad reasons. We will also look whether we are getting our money’s worth.

Here’s the list. Part 1 & Part 2.

Slide06

Slide07

We will go through each one.

Natural Spending Drivers

Let’s start with some natural drivers of health spending, which are understandable and expected. First, as the population grows, so will health spending. Likewise, as the proportion of older people increases, so will spending. We also expect health spending to increase slowly with inflation. New technologies and medicines increase cost, but we hope will give dramatic benefits. For example, during my 40-year practice lifetime I have seen the introduction of new drugs for diabetes, blood pressure, and virus infections including HIV and flu. I have seen new ultrasound, CT and MRI diagnostics. I have seen cardiac caths, by-passes and joint replacements. These new things are expensive but well worth the cost.

Slide08

But health spending grows from 1-1/2 to 4 times the rate of inflation, much more than would be explained by natural drivers, as we saw previously.

Slide09

Fee for Service Payments

So, let’s look at the other reasons. First and foremost, to my way of thinking, is fee-for-service. Doctors in the US – unlike other countries where they are salaried – get paid for piecework. If a surgeon doesn’t operate, he doesn’t get paid. If a specialist doesn’t have a patient scheduled, HE doesn’t get paid. Money is a powerful incentive. So we should not be surprised if doctors increase their own volume of services, many times unconsciously.

Health Insurance Hides Cost

The next big reason is our health insurance. Until recently premiums were paid by the employer and out-of-pocket copays were minimal. Healthcare felt free to most of us. Most of us had no idea what our care was costing the system, and cared little. Talk about a perfect storm!

Imperfect Market 

Why didn’t market forces keep down costs and spending. Many politicians and reformers think competition as the simple solution to the healthcare cost problem. But economists will tell you that healthcare is not a pure market;  they refer to it as “imperfect.” The reasons are first that no one knows the true price of anything. Have you ever tried to sort out a hospital bill? Ridiculous!

Second, markets rely on buyer and seller having equal footing to negotiate, but most patients dare not quibble with their doctor. Doctors get their feathers ruffled when patients challenge their advice. Third, to make matters worse, patients are a “captive market” – they are often suffering, frightened for their life, and desperate for immediate relief, not exactly a strong bargaining position. Fourth, doctors can control demand. There’s an old joke about the level of eyesight loss that needs a cataract operation – if there’s one doctor in town it’s 20/100, if two doctors it’s 20/80 and if three doctors in town it’s only 20/60.

Administrative Costs

Next is administrative costs. Some economists estimate that up to ¼ of all health spending is for administration, not actual care. This is not surprising knowing how complicated we make our delivery system and financing system. Other countries have one delivery system and one payment system. US has 600,000 separate doctors, 5,500 separate hospitals, and 35 different insurance companies, not counting Medicare and Medicaid. Doctors used to drown in papers; now we spend up to 2 hours doing computer work for every hour of patient care. Don’t you love it?

For comparison, Medicare reports only 2% administrative costs (but some other costs are hidden elsewhere in government).

Inefficiency & Waste

Some other spending drivers include inefficiency. I include in this category unnecessary tests and treatments, as well as wasted effort due to incompatible computerized record systems – there are 632 separate electronics vendors in the US. If airports ran this way, each airline at each airport would have its own unique air traffic control computer that did not connect with each other. All in the name of free market.

Regards unnecessary treatments and procedures, a doctor at Dartmouth named John Wennberg pioneered using Big Data in the 1980s to look at numbers of prostate operations in each individual ZIP code, and found that surgeons in some regions were operating 13 times for often in highest areas than the lowest. Since prostate disease is relatively constant everywhere, this can only mean that doctors practice varies widely – the highest utilizers are doing too many operations.

Monopolies

Next is monopolies. Many small- and medium-sized towns and rural areas can only support one hospital. This creates monopolies with no market forces whatsoever to hold down charges.

Cost Shifting

Cost-shifting means that uninsured patients come to the ER for care. Since the ER doesn’t get paid, the ER shifts the Uninsured cost into the bill for INSURED and Medicare patients. The cost-shifting itself doesn’t increase the costs, but getting care in an ER instead of doctor’s office is the most expensive possible place for care.

