A paper out this week from Rice University healthcare economist Vivian Ho is the latest analysis to posit that vertical integration of doctors and hospitals does little to improve care quality. Researchers evaluated 29 primarily hospital-focused quality and patient satisfaction measures and found that higher levels of vertical integration were associated with improved performance on just a small number of metrics—and increased market concentration was associated with lower scores on all patient satisfaction measures.
Before concluding that vertical integration generates little improvement in quality, it’s worth looking a little deeper at the methodology of this study, as well as the larger drivers of hospital-physician integration. Researchers used a blunt measure of vertical integration, combining health systems’ self-reported physician alignment model with a standard index of hospital market concentration (on the theory that lower hospital-to-hospital competition indicates greater vertical integration). The performance measures examined are hospital-focused, ignoring outpatient care quality, as well as the nuance of whether the “integrated” physicians in any market are responsible for the outcomes measured (employing primary care doctors and orthopedic surgeons would have little impact on measures of hospital treatment of heart attacks).
In a press release, the author notes: “If patient welfare doesn’t improve after integration, there may be other reasons why physicians and hospitals are forming closer relationships—perhaps to raise profits.” That’s right: there are many motives for vertical integration. Surely profitability has been a driver, as well as the rising complexity and deteriorating economics of running an independent practice. In the real world, physician alignment strategies are rarely driven by the primary goal of improved quality. However, many health systems have begun to recognize that closer financial alignment is a necessary (but far from sufficient) requirement to enable real progress on quality improvement. Regardless of alignment approach, though, quality improvement results from the hard work of care process redesign and cultural change, not as the inevitable result of vertical integration. Success stories are still too few and far between, but we believe there is value in leveraging vertical integration to make this work easier. Condemning vertical integration seems a harsh verdict; a more appropriate criticism would be that much of the heavy lifting of care redesign is yet to begin.
As we wrote last week, the recent dust-up between CVS’s pharmacy benefit management (PBM) subsidiary Caremark and Walmart, during which the retail giant threatened to sever its relationship with CVS over a dispute regarding reimbursement levels before finally coming to a settlement, is a harbinger of things to come as the healthcare landscape becomes dominated by massive, vertically-integrated competitors.
A new investigative piece from The Columbus Dispatch this week seems to confirm this view. Examining previously-undisclosed data about CVS’s drug plan pricing practices as part of Ohio’s Medicaid program, the article reveals that CVS paid its own retail pharmacies much higher reimbursement rates than it offered to key competitors Walmart and Kroger to provide generic drugs to Medicaid beneficiaries. According to the article, CVS would have had to pay Walmart pharmacies 46 percent more, and Kroger pharmacies 25 percent more, to match the levels of reimbursement it paid its own retail pharmacies, data that are cited in a state report on the Medicaid pharmacy program that CVS is engaged in a court battle to keep secret. The reimbursement differential is “startling information”, according to a former Justice Department antitrust official quoted in the article. A spokesman for CVS maintained that the PBM’s payment rates are “competitive” and influenced by a complex range of factors. Underscoring the opaque and complicated methodology drug plans use to determine payments to retail pharmacies, independent pharmacy operators were paid more than CVS stores, as were Walgreens stores. A separate analysis of PBM pricing behavior in New York uncovered similar evidence, according to Bloomberg.
The Ohio and New York pharmacy stories are yet more evidence that, as healthcare companies continue to expand their control over greater segments of the “value chain”—combining, for example, insurance, distribution, and care delivery—they are able to flex their market power in ways that look increasingly anti-competitive. Hospitals that “own” their referral sources, insurers that “own” the delivery of care, and pharmacies that “own” drug benefit managers all edge closer to creating closed, proprietary platforms that can lock out competitors in any one segment.
That’s a feature, not a bug—indeed, much of the logic of population health is predicated on “network integrity”: keeping consumers inside a fully-controlled ecosystem of care to enable better coordination and reduce duplication and inefficiencies. Yet as giant healthcare corporations turn themselves into Amazon-style “everything stores”, we need to keep a watchful eye on competition.
