Friday, July 01, 2011

The Restless Shade of AHERF and the Return of Merger Mania: Highmark Tries to Buy Another Insurance Company, a Hospital System, a Medical School, and Physicians' Practices

Starting in the 1990s, as US health care became more commercialized, a wave of mergers lead to super-sized hospital systems, insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies.  Not all those mergers, especially involving hospitals, prospered.  Although the mergers were justified as drivers of increased efficiency, health care has become decreasingly accessible, increasingly expensive, and of no better quality.  However, now a whole new wave of mergers seems to be upon us. 

The Proposed Highmark Blue Cross/ West Penn Allegheny Health System Merger

The latest example to get national attention is the proposed combination of already large non-profit health insurer Highmark Inc, a Blue Cross Blue Shield plan, and non-profit hospital system Allegheny Health System.  The national attention was in a Wall Street Journal article by Anna Wilde Matthews, which described the proposed transaction:
Pittsburgh insurer Highmark Inc. struck a deal to acquire the second-largest hospital chain in its region, an ambitious, controversial step that would further blur the lines between those who pay for medical care and those who provide it.

Under the tentative plan, nonprofit Highmark will pump as much as $475 million into the five-hospital West Penn Allegheny Health System, which has been operating in the red for the past five years.

If state and federal regulators sign off on the plan, Highmark officials say the deal will allow them to move away from traditional fee models that reward providers for providing unnecessary procedures and services.

Instead they would pay salaries to doctors, offering them incentives to achieve quality and efficiency goals. The integrated model would also rely on primary-care doctors to coordinate patients' care and focus on preventive efforts.

Highmark officials said the deal is the best way to keep West Penn in business. 'It brings our expertise as an insurance company into the provider system,' said Kenneth R. Melani, Highmark's chief executive.

This deal is unusual because it would unite a health care insurance company/ managed care organization with a hospital system.

The Context: An Already Concentrated Health Care Environment

The deal appears in the context of and may be in response to an already concentrated health care environment.  Per the WSJ:
The newly combined Highmark-West Penn will face off against the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which is officially known by its acronym, UPMC. The prestigious $8 billion,19-hospital network employs 2,881 doctors and has about 56% of the inpatient market share in Allegheny County. It also owns a health plan with about 1.6 million members.

UPMC's current contract with Highmark runs out next June. Paul Wood, the hospital system's vice president for public relations, said the network won't sign a new one after the acquisition. 'In effect, Highmark expects UPMC to subsidize our competitor,' he said.
UPMC has had its issues, too, as discussed in posts here

The deal is also more extraordinary because it was accompanied by several other proposed deals that would create quite a sprawling health care entity.

The Extended Scope of the Merger

First, and as noted in the WSJ article, the proposed deal would involve physicians' practices:
Highmark may also buy or invest in other providers, including doctor practices, Dr. Melani said.
However not noted in the WSJ article, or in a contemporaneous Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, was that since 2010 there has also been a proposal on the table for Highmark to merge with a non-profit Blue Cross Blue plan in neighboring Delaware. The latest discussion of this deal can be found on DelawareOnline, and was just noted in a Philadephia Inquirer commentary.
In Delaware, a bill that would remove a major obstacle to Highmark's proposed affiliation with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Delaware sailed through the legislature, passing the Senate unanimously Tuesday and the House, 34-5, Wednesday.

That is not all. It seems that while pursuing the merger with Highmark, West Penn Allegheny Health was also pursuing an arrangement with Temple University to set up a branch of its medical school in Western Pennsylvania. As noted by the Pittsburgh Tribune Review:
West Penn Allegheny Health System leaders expressed optimism on Friday about their partnership prospects with Highmark Inc. as they announced plans with Temple University to establish a four-year medical school campus in the North Side.
So it appears that lined up against the UPMC behemoth could be another behemoth combining a large Pennsylvania insurance company, a Delaware insurance company, a good-sized hospital system, physicians' practices, and a branch of a medical school.  So we see a new effort to divide the health care supposed "market" among a few large, vertically-integrated health care systems.

The Eerie Shadow of AHERF

Maybe all these simultaneous deals, which would apparently create a conglomerate of Highmark Blue Cross, Delaware Blue Cross Blue Shield, West Penn Allegheny Health System, Temple University Medical School, and possibly a large group of doctors' practices, were all being discussed separately because of how they could be seen as a strange shadow of the spectacularly failed Allegheny Health Education and Research Foundation (AHERF) of the late 1990s.

As discussed here, AHERF was a large integrated health care system formed out of multiple mergers.  AHERF which went bankrupt in 1998, leading to massive layoffs, hospital closures, and the near dissolution of a medical school (which ended up taken over by Drexel University). The former AHREF CEO, whose high compensation (for the time) was accompanied by an autocratic management style, ended up in the local jail on a plea bargain. Note that West Penn Allegheny Health System was formed from some of the pieces of the failed AHERF, and seems to have never fully recovered from its previous troubles.

Despite the fact that the AHERF bankruptcy was the second largest US bankruptcy up to its time, this vivid case was notably anechoic. The lack of echoes it originally produced made it prototypical of the anechoic effect.

The link to AHERF was briefly noted in the Post-Gazette article:
'They are well-capitalized, and we're not,' said David L. McClenahan, WPAHS board chairman, speaking of Highmark. 'That's putting it mildly.' In the decade since the collapse of the Allegheny Health Education and Research Foundation, whose bankruptcy eventually bore the West Penn Allegheny Health System, WPAHS has been persistently starved for capital, he said.
So far, however, the ominous implications of that previous debacle have not been publicly discussed.