New-Technology Policy

The FDA new-technology policy means that FDA rules say that it will approve any new drug or treatment if it shows even the slightest statistical benefit, no matter how small. Some cancer drugs are approved that extend life by only a few weeks. Some medicines are approved, even if the number needed to treat is 100. For example, for some new cholesterol medications, 100 patients need to be treated for 5 years before we see even 1 heart attack prevented. That’s a lot of patients, and a lot of doses, and a lot of dollars. By comparison, since half of appendicitis patients die without treatment, and almost all with appendectomy surgery survive and live happily ever after, the calculated number-needed-to-treat is only 2. So appendectomies are a good valued, but cholesterol medication (for otherwise healthy people) is questionable value.

Non-Costworthy Marginal Benefit

Here is another way of looking at value. As we go from left to right in this graph, we are spending more and more on health care. The more we spend, the higher the cumulative health benefit, at least to start. The first section (Roman number I) are very high value interventions like public health, sanitation, immunizations. The next section (Roman number II) are good value routine health treatments, including kidney dialysis and first-line chemotherapy for treatable cancers. But when we reach the third section (Roman number III), the benefits level off. Bypass surgery is less effective for older patients (and more risky); dying patients don’t survive in intensive care units and are miserable with tubes and futile breathing machines. If we spend even more we reach section Roman numeral IV in which no additional benefit is gained, just a lot of extra testing, treatments or drugs – these are wasted dollars. And if we keep spending more yet, we actually do more harm than good, and can even have deaths on the operating table or reactions to too many drugs. The US is well into section IV and in some cases section V. A lot of other richer countries think that they have already reached the point where spending more will give no benefit or possibly do more harm than good, even though they spend less than the US.

Slide19

In the next episode we will look at the ramifications of so much health spending on the US economy, politics and society. We will look at some potential threats if we do not start to control costs better.

I’ll see your then.

 

‘Outrageous giveaway to Big Pharma’: A political ‘bomb’ over drug prices may threaten NAFTA 2.0

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/02/13/business/outrageous-giveaway-big-pharma-political-bomb-drug-prices-may-threaten-nafta-2-0/#.XGR6YlVKi1s

Image result for big pharma

The clash over free trade in North America has long been fought over familiar issues: low-paid Mexican workers. U.S. factories that move jobs south of the border. Canada’s high taxes on imported milk and cheese.

But as Democrats in Congress consider whether to back a revamped regional trade pact being pushed by President Donald Trump, they’re zeroing in on a new point of conflict: drug prices. They contend that the new pact would force Americans to pay more for prescription drugs, and their argument has dimmed the outlook for one of Trump’s signature causes.

The president’s proposed replacement for the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement is meant to win over Democrats by incentivizing factories to hire and expand in the United States. Yet the pact would also give pharmaceutical companies 10 years’ protection from cheaper competition in a category of ultra-expensive drugs called biologics, which are made from living cells.

Shielded from competition, critics warn, the drug companies could charge exorbitant prices for biologics.

“This is an outrageous giveaway to Big Pharma,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, said in an interview. “The government guarantees at least 10 years of market exclusivity for biologic medicine. It’s a monopoly. It’s bad policy.”

The objections of DeLauro and other Democrats suddenly carry greater potency. The need to curb high drug prices has become a rallying cry for voters of all political stripes. Trump himself has joined the outcry. The revamped North America trade deal must be approved by both chambers of Congress, and Democrats have just regained control of the House.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on trade, told The Associated Press that “I don’t think candidly that it passes out of my trade subcommittee” with the biologics provision intact.

“The biologics are some of the most expensive drugs on the planet,” Blumenauer said.

Still, the politics of NAFTA 2.0 are tricky for Democrats and not necessarily a sure-fire winner for them.

The original NAFTA, which took effect in 1994, tore down most trade barriers separating the United States, Canada and Mexico. Like Trump, many Democrats blamed NAFTA for encouraging American factories to abandon the United States to capitalize on lower-wage Mexican labor and then to ship goods back into the U.S., duty-free.

Having long vilified NAFTA, Trump demanded a new deal — one far more favorable to the United States and its workers. For more than a year, his top negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, held talks with Canada and Mexico. Lighthizer managed to insert into the new pact provisions designed to appeal to Democrats and their allies in organized labor. For example, 40 percent of cars would eventually have to be made in countries that pay autoworkers at least $16 an hour — that is, in the United States and Canada and not in Mexico — to qualify for duty-free treatment.

The new deal also requires Mexico to encourage independent unions that will bargain for higher wages and better working conditions.

