Category: Economics

BIDMC and Lahey talk merger; I'm quoted

published date
November 18th, 2016 by

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Lahey Health are talking again about a merger. From the Boston Globe:

Top executives from the two hospital systems are discussing a possible merger, according to people with direct knowledge of the negotiations, the fourth time they have explored a deal in the past five years.

I’m quoted:

David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group, a Boston consulting firm, said Beth Israel Deaconess has been looking for ways to grow its network since its biggest rivals, Mass. General and Brig-ham, merged in 1994 to create Partners.

“Beth Israel Deaconess never got involved in the original Partners transaction, and ever since then they’ve been looking for a way to get bigger and be stronger like Partners,” he said. “Lahey is a strong, medium-sized player that’s come up time and again.”

From what I understand, this may actually be the fifth set of talks, not the fourth. Both players are high quality and relatively low cost, so a combination could create a strong, efficient alternative to Partners.

But mergers are complex and risky, so there are reasons not to move too fast. In particular, the board and management of each institution has to decide if the specific deal is good for their own organization. In the past that case hasn’t been made convincingly. It’s not clear that it will be any different this time.


By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

PCSK9 experience shows drug market isn't completely broken

published date
November 1st, 2016 by

 

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Why isn’t this thing growing?

Everyone knows that the market mechanisms that make most of the US economy efficient are lacking in healthcare. That’s especially true for pharmaceuticals, where drug companies can raise prices at will, and only the government can step in with price controls to put things right. At least that’s what we’ve been hearing in the press and on the campaign trail for the last year or more.

So I read with interest a recent STAT article These pricey cholesterol drugs aren’t selling. And that has the biotech industry sweating, about how the market is blocking high-priced drugs –and preventing pharma companies from doing all the things we’ve been told they can do at will.

No one disputes that the new drugs, Repatha and Praluent, are excellent at lowering bad cholesterol, or LDL. They often succeed where the traditional treatment — an inexpensive class of drugs called statins — fails. The problem boils down to doctors who are reluctant to write prescriptions, insurers who are unwilling to pay for them, and drug companies that have failed to understand a fast-changing marketplace.

The failures could send a chill through the still-booming biotech business, which relies on the idea that the risky, expensive process of developing new drugs can one day pay off big.

Contrary to the views expressed in the STAT article, I think the market is actually doing an ok job here. There are two main reasons why the drugs haven’t sold well:

  • First and foremost, while they are proven to lower cholesterol they are not proven to reduce heart attacks or strokes or to lower death rates
  • Second, most patients do just fine with generic statins, which are inexpensive and have a long track record, compared with the new drugs that have list prices of about $14,000 per year

The result is that doctors who want to prescribe the drugs have to jump through a lot of hoops to get insurance company approval. That’s a hassle and it’s expensive and time consuming, so I sympathize. But by the way, before we get mad at the PBMs and insurers, consider that the experience for prescribers might not be that different under a fully capitated payment model since health system administrators would still be worried about their budgets.

The companies that make these drugs are conducting studies of the impact on outcomes that people really care about: heart attack, stroke, death. If they demonstrate that the drugs are effective on these measures, they will have no problem generating prescriptions or charging premium prices –at least in the United States.

Image courtesy of iosphere at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

 

 

 

Justifying EpiPen pricing, once again

published date
September 30th, 2016 by
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Back with more

I enjoyed Medical hackers create $30 DIY EpiPen in defiance of corporate greed over at inhabitat. The Four Thieves Vinegar collective cobbled together an “EpiPencil” from an auto injector for insulin, a hypodermic needle, and epinepherine. It’s a pretty cool trick but it proves nothing about EpiPen pricing nor does it help real patients.

Actually, it unwittingly reinforces the points I made in my very unpopular EpiPen may still be too cheap post, which is that the pricing of EpiPen has almost nothing to do with the cost of its parts.

