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Category: The Business of Health Care

Health Care Execs Behaving Badly

BY KIM BELLARD

In the midst of a pandemic during which health care workers proved themselves to be very bit the heroes we like to think of them as being, it’s sobering to be reminded that the system they work in is filled with perverse incentives that work against patients’ best interests.  Four pieces of excellent journalism – two from The New York Times, and two from Kaiser Health News — this week brought that front and center.  

If you haven’t read them yet, I urge you to do so, but, while you might enjoy the writing, don’t expect to enjoy their content.

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What does CVS’s new deal signify about Medicare Advantage?

Each week I’ve been adding a brief tidbits section to the THCB Reader, our weekly newsletter that summarizes the best of THCB that week (Sign up here!). Then I had the brainwave to add them to the blog. They’re short and usually not too sweet! –Matthew Holt

Meanwhile, it’s time for Matthew’s tidbits. A quick moment’s thought of course for the Queen, her family and semi-loyal subjects, of which I am (sort of) one. In fact in the last 7 days my ancestral homeland of the UK has got a new King, a new prime minister and a new manager at Chelsea FC. Still, two of three of those changes seem to happen about every 18 months so we shouldn’t be too surprised that they all happened at once.

Talking of changes, this week’s big American health care news was the other Matthew Holt pocketing a boatload of cash. Yes, Jess DaMassa is still hoping to upgrade her partner on Health Tech Deals without having to change the name on the intro (and ain’t shy about telling me!). The wrong Matthew Holt (from my bank balance’s perspective) has a fund called New Mountain Capital, which owns a lot of health tech assets. It was the majority owner of Signify Health–bought this week for $8bn by CVS, after being the subject of a bidding war between them, United & Amazon.

Signify is very interesting for what it does or doesn’t do. Almost all its business (having acquired and recently shut down a bundled care payments division) is now connected to sending nurses out to the homes of Medicare Advantage (MA) members on behalf of all the big payers (Aetna, United, Humana, etc) to do in-home health assessments of their members. Critics say that these assessments were used to upcode the health risk assessment factor (RAF) of those members, which causes CMS to pay more to those MA plans. MA’s defenders, including George Halvorson on THCB, say that this upcoding isn’t happening, or at least not in that way, and that the better care MA members get actually reduces overall Medicare costs.

Having read a lot and been talked at by both sides of this debate, it seems to me that both things are true. Many MA members have been “upcoded”, in many cases perhaps legitimately, and the CMS data–which is extremely murky & hard to parse–also seems to indicate that MA members’ treatment overall costs less than those in FFS. (I’ll spare you the CMS Trustees report but here is Milliman’s assessment–albeit paid for by MA proponents–using their data. MedPAC disagrees).

Signify brought in over $640m in revenue for those home evaluations in 2021 and is forecasting over $1bn in revenue this year at a healthy EBITDA. But that still means CVS is paying 8 times future revenue & maybe 30-40 times earnings. It will indeed be interesting to see if health plans remain so keen on these home evaluations if (as George Halvorson says) CMS has actually stomped on them being used for RAF upcoding. It’s also not clear if those MA plans competing with CVS/Aetna will be keen on using a company owned by one of their rivals–which might put its thumb on the scale in ways they can’t know about.

Of course, it might just be that what Signify is doing is radically improving the experience and health of those seniors in Medicare Advantage by discovering what health and social issues they have, and helping their plans and providers manage their care better. Wouldn’t it be great if all seniors could get this type of care and attention? And wouldn’t it be great if the taxpayer knew it was both helping improve seniors’ health and reducing our costs? The challenge for Medicare (and the rest of us) is to get to a place where the incentives are transparently only for improving health, and where Medicare Advantage plans are regarded across the board as actually doing only that.

We are not there yet.

“Beyond Nicotine”: Tobacco Joins Hands With Pharma.

BY MIKE MAGEE

Connecticut attorney general, William Tong, took a turn in the spotlight this week, representing 33 states and Puerto Rico in announcing that vaping original, Juul, had agreed to pay penalties of $438.5 million to settle lawsuits against the company.

