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Tag: primary care

What the Walmart Exit from Primary Care Means

By JEFF GOLDSMITH

There has been a lot of commentary on the largest “disrupter” candidate in healthcare, retail giant Walmart, throwing in the towel on their primary care clinic and virtual health businesses. As someone who has watched “retail health” for close to forty years, Walmart’s decision did not surprise me. This is disciplined company that has chosen its niches in healthcare carefully. And the fact that they could not make primary care work with their customer base makes all the sense in the world.

I am a Walmart shopper.  I visit my local Walmart at least once a week, and buy all my commodity items there, where they are cheaper than anywhere else in town. I also buy my drugs at Walmart, and got all my immunizations (including four COVID shots) from their pharmacy. I love my local Walmart- linoleum, fluorescent lighting and all.

The shoppers in Walmart that I see every week are not “poor”. They are a cross section of the community I live in. If I am accused of a crime, they are the “jury of my peers” that I will see in court. What I see in Walmart:  signs of serious family financial stress, a product of a near twenty percent increase in the cost of everything since the pandemic began.  They are in Walmart for the same reason I am: they hate wasting money and their shopping dollar goes further in Walmart than anywhere else in the community. I will wager that every single uninsured person in the US, perhaps more than 32 million after the post-COVID Medicaid purge, is a Walmart shopper!

Walmart never articulated exactly the strategy behind its clinics. Primary care was never going to be profitable as a stand alone product, but rather was going to be a loss leader to something else:  more prescriptions for its pharmacy, (like CVS?),  more pull-through from products required by diagnoses, longer store visits. Or, as some suggested, Walmart’s clinics could have been a potential entry point into a yet-to-be-acquired Medicare Advantage plan (Humana or CIGNA were both in play), or a collaboration with MA giant, United Healthcare. Whatever the benefits expected, early losses far exceeded forecasts.

Walmart clearly underestimated the revenue cycle overhead associated with accepting Medicaid or Medicare, despite retaining OptumInsight to help with their revenue cycle issues. Walmart also likely overestimated both volumes and the cash yield on what they intended to be  $40 primary care visits. Many health plans unthinkingly apply a copayment to primary care visits, an increasingly potent demand destroyer in this inflationary age. That copay or the full $40 for the abovementioned uninsured folks was going to have to compete for increasingly scarce paycheck dollars with everything in that cart. In that competition, medical care is probably going to end up being deferred, until it becomes unavoidable.  And when it is unavoidable, they will go to the “unavoidable” healthcare place, their local hospital ED. 

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What Walmart said & What Walmart Did: Not the same thing

Walmart surprised us all and changed its mind about primary care yesterday. It’s out.

Because so few people have seen it I want to show what Walmart‘s head of health care said just 18 months ago (Nov 2022). Today they are finally killing off the 6th different strategy they’ve had (maybe it was 4). I guess (unlike CVS & Walgreens) they don’t have to write down investment in Oak Street or VillageCare, but they never worked out that primary care is only profitable if it’s 1) very low overhead 2) a loss leader for more expensive services (as most hospitals run it) or 3) getting a cut of the $$ for stopping more expensive services (Oak Street, Chenmed, Kaiser).

At HLTH 18 months ago I interviewed Cheryl Pegus who was then running Walmart and I asked why anyone should trust them, given how often they changed. Sachin H. Jain, MD, MBA Jain answered for her and said, “because they have Cheryl!” — Cheryl then said, “at Walmart the commitment to delivering health care is bigger than anywhere I have ever worked”. “Right now I have 35 centers in 3 years I’ll have 100s”  see 11.00 onwards in the video below, although the whole thing is worth a look

Cheryl though left Walmart THE NEXT WEEK!

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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All the Lonely People: Primary Care isn’t a Team Sport Anymore, We’re Only Interacting with Our Computers

BY HANS DUVEFELT

In spite of all the talk these days about health care teams and in spite of more and more physicians working for bigger and bigger healthcare organizations, we are becoming more and more isolated from our colleagues and our support staffs.

Computer work, which is taking more and more time as EMRs get more and more complex, is a lonely activity. We are not just encouraged but pretty much forced to communicate with our nurses and medical assistants through computer messaging. This may provide more evidence of who said or did what at what point in time, but it is both inefficient and dehumanizing.

Why do people who work right next to each other have to communicate electronically? Why can’t my nurse simply ask me a question and then document “Patient asked whether to take aspirin or Tylenol and I told her that Dr. Duvefelt advised up to 2,500 mg acetaminophen/24 hours”. It would be a lot less work for me, even if I have to sign off on the darn thing.

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Practicing at the Top of Your License is Not an Option for Primary Care Physicians

BY HANS DUVEFELT

You don’t really need a medical degree to know how to follow an immunization schedule, to recommend a colonoscopy, or order a screening mammogram (as long as, in this country, there is a standing order – in some places, mass screenings are done outside the primary care system).

