Ballad Health Relies on Partnerships to Excel With Difficult Payer Mix

https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/finance/ballad-health-relies-partnerships-excel-difficult-payer-mix?spMailingID=15495934&spUserID=MTg2ODM1MDE3NTU1S0&spJobID=1621203648&spReportId=MTYyMTIwMzY0OAS2

Ballad CFO Lynn Krutak said the health system faces significant financial challenges but has the discipline and leadership to navigate obstacles ahead.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

CFO Lynn Krutak said the system’s most significant challenge is its payer mix.

Luckily, she says, Virginia’s decision to expand Medicaid will help somewhat in terms of recouping from years of cuts.

Ballad Health also has a $308 million, 10-year spending plan in the works.

Last year, Mountain States Health Alliance (MSHA) and Wellmont Health System, merged to form Ballad Health. The fact that the two rural systems merged was not typical because it formed under a certificate of public advantage (COPA).

This legal agreement governs the merger through joint oversight from both the state of Tennessee and Virginia and also includes “enforceable commitments” to invest in population health, expand patient access, and boost research and education opportunities.

According to the Millbak Memorial Fund, the COPA acts as a “state-monitored monopoly—or a public utility model of healthcare delivery.”

Related: Ballad Health Launches Changes Across Newly Merged Hospital Network

Lynn Krutak, who served as CFO for both MSHA and its corporate parent Blue Ridge Medical Management, was elevated as CFO at Ballad Health. In an interview with HealthLeaders, Krutak emphasized how she implemented effective cost-cutting strategies within a challenging payer mix and low-wage index area.

This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

HealthLeaders: Can you describe the challenges and opportunities for Ballad Health in its provider market?

Krutak: The majority of our hospitals are either in southwest Virginia or northeast Tennessee, so we have high-use rates. From the payer standpoint, as more people move into managed Medicare and managed Medicaid, we know those use rates are going to fall.

Our population growth is flat to even declining; a lot of our counties in southwest Virginia are coal counties that have been hit hard by the [employment] reductions. So, with the use-rates decline, population decline, and the reimbursement decline that we’re all faced with, we know that there are going to be issues going forward.

As far as our payer mix, we’re heavily governmental. Over 70% of our payer mix is Medicare, Medicaid, or self-pay. We can continue to see the payer mix decline as well. We are also faced with high-deductible health plans out there now, with the patient portion of those deductibles being so high our bad debt has increased over 30%.

Fortunately, Virginia has implemented a Medicaid expansion program, so we will get some relief. However, we’ve had years of ACA cuts and this is a small portion. With the cuts that we’ve had versus what we’re going to gain back from Medicaid expansion, we’ll still be in the red.

Our wage index with Medicare is another hurdle we have. We are in the fourth-lowest wage index area in the country; we’re getting about half of what other [systems] are getting. We’ve done a good job of controlling our costs because we have to.

We’re excited about the potential with some of the things that we’re going to be able to do as a merged organization. We have $308 million in spending commitments over the next 10 years, but we have about twice as much in estimated savings. We’ve been able to achieve a lot of that already and we’re working hard on our continued integration.

This merger’s unique and what we’re going to be able to do is take costs out of the system, as far as redundant and duplicative costs go, and then reinvest them back.

HL: Can you describe some initiatives Ballad is looking to pursue in the next few years?

Krutak: As far as the labor costs, we’ve done a great job controlling our labor by not using contract labor for nursing. During the nursing shortage, other systems were using contract labor, it was something that MSHA did not have to do.

We have East Tennessee State University right in our backyard in Johnson City, where we work with them to develop nursing programs and offer scholarships to students in return for a work commitment.

Of the investments through COPA, where we have committed $308 million over a 10-year period, [is] $75 million is going to common health issues facing children. We’ve made a commitment to bring on specialists—specifically pediatrics—and be able to keep these patients and their families in the region and not have to send them elsewhere.

We’ve also committed $140 million to mental health, addiction, or rural health [initiatives] with $85 million going to behavioral health. That’s an issue for our service area in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia.

Finally, we have $8 million set for clinical effectiveness and patient engagement mainly related to health information exchange. Wellmont was on Epic, MSHA was on Cerner, so we agreed to convert the whole system to Epic, which will happen in April 2020.

HL: How is Ballad best positioned to navigate the direction healthcare is going while still providing the best quality service to its patients?