Red flags to watch for: using the courts to maintain secret agreements or block the free flow of talent or information, “vertical tying” behavior that requires all-or-nothing contracting, and pricing strategies that leverage market power in one segment to raise prices in another.
The biggest flaw in using “market competition” to lower the cost of care: most companies hate actually competing in the marketplace—a problem made even more vexing by vertical integration.
Vertical integration is all the rage in healthcare these days, with Aetna, Cigna and Humana making notable plays.
If the proposed CVS-Aetna, Cigna-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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
As 2018 wound down, a federal judge took an ax to the Affordable Care Act as the Trump administration kept up its efforts to undermine the law, with CMS expanding short-term health plans many say are built to subvert the ACA. Elimination of the individual mandate penalty, Medicaid expansion and rising premiums all likely contributed to declined enrollment on ACA exchanges as well.
The administration encouraged states to use waivers to expand controversial Medicaid work requirements and proposed site-neutral payments, rattling health systems of all sizes that were already struggling under ferocious operating headwinds. Hospitals cut back on services and invested heavily in lucrative outpatient facilities in an attempt to reclaim volume.
Tech companies Apple and Amazon pushed further into the space, with the former focusing on mobile health apps and the latter focusing on, well, almost everything.
But that’s just scratching the surface. Here is a curated list of Healthcare Dive’s top stories from the last year.
Some smart observers saw a predecessor to these unions in UnitedHealth Group’s Optum: a pharmacy benefit manager plus a care services unit that employs over 30,000 physicians, using data analytics to capitalize on consumerism and value-based care.
Our piece on Optum’s solid foothold in the space, and its likelihood of staying ahead of the nascent competition, was Healthcare Dive’s most-read article in 2018. Read More »
A novel Medicare Advantage rule giving payers more flexibility to sell supplemental benefits to chronically ill enrollees sparked a fair amount of interest in our readers.
The rule offered up a slate of new opportunities for insurers such as UnitedHealthcare and Humana that can now work with rideshare companies to provide transportation to medical appointments, air conditioners for beneficiaries with asthma and other measures around issues like food insecurity in a broad shift to recognizing social determinants of health. Read More »
Outside players such as Apple, Amazon and Google moved forward in their bids to disrupt healthcare in 2018. Apple rang in the New Year with its announcement that customers would now be able to access their medical records on the Health app following months of speculation and buzz.
The move looks to put access to personal, sensitive data back in the patients’ hands, an objective a lot of the entrenched healthcare ecosystem can get behind as well. Heavy hitters on the EHR side (Epic, Cerner, athenahealth) and the provider side (Johns Hopkins, Cedars-Sinai, Geisinger) are taking place in the initiative. Read More »
At least 14 states have legislation addressing safe staffing currently, but California is the only one to implement a strict ratio at one nurse per every five patients. Looking to 2019, in Pennsylvania voters elected a governor who has voiced support for state legislation. Read More »
Employers ramped up their cost-containment creativity in 2018. One method? Cutting out the middleman and forging direct relationships with providers themselves, whether it’s contracting with an accountable care organization to manage an entire employee population or a simple advocacy role to fight for payment reform.
Although only 6% of employers are doing so currently, 22% are considering solidifying some sort of provider relationship for next year according to a Willis Towers Watson survey. It’s also likely the Amazon-J.P. Morgan-Berkshire Hathaway venture will look at direct contracting in its (still vague) mission to lower employer costs. Read More »
Under intense operating headwinds, supply chain professionals looked to trim the fat from traditional distribution and supplier models in 2018. Some looked to Amazon Business, which generated more than a billion dollars in sales its first year alone by relying on its marketplace model, streamlined ordering and a “tail spend” strategy.
Healthcare Dive discussed this and more with global healthcare leader at Amazon Chris Holt in an exclusive interview that drove a lot of interest. Read More »
Value-based care was a buzzword over the past year, with providers, payers and healthcare execs across the board looking (or saying they’re looking) for ways to cut costs and improve quality.
