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And Now For Something Completely Different

By KIM BELLARD

The most interesting story I read in the past week doesn’t come from the more usual worlds of health and/or technology, but from sports. It’s not even really news, since it was announced last fall; it’s just that it wasn’t until last week that a U.S. publication (The New York Times) reported on it. In a nutshell, a Paris football (a.k.a. soccer) club is not charging its fans admission during the current season.

Since last week I wrote about medical debt in the U.S. healthcare system, you might guess where this is going. The club is Paris FC. Last November it announced:

For the first time in history, Paris FC is offering free tickets for all home matches at the Stade Charléty, starting from the 11 November until the end of the 2023-2024 season from its Bastia reception, in a bid to offer a new and innovative vision of football by welcoming as many people as possible.

The policy includes the men’s second division team and the woman’s first division team. The NYT article clarifies that fans supporting the visiting team might be charged a “nominal” fee, and that hospitality suites still pay market rates.

Pierre Ferracci, Chairman of Paris FC, said: “We are proud to support this ambitious and pioneering project, which goes beyond the simple framework of sport in terms of the values it conveys. We want to bring people together around our club and our teams, while committing ourselves with strength and conviction. In a context of difficult purchasing power, we are confident that a club can be an ideal tool for bringing together people of goodwill and engage with societal issues.”

Fabrice Herrault, Paris FC’s general manager told NYT: “It was a kind of marketing strategy. We have to be different to stand out in Greater Paris. It was a good opportunity to talk about Paris F.C.” The club estimates it might cost them $1 million.

It seems to be working. The NYT reports:

Months later, most metrics suggest the gambit has worked. Crowds are up by more than a third. Games held at times appealing for school-age children have been the best attended, indicating that the club is succeeding in attracting a younger demographic.

The idea is not entirely de novo; last spring Fortuna Düsseldorf, a German second division football club, announced it would offer free admission for at least three matches this season, with the intent that eventually all home matches. “We open up football for all. We will have free entry for league games in this stadium,” Alexander Jobst, the club’s chief executive, said at the time. “We call it ‘Fortuna for all’ which can and will lead us to a successful future.”

In a NYT interview last spring, Mr. Jobst added: “We think it is completely new. We were trying to think about how we could do the soccer business completely different from before.”

I’m always a sucker for efforts to think about a business completely different than before.

Fortuna has now had two of its three free matches, and Mr. Jobst told NYT last week: “Our average attendance has gone from 27,000 to 33,000. Our merchandise sales are up by 50 percent. Our sponsorship revenue is up 50 percent. We have reached a record number of club members.”

Sure sounds like a success.

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If data is the new oil, there’s going to be war over it

By MATTHEW HOLT

I am dipping into two rumbling controversies that probably only data nerds and chronic care management nerds care about, but as ever they reveal quite a bit about who has power and how the truth can get obfuscated in American health care. 

This piece is about the data nerds but hopefully will help non-nerds understand why this matters. (You’ll have to wait for the one about diabetes & chronic care).

Think about data as a precious resource that drives economies, and then you’ll understand why there’s conflict.

A little history. Back in 1996 a law was passed that was supposed to make it easy to move your health insurance from employer to employer. It was called HIPAA (the first 3 letters stand for Health Insurance Portability–you didn’t know that, did you!). And no it didn’t help make insurance portable.

The “Accountability” (the 1st A, the second one stands for “Act”) part was basically a bunch of admin simplification standards for electronic forms insurers had been asking for. A bunch of privacy legislation got jammed in there too. One part of the “privacy” idea was that you, the patient, were supposed to be able to get a copy of your health data when you asked. As Regina Holliday pointed out in her art and story (73 cents), decades later you couldn’t.

Meanwhile, over the last 30 years America’s venerable community and parochial hospitals merged into large health systems, mostly to be able to stick it to insurers and employers on price. Blake Madden put out a chart of 91 health systems with more than $1bn in revenue this week and there are about 22 with over $10bn in revenue and a bunch more above $5bn. You don’t need me to remind you that many of those systems are guilty with extreme prejudice of monopolistic price gouging, screwing over their clinicians, suing poor people, managing huge hedge funds, and paying dozens of executives like they’re playing for the soon to be ex-Oakland A’s. A few got LA Dodgers’ style money. More than 15 years since Regina picked up her paintbrush to complain about her husband Fred’s treatment and the lack of access to his records, suffice it to say that many big health systems don’t engender much in the way of trust. 