Krutak: We’ve been working with our state representatives to craft a fair wage index bill, where Ballad would get some relief and revamp how those calculations are done. In other words, you would not be penalized if you do a good job controlling your costs.

Our CEO, Alan Levine was secretary of health in Florida and secretary of health in Louisiana. We have Tony Keck, who is the executive vice president of our development, innovation, and population health improvement, who was secretary of health in South Carolina. We have a lot of insight on the [governmental] side of things from them.

We’re positioning ourselves to take costs out of the system but also to switch over from fee-for-service plans to looking at risk-based contracts. How do we get paid more for showing better patient outcomes? We’re looking over the next five years to transition into more of that than your traditional payments.

HL: What advice would you give to CFOs from rural systems to make the most of what are sometimes challenging financial situations?

Krutak: As a result of the merger, I’m relieved that we’re going to be able to have these savings to reinvest in rural areas. The largest issue we face with the payer mix shift is that it’s hard to get physicians in rural areas.

My advice to them is just make sure that you are controlling your costs as much as you possibly can and look to partner with other systems that may be near you that could provide physician-sharing arrangements.

For the reimbursement side, it’s always actively looking at how you’re being paid and what you’re being paid. Work with your government officials and partner with your hospital associations, to say, ‘Hey, if we’re going to continue to keep these rural hospitals and provide access, then there’s going to have to be changes as far as how that reimbursement is calculated and how those facilities are compensated.’

On the cost side, make sure that that you’ve situated yourself appropriately and then as things transition to outpatient, be sure the investments that you’re making are being made in the right places.

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

SURVEY SAYS POPULATION HEALTH INITIATIVES ARE STALLING

https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/innovation/survey-says-population-health-initiatives-are-stalling

Population health initiatives are stalling

Numerof’s annual report indicates some disturbing trends are emerging in industry’s progress to new models of care. Financial loss, culture, and cancelation of mandatory bundled pricing programs may be to blame.

While healthcare executives agree that population health is essential, most organizations are dragging their feet when it comes to embracing these new models of care, according to The State of Population Health Fourth Annual Numerof Survey Report.

The report, produced by global healthcare consultancy Numerof & Associates in partnership with David B. Nash, MD, MBA, founding dean of the Jefferson College of Population Health at Jefferson in Philadelphia, is based on surveys and interviews conducted with more than 500 C-Suite healthcare executives between August and October 2018.

PROGRESS HAS STALLED

While 94% of respondents agree that population health is the future, and 99% predict that they will have revenue in upside gain/downside risk models in the next two years, the majority of respondents in risk-based agreements report that 10% or less of revenue came through such contracts. Compared to earlier surveys conducted by Numerof, this measure remains flat and fell significantly short of the projections by previous respondents regarding how much revenue would be at risk in 2018.

A Numerof executive posits that the absence of external pressure may be partially responsible for the stall in population health initiatives, but warns that that outside forces may change the game.

“Healthcare delivery organizations may breathe a sigh of relief as policymakers ease the pressure for change, but their comfort should be short-lived, as a slew of nontraditional competitors like Amazon, JPMorgan, Berkshire Hathaway, Apple, Google and others are on the prowl,” said Michael Abrams, managing partner of Numerof & Associates in the news release. “A $3 trillion industry with a deeply dissatisfied customer base is attracting a wave of innovation from entities that aren’t beholden to the old ways of doing business.”

OTHER KEY FINDINGS

The report also provides other details:

  • Financial loss is the largest barrier to assuming risk. Nearly 25% of respondents cited financial loss as the biggest challenge for adapting to models based on risk. Other roadblocks include challenges related to changing the culture. In addition, policy uncertainty at the federal level also may contribute to hesitancy. “The cancellation of several mandatory bundled pricing programs in favor of voluntary versions has raised questions about the future of value-based care, just as many administrators were beginning to accept it as inevitable,” according to a news release.
  • Smaller organizations are behind. The survey indicates 90% of large hospitals had at least one contract based on risk, compared to the 71% of smaller organizations.
  • Despite some progress, cost and quality management is lacking. When asked about management in cost variation, 61% of respondents rated their organization as average or worse than average. This reflects an improvement of only 8% over three years.

