Hospital Mergers Improve Health? Evidence Shows the Opposite

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Many things affect your health. Genetics. Lifestyle. Modern medicine. The environment in which you live and work.

But although we rarely consider it, the degree of competition among health care organizations does so as well.

Markets for both hospitals and physicians have become more concentrated in recent years. Although higher prices are the consequences most often discussed, such consolidation can also result in worse health care. Studies show that rates of mortality and of major health setbacks grow when competition falls.

This runs counter to claims some in the health care industry have made in favor of mergers. By harnessing economies of scale and scope, they’ve argued, larger organizations can offer better care at lower costs.

In one recent example, two Texas health systems — Baylor Scott & White, and Memorial Hermann Health System — sought to merge, forming a 68-hospital system. The systems have since abandoned the plan, but not before Jim Hinton, Baylor Scott & White’s chief executive, told The Wall Street Journal that “the end, the more important end, is to improve care.”

Yet Martin Gaynor, a Carnegie Mellon University economist who been an author of several reviews exploring the consequences of hospital consolidation, said that “evidence from three decades of hospital mergers does not support the claim that consolidation improves quality.” This is especially true when government constrains prices, as is the case for Medicare in the United States and Britain’s National Health Service.

“When prices are set by the government, hospitals don’t compete on price; they compete on quality,” Mr. Gaynor said. But this doesn’t happen in markets that are highly consolidated.

In 2006, the National Health Service introduced a policy that increased competition among hospitals. When recommending hospital care, it required general practitioners to provide patients with five options, as well as quality data for each. Because hospital payments are fixed by the government — whichever hospital a patient chooses gets the payment for care provided to that patient — hospitals ended up competing on quality.

Mr. Gaynor was an author of a study showing that consequences of this policy included shorter hospital stays and lower mortality. According to the study, for every decrease of 10 percentage points in hospital market concentration, 30-day mortality for heart attacks fell nearly 3 percent.

Another study found that hospital competition in the N.H.S. decreased heart attack mortality, and several studies of Medicare also found that hospital competition results in lower rates of mortality from heart attacks and pneumonia.

Another piece of evidence in the competition-quality connection comes from other types of health care providers, including doctors. Recently, investigators from the Federal Trade Commission examined what happens when cardiologists team up into larger groups. The study, published in Health Services Research, focused on the health care outcomes of about two million Medicare beneficiaries who had been treated for hypertension, for a cardiac ailment or for a heart attack from 2005 to 2012.

The study found that when cardiology markets are more concentrated, these kinds of patients are more likely to have heart attacks, visit the emergency department, be readmitted to the hospital or die. These effects of market concentration are large.

To illustrate, consider a cardiology market with five practices in which one becomes more dominant — going from just below a 40 percent market share to a 60 percent market share (with the rest of the market split equally across the other four practices). The study found that the chance of having a heart attack would go up 5 to 7 percent as the largest cardiology practice became more dominant. The chance of visiting the emergency department, being readmitted to the hospital or dying would go up similarly.

The study also found that greater market concentration led to higher spending. And a different study of family doctors in England found that quality and patient satisfaction increased with competition.

For many goods and services, Americans are comfortable with the idea that competition leads to lower prices and better quality. But we often think of health care as different — that it somehow shouldn’t be “market based.”

What the research shows, though, is that there are lots of ways markets can function, with more or less government involvement. Even when the government is highly involved, as is the case with the British National Health Service or American Medicare, competition is a valuable tool that can drive health care toward greater value.

 

 

As small hospitals ally with big ones, do patients benefit?

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/as-small-hospitals-ally-with-big-ones-do-patients-benefit/2019/01/25/ccd50f2c-0a14-11e9-88e3-989a3e456820_story.html?utm_term=.44da63db320e

After seven years of a vigorous fight, Jim Hart worried he was running out of options.

Diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 60, Hart had undergone virtually every treatment — surgery, radiation and hormones — to eradicate it. But a blood test showed that his level of prostate-specific antigen, which should have been undetectable, kept rising ominously. And doctors couldn’t determine where the residual cancer was lurking.

“I didn’t like the sound of that,” said Hart, a retired international oil specialist for the federal government. “I wanted it gone,” he added, especially after learning that he had inherited the BRCA2 gene, making him vulnerable to other cancers.