Meanwhile almost all of those systems, which already get 55-65% of their revenue from the taxpayer, received additional huge public subsidies to install electronic medical records which both pissed off their physicians and made several EMR vendors rich. One vendor, Epic Systems, became so wealthy that it has an office complex modeled after a theme park, including an 11,000 seat underground theater that looks like something from a 70’s sci-fi movie. Epic has also been criticized for monopolistic practices and related behavior, in particular limiting what its ex-employees could do and what its users could publicly complain about. Fortune’s Seth Joseph has been hammering away at them, to little avail as its software now manages 45%+ of all encounters with that number still increasing. (Northwell, Intermountain & UPMC are three huge health systems that recently tossed previous vendors to get on Epic).

Meanwhile some regulations did get passed about what was required from those who got those huge public subsidies and they have actually had some effect. The money from the 2009 HITECH act was spent mostly in the 2011-14 period and by the mid teens most hospitals and doctors had EMRs. There was a lot of talk about data exchange between providers but not much action. However, there were three major national networks set up, one mostly working with Epic and its clients called Carequality. Epic meanwhile had pretty successfully set up a client to client exchange called Care Everywhere (remember that).

Then, mostly driven by Joe Biden when he was VP, in 2016 Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act which among many other things basically said that providers had to make data available in a modern format (i.e. via API). ONC, the bit of HHS that manages this stuff, eventually came up with some regulations and by the early 2020’s data access became real across a series of national networks. However, the access was restricted to data needed for “treatment” even though the law promised several other reasons to get health data.

As you might guess, a bunch of things then happened. First a series of VC-backed tech companies got created that basically extract data from hospital APIs in part via those national networks. These are commonly called “on-ramp” companies. Second, a bunch of companies started trying to use that data for a number of purposes, most ostensibly to deliver services to patients and play with their data outside those 91 big hospital systems.

Which brings us to the last couple of weeks. It became publicly known among the health data nerd crowd that one of the onramp companies, Particle Health, had been cut off from the Carequality Network and thus couldn’t provide its clients with data.

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Tim O’Connell, CEO, emtelligent

Tim O’Connell discusses emtelligent’s capability to take unstructured clinical data and using NLP, match it to clinical ontologies and figure out what disease patients have, and enable payers and providers to do something about it–rather than payment coding which is what NLP has usually been used for. I spoke to him at HIMSS in March where he was launching emtelligent own new large language model (LLM). Anyone with a health data set is a potential client, but Tim thinks we can use all this data and his company’s technology to radically improve our understanding of clinical care, and improve it–Matthew Holt

Health Care’s Debt Problem

By KIM BELLARD

Among the many things that infuriate me about the U.S. healthcare system, health systems sending their patients to collections – or even suing them – is pretty high on the list (especially when they are “non-profit” and./or faith-based organizations, which we should expect to behave better).

There’s no doubt medical debt in the U.S. is a huge problem. Studies have found that more than 100 million people have medical debt, many of whom don’t think they’ll ever be able to pay it off. Kaiser Family Foundation estimates Americans owe some $220b in medical debt, with 3 million people owing more than $10,000. It’s oft cited that medical debts are the leading cause of bankruptcy, although it’s quite not clear that is actually true.

So you’d think that helping pay off that debt would be a good thing. But it turns out, it’s not that simple.

A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) by Raymond Kluender, et. alia, found that, whoops, paying off people’s medical debt didn’t improve their credit score or financial distress, made them less likely to pay future medical bills, and didn’t improve their mental health.

“We were disappointed,” said Professor Kluender told Sarah Kliff in The New York Times. “We don’t want to sugarcoat it.”

The researchers worked with R.I.P. Medical Debt, a non-profit that buys up medical debt “at pennies on the dollar,” to identify people with such debt, and then compared people whom R.I.P. Medical Debt had helped versus those it had not. One set of people had hospital debts that were at the point of being sold to a collection agency, and another had debts that had already been sent to collection. And, perhaps to highlight how little we understand our healthcare system, they asked experts in medical debt what their expectations for the experiment were.

Much to everyone’s surprise, having debt paid off made no difference between control and debt-relief groups. I.e.,

  • “We find no average effects of medical debt relief on the financial outcomes in credit bureau data in either of our experiments.
  • We similarly estimate economically small and statistically insignificant effects on other measures of financial distress, credit access, and credit utilization.
  • We find that debt relief causes a statistically significant and economically meaningful reduction in payment of existing medical bills.
  • We estimate statistically insignificant average effects of medical debt relief on measures of mental and physical health, healthcare utilization, and financial wellness, with “opposite-signed” point estimates for the mental health outcomes relative to our prior.”