“Healthcare is an industry in transition, but the resistance to necessary change is deeply entrenched,” said Numerof President Rita Numerof, PhD in the release. “Rather than embracing new models that they perceive as risky and difficult to manage, providers are trying to muddle their way through as long as possible.”

METHODOLOGY

Numerof’s fourth annual State of Population Health survey report summarizes online responses gathered between August to October 2018 from more than 500 executives in urban, suburban, and rural locations across the United States. Open-ended interviews with select executives provided deeper insights. Participants include physician group executives and vice presidents, as well as individuals working in U.S. provider organizations including healthcare systems, hospitals, and academic medical centers. Respondents represent a wide range of delivery organizations, including standalone facilities, small systems, and IDNs; for-profit, not-for-profit and government institutions; and academic and community facilities.

 

 

 

The noble aim of being a great subcontractor

https://gisthealthcare.com/weekly-gist/

Image result for subcontractor

Earlier this month I was at a health system board meeting in which we were discussing the transition from volume to value, and the shift to a population health model. One board member had the courage to ask a tough question: “What if we never get there?” Covering just a small slice of a large metropolitan area, this system has consistently ranked third in market share behind two larger competitors—and now they feel they are lagging those systems in moving toward risk. The most recent challenge: a large—and until recently, loyal—independent primary care group had just been acquired by one of their competitors. Yet the system prides itself, justifiably, on delivering low-cost hospital care and outstanding quality.

I raised a heretical notion: suppose the system pursued a strategy focused solely on being the highest-performing inpatient and specialty care provider in the market, and abandoned the goal of bearing population risk? Could the system shift their focus to simply being the best “subcontractor” to other risk-bearing networks in the market?

The ensuing conversation was uncomfortable, to say the least. The notion challenged the system’s assumptions of the role they wanted to play in the market, and whether they could be a leader in population health. I encouraged them to think of being a “subcontractor” to other risk-bearing organizations not as a defeat, but as fulfillment of a vital role—healthcare in their community would be better if more hospital care were delivered at their level of cost and quality.

Our view: for many smaller systems who are driven by a desire to remain independent, becoming a high-performing care subcontractor may be the best path forward, and the most realistic. (It will be interesting to watch the successful investor-owned chains on this front—organizations whose strategic advantage lies in running highly-efficient, low-cost hospitals.) It’s not as sexy as “population health”, but as any builder will tell you, there’s no substitute for a great subcontractor.

Here come the Millennials!

We spend an awful lot of time in healthcare talking about the Baby Boomers. No surprise, America has spent decades—six-and-a-half of them, to be exact—contending with the impact of this historically large generation on nearly every aspect of our national life. From politics to economics to culture, the Baby Boom reshaped almost every facet of our society, and healthcare has been no exception. The fact that over 10,000 Boomers join the Medicare ranks every day means they’ll have a transformative effect on how healthcare is delivered and paid for—up to and including the sustainability of the Medicare program itself. So it may come as a shock to Boomers to learn that, starting in 2019, it’s no longer All About Them. This year America passes a new milestone: Baby Boomers are now outnumbered by Millennials. As the chart below shows, Boomers (whose average age is now 63), will be surpassed this year by America’s new Largest Generation. Born between 1981 and 1996, the Millennials are now 30 years old on average, and there are 72.5M of them, compared to 72.0M Boomers—a gap that will continue to widen. (Thanks to immigration, we have another 14 years until we hit “peak” Millennial, according to Census Bureau projections.)

This demographic achievement alone ought to earn Millennials a participation trophy—obviously, not their first. (Forgive the sarcasm…we’re Gen X-ers, it’s what we do.) But this changing demographic landscape brings big implications for healthcare. Boomers are just entering their peak “senior care” consumption years now, and we’ll have a quarter-century or more of very expensive care to fund for a generation that is by all indications more riven with chronic disease but more likely to live into very old age than previous cohorts. That creates the imperative for population health approaches that allow care for seniors to be delivered in lower-acuity settings. At the same time, however, Millennials are really just entering the healthcare system. For the next several years, most of their care needs will be driven by having babies and caring for growing families. But just as the last of the Boomers get their Medicare cards in 2029, the Millennials will begin to enter their “upkeep” years—demanding a variety of diagnostics, surgeries, and procedures to keep them thriving. Who will pay for all of that specialty care, and where will it be delivered? Today’s health system planners would do well to begin to look ahead to future capacity needs, and economic models.

