The Business of Health Care

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 8.26.56 AMThe role of the United States’ antitrust laws are to ensure competition, not to prescribe or favor any particular organizational structure.  Yet recent Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) enforcement actions in the health care provider merger arena have done just that – dictated that if provider groups want to integrate, they can only do so through contractual means, not by merging their businesses.  Everyone accepts the proposition that health care integration is essential to improving health care and bending the cost curve.  Yet often the FTC has been a roadblock to provider consolidation arguing that any efficiencies can be achieved through separate contracting.[1]  But this regulatory second guessing is inconsistent with sound health care and competition policy.

Health care provider consolidation poses some of the most challenging antitrust issues.  Particularly challenging are efforts by hospitals to acquire or integrate with physician practices.  There is clearly tremendous pressure from both the demand and supply side for greater integration between hospital and physicians.  And arrangements between firms in a vertical relationship are treated solicitously by the antitrust laws, because they are typically procompetitive and efficient.  Where competitive concerns arise from a merger or alliance, the FTC will ask if there are efficiencies from the relationship and, if so, whether there are less restrictive alternatives to achieve the efficiencies.  If there is a less restrictive alternative, the FTC will claim the efficiencies should not be credited.  So for example, if the FTC believes that contractual arrangements between doctors and hospitals can achieve comparable efficiencies, the FTC will reject the merging parties’ claimed efficiencies.

Continue reading “An Open Letter to the FTC on Hospitals and Providers”

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Halvorson WEF

For decades, health policymakers considered Kaiser Permanente the lode star of delivery system reform.  Yet by the end of 1999, the nation’s oldest and largest group model HMO had experienced almost three years of significant operating losses, the first in the plan’s history. It was struggling to implement a functional electronic health record, and had a reputation for inconsistent customer service.  But most seriously, it faced deep divisions between management and the leadership of its powerful Permanente Federation, which represents Kaiser’s more than 17,000 physicians, over both strategic direction and operations of the plan.

Against this backdrop, Kaiser surprised the health plan community by announcing in March 2002 the selection of a non-physician, George Halvorson, as its new CEO.  Halvorson had spent most of his career in the Twin Cities, most recently as CEO of HealthPartners, a successful mixed model health plan.  Halvorson’s reputation was as a product innovator; he not only developed a prototype of the consumer-directed health plan in the mid-1990’s, but also population health improvement objectives for its membership, both firsts in the industry.

Continue reading “The Kaiser Permanente Model and Health Reform’s Unfinished Business”

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Screen Shot 2014-09-24 at 1.25.29 PMJudging by its nearly invisible public presence, you’d never know that this is prime time for HCA, the nation’s largest hospital chain.    A former HCA regional VP, Marilyn Tavenner, runs the nation’s Medicare and Medicaid programs.  Former CMS Head and Obama White House health policy chief Nancy Ann DeParle, sits on the HCA Board.  Its longtime investor relations chief, Vic Campbell, is immediate past Chair of the highly effective trade group, the Federation of American Hospitals.  And its Chief Medical Officer, Jonathan Perlin, MD, is Chair Elect of the American Hospital Association.

This astonishing industry leadership presence is something most health systems would be trumpeting, perhaps even placing ads in Modern Healthcare.  But not HCA, the bashful giant of American healthcare.  Most hospital systems make a show of “branding” their hospitals with the company logo.  Yet in its corporate home, Nashville, and the surrounding multi-state region, HCA’s 15 hospital network is called TriStar.  Everyone in Nashville’s tight knit healthcare community knows who owns their hospitals, but you have to read TriStar’s home page closely to find the elliptical acknowledgement of HCA’s ownership.

Despite a nationwide merger and acquisition boom, HCA hasn’t done a major deal in twelve years (Health Midwest in Kansas City joined HCA in 2002).  The company has not participated in the post-reform feeding frenzy, continuing a long-standing and admirable tradition of refusing to overpay for assets. For the moment, owning 160 hospitals is plenty.

Continue reading “HCA: The Bashful Giant”

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CVS Health large take 2
Last Tuesday at midnight, CVS officially changed its name to CVS Health and simultaneously cleared its 7,700 retail stores of tobacco products a month earlier than previously reported. Its stores will be called CVS Pharmacy with plans to expand its 900 primary care clinics to 1,500 by 2017, and its $90 billion pharmacy benefits management unit, CVS Caremark, continuing to play a key role in serving its 65 million customers(1).