Juul in essence acknowledged that the company’s marketers had targeted young students, used social media to attract underage teens, and had given them free samples. With 45% of the company’s Twitter followers between ages 13 and 17, and an age verification methodology authorities label as “porous”, they were happy to get the nation’s attorney generals out of their hair.

Over the past four years, Juul has lost over 95% of its value. When Altria bought a 35% stake in the company in December, 2018, they paid $12.8 billion. That translates to just $450 million today. What were they thinking? At the time, Juul was fighting to preserve their “flavor pods” – with mango and creme brûlée a favorite among teens. 

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Amazon’s Coitus Interruptus: In or out?

Each week I’ve been adding a brief tidbits section to the THCB Reader, our weekly newsletter that summarizes the best of THCB that week (Sign up here!). Then I had the brainwave to add them to the blog. They’re short and usually not too sweet! –Matthew Holt

Meanwhile, it’s time for Matthew’s tidbits and of course given their recent news-making I am going to focus on Amazon in health care. The news is of course that they are in health care in a big way, buying One Medical. The news is also of course is that they are out–shutting down Amazon Care.

This reminds me of the famous criticism delivered in the British parliament by one MP about another back the last time (in the 1970s) there was a vote about leaving the EU. “The Honourable gentleman can’t make up his mind. First he’s in, then he’s out. In, out. In, out. This is the politics of coitus interruptus.” After a moment a voice from the backbenches shouted “Withdraw.”

So is Amazon in or out?

They are out of their 4 year effort to build a hybrid telehealth-to-home medical group that helps mainstream employers manage their costs. This is despite stating their intent just a few months back to add new clinics and this year adding a decent number of employer clients including Hilton hotels–before that they only really had a few of their own employees as clients. Interestingly enough, it was the development of this platform that convinced Amazon that they didn’t need Haven–their alliance with JP Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway which was developing a similar offering.

They are in to the business of One Medical to the tune of a $3Bn acquisition as well as putting in $300m extra cash so far, and likely a lot more later. Like Amazon Care, One Medical has a hybrid telehealth and clinic approach (though no home visits as yet). When Amazon said they were killing Amazon Care, they suggested that a lack of employer uptake was the biggest problem. One Medical does have employer clients. But these aren’t mainstream low or medium wage employers to whom they are delivering capitated care at a worksite. In One Medical terms that means an employer pays their employees’ $200 per member annual fee, after which the employee can see a One Medical doctor. And curiously enough by far their biggest employer client is Google.

One Medical says that they lower overall costs for their employer clients, but to use another British political line, “they would say that wouldn’t they.” In reality One Medical does very little specialty or hospital care management, and via its relationships with local high-priced health systems is able to charge insurers very high prices for primary care which they seem to actually pay! (And yes I have lots of personal experience here..). Putting aside the fact that One Medical somehow is contriving to still lose loads of money–a big reason why it put itself up for sale–it is not an organization trying to manage costs for employers in value-based care arrangements, unlike say Firefly Health or even Crossover Health (of which Amazon is a big client for its lower paid workers).

You’ll notice that I am conveniently ignoring the Iora Health part of One Medical which they inexplicably bought last year. Iora focuses on capitated services for Medicare Advantage plans, and it is trying to manage costs. Though given the amount it’s losing, that effort isn’t going so well either.

It’s possible that Amazon is going to surprise us and try to turn Iora + One Medical into a capitated giant to work with and steal the margin of the big Medicare Advantage plans. Then later, move that strategy into mainstream employers.

But if they were going to try that it would probably have been easier and more culturally aligned to merge Iora with Amazon Care. My suspicion is that Amazon means what it says and is finding it too hard to manage costs for employers. My guess is it will jettison Iora, keep using Crossover and others to manage costs for its own lower-paid employees, and try to turn One Medical into a Whole Foods-like national brand for the cost- unconscious top 25% of Americans….and somehow make it profitable.

