Kaiser-Geisinger vs. Amazon, Walmart, CVS: Who will reign supreme?

For decades, research studies and news stories have concluded the American system is ineffective, too expensive and falling further behind its international peers in important measures of performance: life expectancy, chronic-disease management and incidence of medical error.

As patients and health care professionals search for viable alternatives to the status quo, a recent mega-merger is raising new questions about the future of medicine.

In April, Kaiser Permanente acquired Geisinger Health under the banner of newly formed Risant Health. With more than 185 years of combined care-delivery experience, Kaiser and Geisinger have long been held up as role models of the value-based care movement.

Eyeing the development, many speculated whether this deal will (a) ignite widespread health care transformation or (b) prove to be a desperate attempt at relevance (Kaiser) or survival (Geisinger).

Whether incumbents like Kaiser Permanente and Geisinger can lead a national health care transformation or are displaced by new entrants will depend largely on whether they can deliver value-based care on a national scale.

In search of health care’s Holy Grail

Value-based care—the simultaneous provision of high-quality, convenient, and affordable medical care—has long been the aim of leading health systems like Kaiser, Geisinger, Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, and dozens more.

But results to-date have often failed to match the vision.

The need for value-based care is urgent. That’s because U.S. health and economic problems are expected to get worse, not better, over the next decade. According to federal governmental actuaries, health care expenditures will rise from $4.2 trillion today to $7.2 trillion by 2031. At that time, these costs are predicted to consume an estimated 19.6 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.

Put simply: The U.S. will nearly double the cost of medical care without dramatically improving the health of the nation.

For decades, health policy experts have pointed out the inefficiencies in medical care delivery. Research has estimated that inappropriate tests and ineffective procedures account for more than 30 percent of all money spent on American medical care.

This combination of troubling economics and untapped opportunity explain why value-based care has become medicine’s holy grail. What’s uncertain is whether the transformation in health care delivery and financing will be led from inside or outside the health care system.

Where the health system hopes hang

For years, Kaiser Permanente has led the nation in clinical quality and patient outcomes based on independent, third-party research via the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) and Medicare Star ratings. Similarly, Geisinger was praised by President Obama for delivering high-quality care at a cost well below the national average.

And yet, these organizations, and many other highly regarded national and regional health systems, are extremely vulnerable to disruption, especially when their strategy and operational decisions fail to align.

Kaiser, for its part, has struggled with growth while Geisinger’s care-delivery strategy has proven unsuccessful in recent years. Failed expansion efforts forced KP to exit multiple U.S. markets, including New York, North Carolina, Kansas, and Texas. More recently, several of its existing regions have failed to grow market share and weakened financially.

Meanwhile, Geisinger has fallen on hard times after decades of market domination. As Bob Herman reported in STAT News: “Failed acquisitions, antitrust scrutiny, leadership changes, growing competition from local players, and a pandemic that temporarily upended how patients got care have forced Geisinger to abandon its independence. The system is coming off a year in which it lost $240 million from its patient care and insurance operations.”

Putting the pieces together, I believe the Kaiser-Geisinger deal represents an industry undergoing massive change as health systems face intensifying pressure from insurers and a growing threat from retailers like Amazon, CVS and Walmart. This upcoming battle over the future of value-based care represents a classic conflict between incumbents and new entrants.

Can the world’s largest companies disrupt U.S. health care?

Retail giants, including Amazon, Walmart and CVS, are among the nation’s ten largest companies based on annual revenue.

They have a broad geographic presence and strong relationships with almost all self-funded businesses. Nearly all have acquired the necessary health care pieces—including clinicians, home-health services, pharmacies, insurance arms, and electronic medical record systems—to replace the current medical system.

And yet, while these companies expand into medical care and financing, their core businesses are struggling, resulting in announced store closures and layoffs. As newcomers to the health care market, they have been forced to pay premium dollars to acquire parts of the delivery system. All have a steep learning curve ahead of them.

The challenge of health care transformation

American medicine is a conglomerate of monopolies (insurers, hospitals, drug companies, and private-equity-owned medical practices). Each works to maximize its own revenue and profit. All are unwilling to innovate in ways that benefit patients when doing so comes at the sacrifice of financial performance.

