Partners HealthCare goes global: Is it a good idea?

There's gold in them thar hospitals

There’s gold in them thar hospitals

In shift, Partners HealthCare seeking growth globally in today’s Boston Globe describes how Partners is turning its focus from dominating the Massachusetts healthcare delivery system to looking for revenue growth overseas.

This wasn’t hard to predict, and it makes a good deal of sense. Last year the Globe asked me to speculate on whether Partners’ hiring of a new CEO would change the company’s strategic course. I said it was surprising that Partners had continued its relentless expansion in Massachusetts. While it made sense to affiliate with community hospitals and physician practices to generate complex referrals for “tertiary” care, it was puzzling why Partners wanted to be in the business of offering the most cost-effective colonoscopies and other routine services throughout the state, generating friction with the state government, health plans, employers and consumers as a byproduct.

I suggested that Partners might choose to return to its roots as a world-renowned academic medical center with its Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s hospitals. Interestingly, from today’s article it appears that MGH and the Brigham –not Partners itself– are the entities that are driving forward. MGH plans to manage a hospital in China near Macau while the Brigham has recruited a chief business development officer from Johns Hopkins to set up business in the usual hotspots for high-dollar international medical ventures, i.e., China and the Persian Gulf, with a nod toward emerging South American economies.

Using the MGH and Brigham brands is wise, and helps remind us of just what Partners is. Remember, Partners was established to prevent health plans and the state from playing MGH and the Brigham off of one another in contract negotiations. The two hospitals continue to exist –it is not a merger in the traditional sense.

But these entities will have to be careful when they go abroad prospecting for gold. A few things to watch out for:

  • Politics: Picking one foreign partner in a region can mean foregoing the opportunity to work with that entity’s rivals. And if an emir is ousted his successor may shoot down the pet projects of the previous emir and his family. (It has happened!)
  • Brand risk:  When I traveled to Asia a decade ago to research medical tourism, the Harvard name and crest were splashed up all over the place by operators who had little or nothing to do with Harvard. That had something to do with an earlier venture by Partners hospitals to use the Harvard name to drum up business overseas. It worked a little too well.
  • Overconfidence:  Sure we have great hospitals here in Boston. But not everyone running a hospital overseas is an idiot; many understand their own health system and patient populations pretty well. When I visited Singapore hospitals I was struck by the openness of executives in speaking with me, and impressed with their approach to cost-effective, high quality care. The one exception was when I visited a Hopkins outpost there, where the staff were highly bureaucratic and unapproachable.  MGH and the Brigham will need to make sure what they take on is aligned with their true areas of differentiation and not just their self-perceptions.
  • Ethical risk: Let’s be honest. American values differ from those of the Persian Gulf and China. As just one example, anyone in Boston can show up at the emergency department of MGH or the Brigham and be treated, regardless of nationality, race, religion or ability to pay. Will that be the case in hospitals MGH and the Brigham work with overseas? If not, is that ok? What else needs to be considered?

I wish the MGH and Brigham well in their overseas forays, and do think it’s a more fruitful approach than further expansion in Massachusetts. The Globe should have plenty more to write about as the strategies unfold.

Image courtesy of pakorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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

 

Partners closes Lynn’s hospital. I’m quoted

Partners is following through on a plan to consolidate its North Shore operations into Salem Medical Center, a move that will result in the closure of Union Hospital in Lynn, 6 miles away. I’m quoted in the Boston Globe (Partners to close Union Hospital in Lynn).

Here’s what I had to say:

David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group in Boston, said Union’s closing is hardly surprising, since many community hospitals –particularly those that treat high numbers of low-income patients and rely on government reimbursements– are struggling financially.

He said Partners, the state’s largest health system, is closing the hospital more gently than other health care companies without as much money; keeping an emergency room open for three years is a big concession to community concerns.

“I do largely buy their logic,” Williams said about Partners. “On the one hand, nobody likes it when their local hospital closes. On the other hand, considering how high health care costs are, it can’t say the way it is.”

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

King v. Burwell: A frivolous lawsuit

What do you think will happen to Obamacare if I press this button?

What do you think will happen to Obamacare if I press this button?

Some are surprised that Chief Justice John Roberts came out so strongly for the government in King v. Burwell, the lawsuit that aimed to bar insurance subsidies from Obamacare exchanges run by the federal government.

I’m not a lawyer or Supreme Court scholar but to me Roberts’ stance isn’t surprising at all. King v. Burwell was a joke –an exemplar of the type of “frivolous lawsuit” some on the right are so fond of citing. Roberts wants the Court to be taken seriously both now and in retrospect, so this was an easy decision.

Let’s face it:

  • Congress’s intent was clear –to provide subsidies regardless of the mechanism a state chose to implement its exchange
  • There was no discussion by anyone at the time of drafting about any difference in subsidization on state v. federal exchanges
  • Every state –including those led by Obamacare foes, interpreted the law the way Congress intended
  • The legal argument was the result of opponents sifting through the minutiae of the law to find any argument that might be used against it
  • The plaintiffs –if they even understand the argument– have not been harmed by the law

Frankly, it’s hard to take the consenting Justices seriously.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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

Long term care insights from a long term friend or Yes Virginia, there is a role for LTCi

I wrote my blog post about long term care insurance in reaction to what I thought was a foolish, ivory tower-induced article in the Wall Street Journal, which blamed the unpopularity of long term care insurance on “narrow framing.” Narrow framing is certainly an issue in consumer financial decisions, but with long term care insurance the problem is the products themselves aren’t very attractive.

