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Blue Shield CA, CVS Caremark & the mystery of the extra $116, with 2 UPDATES (at the end)

By MATTHEW HOLT

Today we’re going to have fun with show and tell. I’m going to show you how a little corner of American health care is making my life as a consumer worse and more expensive–hopefully someone can tell me why.

The cast members are: me, my MD, the (sort of) independent pharmacy that delivers, Alto, and my insurer Blue Shield of California and its PBM CVS Caremark, which also owns a mail order pharmacy.

The brief backstory: For some years my doctor has been whining about my high cholesterol, and a few years back I went on a statin called Rosuvastatin Calcium. Older readers may remember Jean Luc Picard himself advertising the branded version Crestor, but it’s been off patent for about a decade. About 50 million Americans now take a statin, almost all of them a generic, including many 60 year old males like me. My cholesterol has come down, but my MD told me it could come down more, so a few months ago we boosted the dose to 40mg from 20mg. 

Until recently I’d been insured by BCBS Massachusetts, and you might recall a little over a year ago I wrote a piece on THCB about the fun and games to be had trying to figure out what their PBM (CVS Caremark) was doing with the pricing of my kid’s ADHD medication. But they’d never messed with my medication as my statins are cheap. At least I thought they were. In fact as recently as April last year, they were free. You can see the price from the delivery from Alto Pharmacy below.

How BCBS Mass came up with $0.00 as the price I pay I don’t know, but presumably they think it’s a good thing to have me on statins in the hope I don’t have an (expensive) heart attack instead.

Then for some reason my price for the statin later the same year went up to $23. No longer $0 but at $8 a month not really worth making a fuss about.

At the end of the year, COBRA expired and I went to buy insurance on the California exchange. And in order to keep access to my family’s doctors at One Medical, I chose the only plan they were in, the Blue Shield of California HMO.

My next 90 day supply was the first one which went from 20mg to 40mg, but it’s still a common generic. Blue Shield of California also uses CVS Caremark (although it’s been talking a good game of ditching CVS Caremark and setting up its own PBM) and the cost at Alto barely budged. Now it was $28.

What happened next: So all was going normally until late last week when my next 90 supply was delivered. Except it wasn’t. Alto delivered me a 30 day supply and charged me $19.

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The Money’s in the Wrong Place. How to Fund Primary Care

By MATTHEW HOLT

I was invited on the Health Tech Talk Show by Kat McDavitt and Lisa Bari and I kinda ranted (go to 37.16 here) about why we don’t have primary care, and where we should find the money to fix it. I finally got around to writing it up. It’s a rant but a rant with a point!

We’re spending way too much money on stuff that is the wrong thing.

30 years ago, I was taught that we were going to have universal health care reform. And then we were going to have capitated at-risk entities. then below that, you have all these tech enabled services, which are going to make all this stuff work and it’s all going to be great, right?  

Go back, read your Advisory Board Company reports from 1994. It says all this.

But (deep breath here) — partly as a consequence of Obamacare & partly as a consequence of inertia in the system, and a lot because most people in health care actually work in public utilities or semi-public utilities because half the money comes from the government — instead of that, what we’ve got is this whole series of massive predominantly non-profit organizations which have made a fortune in the last decades. And they’ve stuck it all in hedge funds and now a bunch of them literally run actual hedge funds.

Ascension runs a hedge fund. They’ve got, depending who you believe, somewhere between 18 billion and 40 billion in their hedge fund. But even teeny guys are at it. There’s a hospital system in New Jersey called RWJ Barnabas. It’s around a 20 hospital system, with about $6 billion in revenue, and more than $2.5 billion in investments. I went and looked at their 990 (the tax form non-profits have to file). In a system like that–not a big player in the national scheme–how many people would you guess make more than a million dollars a year?

They actually put it on their 990 and they hope no one reads it, and no one does. The answer is 28 people – and another 14 make more than $750K a year. I don’t know who the 28th person is but they must be doing really important stuff to be paid a million dollars a year. Their executive compensation is more than the payroll of the Oakland A’s.

On the one hand, you have these organizations which are professing to be the health system serving the community, with their mission statements and all the worthy people on their boards, and on the other they literally paying millions to their management teams.

Go look at any one of these small regional hospital systems. The 990s are stuffed with people who, if they’re not making a million, they’re making $750,000. The CEOs are all making $2m up to $10 million in some cases more. But it also goes down a long way. It’s like the 1980s scene with Michael Douglas as Gordon Gecko in Wall Street criticizing all the 35 vice presidents in whatever that company was all making $200K a year.

Meanwhile, these are the same organizations that appear in the news frequently for setting debt collectors onto their incredibly poor patients who owe them thousands or sometimes just hundreds of dollars. In one case ProPublica dug up it was their own employees who owed them for hospital bills they couldn’t pay and their employer was docking their wages — from $12 an hour employees.

