|THIS WEEK IN HEALTHCARE
What happened in healthcare this week—and what we think about it.
- CMS finalizes 2023 payment rules this week, including a 4.5 percent physician pay cut. Physicians are set to see a 4.5 percent decrease in Medicare payment next year, in part due to the expiration of a temporary payment boost that was passed by Congress in December 2021 to avert scheduled sequester cuts. Physician groups are expected to lobby lawmakers heavily in the final months of the year, hoping to secure a reprieve, especially as inflation and labor costs continue to rise. Other changes in the 2023 rules include advance payments to new participants in the Medicare Shared Savings Program, intended to boost participation of providers in rural and underserved areas. Some pandemic-era telehealth flexibilities that are set to expire with the end of the federal COVID public health emergency were also extended.
The Gist: We do not expect the full Medicare physician reimbursement cut to physicians to go into effect, as a bipartisan group of Senators has already asked leadership to address it in the upcoming lame-duck session. However, the cut serves the important purpose of rebasing negotiations between physician lobbies and Congress, such that keeping rates flat or obtaining a small boost would feel like a win for both groups—even if it falls far short of the rate increases needed to meet the rising cost of running a practice. If Congress continues to intervene to push off or mitigate Medicare’s sequestration payment reductions, we could find ourselves back in a Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR)-type situation where a payment cut constantly looms, physicians continually lobby for yet another reprieve, and the delayed cuts balloon in size.
- Tenth year of Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace enrollment begins. Tuesday marked the start of the tenth season of open enrollment in the ACA’s health insurance exchanges. Last year, a record 14.5M Americans obtained coverage through the exchanges, and this year’s total is expected to surpass that. That’s thanks to the extended subsidies included in the Inflation Reduction Act, a fix to the “family glitch” that prevented up to 1M low-income families from accessing premium assistance, and expanded offerings by most major insurers, who have been enticed by the exchanges’ recent stability. The average unsubsidized premium for benchmark silver plans in 2023 is expected to rise by about four percent, but the enhanced financial assistance will lower net premiums for most enrollees.
The Gist: ACA marketplace enrollment has grown nearly 80 percent since opening in 2014, and exchange plans now cover 4.5 percent of Americans. After enrollment lagged during the Trump administration, the combination of policy fixes and improved risk pools are attracting insurers back into the exchanges, where enrollees are finding more affordable plans than ever before. We consider this a commendable first decade, but the success of the exchanges over the next ten years remains subject to political winds. Congress must revisit the extended subsidies by 2025, and a different administration might deprioritize marketplace advertising and navigation support, policies have which proven crucial to the exchanges’ recent growth.
- Walgreens-backed VillageMD rumored to be exploring Summit Health purchase. According to reporting from Bloomberg, primary care company VillageMD, which is majority-owned by Walgreens, is engaged in talks to merge with New Jersey-based Summit Health, a large medical group network and urgent care chain backed by private equity firm Warburg Pincus. In 2019, Summit merged with CityMD, a New York City-based urgent care chain, and operates over 370 clinic locations based in and around New York City, as well as in central Oregon. The combined entity would be valued between $5B and $10B.
The Gist: Should this deal go through, it would epitomize recent trends in healthcare M&A: a well-established independent medical group using private equity funding to rapidly expand its operations before selling off to an industry giant. If that industry giant ends up being VillageMD, Walgreens would finally have a physician practice with deep experience in managing risk, on which they can anchor their larger ambitions in care provision. And if the deal with Walgreens falls through, Summit, with its combination of mostly suburban value-based care practices and largely urban urgent care chains, is sure to attract plenty of other suitors, including any of the major national insurers.
Plus—what we’ve been reading.
- The ethics and legality of private equity (PE) once again in the spotlight. In a recent STAT News article, reporters Tara Bannow and Bob Herman took an in-depth look at private-equity firm Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe, examining the performance of four of its healthcare portfolio companies. They show how the firm’s A-list partners, clients, and board members have promoted controversial business practices—often at the expense of publicly funded healthcare programs—that conflict with its well-curated public image.
The Gist: This article emphasizes how the complex and opaque regulatory structure of American healthcare allows motivated parties like PE firms to find technically legal, though ethically suspect, business models, which can easily tip over into outright illegality. It highlights the “revolving door” flow of executives between industry and government, which allows investment firms to play a long game by actively shaping the regulatory landscape and lobbying to create business opportunities where none previously existed. Justified backlash at “gotcha” business models and profit-seeking at the expense of vulnerable patients may swamp any positive contribution that PE investment and rollups may make to the business of healthcare.