While consolidation is a common trend across many sectors—including anatomic pathology groups and hospital systems—UnitedHealth Group is the latest example of the payer-provider consolidation trend impacting medical laboratories nationwide
Pending the successful completion of a $4.9-billion acquisition of DaVita Medical Group, UnitedHealth Group (UNH) will be poised to become the largest single employer of doctors in the U.S., according to numbers reported by leading sources.
Clinical laboratories, anatomic pathology groups, and other service providers that service those doctors should already be taking a serious look at their revenue flows and efficiencies to maintain margins and weather the shift into a model of value-based reimbursement.
Controlling Costs with Direct Care
According to a press release, UnitedHealth Group’s (NYSE:UNH) direct-to-patient healthcare subsidiary, OptumCare, currently employs or is affiliated with 30,000 physicians. And, DaVita Medical Group, a subsidiary of DaVita Inc. (NYSA:DVA), lists 13,000 affiliated physicians on their website. Should acquisition of DaVita Medical Group go forward, OptumCare would have approximately 43,000 affiliated or employed physicians—roughly 5,000 more physicians than HCA Healthcare and nearly double Kaiser Permanente’s 22,080 physicians—thus, making OptumCare’s parent company UNH the largest individual employer of physicians in the U.S. The acquisition is reportedly to reinforce UNH’s ability to control costs and manage the care experience by acquiring office-based physicians to provide services.
OptumCare has seen significant growth over the past decade. OptumHealth, one of three segments of UNH’s overall Optum healthcare subsidiary, includes OptumCare medical groups and IPAs, MedExpress urgent care, Surgical Care Affiliates ambulatory surgery centers, HouseCalls home visits, behavioral health, care management, and Rally Health wellness and digital consumer engagement.
“We have been slowly, steadily, methodically aligning and partnering with phenomenal medical groups who choose to join us,” Andrew Hayek, CEO of OptumHealth (above), told Bloomberg. “The shift towards value-based care and enabling medical groups to make that transition to value-based care is an important trend.” (Photo copyright: Becker’s ASC Review.)
Acquisitions of Doctors on the Rise; Clinical Lab Revenues Threatened
Independent physicians and practices have been a hot commodity in recent years. A March 2018 study from Avalere Health in collaboration with the Physicians Advocacy Institute (PAI) showed that the number of physicians employed by hospitals rose from 26% in July 2012 to 42% in 2016—a rise of 16% over four years.
By acquiring physicians of their own, insurance companies like UnitedHealth Group believe they can offset the cost and shifts in service of these prior trends. “We’re in an arms race with hospital systems,” John Gorman of Gorman Health Group told Bloomberg. “The goal is to better control the means of production in their key markets.”
According to Modern Healthcare, the acquisition of DaVita Medical Group is UnitedHealth’s third such acquisition in 2017. Other acquisitions include:
Along with Surgical Care Affiliates came a chain of surgery centers that, according to The New York Times (NYT), OptumCare plans to use to perform approximately one million surgeries and other outpatient procedures this year alone, while reducing expenses for outpatient surgeries by more than 50%.
NYT also noted that acquisition of DaVita Medical Group doesn’t bring just physicians under the OptumCare umbrella, but also nearly 250 MedExpress urgent care locations across the country.
By having physicians, clinical laboratories, outpatient surgery centers, and urgent care centers within their own networks, insurance providers then can steer patients toward the lowest-cost options within their networks and away from more expensive hospitals. This could mean less demand on independent clinical laboratories and hospitals and, with that, reduced cash flows.
According to NYT, Optum currently works with more than 80 health plans. However, mergers such these—including those between CVS Health (NYSE:CVS) and Aetna (NYSE:AET), and the proposed agreement between Humana (NYSE:HUM) and Walmart (NYSE:WMT) to deliver healthcare in the retailers’ stores—indicate that insurers are seeking ways to offer care in locations consumers find most accessible, while also working to exert influence on who patients seek out, to generate cost advantages for the insurers.
This consolidation should concern hospitals as payers increasingly draw physicians from them, potentially also taking away their patients. The impact, however, may also reach independent medical laboratories, medical imaging centers, anatomic pathology groups, and other healthcare service providers that provide diagnoses and treatments in today’s complex healthcare system.
Deep Payer Pockets Mean Fewer Patients for Clinical Labs and Medical Groups
As this trend continues, it could gain momentum and potentially funnel more patients toward similar setups. Major corporations have deeper pockets to advertise their physicians, medical laboratories, and other service providers—or to raise public awareness and improve reputations. Such support might be harder to justify for independent healthcare providers and medical facilities with shrinking budgets and margins in the face of healthcare reform.
