“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” Michael Porter.
It is so often the case that organizations try to do things they should not do. Call it irrational exuberance; getting out in front of the curve; or a bridge too far. Hospital systems are examples of that. Already large, complex organizations doing incredibly challenging things with billions of dollars flowing through their systemic blood vessels, they are understandably tempted to do more. They always are. That is the inevitable urge of active hospital board members and ambitious executives. Do more; not do less. After all, who arrives to such an exalted position to do less?
Their collective corporate eye is cast toward health insurers who have been called bloated and inefficient; dinosaurs; dim witted at best. The President of the United States, no less, disparaged insurers while promoting the ACA, labelling them the “villains” of the healthcare system. Speaker Pelosi called them “immoral.” How difficult can it be to do health insurance better than the insurers have done it? Should be easy for people as smart as those who run complex healthcare delivery systems.
“Hospitals think this is a way to cut out the middle person, tailor care more closely and save a lot of extra money, but there’s a history to this and it generally doesn’t work,” said Howard Berliner, a visiting professor of health policy at NYU. “It sounds easy, but it winds up being incredibly complicated.”
Well, it isn’t easy, and although there are exceptions such as Kaiser Permanente based in California and Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania, the road is littered with the detritus of hospital systems which have tried and failed.
The December 16, 2016 edition of the Wall Street Journal carries an article in its Business News Section on this subject. Titled Hospital Firm Retreats as Insurer, it is about Catholic Health Initiatives, a 103-hospital system located in 18 states. CHI bought a managed-care plan looking to market coverage using its network of hospitals and physicians for care. However, this nascent insurance business apparently lost $110 Million for the fiscal year ended in June, and CHI has declined to say whether it was continuing with insurance or not. We know what that usually means.
The article goes on to mention similar challenges faced by Tenet Healthcare based in Dallas which expects to exit the insurance business, and Piedmont Healthcare which, after less than two years and steep losses, shut its insurance arm down. The article also describes the less than rosy experiences of Ascension Health in St. Louis, and Northwell Health in Great Neck, NY.
There are others. Closer to my home is Partners in Boston, which in 2012 acquired the HMO Neighborhood Health Plans (NHP). NHP uses Community Health Centers to provide care primarily to Medicaid beneficiaries and the indigent via the MassHealth Connector (the Massachusetts Exchange or so-called Romney Care). One can imagine the visions at Partners about rescuing this financially challenged but highly rated insurer (which to its credit it did), establishing itself in the ever-growing Medicaid-via-Exchange world, and slowly branching out with a little traffic-flow-directing on the way (which it also did). However, since 2014 NHP has lost $241 Million, and announced it was no longer accepting new MassHealth subscribers, at least for now.
UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) has reportedly done well with its insuring arm, insuring 2.6 million members mostly in Western Pennsylvania, right in Highmark Blue Cross’ back yard. [An aside: Two of the most prominent downtown Pittsburgh buildings are those of UPMC and Highmark, which tells us something.] UPMC’s insurer trajectory, however, has been a long one, starting back in the early 1990s with success coming only recently as the significant protracted legal and other battles with Highmark start to wind down.
There are entirely too many other cautionary tales of hospital systems venturing into the health insurance arena and exiting battered and beaten. George Santayana, in Vol. I in Life of Reason (1905-06), which is aptly titled Reason in Common Sense, wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And indeed, this all has happened before as late as in the 1990’s, when a number of large hospital systems made disastrous forays into the insurance world via HMOs.
So, what is going on here? Why are these very bright capable executives continuing to repeat past decisions which so often have led to financial catastrophes for hospital systems?
First of all, it is understandable that hospital systems might think they can do insurance. After all, they already are taking on more and more risk, whether through the various CMS ACO programs or via risk-based or value-based contracting with private insurers. The thinking goes like this: how much more difficult can it be to insure if we are already taking on substantial risk? Isn’t insurance all about the assumption of risk? Let’s cut out the useless middleman (commercial insurers) and capture the margin for ourselves. And there are commentators out there actually encouraging them to do just that.
Modern Healthcare in a 2015 article outlined the challenges hospitals faced doing this, and their track record. It highlighted Premier Health’s activities (a $1.9 Billion Catholic Health Initiatives 5 hospitals system in Dayton, Ohio), quoting one of its executives:
“For us, the insurance business is just a vehicle to cover as many lives as we can in our service area with our population health initiatives…. We’re not out to be one of the large national players in the insurance market.”