So when Andrew Joel, Hart’s longtime urologist at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, mentioned the hospital’s membership in the Mayo Clinic Care Network and suggested consulting specialists at the Rochester, Minn., hospital for a second opinion, Hart enthusiastically agreed.

A Mayo immunologist told Joel about a new PET scan, not then available in the Washington area, that can detect tiny cancer hot spots. Hart flew to Mayo for the scan, which found cancer cells in one lymph node in his pelvis. He underwent chemotherapy at Virginia Hospital Center and five weeks of radiation at the Mayo Clinic. Since September 2016, there has been no detectable cancer.

“This collaboration was sort of a magic process,” Hart said. “I feel very fortunate.”

‘Benefit by association’

Hart’s experience showcases the promise of a much-touted but little understood collaboration in health care: alliances between community hospitals and some of the nation’s biggest and most respected institutions.

For prospective patients, it can be hard to assess what these relationships actually mean — and whether they matter.

Leah Binder, president and chief executive of the Leapfrog Group, a Washington-based patient safety organization that grades hospitals based on data involving medical errors and best practices, cautions that affiliation with a famous name is not a guarantee of quality.

“Brand names don’t always signify the highest quality of care,” she said. “And hospitals are really complicated places.”

Affiliation agreements are “essentially benefit by association, ” said Gerard Anderson, a professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “In some cases it’s purely branding and in other cases it’s a deep association.”

A key question is “how often does the community hospital interact with the flagship hospital? If it’s once a week, that’s one thing. If it’s almost never, that’s another,” Anderson said.

Feeling ‘plugged in’

To expand their reach, flagship hospitals including Mayo, the Cleveland Clinic and Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center have signed affiliation agreements with smaller hospitals around the country. These agreements, which can involve different levels of clinical integration, typically grant community hospitals access to experts and specialized services at the larger hospitals while allowing them to remain independently owned and operated. For community hospitals, a primary goal of the brand name affiliation is stemming the loss of patients to local competitors.

In return, large hospitals receive new sources of patients for clinical trials and for the highly specialized services that distinguish these “destination medicine” sites. Affiliations also boost their name recognition — all without having to establish a physical presence.

In some cases, large hospital systems have opted for a different approach, largely involving acquisition. Johns Hopkins acquired Sibley Memorial and Suburban hospitals in the Washington area, along with All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla. The latter was re-christened Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in 2016.

New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center has embraced a hybrid strategy. It operates a ring of facilities surrounding Manhattan and has forged alliances with three partners in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Florida.

“Every one of these models is different,” said Ben Umansky, managing director for research at the Advisory Board, a Washington-based consulting firm.

Local hospitals, he said, particularly those operating “in the shadows of giants,” may be better able to retain patients “by getting a name brand on their door. . . . There is a sense that they are plugged in.” (Virginia Hospital Center, for example, competes with Hopkins, MedStar Washington Hospital Center, which has an alliance with the Cleveland Clinic, and the Northern Virginia-based Inova system.)

Doctors can obtain speedy second opinions for their patients and streamline visits for those with complex or unusual medical needs, processes that can be daunting and difficult without connections.

Michael Kupferman, senior vice president of the MD Anderson Cancer Network, said it seeks to “elevate the quality of cancer care” by forming partnerships with “high-quality [hospitals] to keep patients at home and provide the imprimatur of MD Anderson.”

Virginia Hospital Center’s association with Mayo is “not just a branding affiliation, it’s a deep clinical affiliation,” said Jeffrey DiLisi, senior vice president and chief medical officer at the Arlington facility.

Despite extensive marketing, many patients seem unaware of the linkage. “We still think a lot about ‘How do we communicate this?’ ” DiLisi said.

Although affiliation agreements differ, many involve payment of an annual fee by smaller hospitals. Officials at Mayo and MD Anderson declined to reveal the amount, as did executives at several affiliates. Contracts with Mayo must be renewed annually, while some with MD Anderson exceed five years.

Acceptance is preceded by site visits and vetting of the community hospitals’ staff and operations. Strict guidelines control use of the flagship name.

“It is not the Mayo Clinic,” said David Hayes, medical director of the Mayo Clinic Care Network, which was launched in 2011. “It is a Mayo clinic affiliate.”