Although legal barriers stemming from the Anti-Kickback Statute and Stark Law persist, medical technology companies jumped on the bandwagon, with big names like GE, Philips and Medtronic coupling with hospitals to promote VBC initiatives. Read More »
The combination of the e-commerce giant, a 200-year-old multinational investment bank and Warren Buffet’s redoubtable holding company joining forces to take on healthcare costs spooked investors in traditional industry players. The venture added a slew of big names to its C-suite, including Atul Gawande and Jack Stoddard for CEO and COO, respectively. Read More »
Hospital expenses are rising faster than revenue growth for health systems, resulting in declining operating income.
Health system operating income is deteriorating as hospital expenses continue to grow, according to a recent Navigant analysis.
In the three-year analysis of the financial disclosures for 104 prominent health systems that operate almost one-half of US hospitals, the healthcare consulting firm found that two-thirds of the organization saw operating income fall from FY 2015 to FY 2017. Twenty-two of these health systems had three-year operating income reductions of over $100 million each.
Furthermore, 27 percent of the health systems analyzes lost revenue on operations in at least one of the three years analyzed and 11 percent reported negative margins all three years.
In total, health systems facing operating earnings reductions lost $6.8 billion during the period, representing a 44 percent reduction.
Rapidly growing hospital expenses as the primary driver of declining operating margins, Navigant reported. Hospital expenses increased three percentage points faster hospital revenue from 2015 to 2017. Top-line operating revenue growth decreased from seven percent in 2015 to 5.5 percent by 2017.
Hospital revenue growth slowed during the period because demand went down for key hospital services, like surgery and inpatient admissions, Navigant explained.
Many of the revenue-generating services hospitals rely on are under the microscope. Policymakers and healthcare leaders are particularly looking to decrease the number of hospital admissions and safely shift inpatient surgeries to less expensive outpatient settings.
In exchange, Medicare and other leading payers are reimbursing hospitals for decreasing admissions or readmissions and their performance on other value-based metrics.
The shift to value-based reimbursement, however, is slow and steady, with just over one-third of healthcare payments currently linked to an alternative payment model. Hospitals and health systems are still learning to navigate the new payment landscape while keeping their revenue growing.
Value-based contracts also failed to deliver sufficient patient volume to counteract the discounts given to payers, Navigant added.
According to the firm, other factors contributing to a slowdown in hospital revenue growth included a decline in collection rates for private accounts and reductions in Medicare reimbursement updates because of the Affordable Care Act and the 2012 federal budget sequester.
“Because of reductions in Medicare updates from ACA and the sequester, hospital losses in treating Medicare patients rose from $20.1 billion in 2010 to $48.8 billion in 2016, according to American Hospital Association analyses,” the report stated. “The sharp $7.2 billion deterioration in Medicare margins that occurred from 2015 to 2016 surely contributed to the reduction in hospital operating margins in the same year of this analysis.”
While hospital revenue growth slowed, hospital expenses sharply rose as healthcare organizations invested in new technologies. Value-based reimbursement, federal requirements, and other components of the Affordable Care Act prompted hospitals to make strategic investments in EHRs, physicians, and population health management, causing expenses to increase, Navigant stated.
Key strategic investments made by hospitals and health systems included:
Compliance with the 2009 Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, which requires certified EHR implementation in hospitals and affiliated physician practices
Compliance with Medicare payment reform initiatives, such as accountable care organizations (ACOs) or pay-for-performance programs
Participation in new value-based contracts with payers
Establishment of employed physician groups or clinically integrated networks to develop the capabilities needed for compliance with performance- or value-based initiatives
“In addition to these strategic investments, other factors drove up routine patient care expenses, including a nursing shortage that increased nursing wages and agency expenses; specialty drug costs, particularly for chemotherapeutic agents; and, for some systems, recalibration of retirement fund costs,” the report stated.