In particular I’m looking for a plan to cover catastrophic expenses in case I end up in a nursing home for a decade or more. I can pay the first few years myself and want coverage that kicks in later and takes over. Instead the plans that are out there start paying within a few months and end after just a few years of coverage.

Whenever I encounter an insurance oriented issue, I know to turn to InsureBlog’s Henry Stern for his perspective. I always learn something when I do.

Hank has a different spin on long term care insurance than what I’ve heard. Here’s what he writes in his critique of my post:

More disturbing, though, is [David’s] contention that “the benefit structure [of LTCi} doesn’t protect against catastrophic expenses.” This is a common misconception of how LTCI works and what it’s really designed to do, and for that I blame not David, but my industry. The story we’ve been told to tell is that you buy LTCi to pay for care. This is correct, but misleading: there is no realistic way to buy a plan that will completely cover the costs of a major claim (or series of claims). Anyone that could afford to buy such a plan would be much better off self-insuring.

No, the role of LTCi is to supplement one’s assets (and a Partnership-compliant plan is a terrific ally in that quest), and to buy “choice.”

What does that mean, Henry, “choice?”

It means that having the ability to pay for care oneself opens up a lot more doors (as regards facility and resource availability) than folks dependent on Medicaid will see. Is that fair? Doesn’t matter. Is that real? Yes.

Ok, that’s interesting. In other words long term care insurance doesn’t do what I want it to do, but it still does something useful for some people.

So I revise my view: long term care insurance has a role to play. But it still doesn’t deliver what I’m looking for.


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

 

Primary care prognosis: Is it really so grim?

Is it really that bad?

Is it really that bad?

A lengthy front-page Boston Globe article (Precarious future for primary care) includes some of the usual laments:

  • The shortage of primary care physicians is bad and getting worse
  • Primary care docs don’t make enough money compared to specialists
  • Student loan burdens discourage a career in primary care
  • Medical schools implicitly discourage the best students from going into primary care

There is some truth in the above, but the article misses other significant problems with primary care and fails to note factors that I think may lead to a resurgence of primary care over the next decade.

First, some more challenges specific to primary care:

  • Increasing oversight and control through quality reporting requirements that fall most heavily on primary care
  • The rise of non-physician primary care providers, i.e., nurse practitioners and physician assistants, which in some cases erodes the prestige of being a doctor

The article mentions how new doctors continue to go into more lucrative specialties instead. But if I were starting a medical career, I would look seriously at primary care.

In the traditional fee-for-service model, health systems viewed primary care physicians primarily as feeders for profitable specialties and diagnostic tests. A primary care physician who referred lots of patients to the hospital for MRIs, stress tests and hip replacements was a great thing.

In new value based models, primary care physicians are often taking control. They are starting to view specialists more as vendors, and are thinking twice before making referrals. In this new world, specialists have to demonstrate efficiency, responsiveness and effectiveness to earn referrals. Primary care physicians are climbing into the driver’s seat and finding opportunities to boost their incomes through performance based bonuses. It’s specialists who should be worried about what will happen to their flow of patients and their incomes.

Also, primary care physicians who don’t like the traditional practice set-up can become concierge physicians, boosting their incomes and autonomy in the process. There’s plenty of demand for such services in places like Boston. When I looked into getting a concierge physician for myself the offices either didn’t return my calls or replied that they were not taking new patients.

Read the article carefully and you’ll see that there are also opportunities for primary care to improve through more enlightened practice administration. Scheduling is a prime example. In one place we are told that there is such a shortage of primary care that “they’re filled to the brim with appointments.” But we also read:

Dr. Danielle Silwa… was at her computer… staring at a roster of her patients, most of them no-shows… ‘Sometimes you have days where half your [schedule] doesn’t show up.’

So why are the appointment slots all taken but only half the patients show up? Well, when someone calls for an appointment and is told to wait a month or two, by the time the appointment rolls around they are either dead, or the problem has been resolved, or they’ve forgotten about the visit. There are solutions to this common problem. Open access scheduling, where slots are intentionally left open for same or next-day appointments, has the unintuitive impact of increasing capacity utilization while increasing patient satisfaction. And digital appointments such as video visits and asynchronous encounters can be used to take up the slack when no-shows do occur.

Meanwhile, primary care practices can optimize their use of NPs and PAs, leaving the doctors to work with the more complex patients, and not be stuck just with the more mundane and lower skilled functions mentioned in the article: “act as gatekeepers, watch for signs of decline, push for healthy habits.”

There’s a real need for primary care physicians. In the long run I expect primary to become a more attractive career path, while some specialties will become less enticing. It will take a while for the changes to work their way through the system, and there may be some hiccups and setbacks along the way. But I really don’t agree with the Globe’s angle on this topic.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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

 

Long term care insurance –perspectives from InsureBlog

Hank Stern from InsureBlog has been known to keep me honest on insurance topics, so after I went off about long term care insurance earlier this week, I asked him to let me know if I was out of line.

Good friend that he is he responded by writing not just one but two posts on the topic. The first post –about the WSJ article that annoyed me in the first place- is posted today. The next –responding to issues I raised in my post– is forthcoming.

While acknowledging that some of the basic info in the article is accurate, Hank also has a bone to pick with the authors. Here’s something new I learned from the post:

Interestingly, the article fails to mention one of the most valuable, easily understood benefits of LTCi, one which addresses pretty much all of their concerns: the Partnership Program. Pointing out that a properly constructed plan will help keep the Medicaid folks at bay makes for a very compelling argument that even “narrow framers” would find hard to resist.

This program is meant to get people to buy long term care insurance to reduce the burden on Medicaid. The idea is to “take the value of the plan ‘off the table’ when determining Medicaid eligibility for long term care.”


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