Of the 250 U.S. hospitals or health systems that have expressed serious interest in joining Mayo’s network, 34 have become members.

For patients considering a hospital that has such an affiliation, Binder advises checking ratings from a variety of sources, among them Leapfrog, Medicare, and Consumer Reports, and not just relying on reputation.

“In theory, it can be very helpful,” Binder said of such alliances. “The problem is that theory and reality don’t always come together in health care.”

Case in point: Hopkins’s All Children’s has been besieged by recent reports of catastrophic surgical injuries and errors and a spike in deaths among pediatric heart patients since Hopkins took over. Hopkins’s chief executive has apologized, more than a half-dozen top executives have resigned and Hopkins recently hired a former federal prosecutor to conduct a review of what went wrong.

“For me and my family, I always look at the data,” Binder said. “Nothing else matters if you’re not taken care of in a hospital, or you have the best surgeon in the world and die from an infection.”

 

 

 

Patient Perception of Hospital Affiliations Influences Care

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Hospital affiliation and healthcare mergers

About 85 percent of individuals said they would forgo local care and travel one hour based on hospital affiliation with a top-ranked system, a study reveals.

Hospital affiliations can influence patient volume, a new study by the Yale Cancer Center shows.

The study recently published in the journal Annals of Surgical Oncology revealed that 85 percent of individuals about to receive complex cancer surgery would travel one hour away to receive care at a top-ranked hospital specializing in cancer care. The respondents said they would travel to a top-ranked affiliated hospital rather than go to their local hospital.

However, almost one-third of the respondents (31 percent) would change their mind about where to seek care if their local hospital was affiliated with a top-ranked hospital or system.

Researchers at Yale Cancer Center explained that the trend in where patients seek care indicated that individuals believe that hospital affiliation with top-rank hospitals means that both hospitals – the top-ranked and affiliate organizations – offer similar quality care. And about one-half of the 1,000 individuals surveyed said that safety and quality of care were identical at both the top=ranked and affiliate hospitals.

But the perception that top-ranked hospitals and their affiliates offer the same level of care quality is not necessarily true, researchers warned.

“There is no evidence that the care is the same, and no regulation that governs the advertising and marketing of these affiliations,” explained the study’s senior author, Daniel J. Boffa, MD, professor of surgery (thoracic surgery), program leader of the Thoracic Oncology Program at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale Cancer Center, and investigator at Yale’s Cancer Outcomes, Public Policy, and Effectiveness Research Center (COPPER).

Boffa and his colleagues further investigated how brand-sharing, like hospital affiliations, via the internet impact an individual’s healthcare decision-making process. Researchers asked the over 1,000 individuals about their hospital preferences for complex cancer surgery between large top-ranked organizations and small, local hospitals.

When researchers asked the respondents to compare top-ranked and small hospitals, the survey showed:

  • 47 percent of respondents said that surgical safety, 66 percent felt that guideline compliance, and 53 percent reported cure rates would be the same at both hospitals
  • 47 percent of respondents thought that the surgical care at a top-ranked hospital and its affiliates would be the same across all four safety features (rate of complications, readmissions rate, length of stay, and postoperative mortality rate)
  • 44 percent of respondents thought the affiliated hospital would be the same in terms of surgical quality standards, including surgical cure rate

“It is completely understandable that the public would make assumptions that hospitals advertising the same name offer the same care,” Boffa stated in a press release. “Some hospital advertising could be even be interpreted as encouraging this line of thinking.”

“The truth is that we do not yet know if care received at an affiliated hospital is the same as care at the brand name center, whether that is for complex cancer care or other procedures,” he continued. “Currently hospitals are free to share their brand with almost any hospital they choose. The hospitals are not required to inform patients of any differences in the quality or safety of care provided by the different hospitals within a network. This study suggests that the public is making assumptions in care equality that are potentially influencing their choice for hospital care.”

The perception about hospital affiliations could be problematic for the healthcare industry as providers rapidly consolidate.

Healthcare organizations announced 115 merger and acquisition transactions in 2017, consulting firm Kaufman Hall reported. And that was the highest number of transactions in recent history, the firm pointed out.

2018 is likely to meet or even exceed the number of healthcare mergers and acquisitions, healthcare experts predict. For example, recent data from Kaufman Hall show 255 healthcare merger and acquisition deals announced in the second quarter of 2018.