The Millennials bring dramatically different service expectations as well. This is a generation raised in the era of Amazon. One-click purchases, same-day delivery, frictionless transactions, personalized offerings, low institutional loyalty—all of that will shape the way this generation thinks about consuming healthcare, with huge implications for providers. This is a high-information generation, whose adult years have seen a pervasive shift from physical to digital commerce, and they’ll expect healthcare to follow that trend. Ask today’s pediatric providers how different the Millennials are as parent-consumers—you’ll quickly get the picture. Even as physicians, hospitals and others scramble to retool care delivery to more efficiently manage the swelling ranks of seniors, they’ll need to keep a close eye on the preferences of Millennials, upon whom their future fortunes will rely, and who won’t tolerate the hurry-up-and-wait ethos that still pervades American medicine.

(Spoiler alert: waiting in the wings is Gen Z, digital natives born in 1997 and after. Guess what? There’s even more of them!)

 

Report: There were fewer, but larger, hospital mergers and acquisitions in 2018

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/hospitals-health-systems/report-what-to-expect-healthcare-m-a-2019?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTkROak5UWXpOR1ZtT0RNeiIsInQiOiJBbmtrSGp0c0ZtU1hwNzRlOGNveVdHQ3JyenpWRE1FeXdVVjVYYzN0WFwvV1Vyb1ZkQWpVNHNMM29kOGw1bXRMVDA0bTNuUm1lQ1RVb0NzYVFGa0NWdGVRVk5pOGw3amFtbEI1YlpEdTdTTkYxbkFWSGlDT2lMMCtIZktpN0ZkYlcifQ%3D%3D&mrkid=959610&utm_medium=nl&utm_source=internal

Handshake business deal executives

The number of hospital mergers last year dipped about 22% in 2018 but grew in overall size as part of a broader trend toward megamergers, according to a new report.

In all, hospitals announced a total of 90 transactions in 2018, down from 115 in 2017, according to a report (PDF) from Kaufman Hall. The firm began monitoring hospital M&A in 2000. About 20% of the acquisition deals were considered distressed transactions.

The value of those deals is increasing, with the average size of a seller by revenue has grown at a CAGR of almost 14% per year since 2008 and reached a new high of $409 million in 2018.

“That so many of 2018’s mega-mergers involve the combination of systems from different—though often contiguous—geographies signals the desire of health system leaders to expand their organizations into new markets, or to bring in a partner from an outside market,” Kaufman Hall said in the report. “For health system leaders looking for an acquisition partner from outside of their organization’s home market, considerations may include the desire to improve operations within the home market, or a need for additional capital to better compete within the home market.”

Texas led the nation for M&A last year, clocking eight hospital deals with a total value of deals estimated to be about $6.8 billion. Most notably, the report points to Baylor, Scott & White’s planned merger with Memorial Hermann will bring together two Texas-based systems and combine Dallas/Fort Worth and central Texas markets with the Houston market.

Florida had seven announced deals worth about $3.6 billion, and Pennsylvania had six deals worth about $2.2 billion.

Kaufman Hall also cited the “slow but steady movement toward population health” as a factor in the desire to increase market presence and penetration.

“Effective risk management depends on a health system’s ability to improve cost efficiencies, care efficacy, and care management across the continuum, which may require both horizontal and vertical integration to achieve,” they said.

Kaufman Hall said as new combinations and competitors appear in the healthcare market, hospitals and health systems should double down on their consumer strategy and the fight to control healthcare’s “front door.”

They should also seek opportunities to deepen growth across the spectrum of healthcare services through combinations or partnerships with other healthcare organizations.

 

 

 

 

Optum a step ahead in vertical integration frenzy

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/optum-unitedhealth-vertical-integration-walmart/520410/

Vertical integration is all the rage in healthcare these days, with Aetna, Cigna and Humana making notable plays. 

If the proposed CVS-AetnaCigna-Express Scripts and Humana-Kindred deals are cleared by regulators, the tie-ups will have to immediately face UnitedHealth Group’s Optum, which has been ahead of the curve for years and built out a robust pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) business already along with a care services unit, employing about 30,000 physicians and counting.

UnitedHealth formed Optum by combining existing pharmacy and care delivery services within the company in 2011. Michael Weissel, Group EVP at Optum, told Healthcare Dive the company began by focusing on three core trends in the industry: data analytics, value-based care and consumerism.