Shawn Purifoy, MD, a family medicine practitioner in Malvern, Ark., expressed his concern succinctly in The New York Times. “I can’t advertise on NBC [but] CVS can,” he noted.
While further consolidation within independent clinical laboratories and hospitals might help to fend off this latest trend, it remains essential that medical laboratories and other service providers continue to optimize efficiency and educate both physicians and payers on the value of their services—particularly those services offered at higher margins or common to menus across a range of service providers.
With 8k More Physicians than Kaiser, Optum Is ‘Scaring the Crap Out of Hospitals’
30,000 Strong and Counting, UnitedHealth Gathers a Doctor Army
CVS’s Megadeal to Change U.S. Health Care Faces Stiff Challenges
Updated Physician Practice Acquisition Study: National and Regional Changes in Physician Employment 2012–2016
The Disappearing Doctor: How Mega-Mergers Are Changing the Business of Medical Care
UnitedHealth’s Optum to Buy DaVita Medical Group for $4.9B: 6 Things to Know
UnitedHealth Buys Large Doctors Group as Lines Blur in Healthcare
UnitedHealth’s Optum to Buy DaVita Medical Group for $4.9 Billion
UnitedHealth Is Buying a Major Doctor Group on the Heels of the CVS-Aetna Deal
DaVita Medical Group to Join Optum
Many aspects of traditional clinical laboratory pathology testing remain rooted to cancer care even as the cancer care industry embraces precision medicine, and digital pathology testing and interpretation
There’s good news for anatomic pathologists worried about the future of the pathology profession. A recent survey of oncology program participants in the United States determined that Precision Medicine—and the need for precision diagnostics—will be one of the top trends that significantly reshape how cancers are diagnosed and treated in the US.
Some of these five trends indirectly impact clinical laboratories and pathology groups by directly affecting the healthcare practices of hospitals and private practice doctors who order medical laboratory tests for their cancer patients.
Lindsey Conway, Managing Director, Research and Insights Division, for The Advisory Board, covered five of the top trends she says will “shape the business of cancer care in 2017,” which MedCityNews reported. They include:
1. Precision Medicine
2. Healthcare Consumerism
3. Telehealth Services
4. Care Navigation
5. Payment Reform
One of the trends involves increased use of specialized diagnostic tests that identify genetic mutations to help ensure cancer drugs and therapies are precisely targeted to a patient’s specific needs. This is a critical element of precision medicine.
Here are brief run-downs on each of the five trends:
Precision Medicine in Clinical Laboratory Cancer Care
The Association of Community Cancer Centers (ACCC) in partnership with Advisory Board’s Oncology Roundtable (AB) conducted the survey, which was funded by Pfizer Oncology, according to an ACCC press release.
The survey found precision medicine to be among the top trends impacting the cancer care business in 2017. This will be of particular interest to pathologists and clinical laboratory leaders who provide services to oncologists and cancer patients.
ACCC’s press release states: “By taking the pulse on issues such as program mergers and acquisitions, clinical pathways usage, and precision medicine and immunotherapy, ACCC can continue to provide needed resources to its members.”
The Advisory Board is a respected “think tank” that uses research, technology, and consulting to aid healthcare organizations. And, the ACCC is an advocacy and education organization for cancer care professionals.
“We are all betting big on the promise of precision medicine,” declared Conway, in the MedCityNews story. She noted, however, specific challenges related to precision medicine. They include:
· Understanding developments;
· Financing equipment purchases; and,
· Educating others.
Dark Daily noted similar concerns with precision medicine in an e-briefing on research conducted at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, where two commercially available next-generation sequencing tests had widely different results for the same cancer patients studied. (See Dark Daily, “University of Washington School of Medicine Study Finds Two Different Next-Generation Genetic Tests Can Produce Widely Different Results in the Same Patient,” May 1, 2017.)
Patient Consumerism in Cancer Care
Drawing on the AB/ACCC findings, MedCityNews noted that about 69% of cancer care consumers who use the Internet in healthcare decision-making are likely to change providers who receive negative online reviews.
These findings are not lost on cancer center administrators and medical directors who, according to an Advisory Board news release announcing the results of a survey of 250 cancer program leaders, have “increased interest in cancer patient consumerism—mainly around how to identify patient priorities and market cancer program services directly to patients.”