Late last year, the three countries signed their revamped deal, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. But it wouldn’t take effect until their three legislatures all approved it. In the meantime, the old NAFTA remains in place.

The question now is: Are Democrats prepared to support a deal that addresses some of their key objections to NAFTA and thereby hand Trump a political victory? Some Democrats have praised the new provisions that address auto wages, though many say they must be strengthened before they’d vote for the USMCA.

Protection for drug companies is another matter. Many Democrats had protested even when the Obama administration negotiated eight years of protection for biologics— from cheap-copycat competitors called “biosimilars” — in a 12-country Pacific Rim trade pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP.

Trump abandoned the TPP in his first week in office. But the pharmaceutical industry is a potent lobby in Washington, and Trump’s negotiators pressed for protection for U.S. biologics in the new North American free trade deal. They ended up granting the drug companies two additional years of protection in the pact.

Top biologics include the anti-inflammatory drug Humira, the cancer fighter Rituxan and Enbrel, which is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

The administration and drug companies argue that makers of biologics need time to profit from their creations before biosimilars sweep in, unburdened by the cost of researching and developing the drugs. Otherwise, they contend, the brand-name drug companies would have little incentive to invest in developing new medicines.

They note that a 2015 law authorizing presidents to negotiate trade deals requires American officials to push other countries toward U.S.-level protections for intellectual property such as biologic drugs. (The same law, somewhat contradictorily, directs U.S. negotiators to “promote access to medicines.”)

Supporters also note that existing U.S. law gives makers of biologics 12 years’ protection. So the new pact wouldn’t change the status quo in the United States, though it would force Mexico to expand biologics’ monopoly from five years and Canada from eight years. In fact, supporters of the biologics monopoly argue that the pact might cut prices in the United States because drug companies would no longer face pressure to charge Americans more to compensate for lower prices in Canada and Mexico.

But critics say that expanding biologics’ monopoly in a trade treaty would prevent the United States from ever scaling back the duration to, say, the seven years the Obama administration once proposed.

“By including 10 years in a treaty, we are locking ourselves in to a higher level of monopoly protection for drugs that are already taking in billions of dollars a year,” said Jeffrey Francer, general counsel for the Association for Accessible Medicines, which represents generic drug companies. “The only way for Congress to change it is to back out of the treaty. … Does the United States want to be in violation of its own treaty?”

For Democrats, higher drug prices are shaping up as a powerful political argument against approving the president’s new North American trade deal. In December, Stanley Greenberg, a leading Democratic pollster and strategist, conducted focus groups in Michigan and Wisconsin with Trump voters who weren’t affiliated with the Republican Party. Some had previously voted for Barack Obama. Others called themselves political independents. They’re the kinds of voters Democrats hope to attract in 2020.

Greenberg said he was “shocked” by the intensity of their hostility to drug companies — and to the idea that a trade pact would shield those companies from competition.

“It was like throwing a bomb into the focus group,” said Greenberg, who is married to DeLauro. He said the voters’ consensus view was essentially: “The president was supposed to go and renegotiate (NAFTA) so that it worked for American workers. But it must be that these lobbyists are working behind the scenes” to sneak in special-interest provisions.

That perception gives Democrats reason to reject the new pact as the 2020 election approaches.

“Democrats have no incentive to do this,” said Philip Levy, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a White House economist under President George W. Bush. “Before you know it, the presidential election season is going to be upon us.”

U.S. trade rules are designed to force Congress to give trade agreements an up-or-down vote — no nitpicking allowed. Still, there are ways to bypass those restrictions. Congressional Democrats could, for example, push the administration to negotiate so-called side letters with Canada and Mexico to address their concerns. President Bill Clinton did this with the original NAFTA.

“Lighthizer and his team are very creative,” said Blumenauer, chair of the House trade subcommittee. “This is something that can be handled.”

 

 

 

It’s the Monopolies, Stupid!

http://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/blog/2018/may/drug-monopolies-pricing?omnicid=EALERT1410094&mid=henrykotula@yahoo.com

Image result for pharmaceutical monopoly

At the core of the nation’s drug pricing problem is one fundamental fact: Drug companies enjoy government-sanctioned and -enforced monopolies over the supply of many drugs.