In short: 

Our findings contrast with evidence on the effects of non-medical debt relief and evidence on the benefits of upstream relief of medical bills through hospital financial assistance programs. Our results are similarly at odds with views of the experts we surveyed, pronouncements by policymakers funding medical debt relief, and self-reported assessments of recipients of medical debt relief. 

Amy Finkelstein, a health economist at the MIT and a co-director of J-PAL North America, a nonprofit group that provided some funding for the study, told Ms. Kliff: “The idea that maybe we could get rid of medical debt, and it wouldn’t cost that much money but it would make a big difference, was appealing. What we learned, unfortunately, is that it doesn’t look like it has much of an impact.”

If only it was that easy.

To be clear, there were three key statistically significant effects:

  • “small improvements in credit access for the subset of persons whose medical debt would have otherwise been reported to the credit bureaus,
  • modest reduction in payments of future medical bills, and
  • worsened mental health outcomes, concentrated among those who had the largest amount of debt relieved and those who received phone calls to raise awareness and salience of the intervention.”

The authors admitted they had not expected the mental health results and had no good explanation, but their “preferred interpretation is that recipients of the cash payments viewed the transfers as insufficient to close the gap between their resources and needs, raising the salience of their financial distress and harming their mental health.”

As Neale Mahoney, an economist at Stanford and a co-author of the study, told Ms. Kliff: “Many of these people have lots of other financial issues. Removing one red flag just doesn’t make them suddenly turn into a good risk, from a lending perspective.”

The authors concluded:

Nonetheless, our results are sobering; they demonstrate no improvements in financial well-being or mental health from medical debt relief, reduced repayment of medical bills, and, if anything, a perverse worsening of mental health. Moreover, other than modest impacts on credit access for those whose medical debt is reported, we are unable to identify ways to target relief to subpopulations who stand to experience meaningful benefits.

On the other hand, Allison Sesso, R.I.P. Medical Debt’s executive director, told Ms. Kliff that study was at odds with what the group had regularly heard from those it had helped. “We’re hearing back from people who are thrilled,” she said.

As statisticians would say, anecdotes are not data.

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Removing medical debt seems like a can’t-lose idea. A number of states and local governments have passed programs to pay off medical debt (most working with R.I.P. Medical Debt) and a number of others are considering it.

Last fall the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau initiated rulemaking that would remove medical bills from credit reports. It has also, according to NPR, “penalized medical debt collectors, issued stern warnings to health care providers and lenders that target patients, and published reams of reports on how the health care system is undermining the financial security of Americans.”

Director Chopra admits: “Of course, there are broader things that we would probably want to fix about our health care system, but this is having a direct financial impact on so many Americans.”

If nothing else, the new study should remind us that our health system is best at putting band-aids on problems rather than solving them. The problems we should be addressing include: why are so many charges so high, why aren’t people better protected against them, and why don’t more Americans have enough resources to pay their bills, especially unpredictable ones like from health care services?

I’m glad R.I.P. Medical Debt is doing what it is doing, but let’s not kid ourselves that it is solving the problem.

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor

David Lareau, CEO, Medicomp

Medicomp provides a medical database within an EMR and which delivers all the diagnoses and other information directly to the clinician. It represents the note to the physician as a SMART on FHIR app so that they can quickly find the information they need within their workflow. I had a quick catch up with CEO Dave Lareau, and asked him not only what Medicomp does but how all that generative AI has started to change this. He thinks that the output of LLMs and ambient AI will actually make a greater demand for their tools–from a company that’s coming up on its 50th birthday! (Well 46th….)–Matthew Holt

An Urgent Call to Raise Awareness of Heart Disease in Women

By KELLY CARROLL

There is a dire need to raise awareness about heart disease in women. It is the number one killer of American women, and key data points reveal a lack of cognizance among doctors and women.

An assessment of primary care physicians published in 2019 revealed that only 22% felt extremely well prepared to evaluate cardiovascular disease risks in female patients. A 2019 survey of American women showed that just 44% recognized heart disease as the number one cause of death in women. Ten years earlier, in 2009, the same survey found that 65% of American women recognized heart disease as the leading cause of female death, revealing an alarming decline in awareness. 

Recent evidence suggests that many adults don’t know the important health numbers that can help identify heart disease risk factors, like their blood sugar and cholesterol. A 2024 survey of American adults conducted by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center found that only 35% of adults knew their blood pressure and 16% of adults knew their cholesterol levels. In comparison, the study reported that 58% knew their childhood friend’s birthday.