And the following day, the CMS Office of the Actuary released its forecast of health spending, predicting that health spending will likely return to 6% annual increases for the next decade(2).

No doubt, the timing of the two is coincidental. But taken together, they paint a future state in healthcare that’s distinctly different from its recent past.

Continue reading “Behind the CVS Health Decision”

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Ceci ConnollyWhile fierce debate continues to envelop much of the Affordable Care Act, financial data for many of the nation’s health systems reveal one clear fact: the optional Medicaid expansion has resulted in hospital haves and have nots.

An analysis by PwC’s Health Research Institute (HRI) of newly released earnings and patient volume data shows a clear financial split between healthcare providers operating in states that expanded Medicaid and those that have not. The law as written would have provided Medicaid coverage to every American earning less than 138% of the federal poverty level ($16,105 for an individual). But a June 2012 Supreme Court ruling made the expansion optional for states, creating a patchwork of coverage.

Health systems and physician groups delivering care in the 26 states and the District of Columbia that have embraced the federally-funded expansion have reported a significant rise in patient volumes and paying consumers and a measureable reduction in uncompensated care levels.

This year alone LifePoint Hospitals has seen a 30.3% reduction in its uninsured and charity care patients, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Tenet Healthcare, which operates in five Medicaid expansion states, saw uninsured and charity care admissions decline by 46% in the expansion states, coupled with a 20.5% increase in Medicaid inpatient admissions in those same states, according to an HRI analysis which will be released next week.

In all, HRI analyzed financial data from the nation’s five largest for-profit health systems—HCA Holdings, LifePoint, Tenet, Community Health Systems and Universal Health Services, representing 538 hospitals in 35 states. Our team also reviewed data from several mid-sized hospitals, government reportsand industry surveys.

Continue reading “Medicaid 2.0″

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flying cadeuciiWhat motivates a healthcare executive?

Remember Flower’s Laws of Behavioral Economics? The first two are:

  1. People do what you pay them to do.
  2. People do exactly what you pay them to do.

That is, it’s not general. It’s not “be a good doctor.” It’s more like, “Do lots of complex back fusion surgeries.” What’s more profitable gets done more.

I know that some people say that money has nothing to do with people’s motivation in healthcare, and that’s fine, I totally respect that opinion. You’re just in the wrong section. You want Aisle C, between Dr. Seuss and the Disney fairy tales.

But what about healthcare executives? What gets them more money? What constitutes hitting it into the cheap seats for them?

There are of course lots of compensation surveys. There’s a whole industry of people who do that. But they don’t tie compensation to anything specific. So when someone does a study that does look at correlations, that’s interesting information. One came out a few months ago in JAMA’s Internal Medicine .

Karen Joynt, MD, and her colleagues used 2009 data, so things might be beginning to change now. And they only looked at CEOs, so we will have to speculate whether the same things apply to other C-suite suits.

What did they find? They found great variation in the salaries, with a mean (average) salary of $595,781, a median (half are above and half below) of $404,938). The nearly $200,000 difference tells us that the sample is skewed by a smaller number of really large salaries at the top.

There is nothing surprising in the size of the salaries or their variation. That’s normal for any industry. No matter how much you might think that healthcare is special and different and sacred, it is nonetheless a very big business. In many or most towns, the hospitals and health systems are the biggest businesses in town. A typical suburban three-hospital system might have an annual budget in the $5 billion range.

What correlates with a higher salary? Size.

More beds means a higher salary ($550 for each extra bed, to be exact). Teaching status means $425,078 more — in other words, doubling the median. And most teaching hospitals are much bigger than average. Urban location gets you more, but this is likely also a marker for size, or the cliché phrase “big city hospital” wouldn’t roll off the tongue so easily. High tech gets you more, too. Hospitals with high technologic capabilities paid their CEOs $135,862 more than hospitals with low levels of technology — but this again is likely a marker (a co-variate) for size and teaching status.

Continue reading “So That’s What You Get The Big Bucks For?”

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Steve DickmanThe US health IT space is white hot. Europe lags far behind both in the number of companies and in the amount of money being invested. There have been very few (no?) exits. I was wondering if Europe will ever catch up and which companies and geographies are emerging winners. So I decided to survey a half-dozen Europe-based VC partners active in healthcare investing some of whom have taken their first tentative steps into health IT investing. Here’s what I found out.