These monopolies result from patents awarded under federal law for novel molecules. Patents allow manufacturers to prevent competitors from selling the same drug for 20 years from the time the patent is filed. Given that the process of gaining regulatory approval to market their new drug takes time, research suggests new drugs have, on average, 12 to 13 years of market exclusivity.

Once new drugs are approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the monopolies assured by patents enable pharmaceutical companies to charge any price they choose. They generally pick prices that not only cover their development costs, but also generate profits that exceed those of most other industries: for example, the average profit margin for the 25 largest software companies (which are cited as having the same high R&D investment and low production and distribution costs as pharmaceutical companies) was 13.4 percent in 2015, while the average profit margin for the 25 largest drug companies was 20.1 percent in 2015. Drugmakers are also free to raise prices whenever they want at rates they alone determine.

The existence of patents does not totally prevent competition. Often, other companies introduce drugs that are distinct enough to justify their own separate patents and accomplish the same therapeutic goal. This results in competition that lowers drug prices, but often by not enough to make the medications affordable for many patients. In addition, the makers of patented drugs — for example, Mylan’s EpiPen and the weight-loss drug Suprenza — have developed effective mechanisms to extend the lives of their patents beyond 20 years. These approaches include making minor modifications in the formulations or packaging of drugs that have no clinical significance, as well as paying potential generic competitors not to introduce generic drugs.

That said, patents eventually expire, at which point generic drug companies can manufacture the drug and sell it at a much lower price. But even generic drug competition has been weakened recently by generic drug market monopolies, as these manufacturers have bought up their competition. As a result, the prices of old and familiar drugs have risen dramatically. The price of the cardiac drug isuprel has increased more than sixfold between 2013 and 2015, and the price of the antibiotic doxycycline has soared 90-fold over the same period.

As long as drug companies (or a small group) hold monopoly (or oligopoly) power over potent new therapies, there is no free market solution to lowering drug prices. Only a countervailing nonmarket force of equal strength can bring those prices down. Other western industrial countries, recognizing this, authorize their governments to step in and moderate drug prices for the benefit of their citizenry. Some set prices by fiat, while other negotiate with drug companies. In the latter case, the negotiations are sometimes guided by comparative effectiveness analysis that estimates the value of new drugs to patients. Of course, drug companies are free to walk away from such deals, but they generally choose not to, presumably because they still make money from those sales.

Drug companies say their monopoly earnings are necessary to sustain the research and development that produce new drugs. In effect they are saying that they need to be able to charge the very high prices we now see for patented drugs so they can innovate. This raises the questions of how much money society should allocate toward pharmaceutical innovation and who should decide. Setting those questions aside for the moment, we should be very clear about one thing: As long as pharmaceutical companies have uncontested market power to set prices for many patented and generic drugs, those prices will remain a huge problem for Americans and their elected representatives.

USA Today editorial board: Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, JPMorgan can’t ‘fix our nonsensical health care system’

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/hospital-management-administration/usa-today-editorial-board-amazon-berkshire-hathaway-jpmorgan-can-t-fix-our-nonsensical-health-care-system.html

Monopoly Medicine - How Big Pharma Stops Competitors Monopolizes Health Industry 1

While health insurers and benefit managers saw stocks tumble on news Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase & Co. will enter the healthcare arena, the editorial board at USA Today isn’t convinced the move will be as disruptive as some think.

In an opinion piece published Feb. 20, USA Today editors wrote, “To BBD [Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Jamie Dimon] we say: Go for it. If you can come up with ways to provide your employees with better health care for less money, more power to you. To the rest of the country we would say this: Don’t get too excited. Not even a company as crafty as Amazon, or a bot as all-knowing as Alexa, can fix our nonsensical health care system.”

USA Today said the reason an Amazon-Berkshire-JPMorgan company won’t create overarching change is because U.S. healthcare is built upon an “upside-down” architecture. They wrote providers and drug companies “have monopoly or near-monopoly powers” to set prices, while employers and payers are much more fragmented.

“The three companies — particularly Amazon — are known for their ability to disrupt industries. But in health care, they aren’t up against an old-school industry fallen behind the times; they’re facing powerful monopolies or near-monopolies brimming with technology of their own,” according to the report.

