By Stephanie Goldberg
Modern Healthcare, May 21, 2019
If you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em: It’s a mantra health insurance giants like UnitedHealth Group and Humana have embraced for years as they’ve snapped up doctors practices to curb the cost of medical care. Now the parent of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Illinois is getting into the game.
Health Care Service Corp., which owns Blue Cross plans in five states, is following its rivals’ lead, opening 10 primary care clinics in Texas next year and, in Pullman, launching a neighborhood center that offers everything from workshops on managing heart disease to yoga and meditation classes. As with its rivals’ earlier forays into physician practice acquisition, HCSC’s latest moves are made with several goals in mind, some that immediately redound to the bottom line—more tightly controlling where members seek care, for one—and others, like addressing social conditions from housing to food insecurity, that may improve results over the long haul.
A decade ago, the notion of insurers owning physicians groups was fairly unusual. There was a hope that payers and providers would be able to stay in different lanes and still bring costs down, says Carl McDonald, divisional senior vice president of treasury and business development at HCSC. “It just hasn’t quite worked out like that.”
In value-based payment models, which are slowly being adopted in many U.S. markets, insurers pay doctors a set amount per patient rather than reimbursing for each medical service. The arrangement aims to reward doctors who offer high-quality care at lower costs, but not all providers are open to the possibility of a financial loss.
Owning and operating medical practices, it turns out, is proving to be a more efficient way for insurers to trim hefty price tags for everything from lab tests to specialist visits. Getting closer to patients enables insurers to direct care, getting the cost outcomes they crave while controlling quality.
The 10 Dallas and Houston clinics are part of a joint venture between HCSC’s venture-capital arm and medical center operator Sanitas USA. The clinics are expected to control costs by referring patients to reasonably priced, quality specialists, and by educating patients about services that are covered, such as telemedicine or diabetes management.
“Everybody is basically playing catch-up to Optum,” the consulting and services unit of UnitedHealth, Akers says. Optum’s fast-growing medical care arm has been aggressively buying doctors groups. It’s acquiring DaVita Medical Group, which has 300 clinics in six states, for $4.3 billion.
America’s Health Insurance Plans, a lobbying group, says about 25 percent of its members are so-called integrated delivery systems, or organizations that include both payers and providers.
The new clinics from HCSC-owned Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Texas will be open to all Blue Cross members, as well as self-pay and Medicare patients. Sanitas is no stranger to the Blues. It already operates clinics with Florida Blue and Horizon Blue Cross & Blue Shield of New Jersey.
HCSC isn’t the only group looking to replicate such gains in Texas. In addition to traditional physicians groups, HCSC will be competing with Humana’s Partners in Primary Care unit, which plans to open five Houston clinics for patients with Medicare and Medicare Advantage, in which private companies contract with the government to offer Medicare beneficiaries additional benefits, such as dental care and wellness programs. Walgreens and VillageMD are also opening primary care clinics next to five Houston-area drugstores.
Blue Cross dominates the Illinois market, but that’s not the case in Texas. The Sanitas deal could help the insurer attract more members in the area, enabling it to more quickly grow its Medicare Advantage business.
Blue Cross of Illinois’ experiment in Pullman differs from a traditional clinic. The Blue Door Neighborhood Center, which opened late last month, works to address social determinants of health, including homelessness and food insecurity, by connecting residents—regardless of insurance carrier—with community resources. It also offers seminars on nutrition, behavioral health, diabetes and other conditions, as well as exercise classes.
Blue Door is a sign of the times, says Lyndean Brick, CEO of Advis Group, a healthcare consultancy in Chicago. “There is clear recognition, finally, that when we address (social determinants), overall healthcare improves,” she says. “All these other issues are really what cost the system incredible amounts of money. So while insurance companies are being good citizens when they do this, they’re also looking at the need to continue to drive financial profits.”
By Don McCanne, M.D.
We dream of a single payer Medicare for All system in which the highly inefficient, fragmented system of a multitude of private and public health insurers is replaced by a single efficient public payer, which would free up close to half a trillion dollars currently going to administrative waste – funds that could be directed to the health care delivery system that will fill the voids we have in health care today. But what happens to our dream when, right under our noses, the current payers become the health care delivery system?
One-fourth of the members of America’s Health Insurance Plans – the health insurance lobby organization – are already integrated delivery systems, and that transformation is accelerating. The insurers are rapidly becoming the health care delivery system. And to further solidify this transformation, they are now adding services to address the social determinants of health such as food and housing, as the insurers are “looking at the need to continue to drive financial profits.”
Go ahead and enact a single payer Medicare for All, but then how are you going to shut down the private insurers when they are the health care delivery system? If you try to break them up, what do you think our current Supreme Court would have to say about that?
We think that we’re in a battle with the private insurers, but now with the grasp they have of the medical industrial complex, it seems they may have already won. We can’t give up, but there is great urgency in doing all we can to save the system by reestablishing the primacy of the patient. Right now that profit thing is working pretty well for the insurers, and the patients are just pawns and the providers are the insurers’ tools.
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