Month: December 2017

The Future of Healthcare is 3 Letters: CVS


There’s a lot of speculation surrounding CVS’s acquisition of Aetna that’s planned for 2018. But one thing we know for certain is that CVS’s direction in 2018 will make an enormous imprint on healthcare in the U.S. as we know it. 

On December 3, CVS announced their agreement to acquire Aetna, the nation’s 3rd largest insurer, for $69 billion. To put the sheer magnitude of a deal like this into perspective, this deal would be the largest in the history of health insurance. CVS is currently a Fortune #7 company with an annual revenue of $177.5B; Aetna is #43 on Fortune’s list with an annual revenue of $63B. According to the current Fortune 500 list, the merged CVS/Aetna would have the 2nd highest annual revenue, second only to Wal-Mart. 

CVS has expressed the desire for this acquisition to improve the integration of patient care, and to provide higher quality care at a lower cost in “communities, homes and through the use of digital tools to support health.” CVS’s President and CEO Larry Merlo communicated the desire to put customers “at the center of health care delivery.” The intent would be to leverage CVS’s 9,700+ retail stores and 1,100 Minute Clinics to create community-based centers that include resources for wellness, medical, pharmacy, vision, hearing and nutrition services. And the touted benefit of acquiring Aetna is that integrated care and higher negotiation power for pharmaceutical drugs is the key to lowering costs. 

This deal is projected to happen in the second half of 2018. At this point, it is unknown whether the acquisition will face anti-trust opposition. While vertical mergers (which combine 2 companies which are not direct competitors) don’t traditionally get blamed for stifling competition, CVS’s announcement comes on the heels of the Justice Department’s block of AT&T’s takeover of Time Warner, citing the acquisition would create “too powerful of a content company.” And with 2 recent horizontal healthcare deals halted for antitrust reasons (Aetna/Humana and Anthem/Cigna), CVS’s Aetna deal will need to pass through close scrutiny in Washington before the deal can be finalized.  In October, Trump declared  “My administration will…continue to focus on promoting competition in healthcare markets and limiting excessive consolidation throughout the healthcare system,” though many are betting that this vertical deal will go through with only the requirement of some concessions by CVS and Aetna. 

My predictions for 2018? One of two things will happen.

Possibility #1: Regulators block CVS’s Aetna acquisition

What is to stop regulators from saying that this deal will create “too powerful of a healthcare company?” This is indeed a possibility, albeit one that many think is unlikely. But in this past year alone, the Federal Trade Commission blocked Walgreens’ purchase of Rite Aid, while the Justice Department intervened to prevent Aetna’s acquisition of Humana and the Anthem/Cigna merger. While these were considered horizontal deals among competitors, the Department of Justice blocked these deals because they would drastically restrict competition and “fundamentally reshape the insurance industry.” Would the CVS/Aetna deal not also do the same thing?

If this acquisition is blocked, it signifies that the regulatory tide could be changing with respect to how the largest players in healthcare can evolve. With the “big five” insurers, which cover approximately 90% of all commercially insured Americans, unable to strategically gain market share through jumbo mergers and acquisitions, this opens up the door for new entrants into healthcare markets who are better at solving healthcare’s problems than their behemoth counterparts. It also encourages existing competitors to home-grow solutions in their organizations rather than joining forces with outside partners.

Possibility #2: CVS’s Aetna acquisition moves forward in 2018

Let’s imagine for a moment that the deal does go through as planned.  The likely next step is that Express Scripts, the only other big PBM not owned by an insurer, will merge with a health insurer like Humana, and may even buy its own pharmacy chain such as Walgreens. This trend would change the landscape of healthcare, giving all power to a few vertically integrated giants, and putting any smaller PBMs or insurance companies at a crippling competitive disadvantage.  

CVS’s vision of transforming local retail stores into community health centers where people can not only pick up prescriptions, but also see a doctor, talk to a nutritionist, or receive vision care is a compelling evolution of the way we seek self-care. This type of model could be the answer to the convenience that people want with telemedicine, but it breaks down the barriers to full adoption by putting a community-based centralization on the care they receive.

As we consider these two possibilities, we should ask some big questions. 

  1. Do companies become more innovative when they get bigger?
  2. Do competitive moves like this help to fight the steadily rising costs of healthcare?
  3. Will this improve the quality of care that people receive?

Whether 2018 is the year that the CVS/Aetna merger moves forward, or whether 2018 is the year that the CVS/Aetna deal is blocked, either way will lead to a crossroad that will signify the next evolution for healthcare in America. The promise of the benefits to consumers—transforming retail stores into hubs for health services and potentially better prices as a trickle-down benefit from improved negotiation power with pharmaceutical manufacturers—paint a compelling picture for what the future of American healthcare could be. Only time will tell whether consumers will be the winner in this deal, whether the winner will be the shareholders, or whether we’ll never get to find out.

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BetaXAnalytics is a healthcare data consulting firm that helps payers and providers to maximize their CMS reimbursements and helps employers to reduce their healthcare spending through proven strategies to contain costs. For more insights on using data to drive healthcare, pharmacy and wellbeing decisions, follow BetaXAnalytics on Twitter @betaxanalytics, Facebook @bxanalytics and LinkedIn at BetaXAnalytics.

