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Tag: Hospitals

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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Out of Control Health Costs or a Broken Society

Flawed Accounting for the US Health Spending Problem

By Jeff Goldsmith

Source: OECD, Our World in Data

Late last year, I saw this chart which made my heart sink. It compared US life expectancy to its health spending since 1970 vs. other countries. As you can see,  the US began peeling off from the rest of the civilized world in the mid-1980’s. Then US life expectancy began falling around 2015, even as health spending continued to rise. We lost two more full years of life expectancy to COVID. By  the end of 2022, the US had given up 26 years-worth of progress in life expectancy gains. Adding four more years to the chart below will make us look even worse.  

Of course, this chart had a political/policy agenda: look what a terrible social investment US health spending has been! Look how much more we are spending than other countries vs. how long we live and you can almost taste the ashes of diminishing returns. This chart posits a model where you input health spending into the large black box that is the US economy and you get health out the other side. 

The problem is that is not how things work. Consider another possible interpretation of this chart:  look how much it costs to clean up the wreckage from a society that is killing off its citizens earlier and more aggressively than any other developed society. It is true that we lead the world in health spending.  However, we also lead the world in a lot of other things health-related.

Exceptional Levels of Gun Violence

Americans are ten times more likely than citizens of most other comparable countries to die of gun violence. This is hardly surprising, since the US has the highest rate of gun ownership per capita in the world, far exceeding the ownership rates in failed states such as Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan. The US has over 400 million guns in circulation, including 20 million military style semi-automatic weapons. Firearms are the leading cause of deaths of American young people under the age of 24. According to the Economist, in 2021, 38,307 Americans aged between 15 and 24 died vs. just 2185 in Britain and Wales. Of course, lots of young lives lost tilt societal life expectancies sharply downward.

A Worsening Mental Health Crisis

Of the 48 thousand deaths from firearms every year in the US, over 60% are suicides (overwhelmingly by handguns), a second area of dubious US leadership. The US has the highest suicide rate among major western nations. There is no question that the easy access to handguns has facilitated this high suicide rate.

About a quarter of US citizens self-report signs of mental distress, a rate second only to Sweden. We shut down most of our public mental hospitals a generation ago in a spasm of “de-institutionalization” driven by the arrival of new psychoactive drugs which have grossly disappointed patients and their families. As a result,  the US  has defaulted to its prison system and its acute care hospitals as “treatment sites”; costs to US society of managing mental health problems are, not surprisingly, much higher than other countries. Mental health status dramatically worsened during the COVID pandemic and has only partially recovered. 

Drug Overdoses: The Parallel Pandemic

On top of these problems, the US has also experienced an explosive increase in drug overdoses, 110 thousand dead in 2022, attributable to a flood of deadly synthetic opiates like fentanyl. This casualty count is double that of the next highest group of countries, the Nordic countries, and is again the highest among the wealthy nations. If you add the number of suicides, drug overdoses and homicides together, we lost 178 thousand fellow Americans in 2021, in addition to the 500 thousand person COVID death toll. The hospital emergency department is the departure portal for most of these deaths. 

Maternal Mortality Risks

The US also has the highest maternal mortality rate of any comparable nation, almost 33 maternal deaths per hundred thousand live births in 2021. This death rate is more than triple that of Britain, eight times that of Germany and almost ten times that of Japan. Black American women have a maternal mortality rate almost triple that of white American women, and 15X the rate of German women. Sketchy health insurance coverage certainly plays a role here, as does inconsistent prenatal care, systemic racial inequities, and a baseline level of poor health for many soon-to-be moms.     

Obesity Accelerates

Then you have the obesity epidemic. Obesity rates began rising in the US in the late 1980’s right around when the US peeled away from the rest of the countries on the chart above. Some 42% of US adults are obese, a number that seemed to be levelling off in the late 2010’s, but then took another upward lurch in the past couple of years. Only the Pacific Island nations have higher obesity rates than the US does. And with obesity, conditions like diabetes flourish. Nearly 11% of US citizens suffer from diabetes, a sizable fraction of whom are undiagnosed (and therefore untreated). US diabetes prevalence is nearly double that of France, with its famously rich diets. 