How Some Executives Would Gain

Perhaps the executives rushing to make a deal are being distracted by the potential for personal gain. The DelawareOnline article noted that current executives of Delaware Blue Cross Blue Shield may be able to pull the ripcords of their golden parachutes if its proposed merger with Highmark goes through:
Seven executives at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Delaware, for example, are due a combined $6 million in severance pay -- equal to about three years of salary -- if they lose their jobs.

Details of Blue Cross severance payout packages have attracted attention recently because top executives at Delaware's largest health insurer are busy pressing for a merger with Pittsburgh-based insurer Highmark Inc., which could mean the elimination of some top positions.

Highmark has pledged that Blue Cross President and CEO Tim Constantine will keep his job after the merger's closing, if the deal is approved by state regulators. But Constantine, who has an annual salary of $420,000, would be due a $1.6 million payment if he were to lose his job.

Six other top executives, who earn between $245,000 and $330,000 annually, have potential payouts equal to about $4.3 million. Highmark has not discussed the fate of those officers, who range in position from the company's general counsel to its chief medical and financial officers.

That article further noted:
Some observers worry that the prospect of large severance payments could cloud the judgments of executives working to close the deal.

Considering the size of the Blue Cross payouts in relation to annual salaries, the payout promises deserve attention, said Ethan Rome, executive director of Health Care for America Now, a Washington consumer advocacy group. Severance agreements are typically in place to provide a cushion between jobs, he said. 'Three years is a long time,' Rome said. 'Three years is not a severance. It's a substantial payout.'

One wonders which other executives involved in these potential deals may also have prospects for either larger compensation or golden parachutes. This could include executives in particular current executives of West Penn Allegheny.  One also wonders whether the creation of this new conglomerate will produce rationales for big raises for the current executives of all the organizations involved who get to work for the new merged entity.  Perhaps someone should ask them.

Further Implications

Of course the various mergers were touted as productive of new efficiencies, as attempts to obtain increased market power usually are. As reported by the Post-Gazette:
While the short-term goal of this partnership is to preserve a 'fragile' Pittsburgh hospital system, the long term goal, said Highmark CEO and President Kenneth Melani, is the creation of a new model of health care, one that is outcomes based, with an integrated delivery and financing system.

;Health care services are becoming less affordable,' he said. 'It's important to have choice. It's important to have a second system.'

And, as we discussed here, the former CEO of AHERF pledged "new forms of organization that are more flexible, more adaptive, and more agile than ever before." But common sense and history suggests that increasing market domination will be good mainly for the market dominators, not their customers, or in this case, their patients, clients and students.

As Dr Westby Fisher asserted about how the new conglomerate will likely own physicians' practices:
So doctors lose more professional independence and autonomy and have even more chance that clinical decisions will be compromised by bureaucratic dictates. Yet ask patients who they want steering the boat when they get sick: their doctor.

It continues to be clear who the winners and losers are as health care reform unfolds. But when doctors lose autonomy, patients lose autonomy.

It’s that simple.

To argue that the only way to control the health care dollar is to bloat the bureaucratic levels of our system is a fool’s game. However, bureaucrats promote bureaucrats – it’s always been this way. Until doctors and the public speak up, there’s simply nothing to stop this train.

So I wonder if this complex merger will get more scrutiny than the many mergers that have preceded it in the last 30 years. Someone who is more likely to get answers than I am should be asking:
- What evidence is there that this merger will lead to any benefits to individual patients or to the public health?
- How will any efficiencies achieved benefit anyone other than the organizations' current and future managers?
- What sorts of management layers will the complexity of the multiple mergers proposed necessitate between current Highmark executives and current management of its new acquisitions?
- If the current problem is existing market concentration, why will these mergers be a better solution than a direct approach to that concentration?
- How will the current leaders of all the organizations involve personally benefit from this merger?

Meanwhile, increasing concentration of power in health care continues to benefit the leaders of the enlarging health care organizations, while reducing the choice of individual patients and the autonomy of health care professionals.


Anonymous said...

"West Penn Allegheny Health System leaders expressed optimism on Friday about their partnership prospects.."

Of course, the leaders of the failure are optimistic, that they will depart with boatloads of $ or stay to earn the same for watching over computerized care systems that crash often, regularly exposing patients to risk, causing injury, and death.

This smells putrid.

Steve Lucas said...

Just across the state line in Canton, Ohio you have Aultman Hospital, a non-profit, owning AultCare Insurance a for-profit. Earlier this year you had Aultman settle a suit with Mercy Medical, with one of the issues being, Aultman’s use of its insurance arm to control competition.

Additionally it was discovered Aultman was paying non-owned physician practices $25,000 per doctor for exclusive referrals. I am sure Aultman arrived at this number after doing a detailed profit analysis.

Since that time our economy has continued to deteriorate. Unemployment remains high with many simply leaving the job market. Retirement has become the way out for many reaching the age of 62.

Medical treatment has become the new industry in our and many surrounding counties. What people do not realize is that these jobs are supported by insurance coverage and Medicare/Medicaid. Any changes to coverage due to changes in the federal or state budgets will result in a change in the economic situation of our communities.

We have moved from a manufacturing base to one based on a government supported service industry. I fear as we move to deal with the very real federal budget deficit we will once again see an economic decline in the area.

Steve Lucas

Anonymous said...

Highmark is fighting to survive and its executives are voraciously trying to upsize to justify even more salary.

UPMC is the real villian here in Pittsburgh.