To view the full opinion piece, click here.

https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/02/20/amazon-berkshire-hathaway-jpmorgan-chase-cure-editorials-debates/301127002/

https://wakeup-world.com/2016/08/27/monopoly-medicine-how-big-pharma-stops-its-competitors-and-monopolizes-the-health-industry/

 

 

 

When hospitals merge, you pay the bill

https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2017/12/17/when-hospitals-merge-you-pay-editorials-debates/953998001/

Image result for large hospital mergers

 

Mega medical chains could be hazardous to your health: Our view

Health insurers are not the most beloved companies. They deny claims, bury people in paperwork, and generally make life more difficult.

But a good case can be made that America’s health care woes lie more with its providers than its insurers. Some communities are served by a single hospital or group of specialists. Some patients are reliant on a single drug. That gives these businesses enormous leverage to hike prices.

In theory, insurance companies hold down costs by driving hard bargains with providers. In reality, they find it difficult to do so.

OPPOSING VIEW: Health care mergers benefit patients

UnitedHealth Group is the largest private health insurer, with about 11% of the overall market. Everyone else is less than 10% (though in local and regional markets there is more concentration).

That makes these insurers plenty big enough to beat up on consumers, but too small to take on powerful providers.

The result: In the USA, 18 cents of every dollar spent goes to health care each year. In other developed countries, health care expenditures are much less, in the range of 10 to 12 cents per dollar.

Which makes recent trends in the hospital industry all the more troubling. Two major hospital chains, Ascension and Providence St. Joseph Health, are in talks to merge, a move that would create a 191-hospital colossus operating in 27 states.

This comes on top of a raft of other hospital mergers and announced mergers. That they have been in the non-profit space, including a proposed chain of 139 Catholic-run hospitals, does not change the economics.

These massive businesses run much as their for-profit brethren — and will put pressure on for-profits to merge as well. That won’t be good for consumers, or the ridiculously high premium the American economy pays for a health care system that lacks effective cost controls.

Not all mergers in health care are problematic. The proposed combination of CVS, the owner of drug stores and walk-in clinics, with Aetna, a major insurer, holds intriguing possibilities for efficiencies and more comprehensive tracking of health care decisions.

It could also be argued that there should be more consolidation among insurance companies. This might not be a hugely popular concept, but it would give them more leverage to say no to costly increases demanded by hospitals and other potent health care providers.

At the very least, it’s time to take a critical eye to the mega hospital empires being erected. They could be very hazardous to your health.

A nation of McHospitals?

https://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/11/08/hospital-chains-dominate-health-care-000574

Franchises-Lede-ByNeilWebb.jpg

For years, the nation’s hospital chains worked to get bigger, bigger, bigger. In the 1980s and 1990s, for-profit companies like HCA and Tenet emerged as juggernauts, snapping up local hospitals and opening clinics in one town after another. Their ambitious not-for-profit cousins, the big academic medical centers like Harvard-affiliated Partners Healthcare, scooped up smaller rivals in response. Just four years ago, the Tennessee-based Community Health Systems spent $7.6 billion to buy a competitor and become the nation’s largest for-profit hospital company, with more than 200 hospitals in 29 states.

Today, in any town or city, in any region of the country, you’ll almost certainly see the same scenario: Only a handful of hospitals, sometimes owned and operated by a company thousands of miles away.

As the pace and scale of consolidation picked up, the outcome long appeared inevitable: an American future in which a handful of hospital chains dominate American health care, with brands like Tenet and Catholic Health Initiatives and the Mayo Clinic competing for patients the way Panera and Chipotle and the Olive Garden compete for diners.

But something happened on the way to becoming a nation of McHospitals. That ambitious growth, driven by dreams of dominating a transformed health care landscape and recently fueled by Obamacare revenues, hit a wall.

In the past year, two of the nation’s three largest for-profit hospital systems, Tenet and Community Health Systems, began selling off dozens of their hospitals while entertaining bids to break up their entire companies. Prominent not-for-profit chains like Partners Healthcare are reporting nine-digit losses. Even Mayo Clinic is pulling back from some rural locations in the Midwest.

In part, the shift is just a typical business cycle working its way through the health care industry. “There are these testosterone-driven waves of deal making” in health care, said Jeff Goldsmith, a hospital consultant. “And then there are waves of post-coital regret that follow.”

But in part, the change is driven by policy decisions being made in Washington — how health care is paid for, and who has access to it. And as that shift unfolds, it’s raising questions that will shape American health care for a generation: What will the future of hospital ownership look like? What should it look like?