You also don’t really need a medical degree to enter data into an EMR.

And when you decide to order a test, how many of the EMR “workflow” steps really require your expertise? I mean, borrowing from my iPhone, you could say “order a CBC” and facial recognition could document that you are the ordering physician. Really!

And you don’t really need a medical degree to, as I put it, open and sort the (electronic) mail; an eye doctor’s report comes in and if the patient is a diabetic, I have to forward it to my nurse for logging, and if not a diabetic, just sign off on it. And don’t imagine there is time in our day, evening or weekend to actually read the whole report. Patient A saw their eye doctor – check. Next…

Primary care in this country is pathetically arcane and inefficient. And we have a shortage of primary care physicians, they say. If we could all practice at the top of our license, perhaps not. It’s time to reimagine, reinvent, reinvigorate!

Hans Duvefelt is a physician, author, and writer of “A Country Doctor Writes.”

Matthew’s health care tidbits: How do you tell the price of a drug?

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

As the average THCB reader is probably all too well aware I live in Marin County, California and therefore my kids are on amphetamine-based medication for ADHD. This is annoying as all get out because, as a controlled substance, this medication needs to be re-prescribed every month (no automatic refills allowed). In addition no 90 day supplies are allowed, and the kids must have checkups with their prescribing physician every 3 months (which are not cheap).

It’s not just prescribing which is complicated. Supply is an issue too and frequently pharmacies run out. This is furtherly frustrating because if one pharmacy is out it can’t move the Rx to another, even in the same chain like Walgreens or CVS. The new pharmacy requires a whole new prescription. I discovered last year that Alto Pharmacy, a VC backed home delivery pharmacy, will deliver controlled medications. This has saved me 12-24 visits to CVS in the past year.

But with a new year there are new problems. The “allowed” price, i.e. the price my insurer Blue Cross of Massachusetts had agreed with Alto Pharmacy (and other pharmacies) for the specific generic for one of my kids somehow went from $29 a month to $107. That’s the amount I actually pay until we hit our $4,500 family deductible. Incidentally because it’s a medication we still pay $10 a month after we hit the deductible.

Alto kept telling me that the cash price was around $50. But of course if we pay the lower cash price (either there or elsewhere using GoodRx) that doesn’t count against the deductible. So if we hit the deductible we are out the $50 (which works out to roughly $1200 per year for 2 kids). I kept asking Alto what had changed that made the cost go up? They kept not telling me an answer, other than it cost $107. I asked the good people at Health Tech Nerds slack group if they could guess what was going on. Their consensus was that the formulary tier had been changed. “But it’s a generic”, (I foolishly thought).

Finally I called the pharmacy number on BCBS Massachusetts website, and ended up talking to someone at CVS Caremark– their PBM. In the course of the 30 minute call they ran a dummy claim with several other pharmacies. All came back at the $107 number. They then looked up the formulary to see if it had changed. Meanwhile I looked at the formulary on the BCBS Mass website while this was going on. The medication was still tier 1. So why has the cost to me and perhaps to the Blues plan gone up from $29 a month to $107? (Yes that’s more than a factor of 3!)

While she was talking to me the Caremark rep was also able to Slack with several other colleagues–relatively advanced for an old world PBM I thought. Eventually the answer came back. The med was indeed tier one. But until we spent our deductible the med was tier 2. In other words if we were paying for the drug the price is $107. As soon as BCBS Massachusetts starts paying for it the price goes back to $29 (of which they only pay $19) as we have a $10 copay.

Why this has happened is beyond me? Is Caremark or BCBS Massachusetts suggesting another cheaper drug? I haven’t heard from them. Are they trying to discourage patients from getting to their deductibles? My cynical conclusion is that Caremark is trying to increase the revenue for CVS– its corporate pharmacy–which that accounts for 1/3 of all outpatient Rx.

Otherwise this pricing strategy makes no sense to me. Of course this is just another example of a completely opaque process. And that appears typical for American health care.

Matthew’s health care tidbits: My retina & what it tells us about primary care

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

I had a little scare the other night. I was driving home from a weekend in the mountains and I asked my wife if she saw that flashing light. No it wasn’t the cops, and no she hadn’t seen it. Turns out that I had a bright flash if I moved my eye a certain way. Oh, well I assumed I was tired and a good night’s sleep would fix it.

Next morning the flash was still there when I looked quickly to the left and a few weird floaters had appeared. I headed to the Mayo Clinic website and it looked to me like I had a detaching retina. I got on the urgent visit video with One Medical. The NP who answered said it sounded like I might have retina problems and I should get it checked by my ophthalmologist. But my eyesight has always been great (other than me needing reading glasses in my old age) and I haven’t got one. So who, I asked, do you recommend?