If they manage that it would be great for Amazon’s business. But it would be very disappointing for those of us hoping that Amazon was going to have a serious go at providing a low-cost, innovative service that was trying to lower overall health care costs for employers and make a serious dent in the market power of America’s high priced, under-delivering hospital systems.

Stop Talking About the Bubble and Start Telling Your Story

BY MICHELLE SNYDER

Unless you have been off the grid for the past few months (which frankly sounds kind of nice right now), you know that the digital health market has changed dramatically.   While not surprising to those of us who have been through the boom-and-bust cycles of the past two decades, it nevertheless has been an awakening for many investors and entrepreneurs.  

As an entrepreneur, there are some things you cannot control – the macro-economic climate, supply chain disruptions and narcissist led wars halfway around the world.  But what is entirely within your control is how you tell your company’s story and your ability to make investors want to join you on the journey.  

As a longtime storyteller for several digital health companies and a current story listener (aka investor), I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately.  Though the word “storyteller” can have negative connotations for some people, I value and appreciate great storytellers who engage me right off the bat, get me excited about the “why” and clearly articulate why it’s in my best interest to invest in their company.

The art of storytelling has always been important, but in the current digital health funding environment, it is quickly becoming essential for success.  Are you telling your company’s story in the most effective way?  Read on to find out.

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Quickbite Interviews: NeuroFlow

I was at the AHIP conference in Vegas late last month and caught up with a number of CEOs & execs for some quick bite interviews — around 5 mins getting (I hope) to the gist of what they & their companies are up to. I am dribbling them out–Matthew Holt

Next is Julia Kastner, CPO & Chris Molaro, CEO, Neuroflow, and it includes a great brief product demo from Julia

Quickbite Interviews: IXLayer

I was at the AHIP conference in Vegas late last month and caught up with a number of CEOs & execs for some quick bite interviews — around 5 mins getting (I hope) to the gist of what they & their companies are up to. I am going to dribble them out this week–Matthew Holt

First up is Pouria Sanae, CEO of IXLayer.

Matthew’s health care tidbits: Is Covid over for the health care system?

Each week I’ve been adding a brief tidbits section to the THCB Reader, our weekly newsletter that summarizes the best of THCB that week (Sign up here!). Then I had the brainwave to add them to the blog. They’re short and usually not too sweet! –Matthew Holt

I am beginning to wonder, is COVID over? Of course no one has told the virus that it’s over. In fact infection rates are two to three times where they were in the post-omicron lull and new variants are churning themselves out faster and faster. We still have 300 people dying every day. But since we went past a million US deaths, no one seems to care any more.

For the health care system, COVID being over means a chance to get back to normal, and normal ain’t good. Normal means trying to get rid of that pesky telemedicine and anything else that came around since March 2020.The incumbents want to remove the public health emergency that allowed telemedicine to be paid for by Medicare, re-enforce the Ryan Haight act which mandates in-person visits for prescribing controlled Rx like Adderall for ADHD, and make sure that tortuous state license requirements for online physicians are not going away. This also means restrictions on hospital at home, and basically delays any other innovative way to change care delivery. Well, it was all so perfect in February 2020!

But there is one COVID related problem that doesn’t seem to be going away. People. They’re just not going back to work and nurses in particular are resisting the pull of the big hospitals. I don’t know the end game here, but there is a clue in the “return to office” data. Basically every large city is below 50% of its office space being occupied and companies are having to figure out a hybrid model going forward, no matter how much Elon Musk objects.

Hospitals aren’t going willingly into the night. The big systems still control American health care, and are prepared to fight on all fronts to keep it that way. But like office workers, nurses and doctors want a different life. The concept of virtual-first, community-based, primary care-led health care has been around for a long while and been studiously ignored by the majority of the system.

If hospitals can’t get the staff and keep losing money employing the ones they have, there will be new solutions being offered to clinicians wanting a different life-style. We just might see a different approach to health care delivery rising phoenix-like from the Covid ashes.