Even at the height of merger mania, no one could quite agree on whether the McHospital trend was a good thing or not. Some people — mostly in the hospital industry — argued that consolidation was long overdue, and that large companies’ deeper pockets and economies of scale would keep costs down and improve the quality of care for patients. Obamacare gave hospitals financial incentives to manage entire populations, rather than just get paid patient-by-patient — an effort that required building big data sets and buying up other services too, like physician practices.

But others were concerned about the growing concentration of ownership of the nation’s hospitals by a shrinking number of companies. It put local hospitals’ decades-long relationship with their communities at risk, as important local institutions started reporting to shareholders or distant nonprofit boards. These worriers foresaw a future in which just a handful of chains competed to carve out the most lucrative segments of health care, like cardiac procedures and orthopedic surgery, and offered substandard care for everyone else. And despite the chains’ promises, years of reports have shown that when hospitals combine, their prices tend to go up.

Providers’ growing market power has “been the leading reason for the [rise] in health care spending” for decades, Bob Berenson, a former Carter and Clinton administration official said in 2015. (“And in conventional political circles,” he added, “it’s still being overlooked.”)

But the changes underway are starting to transform the nature of the hospital itself — and could open the door to a landscape even more different than we imagine.

Radical shifts

The direction of the American hospital has shifted radically over time. Initially, hospitals were charity wards where the poor went to die. But as cities grew, and health care became more expensive and capital-intensive, hospitals became destinations for wealthier patients: Top hospitals were the ones that could afford the latest medical technologies and perform the most complex surgeries. The creation of Medicare in 1967 fueled new revenue and attracted more competitors, leading to the birth of major chains.

Today, about two-thirds of the nation’s 5,000 hospitals are parts of chains, up from about half of hospitals just 15 years ago, and the share of for-profit hospitals has steadily climbed — more than one in five hospitals are now owned by investors, rather than run as a not-for-profit or by the government. Established hospitals are grappling with how to balance institutional advantages like high-end facilities and expensive technologies with the need to stay nimble and adapt to health care’s changes. It’s a hard balance to strike, and after a few boom years, the industry is experiencing its worst financial performance since the great recession.

It’s always been expensive to own and operate a hospital. Preparing for possible emergencies requires round-the-clock staffing and immense sunk costs. Most major hospitals also try to offer dozens of different business lines, from cardiac surgery to behavioral health care — but that’s only gotten harder as niche competitors chip away at the most lucrative high-end services. It also got pricier thanks to the latest merger mania, as hospital chains collectively took on billions of dollars in debt to buy up their competitors and acquire other services, like physician offices.

An industry that had already consolidated in the 1980s and 1990s — seeking new efficiencies and to get bigger when negotiating with insurance companies — received new incentives under Obamacare, as millions of newly insured patients entered the market and hospital chains raced to capture the new customers. But the Affordable Care Act also accelerated changes to health care payments in ways that made hospitals seem a little outmoded.

Medicare, other federal programs and insurance companies are increasingly shifting away from fee-for-service reimbursement — in which doctors and hospitals are rewarded for the number of procedures they perform — toward “alternative payment models” with more incentives for follow-up care and improved long-term outcomes. That’s encouraged hospitals to make new investments, like buying up nursing homes and hiring more workers to deliver home-based and long-term care. Some hospital leaders are actively talking about trying not to fill their beds, which would’ve sounded like heresy in the industry just a decade ago.

Charlie Martin, a legendary health care investor who founded two hospital companies, said the old model is doomed as new technologies allow care to be delivered outside of the hospital — leaving behind large, costly facilities that are better suited to 1990 than 2020.

“Half the business that’s in there is going to go away,” Martin said. “This is going to be a beatdown like we’ve never seen before.”

Martin said he’s now investing in services like post-acute care and home health, which are more agile and positioned to take advantage of the changes in payment. In this emerging world, a low-cost aide who can keep an elderly patient out of the hospital may end up being more profitable for Martin than paying a team of doctors when that patient breaks a hip and needs days of hospital care.

“The hospitals of today are too expensive to be health care facilities” in the long run, Martin said. “I can’t carry the carcass around.” (He added that consolidation’s benefits are overrated. “There are other ways to get scale now, like purchasing groups” that allow hospitals to get bulk discounts despite not having a common owner, Martin argued. “A lot of the advantages that came through the multihospital systems are now available for anybody.”)

Too big to fail?