Heart Disease Risk Factors in Women

Women have specific risk factors for heart disease that don’t pertain to men. Nanette Wenger, M.D., a cardiologist and researcher, said in an American Heart Association (AHA) statement, “For most of the last century, heart disease was considered a problem for men, and women were believed to have cardioprotective benefits from female sex hormones such as estrogen. However, emerging evidence shows that there are a substantial number of heart disease risk factors that are specific to women or predominant in women.” Some gender-specific risk factors outlined by the AHA are early onset of menstruation, early menopause, autoimmune disease, anxiety, depression, and pregnancy complications.

Bethany Barone Gibbs, Ph.D., an associate professor at West Virginia University, emphasized in an email that pregnancy is a “critical window” for women’s cardiovascular health. She said, “The cardiovascular and metabolic challenge of pregnancy may unmask risk for conditions like hypertension and diabetes, but it is also possible (though not yet clear) that experiencing an adverse pregnancy outcome may independently contribute to the development of maternal cardiovascular disease.” A history of adverse pregnancy outcomes can be associated with more than two times the risk of cardiovascular disease later in life, she explained. 

Filling in knowledge gaps regarding the connections between pregnancy and long-term cardiovascular health is important to improving outcomes.

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Will Medical Facial Recognition Technology (mFRT) Reawaken Eugenics?

By MIKE MAGEE

How comfortable is the FDA and Medical Ethics community with a new super-charged medical Facial Recognition Technology (mFRT) that claims it can “identify the early stages of autism in infants as young as 12 months?” That test already has a name -the RightEye GeoPref Autism Test. Its’ UC San Diego designer says it was 86% accurate in testing 400 infants and toddlers.

Or how about Face2Gene which claims its’ mFRT tool already has linked half of the known human genetic syndromes to “facial patterns?”

Or how about employers using mFRT facial and speech patterns to identify employees likely to contract early dementia in the future, and adjusting career trajectories for those individuals. Are we OK with that?

What about your doctor requiring AiCure’s video mFRT to confirm that you really are taking your medications  that you say you are, are maybe in the future monitoring any abuse of alcohol?

And might it be possible, even from a distance, to identify you from just a fragment of a facial image, even with most of your face covered by a mask?

The answer to that final question is what DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, was attempting to answer in the Spring of 2020 when they funded researchers at Wuhan University. If that all sounds familiar, it is because the very same DARPA, a few years earlier, had quietly funded controversial “Gain of Function” viral re-engineering research by U.S. trained Chinese researchers at the very same university.

The pandemic explosion a few months later converted the entire local population to 100% mask-wearing, which made it an ideal laboratory to test whether FRT at the time could identify a specific human through partial periorbital images only. They couldn’t – at least not well enough. The studies revealed positive results only 39.55% of the time compared to full face success 99.77% of the time.

Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) dates back to the work of American mathematician and computer scientist Woodrow Wilson Bledsoe in 1960. His now primitive algorithms measured the distance between coordinates on the face, enriched by adjustments for light exposure, tilts of the head, and three-dimensional adjustments. That triggered an unexpectedly intense commercial interest in potential applications primarily by law enforcement, security, and military clients.

The world of FRT has always been big business, but the emergence of large language models and sophisticated neural networks (like ChatGPT-4 and Genesis) have widened its audience well beyond security, with health care involvement competing for human and financial resources.

Whether you are aware of it or not, you have been a target of FRT. The US has the largest number of closed circuit cameras at 15.28 per capita, in the world. On average, every American is caught on a closed circuit camera 238 times a week, but experts say that’s nothing compared to where our “surveillance” society will be in a few years.

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Andy Chu, Providence

Andy Chu is the SVP of Product and Technology at Providence’s innovation unit. They have launched four companies in recent years (Wildlfower, Xealth, Dexcare and just this week Praia). Andy talked a little about Praia, and more about both how Providence comes up with solutions and gets them through their process, and also the inverse, how his group helps new companies get into Providence (not easy!). I also asked him about how big the impact of those hospital innovation groups actually is. And how AI will roll out. Also not easy!–Matthew Holt

Where’s Our Infrastructure Plan B?

By KMI BELLARD

I’ve been thinking a lot about infrastructure. In particular, what to do when it fails.

There was, of course, the tragic collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge. Watching the video – and, honestly, what were the odds there’d be video? — is like watching a disaster movie, the bridge crumbling slowly but unstoppably. The bridge had been around for almost fifty years, withstanding over 11 million vehicles crossing it each year. All it took to knock it down was one container ship.