Matthew’s health care tidbits: Digital Health is dead (well, not quite)

Each week I’ve been adding a brief tidbits section to the THCB Reader, our weekly newsletter that summarizes the best of THCB that week (Sign up here!). Then I had the brainwave to add them to the blog. They’re short and usually not too sweet! –Matthew Holt

For today’s health care tidbits, the elephant in the room has truely come home to roost, and now it’s landed on the phone wire, it’s close to breaking it. OK, I have stretched that metaphor to death but you’ll get my point. Writing on THCB earlier this month Jeff Goldsmith and Eric Larsen picked up on something I’ve been saying for a while –the fall in valuation of publicly traded digital health companies will have a knock effect on private companies

It took a while–those public companies stock prices started falling from their heights 14 months ago–but in the last month the venture capital scene has gone quiet. The days of sub $20m ARR companies getting mutli-hundred million dollar valuations are over for now. They will be back at some point in the future, as that’s how Silicon Valley has always worked, but it’ll be a while and in the meantime everyone is going to have to figure out what to do in the new world.

The “What to do?” question is getting harder as the data starts to come in, and it’s getting ugly. On the one hand the two fastest growing digital health companies ever have both had their comeuppance. Livongo was a tremendous exit for its investors and ended up trading at 20 times future revenue before it got acquired by Teladoc for $18bn mostly in stock. This quarter Teladoc wrote off much of its investment in Livongo and the whole company is now only worth $5bn. Clearly those “synergies” between telehealth and chronic care management didn’t work. The other rocket ship was Cerebral, which went from nothing in Jan 2020 to by Jan 2022 having over 100,000 patients and thousands of providers on its system as it raised over $300m from Softbank et al. Its aggressive & expensive customer acquisition costs, with its controversial controlled medication prescribing patterns, brought it way too much controversy. Its young CEO is gone, and it’ll be a slow climb back with bankruptcy and collapse the likeliest of outcomes.

But the part of digital health that’s trying to replace the incumbents is not the only place showing ugliness. The technologies and services being rolled out are often not working. Exhibit A is a randomized controlled trial conducted a Univ of Pennsylvania. One set of heart patients was set up with connected blood pressure cuffs, a pillbox that tracked their Rx adherence and lots of coaching help. The others were sent home with the proverbial leaflet and told to call if they had problems. You’d assume many more deaths and hospital readmissions in the second group. You’d be wrong. There were no differences.

So digital health needs to see if it can produce services companies that move the needle on costs and outcomes. The advantage is that they are eventually competing with hospital systems whose DNA doesn’t allow them the ability to let them cross the chasm to the new world. The bad news is that those systems have huge reserves which they can use to subsidize their old world activities.

I’m hoping digital health’s impact in the next 2 years will be as big as it was in the past 2, It’s by no means dead or over, but I am pessimistic.

The Licensing Walls Come Tumbling Down

BY KIM BELLARD

Abortion rights continue to be one of the most heated issues in American politics, super-fueled by last week’s leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn 1973’s Roe v. Wade and return the issue to the states to decide. 

I’ll leave it to others more qualified than me – women, for example — to weigh in on abortion itself, but I want to talk about how abortion pills are going to force changes to our healthcare system that many may not be ready for.

Although the stereotype of abortions is a procedure done by a physician in an office/clinic, the majority of abortions in the U.S. are now done through the use of abortion pills.  It is a two step process, and the two medications must be prescribed by a physician. Until last December, women were required to see a physician in person, but the FDA permanently lifted those requirements, following a temporary waiver during the pandemic. The pills are considered both highly effective and safe.  There are startups, like Hey Jane and Just the Pill, that specialize in them.

Not surprisingly, since the leak searches for “abortion pills” have hit all-time highs.

The states that have been passing various abortion bans have not ignored the loophole that abortion pills represent. There are a variety of restrictions that have been enacted, such as requiring in-person visits to outright banning use of telehealth for them. In those states, some women have opted to travel out of state to do the telehealth visit and/or to receive the pills via the mail. 

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