A Note to Hospital and Health System CEOs and Boards

The Time to Seriously Reevaluate Your Organization’s Strategy is Now

Part IV

This is the last of a four-part blog series on reevaluating your organization’s strategy. If you read the first three blog posts, you have considered the following very important factors as you contemplate what your strategy should be:

  • Your financial repositioning following the pandemic.
  • The financial pressures on the individuals, companies and local governments you serve.
  • The potential impact of the 2020 elections.
  • The potential impact of the Supreme Court’s decision on the constitutionality of the ACA.
  • The threats caused by disruptors and especially private equity and venture capital firms.
  • The changing consumer expectations and their fears about seeking services at hospitals.
  • The upcoming realignment of the health care delivery system, particularly for critical access hospitals, community hospitals and independent physicians.
  • The stability of your relationships with your employed physicians.

So, here is my question for you. I am willing to bet money that you have told your board at sometime in the past that fee for service is the problem and value is the answer, or your boards have heard about this at a conference or from an outside speaker, or you have had consultants that have told you and your board this, and most likely all three are the case. Am I right? If so, do you still believe that? Has anything changed to convince you that the current health care spending is sustainable and that the pressures on politicians to address insurance coverage, health care costs, the viability of social security and Medicare, and drug costs will go away, especially during an economic downturn? Are you convinced that employers are going to continue to willingly incur ever rising health care costs in the face of a downturn in their own business?

If these questions were not enough to get your attention and convince you that you are going to have to make a decision as to whether you continue to milk fee for service for all its worth or whether you change strategic direction and pursue value, let’s consider the numbers. Ask your CFO to create a graph or table or whatever method she wants to portray the numbers and take a look at the following 3 or 5-year trends (up to year-end 2019; let’s not confuse things by including the disruption caused by coronavirus):

  • Inpatient and outpatient episodes provided to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries as a percentage of all episodes of care for which there was a payer. (In other words, is there a trend in patients moving onto Medicare and Medicaid, which will obviously impact your revenue per case?)
  • Growth in inpatient services vs. growth in outpatient services
  • Net revenue per adjusted admission vs. cost per adjusted admission

There certainly are parts of the country that have been relatively spared from declining fee for service revenues and/or profitability, but my guess is that the majority of hospitals and health systems have been seeing a shift in payor mix to an increase in lower revenue governmental payers at the expense of higher revenue commercial payers, a movement of services that used to be provided as an inpatient to lower revenue outpatient settings (get ready for a movement of all but the highest risk total hip replacements to the outpatient setting), and rising costs per case that will threaten your profitability if you cannot also get increases in revenue per case, which you will be unable to get from governmental payers.

As has oft been quoted, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” I would urge you to forecast your profitability under fee for service, given what I imagine were deteriorating metrics even prior to coronavirus, but also with the environmental factors I discussed in the earlier blog posts of economic conditions, cost pressures on your customers, new market entrants and disruptors, changing relationships for physicians, and a continued movement of inpatient services to outpatient settings.

Then, I go back to my earlier question – do you still believe that fee for service is the problem and value is the answer? If not, stop saying it. If so, read on, because I am going to argue that now is the perfect time to make the shift in your business model.

I know this is hard. I have led a transformation of my organization’s business model, and it is not easy. We undertook preparations for a shift in our business model for seven years and then pulled the switch on January 1, 2017, moving nearly a third of my health system’s revenue largely to percent of revenue arrangements (think global capitation). You might ask why then and why that much.

Why then was because my team and I and our board saw the writing on the wall. We realized that change was coming and that it would be far better to make that change while we were still doing well in our current business model to help fund early losses that would be associated with a change in business model. Secondly, we expected, and it turned out to be correct, that there would be a first to market mover advantage. Plus, we had used that preparatory time to gain the alignment of our staff and physicians. Everyone knew this was the right thing to do and people were excited to do it.