Container ships passed under it every day of its existence; the Port of Baltimore is one of the busiest in the country. In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that the bridge would collapse; certainly one of those ships had to hit it eventually. The thing is, it wasn’t inevitable; it was a reflection of the fact that the world the bridge was designed for is not our world.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg noted: “What we do know is a bridge like this one, completed in the 1970s, was simply not made to withstand a direct impact on a critical support pier from a vessel that weighs about 200 million pounds—orders of magnitude bigger than cargo ships that were in service in that region at the time that the bridge was first built,” 

When the bridge was designed in the early 1970’s, container ships had a capacity of around 3000 TEUs (20-foot equivalent foot units, a measure of shipping containers). The ship that hit the bridge was carrying nearly three times that amount – and there are container ships that can carry over 20,000 TEUs. The New York Times estimated that the force of the ship hitting the bridge was equivalent to a rocket launch.

“It’s at a scale of more energy than you can really get your mind around,” Ben Schafer, a professor of civil and systems engineering at Johns Hopkins, told NYT.

Nii Attoh-Okine, a professor of engineering at the University of Maryland, added: “Depending on the size of the container ship, the bridge doesn’t have any chance,” but Sherif El-Tawil, an engineering professor at the University of Michigan, disagreed, claiming: “If this bridge had been designed to current standards, it would have survived.” The key feature missing were protective systems built around the bases of the bridge, as have been installed on some other bridges.

We shouldn’t expect that this was a freak occurrence, unlikely to be repeated. An analysis by The Wall Street Journal identified at least eight similar bridges also at risk, but pointed out what is always the problem with infrastructure: “The upgrades are expensive.”

Lest anyone forget, America’s latest infrastructure report card rated our overall infrastructure a “C-,” with bridges getting a “C” (in other words, other infrastructure is even worse).

What’s the plan?

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Then here’s an infrastructure story that threw me even more.

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Optum: Testing Time for an Invisible Empire

By JEFF GOLDSMITH

Years ago, the largest living thing in the world was thought to be the blue whale. Then someone discovered that the largest living thing in the world was actually the 106 acre, 47 thousand tree Pando aspen grove in central Utah, which genetic testing revealed to be a single organism. With its enormous network of underground roots and symbiotic relationship with a vast ecosystem of fungi, that aspen grove is a great metaphor for UnitedHealth Group. United, whose revenues amount to more than 8% of the US health system, is the largest healthcare enterprise in the world. The root system of UHG is a vast and poorly understood subsidiary called Optum.

At $226 billion annual revenues, Optum is the largest healthcare business in the US that no-one knows anything about. Optum by itself has revenues that are a little less than 5% of total US healthcare spending. An ill-starred Optum subsidiary, Change Healthcare, which suffered a catastrophic $100 billion cyberattack on February 21, 2024 that put most of the US health system on life support, put its parent company Optum in the headlines.

But Change Healthcare is a tiny (less than 2%) piece of this vast new (less than twenty years old) healthcare enterprise. If it were freestanding, Optum would be the 12th largest company in the US: identical in size to Costco and slightly larger than Microsoft. Optum’s topline revenues are almost four times larger than HCA, the nation’s largest hospital company, one third larger than the entirety of Elevance, United’s most significant health plan competitor, and more than double the size of Kaiser Permanente.

If there really were economies of scale in healthcare, they would mean that care was of demonstrably better value provided by vast enterprises like Optum/United than in more fragmented, smaller, or less integrated alternatives. It is not clear that it is. If value does not reach patients and physicians in ways that matter to them—in better, less expensive, and more responsive care, in improved health or in a less hassled and more fulfilling practice—ultimately the care system as well as United will suffer.

What is Optum?

Optum is a diversified health services, financing and business intelligence subsidiary of aptly named UnitedHealth Group. It provides health services, purchases drugs on behalf of United’s health plan, and provides consulting, logistical support (e.g. claims management and IT enablement) and business intelligence services to United’s health plan business, as well as to United’s competitors.

Of Optum’s $226 billion topline, $136.4 billion (or 60% of its total revenues) represent clinical and business services provided to United’s Health Insurance business. Corporate UnitedHealth Group, Optum included, generated $29 billion in cashflow in 23, and $118.3 billion since 2019. United channeled almost $52 billion of that cash into buying health-related businesses, nearly all of which end up housed inside Optum.

Source: 2023 UNH 10K

For most of the past decade, Optum has been driving force of incremental profit growth for United. Optum’s operating profits grew from $6.7 billion in 2017 (34% of UHG total) to $15.9 billion in 2023 (55% of total). However, the two most profitable pieces of Optum by operating margin—Optum Health and Optum Insight—have seen their operating margins fall by one third in just four years. The slowing of Optum’s profitability is a huge challenge for United.

Gaul Had Three Parts, So Does Optum

The largest and least profitable (by percent margin) piece of Optum is its giant Pharmacy Benefit Manager, Optum Rx, the third largest PBM in the US.

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