Uh huh. “Just a vehicle.” The Modern Healthcare article goes on to quote a consultant as saying that once hospitals “get into product design and pricing and all of the nuanced areas, you can get into trouble reasonably quickly.” Indeed. And the recent WSJ article about CHI seems to bear this out.
Hospital systems often start out self-insuring and self-administering their own employees, just as Premier did. Then, after just a few years with nothing remarkable happening, some executive looking to add value suggests “modest” expansions. And they get sucked in. “Just a vehicle.”
Although current thinking, largely by providers, is that health insurers are not a value-add in the delivery of care world, they lose sight of what insurers do and how complex and necessary it is to do it. First of all, health insurers were first created in the 1920’s and 1930’s by hospitals (the first Blue Crosses) and physicians (the first Blue Shields) to increase the odds of actually getting paid for services rendered during the Great Depression. And for many years, the Blues were creatures of those providers who dominated their boards of directors until anti-trust concerns changed that in the late 1970’s.
Health insurers are pulled in many directions, owing obligations to many constituencies: the insured members whose care is covered; the employers who pay most of the freight; the providers which demand “fair” reimbursement; the healthcare “system;” and the public on many nuanced levels. If they are for profit, their fiduciary duty is, of course, to their shareholders. If nonprofit, their fiduciary duty, while more diffuse, includes financial stability via strong reserves.
Claims processing used to require many, many employees with decades of hands-on experience. Now it mostly requires legacy core processing systems that are incredibly expensive and nightmares to upgrade and replace.
Insurers create and maintain networks of providers which require a host of activities and oversight. Negotiating fee discounts is merely one such. Insurers manage thousands of contracts, moving money in myriad ways; contracting is challenging, nasty, complex, and risky; the actuarial and underwriting activities are not for amateurs or the faint of heart; and it goes on.
Moody’s Investors Services suggests that the biggest operational challenge hospital systems face in undertaking insurance functions is the lack of the specific expertise and skills needed to effectively run an insurance plan, including actuarial and underwriting practices, marketing, customer service, IT, and the maze of compliance needed.
As Moody’s states, the skills needed for insurance are profoundly different from those needed for the delivery of acute care. “Not-for-profit hospitals with a health insurance business … tend to operate at noticeably lower operating cash flow margins than similar health systems without insurance,” says Moody’s Analyst Mark Pascaris. “Entering the insurance business inevitably suppresses hospital system margins from the beginning.”
Why is that? Because hospital financial success in today’s reimbursement world is based on maximizing treatment volume, while insurer success is based on just the opposite. This is an inherent conflict that perhaps someday can be mitigated by payment reform and ACO-type models. But not yet; not today.
Then there is scale. Without it, insuring is almost always doomed to failure. While I am sure there are exceptions, in my judgment, the lowest member population a commercial insurer can reasonably scale to is about 200,000. And they should never, ever try to build their own claims processing module from scratch. That way lies madness and costs hundreds of millions of dollars. If starting out relatively small, they must use a very efficient, bare bones TPA claims processor which charges by member month.
AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans) tells us that if providers want to get into the insurance business, they have to be willing to deal with many complex government regulatory requirements including maintaining hefty reserves and paying the ACA’s health insurance tax. This ties up huge amounts of available hospital funds, usually a scarce resource.
So this is all about scale and skill sets. If a delivery system wishes to go this route, I would suggest that it has to be prepared for a large-scale merger with a significantly sized insurer with existing adequate reserves, a large employer-based book of business, and existing expertise. Those sorts of insurers usually are not in play precisely because they are reasonably healthy. And, yes, for that very reason, acquisition or merger will be very expensive; and there may be some question of who controls the resulting merged entity.
How about buying a failing insurer on the cheap? That can work, but it seldom does. A bad medical loss ratio is wicked difficult to turn around, and the Partners/NHP example discussed above suggests that it is not the optimum model.
The point of this article? I think some day it will be easier to combine the delivery and financing elements under one roof. But that can happen only when reimbursement methodologies have changed to such a paradigm extent that the delivery organization succeeds financially ONLY when it reduces the rate of utilization of care per covered life by making them healthier. At that point, the care and financing arms are financially aligned.
So, the cautionary tale is obvious. And yet, I have little doubt that even after reading this article, there will be a hospital executive or two that will be unable to resist the siren song temptation to dip their toes into these waters, thinking they can do it better. Maybe they can, but the odds are against them.