Why that much was because of human nature. I hear of many health systems who say that the answer is in moving to value, but they only pay it lip service with putting 2 – 4 percent of their revenue at risk. That level of risk is not enough to change behavior of your leadership team, your physicians or your staff. I can assure you that it is difficult to make the investments necessary to manage risk if you only have several percent of your revenue involved. And, the organization will not change its behavior. When you have a downturn in finances, the first response will be to increase volumes.

We know from history that many companies have failed in transforming their business models when they were still doing well in their current business model, even when they were convinced that change was coming.

The reason that health care leaders should look at transforming their business model now is that almost no hospital or health system is doing well in their historical business model today. And, if they look at their 3 to 5-year trends, as I suggested above, I think most will conclude that fee for service was on the decline even before coronavirus. Then, if you consider the changed environmental factors I have presented in the earlier part of this series, I think most will conclude that things do look bleak, at least for the next few years.

But, I always prefer making strategic decisions based on opportunity rather than merely responding to threats (though I think anyone would be foolish to ignore the threats). It turns out that the coronavirus has actually presented tremendous opportunities for being more successful in moving to value now than we had when we did this back in 2017. What are those opportunities?

  • People are currently hesitant to proceed with “elective” procedures. (Note: This is bad for fee for service!)
  • Many people have tried telemedicine services for their health care during the pandemic and they like the convenience and safety of it. (Note, in those cases where payers pay less for telehealth visits than for in-office visits, this is also bad for fee for service)
  • Physicians are currently providing a lot of the services that previously would have been provided in the office by phone or by skipping the office visit altogether. (Again, bad for fee for service) Here is an example. My wife had an open reduction and internal fixation of her humerus in December, just before this outbreak. She was scheduled to come in and see the surgeon for a post-op visit last month, at which time she would have an x-ray to check alignment of her bone fragments. The physician’s office cancelled the office visit and just directed my wife to get the x-ray and then the doctor would call her. We did and it saved us time and convenience. Okay, you might argue, well that visit should have been included in the global surgical services fee, but you are missing the point. How many services were we making patients come in for that weren’t necessary? And, because of the pandemic, we actually have physicians deciding what is necessary and what is not, which is exactly the thinking we want under value arrangements, rather than insurance companies making those decisions under fee for service. Further, most every health system has access problems. This is why urgent care clinics, retail clinics, telehealth providers and other disrupters have been able to capitalize on this opportunity to see patients that health systems otherwise would have seen. But, now, with this change in behavior to not make patients come in to the office that don’t need to be seen despite the incentives under fee for service, under value arrangements, we still meet those patients’ needs less costly without an office visit, but we also have just freed up time to see a patient who does need to be seen who we otherwise would not have seen and they either may have gone to one of these alternative care sites or worse, their condition may have deteriorated by the time we could see them to the point that it is now more expensive to care for.

All of these present opportunities for us to manage risk, to lower costs, to promote better access, and to provide care in ways to patients that they are likely to prefer. And, we can look at other opportunities that disruptors were already beginning to pursue even before the coronavirus outbreak, such as mobile health care services that bring care to the patient’s home and hospital-at-home services.

And, the ultimate beauty of this is that while the disruptors and those who are promoting the disaggregation of health care services can beat us at fee for service, very few of them can or, even if they could, would want to manage global risk arrangements. Health systems are uniquely positioned to do this. And, large employers like Walmart, have already realized what I have been arguing for a decade now. The answer is not in a lower unit price. The answer is in controlling utilization and getting high quality services when they are needed. Fee for service does not incent either of these goals. As other employers come to realize this is true, I think private equity and venture capital firms may be happy they sold their health care holdings several years from now.

You know how you fared under fee for service during this pandemic. How would you have fared under full value arrangements? Well, just compare the quarterly earning reports for hospital companies versus those of the insurance companies. There is your answer. Now, I know you are thinking, but this pandemic is going to end sometime, perhaps next year, and things will go back to normal. If you are thinking this, you need to go back and reread the first parts of this blog series.

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