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Matthew’s health care tidbits: Medicare Advantage is now a provider fracking contest

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

Yes it’s time to talk Medicare Advantage (MA). It’s been a huge couple of weeks for the world of MA. On the commercial side, CVS bought the biggest pure play MA provider, Oak Street Health for $10bn. This pissed me off as if they paid $2 a share more I’d have made a profit on the stock I foolishly bought “on a dip” in 2021.

But this amazed many of us on THCB Gang, as they paid a huge premium and it works out to some $60k per patient. Now health care organizations have been overpaying for patient “lives” as long as I can remember–going at least as far back as Aetna nearly going out of business when it bought US Healthcare in 1996. So why is today’s incarnation of Aetna buying providers?

Well that’s to do with the regulatory side of MA. I have been on record since the very first post of THCB that Medicare FFS is an inefficient and expensive program–even if 80% of American hospitals say they lose money on it and have to charge commercial insurers more to make up for it. But while it’s possible to agree with George Halvorson that MA delivers better care at a lower cost than FFS Medicare, it is simultaneously possible to believe that MA costs more than it should. That’s because of aggressive RAF upcoding that’s been built both into home visits from companies like Signify and also into the EMRs doctors have been using to code MA members’ health status.

There are lots of proposals on how to fix this–including this one from Chenmed on how to change MA from paying for inputs (i.e how sick people are when they join MA) to outputs (how much better they got while in MA). But it’s clear that CMS is now officially coming after upcoding including full cross plan audits back to 2018. Even if not back to 2011. The MA plans will grumble about those past audits and tie CMS up in court but they know going forward the game is up

To make more money in MA they need to get hold and shake loose or frack some of the 85% of the premium that goes to provider organizations. Hence they are all getting into bed with them or buying them outright. UHG, Humana & now Aetna/CVS have been buying physician groups that serve MA populations at a quickening rate, and their goal is to put more of the 50% of seniors already into MA into those groups.

Will this save any money?  Well probably not, at least not yet. Humana has been reporting on the costs in its full risk capitated MA groups versus its FFS ones for a couple of years, and the difference is a rounding error. But the point is that the next war in Medicare Advantage is going to be what happens inside these plan-owned medical groups. So expect a lot more scrutiny of both costs, outcomes and patient experience within MA focused medical groups starting about now. 

#HealthTechDeals Episode 45: CVS buys Signify; Psych Hub; 98point6 & MedMinder

It’s been a week of endings for UK politicians, soccer coaches and tennis GOATs. And a big deal in health tech as CVS buys Signify Health for $8bn. Psych Hub raises $16m, 98point6 tacks on $20m more in a poss direction change & MedMinder tackles that hardest of all questions–Did I take my pill or not? Jess DaMassa almost lets me takeover, but we know who she really wants in charge! Matthew Holt

Getting Sick and Going Broke – CVS, Credit Cards, and Crippling Medical Debt

BY MIKE MAGEE

The Medical-Industrial Complex is swarming with grifters. This is to be expected when you build a purposefully complex system designed to advance profitability for small and large players alike. The $4T operation payrolling 1 in 5 American workers is, in large part, a hidden economy, one built by professional tricksters, designed by Fortune 100 firms with mountains of lobbyists, but reinforced as well by friendly doctors and hospitals engaged in petty and small scale swindling who justify their predatory actions as entrepreneurial, innovative, and purposeful means of necessary financial survival.

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Big Health’s CEO: Working With Big Healthcare (CVS) & Big Pharma (as a DTx) on Mental Health

By JESSICA DaMASSA, WTF HEALTH

Big Health bills itself as a “complete 24-hour solution for mental health,” offering Sleepio to those who have trouble sleeping and Daylight to those who suffer from worry and anxiety during the day. Fresh off a $39M Series B in June 2020 (total $54.3M) — and having just landed Daylight onto CVS Health’s digital health formulary to join Sleepio there as a “point solution” payors can easily integrate into their benefits offerings — co-founder & CEO Peter Hames stops by for an ENORMOUS conversation about the ‘state-of-play’ for digital mental health companies like his own. Has CVS Health’s digital formulary made it any easier to contract with employers and get the attention of health consumers? And, what of the attention being paid to Big Health itself? As we hit “peak platformization” in digital health, is the company a prime acquisition target? (Note: Omada Health’s CEO Sean Duffy is a friend and investor and we get a good laugh around the 15-minute mark when we fact-check some rumors… ) Finally, another “insight highlight” worth mentioning: some candid conversation on what’s happening in digital therapeutics (DTx) as Peter is the Chair of the category’s industry org, the Digital Therapeutics Alliance. Does Big Pharma still have an appetite for DTx despite some rough news about partnerships with startups in recent months? You’ll want to tune in around 17:30 for more on that too.

