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.”

 

 

Hospital executives believe Amazon can deliver on its hype as a healthcare disrupter

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/tech/provider-executives-survey-amazon-ceos-reaction-data-apple-google-telemedicine-mergers?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTjJRMlpERTBObU0yWldOaiIsInQiOiJPMDVjRGNQVzcxMjIzOGt1ZTZva0R2YU1PXC9mYkczVEtYVHNHWmZzSHc1TjU1RGRZZ1o4VVprZStEV3R3VWdXWFwvQlRoYVg4cGpzakZIOFFkMkthRnVPbVwvNEUwQ3ptOVozRGQ0U3IyVDFENENmZTErMjc3TDhRYlwvaUlrT1oxSWgifQ%3D%3D&mrkid=959610

Out of all the technology giants with ambitions in healthcare, hospital executives have overwhelmingly put their faith in Amazon, according to a new survey.

A full 59% of executives say Amazon will have the biggest impact, according to the survey by Reaction Data. Respondents cited resources available to the retail and technology behemoth, the company’s current influence and name recognition.

Comparatively, 14% said Apple, with its foray into EHRs, would be the most influential, followed by Google at 8% and Microsoft at 7%

Among healthcare CEOs—which accounted for 26 of the survey’s 97 respondents—75% said Amazon would make the biggest impact.

About 80% of survey respondents were from the C-suite, including chief nursing officers, chief financial officers and chief information officers. 

While Amazon alone may be generating significant excitement in boardrooms, a previous survey by HealthEdge shows consumers are largely skeptical about Amazon’s partnership with JPMorgan and Berkshire Hathaway.

Amazon’s push into healthcare “has been a shot across the bow for the entire industry,” Rita Numerof, Ph.D., president of Numerof & Associates told FierceHealthcare. The company’s consistent and deliberate investments indicate they are serious about making substantial changes within the industry.

“Amazon is known for its relentless focus on the consumer and its ability to use data systematically to identify and meet unmet needs in an accessible manner,” she said. “Unfortunately, access, consumer engagement, and segmentation haven’t been the hallmark of healthcare delivery.”

Executives were also bullish on telemedicine, with 29% saying the technology would have the biggest impact on healthcare, followed by artificial intelligence at 20%. That’s less surprising given that nearly 75% of respondents were already using telehealth in some way.However, 51% of respondents said telemedicine is revenue neutral, and key focus areas were split equally around rural patients, follow-up care and managing specific populations.

 

 

 

CVS merger with Aetna: Health care cure or curse?

https://theconversation.com/cvs-merger-with-aetna-health-care-cure-or-curse-88670?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20December%206%202017%20-%2089557547&utm_content=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20December%206%202017%20-%2089557547+CID_461096d86af0ad8c2eedceabf8b8a42f&utm_source=campaign_monitor_us&utm_term=CVS%20merger%20with%20Aetna%20Health%20care%20cure%20or%20curse

The announcement that CVS plans to acquire Aetna for US$69 billion raises hope and concerns.

The transaction would create a new health care giant. Aetna is the third-largest health insurer in the United States, insuring about 46.7 millionpeople.

CVS operates 9,700 pharmacies and 1,000 MinuteClinics. A decade ago, it also purchased Caremark and now operates CVS/Caremark, a pharmacy benefits manager, a type of business that administers drug benefit programs for health plans. CVS/Caremark is one of the three largest pharmacy benefits managers in the United States. Along with ExpressScripts and OptummRXTogether, these three control at least 80 percent of the market.

Should American consumers be happy or concerned about the proposed merger? As a professor of health law and bioethics, I see compelling arguments on both sides.

Good for consumers, or for the companies?

CVS and Aetna assert they are motivated by a desire to improve services for consumers and that the merger will lower health care costs and improve outcomes.

Many industry experts have postulated, however, that financial gain is at the heart of the deal.

CVS has suffered declining profits as consumers turn to online suppliers for drugs. Reports that Amazon is considering entry into the pharmacy business raise the specter of increasingly fierce competition.

The merger would provide CVS with guaranteed business from Aetna patients and allow Aetna to expand into new health care territory.

The heart of the deal

The merger would eliminate the need for a pharmacy benefits manager because CVS would be part of Aetna.

Pharmacy benefits managers, which sprang up in the early 2000s in response to rising costs of care, administer drug benefit programs for health plans. Most large employers contract with pharmacy benefits managers that are different from their health insurers.