Many leaders of healthcare organizations engaging in a merger and/or acquisition claim the deal will improve care quality while lowering costs for patients.

But Boffa et al. pointed out that care quality may not necessarily be the same across affiliate hospitals, creating confusion among individuals seeking high-quality, low-cost care.

“I see these findings as a wake-up call to the medical community to investigate if there are important differences in care between affiliated hospitals and their mother ship, as well as a wake-up call to name brand medical centers to take ownership for outcomes at hospitals that share their names,” Boffa stated.

“What is known is that the issue of where to receive complex cancer care is seen as crucial to patient outcome,” he added. “Studies have found that the quality and safety of such complex cancer care is particularly prone to outcome variability across hospitals, and the risk of dying after an operation can be up to four times greater at hospitals that perform procedures infrequently. Yet other data suggests that, in general, outcomes at top-ranked hospitals can vary widely, and are not always superior to non-ranked hospitals.”

Hospital affiliations, however, do have the potential to increase patient access to high quality care, the researchers elaborated. But stakeholders need to provide patients with quality of care data to help them make informed healthcare decisions.

“To our knowledge, this is the first survey to focus on the difference in the public’s perception of care between these two environments, but it is likely that affiliation status and co-branding has already impacted the distribution of patients across the healthcare spectrum,” Boffa said. “The development of affiliations could, potentially, bring cancer expertise closer to patients— but without facts that is just a theory.”

 

California approves CVS, Aetna merger contingent upon premium promise and $240 million investment

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New York State still needs to clear the $69 billion deal that CVS said it expects to close by Thanksgiving.

A California regulator has cleared the way for CVS Health to acquire Aetna.

Thursday, the California Department of Managed Health Care Director Shelley Rouillard approved the acquisition on the promise that CVS and Aetna agree not to increase premiums as a result of acquisition costs. The agreement states premium rate increases overall would be kept to a minimum.

The plans also agree to invest close to $240 million in California’s healthcare delivery system, according to the press release from the Department of Managed Healthcare.

The money includes $166 million for state healthcare infrastructure and employment, such as building and improving facilities and supporting jobs in Fresno and Walnut Creek.

Another $22.8 million would go to increase the number of healthcare providers in underrepresented communities by funding scholarships and loan repayment programs.

An estimated $22.5 million would support joint ventures and accountable care organizations in the delivery of coordinated and value-based care.

WHY THIS MATTERS

California represents one of the last hurdles for the $69 billion merger that CVS has said it expects to see closed by Thanksgiving.

The New York State Department of Financial Services has yet to issue a decision after holding an October 18 hearing on the application.

THE TREND

The Department of Justice has already said that there are no barriers to the companies completing the merger, once CVS and Aetna sell Aetna’s Medicare Part D plans. Aetna is divesting the prescription drug plans to WellCare.

California held a public meeting on the merger on May 2.

ON THE RECORD

“Our primary focus in reviewing a health plan merger is to ensure compliance with the strong consumer protections and financial solvency requirements in state law,” Rouillard said. “The department thoroughly examined this merger and determined enrollees will have continued access to appropriate healthcare services and also imposed conditions that will help increase access and quality of care, remove barriers to care and improve health outcomes.”

 

 

The Disappearing Doctor: How Mega-Mergers Are Changing the Business of Medical Care

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Is the doctor in?

In this new medical age of urgent care centers and retail clinics, that’s not a simple question. Nor does it have a simple answer, as primary care doctors become increasingly scarce.

“You call the doctor’s office to book an appointment,” said Matt Feit, a 45-year-old screenwriter in Los Angeles who visited an urgent care center eight times last year. “They’re only open Monday through Friday from these hours to those hours, and, generally, they’re not the hours I’m free or I have to take time off from my job.

“I can go just about anytime to urgent care,” he continued, “and my co-pay is exactly the same as if I went to my primary doctor.”

That’s one reason big players like CVS Health, the drugstore chain, and most recently Walmart, the giant retailer, are eyeing deals with Aetna and Humana, respectively, to use their stores to deliver medical care.