But first the impressive US benchmarks: HealthITNews reported in mid-July that VC investment into health IT surpassed $1.8 billion just in the second quarter of 2014, double the amount that had been raised in the previous quarter. Investors have cashed in on exits from companies such as Castlight Health (NASDAQ IPO in 2014); Humedica (acquired by United Health for a reported several hundred million dollars in 2013); and Healthy Circles (acquired by Qualcomm Life in 2013 for an undisclosed amount).

This makes sense given the obvious drivers for health IT activity in the United States: the mandated shift to electronic medical records (EMRs); consumer interest in web and especially mobile health apps; the boom in analytics in all areas including health; and especially the multi-payer system, one that heavily involves employers. Castlight would not even exist without the employer aspect. Rock Health reported in its excellent midyear funding report published in late June that startups developing payer administration tools took in more VC money (over $200 million in the first half of 2014) than any other subsector within health IT.

A Europe of borders

Meanwhile, as much as Europe has dismantled many of the internal impediments to the single market (local currencies, border crossings), there are many barriers to developing solutions to Europe-wide healthcare challenges. These include:

  • Language barriers. Start a web site for a consumer-facing business and you will see your user base fracture unless you can communicate in at least three (or four!) languages.
  • Scaling challenges. Try to remedy the challenges inherent in the healthcare system and you will soon realize that there has been virtually no harmonization yet. Single payer systems are fine as long as you stay within them. If you try to work cross-border, then look out! As Antoine Papiernik, a managing partner at Sofinnova Partners in Paris put it, “Our European system is also messed up, but in a different way than in the US. It is the fact that [EU healthcare systems] are completely state controlled and operated that makes it difficult for a Health-IT play to get to scale as well as it could in the US.”
  • Missing incentives. When it comes to reducing inefficiencies and shifting responsibility and benefit to the consumer, the US healthcare system is a target rich environment. Similar incentives are hard to find in Europe, especially across borders. Consumers are less incentivized when they get cradle to grave healthcare financed by payments much lower than those in typical US health plans. Therefore, said Anne Portwich, a partner at LSP in the Netherlands, it is hard to imagine a consumer-focused company gaining VC financing in Europe, at least before it has huge traction (some promising examples will come up later). This is because “Something the consumer has to pay for him or herself, even 1 Euro per month, that is a completely different [and more challenging] dynamic and a different business model than what we are familiar with.”
  • Big data not yet “in.” Finally, a less obvious example. The larger business environment in the States has been largely penetrated by the type of thinking that favors “big data” and “analytics” as solutions to real problems. This way of thinking is years away in Europe, said Simon Meier, investment director at Roche Venture in Basel, Switzerland. Meier went part-time for a year in 2013 to work with a startup in big data and advertising so he observed this firsthand. Even sectors ripe for analytics such as retail and advertising have not yet been overhauled in Europe, he says. Therefore, Meier said, “our data scientists are still occupied in resolving issues or setting up infrastructure in areas from which US scientists have already moved on. There are plenty of markets in the European Union that have not even started thinking about data science. Compared to the US, applying data science to healthcare in Europe is going from a simple sailor knot to a Gordian knot.”

Continue reading “Health IT: Will Europe Catch the Wave?”

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Jeanne PinderEarly results from our California crowdsourcing project on MRI prices are in. Payments range from $255 to $2,925.15. MRI pricing is a complete mystery: What should you pay? Can you ask for a discount? We’ve been looking at health-care prices for three years, so if we say it’s a mystery, we can imagine what it looks like to you.

How much should you pay? Well, one person was told the price is $1,850, but if you pay up front, you can save almost $1,300.

The note on our form, shared by our community member: “I was told procedure would be 1850. I have a 7500 deductible. So I talked to the office mgr who said if I paid upfront and agreed not to report the procedure to Blue Cross, that it would be $580.”

On our Facebook page, one contributor wrote, “I was going to be billed $830 through my PPO for an MRI. The cash price? $500.”

This is the second part of our crowdsourcing project in California with KQED public radio in San Francisco and KPCC/Southern California Public Radio in Los Angeles. We have been asking people to share pricing information for MRI’s, especially of the back; last month we collected mammogram pricing.

A note: We are often asked in this crowdsourcing prototype project if we believe what we are being told by people who fill out our online form at the PriceCheck page. The answer: yes, we do. Though some of our community members have said their bills are confusing, or the coding they see on the bills doesn’t match what we’re collecting, we believe our contributors’ shares. We have seen wide variations in health-care pricing.

So: here are early results.

Lower-back MRI: $255? $602.85? $973.25? $1,660?