Here we fall into the crux of the problem. One Medical is an excellent primary care service. So good that Amazon bought it for $3bn. But it’s not a multi-specialty group nor is it a system like Kaiser. The answer was, “we don’t really recommend anyone–that’s not how it works.” The NP ended up looking up ophthalmologists near me & sent me a name as a referral in their app. But that’s not a link to anything and it wasn’t one chosen through some analytical process of seeking quality excellence.

I looked up MarinHealth (my local hospital)’s website and searched ophthalmology. That referred name was on it. I called. The doctor was out this week. They gave me another name. That doctor’s office gave me another name and that third office could see me that same day. I felt some pressure to see them right away as in the case of a detached retina Mayo says “ Contacting an eye specialist (ophthalmologist) right away can help save your vision”. The good news is having spent a couple of hours at the ophthalmologist’s my retina needs watchful waiting not surgery.

But the bad news is that for me, like 90% of Americans, there’s no easy way to get referred into a trustworthy system for specialty care. This can be even worse. My friend Sarah McDonald explains in her book The Cancer Channel how, after being diagnosed with a rare incurable cancer by a head & neck surgeon, the all encompassing support she received was to be given the number of a specialist at UCSF who couldn’t even talk to her for 3 weeks.

Mike Magee talks about the role of the health care system being to reduce patients’ “fear and worry”. Our lack of a specialty care referral system, especially when potentially serious and urgent care is on the line, is a big reason why there is so much fear and worry. I wish I had a concierge advocacy system like Included Health or Transcarent which could get me to the right place and work with me through the experience. But like most Americans at the time I need reassurance the most I’m calling a list of phone numbers hoping someone can see me.

We have primary care, we have specialty care. But we don’t have a system that cares.

THCB Gang Episode 99, Thursday July 28

This was a special early in the day edition of #THCBGang. It was at 9.15am PT/ 12.15 pm ET (so if you are coming at 1pm it won’t be live today at the normal time as it’s already happened!). It was part of the Primary Care Transformation Summit which has been running since Monday and continues to the end of Friday. It’s a who’s who of everyone in primary care. You can check out the wider agenda but we were on immediately before the day 3 keynote from head of CMS Innovation, Liz Fowler.

Joining Matthew Holt (@boltyboy) to discuss primary care and more were are WTF Health host & Health IT girl Jessica DaMassa (@jessdamassa); futurist Jeff Goldsmith; & Dan O’Neill (@dp_oneill) who is now at primary care group Pine Park Health.

You can see the video below & if you’d rather listen than watch, the audio is preserved as a weekly podcast available on our iTunes & Spotify channels.

Health Care Through the Back Door: The Dangers of Nurse Visits

By HANS DUVEFELT

In some practices, patients with seemingly simple problems are scheduled to be seen by a nurse or medical assistant. Sometimes they can even just drop off a urine sample in case of a suspected urinary tract infection.

This is a dangerous trap. What if the patient rarely gets urinary infections, has back pain and assumes it is a UTI instead of a kidney stone or shingles on their back just where one kidney is located; what if they have lower abdominal pain from an ovarian cyst or an ectopic pregnancy?

Another dangerous type of “nurse visit” is when patients focus on one symptom or parameter, thinking for example that as long as their blood pressure is okay, their vague chest pressure with sweating and shortness of breath isn’t anything serious. It’s one thing if I want a couple of blood pressure checks by my nurse, but a whole different thing when it is the patient’s idea, assumption or self diagnosis.

In many cases, a telephone call with the provider or a triage nurse can be safer and more diagnostic than starting with a nurse visit. Because the symptom history is usually more important when making a diagnosis. And nurse visits tend to be skimpy when it comes to the clinical history, even though the provider assumes responsibility for the diagnosis and treatment of a patient they didn’t talk to or examine.

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The Healing Power of Even Virtual Human Connection

By HANS DUVEFELT

Almost two years into this new age of varying degrees of self quarantine, I am registering that my own social interactions through technology have been an important part of my life.

I text with my son, 175 miles away, morning and night and often in between. I talk and text with my daughter and watch the videos she and my grandchildren create.

I not only treat patients via Zoom; I also participate, as one of the facilitators, in a virtual support group for family members of patients in recovery.

I have reconnected with cousins in Sweden I used to go years without seeing; now I get likes and comments almost daily on things that I post. I have also video chatted with some of them and with my brother from my exchange student year in Massachusetts 50 years ago.

I have stayed in touch with people who moved away. And I have made new friends through the same powerful little eye on the world I use for all these things, my 2016 iPhone SE.

Members of my addiction recovery group stay in touch with each other via phone or text between clinics. They constantly point out the value of the social network they have formed, even though they only meet, many of them via Zoom, once a week. The literature has supported this notion for many years and is very robust: Social isolation is a driver of addiction.

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