Telehealth Takes Cancer Care Virtual
Telehealth (AKA, Telemedicine) involves telecommunications and information technologies (IT), such as video, audio, and Internet-based software, to bring healthcare services to resource strapped remote and rural environments. One example of telemedicine that is focused on cancer care is the Breast Cancer Ally mobile app. Developed by Michael Sabel, MD, FACS, Associate Professor of Surgery and Chief of Surgical Oncology at the University of Michigan Medical School (U-M), Breast Cancer Ally is “an information and symptom management tool specially designed [to help] patients through every stage of breast cancer treatment.” The app is available for use by U-M Comprehensive Cancer Care Center patients.
“This is disease-specific technology that helps patients navigate the multiple facets of medical care by delivering information and tools based on the appropriate stage of treatment,” U-M noted in a statement.
Navigating the Care Continuum
Driven by a need to guide more cancer patients throughout their treatment, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) is taking its navigation program to a national level, according to a UAB statement.
UAB’s partner in the Patient Care Connect Program (PCCP) is Guideway Care, a resource for personal guidance in cancer treatment and recovery. Guideway Care offers communication protocols and technology for assisting people following a cancer diagnosis.
According to UAB results, compared to non-navigated cancer patients the PCCP participants experienced:
· 55% less hospitalizations;
· 29% fewer emergency room visits;
· 60% less intensive care unit admissions; and,
· 45% reduction in Medicare costs.
“The PCCP is a model of navigation that supports patients throughout the cancer care continuum and may be a mechanism to extend palliative and support care more fully into the community,” wrote UAB-affiliated authors in a JAMA Oncology article.
“Overall, cost reductions were driven by substantial declines in hospitalizations and clinic-based services,” they concluded.
Ramona Colvin (standing) and Myeisha Hutchinson, patient navigators with UAB’s Patient Care Connect program, work together to help patients through their cancer journey. (Photo and caption copyright: UAB News.)
Healthcare Reimbursement and Reform
Insurance company programs intended to lower cancer care costs that operate concurrent with congressional lawmakers’ healthcare reform efforts are receiving increased scrutiny.
One relevant example of a payer plan aimed at increasing value is Anthem’s Cancer Care Quality Program. It enables participating oncologists to compare cancer care pathways and become eligible for additional $350 a month in reimbursements for each patient being treated.
“Private payers have been on the forefront of designing value-driven ways to pay for cancer care, but we’re not going to arrive at a satisfying payment solution any time soon,” stated Conway in the MedCityNews article.
Trends Can Guide Medical Laboratory Leaders
The findings of the AB/ACCC study affirm the important role that pathologists will have as precision medicine transforms cancer care. After all, it is pathologists who diagnose the primary cancer, and it is pathologists who conduct specialized testing to identify genetic mutations that would make a patient’s cancer vulnerable to a specific drug or therapy. Pathologists also have a role in monitoring the cancer patient’s treatment.
Thus, it is important for clinical laboratory leaders to acknowledge what their cancer care colleagues perceive as trends and topics of interest. Pathologists and medical laboratory leaders who provide services to oncologists and cancer patients should note these trends and related programs and research. Healthcare navigation and telemedicine applications, for example, could be ways for pathologists to collaborate with oncologists in outreach to cancer patients.
—Donna Marie Pocius
Five Healthcare Trends Impacting Cancer Care
ACCC Collaborates with Advisory Board to Conduct Eight Annual Trends in Cancer Care Survey
UAB Expands Cancer Navigation Program Nationally with Guideway Care
Resource Use and Medicare Costs During Lay Navigation for Geriatric Patients with Cancer
U-M Breast Cancer Ally Providing Patients with Effective Disease Management
Advisory Board Research for 2018
University of Washington School of Medicine Study Finds Two Different Next-Generation Genetic Tests Can Produce Widely Different Results in the Same Patient
The amount of patient debt healthcare providers face depends on multiple, complex factors, including whether they engaged in Medicaid Expansion
Often the challenges facing hospitals and medical pathology laboratories are similar. So it is with patient debt. Blame that on two trends. One is the increase in the number of patients with high-deductible health plans. The other is the increase in the number of people enrolled via the Affordable Care Act (ACA) health insurance exchanges with similar high-deductible health plans.
These two factors are contributing to increased levels of bad debt that confront the nation’s hospitals, clinical laboratories, and anatomic pathology groups. However, in some states where Medicaid programs have been expanded, hospitals have reported declines in the level of patient bad debt.
When President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in 2010, many people thought that fewer uninsured people would mean less bad debt for hospitals. Now, six years later, the reality is not so clear-cut.
Hospitals, clinical laboratories, and other entities within the healthcare system are seeing different levels of bad debt depending on what part of the country they are in, what kinds of policies they have enacted, and probably most importantly, whether or not the state in which they are located has expanded Medicaid. (more…)