Consider these caveats about the DIY EpiPencil from the inhabitat post:

However, it is worth mentioning that many experts have voiced concern about the EpiPencil and warned that it’s not advisable to try to create a piece of medical equipment at home – it can be difficult to ensure the correct dose is being administered, the epinephrine inside is delicate and might lose its effectiveness if stored this way, and of course, if someone were to create the device without paying close attention to hygiene, it could become contaminated. A miscalibration of the device could even cause the medicine to be injected into a vein, which can have dangerous side effects.

To recap, here’s what you’re paying for when you buy a real EpiPen:

  • The ability to send your kids to school, playdates, summer camp, hikes, and restaurants with reasonable confidence that they’ll survive an allergic reaction
  • An auto-injector that works. Remember, Twinject was rejected by the market for being clumsy, Auvi-Q was recalled because it could administer the wrong dose, and Teva’s autoinjector was rejected by FDA for “major deficiencies”
  • A device that many, many people know how to use: school nurses, babysitters, passers-by. That means someone is likely to be there to help you if you need it. Good luck with getting someone to learn how to use your EpiPencil in an emergency, even if somehow it worked as advertised

EpiPen’s maker, Mylan has done a lot of sleazy things, which I don’t defend, and as a result they may well deserve the opprobrium that is being directed at them. But I stand by my argument that EpiPen is not $2 of epinephrine and a syringe. Instead its a differentiated solution that provides plenty of value to users.

If someone can come up with something better and cheaper, please do!

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By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

Surprise, surprise! Exchange customers are price sensitive

published date
August 18th, 2016 by

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Uh oh. Another big national health plan, Aetna has decided to pull back from the individual health insurance marketplaces (aka exchanges) deciding they can’t make money because customers are focusing on price, not brand name. The headlines give a sense of it:

Cost, Not Choice, Is Top Concern of Health Insurance CustomersNew York Times

Customers’ Laser-Like Focus on Plan Prices Is Causing Concerns in Health Insurance MarketKaiser Health News

The articles quote insurance executive and experts claiming that “price competition has turned out to be much more cutthroat than anyone expected” and that “people signing up for [broad network, big employer style coverage offered by the big name national health plans] are less healthy –and more expensive to treat– than anticipated.”

Hah!

As I have written before (Good riddance: United finally gives up on ACA marketplaces):

Health plans thinking of competing in the marketplaces should say this to themselves a few times before diving in: “Exchange business is price sensitive business. If we can’t compete on price we might as well stay home.”

The exchanges do have problems. For example, insurers are limited to charging older people 3x what they charge younger ones, whereas actuarially it should be more like 5x. The problems are eminently fixable, except that opponents of the law still want it to fail. As for Aetna, specifically, it seems they are retaliating against the feds after the government announced its opposition to Aetna’s merger plans.

Nonetheless, why would we measure the success of the exchanges by whether the big, fat brand name health insurers can make money? Exchanges allow customers to compare plans on an apples-to-apples basis and they are deciding that there’s no big reason to pay higher prices. Some health plans are thriving on the exchanges by negotiating hard with providers (Medicaid oriented plans like Centene and Molina) or by having local market knowledge and density (Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida  –which has almost as many Obamacare customers in Florida as Aetna has in the whole country).

Here’s the real problem for health plans: they have largely failed to demonstrate that they add significant value. Aetna, United and their ilk don’t accomplish a lot compared with Joe’s health plan. And even when they do add value, they still add large administrative costs and inefficiencies to the system that may outweigh their benefits.

The Affordable Care Act has actually given health plans a new lease on life, by herding in new groups of individual customers and by imposing whole new sets of standards and rules. Health plans fear a so-called “public option” because it could reveal that commercial plans don’t bring much. And as unlikely as it seems now, it’s quite possible that the failure of commercial plans to demonstrate value could lead us eventually to a single-payer system.

Ideally, I’d rather not see single payer. If some of the plans were a little more ingenious and capable they could actually prosper in the exchange business, in ways that would boost their success in the commercial market as well. In particular, there are opportunities to better manage the way specialty care is delivered and paid for, by emulating the approaches used by the most efficient and innovative specialists. This would drive down the overall cost of insurance and improve care for patients.