People are flocking to retail clinics and urgent care centers in strip malls or shopping centers, where simple health needs can usually be tended to by health professionals like nurse practitioners or physician assistants much more cheaply than in a doctor’s office. Some 12,000 are already scattered across the country, according to Merchant Medicine, a consulting firm.

On the other side, office visits to primary care doctors declined 18 percent from 2012 to 2016, even as visits to specialists increased, insurance data analyzed by the Health Care Cost Institute shows.

There’s little doubt that the front line of medicine — the traditional family or primary care doctor — has been under siege for years. Long hours and low pay have transformed pediatric or family practices into unattractive options for many aspiring physicians.

And the relationship between patients and doctors has radically changed. Apart from true emergency situations, patients’ expectations now reflect the larger 24/7 insta-culture of wanting everything now. When Dr. Carl Olden began watching patients turn to urgent care centers opening around him in Yakima, Wash., he and his partners decided to fight back.

They set up similar clinics three years ago, including one right across the street from their main office in a shopping center.

The practice not only was able to retain its patients, but then could access electronic health records for those off-site visits, avoiding a bad drug interaction or other problems, said Dr. Olden, who has been a doctor for 34 years.

“And we’ve had some folks come into the clinics who don’t have their own primary care physicians,” he said. “So we’ve been able to move them into our practice.”

By opening clinics to compete with urgent care centers, Dr. Carl Olden’s practice in Yakima, Wash., was able to retain its patients and move some walk-ins into the fold.
Merger Maneuvers

The new deals involving major corporations loom over doctors’ livelihoods, intensifying pressure on small practices and pushing them closer to extinction.

The latest involves Walmart and Humana, a large insurer with a sizable business offering private Medicare plans. While their talks are in the early stages, one potential partnership being discussed would center on using the retailer’s stores and expanding its existing 19 clinics for one-stop medical care. Walmart stores already offer pharmacy services and attract older people.

In addition, the proposed $69 billion merger between CVS Health, which operates 1,100 MinuteClinics, and Aetna, the giant insurer, would expand the customer bases of both. The deal is viewed as a direct response to moves by a rival insurer, UnitedHealth Group, which employs more than 30,000 physicians and operates one of the country’s largest urgent-care groups, MedExpress, as well as a big chain of free-standing surgery centers.

While both CVS and UnitedHealth have large pharmacy benefits businesses that would reap considerable rewards from the stream of prescriptions generated by the doctors at these facilities, the companies are also intent on managing what type of care patients get and where they go for it. And the wealth of data mined from consolidation would provide the companies with a map for steering people one way or another.

On top of these corporate partnerships, Amazon, JP Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway decided to join forces to develop some sort of health care strategy for their employees, expressing frustration with the current state of medical care. Their announcement, and Amazon’s recent forays into these fields, are rattling everyone from major hospital networks to pharmacists.

Doctors, too, are watching the evolution warily.

“With all of these deals, there is so much we don’t know,” said Dr. Michael Munger, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “Are Aetna patients going to be mandated to go to a CVS MinuteClinic?”

Dr. Susan Kressly, a pediatrician in Warrington, Pa., has watched patients leave. Parents who once brought their children to her to treat an ear infection or check for strep, services whose profits helped offset some of the treatments she offered, are now visiting the retail clinics or urgent care centers.

What is worse, some patients haven’t been getting the right care. “Some of the patients with coughs were being treated with codeine-based medicines, which is not appropriate at all for this age group,” Dr. Kressly said.

Even doctors unfazed by patients going elsewhere at night or on weekends are nervous about the entry of the corporate behemoths.

“I can’t advertise on NBC,” said Dr. Shawn Purifoy, who practices family medicine in Malvern, Ark. “CVS can.”

Nurse practitioners allow Dr. Purifoy to offer more same-day appointments; he and two other practices in town take turns covering emergency phone calls at night.

And doctors keep facing new waves of competition. In California, Apple recently decided to open up its own clinics to treat employees. Other companies are offering their workers the option of seeking medical care via their cellphones. Investors are also pouring money into businesses aiming to create new ways of providing primary care by relying more heavily on technology.

Dr. Olden’s office door. In the age of urgent care centers and consolidations, the traditional doctor is being pushed closer to extinction.CreditDavid Ryder for The New York Times

Dr. Mark J. Werner, a consultant for the Chartis Group, which advises medical practices, emphasized that convenience of care didn’t equal quality or, for that matter, less expensive care.