The shift to value-based reimbursement and all of its accompanying policies will be the “new normal,” and hospitals should expect the low rate of revenue growth to persist, Navigant stated.
But hospitals and health systems can withstand the economic downturn by achieving strategic discipline and operational excellence, the firm advised.
“Systems must be disciplined to invest their growth capital in areas of actual reachable demand; that is, matched to the growth potential in the specific local markets the system serves,” the report stated. For example, creating a Kaiser-like closed panel capitated health offering in markets where there is no employer or health plan interest in buying such a product is a waste of scarce capital and management bandwidth.”
In line with strategic discipline, organizations will need to “prune” their owned assets portfolio by improving the utilization of their clinical capacity and growing patient throughput. Health systems can achieve this by focusing on scheduling and staffing, ensuring adherence to clinical pathways, streamlining discharges and care transitions, and adjusting physical capacity to actual demand.
The tools used to succeed in value-based contracts should also be applied to Medicare lines of business to reduce Medicare operating losses.
Additionally, vertical alignment will be key to weathering falling operating earnings, Navigant explained.
“Revenue growth is more likely to occur around the edges of the hospital’s core services — inpatient care, surgery, and imaging — rather than from those services themselves,” the report stated. “Creatively repackaging services like care management that is presently imbedded in every aspect of clinical operations, and finding retail demand for services presently bundled as part of the hospital’s traditional service offerings, represent such edge opportunities.”
Reducing patient leakage in multi-specialty groups and systems through improved referral patterns, scheduling, or care coordination will help to grow revenue and keep it within the system.
“To achieve better performance, health system management and boards must take a fresh look at their strategy considering local market realities. They need to look closely at the markets they serve, and size and target their offerings to actual market demand,” the report concluded. “They must re-examine and rationalize their portfolio of assets and demand marked improvements in efficiency and effectiveness, and measurable value creation for those who pay for care, particularly their patients. Since much of this should have been done five years ago, time is of the essence.”
Policymakers and private actors should not interpret a federal court’s AT&T and Time Warner ruling as an unconditional green light for vertical integration in health care.
The need for change in the U.S. health care system is obvious, but whether vertical integration is the change we need remains to be determined.
The recent federal district court ruling allowing the merger of AT&T and Time Warner — a case of so-called vertical integration — will likely encourage similar unions throughout the U.S. economy, including in health care. Nevertheless, a close look at the court’s decision, and at the wide variety of vertical health care mergers under way, suggests that policymakers and private actors should not interpret the court’s ruling as an unconditional green light for vertical integration in health care, or any other sector.
Vertical integration typically involves the combination of entities operating on different parts of a supply chain in the production of a particular product. Manufacturers of tires, for example, are part of the supply chain that results in a finished automobile. Similarly, ambulatory physician services are sometimes seen as an input on the supply chain of more advanced hospital services. The acquisition of physician practices by hospitals is often characterized as vertical integration.
Some antitrust experts question whether the analogy between manufactured products and health care delivery is accurate. Independent physicians, for example, often work within hospitals and help to produce their “products.” Nevertheless, there are clear differences between mergers across the same types of health care organizations, like hospitals, and those between different types of providers, like physicians and hospitals.
The AT&T/Time Warner case was the first time in 40 years that the government has taken a proposed vertical integration to court, and many commentators have noted that antitrust theory with respect to vertical integration could use some updating. In the meantime, however, Judge Richard Leon’s 172-page opinion seems to have relied on traditional antitrust considerations: would the merger increase or decrease competition, and thereby increase or decrease consumer welfare? His ruling rested heavily on what he viewed as the government’s failure to supply evidence that the merger would have adverse effects. In other words, if the government had produced more convincing data, the ruling could have gone the other way.
Judge Leon’s ruling may be appealed and, if so, may not stand. But if it does, what are its implications for vertical integration in health care? Simply put, the facts matter. And unfortunately, the facts about vertical integration in health care are obscure, and likely to vary enormously according to the details of the merger and from market to market.