Plans could also be more creative and resourceful in helping providers take risk or even full capitation.

Meanwhile, Aetna will struggle to grow. After all, the US is moving toward marketplaces and government coverage. Aetna, not Obamacare or the exchanges, may turn out to be the big loser here.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

 

Dialysis and its discontents

published date
July 8th, 2016 by
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For the good of the patient, of course!

If you want to understand what ails the US healthcare system, look no farther than the dialysis industry. A recent New York Times article (UnitedHealthcare Sues Dialysis Chain Over Billing) provides a pre-made case study.

In brief, a chain of dialysis clinics (American Renal Associates), pushed poor people out of government coverage and into private insurance with UnitedHealthcare so that the clinics could bill $4000 per treatment rather than $200. A patient advocacy group (American Kidney Fund), paid the patients’ insurance premiums using funds donated by American Renal. United is suing American Renal for overbilling.

So who are the good guys and who are the bad guys here?

From what I can see in the article (and there’s always more to the story) it looks like both American Renal and American Kidney are to blame. But to understand the motivation for their behavior, we have to look at the politics and economics of dialysis.

Dialysis is a life-saving treatment for people with impaired kidney function, but it’s expensive. Medicare is mainly a program for the elderly, but it also covers the disabled and people with end stage renal disease (i.e., dialysis patients) regardless of age. That entitlement was added way back in 1972 to make sure patients didn’t drop dead for lack of funds for dialysis. Medicare coverage kicks in over time, so people with commercial insurance use their plans first before shifting over to Medicare. Once on Medicare they are still responsible for a portion of their costs unless they are poor enough to qualify for Medicaid.

So officially the government pays for dialysis, but does it really do so in practice? In fact what happens is that government reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid are so low that clinics would go out of business if they had to rely solely on those payments. The clinics make up for the losses by charging high –or even extortionate– rates to private insurers, hence the 20x difference in reimbursement cited in the article. As a result, the clinics make more than 100 percent of their profits on their few commercial patients. From a financial standpoint, the commercial patients are the only patients the clinics cares about.

Meanwhile, the clinic business is essentially a duopoly between Fresenius and DaVita, which is why commercial rates can be so high. Interestingly, the few remaining independent players like American Renal are sometimes even more aggressive than the big boys. (There is an interesting analogy here with Martin Shkreli, who got into trouble for taking big pharma pricing tactics to their logical extreme.) Interestingly if you look at the American Renal website you can see that their real customer is the nephrologist; patient-centric they are not.

What about the American Kidney Fund? It seems like a good guy for paying the insurance premiums for ESRD patients. But its funding overwhelmingly comes from the two big dialysis companies who get a fantastic return on investment, since insurance premiums are much much lower than the reimbursement the companies get back for dialysis treatments. The two big boys basically split the market, so they are certain to benefit from their own contributions. More ESRD patients with commercial insurance means a lot more profit. In fact, if you want to understand just how closely American Kidney is tied to the dialysis business, it’s instructive to learn that patients who get kidney transplants and hence no longer need dialysis are not eligible for American Kidney subsidies!

For a small player like American Renal it’s a different story. They can’t just donate to American Kidney and expect to get a benefit, since most of the value will flow to their big competitors. American Renal’s strategy appears to have been to target specific patients for insurance coverage who would then become American Renal patients. That’s an obvious no no. But hey, they probably figured their own intent wasn’t really any different from what their big competitors were doing and they thought they could get away with it.

Incidentally, analogues to American Kidney operate in other disease areas, particularly for diseases where there are just one or two expensive drugs available. The drug companies pay the premiums and more than recoup their investments via reimbursed drug sales.

So I say good for United for taking on American Renal and American Kidney. But I also note that they –and the other health plans– are still too scared of retaliation to go after the industry heavyweights.

Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.