“None of the research has shown any of these approaches to delivering care has meaningfully addressed cost,” Dr. Werner said.

Critics of retail clinics argue that patients are given short shrift by health professionals unfamiliar with their history, and may be given unnecessary prescriptions. But researchers say neither has been proved in studies.

“The quality of care that you see at a retail clinic is equal or superior to what we see in a doctor’s office or emergency department,” said Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, an associate professor of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School, who has researched the retail clinics. “And while there is a worry that they will prescribe antibiotics to everybody, we see equal rates occurring between the clinics and doctor’s offices.”

Still, while the retail clinics over all charge less, particularly compared with emergency rooms, they may increase overall health care spending. Consumers who not long ago would have taken a cough drop or gargled with saltwater to soothe a sore throat now pop into their nearby retail clinic for a strep test.

Frustration with the nation’s health care system has fueled a lot of the recent partnerships. Giant companies are already signaling a desire to tackle complex care for people with a chronic health condition like diabetes or asthma.

“We’re evolving the retail clinic concept,” said Dr. Troyen A. Brennan, the chief medical officer for CVS. The company hopes its proposed merger with Aetna will allow it to transform its current clinics, where a nurse practitioner might offer a flu shot, into a place where patients can have their conditions monitored. “It requires new and different work by the nurse practitioners,” he said.

Dr. Brennan said CVS was not looking to replace patients’ primary care doctors. “We’re not trying to buy up an entire layer of primary care,” he said.

But people will have the option of using the retail clinic to make sure their hypertension or diabetes is well controlled, with tests and counseling provided as well as medications. The goal is to reduce the cost of care for what would otherwise be very expensive conditions, Dr. Brennan said.

If the company’s merger with Aetna goes through, CVS will initially expand in locations where Aetna has a significant number of customers who could readily go to CVS, Dr. Brennan said.

UnitedHealth has also been aggressively making inroads, adding a large medical practice in December and roughly doubling the number of areas where its OptumCare doctors will be to 75 markets in the United States. It is also experimenting with putting its MedExpress urgent care clinics into Walgreens stores.

Big hospital groups are also eroding primary care practices: They employed 43 percent of the nation’s primary care doctors in 2016, up from 23 percent in 2010. They are also aggressively opening up their own urgent care centers, in part to try to ensure a steady flow of patients to their facilities.

One Medical has centers in eight cities with 400 providers, making it one of the nation’s largest independent groups. 

HCA Healthcare, the for-profit hospital chain, doubled its number of urgent care centers last year to about 100, according to Merchant Medicine. GoHealth Urgent Care has teamed up with major health systems like Northwell Health in New York and Dignity Health in San Francisco, to open up about 80 centers.

“There is huge consolidation in the market right now,” said Dr. Jeffrey Le Benger, the chief executive of Summit Medical Group, a large independent physician group in New Jersey. “Everyone is fighting for the primary care patient.” He, too, has opened up urgent care centers, which he describes as a “loss leader,” unprofitable but critical to managing patients.

Eva Palmer, 22, of Washington, D.C., sought out One Medical, a venture-backed practice that is one of the nation’s largest independent groups, when she couldn’t get in to see a primary care doctor, even when she became ill. After paying the annual fee of about $200, she was able to make an appointment to get treatment for strep throat and pneumonia.

“In 15 minutes, I was able to get the prescriptions I needed — it was awesome,” Ms. Palmer said.

Patients also have the option of getting a virtual consultation at any time.

By using sophisticated computer systems, One Medical, which employs 400 doctors and health staff members in eight major cities, allows its physicians to spend a half-hour with every patient.

Dr. Navya Mysore joined One Medical after working for a large New York health system, where “there was a lot of bureaucracy,” she said. She now has more freedom to practice medicine the way she wants and focus more on preventive health, she said.

By being so readily available, One Medical can reduce visits to an emergency room or an urgent care center, said Dr. Jeff Dobro, the company’s chief medical officer.

As primary care doctors become an “increasingly endangered species, it is very hard to practice like this,” he said.

But more traditional doctors like Dr. Purifoy stress the importance of continuity of care. “It takes a long time to gain the trust of the patient,” he said. He is working with Aledade, another company focused on reinventing primary care, to make his practice more competitive.