Since then, the company has been on an acquisition spree to position itself as a leader in integrated services.

“For the longest time, the market assumed that they were building the Optum business [to spin it out] and what is interesting in the evolution of the industry is that that combination has now set a trend,” Dave Windley, managing director at Jefferies, told Healthcare Dive.

“United has now set the industry standard or trend … to be more vertically integrated and it seems less likely now that United would spin this out … because many of their competitors are now mimicking their strategy by trying to buy into some of the same capabilities,” he said.

Weissel said Optum will continue to push on the three identified trends in the next three to five years, with plans to invest heavily in machine learning, AI and natural language processing.

The question will be whether and how the company can keep its edge.

What Optum is

Optum is a company within UnitedHealth Group, a parent of UnitedHealthcare. Optum’s sister company UnitedHealthcare is perhaps more well known within the industry and with consumers.

However, Optum, a venture that encompasses data analytics, a PBM and doctors, has been gradually building its clout at UnitedHealth Group.

In 2017, the unit accounted for 44% of UnitedHealth Group’s profits.

In 2011, UnitedHealth Group brought together three existing service lines under one master brand. Services are delivered through three main businesses within a business within a business:

  • OptumHealth – the care delivery and ambulatory care capabilities of OptumCare, as well as the care management, behavioral health, and consumer offerings of Optum;
  • OptumInsight – the data and analytics, technology services and health care operations business; and
  • OptumRx – its pharmacy benefit service.

The company focuses on five core capabilities, including data and analytics, pharmacy care services, population health, healthcare delivery and healthcare operations. Services include but are certainly not limited to OptumLabs (research), OptumIQ (data analytics), Optum360 (revenue cycle management), OptumBank (health savings account) and OptumCare (care delivery services).

The Eden Prairie, MN-headquartered company has recently expanded its care delivery services, with much of the growth coming from acquisitions. The past two years have seen Optum expand its footprint into surgical care (Surgical Care Affiliates), urgent care (MedExpress) and primary care (DaVita Medical Group).

It’s a wide pool, but the strategy affords UnitedHealth the opportunity to grab more revenue by expanding its market presence. For example, the DaVita acquisition, which is still pending, allows OptumCare to operate in 35 of 75 local care delivery markets the company has targeted for development, Andrew Hayek, OptumHealth CEO, said on an earnings call in January.

Optum’s strategy of meeting patients where they are and deploying more ambulatory, preventative care services works in concert with its sister company UnitedHealthcare’s goal of reducing high-cost, unnecessary care services, when applicable. If Optum succeeds in creating healthier populations that use lower levels of care more often, that benefits the parent company UnitedHealth Group as UnitedHealthcare spends less money and time on claims processing/payout.

The strategy has been paying off so far.

Three charts that show UnitedHealth’s financial health as it relates to Optum

Optum’s presence has grown as it has steadily increased its percentage of profits for UnitedHealth Group.

Credit: Healthcare Dive / Jeff Byers

In 2011, the first year Optum was configured as it looks today, the company contributed 14.8% of total earnings through operations to UnitedHealth Group with $1.26 billion. That’s about 29 percentage points lower than in 2017, when Optum brought in $6.7 billion in profits on $83.6 billion in revenue.

Broken down, it’s clear that pharmacy services make up the lion’s share of the company’s revenue. In 2017, OptumRx earned $63.8 billion in revenue, fulfilling 1.3 billion prescriptions. OptumRx’s contributions to the company took off in 2015 when Optum acquired pharmacy benefit manager Catamaran.

Credit: Healthcare Dive / Jeff Byers

In recent years, OptumHealth has grown due to expansion in care delivery services, including consumer engagement and behavioral and population health management. The care delivery arm served 91 million people last year, up from 60 million in 2011.

OptumInsight has grown largely due to an increase in revenue cycle management and operations services in recent years.

On Wall Street, UnitedHealth Group is performing well and has seen healthy growth since 2008. The stock peaked in January and took a dive when Amazon, J.P. Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway — industry outsiders yet financial giants — announced they would create a healthcare company.

Credit: Healthcare Dive / Jeff Byers

While these charts suggest a dominant force, the stock activity shows that investors believe there’s still more room for competition, if the new entrants play their cards right.