Health in 2 Point 00, Episode 112 | COVID-19, HealthDevJam & loads of deals

Today on Health in 2 Point 00, Jess is joining somebody for their self quarantine in the Oval Office! Shenanigans aside, I give a quick coronavirus update and a shameless plug before diving into our regular coverage of all the deals. As for COVID-19, there’s a ton of activity going on in the digital health world with companies trying to figure out how they can help with this. Catalyst will be presenting some of that, either this weekend or early next week. Next, there’s an FHIR-related HealthDevJam event (free, online) TODAY at 1pm Eastern with lots of great people speaking.

Diving into some non-coronavirus related deals, eConsult company RubiconMD raises $18 million, Lyra Health getes a chunk of change—$75 million—for its mental health platform, Fruit Street Health gets $17 million from an unlikely source, b.well raises $16 million for what’s not a personal health record, and CVS announces that it added 5 digital health companies to its point solution management system. Finally, there’s been some sneaky stuff uncovered about Sanofi. Tune in for all the details on Episode 112. —Matthew Holt

Learning from CVS – When is telemedicine disruptive, and when is it just…cool technology?

By REBECCA FOGG

The Theory of Disruptive Innovation, defined by Harvard Business School (HBS) Professor Clayton Christensen in 1997, explains the process by which simple, convenient and affordable solutions become the norm in industries historically characterized by expensive and complicated ones. Examples of disruption include TurboTax tax preparation software, which disrupted accountants, and Netflix, which disrupted retail video stores and is now giving Hollywood film studios a serious run for their money.

According to Christensen, a critical condition of disruption (but not the only one) is an “enabling technology”an invention or innovation that makes a product or service (or “solution”) more accessible to a wider population in terms of cost, and ease of acquisition and/or use. For instance, innovations making equipment for dialysis cheaper and simpler helped make it possible to administer the treatment in neighborhood clinics, rather than in centralized hospitals, thus disrupting hospital’s share of the dialysis business.

However in an interview in Working Knowledge, the online newsletter highlighting HBS research, marketing Professor Thales Teixeira asserts that it’s not innovative technology that disrupts a market. Rather, it’s companies recognizing and addressing emerging customer needs sooner than incumbents. …In many industries, both the disrupter and the disrupted had similar technologies and similar amounts of technology,” he points out. “The common pattern was that the majority of customers in those markets had changing needs and wants, and their behavior was changing.”

Well that’s interesting. Does Teixeira’s view on the role of technology in disruption, at least as summarized in the interview, contradict Christensen’s groundbreaking work? Not at all. In fact, Teixeira effectively reinforces an oft-overlooked nuance of the latter: disruption is not just about the innovative solution, no matter how novel, dazzling or slick the technology it may employ. It’s about using the solution to do a job for consumers that makers of incumbent solutions are ignoring—usually in a cheaper, simpler and more accessible way; and maximizing likelihood of success by aligning the innovator’s whole business model toward that end.

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Part 2: Bypassing Prior Authorizations

By NIRAN AL-AGBA, MD

A few weeks ago, I saw a young patient who was suffering from an ear infection. It was his fourth visit in eight weeks, as the infection had proven resistant to an escalating series of antibiotics prescribed so far. It was time to bring out a heavier hitter. I prescribed Ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic rarely used in pediatrics, yet effective for some drug-resistant pediatric infections.

The patient was on the state Medicaid insurance and required a so-called prior authorization, or PA, for Ciprofloxacin. Consisting of additional paperwork that physicians are required to fill out before pharmacists can fill prescriptions for certain drugs, PAs boil down to yet another cost-cutting measure implemented by insurers to stand between patients and certain costly drugs.

The PA process usually takes from 48-72 hours, and it’s not infrequent for requests to be denied, even when the physician has demonstrated an undeniable medical need for the drug in question.

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WTF Health | Teladoc’s Gorevic: “We’re feeling A-quisitive”

WTF Health – ‘What’s the Future’ Health? is a new interview series about the future of the health industry and how we love to hate WTF is wrong with it right now. Can’t get enough? Check out more interviews at www.wtf.health

I guess he warned us that Teladoc was feeling ‘A-quisitive’ — the question now is are they done? A few weeks ago I spoke with Jason Gorevic, Teladoc’s CEO at the new HLTH Conference about consolidation in the telehealth space and what’s next for the virtual care giant.

Although he was mum on the company’s $352M mega-buy of Advance Medical, there was a shopping list of other solutions that seem to have caught Teladoc’s eye — everything from tech that turns Alexa into a telemed access point to NLP plug-ins and any number of shiny devices that make remote monitoring easier, less expensive, and more effective.

Perhaps an indicator of where they’ll look next as they continue to sweep up market share? Listen in on some of the details about their CVS partnership (VIRTUAL Minute Clinic, anyone?) and the VERY interesting talks he’s having with the country’s largest payers on redefining benefit designs to push virtual care first.