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THCB 20th Birthday Classic: McKinsey wants to inspire lots of change; caveat emptor

by MATTHEW HOLT

So to celebrate 20 years, we’ll be publishing a few classics for the next week or so. This is one of my faves from the early days of THCB, back in 2006. It’s interesting to compare it with Jeff Goldsmith’s NEW piece from yesterday on vertical integration because at the time a pair of Harvard professors, Michael Porter and Elizabeth Teisberg were telling hospitals to change their operations in a way that seemed to me were going to destroy their business–cut down to one or two service lines they were best at and stop with the rest. McKinsey picked up on this and I went to town on why they were all wrong. In fact in the next decade and a half, despite all the fuss and consulting fees generated, almost no hospital system did anything other than merge horizontally with local competitors, stick up its prices, and buy feeder systems of primary care doctors or ally with/bribe specialists to keep their procedural referrals up. The result is the huge regional oligopolies that we have now. Despite all the ignoring of their advice, I don’t think Porter/Teisberg or McKinsey went broke in that same period.–Matthew Holt

McKinsey, an organization that prides itself on increasing the amount of consulting dollars it gets paid by improving the strategic direction of American business is making another foray into health care.

You may recall their last study on CDHPs was roundly criticized (see Tom Hillard for a good example including a hilarious and brutal smackdown of their research methodology in the last couple of paras), and this time they cleverly aren’t bothering with data—in fact they’re basically copying Porter and Teisberg. The piece, by Kurt Grote, Edward Levine and Paul Mango, is about hospitals and how they need to get into the 21st century.

And of course the idea is that hospitals need to change their business approach.  Well, given that I hadn’t noticed a rash of hospital closings and the the industry as a whole has been growing its revenues pretty successfully over the years, what exactly are the problems?

The rise of employer-sponsored insurance in the 1930s and 1940s, and the emergence of government-sponsored insurance in the 1960s all insulated hospitals from the need to compete for patients. Today hospitals are “price takers” for nearly 50 percent of their revenues, which is subject to the political whims of the federal and state governments. Hospitals are also required to see, evaluate, and treat virtually any patient who shows up, solvent or not. Furthermore, physicians were productive because hospitals put a great deal of capital at their disposal. Yet these hospitals didn’t enforce standardized and efficient approaches to the delivery of care. At many hospitals today, doctors still bear only limited economic
responsibility for the care decisions they make. Little wonder that it is often they who introduce expensive—and sometimes excessive—nonreimbursable technologies or that hospitals not only suffer from declining margins but are also performing less well than other players in the health care value chain
 

The piece then has a pretty incomprehensible chart that compares the EBITDA (profit) of hospitals compared to drug companies and insurers. Surprisingly enough they make a whole lot less EBITDA than those businesses–although long time THCB readers will know we’ve been well down that path. And apparently their margins got worse and then better (from 25% in 1990 to 15% in 1995 to 10% in 2000 but back up to 15% in 2004).

McKinsey’s answer, basically filched from Porter/Teisberg, is for hospitals to specialize in particular service lines, stop being generalists and start trying to please the consumer who’ll be choosing among them. As a general mantra, this might be good for consultants to stick up on Powerpoint, but to be nice it’s massively oversimplified, and to be nasty it’s just plain wrong for most hospitals for the current and foreseeable medium-term future.

Their analysis ignores the fact that there are (at least) three broad categories of hospitals–inner city and rural  safety-net providers, big academic medical centers, and suburban community hospitals. Each of these has a completely different audience, completely different set of incentives, and more to McKinsey’s point, different profit margins.

Right up front they talk about the 50% of revenue that comes from the government–but for the first two categories, it’s more than that! And for everyone, as public programs grow, it’s going to be increasing.

Those hospitals relying on Medicare make most of their money but playing very careful attention to the DRG mix. The ones who play that game well and make most profit on Medicare outliers (like the for-profits McKinsey features in its metrics) don’t really want to change that by stopping their patients becoming those outliers, because if they get better at treating patients, they make less money. Brent James’ famous Intermountain story tells the truth, and until Medicare really changes the way it pays, you don’t want to be ahead of that curve. Intermountain may have spent more than 10 years leaving money on the table, but those rich Mormons can afford it.

Meanwhile, for the mainstream community hospitals, as more and more services and patients leave the building, the imperative is not to change their business model, it’s to get their hands on that revenue that’s leaving with them. That’s why most big hospitals are now-co-investing with physicians in specialty hospitals et al. But while that’s a defensive battle to build better “hotels” for the star surgeons, it’s still about building better “hotels”–not junking the model of being the nicest possible host to the big time admitting surgeons.