One longtime patient, Billy Ray Smith, 70, learned that he needed cardiac bypass surgery even though he had no symptoms. He credits Dr. Purifoy with urging him to get a stress test.

“If he hadn’t insisted,” Mr. Smith said, “it would have been all over for me.” Dr. Purifoy’s nurse routinely checks on him, and if he needs an appointment, he can usually see the doctor that day or the next.

“I trust him 100 percent on what he says and what he does,” Mr. Smith said.

Those relationships take time and follow-up. “It’s not something I can do in a minute,” Dr. Purifoy said. “You’re never going to get that at a MedExpress.”

 

 

IN SEARCH OF INSURANCE SAVINGS, CONSUMERS CAN GET UNWITTINGLY WEDGED INTO NARROW-NETWORK PLANS

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Wedged Into Narrow-Network Plans

Despite federal rules requiring plans to keep up-to-date directories, consumers may lack access to clear information about which health plans have ‘narrow networks’ of providers or which hospitals and doctors are in or out of an insurer’s network.

As a breast cancer survivor, Donna Catanuchi said she knows she can’t go without health insurance. But her monthly premium of $855 was too high to afford.

“It was my biggest expense and killing me,” said Catanuchi, 58, of Mullica Hill, N.J.

A “navigator” who helps people find coverage through the Affordable Care Act found a solution. But it required Catanuchi, who works part time cleaning offices, to switch to a less comprehensive plan, change doctors, drive farther to her appointments and pay $110 a visit out-of-pocket — or about three times what she was paying for her follow-up cancer care.

She now pays $40 a month for coverage, after she qualified for a substantial government subsidy.

Catanuchi’s switch to a more affordable but restrictive plan reflects a broad trend in insurance plan design over the past few years. The cheaper plans offer far narrower networks of doctors and hospitals and less coverage of out-of-network care. But many consumers are overwhelmed or unaware of the trade-offs they entail, insurance commissioners and policy experts say.

With enrollment for ACA health plans beginning Nov. 1, they worry that consumers too often lack access to clear information about which health plans have “narrow networks” of medical providers or which hospitals and doctors are in or out of an insurer’s network, despite federal rules requiring plans to keep up-to-date directories.

“It’s very frustrating for consumers,” said Betsy Imholz, who represents the advocacy group Consumers Union at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. “Health plan provider directories are often inaccurate, and doctors are dropping in and out all the time.”

These more restrictive plans expose people to larger out-of-pocket costs, less access to out-of-network specialists and hospitals, and “surprise” medical bills from unforeseen out-of-network care.

More than 14 million people buy health insurance on the individual market — largely through the ACA exchanges, and they will be shopping anew this coming month.

TREND APPEARS TO BE SLOWING

For 2018, 73 percent of plans offered through the exchanges were either health maintenance organizations (HMOs) or exclusive provider organizations (EPOs), up from 54 percent in 2015.

Both have more restrictive networks and offer less out-of-network coverage compared with preferred provider organizations (PPOs), which represented 21 percent of health plans offered through the ACA exchanges in 2018, according to Avalere, a health research firm in Washington, D.C.

PPOs typically provide easier access to out-of-network specialists and facilities, and partial — sometimes even generous — payment for such services.

Measured another way, the number of ACA plans offering any out-of-network coverage declined to 29 percent in 2018 from 58 percent in 2015, according to a recent analysis by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

For example, in California, HMO and EPO enrollment through Covered California, the state’s exchange, grew from 46 percent in 2016 to 70 percent in 2018, officials there said. Over the same period, PPO enrollment declined from 54 percent to 30 percent.

In contrast, PPOs have long been and remain the dominant type of health plan offered by employers nationwide. Forty-nine percent of the 152 million people and their dependents who were covered through work in 2018 were enrolled in a PPO-type plan. Only 16 percent were in HMOs, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s annual survey of employment-based health insurance.

The good news for people buying health insurance on their own is that the trend toward narrow networks appears to be slowing.

“When premiums shot up over the past few years, insurers shifted to more restrictive plans with smaller provider networks to try and lower costs and premiums,” said Chris Sloan, a director at Avalere. “With premium increases slowing, at least for now, that could stabilize.”