Where Optum could lock out and rivals could cut in on competition

UnitedHealth started down this strategic path many years ago and the rest of the industry just now seems to be catching up.

“Optum’s been the leader in showing how a managed care organization with an ambulatory care delivery platform and a pharmacy benefit manager all in house can lower or maintain and bend cost trend and then drive better market share gains in their health insurance business,” Ana Gupte, managing director of healthcare services at Leerink, told Healthcare Dive. “I think they have been the impetus in the large space for the Aetna-CVS deal.”

Because the company is multi-dimensional, Optum’s competition will be varied. If all the mergers making news — including the Walmart’s rumored buyout of Humana — close, here’s what competition could look like:

Perhaps oddly, its largest revenue contributor, OptumRx, seems to have the largest vulnerability for competition in the coming years.

Optum’s competitive advantage in the PBM space is driven largely by already realized integration. Merging data across IT systems is no easy task, and Optum has spent years harmonizing pharmacy data across platforms to assist care managers in OptumCare to see medical records for United members.

Anyone with experience implementing EHR systems can tell you such integration doesn’t happen over night.

If the Cigna-Express Scripts deal closes, the equity can compete with OptumRx, but the technology investment needed to harmonize data and embed Cigna’s service and pharmacy information into Express Scripts servers will take time, Windley said. Optum, on the other hand, has invested in the effort and integration for years.

Gupte says the encroaching organizations in the PBM space have the ability to realize the efficiencies and savings and the integrated medical that Optum has been realizing across OptumRx and the managed care organization.

Optum’s leg up in PBM space could last two to three years over the competition, she said.

On the care delivery side, OptumHealth has been purchasing large physician groups for a variety of services. There are only so many large physician groups putting themselves on the market, and Optum has been making bids for them.

There’s still a bit of white space to fill in its 75 target markets, but analysts note Optum may have the competition on lock in this space

Even if CVS-Aetna closes, OptumCare is a $12 billion business with many urgent and surgery care access points. If CVS-Aetna is finalized, the company will have about 1,100 MinuteClinics capable of realizing efficiencies with Aetna, but, as Windley notes, they likely won’t have primary care or surgery care elements.

There’s also a lot of time and capital needed for building out and retrofitting retail space to medical areas.

On the surgical care services, “I don’t see either Cigna, Aetna or Humana getting into that business,” Gupte said. “That will be one element of their footprint on care delivery that will be unique and differentiated for them.”

Urgent care has the potential for outsider competition, she added. However, Optum is using its MedExpress business to treat higher acuity conditions and have an ER doctor on staff in each center. Compared to the typical types of conditions treated in retail clinics or those that would be feasible over time, Gupte believes services that could be seen in CVS or Walmart would be lower acuity, chronic care management services.

“[Optum has] been so proactive and so strategic I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of reactive catchup they have to do,” Gupte said. “I think it’s going to be hard for the other entities to play catch up, outside of the PBM.”

One potential issue will be harmonizing the disparate businesses so patients can be effectively managed across the various organizations, Trevor Price, founder and CEO of Oxean Partners, told Healthcare Dive.

“I think the biggest challenge for Optum is operationalizing the combined platform,” Price said. “The biggest question is do they continue to operate as individual businesses or do they merge into one.”

What’s next?

Optum will continue to explore ground in the three core trends it has identified.

Out of the three, consumerism has the longest path to maturity in healthcare, Weissel said, adding he believes consumerism is going to change healthcare more than any other trend over the next decade.

“There is a wave coming, and this expectation that we will move there,” he said. “Increasingly, this aging of people who become very comfortable in a different modality is going to tip the balance with how people will want to interact with healthcare. I know there’s pent up demand already.”

That means the company is putting bets into the marketplace around consumer building and segmentation models as well as thinking about how to connect data to allow patients to schedule appointments, view health records, sign up for insurance, search for providers or renew prescriptions online.

Consumer-centric projects currently underway include digital weight loss programs — including streaming fitness classes — and maternity programs to track pregnancy. The company is also experimenting with remote patient monitoring to understand the impacts on those with heart disease or asthma and to search for service opportunities.

Optum will pursue investments as well as acquisitions to push into the consumer space.

“When it comes to acquisitions to Optum overall, we’re always in the marketplace looking to extend our capabilities, to extend our reach in the care management space to fill in holes or gaps that we have,” Weissel said. “That’s a constant process in our enterprise.”