The McKinsey/Porter/Teisberg theory is of course that if you get good at one service line, you’ll be attractive to consumers, and that they’ll choose you. There is more truth to this notion now than there was five years ago, but not much more. Doctors choose hospitals for their patients. That’s always been the case, other for those that get admitted via the ED, and that’s a function of location. That’s why hospitals suck up to surgeons. But even when consumers make choices, they’re not very active consumers beyond the deductible, and basically all hospital spending is beyond the deductible, and even in the cash non-hospital business (the stuff like genetic testing) most consumers take their doctor’s advice.

Which leads of course to who the other real consumer for the hospital is, and that’s the third party payer. First rule of dealing with payers is to figure out how to play the Medicare system well enough that you make it very profitable, but not too “well” that you get busted, a la Columbia/HCA, Tenet & St Barnabas.

Second rule is that you need to get bargaining strength against the health plans. No one can pretend that health plans really care in a global sense about having their providers cut costs and improve care delivery. They may say they care about it, but health plans add a chunk on the top of what they pay providers and stick that to their clients (usually employers) — who basically take it in a mealy mouthed way.

There is, though, a fight in any local market about where to draw the line on hospital pricing. But this fight is not about having providers from outside (or even within) the region swooping in to capture all a payer’s business with better pricing on certain service lines, and payers moving patients to these disease-specific treatment centers.  Well, it is about that in the McKinsey/Porter/Teisberg fantasy land, but in reality the fight is about setting global pricing for all the services a payer needs for its members in that region.

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Vertical Integration Doesn’t Work in Healthcare:  Time to Move On

So in this week of THCB’s 20th birthday it’s a little ironic that we are running what is almost a mea culpa article from Jeff Goldsmith. I first heard Jeff speak in 1995 (I think!) at the now defunct UMGA meeting, where he explained how he felt virtual vertical integration was the best future for health care. Nearly 30 years on he has some reflections. If you want to read a longer version of this piece, it’s hereMatthew Holt

By JEFF GOLDSMITH

The concept of vertical integration has recently resurfaced in healthcare both as a solution to maturing demand for healthcare organizations’ traditional products and as a vehicle for ambitious outsiders to “disrupt” care delivery.    Vertical integration is a strategy which emerged in US in the 19th Century industrial economy.  It relied upon achieving economies of scale and co-ordination through managing the industrial value chain.    We are now in a post-industrial age, where economies of scale are in scarce supply.  Health enterprises that are pursuing vertical integration need to change course. If you look and feel like Sears or General Motors, you may well end up like them.  This essay outlines reasons for believing that vertical integration is a strategic dead end and what actions healthcare leaders need to take.

Where Did Vertical Integration Come From?

The River Rogue Ford Plant

The strategy of vertical integration was a creature of the US industrial Revolution. The concept was elucidated by the late Alfred DuPont Chandler, Jr. of the Harvard Business School. Chandler found a common pattern of growth and adaptation of 70 large US industrial firms. He looked in detail at four firms that came to dominate markedly different sectors of the US economy:  DuPont, General Motors, Sears Roebuck and Standard Oil of New Jersey. They all followed a common pattern: after growing horizontally through merging with like firms, they vertically integrated by acquiring firms that supplied them raw materials or intermediate products or who distributed the finished products to final customers. Vertical integration enabled firms to own and co-ordinate the entire value chain, squeezing out middlemens’ profits.

The most famous example of vertical integration was the famed 1200 acre River Rouge complex at Ford in Detroit, where literally iron ore to make steel, copper to make wiring and sand to make windshields went in one end of the plant and finished automobiles rolled out the other end. Only the tires, made in nearby Akron Ohio, were manufactured elsewhere. Ford owned 700 thousand acres of forest, iron and limestone mines in the Mesabi range, and built a fleet of ore boats to bring the ore and other raw materials down to Detroit to be made into cars. 

Subsequent stages of industrial evolution required two cycles of re-organization to achieve greater cost discipline and control, as well as diversification into related products and geographical markets. Industrial firms that did not follow this pattern either failed or were acquired. But Chandler also showed that the benefits of each stage of evolution were fleeting; specifically, the benefits conferred by controlling the entire value chain did not last unless companies took other actions. Those interested in this process should read Chandler’s pathbreaking book: Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the US Industrial Enterprise (1962).   

By the late 1960’s, the sun was setting on the firms Chandler wrote about. Chandler’s writing coincided with an historic transition in the US economy from a manufacturing dominated industrial economy to a post-industrial economy dominated by technology and services. Supply chains re-oriented around relocating and coordinating the value-added process where it could be most efficient and profitable.  Owning the entire value chain no longer made economic sense. River Rouge was designated a SuperFund site and part of it has been repurposed as a factory for Ford’s new electric F-150 Lightning truck. 