Nevertheless, a consolidation along the lines of a CVS/Caremark and Aetna merger would not be unprecedented. The nation’s largest health insurance company, United Healthcare, operates its own pharmacy benefits manager, OptumRx.

Pharmacy benefits managers process and pay prescription drug claims, negotiate with manufacturers for lower drug prices, and can employ other cost-saving mechanisms. They thus act as intermediaries between the insurer and pharmacies.

They also make a lot of money. They have been controversial in recent years for how they do so, allegedly keeping a keener focus on profits than on patients.

The merger has not been finalized and requires approval from government regulators, which isn’t always easy to get. In 2016 the U.S. Department of Justice sued to block two health insurer mergers: one between Aetna and Humana and a second between Anthem and Cigna. The government objected on antitrust grounds, arguing that the mergers would unduly restrict competition. Both efforts were abandoned.

CVS and Aetna argue that their proposed merger is different. It is a vertical rather than a horizontal merger, which means that it would combine companies providing different services for patients (insurance and filling prescriptions) rather than two companies doing the same thing.

However, the Trump administration is currently opposing another vertical merger, that between AT&T and Time Warner. It is unclear whether the administration will likewise oppose the CVS/Aetna merger.

Benefits of a merger

There is some evidence that a merger could help consumers.

A merger could result in more negotiating power. Combining the power of a leading pharmacy and a top insurer may allow CVS/Aetna to negotiate more effectively for price discounts from drug and device manufacturers.

It also could cut out the middleman. PBMs themselves have been blamed for raising health care costs. They often do not pass on negotiated drug discounts to consumers, but rather keep the money themselves. In addition, many believe they “make money through opaque rebates that are tied to drug prices (so their profits rise as those prices do).” With the merger, CVS/Aetna would not need CVS/Caremark to function as an intermediary. Eliminating a profit-seeking middleman from the picture could lower consumer prices.

The merger could provide easy access to health care for minor injuries and illnesses. CVS said it plans to expand its MinuteClinics, walk-in clinics that provide treatment by nurse practitioners for minor conditions. Also, CVS said it would offer more services, such as lab work, nutritional advice, vision and hearing care, and more. Thus, CVS promises that its clinics will become “health hubs.”

Many patients could turn to these clinics instead of seeking more expensive care from physicians or emergency rooms. Furthermore, health hubs could provide “one-stop shopping” convenience for some patients. This could be particularly beneficial to elderly individuals or those with disabilities.

Another benefit could be improved and expanded data analytics, which could result in better care. Combining information from patients’ health insurers with that of their pharmacies, including nonprescription health purchases, may promote better care. CVS pharmacists and health hub providers would be able to monitor and counsel patients regarding chronic disease management, pain management, prenatal care and other matters. Such attention could reduce the risk of complications and hospitalizations and thus also decrease expenditures.

Increase of other risks?

Skeptics argue that the CVS/Aetna merger is unlikely to yield cost savings and improved outcomes. They note that mergers in the health care sector generally lead to higher, not lower, prices and worry about other adverse consequences.

If the market shrinks to fewer pharmacy benefits managers because of consolidation, costs may actually increase. The remaining pharmacy benefits managers may have little incentive to compete with each other by demanding discounts from drug companies. As noted above, they may actually profit from higher pharmaceutical prices and thus welcome increases.

After the merger, Aetna may require those it insures to use only CVS pharmacies. In addition, it may require individuals to turn to CVS MinuteClinics for certain complaints even if patients prefer to visit their own doctors. Such restrictions would mean less choice for consumers, and many may find them to be very distressing.

The merger could also decrease competition and bar other companies from entering the pharmacy market. For example, Aetna may refuse to cover prescription drugs that are not purchased from CVS. In that case, Amazon may find it extremely difficult if not impossible to break into the industry. Less competition, in turn, often means higher prices for consumers.

It is difficult to predict the precise consequences of a CVS/Aetna merger. One way or another, however, its impact will likely be significant.

 

CVS Health launching an analytics-based initiative to deliver personalized diabetes care

http://www.healthcaredive.com/news/cvs-health-launching-an-analytics-based-initiative-to-deliver-personalized/432311/

Dive Brief:

  • CVS Health will launch the Transform Diabetes Care program in early 2017 to help its pharmacy benefit management clients.
  • The program will use data analytics to personalize care for diabetes patients and CVS hopes it will allow each participating diabetic client to save as much as $5,000 annually.
  • The goal is to reduce spending on diabetes patients by offering them personalized strategies to improve medication adherence, control over blood glucose levels, and make healthy lifestyle changes.