So, are big hospitals — and big hospital chains — destined to go the way of Sears, an institution decimated by smaller and nimbler competitors? Not necessarily. There’s still a viable path — and often a need — for big hospitals themselves, typically the largest employers in their cities and towns. While fee-for-service payment is slowly getting phased down, it isn’t going away overnight, if ever. A decade after policymakers began pushing hospitals to adopt alternative payment models, those models still represent less than 30 percent of payments to the average health care provider. Fee-for-service remains the most common way of getting paid.

And local hospitals have an advantage that many businesses don’t: They’re often so important to their towns and cities that lawmakers and other local leaders don’t want to let them fail, even if their margins suffer. And in markets where there isn’t much competition, hospitals continue to charge huge rates that have very little connection to quality of care. Yale researcher Zack Cooper and colleagues have found that hospitals with effective monopolies have prices more than 15 percent higher than hospitals in markets with four or more competitors.

What that all means: The hospitals that Martin and others see as lumbering dinosaurs don’t all need to evolve to virtual campuses just yet. No one’s forcing them to. The old model of going to a hospital for surgery and other intensive services will persist for years or decades, barring major technological leaps ahead, and it may stay lucrative for the most prominent, dominant facilities. There’s no easy, obvious disruptor that wants to start building hospitals and compete for these services, at least for these now.

So then the question is: Who’s going to own them? Many experts think the near future, at least, will belong to regional health systems. They’re able to take advantage of local monopolies that allow them to raise prices, while not being burdened by the debt and expenses that can go along with aggressive acquisitions of national chains. And from North Carolina to California, many of these local chains continue to thrive and edge out national competitors with better financial performance. Indiana University Health System last month announced it’s expanding into Fort Wayne, the state’s second-largest city, even as Community Health Systems – a national chain that operates a hospital network in the city – has seen local profits fall and anger rise, as doctors and employers claim the chain has neglected its facilities and should sell hospitals that have become dirty and dingy. (Community’s president told doctors in 2016 that the chain would pull out of Fort Wayne, Bloomberg reported, although the company rejected a subsequent buyout offer and now says it’s committed to staying.)

What’s good for these regional chains may not be good for patients or the insurance system that pays for their care, though, as lower levels of competition mean higher prices. Martin Gaynor, an economist at Carnegie Mellon and former FTC official who studies consolidation, points to UPMC’s decision this month to spend $2 billion to build three new specialty hospitals in the Pittsburgh area, further cementing its control of the local market — even if experts question whether large, specialty facilities are needed at all. “Don’t forget that residents of Western Pennsylvania are the ones who will mostly pay for this,” Gaynor tweeted after the announcement.

“There’s a near-stranglehold on these markets by dominant health systems,” said Gaynor, noting that many regions get carved up between two or three major chains. “Some means need to be developed to free that up.”

It’s not clear how that would happen or who wants to do it. The Trump administration has gestured toward unlocking those markets, with a few lines in a recent executive orderpromising to limit “excessive consolidation.” The Federal Trade Commission under the Obama administration also jumped in to aggressively block hospital mergers, too. But taking on the hospital industry has been viewed as a political nonstarter for years. And hospitals don’t have much reason to loosen their own monopolies, at least in the short run.

There’s an intriguing possibility that some consultants are wrestling with: What if a company like Walmart or Apple decides to go for the health care market — and really go for it, as executives from each company have hinted in the past — and set up outpatient centers in their stores around the country. Hospitals would suddenly face new pressures from a well-capitalized competitor that already gets a lot of foot traffic, like Walmart, or has been ruthlessly committed to growth, like Apple. Patients frustrated with the traditional medical system might start opting for these retail alternatives, disrupting the entire chain of how Americans get care.

A dramatic move like that would shake up how health care is delivered. It would also flip the paradigm. Rather than hospitals desperately trying to expand and establish themselves as a national brand, an existing national brand — not a health care brand, but a big consumer brand — could suddenly have a health care presence in many major markets.

But a move like that remains some distance off. Walmart’s effort to quickly scale up small retail health clinics has stalled. Apple has publicly flirted with investing in a health care facility for so long, it raises the question of why the company hasn’t.

And that points to the most likely outcome for hospitals in the next 30 years. Boring as it may be, many of them aren’t going anywhere. No one else is competing for the expensive, high-end services that only hospitals can offer. They’re still too big to fail — just so long as they don’t get any bigger.