Why Vertical Integration Arose in Healthcare

I met Alfred Chandler in 1976 when I was being recruited to the Harvard Business School faculty. As a result of this meeting and reading Chandler’s writing, I wrote about the relevance to healthcare of Chandler’s framework in the Harvard Business Review in 1980 and then in a 1981 book Can Hospitals Survive: The New Competitive Healthcare Market, which was, to my knowledge, the first serious discussion of vertical integration in health services.

Can Hospitals Survive correctly predicted a significant decline in inpatient hospital use (inpatient days fell 20% in the next decade!). It also argued that Chandler’s pattern of market evolution would prevail in hospital care as the market for its core product matured. However, some of the strategic advice in this book did not age well, because it focused on defending the hospital’s inpatient franchise rather than evolving toward a more agile and less costly business model. Ambulatory services, which are today almost half of hospital revenues, were viewed as precursors to hospitalization rather than the emerging care template.

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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: Hospital shooting reveals so much

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

In this edition’s tidbits, the nation is once again dealing with an epidemic of shootings. Now a hospital joins schools, grocery stores and places of worship on the the recent list. I was struck by how much of the health care story was wrapped up in the tragic shooting where a patient took the life of Dr. Preston Phillips, Dr. Stephanie Husen, receptionist Amanda Glenn, 40; and patient William Love at Saint Francis Health System in Tulsa.

First and most obvious, gun control. The shooter bought an AR-15 less than 3 hours before he committed the murders then killed himself. Like the two teens in Buffalo and Uvalde, if there was a delay or real background checks, then these shootings would likely have not happened.

But there’s more. Hospital safety has not improved in a decade or so. Michael Millenson, THCB Gang regular, has made that plain. And that includes harm from surgery. We know that back surgery often doesn’t work and we know that Dr Phillips operated on the shooter just three weeks before and had seen him for a follow up the day before. Yes, there is safety from physical harm and intruders–even though the police got there within 5 minutes of shots being heard, they were too late. But there is also the issue of harm caused by medical interventions. Since “To Err is Human” the issue has faded from public view.

Then there is pain management. Since the opiate crisis, it’s become harder for patients to get access to pain meds. Was the shooter seeking opiates? Was he denied them? We will never know the details of the shooter’s case, but we know that we have a nationwide problem in excessive back surgery, and that is matched by an ongoing problem in untreated pain.

And then there are the two dead doctors. Dr. Husen, was a sports and internal medicine specialist. Obviously there are more female physicians than there used to be even if sexism is still rampant in medicine. But Dr. Phillips was an outlier. He was black and a Harvard grad. Stat reported last year that fewer than 2% of orthopedists are Black, just 2.2% are Hispanic, and 0.4% are Native American. The field remains 85% white and overwhelmingly male. So the chances of the patient & shooter, who was black and may have sought out a doctor who looked like him, having a black surgeon were very low in the first place. Now for other patients they are even lower.

The shooting thus brings up so many issues. Gun control; workplace safety; unnecessary surgery; pain management; mental health; and race in medicine. We have so much to work on, and this one tragedy reveals all those issues and more.

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.

Matthew’s health care tidbits: Hospital System Concentration is a Money Machine

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, there’s an old chestnut that I can’t seem to stay away from. I was triggered by three articles this week. Merril Goozner on GoozNews looked at the hospital building boom. Meanwhile perennial favorite Sutter Health and its price-making ability came up in a report showing that 11 of the 19 most expensive hospital markets were in N. Cal where it’s dominant. Finally the Gist newsletter pointed out that almost all the actual profits of the big health systems came from their investing activities rather than their operations.

None of this is any great surprise. Over the past three decades, the big hospital systems have become more concentrated in their markets. They’ve acquired smaller community hospitals and, more importantly, feeder systems of primary care doctors. Meanwhile they’ve cut deals with and acquired specialty practices. For more than two decades now, owned-physicians have been the loss leader and hospitals have made money on their high cost inpatient services, and increasingly on what used to be inpatient services which are now delivered in outpatient settings at essentially inpatient rates. Prices, though, have not fallen – as the HCCI report shows.

Source: HCCI

The overall cost of care, now more and more delivered in these increasingly oligopolistic health systems, continues to increase. Consequently so do overall insurance premiums, costs for self insured employers and employees, and out of pocket costs. And as a by-product, the reserves of those health systems, invested like and by hedge funds, are increasing–enabling them to buy more feeder systems.

