Consolidation

Joe Flower

Health care is fragile. It survives in a much narrower band of circumstances than most of us realize. Right now many hospitals and systems are having a second down year in a row. They’re consolidating, laying off people, working through major shifts in strategy — all because of what we must admit (if we are honest) are relatively minor economic shifts, such as small reductions in utilization and Medicare payments, a blunting of accustomed price rises, and stronger bargaining from health plans.

If minor revenue stream problems put your entire institution in jeopardy of chaotic deconstruction, it cannot be called robust.

At the same time, an increasing number of vectors outside the sealed world of health care could overwhelm and kill your institution, from climate chaos to pollution disasters to epidemics and the loss of antibiotics.

Continue reading “Surviving Healthcare”

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flying cadeuciiHealthcare costs far too much. We can do it better for half the cost. But if we did cut the cost in half, we would cut the jobs in half, wipe out 9% of the economy and plunge the country into a depression.

Really? It’s that simple? Half the cost equals half the jobs? So we’re doomed either way?

Actually, no. It’s not that simple. We cannot of course forecast with any precision the economic consequences of doing healthcare for less. But a close examination of exactly how we get to a leaner, more effective healthcare system reveals a far more intricate and interrelated economic landscape.

In a leaner healthcare, some types of tasks will disappear, diminish, or become less profitable. That’s what “leaner” means. But other tasks will have to expand. Those most likely to wane or go “poof” are different from those that will grow. At the same time, a sizable percentage of the money that we waste in healthcare is not money that funds healthcare jobs, it is simply profit being sucked into the Schwab accounts and ski boats of high income individuals and the shareholders of profitable corporations.

Let’s take a moment to walk through this: how we get to half, what disappears, what grows and what that might mean for jobs in healthcare.

Getting to half

How would this leaner Next Healthcare be different from today’s?

Waste disappears: Studies agree that some one third of all healthcare is simple waste. We do these unnecessary procedures and tests largely because in a fee-for-service system we can get paid to do them. If we pay for healthcare differently, this waste will tend to disappear.

Prices rationalize: As healthcare becomes something more like an actual market with real buyers and real prices, prices will rationalize close to today’s 25th percentile. The lowest prices in any given market are likely to rise somewhat, while the high-side outliers will drop like iron kites.

Internal costs drop: Under these pressures, healthcare providers will engage in serious, continual cost accounting and “lean manufacturing” protocols to get their internal costs down.

The gold mine in chronic: There is a gold mine at the center of healthcare in the prevention and control of chronic disease, getting acute costs down through close, trusted relationships between patients, caregivers, and clinicians.

Tech: Using “big data” internally to drive performance and cost control; externally to segment the market and target “super users;” as well as using widgets, dongles, and apps to maintain that key trusted relationship between the clinician and the patient/consumer/caregiver.

Consolidation: Real competition on price and quality, plus the difficulty of managing hybrid risk/fee-for-service systems, means that we will see wide variations in the market success of providers. Many will stumble or fail. This will drive continued consolidation in the industry, creating large regional and national networks of healthcare providers capable of driving cost efficiency and risk efficiency through the whole organization.

Continue reading “Half the Cost. Half the Jobs?”

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An old data series got new life, when the Brookings Institution issued a report that compared health care jobs growth versus all other industries.

It’s “a truly astonishing graph,” according to Derek Thompson at The Atlantic. “I knew health care had been the most important driver of national employment over the last few years, but I had never seen the case made so starkly.”

Thompson wasn’t alone in his surprise. (Hopefully, readers of The Health Care Blog would be less astonished.) But lost within the reaction—and even mostly overlooked within the industry—is that not all health care jobs are growing, or at least not growing at the same pace.

Take a look at the following chart. It resembles the Brookings data, with one major change: The hospital employment curve has been separated from all other health care jobs growth.

 

Notice how hospital employment essentially flatlined across 2009—a hard year for the sector, which was still insulated compared to the rest of the economy. But many organizations pared back on staff and sought to cut non-essential services to survive the Great Recession.

Continue reading “Hospitals Lost Jobs Last Month. Should We Be Surprised?”

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Rapid change is engulfing health care across the United States, but the strategic responses of organizations to these changes are sharply divided. In the shift that has been broadly shorthanded “from volume to value,” many organizations across the country are deeply engaged in moving toward “value” by building new partnerships, affiliations, capacities and economic structures, striving to bring better health and health care to more people for less money.

At the same time, some organizations are using the chaos and fluidity of the moment to double down on the old way, aggressively seeking greater volume reimbursed at higher rates. For now, within their regions, some of these organizations appear to be “winning” at the game, building greater market share and margin and increasing their budgets. But is this in fact the wisest strategy to follow in the long run, not only for their institutions but for the good of their missions and the people they serve?

Moving toward Value

Virtually all serious attempts to answer the question, “Why do we pay so much more for health care in the United States?” have pointed to the competition for reimbursements under a commodified, insurance-supported fee-for-service system. If what you pay for is items off of a list, what you will get is lots of items, especially the more profitable ones. That’s how we end up with a system in which waste (stuff we could simply do without) is pegged by repeated studies at one-third or higher.

Continue reading “Divided Health Care Nation”

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All too frequently I get the question:

When will we see the EHR market consolidate?

Not an unreasonable question considering just how many EHRs there are in the market today (north of 300) and all the buzz regarding growth in health IT adoption. There was even a recent post postulating that major EHR consolidation was “on the verge.” Even I have wondered at times why we have not seen any significant consolidation to date as there truly are far more vendors than this market can reasonably support.

But when we talk about EHR consolidation, let’s make sure we are all talking about the same thing. In the acute care market, significant consolidation has already occurred. Those companies that did not participate in consolidating this market (Cerner, Epic & Meditech) seem to have faired well. Those that pursued a roll-up, acquisition strategy (Allscripts, GE, McKesson) have had more mixed results.

It is the ambulatory sector where one finds a multitude of vendors all vying for a piece of the market and it is this market that has not seen any significant consolidation to date and likely will not see such for several years to come for two dominant reasons.

Continue reading “Why We Won’t See EHR Consolidation Anytime Soon”

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After reading the July edition of Health Affairs, I’m concerned about the impact of Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) on cost trends in the US health care system.

In The Accountable Care Organization: Whatever Its Growing Pains, The Concept Is Too Vitally Important To Fail, Francis Crosson of the Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy plays down the various criticisms of ACOs (that they may stifle innovation, unleash a torrent of regulation, and rely too heavily on fee for service payment methodologies) and argues that we need to help them succeed because there are no good alternatives. If not,

both public and private payers will probably be forced into across-the-board reductions in payment rates to providers, because the state of the economy will require cost reductions, and there will be no other obvious course to pursue. Reductions in quality and access may follow…

But the emergence of ACOs is driving hospitals to consolidate, buying other hospitals and physicians practices.

Continue reading “Let’s Hope ACOs Aren’t Our Last, Best Chance for Delivery System Reform”

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