Some research supports this prediction. Daniel Polsky, a health economist at the University of Pennsylvania, found that the number of ACA plans nationwide with narrow physician networks declined from 25 percent in 2016 to 21 percent in 2017.

Polsky is completing an analysis of 2018 plans and expects the percent of narrow network plans to remain “relatively constant” for this year and into 2019.

“Fewer insurers are exiting the marketplace, and there’s less churn in the plans being offered,” said Polsky. “That’s good news for consumers.”

Insurers may still be contracting with fewer hospitals, however, to constrain costs in that expensive arena of care, according to a report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. It found that 53 percent of plans had narrow hospital networks in 2017, up from 48 percent in 2014.

“Narrow networks are a trade-off,” said Paul Ginsburg, a health care economist at the Brookings Institution. “They can be successful when done well. At a time when we need to find ways to control rising health care costs, narrow networks are one legitimate strategy.”

Ginsburg also notes that there’s no evidence to date that the quality of care is any less in narrow versus broader networks, or that people are being denied access to needed care.

Mike Kreidler, Washington state’s insurance commissioner, said ACA insurers in that state “are figuring out they can’t get away with provider networks that are inadequate to meet people’s needs.”

“People have voted with their feet, moving to more affordable choices like HMOs but they won’t tolerate draconian restrictions,” Kreidler said.

The state is stepping in, too. In December 2017, Kreidler fined one insurer — Coordinated Care — $1.5 million for failing to maintain an adequate network of doctors. The state suspended $1 million of the fine if the insurer had no further violations. In March 2018, the plan was docked another $100,000 for similar gaps, especially a paucity of specialists in immunology, dermatology and rheumatology. The $900,000 in potential fines continues to hang over the company’s head.

Centene Corp, which owns Coordinated Care, has pledged to improve its network.

Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner Jessica Altman said she expects residents buying insurance in the individual marketplace for 2019 to have a wider choice of providers in their networks.

“We think and hope insurers are gradually building more stable networks of providers,” said Altman.

NEW STATE LAWS

Bad publicity and recent state laws are pushing insurers to modify their practices and shore up their networks.

About 20 states now have laws restricting surprise bills or balance billing, or which mandate mediation over disputed medical bills, especially those stemming from emergency care.

Even more have rules on maintaining accurate, up-to-date provider directories.

The problem is the laws vary widely in the degree to which they “truly protect consumers,” said Claire McAndrew, a health policy analyst at Families USA, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C. “It’s a patchwork system with some strong consumer protections and a lot of weaker ones.”

“Some states don’t have the resources to enforce rules in this area,” said Justin Giovannelli, a researcher at the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University. “That takes us backward in assuring consumers get coverage that meets their needs.”

 

 

10 thoughts on the state of healthcare from Scott Becker

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/hospital-management-administration/10-thoughts-on-the-state-of-healthcare-from-scott-becker.html

1. Healthcare, given that we have 325 million-plus people in the U.S. with an aging and growing population that is living longer, is a very complex problem.

2. When I hear any executive, technology person or sales person look at an audience and say, “If everyone would just use this type of coaching app for diabetes or behavioral health, we would cut billions of dollars in costs,” I cringe, scoff, laugh and tend to get angry. I recently heard this in a speech I listened to.

3. Healthcare at its core is really taking care of individual patients. I see the theories behind population health and preventive health but I’m skeptical that it’s a fix-all.

4. When people say there should be no fee for service, I tend to think they’re representing some constituency. I assume at some level someone will still need to get paid to do something.

5. Hospitals and physicians and many providers will struggle as they become more reliant on governmental pay and as commercial patients are siphoned off. Government reimbursements will soften.

6. I’m not so dumb as to not see the irony in the campaign signs that said “get the government’s hands off my Medicare.”

7. Notwithstanding No. 6, whenever the government does place fingers on the scale, they are often wrong, and it often has massive unintended consequences.

8. The system costs with 325 million-plus people in the U.S. are crazy and insurance costs per family are insane.

9. Both parties are tone deaf as to the needs of the American people. Simply stated people that are poor need healthcare, and people that aren’t poor need affordable healthcare. These people are both Republicans and Democrats.

10. Given the quasi-monopolies of insurance companies in certain areas and the lack of insurance options, it’s likely we will need some sort of public option at some point.