Wendell Potter, former Cigna PR guy and now overall heath insurer critic, wrote a piece this week on how much bigger and more concentrated the health plans have become in the last decade. But the bigger story is the growth of hospital systems, and their cost and clout. Dave Chase likes to say that America has gone to war for less than what hospitals have done to the American economy. That may be a tad hyperbolic, but no one would rationally design a health care environment where non-profit hospitals are getting bigger and richer, and don’t seem to be able to restrain any aspect of their growth.

Hospital Systems: A Framework for Maximizing Social Benefit

By JEFF GOLDSMITH and IAN MORRISON

Hospital consolidation has risen to the top of the health policy stack. David Dranove and Lawton Burns argued in their recent Big Med:  Megaproviders and the High Cost of Health Care in America (Univ of Chicago Press, 2021) that hospital consolidation has produced neither cost savings from “economies of scale” nor measurable quality improvements expected from better care co-ordination. As a consequence, the Biden administration has targeted the health care industry for enhanced and more vigilant anti-trust enforcement.

However, as we discussed in a 2021 posting in Health Affairs, these large, complex health enterprises played a vital role in the societal response to the once-in-a-century COVID crisis. Multi-hospital health systems were one of the only pieces of societal infrastructure that actually exceeded expectations in the COVID crisis. These systems demonstrated that they are capable of producing, rapidly and on demand, demonstrable social benefit.

Exemplary health system performance during COVID begs an important question: how do we maximize the social benefits of these complex enterprises once the stubborn foe of COVID has been vanquished? How do we think conceptually about how systems produce those benefits and how should they fully achieve their potential for the society as a whole?

Origins of Hospital Consolidation

In 1980, the US hospital industry (excluding federal, psych and rehab facilities) was a $77 billion business comprised of roughly 5,900 community hospitals. It was already significantly consolidated at that time; roughly a third of hospitals were owned or managed by health systems, perhaps a half of those by investor-owned chains. Forty years later, there were 700 fewer facilities generating about $1.2 trillion in revenues (roughly a fourfold growth in real dollar revenues since 1980), and more than 70% of hospitals were part of systems. 

It is important to acknowledge here that hundreds more hospitals, many in rural health shortage areas or in inner cities, would have closed had they not been rescued by larger systems. Given that a large fraction of the hospitals that remain independent are tiny critical access facilities that are marginal candidates for mergers with larger enterprises, the bulk of hospital consolidation is likely behind us. Future consolidation is likely not to be of individual hospitals, but of smaller systems that are not certain they can remain independent. 

Today’s multi-billion dollar health systems like Intermountain Healthcare, Geisinger, Penn Medicine and Sentara are far more than merely roll-ups of formerly independent hospitals. They also employ directly or indirectly more than 40% of the nation’s practicing physicians, according to the AMA Physician Practice Benchmark Survey. They have also deployed 179 provider-sponsored health plans enrolling more than 13 million people (Milliman Torch Insight, personal communication 23 Sept, 2021). They operate extensive ambulatory facilities ranging from emergency and urgent care to surgical facilities to rehabilitation and physical therapy, in addition to psychiatric and long-term care facilities and programs.

Health Systems Didn’t Just “Happen”; Federal Health Policy Actively Catalyzed their Formation

Though many in the health policy world attribute hospital consolidation and integration to empire-building and positioning relative to health insurers, federal health policy played a catalytic role in fostering hospital consolidation and integration of physician practices and health insurance. In the fifty years since the HMO Act of 1973, hospitals and other providers have been actively encouraged by federal health policy to assume economic responsibility for the total cost of care, something they cannot do as isolated single hospitals.

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Matthew’s health care tidbits

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

In this week’s health care tidbits, Shannon Brownlee and her fellow rebels at the Lown Institute decided to have a bit of fun and compare which non-profit hospitals actually made up for the tax-breaks they got by providing more in community benefit. A bunch of hospitals you never heard of topped the list. What was more interesting was the hospitals that topped the inverse list, in that they gave way less in community benefit than they got in tax breaks. That list has a bunch of names on it you will have heard of!

Given how many of that list run sizable hedge funds and then do a little health care services on the side, perhaps it’s time to totally re-think our deference to these hospital system monopolies. And I don’t just mean making it harder for them to merge and raise prices as suggested by Biden’s recent Executive Order.