My Top 4 Strategies for Saving Money on Employer-Sponsored Healthcare


If you think understanding your own hospital bill is confusing, imagine scrutinizing a bill for 18,000 people. How do companies know if they’re being overcharged for healthcare services? Are people receiving care that is actually effective? Why are some medications so expensive? As an employer, this is a challenge that is all too real. 

Many companies want to offer competitive benefits, but the high cost of healthcare adds real challenge (and cost) to this goal. A great quote from Warren Buffett wraps up the employer/healthcare conundrum in a bow:

GM is a health and benefits company with an auto company attached.  -Warren Buffett

Employers who purchase health insurance for their employees are paying one of the most significant portions of our total healthcare “bill” in the U.S.–$640 billion each year to be specific. It’s unfortunate that we’re in this place where the cost of healthcare has risen so sharply over the past decade that healthcare is now often an employer’s 2nd highest expense, right after salaries. Shouldn’t this expense be managed with the same rigor as any other part of the business? 

If you ask a traditional broker how to manage costs as an employer, you may get a list of strategies that don’t actually lower healthcare spending, but rather they change who is paying for it. Here’s an example of exactly what this looks like. The 2016 Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) Survey  lists the following strategies as the most successful in controlling health care costs:

  • Offering consumer-directed health plans (e.g., health reimbursement arrangements, health savings accounts).
  • Creating an organizational culture that promotes health and wellness.
  • Offering a variety of preferred provider organization (PPO) plans, including those with high and low deductibles and co-pays.
  • Increasing the employee share contributed to the total costs of health care.
  • Offering a health maintenance organization (HMO) health plan.
  • Providing incentives or rewards related to health and wellness.
  • Placing limits on, or increasing cost-sharing for, spousal health care coverage.
  • Increasing the employee share contributed to the cost of brand name prescription drugs. 

These strategies absolutely hit the goal of impacting an employer’s bottom line, but this often happens at the expense of employees. Noticeably missing from these strategies is anything that actually gets at the high source cost of services. But what actually lowers the underlying cost of healthcare?

Instead of these mainstream strategies that are often-cited as the go-to methods for employers to “save money,” here are just some of my top high-value strategies that target cost-management without putting more financial burden on employees:

1.      Explore new funding models. Small and mid-sized employers who are fully-insured pay higher operational costs since the health plan takes on more financial risk. However, hybrid plans of self-insurance provide lower costs while incorporating stop-loss coverage and predictable, level payments so that even small and mid-sized employers can self-insure.

2.      Change the healthcare delivery model. Employers can use high performance networks that have a limited number of quality health care providers. Because the cost of health services can vary wildly between different providers and these price differences are not correlated to the quality of care, using narrow networks helps to ensure that you’re getting the best value for your money—great care at a fair price. The benefit of exploring new healthcare delivery models is lower premiums, lower out of pocket costs, or a combination of both.

3.      Use new payment models. This solution includes care that is pay-for-performance such as partnering with Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). The advantage of moving away from traditional payment models is that we move away from “fee-for-service” (the doctor gets paid more for seeing you more often) and towards outcomes-based payments (providers get paid for curing you, regardless of how many times they see you). The National Business Group on Health’s 2018 Health Care Strategy and Plan Design Surveyindicated that 21% of employers plan to promote ACOs in 2018 but that number could double by 2020 as another 26% are considering offering them. Other payment models include using “centers of excellence” for high-cost procedures. This enables the employer to ensure that associates are receiving the best care and the best price under payment agreements that are bundled into one comprehensive cost. 

4.      Proactively manage pharmacy costs. Partnering with an organization to keep pharmaceutical drug costs in check can hold a great deal of value for an employer’s bottom line. A big part of the management of pharmaceutical costs involves developing a strategy around specialty medications. This includes looking at specialty drug spending trends among members, how drugs are being used, cost differences in where they’re administered (hospital vs. provider), coordinating benefits between the medical and prescription plans, and implementing step therapy to ensure that options for less-expensive similar medications are used before jumping to the most expensive prescription. In addition, reviewing and revising formularies can make a large impact on costs with very minimal impact on members.

Are you cost-saving, or cost-shuffling?

Just how any other business unit in a company manages to their budget, managing health spending and strategy is a necessary part of ensuring that the high cost of health services are kept in check. This can be done by shuffling who is paying for healthcare, or it can be done by going after the source of what’s driving the costs. If I can share one takeaway here, it’s that employers have options with respect to saving health dollars. In the coming years we will see more and more employers moving away from simple “cost-shuffling” of health dollars and getting strategic about managing healthcare’s underlying high cost.

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BetaXAnalytics partners with employers to use the power of their health data “for good” to improve the cost and quality of their health care. By combining PhD-level expertise with the latest technology, they help employers to become savvy health consumers, to save health dollars and to better target health interventions to keep employees well. For more insights on using data to drive healthcare, pharmacy and wellbeing decisions, follow BetaXAnalytics on Twitter @betaxanalytics, Facebook @bxanalytics and LinkedIn at BetaXAnalytics.