Eight identical MRI’s, and eight vastly different payments.

No. 1: We heard from one Kaiser member, who received an MRI of the lower back, without contrast or dye (CPT code 72148) at the Kaiser Antioch Medical Center on Sand Creek Road in Antioch, Calif. This person was charged $973.25 and paid $973.25; insurance paid nothing.Comment: “This price was the contracted amount through my insurance. Deductible had not been met so I was responsible for all charges. This does not include the two office visits required to obtain and analyze the results.”

No. 2: Same kind of MRI, code 72148, at Radnet Medical Imaging at 3440 California St. in San Francisco. This person was charged $1,660 and paid $1,660, out of HSA funds. (Note: Our ClearHealthCosts pricing survey included that Radnet location, and they did tell our survey agent that their cash price is $1,660.)

Continue reading “How Much Does an MRI Cost In California: $255? $973.25? $2,925?”

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Ceci ConnollyStates in more than half the nation have reported individual market premium rate requests for 2015, making this an opportune time to assess how the second year of the ACA’s new marketplaces is shaping up.

With rate filings in for 27 states plus the District of Columbia, the early word on 2015 appears to be expansion. At least 15 of the 28 jurisdictions in 2015 will offer new individual plans this year. Thirty-seven of the 176 health plan filings are new, according to analysis by PwC’s Health Research Institute (HRI).

Major national insurers such as UnitedHealth Group, as well as newbie Consumer Operated and Oriented Plans (Co-Ops), plan to add both products and states when exchange open enrollment begins in the fall. In Virginia, five new plan bids have been submitted to the state; Washington, Arkansas and Tennessee show three new plans each.

UnitedHealth’s CEO Stephen J. Helmsley estimates that UnitedHealth will sell on public exchanges in about two dozen states. In short, the ACA’s subsidized exchange markets represent growth opportunities for the health sector.

At the same time at least three non-profit health Co-Ops will move into additional markets. As of late April, Co-Ops operating in 23 states had 400,000 members, according to the National Alliance of State Health Co-Ops. Not every Co-Op drew big numbers, especially those in states such as Maryland, where the online marketplace never really got off the ground. And it’s far too early to say how many new entrants will be left standing as plans are forced to pay back $2 billion in federal loans over the next several years.

Continue reading “Early Exchange Outlook 2015″

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Craig GarthwaiteThe Affordable Care Act is premised, at least in part, on the notion that competition can be harnessed to reduce healthcare costs and improve quality. This explains why insurance in the individual market has not been nationalized. Instead, consumers go to an online exchange where they customers can easily (at least in theory) compare plans offered by different firms. Unleashing competitive forces should result in lower premiums for these plans. And why not? Over the past two decades, competition has been one of the few success stories in the U.S. health economy. For example, when competition intensified in the 1990s, healthcare costs moderated. When competition weakened in the wake of provider mergers and the backlash to the narrow networks that were essential to cost containment, healthcare costs rose.

When most people think about the benefits of competition, they tend to think about prices. Monopolies charge high prices; competitors charge low prices. There is nothing wrong with this perspective, but it misses a more fundamental point. In the long run, the greatest benefit of competition is that it has the potential to fuel innovation. This is as true, in theory, for health insurers as it is for telecommunications and consumer electronics. It hasn’t always been true in practice; for several decades after the IRS made employer-sponsored health insurance tax deductible, insurers tended to offer the same costly indemnity products. But consumers eventually demanded lower premiums, and insurers responded with managed care. After the backlash, insurers developed high deductible health plans and value based insurance design. Insurers are now moving towards reference pricing. These plans offer consumers reimbursement up to a pre-specified level for treatments that can be easily broken into a treatment episode such as hip replacements or MRIs. Patients have the choice of any provider, but they bear the cost of choosing a more expensive facility.

High deductibles and reference pricing are fine, but do not always work in practice. Chronically ill patients quickly exhaust their deductibles, and reference pricing does not work well for chronic diseases. In order to complement these tactics, some insurers are once again offering narrow network plans. We commented in earlier blog posts that the ACA would catalyze the return of these narrow networks and also warned that this might fuel another backlash. Unfortunately, a recent New York Times article shows, the backlash is well underway.

Continue reading “Narrow Networking”

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FROM THE VAULT

The Power of Small Why Doctors Shouldn't Be Healers Big Data in Healthcare. Good or Evil? Depends on the Dollars. California's Proposition 46 Narrow Networking
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