One problem stands at the center of America’s soaring health care costs: the way doctors, hospitals and drug companies are paid.

The dominant payment methodology in the United States, fee-for-service, rewards health care providers for charging higher prices and increasing the number (and complexity) of services offered—even when they provide no added value. The message to doctors and hospitals is clear: The more you do, and the greater market control you have, the higher your income and profit. This is the antithesis of value-based care.

The alternative to fee-for-service payments, capitation, involves paying a single, up-front sum to the providers of care (doctors and hospitals) to cover the total annual cost for a population of patients. This model, unlike fee-for-service, rewards effectiveness and efficiency. Capitation creates incentives to prevent disease, reduce complications from chronic illness, and diminish the inefficiencies and redundancies present in care delivery. Capitated health systems that can prevent heart attacks, strokes and cancer better than others are more successful financially as a result.

However, it’s harder than it sounds to translate what’s best for patients into everyday decisions and actions. It’s one thing to accept a capitated payment with the intent to implement value-based care. It’s another to put in place the complex operational improvements needed for success. Here are the roadblocks that Kaiser-Geisinger will face, followed by those the retail giants will encounter.

3 challenges for Kaiser-Geisinger

1. Involving clinical experts. Kaiser Permanente is a two-part organization and when the insurance half (Kaiser) decided to acquire Geisinger, it did so without input or involvement from the half of the organization responsible for care delivery (Permanente). This spells trouble for Geisinger, which must navigate a complex turnaround without the operational expertise or processes from Permanente that, in the past, helped Kaiser Permanente grow market share and lead the nation in clinical quality.

2. Going all in. To meet the health care needs of most its patients, Geisinger relies on community doctors who are paid on a fee-for-service basis. Generally, the fee-for-service model is predicated on the assumption that higher quality and greater convenience require higher prices and increased costs. With Geisinger’s distributed model, it’ll be very difficult to deliver consistent, value-based care.

3. Inspired leadership. Major improvements in care delivery require skilled leadership with the authority to drive clinical change. In Kaiser Permanente, that comes through the medical group and its physician CEO. In Geisinger’s hybrid model, independent doctors have no direct oversight or central accountability structure. Although Risant Health could be an engine for value-based medical care, it’s more likely to serve the role of a “holding company,” capable of recommending operational improvements but incapable of driving meaningful change.

3 challenges for the retail giants

1. More medical offerings. Amazon, Walmart and CVS are successfully acquiring primary care (and associated telehealth) services. But competing with leading health systems will require a more wholistic, system-based approach to keep medical care affordable. This won’t be easy. To avoid ineffective, expensive specialty and hospital services, they will need to hire their own specialists to consult with their primary care doctors. And they will have to establish centers of excellence to provide heart surgery, cancer treatment, orthopedic care and more with industry-leading outcomes. But to meet the day-to-day and emergent needs of patients, they also will have to establish contracts with specialists and hospitals in every community they serve.

2. Capitalizing on capitation. Already, the retail giants have acquired organizations well-versed in delivering patient care through Medicare Advantage, a capitated alternative to traditional (fee-for-service) Medicare plans. It’s a good start. But the retailers must do more than dip a toe in value-based care models. They must find ways to gain sufficient experience with capitation and translate that success into value-based contracts with self-funded businesses, which insure tens of millions of patients.

3. Defining leadership. Without an effective and proven clinical leadership structure, the retail giants will be no more effective than their mainstream competitors when it comes to implementing improvements and shifting the culture of medicine to one that is customer- and service-focused.

Be they incumbents or new entrants, every contender will hit a wall if they cling to today’s failing care delivery model. The secret ingredient, which most lack and all will need to embrace in the future, is system-ness.

For all of the hype surrounding value-based care, fragmentation and fee-for-service are far more common in American health care today than integration and capitation. Part two of this article will focus on how these different organizations—one set inside and one set outside of medicine—can make the leap forward with system-ness. And, in the end, you’ll see who is most likely to emerge victorious.

Robert Pearl is a plastic surgeon and author of Uncaring: How the Culture of Medicine Kills Doctors and Patients. He can be reached on Twitter @RobertPearlMD.


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