Evidence on the effects of horizontal health care mergers has grown considerably in recent years, and generally shows that they increase prices. But studies of vertical health care mergers are much less common. Perhaps the most relevant experience concerns long-standing integrated health systems, such as Kaiser Permanente, Intermountain, Geisinger, and a handful of similar organizations.
Widely regarded as industry leaders in quality and efficiency, these systems seem to demonstrate the benefits of vertical integration: they are able to coordinate services across different types of providers, and, when incentives encourage it, they can easily substitute less expensive services (e.g., ambulatory care) for more expensive ones (e.g., hospital care). However, whether the experiences of these integrated systems are generalizable to the current flock of mergers is unclear. Each of these venerable organizations has a unique history and culture that have shaped its performance over decades.
Studies of vertical integration will have to take into account the type of merger under consideration. The most common type of vertical integration seems to be the acquisition of physician groups — both primary care and specialty — by hospitals. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of hospital-employed U.S. physicians increased from 95,000 to 155,000.
But health care is witnessing a variety of other types of vertical integration. Insurers are buying physician groups, as in the case of UnitedHealth Group’s acquisition of parts of DaVita’s physician network. Drug store chains are buying insurers, as in the case of CVS’s purchase of Aetna. And integrated health systems like Partners HealthCare are proposing to buy insurers like Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.
The effects of these varied mergers will depend on the types of services being combined and the markets affected. From both a societal and legal standpoint, the facts matter.
For example, it turns out that the CVS-Aetna merger includes an important horizontal union between Part D health plans owned independently by CVS and Aetna. Part D health plans provide drug coverage to Medicare beneficiaries. In recent testimony before the California Department of Insurance, economist Richard Scheffler showed that in a number of markets, the merger of these Part D plans would significantly reduce competition, and thereby, could potentially increase the prices of drug coverage for Medicare patients. Fear of consolidation among Part D plans has caused the American Medical Association to oppose CVS’s acquisition of Aetna.
Adding to the uncertainty surrounding these questions is the unique nature of the health market, in which governments are the largest purchasers and consumers often don’t know the prices or value of the products they buy. Traditional competition in local markets sometimes results in radically increasing prices and costs, as providers pile on new technologies and facilities and compete for star physicians in an effort to attract customers. And many parts of health care already have a high degree of consolidation that limits price competition. The result is a level of dysfunction that has created an almost universal cry for radical disruption of the status quo.
Health care is a conundrum on many levels, and how and whether to regulate vertical integration among its varied components may turn out to be another one. The need for change is obvious. Whether vertical integration is the change we need, and how the courts will treat it, remain to be determined.
What happens outside the hospital is increasingly important to success, so healthcare leaders need to influence or control care across the continuum.
If you’re running a hospital, one irony in the transformation toward value in healthcare is that your future success will be determined by care decisions that take place largely outside your four walls. If you’re running a health system with a variety of care sites and business entities other than acute care, the hospital’s importance is critical, but its place at the top of the healthcare economic chain is in jeopardy.
Certainly, the hospital is the most expensive site of care, so hospital care is still critically important in a business sense, no matter the payment model. But if it’s true that demonstrating value in healthcare will ensure long-term success—a notion that is frustratingly still debatable—nonacute care is where the action is.
For the purposes of developing and executing strategy, one has to assume that healthcare eventually will conform to the laws of economics—that is, that higher costs will discourage consumption at some level. That means delivering value is a worthy goal in itself despite the short-term financial pain it will cause—never mind the moral imperative to efficiently spend limited healthcare dollars.
So no longer can hospitals exist in an ivory tower of fee-for-service. Unquestionably, outcomes are becoming a bigger part of the reimbursement calculus, which means hospitals and health systems need a strategy to ensure their long-term relevance. They can do that as the main cog in the value chain, shepherding the healthcare experience, a preferable position; but physicians, health plans, and others are also vying for that role. Even if hospitals or health systems can engineer such a leadership role, acute care is high cost and to be discouraged when possible.